Sometimes it makes sense to create models of thought about things that matter because they enable us to understand actions and deal with reality. I am neither a philosopher, psychologist or even scholar – so whatever I write here are simply my thoughts and should be taken with a grain (or better, a truck-load) of salt. These things simply “resonate with reality” for me, they are “Probable Fiction”.
A statement often made today is that “humans are just animals”. I don’t agree with that, at least it should say “humans are very special animals”. What makes us special? C4T.
C4T is an enumeration of characteristics and their relationship to each other that make humans very special. And knowing about this enables us to both understand us, others and society better. So let’s start with the characteristics:
Humans are creative. They like to create things. And not just only do they like to create things, they also like to create things that where never created like that before. You can see that when you go to a children’s playground. One of the main activities, given that there is a clean sandbox, is that kids dig holes, bake sand cakes, and build castles, streets, everything. Just a few years later you see the same kids building with LEGO, and just after a few days they will throw away the official assembly plan and start building their own stuff. LEGO is so successful because it allows to build your own stuff, break it apart and build something new. Or check out those children that, given a felt pen, will redecorate your whole house within minutes. Creativity is fundamental to human action. And it is actually necessary for our survival because creativity is what allows us to find newer and better ways to use nature for our well-being. We are born “dumb” without the necessary instincts to live a sufficient life on this planet. So we need to create tools, methods and procedures to survive. And because we really enjoy it, we also create things that make no sense for our survival, they just feel great. Thanks to that we have works from Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Bach, Schwarzkopf and hundreds of thousands of people that brought us beauty and comfort of living. Aint that great?
It gets even better. Humans not only use creativity to solve a problem. Even after they solved a problem they will get back to it and think about a new solution! My father totally freaked out so many times I did work in our garden in ways that were not “how it was always done”. Children and young people do not just learn what is known, they want to improve. Which is one of the things society and schools are destroying today, but it is an essential and good trait of our human-being. Being creative does satisfy us, being kept from creativity lets us feel a lack in our lives.
Humans communicate all the time. Starting from crying in the cradle, to mimics of pleasure or dislike, to young children starting to invent stories for each other, to teenage girls pumping billions into the coffers of telephone operators. We humans are highly communicative. Communication serves us not just for transferring information, but also as a social tool, a method of self reflection. And we even communicate with ourselves all the time, everyone talks to himself in his thoughts, so much that we even have to learn hard to not communicate – there are religious practices taking years to perfect that only focus on keeping us from talking (to ourselves). Our drive for communication not only pressed us to invent writing, but also printing of books, radio, television. But even that kept us unsatisfied. We invented the Internet, a huge network dedicated to communication that spans the globe and allows us to talk to people that are thousands of miles away – in realtime. We use thousands of message boards, millions of blogs, we even write blog posts when no one is reading them! Simply because we are deeply communicative. When asking a teenage girl if she could imagine living without her cellphone, she looked at me deeply shocked and said: “You mean I could not call my friends whenever I want and chat about what’s going on?!” We communicate, and we often communicate just for communications sake. And that is great, it links us to each other and elevates our knowledge, the care we have for others, our empathy. Communication is what safes us from being in pain and alone. Embrace communication!
Even though people doubt this these days, we are also cooperative. Cooperation means that two or more humans work together to accomplish a common goal. We do that all the time, and we actually have a natural urge to cooperate. If you see the your neighbor moving you will (most likely) feel the urge to ask them if you can help. Or if someone cannot pick up a load by himself, we automatically step forward to help. Children get together to build tree houses they cannot build themselves. They build damns to create a pool in the river. We as humans know that we simply cannot do everything we want simply on our own, so we do it together. And we actually enjoy doing it. We praise each other after a successful project, and we even invent cooperative games like rugby, football and soccer!
This is one of those things most people hate about humanity as a whole. We compete. We compete all the time. Who can run faster? Who jumps higher? Who earns more? Who is first?
Many people think that this is an evolutionary instinct that has long been made useless, or even counterproductive, by civilization. They feel crushed by competition. And I disagree. Why? Competition is actually a really good thing, it is what created most of the luxuries (like, enough food to not go to bed hungry) we enjoy today. But it also shows that those five characteristics need to be balanced. If we only compete we are hurt. But we are hurt as well if we don’t compete anymore. It is therefor very important to understand competition, why it is healthy, and what it is good for.
There are two different forms of competition that are important to us: Self-Competition and Other-Competition. Self-Competition means that we compare our current performance to past performance. And we actually enjoy it. We try to run even a little faster when no one is watching. We sweat breaking our own high-scores when playing computer games. We wonder if we can assemble something faster, draw a picture even better, or safe even a few more minutes of time. Self-Competition is what drives us to excel in what we do. To enjoy becoming more then we have been a day ago. To challenge and train our skills because we enjoy it. Many children spend enormous amounts of time to excel in school not because they care about being better then someone else, but becoming better themselves – because they like it! It is often only other children and damaging social codes that “untrain” self-competition, that harm our drive for excellence. Sadly we have institutionalized some of those methods and created the public school system.
Other-Competition means that we compare our own performance to others around us. This is a natural outgrowth of our imitative skills. While children first start to imitate adults and compare themselves to adults (and long to “finally grow up”), they also start to compare to their peers. Today it is fashionable to criticize this early Other-Competition. While some forms of it are a little problematic, the basic concept is great. Because it helps us to find out what are special talents and skills are. By competing with others we experience what things we are great at, and what to spend our time at. For example, I am one of the worst athletes around. And because I realized it through competition I could focus my time and energy on other things. If we wouldn’t compete, we would never find out where we waste our energy and never learn to excel even more in what we are good at. It gets even better. Competition serves as a method to create order, to “sort out” who can do what best, for the greatest utility of everyone. Many will cry out now and complain about being “left behind”. Yes, not everyone can do everything as good as someone else. But all humans have one or more things they can do, and some of them we can do better then others, but we are limited in what we should spend our time on. Competition helps us to sort all that out without leaving those behind that do want to participate. Let me give you an example: I am pretty good in cleaning up my apartment, I sometimes even enjoy it. There’s a lady cross the street that is not as good doing it. Does it mean that it is me that cleans my apartment? No, because I am even better compared to others when it comes to computers. So I focus my time on computer-stuff while the lady earns her living with cleaning my apartment. The result of it is that we are both better of. Surely she would lose in a direct cleaning competition with me, and she will fail when it comes to maintaining a unix-server. But because we both know our skills in relation to each other and those around us, we can spend our time and energy with those things that are of the biggest utility to us, and by accident also of the biggest utility to others.
Without competition we would waste our time, not find out how to do things best, and not learn to repair and overcome our errors as effective as we do with competition. We should embrace it.
The best translation for “Transcendence” into plain language I know is “beyond our material self”. Transcendence is what makes us ask questions like “Where do I come from?”, “What is the reason for me being?”, “What is ME really?”, “Where do I go to?”. Transcendence is also what drives us to leave a “footprint in history”, that we fear of being forgotten after we are dead, and what makes us wonder about our impact in reality. Transcendence is also what motivates so many young people to “change the world”, and it inspired philosophy and religions. While it is not fashionable to be “transcendent” today, it is nevertheless a great motivator and abstractor for our actions. It makes us more then “just mere beings”, more even the “just animals”. Many people today believe that transcendence is an evolutionary error, and that it conflicts with our self-interest or rational enlightenment. Did I mention that I care not a bit about evolutionary psychology? Transcendence is a fact of being human, a good fact. Because it does drive us to be more, become more, and be in relationship with everything around us. It frees us from being “just” focused on the now and what exists – it enables us to have a visionary and eternal perspective on things. Giving up transcendence only makes us poorer and more vulnerable, more dependent on fashions and vain winds of alleged change, prideful to remain in error or believe that we are finally wise (which keeps us to actually try to become wiser).
While the above characteristics of humans arguably are present in other species, maybe with the exception of transcendence, humans are special because those characteristics actually define us, and we are those beings that have those characteristics in absolute extremes. No other species known is as creative as we are. No other species known is as communicative, or as cooperative, or as competitive or as transcendent. We are not “just animals”, we are not just apes. We are actually humans, and humans are special. I am very sorry if you cannot see it, because it limits you in an unnecessary way. Embrace being human! :)
These characteristics not just exist independent from each other, they actually are interconnected. And this interconnection and cross-influence make them even greater.
There are two of those central characteristics that play a special role: Communicative and Transcendence.
Communication is what really enables us to cooperate, without communication cooperation would be impossible. Communication also allows us to “cross pollinate” each others with our creativity. We are inspired by others, learn from others, get feedback from others, and all this flows into our creativity. Our creativity is furthermore challenge even more by competition. Competition points us to places where our creativity is most valuable, most longed for, and how it can be refined.
A full understanding also shows us that competition and cooperation do not exclude each other, they need each other. Competition answers one of the most important questions of cooperation: With whom should we cooperate? Who is a good match and can bring value to the partnership? How can we best use our skills for our own profit, and the benefit of those around us? And all this is interlinked by communication, which is one of the reasons I think that the Internet is probably the most important development within the younger history of mankind.
It is very important also to point at a “balancing effect” that manifests between cooperation and competition. While competition keeps cooperating groups from subduing, ruling or patronizing outsiders, cooperation helps leveling the playing field if a much too powerful competitor enters the scene and from wasting resources in “all out competitive wars”. This goes so far that some see cooperation and competition as one things, naming it “Coopetition”.
Transcendence serves a great role as a common motivator for our actions. It creates a sense of perspective. Transcendence is what really drives all our other characteristics to the highest level. Creativity is inspired by it, communication filled with it, cooperation protected by it, and competition justified by it.
I am of the strong opinion that those characteristics describe us well. And that embracing them helps us become better and more each day. However, I also think that we must be careful to keep them in balance. While the exact balance will be different for different people (because, after all we are unique and gravitate to different things), I am convinced that none of those characteristics should lack from our lives. Furthermore I strongly believe that we should never keep others from nurturing those things, or tell them how creative, how communicative or how competitive is “good” for them, or “normal”. Public schools and the fashions of society do a great harm in this area, we should refrain from participating in it but motivate others to excel in what they are, and become more. This we don’t just do for their sake, but equally for our own sake. This does also include the area of Transcendence, putting a stop to it also stops the future, vision, and responsibility.
Last words: Embrace being human, excel in it!