The most painful death is that of the ego. It required me to take stock of who I am and what I believe and make a conscious effort to destroy the fundamental constructs of my mental model about the world.
We form our egos by engaging and interacting with the world around us. We explore new interests and ideas and hold on to whatever works. When we do not get what we want, we take one of two paths. We either kill our ego or we let our ego kill us.
There is no middle ground. It is one or the other.
The Good Fight
The ego killing us describes a situation where we let our previously held judgments about the world dominate our present ones in the face of all evidence and reason.
Successfully killing the ego is when the opposite happens. It’s when we take a step back and reassess the path we’ve chosen to take by looking at the truths we take for granted given the life experiences we have had and deciding to actively update or abolish them.
I’ve tried to pay attention to how I personally deal with this internal battle.
I subconsciously adopt a mental model that resonates with me, and I design my life experiences to be consistent with it. This model may not represent what I truly want or how I really think, but it is the best out of all possible options at any given time.
Much of this is pragmatic. When things are going well, and I am able to feel happiness, then there is no reason to change. When things aren’t going well, it’s time to reassess.
The nasty trick that life plays is that mental models differ from each other in how they manifest into behavioral and thought patterns throughout your life. Some mental models are better for the long term than for the short, others are better for your professional life than for your romantic life, and others are better for your internal growth rather than your external growth.
I used to think that my mental model today needs to be the “right” model. A correct way of processing reality. But this is a harmful way of going about it.
This comes from the realization that your mental model will inevitably change. And so, to think about them as absolute truths or not would undermine your ability to develop. You need to have a mental model, period. You need to have a singular set of beliefs for a given time in order to be able to test it against the evidence that life will present to you even if your model today is inaccurate and wrong. This will allow you to test other ideas and new ways of living.
The most dangerous thing to do is to have no set of beliefs at all because that precludes the possibility of testing and iteration. The second most dangerous thing to do is to hold on to past beliefs because they feel safe. This also precludes the possibility of testing and iteration, but on a smaller timescale since it is always possible to abandon that given set of beliefs for another one.
I would feel emotionally attached to old ways of thinking because they constituted my identity. I used that identity to connect with other people, and create goals, and make decisions. It is then understandable that disrupting my mental model wasn’t a very practical thing to do.
In order to sustain short-term stability, I would try to deny myself space to properly analyze the reasons why I was doing something because that something needed to be done.
Until one day, circumstances force you to take an honest look at what you believe in and wonder whether there is another way, a better way.
Those are the ego deaths that are fundamental to growth.
In fact, I would think that the best advice I could have ever given myself would be to try out competing mental models and see what works best for me.
There is obviously a presupposition here. Namely, that the “right” mental model is not “right” for everyone. You should never be either a democrat or a republican, a liberal or conservative, a believer or an atheist, a pessimist or an optimist, a capitalist or a communist, you should aim to each for a certain time.
There is a wide spectrum of beliefs and ideas that exist. None of them have been proven to be absolutely right or wrong. However, there is a more important truth, and probably the only one that matters, and that is “functional truth”.
In other words, what are the beliefs and ideas that are helping me move closer towards my goals without making feel like shit?
If you were born in a conservative household and you adopted those values as you got older, and you noticed that those very values helped you achieve what you wanted, you will cling to them more, and you will want others to share your beliefs too so that you can validate your experience.
Most people don’t think, they rationalize. We act first and think later. That isn’t to say that most people are stupid. On the contrary. Acting first doesn’t come out of thin air. Our actions are an extension of our publicised and unpublicised ideas about life.
It doesn’t matter whether our ideas are right or wrong because the primary determinant of whether or not we adopt them is functionality. Societal beliefs are one aspect that feeds into our mental models. To live in harmony with other members of a society, we need to sculpt our beliefs to look like theirs as much as possible. If you’re extremely agreeable, then the most likely thing you’ll do is take the average of the positions you are exposed to and claim that the average represents your own philosophy. This is quite useful to establish harmony with those around you but detrimental to your own growth and understanding.
To take a stand against who you used to be, what your society tells you to be, is an arduous task, to say the least. It is akin to dying. Most people are not ready to make that sacrifice.
However, the only way to live a life that is full, respectable, and enjoyable is to be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to allow yourself to move forward, to learn, and to grow.
In order to do that, it will require an element of cynicism and sarcasm. You’ll need to learn to stop taking your thoughts and beliefs about the world so seriously. They are merely tools to help you go through the life, and they can be used as much against you as they can for you.
When we understand the limitations of our understanding, and how little of the bigger picture we actually see and can potentially see in the future, it is futile to hold on to any belief at all. Instead, it is better to try on beliefs and measure progress.
Peel away the layers
It can start like this.
Should I believe that being productive is good or bad?
Well, who knows? Let’s try both. i fet
Okay, looks like not being productive didn’t really lead anywhere great. I felt guilty and that time was passing me by. Maybe I can try being productive. Hmm, being productive wasn’t all that great and caused a lot of pain and inconvenience but I definitely feel better at the end of the day.
Maybe I should try being more productive than unproductive.
What about this whole religion thing? Is there a God? Isn’t there?
Well, let’s try both. There’s definitely a lot of freedom in not subscribing to a belief system but it sure is depressing to know that there is no overarching purpose to any of this. Maybe it’s best to believe that there is a purpose, and God does exist, but we don’t know what that purpose is, and no religious text is necessarily closer to the truth than I am.
It’s clear where this is going.
However, this isn’t to say that adopting the one that makes the most sense functionally is the end of the journey. It’s only the start.
Take the two topics I talked about above. Productivity and Faith.
Let’s delve into those. We’ve established that productivity is better than no productivity. Now, is there a point where you get too much productivity? If that’s the case, should I be investing so much time into figuring out how to be maximally productive? What happens if I don’t? What happens if I do? Is there something more important I should be figuring out?
What about God? Well, what would happen if I decided to pick up a religious book and took it seriously? Would I be ridiculed for doing that? Would people call me stupid? Do I care?
What’s the worst that could happen if I did that? What’s the best that could happen? Could I discover truths about life that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise, that would allow me to lead a better quality life?
I think people should stop running away from possibilities in the pursuit of stability and consistency. I think stability and consistency are overrated and drastically limit how we experience life. I say go on adventures and test your beliefs and don’t assume that you need to ever know the answers to anything.
I’d love to one day ask people I care about, “what do you believe about this?” and have them respond to me, “I really don’t know, I’m trying this out for now and here’s what I’ve discovered.”