I watched “The Wire” recently and was completely hooked for two reasons. First, it is a well-written, well-performed, and extremely compelling television series. Secondly, it helped me gain some cognitive tools for how to optimize my life and career aspirations by helping me process my environment differently.
David Simon spent twelve years reporting on crime for the Baltimore Sun before losing his respect for journalism. Convinced that news had little effect on the population, he began to write books about crime and drug trade, along with the TV series “The Wire”. He said that the show is “really about the American city, and about how we live together. It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals. Whether one is a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge or a lawyer, all are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution to which they are committed.”
What makes “The Wire” so interesting is the well-researched insight into how and why people get involved in crime, or any other business in urban environments. It is heavily influenced by the design of a city or system, and how the people within it move to find their own path of least resistance. Sure, we all have an illusion of free-will, but sometimes immediate gains depend on the structure of what surrounds us.
This has helped my career by practicing a “zoom out” every once in a while, where I evaluate my role in the larger system. I try to stay in touch with my skill set, and then see where I can place those skills easily in a system for maximum gain. For example, I recently switched my career from bookseller to barista and doubled the amount of money that I make per hour. By “zooming out”, I saw that my career as a bookseller had no future and no paths to something valuable or profitable in the short term, and sticking with the job would only prolong my financial woes. I quit immediately and picked up a coffee job in Seattle, and now I work in a industry that pays some of its employees more money that most booksellers.
It is so easy to lose scope. Our day to day lives encourage us to keep blinders on in order to focus on the tasks at hand. However, a regular practice of contemplating the infinite (whether it be in church, at yoga, or while meditating on the bus) allows us to realize that (1) we are are small units within much larger structures and (2) our problems are even smaller units within these structures.
Broadening scope is like giving yourself a road map to optimize your value. Once you have this map, you start to see routes to a better career. You see which businesses, social circles, and institutions can bring you closer to your goals. As a barista, I get to meet a high volume of customers on a regular basis. I make more money and get more flexibility with my schedule. Living in Seattle, I get to meet with my friends who are software developers more often. I have maximized my social capital, I have a job that suits my needs, and I have much more opportunities to develop my programming skills.
Watching “The Wire” is like watching all of the cogs and gears of a clock turn. Applying this framework to my surroundings is endlessly fascinating, and also gives me reason to learn more about the architecture of my environment. I am now watching a lot of “current economics” videos on Khan Academy because I have a newly developed interest in how my cities spin, and hopefully it will allow me to create my own effective sub-system within it.