First we shape our social graph; then it shapes us
Once you see the boundaries of your environment, they are no longer the boundaries of your environment.
The inside of a womb looks as it did 70,000 years ago, but the world outside has changed. In July 2021, when our daughter was born, the night sky didn’t light up with stars; it was lit up by the warm afterglow of sodium street lamps. Green-clad women carried the baby away, pumping oxygen into her mouth. It was like something out of a sci-fi: she had woken up, without a memory, in an alien world. Smeared in white-yellow fat, she didn’t know who she was nor what she was doing here. The only thing she knew, genetically, was that she needed to figure this out fast or die.
How do we ever do this?
Chimpanzees, who are born into the habitat their genes expect, get by largely on instinct. We cannot. We have to rely on what anthropologists call cultural learning. We have to observe the people that surround us; we have to figure out who among them navigates our local culture best and then extract the mental models that allow them to do so. This is a wicked problem. But we solve it instinctively. It is the main thing that sets us apart from chimpanzees.
As I wrote in Apprenticeship Online:
If you measure two-and-a-half-year-old children against chimpanzees and orangutans, they are about even in their capacity to handle tools and solve problems on their own. Only when it comes to observing others and repeating their actions is there a noticeable difference.
Two-and-a-half-year-olds can extract knowledge from people just by watching them move about a room. They start to desire what those around them desire. They pick up tacit knowledge. They change their dialect to match their peer group. And after a handful of years of hanging about with people more skilled than themselves, our babies—these tiny, soft-skulled creatures—can out-compete chimpanzees in all but close combat.
This ability is not something you can turn on and off. You are always internalizing the culture around you. Even when you wish you didn’t. So you better surround yourself with something you want inside—curate a culture.
Your culture shapes who you become
How do you summon an interesting set of friends to bounce your ideas off? Where do you look to find good influences? Which types of output should you produce if you want people to route useful ideas your way?
This essay is the first in a series about culture curation. In later parts (which I will send out to subscribers during the fall), I will go into detail about how to do this. But here I want to give a high-level view of why it makes sense to think about the world in this manner—as a graph you can restructure to change yourself. Why should you put effort into shaping your culture, rather than something else?