How often do you revisit ideas you believe to be common sense?
When thinking of possible ways we could develop our thinking or improve our lives we naturally gravitate to new ideas instead of investigating existing patterns.
When you start thinking from first principles, a lot of things you might have discarded as mundane suddenly become really interesting.
If you want to find out what long lunches in France have to do with airborne tuberculosis, or the clandestine history of Pad Thai, or which of your morning drinks has the same amount of oil as a portion of french fries, keep reading.
I’m about to tell you all the ways in which your ideals and desires have been hijacked, and how to get back in control.
Long lunches in Paris
You may be aware that in France, people take long lunches away from their desks. It has become a much-loved cultural artefact and something that characterises the French. And it might seem like common sense. Who wouldn’t want to relax in the middle of the day?
If you ask an everyday Parisian why they take long lunches and never eat at the office, they might argue it is virtuous, and that meals are to be savoured with friends and family. They’re unlikely to mention that it’s actually illegal to have lunch at your desk in France and that the root of this routine sprouted in the 1800s.
During the industrial revolution people were spending so long working in factories that it became a public health hazard.
As cities grew in scale workers found themselves travelling across town to their factories. This meant they could no longer return home for lunch. Instead, they began to eat on the factory floor amidst sweat, dust, smoke and heavy machinery.
A lot of people started getting sick. More than a few people died.
The French government eventually came up with a solution. In 1894 they passed a law stating that windows had to be opened and the entire factory needed to be vacated for an hour each day. This was the beginning of the long lunch.
It didn’t work immediately. The streets became crowded with rude, leering factory workers who left streets strewn with trash and harassed groups of women. In fact, the first women's strike was actually carried out by the seamstresses demanding the right to eat inside their factories.
Lawmakers refused to change the rules, and so society had to adjust.
Eventually, the long lunch took on a life of its own - the French learned to indulge in ninety minutes of free-flowing conversation away from the office, accompanied by a glass or two of wine.
And now French people think that they take long lunches simply as a cultural pastime rather than because the government tried to save them from phosphorus fumes and airborne tuberculosis.
Clandestine Pad Thai
If you’ve spent more than 5 minutes on Instagram in the last few years you’ve probably seen someone having a great time in a beautiful place called Thailand. You may have popped into a Thai restaurant, and added the destination to your wishlist.
According to research data, Thailand has the 4th best perception to Americans out of all countries in Asia. That seems pretty innocuous. It’s a lovely place.
But what if I told you that’s not mere happenstance?
Think about this. From the 20th century till the present day, Thailand has been the subject of 13 successful coups and at least 9 unsuccessful ones - that’s more than any other country in the world.
So how does a country that’s had 18 different constitutions in 100 years become an unmissable tourist destination? It’s pretty simple actually. Pad Thai.
If you live in a major city like London or New York, you’re probably well aware that Thai food is everywhere. What you may not be aware of, however, is that this has been part of a long-term government initiative to improve tourism and global relations through something now known as gastro-diplomacy.
The term gastro-diplomacy was first coined in the early 2000s and is defined as the use of food and cuisine to build relationships between countries.
It’s a form of soft political power exerted in the same way as ‘sports-washing’.
That’s what you call it when countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia invest millions on campaigns to become host nations for sporting competitions.
What are you more likely to pay attention to? Politicians and journalists, or sports and your belly?
Who needs to sign international treaties when you can completely flip perceptions of your country through food and football?
In 2001 the Thai government hatched a plot to take over the world. They set up the Global Thai Restaurant Company, Ltd. with a mandate to open at least 3000 Thai restaurants around the world. The original vision, per commerce minister Goanpot Asvinvichit was to have a government sponsored global food titan to rival McDonalds. That particular objective failed, but the proliferation of government-sponsored Thai food restaurants worldwide has been a remarkable success.
Take a look at New York.
America shares a border with Mexico, and both the people and food culture have spread over the border. With 36 million Mexican Americans and over 5 million Chinese Americans, it makes sense that food from those cultures have become somewhat ubiquitous.
There are only around 300,000 Thai Americans - that’s less than 1% of the Mexican American population.
So you might be surprised to hear that Thai food has more than ten times the population-to-restaurant ratio of Mexican food.
That’s a lot of Pad Thai.
And there’s incredible irony in the fact Pad Thai wasn’t originally even a Thai dish. It’s based on a Chinese recipe but was given a new name in the 1930’s when the Thai government was trying to assert extreme nationalism over everything.
This included renaming the country from Siam to Thailand, prohibiting the use of regional languages and dialects in public schools, and endorsing the use of the greeting sawasdee.
As Penny Van Esterik noted in her book Materializing Thailand, "Phibun's nation-building strategy was to develop 'Thai-ness' and impose a 'Thai Great Tradition' to demonstrate the strength and unity of the Thai nation.”
So a dish was created using Chinese noodles and called Pad Thai as a way to galvanise nationalism.
Nobody mentions any of that now though - it’s just good food.
And Thailand isn’t alone in this. America practically pioneered this industry, planting cultural Americana in the heart of enemy states through franchises like Mcdonald's and Starbucks. You can pick up paper parcels of the American dream anywhere from Moscow to Beijing.
For some, it’s a quick burger - for others it’s the taste of freedom.
You are what you eat
Do you like Coke because it tastes better than other cola drinks (it doesn’t), or because of everything you’ve been taught to subconsciously associate the drink with?
How many of your favourite snacks are the result of a nations foreign policy? And how many things you assume are commonplace are the result of industry lobbying?
I don’t have time to get into the weeds today, but you should probably know breakfast wasn’t the most important meal of the day until Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the cereal industry lobbyists made it so.
The food pyramid was another piece of clever marketing.
And you probably missed the episode where cheese lobbyists got restaurants to purchase more US cheese (through government subsidy) which led to Domino’s doubling the amount of cheese in a pizza and trying to cram more into every slice they can.
Don’t get me started on how much worse Oatly ‘milk’ is for you than whatever you were drinking beforehand.
There’s a decent chance you’re better off brushing your teeth with Pepsi and mainlining sausage grease than regularly chugging the amount of canola oil in a carton of your favourite alternative milk.
Yes, that’s right. There’s more oil in a large oat milk latte than a large portion of McDonald’s fries, and the same amount of sugar in a regular oat milk latte as there is in a regular Coke.
If you grew up in the UK the idea that one should own their own home seems relatively common sense. If you’re one of our European visitors, the compulsion to saddle yourself as early as possible with a 30-year obligation might seem odd. It’s part of the reason why British people are amongst the most indebted in the world, with the average household having twice the debt of the average French one, with the bulk of that debt being mortgages.
100 years ago only 20% of Britons owned homes and that skewed heavily towards the middle and upper class. For everyone else it was almost unheard of. From the 1920s that began to change rapidly, peaking at nearly 80% in the early 2000’s.
These numbers are still a little misleading as home ownership also skews massively by age and location. The majority of homeowners in the UK are over 50, and don’t live in a major city like London, Manchester or Birmingham.
If you’re wondering what the 1920s and 1980s have in common, it’s Conservative party leadership, and along with it an illusory brand of aspirational capitalism that eventually came to characterise Britain.
Margaret Thatcher planted her flag on the idea that Britain should become a ‘property-owning democracy’ at her first speech to Conservative party conference attendees in 1975. She was actually borrowing the phrase from 1920s MP Noel Skelton.
Capitalism was not only for the rich, so the theory went, but even those on modest incomes should be allowed to participate through home ownership. The reward for thrift and hard work would be a stake in the country’s economic wellbeing.
It’s no surprise then, that the following generation would inherit the same ideals, despite their being much less housing stock available.
Re-contextualising this desire gives you the opportunity to examine from first principles what you truly aspire towards, and what personal or economic benefits mean to you.
Models of desire
Many of the widespread values, beliefs and desires we cling to don’t come from the places we think.
And so we return to our friend mimesis - the idea that desires aren’t innate to us, but instead are acquired from people whose opinions we value, that ‘model’ these desires for us.
Think about your life goals. Your career ambitions. That thing you ate for breakfast.
Do you want this thing because you want this thing, or simply because others have convinced you it is worth wanting?
Rene Girard was a professor at Stanford. He was a mentor to Peter Thiel, and is often referred to as the Darwin of social sciences.
Girard claims that spontaneous desire is a delusion. We have no idea what we want at birth. None of our desires are truly innate.
We form our own desires by imitating the desires of others. Mimesis simply means "to imitate".
According to Girard, we imitate those we admire (a mentor or a well-known figure) as well as those who are most similar to us (our parents or our colleagues at work).
The entire model for advertising proves out this theory - advertising intentionally depicts desirable (imitable) people desiring what the company wants its customers to desire. And having seen that desire modelled, you internalise it.
It might not happen immediately. But someone you know will buy a new car. Suddenly you’re seeing them everywhere. Now you’re noticing all the issues with your current car. And now you’re shopping around for a good quote.
How many of your ideals are inherited? The way you see romance, parenting, and financial freedom? Where did you first see those desires modelled, and do you still think those models are trustworthy?
Now, thinking from first principles, you can consider which models of desire you might intentionally seek out in order to form healthy and sustainable ideals.
If you really want to unlock fresh ideas you’ll have to peel back your preconceptions. Question your assumptions. Temporarily discard anything you might have thought was common sense.
After all, common sense usually stems from conventional wisdom. If you want unique outcomes it’s probably a good idea to question things you previously thought were unquestionable. That’s when the world opens up.