Only having written a few posts, I’ve already hit some of the major themes that visiting North Korea raised in me. I’ll touch on them here to clarify them since I expect they’ll continue to show up in future posts.
Seeing others reveals things about yourself and your culture — and the more different they are, the deeper they reveal about you and your world.
We take many parts of life for granted that aren’t as universal as we suspect. Like a fish in water, we tend not to notice these things, which means they influence more strongly, since we think things are just that way.
Since people are people everywhere, the more different a new culture, the more taken-for-granted things they reveal about us. My first big example from North Korea was advertising, which permeates every culture I’ve visited, whether a rich country like the U.S., poorer ones like India and Thailand, nominally communist ones like China, rural ones like Nebraska, or whatever. Yet North Korea has almost none.
How does having so much advertising affect us? Its pervasiveness on today’s scale couldn’t go back more than a century.
North Korea does have messages on billboards — mainly propaganda. We can see how their propaganda affects them, or at least the propaganda’s intent. How does advertising affect us — not just to motivate us to buy a given product or service, but to participate in a system?
Returning to the big picture of this theme — mental models are not reality or, stated succinctly by someone else (about whose ideas I’ve posted before): the map is not the territory. The more different someone else’s map, the more you see the differences between yours and reality.
Similarities reveal more about you than differences
Anyone can look at people in another culture and point out differences. Doing so leads to comparisons, generally propagating a mental model, leading to evaluation and judgment. For example, people reflexively respond to my comparing North Korean propaganda to rest-of-world advertising by pointing out things like the central authority versus a decentralize market or truth-in-advertising laws absent from propaganda.
Most of us see differences immediately. We expect them. Everyone differs from everyone.
So what does finding differences tell you? That we’re better than they are? You know what? They start from different values, so from their perspective, they’re better than us.
A greater, but more rewarding and informative challenge is to find similarities between us. Finding similarities builds empathy and compassion, which probably helps you win friends, influence people, and avoid annoying arguments more than anything.
Those similarities tell us about traits more likely to be universal. If you call a dictator a monster or inhuman, you can feel better about yourself for not being a monster, but how effectively can you influence someone when you think they aren’t human besides just fighting them?
Well, they are human, just like you. They have the same emotions, the same body, and so on.
From this perspective you learn about yourself. Can you imagine what you would have done had your parent been a dictator? What would you do if you found yourself suddenly in Kim Jung Il’s place? Do you think you would just open the country? Doing so would likely lead to your death as well as most of your family’s and almost everyone you know.
Not so easy questions as when you consider him inhuman.
On the other hand, when you realize the humanity of everyone else in the world, you gain empathy and compassion and improve your ability to communicate and negotiate with them.
Fixed mental models are like jails — flexibility gives you freedom
The more you think your beliefs are reality the less you can change them. The less you realize they are models as opposed to directly understanding reality, the less you can do anything about them.
Many of us believe we need a certain level of freedom and material prosperity to be happy. Virtually all North Koreans have less freedom and material prosperity than most Americans — few of us risk life imprisonment and torture for mere association with non-violent criminals, for example — yet North Koreans don’t all decide to be miserable. In fact, many of them seemed happy, at least to the extent we observed them.
Happiness with less freedom and material prosperity belies the common western belief of needing certain minimum amounts of each. Anyone who holds it is simply wrong, in fact in as self-destructive a way as possible — they constrain themselves from happiness and into misery.
I value increasing freedom and material well-being, but not having either doesn’t mean you have to be miserable. Too many miserable people blame others for their misery, yet people with less still find ways to be happy. In many cases, other didn’t make you miserable, your inflexibility did.
Tomorrow, more themes.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees