Ruggedness and Flexibility and American Politics

flag of the usa on a pole


In a recent talk on my new book, a question about politics came up, because of course.

Even if you loathe politics, I’m asking you to stick with me here, because I think where this ends up will be interesting and of value.

There’s a small part of the book (2 out of 226 pages, to be exact) where I discuss Trump and his self-proclaimed disdain for change: Make America Great Again. In the book, I outline that to skillfully handle change isn’t to resist it, or to go back to restoring the previous order; rather, it is about updating. Being rugged and flexible is holding on to your values, while at the same time adapting and growing. We need both.

The book isn’t about politics. But it’s in there. So it’s fair game.

Anyways, I was asked if I am against conservatives or conservatism. My immediate answer was no, of course not!

In fact, I think it’s vital that we have a healthy conservatism, as well as a healthy progressivism. It’s the foundation of our country. Traditionally, a healthy conservatism holds on to values it deems core. It represents the rugged. A healthy progressivism challenges those values to evolve and update. It represents the flexible.

Heck, the American constitution is a document that was designed to be rugged and flexible. It has strong clear guiding principles, combined with an ability to update and change, with checks and balances along the way.

Yes, sometimes progress is painstakingly slower than we want. And yes, sometimes we overshoot the target on what progress ought to look like. But historically, America has found at least some semblance of a medium between being rugged and flexible, especially when compared to other countries.

Excelling over a long period of time requires a sense of what makes us who we are and what we stand for (ruggedness) and also the ability to adapt, keep an open mind, and update our views when presented with new evidence and realities (flexibility).

Too much ruggedness and we get rigid and eventually left behind. Too much flexibility and everything is frantic and frenetic always; we lose a sense of who we are.

My observation with Trumpism is that it’s actually pretty far from conservatism. I’ve yet to meet anyone, including Trump himself, who can provide a coherent set of values underlying Trumpism outside of resistance to change, and even more so, the ego of Donald Trump.

And yet, as I briefly mentioned in those same two pages of the book, certain factions on the left suffer from the total opposite problem: anything that is longstanding or traditional is automatically deemed as bad or something to overthrow, with no attention paid to what the thing actually is.

(At present, I think the former is far more dangerous than the latter. But I also acknowledge that what became “Trumpism” started off as a much smaller, fringe faction about fifteen years ago. That’s just my opinion, and you can have your own!)

I promised this would be valuable even if you hate politics, and here’s why:

In every pursuit, including the unfolding of our very selves, there is always going to be a tension between conservatism (ruggedness) and progressivism (flexibility).

Each of us will gravitate more toward one end of the spectrum, and that’s totally fine. But if you completely let go of the other end, you’re liable to end up either super rigid or completely unmoored.

Ruggedness is about knowing your values. Flexibility is about adapting, updating, and evolving. Whether it’s an individual person, a family unit, an organization, or an entire country, things tend to go best when these opposing forces are held in healthy tension.

This healthy tension is at the core of philosophical liberalism, or the idea that the free expression of speech and ideas, so long as they are not hateful or promoting violence, helps to spur progress because the new can be checked and evaluated against the old.

It’s also at the core of Bayesian logic. You’ve got priors (values and beliefs—ideally based on evidence) and you also want to keep an open mind to new information. The marriage of the two is how knowledge progresses, without getting caught up in every new single study or trend. If all you care about is your priors you’ll never grow. If all you care about is what’s at the cutting edge you’ll never find solid ground.

Any good coach does this too. You’ve got your program and what you studied and learned. And you’ve also got to keep updating with what’s new, all the while realizing that much of what’s new is hype and fads.

Ruggedness is not resistance to change. Rather, it is adherence to values. Flexibility is not a lack of values. Rather, it is evolving and applying your values nimbly. Any long term progress, evolution, and staying in the game at a high level requires both. It’s why I devoted an entire book to the topic. And it’s why I find broader trends away from rugged and flexibility to be concerning.

— Brad

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