Imagine laying out all the ideas you've ever heard into some great plane somewhere, like you're dotting stars into the night sky. Once you have everything laid out, you can step back a bit, and try to organize things.
An obvious place to start might be by trying to separate out ideas that are right or correct from the ones that are wrong or stupid.
You could put all the good ideas on the right, and all the bad on the left, and see what the balance was on each side.
If you did that, though, I think you'd find that the binary division isn't quite satisfying. Ideas can be either "right" or "wrong" in many different ways.
Imagine the variety of possible "wrong" ideas, for instance. Some are trivially wrong to the point of absurdity, like "the capital of Maryland is Calcutta". Some are closer to misleading, maybe to the point of being sinister—"crime is only wrong when other people do it".
If we looked at the universe of "right" ideas, we'd find a similar diversity of right-ness. Some would be simple, specific, and somewhat trivially true, like "my favorite color today is indigo". Some would be true situationally, or with caveats that make them hard to succinctly express, like "nothing can travel faster than the speed of light".
Good ideas have something in common with power tools: the most useful ones are at least a little dangerous, presenting opportunities to be misapplied and inviting all kinds of subsequent adventure.
Still, there are gradations here. Some ideas are more broadly helpful than others, with less danger when misapplied. Some ideas are just not that useful in a practical sense; some mental models don't pay enough rent to compensate for the space they take up in your head.
Some ideas are foundational to our worldviews; these ideas can be the hardest to immediately judge on how useful they really are.
When we reflect on really big moral, philosophical questions like "are people fundamentally good", I think we're really looking for answers that will be useful to us, personally, rather than answers that work for everyone. And I think our answers to these big questions change over time because we need different answers in the different seasons of life.
An example might be helpful to explain what I'm getting at here.
One idea in different Stoic writings—especially by Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations—is that we should expect the worst from others. To quote the 16th emperor of Rome:
Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness—all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.
I had a lot of resistance to this idea when I was first presented with it, as I felt like it reflected a rather negative outlook and seemed like it could be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. My experience has been that when we expect the worst from others, they tend to rise to the occasion.
Over time, though, I felt like I understood something that Aurelius et al. were getting at: there's a difference between assuming a basic value in other people's lives and assuming that they'll be helpful to you in your endeavors. Assuming that people will be actively helpful to you is not just setting yourself up for disappointment, it takes people for granted when they do make an effort on your behalf.
Phrasing it like that made the idea "click" for me—I felt like I found the handle on this thing and, once I was holding it the right way, I could see how useful the concept was.
I think ideas that are the most foundational in our experience of life tend to be the hardest to convey and understand.
As a rule, I'm not really impressed by anyone at this point in my life.
People talk about politicians, celebrities, company founders, etc. as if they were superheroes stepping out of a shared cinematic universe; I generally think that if anyone was really that awesome, then the world wouldn't look like it does today.
My experience has been that there are a lot of smart, hardworking—even well-meaning—people in the world, but the big successes necessarily include a healthy dose of luck and happenstance.
The great "it's just money" scene from the end of Margin Call does a good job capturing what I tend to see in practice: wealthy, powerful people who feel like it takes all their time and energy just to keep up with systems and forces much larger than themselves.
Jesus, when did you start feeling so sorry for yourself, it's unbearable...
What, you think we may have helped put some people out of business today? That it's all just for naught? Well you've been doing that everyday for almost forty years Sam. And if all this is for naught then so is everything else out there.
It's just money, it's made up, a piece of paper with some pictures on it so we don't all kill each other trying to get something to eat.
But it's not wrong and it's certainly not any different today than it's ever been. Ever. 1637, 1797, 1819, '37, '57, '84, 1901, '07, 1929, '37, '73, and 1987... God damn did that motherfucker fuck me up good, '92, '97, 2000, and whatever this is gonna be called.
They're just the same thing over and over. We can't help ourselves, and you and I can't control it, stop it, slow it, or even ever so slightly alter it... We just react... and we get paid well for it if we're right... and get left by the side of the road if we're wrong.
As a rule, I'm not really impressed by anyone at this point in my life. But I think I have a much deeper appreciation of some people now than I once did.
When you step away from mythologizing others, you get the chance to focus on some more basic stuff. Who's making an effort for other people? Who's trying to make the world a better place, even when they realize how hard that is and how small their contribution will ultimately be? Who folds in the face of trouble, and who just takes the pain and keeps coming back for more?
Maybe most importantly: who uses their struggles as an excuse to demand more from the world, and who tries to learn from their experiences in order to help others?
I feel like these questions have been pulling me towards a richer relationship with the world at large.
It's incredibly hard to have any kind of meaningful impact on the world, but I don't think that means we get excused from trying.
I also think that it's impossible not to have an impact on the people around you. It's sort of like being a parent: you can't opt-out, you only have the choice of doing your best or being a deadbeat.
When the large-scale stuff feels impossible, it can be helpful to focus on the small. Take things one step at a time, and hope you can build up from there.
I can only put some fraction of this idea into words right now, but the important part for me is focused on maintaining a strong sense of agency in life.
We all have to find ways to push through, because no one else can do it for us.
I've been feeling happier than I have been in a long time.
I feel like a lot of different narrative threads in my life that I've been developing for a while are finally starting to come together a bit.
Most importantly for me, I'm enjoying my day-to-day life more.
I don't believe meaning comes from elaborate vacations or that happiness is something you have to travel across the earth to find.
You'd be amazed at how many people can come back from a multi-week tropical vacation and be upset with the world. I've never really had money like that, but I've gotta assume it's expensive to feel that sorry for yourself.
It feels good to rack up base hits and win the game at home.