More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

Personal Experience Is Everything

In a 2015 interview, rapper Kendrick Lamar was asked, “Do you read a lot?”

He responded:

Naw-uh . . . I’d rather be interacting with a person than gathering up information from somewhere else. [I’d rather] speak to a person with wisdom that’s been here before me.

I initially found that response surprising, given the breadth of topics he touches in his music. Kendrick has been my favorite artist since the day he released Section.80 back in 2011, and I assumed that he was an avid reader ever since.

But with that response, it helped me reframe the somewhat dogmatic views I had about reading.

Charlie Munger once wrote, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.” This type of statement is almost held as gospel in many circles: from writers to investors to academics, and so on. I personally believe in the undeniable power of reading as well.

However, this sentiment isn’t applicable for everyone, nor does it need to be.

On average, yes, reading is an important thing for people to do. Reading opens up your world to new perspectives, and is an amazing way to access minds that have spent their whole lives on a topic of interest. When people say that it’s crucial to read, it’s often so you can expand your breadth of knowledge on any given topic.

But the Kendrick interview helped me realize something important:

It doesn’t matter how much you know about the objective world. In the end, personal experience is what ultimately moves humanity.

That may be a controversial thing to say, given that I understand the importance of scientific progress and why it’s crucial to remove our personal biases. However, it’s becoming obvious to me that an objective and unbiased understanding of the world has clear limitations.

For one, it lacks a narrative that moves us in a collective manner.

I recently wrote a reflection for patrons about the power of fiction, and this excerpt summarizes my views on it well:

Both fiction and non-fiction are powerful tools, but those that ignore the power of fiction ignore the power of subjective experience. As much as we tout the necessity of objectivity, we have no choice but to view the world through the lens of our individual consciousness – through the boundaries of what our physical and mental capacities can stretch to. Additionally, emotions are an integral part of what make us human, and nothing is more powerful than a beautiful story to touch us in that way.

When I read the work of a philosopher (let’s say Thomas Nagel), his work is great, but his job is to present information as a package of knowledge. It feels like an assortment of data I must sort through to get to his central point. There’s no real story involved, it’s just a distribution of knowledge from his mind to mine, through the direct tunnel of explanation.

But when I read fiction, I can disconnect myself from the author, suspending my disbelief for a moment as well. Instead, I connect with the subjective experience of the characters, the voyage they go on, and the various emotions they must wade through in their stories. And it is through experiencing all this with them that I get to the kernel of wisdom that truly resonates with me.

It’s like the difference between (a) simply hearing the platitude, “Love is the answer,” and (b) actually experiencing the long road of being someone’s partner and truly feeling that “love is the answer.” Scenario A will make you roll your eyes, while Scenario B will be deeply profound.

That’s the difference between non-fiction and fiction.

If done well, fiction’s power is in its ability to transport us into the subjective experiences of the characters in the story. For a moment, we cease to embody the identity of a reader, and we instead become an integral part of the journey each character undergoes.

We get to have the same biases they have. We get to say what they say, and think what they think. We get to make the same mistakes they do.

And of course, we come to the same realizations and epiphanies together as well.

The ability to be an integrated companion along this entire narrative arc is what makes storytelling so compelling.

So while we like to tout the power of objectivity, the real power resides in something much more personal: a well-distributed, shared narrative.

This is what allowed Kendrick’s song “Alright” to become the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. His personal experience was effectively channeled through this track, and it became the song that embodied the personal experiences of countless others that marched on the streets.

When people are able to experience someone’s story as if it were their own, that is when humanity moves.

This thought brings me to the protests that are currently sweeping the nation.

It’s not enough to simply know that the events leading to the death of George Floyd happen too frequently in the United States. The objective knowledge of that reality may exist, but that isn’t what sparked the movements we are seeing today.

Spreadsheets and data don’t galvanize people.

Only shared subjective experience does.

The manner in which Floyd’s death was broadcasted made people feel that pain viscerally. It made his suffering their own. It became a part of their own subjective experience.

And when you combine that with a narrative arc that consists of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and so many others, it’s only inevitable that you get the events of today.

Interestingly enough, another event occurred just a few days ago that also captivated the nation, but with a more hopeful tone.

Over the weekend, SpaceX successfully launched two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. But it wasn’t this feat itself that was the main story. Remember, the United States has successfully sent astronauts to the ISS before.

Rather, it was the fact that SpaceX was the first private company to launch astronauts into orbit. The question of how this would usher in a whole new future for space travel is what got people excited. Now it really seems possible for an ordinary citizen to go to space in their lifetime.

Once again, it’s not about the objective details of what happened. It’s about how we internalize the narrative for our subjective selves.

With that said, I’m not diminishing the importance of rationality in this reflection. As a citizen of the world, it’s important to broaden your knowledge by observing the works and lives of others. Reading is one conduit to this.

However, as a distinct individual, you cannot deny the power of subjectivity either.

You don’t need to rely on what others have already figured out to share something compelling. It’s okay to dip into the well of your life and share what you’ve learned in the process. You don’t need someone else’s quote to validate what you know to be true.

Ultimately, personal experience is what moves humanity.

Denying this is a futile attempt at denying our very own nature.

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