The appeal of “pickup” or “game” or “The Redpill” is a failure of education and socialization

Since posting “The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?” and “Men are where women were 30 years ago?” I’ve gotten into a couple discussions about why Neil Strauss’s The Game is popular and why adjacent subjects like “pickup” and the “Redpill” have picked up steam too. One friend wrote, “It’s so tedious to see how resentful men get—a subject much in the news lately because of the Santa Barbara shooting…”

That’s somewhat true, but underlying, longer-term trends are worth examining. The world is more complex than it used to be in many respects, and that includes sex and dating. Until relatively recently—probably the late 60s / early 70s—it was probably common for most guys to marry a local girl, maybe straight out of high school, and marry a girl whose parents the guy probably knows and her parents probably know the guy’s. Parents, families, and religious authorities probably had a strong effect on what their children did, and a lot of men and women probably married as virgins. The dating script was relatively easy to follow and relatively many people paired up early. In the 60s an explosion of divorces began, and that complicated matters in ways that are still being sorting out.

Today there are more hookups for a longer period of time and fewer universal scripts that everyone follows, or is supposed to be following. Instead, one sees a proliferation of possibilities, from the adventurous player—which is not solely a male role—to early marriage (though those early marriages tend to end in divorce) Dating “inequality” has probably increased, since the top guys are certainly having a lot more sex than the median or bottom guys. To some extent that dynamic has probably always been true, but now “top” could mean dozens of partners at a relatively early age, and the numerical top is more readily available to guys who want it. In the old regime it was probably possible for almost everyone to find a significant other of some sort (and I think families had more sway and say). Now that may be harder, especially for guys towards the bottom who don’t want to realize that if they’re towards the bottom the women they’re likely to attract are likely to be around the same place.

I’ve also noticed an elegiac sense that a weirdly large number of the “pickup artists” or “Red Pill” (sometimes it’s used as two words, sometimes as one) or “manosphere” guys have about the past, and how back then it was relatively easy to find, date, and marry a woman. Much of this is probably mythological, and I don’t think most of them would be happy marrying at 20 or 24 and having two or three kids by 28 or 29.

These stereotypes are no doubt riddled with holes—see further the oeuvre of John Updike—but they probably hold up reasonably well in terms of examining broad trends. Today almost no one gets married straight out of high school. Routine moves from city to city are normal, and each move often rips someone from the social networks that provide romantic connections. Families play a smaller and smaller role. If you don’t have the infrastructure of school, how do you meet lots of new people? Jobs are one possibility but looking for romantic prospects at work has obvious pitfalls. Online dating is another, but people who can’t effectively date offline often aren’t any better on (and are often worse).

Technology matters too. Technologies take a long time—decades, at least—to really reach fruition and for their ripples to be felt throughout societies and cultures. Virtually all big ideas start small.* That’s an important lesson from Where Good Ideas Come From, The Great Stagnation, The Enlightened Economy, and similar books about technological, economic, and social history. A suite of interrelated technologies around birth control (like hormonal birth control itself, better forms of it, and easy condom distribution and acquisition) are still playing out. Same with antibiotics and vaccines against STIs. VOX offers one way to think about this in “From shame to game in one hundred years: An economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatisation.” It begins:

The last one hundred years have witnessed a revolution in sexual behaviour. In 1900, only 6% of US women would have engaged in premarital sex by the age of 19, compared to 75% today . . . Public acceptance of premarital sex has reacted with a lag.

Culture is still catching up. Pickup, game, and the Redpill are part of that, and they are responses from guys frustrated by the way their own efforts fail while some of their peers’s efforts succeed. A lot of women appear less interested in an okay guy with an okay job and an okay but not that exciting or fun life, relative to guys with a different set of qualities. Men invest in what they think women want and women invest in what they think men want, and relative wants have changed over time.

Pickup artists and those who read them are responding to a cultural milieu in which most guys get terrible socialization regarding dating and women. At the same time guys see a smallish number of extraordinarily successful guys (though they often don’t see the value behind the extraordinarily successful guys). What are those successful guys doing? How? Why? Pickup artists, whatever their flaws, are trying to answer that question, sometimes more successfully and sometimes less. They’re also trying to answer that question and related questions in a concrete way, which most people, including their detractors, aren’t. I wrote about that issue in a review of Clarisse Thorn’s Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser:

feminism does very little to describe, let alone evaluate, how micro, day-to-day interactions are structured. Pickup artists, or whatever one may want to call guys who are consciously building their skills at going out and getting women, are describing the specific comments, conversations, styles, and venues women respond to. The pickup artists are saying, “This is how you approach a woman in a bar, this is how you strike up a conversation at the grocery store, and so forth.” In other words, they’re looking at how people actually go about the business of getting laid. Their work is often very detailed, and the overall thrust is toward the effectiveness of getting laid rather than how male-female interactions work in theory. Feminism, in Thorn’s view, appears to be silent, or mostly silent, on the day-to-day interactions.

Who else is doing that? Almost no one. As with virtually any other topic, one can muddle along through trial and error (and mostly error) or one can try to systematically learn about it and apply that learning to the problem domain, along with the learning others have done. That’s what the pickup people are doing, or trying to do.

To be sure, the worst of the group if just trying to sell shit, and sell as much of it as possible to fools. The best of the group is saying things that almost no one else is saying. They also say it’s hard. Look at “Krauser:”

The PUA cartel saw you coming and will sell you magic pills and 3 Secrets To Make Her Wet as long as your credit card is below it’s limit. If you’re looking to score something for nothing, you’ll end up with nothing. Daygame is hard. Very very hard.

He calls out the “hack mentality” in the same post. Caricature is easy, but the guys who are really paying attention aren’t easily caricatured.

Though it isn’t out yet, Tucker Max, Geoffrey Miller, and Nils Parker are writing Mate: The Young Man’s Guide To Sex And Dating, which is, among other things, a description of modern dating and a description of why so many guys do it so badly for so long. Confusion reigns, and the book promises to be the sort of fun-but-comprehensive read that can be given to unhappy, puzzled guys who understand something is wrong but don’t know how to fix it.

One strategy in response to new social circumstances is to figure out what you should do to be reasonably successful and what you can do to make yourself more appealing. This is not a male-only question: virtually every issue of Cosmo is about how to attract men, retain men, and deal with female friends and rivals. Another is to blame women, or withdraw from dating, or kill innocents because of your own frustration. If you think half the population isn’t into you, the problem is with you, not the population. There’s an important similarity to business here: If you start a business and no one wants to buy your products or services, you can blame the market or you can realize that you’re not doing what people want.

It’s easier to blame women than it is to make real changes, and there is a tendency among some of the self-proclaimed “Redpill”-types to do that. Paul Graham notes that the real secret to making wealth is to “Make something people want.” In dating the real secret (which isn’t a secret) is to be a person who people like. How to do that can be a whole book’s worth of material.

Blame is easy and improvement is hard. Short guys do have it harder than tall guys—but so what? Go ask a fat girl, or a flat-chested one, how much fun dating is for her, compared to her slenderer or better-endowed competitors. Honesty in those conversations is probably rare, but it is out there: usually in late-night conversations after a couple drinks.

I don’t hate “pickup artists” as a group, though I dislike the term and wish there was something better. Many of the things critics say are accurate. But criticizing without recognizing the impetus for the development in the first place is attacking the plant while ignoring the roots. This post, like so many of the posts I write, is looking at or attempting to look at the root.

Feminism didn’t come from nowhere. Neither had pickup.

* Which is not to say that all small ideas will automatically become big. Most don’t. But ideas, technologies, practices, and cultures spread much more slowly than is sometimes assumed, especially among the rah-rah tech press.

Most volunteering is a waste of time for anyone except the volunteer

Volunteering is primarily driven by the need of the volunteer to feel good about themselves, not to do the most good; the way to really do the most good is to know how to do something valuable, like make a computer do what a person wants, or building things. Not that many people can or choose to learn how to do something really valuable, but many people can rehab trails or serve meals to the homeless.

Nonprofit and public agencies know this and many don’t really want volunteers, though they also can’t really turn volunteers away for PR reasons.* Nonprofit and public agencies want cash, which is fungible and can then be spent hiring professionals who don’t consume a lot of time and energy. Programmers know that the smallest number of programmers possible should work on a given project, because each additional programmer increases the communication overhead of the project. Sufficiently large projects often collapse because programmers cannot communicate effectively and ensure their code works coherently together. Volunteers face a similar problem, albeit to a lesser extent.

Low-wage labor is also widely available. Someone with a skill that can be sold for a couple hundred dollars an hour is better off doing that, and then donating their wages to hire at least ten people for ten dollars an hour. That’s much more useful to society as a whole. We’re in the habit of automatically admiring volunteers and volunteerism, to the extent that claiming volunteer hours has become yet another way of gaming college admissions through dubious altruism.

The primary way to usefully volunteer is to have a specialized skill that can be effectively deployed by the organization, but that rarely seems to happen. If the organization really needs a given skill, it tends to pay for it, because it needs that skill delivered reliably and, often, to precise specifications.

Mastering a complex skill, however, is a labor-intensive process; it’s famously been said to take ten years. Maybe one can master a skill in less time, but certainly it takes thousands of hours of dedicated practice. No one can wake up and decide to write a (good) novel or (good) operating system or whatever. One can go off and seal envelopes or make cold calls or serve meals for a couple hours.

One sees this at work in the misguided efforts to send expensive American teenagers to developing countries to build houses. Developing countries by and large do not have a shortage of effective construction workers (the U.S. imports plenty of Mexican construction workers)—they have a shortage of money. The thousands of dollars it takes to feed, secure, and transport American teenagers or twenty-somethings would be much more effectively spent on local labor and materials. But the purpose of volunteer trips is of course not about building houses but about making the volunteers feel good and useful.

Still, if the choice is between volunteering or watching T.V., volunteering is probably a “better” thing, but if the choice is between volunteering and mastering a unique skill, master that skill (and perhaps teach it to others). Be an example to others by becoming an expert, instead of by sacrificing time that should be optimally spent doing something useful for a large number of people.

* I’m a grant writing consultant. Many nonprofit and public agencies will admit in private that they don’t want volunteers. I suspect all or nearly all professions generate uncommon or counter-intuitive knowledge. The Internet is pretty good at letting people discuss that knowledge in a pseudonymous environment.

If someone is angry you may be doing something right: Alain de Botton edition

Early negative reviews of his work [How Proust Can Change Your Life], by Proust professors and philosophy dons, devastated him, admitted de Botton. “It was very surprising and upsetting. Then my wife, who is very wise, said to me, ‘It’s obvious, this is a fight.’ This is a turf war, and the battle is about what culture should mean to us.”*

If you’re a) doing significant work and b) making people angry, then you may c) be doing something right. I think the first component is particularly important because it’s easy to needlessly or cruelly piss people off—through rude remarks or punching someone, for example. We’re taught that making other people angry is a bad thing and in most contexts it probably is, but in some it isn’t and may actually be a sign of importance.

Anger is a powerful response and a common one to someone who feels threatened: suggest to a public school teacher that teachers shouldn’t be granted de facto lifetime employment after three years, or that teachers’ unions are serious impediments to education, and you’re not likely to get a reasoned discussion about policy. You’re likely to be treated as someone who violates taboo. To most of us discussions about education policy are benign, but to teachers they’re often sacred (the “benign-violation theory” of humor is similar, as discussed in The Humor Code).

I’ve gotten weirdly vituperative responses from English professors about this blog. Usually those responses are couched in language about being unprofessional or low quality or a waste of time that could be better spent advancing my career. In that worldview, having anyone read your work doesn’t matter. At first I took those responses at face value, but now I’m not so sure: they might have been unhappy that I think most English journals bogus and, worse, treat them as such. It’s dangerous to have people work outside the system they’re highly invested in. If you don’t have the apparatus of peer review and journals and so forth, what separates paid professors from blogger rabble? Some answers to that question may be terrifying.

Philosophers probably guard their jewel basket carefully because there is nothing inside.

To return to de Botton, I also think he calibrates his work towards accessibility. It is easy for a normal person to understand what he says and to judge its truth value. Many philosophers seem to take pride in doing the opposite. In addition, de Botton reaches for a relatively low-knowledge audience; I found his book about architecture charming, for example, but How to Think More About Sex was inane, mostly because of it lacked any familiarity with evolutionary biology. Over the last couple decades, that’s been where the action is. Writing about sex without reading evolutionary biology is pointless, and I know enough to know that. Alternately, even compelling writers produce some bad books, and this could be de Botton’s off book.

* From “The empire of Alain de Botton.”

How I learned about assertiveness and reality from being a consultant

Like many people with such businesses, some friends with a design consulting business say they’re getting jerked around by potential clients, they’re worried about offending potential clients, and most importantly they’re discovering that the lessons they’ve taken from school and every day life are wrong or at least not optimal. So I described my own experiences as a consultant and how that taught me about reality and money.

A lot of people—including me—are told from an early age to be polite, take turns, be considerate of other people’s feelings, etc. This is good advice in many but not all circumstances. In the business / consultant worlds it often leads other people to take advantage of you. Consultants need one very important skill: they need to figure out who is going to give them money and who isn’t, and they need to do so relatively quickly. Clients will often press to get as much free stuff—often in the form of time and opinions—as they can. They lose nothing by dallying and often gain stuff. Consultants need to learn the killer instinct necessary to know when to stop and say “send me a contract and check or don’t call me until you want to.”

(c) Victor

(c) Victor

“Talk is cheap” is a cliché for a reason: it doesn’t mean anything. Any talk that’s not a billable hour should be leading, rapidly, to a billable hour. At some point—a point sooner than most novices realize—it’s time to pay or go away. Money talks (and it isn’t cheap): I’ve been on numerous calls about “collaborations” and what not, when the real thing happens is through subcontracts. Show me the money, or it doesn’t exist.

Someone who wants to hire you knows relatively quickly whether they want to hire you. Anything other than “yes” means “no.” “Maybe” means no. That’s a hard thing for many of us to accept. My parents founded Seliger + Associates 20 years ago and they certainly had to learn such lessons the hard way; a lot of potential clients will dangle work that never arrives and waste a lot of valuable time and energy in the process. That means consultants have to get to “no.”

Getting to “no” is actually quite useful and a big improvement over a nebulous maybe.

Drawing a clear line can actually turn some “maybes” in “yeses.” Clients will respect you more if you eventually stop negotiating or talking unless they pay up. Because of the issues described in the paragraphs above, anyone experienced learns when to stop talking and say “money or nothing.” That means continuing to flirt without cash in hand is also a signal of being inexperienced. The line between being brusque and being direct is thin but when it doubt err on the side of directness rather than meekness.

Directness can actually be a kind of politeness. “Professional courtesy” has an adjective before “courtesy” because it’s different from regular courtesy; professional courtesy is there to indicate that there is a different way of being courteous than the conventional way, and one aspect of professional courtesy is there to avoid time wasting people.

That being said, it can be worth exploring new ventures even when those new ventures aren’t immediately remunerative. But money and contracts separate exploration from reality.

These lessons aren’t only applicable to consultant. They apply to almost any form of business and for that matter in dating: if she says “I like you but not in that way,” she means no. I think men tend to learn this faster then women do.

(c) looking4poetry

(c) looking4poetry

My friends are women, and from what I’ve observed guys in their teens have to learn to approach women and risk rejection if they’re going to get anywhere, and a lot of women wait for guys to approach them. Consequently guys who want to get anywhere have to get used to rejection in a way a lot of women don’t, and that socialization is probably part of the reason why women like Sheryl Sandberg write books like Lean In. Men figure out relatively early that they have to lean in—or suffer. Like a lot of guys I spent time suffering. I also learned, however, that with women too anything other than “yes” means “no” and that I should move on quickly. Sticking around to beg and plead only worsens the situation.

Disengagement is underrated. In many endeavors one important ingredient in success is fire and motion.

Your hours

Raymond Chen has a hilarious and quietly insightful post in “I wrote FAT on an airplane, for heaven’s sake,” which ends this way:

During the development of Windows 3.0, it was customary to have regular meetings with Bill Gates to brief him on the status of the project. At one of the reviews, the topic was performance, and Bill complained, “You guys are spending all this time with your segment tuning tinkering. I could teach a twelve-year-old to segment-tune. I want to see some real optimization, not this segment tuning nonsense. I wrote FAT on an airplane, for heaven’s sake.”

(I can’t believe I had to write this: This is a dramatization, not a courtroom transcript.)

This “I wrote FAT on an airplane” line was apparently one Bill used when he wanted to complain that what other people was doing wasn’t Real Programming. But this time, the development manager decided she’d had enough.

“Fine, Bill. We’ll set you up with a machine fully enlisted in the Windows source code, and you can help us out with some of your programming magic, why don’t you.”

One deeper point: Bill “wrote” FAT on an airplane, but in a sense he’d been learning how to write it for a decade or decades. Any complex thing anyone does is built on a wide, deep, specialized foundation. Writing works that way too—I may “write” a given post or essay or proposal in a few hours or days, but in a sense I’ve been learning how to write for at least a decade. Maybe longer. When a post is executed cleanly and well, it’s not because I have some magical ability. It’s because any time spent at the keyboard is the tip of a spear that extends back through thousands of books and hours spent practicing things I’ve done wrong or seen other people do wrong.

Everyone has or should have a skill like that, or should be developing one. What’s yours?

(Chen wrote a similar follow-up post.)

How not to choose a college: Frank Bruni ignores the really important stuff

Frank Bruni wrote an essay called “How to Choose a College” without mentioning the most important fact about college for the life outcomes of many students: debt. That’s liking writing about the Titanic and ignoring the whole iceberg thing.

In How to Win at the Sport of Business, Mark Cuban writes, “financial debt is the ultimate dream killer. Your first house, car, whatever you might want to buy, is going to be the primary reason you stop looking for what makes you the happiest.” He’s right about debt often being “the ultimate dream killer,” but he should add student loans to his roster of “whatever you might want to buy,” especially because student loans are effectively impossible to discharge through bankruptcy. I don’t think most 18 year olds really understand what tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt will really mean to them five years, ten years, twenty years after they graduate.

To me, the most interesting metric a university could offer these days is the mean, median, and mode debt of students upon graduation.

Money shouldn’t be the only factor in choosing a college, but it should be a major one, unless one has uncommonly wealthy parents.

Take meaning where you find it: HBO's Girls versus life in startups

My Instapaper queue had its usual dozen or so articles in it, and I noticed a trend or attitude that roughly divided them in two and offered useful juxtapositions on contemporary life: the first bunch involved the HBO show Girls (see here, here, here, and here for examples) and the next ones involve startups (sample: “Inside Instagram: How Slowing Its Roll Put the Little Startup in the Fast Lane, Roberto Caro, and cancer (“Why haven’t we cured cancer yet? (Revisited): Personalized medicine versus evolution). The former articles say things like: “For a certain kind of lucky person, freed of the most immediate financial burdens and rich in a family’s emotional investment, college might have felt like independence or responsibility. But it turns out to be so cosseted and circumscribed that graduating feels a little like leaving the womb.” The latter describe how mind-boggling complex biology really is and say things like, “If [Instagram] can just keep doing what it’s been doing, but bigger, faster, better. If it can do all that, it just may get there. Either way, it’s going to be fun to watch.”

The former group are mostly about how the characters portrayed in the show lack direction and meaning. The latter are about the extraordinary opportunities that exist for doing new, interesting things in the world, especially if you can find a topic beyond yourself that you find fascinating. The Girls articles (not necessarily the show itself, which I haven’t seen) are what happens when you don’t do anything real. You don’t have real problems. Your identity is all about consumption and beliefs instead of production, knowledge, and being able to do things other people can’t. Ennui and anomie threaten to overwhelm. The primal needs of food and shelter are unlikely to become life-threatening.

Instagram, Robert Caro, and cancer research show, by contrast, what happens when do things that are real. Nothing stops the characters in Girls from writing software that people want to use, writing magisterial tomes that plumb the depths of the human experience, or trying to figure out how fundamental biology works. Nothing, that is, except themselves. The world is vast, human desires appear to be infinite, or nearly infinite, and the world’s problems are by no means solved. The girls on Girls should try solving them. And the writers who discuss Girls should be thinking about these kinds of fundamental issues of meaning that one can see peppered across American life.

Anyway: I want to emphasize that I haven’t seen Girls, and it might be very good. But the commentary around the show shows a certain kind of problem in American, and, more generally, affluent Western, life in general. It’s still a problem that the writers of these articles aren’t really acknowledging, and it’s a problem that Instagram, Robert Caro, and cancer research shows us how to solve—if we want to listen.


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