Yuval Noah Harari is a 42-year-old, Oxford-educated, Israeli historian. In his 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018), he sets out to state the meaning of life. I summarize the 21 lessons here for two reasons: to encourage you to get the book and go into depth with him, or, for non-readers, to get a taste of his feast and be nourished by it. These 21 lessons are sequential, like a lesson plan, and lead to a profound climax.
#1: Liberal Democracy is in Danger. The liberal dream of justice, liberty, equality, and democracy is dead. To avoid catastrophe, a new social ideal must emerge.
#2: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Jobs. The advances of AI and biotechnology are eliminating some traditional jobs (e.g., pilot), but creating many others (e.g., drone operator).
#3: AI and Freedom of Will. We must be vigilant in preventing AI from dictating our lives. Even though we are largely influenced by our memory banks, we still have some degree of free will and must preserve it.
#4: Data Ownership. Increasingly, who owns the data determines the degree of equality throughout the globe.
#5: Intimate Communities. Social capital has decreased. Can social media reverse the trend, or must we make offline time for others?
#6: Paradox of Civilization. We are growing more alike in our basic assumptions—in medicine, music, physics, art—but wrestling with protecting our differences as nations/cultures.
#7: Nationalism. The world’s nations have three common enemies—climate change, nuclear war, and technological disruption. We must find common vehicles to address them that do not disregard our separate national cultures.
#8: Religion. Religions, which Harari describes as shared fictions, are effective at driving mass (i.e., national) cooperation, but not at supporting global problem solving (as in climate change and technological domination).
#9: Immigrants. We must find a way to respectfully allow strangers in our midst while expecting them to live peaceably within our cultural norms.
#10: Terrorism. Terrorism is theater that creates fear fed by publicity. The press needs to resist dramatization of terrorism, and government must emphasize undercover operations (i.e., out of the spotlight).
#11: War. We are in the age of limited wars, as successful large scale wars are impossible/unthinkable. To keep it that way, we all need a dose of humility—whereby neither my culture, my country, nor my religion is superior to yours.
#12: Humility. No culture is intrinsically superior to another—the capacity for morality, science, and art is in our DNA and is spread throughout the planet. Those proud of monotheism fail to see its association with bigotry/intolerance, while polytheism is intrinsically more tolerant of other religions.
#13: God. We cannot know what God wants, so do not invoke God to justify our wants. That is taking the name of God in vain. Morality—or reducing misery—is a universal need. Any definition of God that supports morality is OK, while any definition that encourages immorality, or violence, is not OK.
#14: Secularism. Secularism has six core virtues: truth over belief; compassion for suffering; equality of different cultures; freedom to think, create, act; courage to address wrong; and accepting responsibility for the state of things (i.e.,by not deferring to a super power to do so). A religion, if it embraces these six, is essentially secular.
#15: Ignorance. We know less than we think we do, and it takes time that most don’t have to find the truth. You must have the luxury to be able to “waste” time—explore, experiment, test, verify, read, compare, converse, pursue multiple sources. No single individual can know it all—truth is a group effort.
#16: Justice. It is impossible for any one person, or even one group, to know how our actions affect everyone in the world. To buy shoes could condone a remote sweat shop. The world is too complex to see the whole truth.
#17: Post-Truth. One cannot wield power without a fictional base (Harari’s example is “God is with us”), but some fictions are more harmful than others (Jews are the chosen people vs. Jesus is the Anti-Christ). Embrace informative sources and embrace non-hurtful fictions. But remember, from conspiracy theories to promises of paradise—fiction sells!
#18: Science Fiction. The future presents the challenge of the empowered elite versus the unempowered masses, not humans versus AI machinery.
#19: Education. Change is constant—jobs, world views, and identities evolve. Educate not for facts and skills—people can pick them up and they will change in importance, relevance, and nature. Educate for life adaptation skills—critical thinking, communication, cooperation, and creativity. And get to know your core!
#20: Meaning. For a story to have personal meaning, it must 1) have a role for me, and 2) involve me in something bigger than myself. Go for stories/fictions that do not cause suffering. But remember, all stories are man-made and fictional. Most people embrace multiple stories—American, Christian, feminist, vegetarian, etc. But one does not have to have a story to have meaning. All one must do is observe, search for truth, and be to true to one’s self—to one’s dharma.
#21: Meditation. Make time to just observe—your breathing, your sensations, your perceptions. There lies truth.
Note: “Being true to one’s self” is the business purpose of Paradigm Personality Labs. Our consultants and assessments purport to help individuals define their core and build upon it. Even though I retired in April, I’m still gunning for the gold—I am working on a curriculum resource for developing Harari’s four adaptation skills of critical thinking, communication, cooperation, and creativity.