It Ain’t What You Don’t Know

A classic Mark Twain quote that I love, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so” contains in it a transcendent kind of truth.

The world we live in is a place of chaos and uncertainty regulated by our mental models of it. Our mental models are the real space we occupy. Two people can live in the exact same geographical location but are separated apart by endless oceans when it comes to how they perceive the world.

To be able to function properly, we need to update our mental models regularly, accommodating the changes around us. It’s this flexibility that allows us to be useful human beings to our societies.

However, while it’s easy enough to make small changes to our mental model when it comes to adjusting minute details in work or in our personal life, it’s infinitely more difficult to do so when it comes to our grand models.

Our grand models tell us about how the world is, and more importantly, how we ought to behave in the world. When something disrupts our grand model, all the other pieces seem to fall apart. Naturally, we’ll try our best to keep our grand models intact., even if it comes at the expense of our most valuable asset, time.

For this reason, it’s unwise to engage in argumentation with people about their grand models. I used to be oblivious to the implications of my arguments with people in the past, I used to see them as no more than opportunities to engage in an intellectual exercise, a game of wits, and nothing more. Afterall, how could anyone of us be so sure that our grand models are true?

But the story is deeper than that.

When we commit to a plan that will guide our behaviour for any length of time, such as a job or a relationship, we must do everything we can to maintain a certain level of coherence. Otherwise, life will stop moving forward, and we become perpetually stuck in a state of analysis paralysis.

However, it’s all too important to make sure to be aware of exactly what we’re getting ourselves into. The details, such as short-term pleasure and reward can only keep us going for so long before we start questioning the very roots of our commitment.

Why are we doing this job? Why are we in this relationship? What are the things that we need to believe to keep us involved and engaged and attentive?

And so, as a rule, the longer people are engaged in a certain way of life, the more difficult it is for them to track back, to rethink the very foundations they are resting upon.

It’s not just people who are old and set in their ways that are susceptible to find it difficult to rethink their foundations, it can start happening at a very young age. What it comes down really, is responsibility.

The more people depend on you, the less you’re inclined to update your grand model, and the more likely it is that you’ll justify your thinking with sunk costs. The thought process might go like this “I can’t just decide to re-evaluate how I think the world is, or how I should be acting towards others, that’ll just paralyze me, I’m in way too deep. Too many people depend on me, everything is on the line, my happiness, my future, my self-respect. Besides, I’ve already spent so much time doing this, how can I just get up and quit? What the hell am I going to do?”

The trouble, of course, with that kind of thinking is that it fails to achieve the exact objective it tries so desperately to protect, practicality. The longer you continue to live in discordance with how you truly are, or how you truly see the world. The longer you try to deceive yourself, the more difficult it will be to achieve any practical benefit at all

Your life turns into a hellish game where you become your own malevolent, crude dictator, forcing yourself to ignore everything you’ve learned, in service of a fake ideal that you no longer want.

Life becomes absurd, and in the words of Orwell in 1984, the grand mental models of your life mutate into something similar to the haunting slogans “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength;”

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To Bear Almost Any How

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Friedrich Nietzsche

There’s a book I once read about entrepreneurship called “Millionaire Fastlane”.  Mind the corny title, it’s actually a good book packed with a lot of insights about what’s required to become successful and some pretty sobering realizations about how society is set up, and how most people aren’t thinking clearly when it comes to wealth creation. He also makes a point about “passion” that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. He said that the market doesn’t really care about your passion. The idea is, if you’re going to start a business, think about fulfilling a market need first. If you’re passionate about something that isn’t satisfying a need, you’re going to fail.

And that sounds like legitimate advice, except there’s another side to the story. Whatever you’re going to do in life, whether it’s starting a business or becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a swimmer, you’re going to spend most of your time doing the job. If you’re not loving what you’re doing, and I stress loving here, then you’re going to turn your back whenever things start to get tough. And invariably, things will get tough.

There is no career choice that is absent of challenges, and the question then becomes, why go on? What’s motivating you? Is it possible to be completely motivated by the prize?

For some people, sure. Obviously. The author of the book I just mentioned is a case in point. But he started from humble beginnings and had an obsession with expensive luxury cars. Expensive toys like red shiny Ferarris were things he dreamed about every night ever since he was a little boy.

The materialistic dream was meaningful to him. But is it meaningful to everyone?

Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone will assume that others are living the same kind of story, it’s easy to overlook something like passion when you’re a certain kind of person in a certain kind of situation. But there is a lot to be said about the value of doing something you love.

To take that idea a little further, it’s not just doing something you love, it’s doing something meaningful to you. It needs to be intrinsically motivating, and for some people, it needs to have some kind of external reward and social validations as well. It needs to tap into your strengths and tendencies at a fundamental level.

If you’re engaged in an activity that grabs you for a living, the idea of becoming successful at what you do becomes a lot more attainable.

So what stops people from doing what they really want to do? Other people. 

In”Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl, a wonderful idea is put forth. Conformism is doing what others do, and totalitarianism is doing what others tell you to do. And either of the two paths would inevitably result in “existential vacuum” since the necessary process of self-actualization is never attained.

But we’re still conflicted. Most people want to be successful, they want to be happy, they want to achieve these goals first and foremost, and oftentimes, it seems that achieving those things are incompatible with doing what they love. So they sacrifice the latter for the former, hoping by doing so, they would finally achieve “success” or “happiness”.

Frankl’s message – one really worth considering is that we’re thinking about success and happiness in the wrong way. They aren’t goals that we can reach, they’re by-products that we might be lucky enough to find, and are more likely to find when we pursue something that’s meaningful. The same way you can’t force someone to laugh or to be inspired or to fall in love, you can’t force yourself to become successful or happy. In fact, the more you try to force yourself towards these goals, the less attainable they become.

 

The Ego Death

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.”

 

Manuevering Through Chaos

Chaos has always been something that interested me, The thing with chaos is that everyone experiences it to different degrees, and everyone responds to it in different ways. My concept of chaos is, of course, relative. I used to think that organization was the remedy of chaos. That if you put things in order, you would free up enough focus for more pertinent things. I believed that being less chaotic meant being more laser focused.

That may not be so true. While being more organized does allow for efficiency, there seems to be another dimension that organization cannot solve. Imagine a large circle, compose of an inner solid circle and an outer circle. The inner circle is the first stage of chaos. Combatting it involves having a schedule, understanding what to prioritize and when, and implementing a system that ensures consistency. And don’t get me wrong, that will get you very far. But the outer layer is peripheral chaos.

Peripheral chaos relates to direction. This is the more serious, yet subtle kind of chaos. You are unlikely to suffer from it in the short run as projects will be completed and stakeholders satisfied. However, the general direction you are taking yourself is unclear. Knowing what to aim for is the logical next step. Of course, what you aim for evolves with time. What you aim for today is not the same as what you are going to aim for tomorrow.

You can then, easily make the argument that it is futile to take your aims very seriously. If you were certain they were going to change, then it would be a waste of time to orient your life in a way that seeks to accommodate an ever-changing destination. For one thing, I do not think this is a powerful argument, and I will explain why I think that is the case. However, I do think it is an objection that ought to be taken very seriously and examined further.

The reason why it’s a bad argument is that the alternative is definite chaos. Going back to the inner circle, if you chose to stop planning because plans generally had the proclivity to change, then you’d never accomplish anything. It’s a minimum pre-requisite to achieving what you seek out to achieve. But consider that the most effective plans are those that are able to accommodate change. In other words, flexible daily plans that allow for a little bit of chaos but still end up accomplishing most of what you had planned to do is superior to both having unflexible plans or no plans at all.

The outer circle then should be tackled in the same way. I disagree with having a definite, definable long-term goal. If you can be that granular with what you want, you wouldn’t know what to do once you’ve achieved it. Your long-term goal, as a matter of fact, should be anything but concrete. Instead, it should be as concrete as possible, but no more. It should be more about lifestyles rather than material things, it should be about your physical health rather than that of numbers on a screen, it should be about a state of mind, rather than a state of power.

You do not have full control of your psychological health or even your physical health. And most people have very little control over the way they live day to day. Those are real challenges, and clearly, the most worthwhile, because absent any of them,  the importance of any other superficial accomplishment would pale in comparison. And yet, most of the focus we have are geared towards achieving things that are farther out of our control, and that, even if we achieve them, will not satisfy our deepest urges.

This, of course, runs counter to the “success” literature that advises people to set fixed goals. I believe this is akin to having fixed daily schedules. It is routinely violated, and incompatible with everyday life.

Similarly, to find the right balance in maneuvering through chaos, I think we should consult ourselves over an extended period of time. If you were asked to articulate your long-term vision today, it would be different from what you wanted 6 months ago, and certainly different from what you will want 6 months from now.

There are obvious reasons of course why that is the case. Your location will drastically have an effect, so will the people you interact with on a daily basis, what you expose yourself to, and how you live. Any change to any of these would expectedly change your general outlook on life.

To constantly beg the question across time, and attempt to coherently articulate it, is critical. You will recognize with time, what the constants are. You will recognize what the variables are. The outer layer of the circle of chaos will become a little more transparent. Beneath it, truths will begin to emerge. Not all truths, of course, because there is a lot more chaos than there are truths. And there is definitely more chaos than there is your personal energy to combat the chaos itself.

But some kind of truth, even if low in resolution, will contribute to learning about higher resolution truths. The only danger to this project emerges when you start to question the notion of truth itself.

 

Decision Points – That Extra Push

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Decision points are smartly engineered scenarios that force you to stop and think about what you’re doing. I learned the term from Behavioral Economics and really think it’s fascinating, and extremely helpful. The idea, put simply, is that your mind basically has two systems. The first is responsible for your intuition and instinct. It’s automatic and fast, and operates by using heuristics. Your behavior is molded and improved upon through practice. When you play sports, dance, or drive a car well enough, it takes over and is responsible for the extraordinary calculations that you’re able to make in a very short amount of time.

The second system, as described by the brilliant Psychologist Kahneman in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, is the deliberate system. It’s what’s responsible for conscious thought, and is characterized as being slow and careful. It would be responsible for doing things like studying for an exam, or making a to-do list.

Decision points then interrupt your system 1, and force your system 2 into action. Why would you want that happen? Consider this example. You’re sitting at home one day, watching your favorite TV series, and munching on your favorite snack, let’s say it’s a giant bag of Doritos. While watching the show, the process of eating becomes automatic as in you aren’t consciously aware of every chip that you’re eating. Because your System 1 is in charge, you don’t have to worry about the chips and can focus your attention instead on whether or not Walter White is finally going to get what’s coming for him.

What usually happens in this scenario, and many other similar scenarios, is you would tend to overeat according to your own standards. What I mean by that, is if I asked you beforehand whether or not you think you should eat a whole bag of Doritos, you’d probably say no. These are you own standards, and automatic processes do a good job of disrupting it.

You would surpass the point of eating until you are full because your thoughts aren’t focused on how hungry you are, or aren’t. It’s not surprising that a lot of dietary advice out there would suggest you eat without watching television. It keeps you more aware of how much you’re eating, and that’s good. But I think there’s a better solution, and I also think you’ll agree with me.

Eating while watching TV is a pleasure in life, and it should never be substituted for anything. This is where decision points come in. The first thing you would need to do is instead of grabbing the entire bag of chips, pour a bit of it into a bowl. Alternatively, eat a smaller bag. The reason this helps is that studies have shown that we are less likely to eat 5 bags of something, than eat 1, even if the 1 bag has the exact same quantity as the 5 bags combined.

This, I think, is truly amazing. What’s happening here is that every time you finish from 1 bag, you’re forcing yourself to make a decision point, “Should I open the next bag or have I had enough?” The reason I think this is so insightful is because it can be applied to so many different areas of life that have to do with discipline and control. Here are some from the top of my mind.

Say you’re trying to cut down on drinking, you can apply the same principle. To force yourself into a decision point, think about making your cups smaller. Maybe you’re a heavy smoker, and you want to cut down on smoking? Use more boxes with less cigarettes in each box, or smoke smaller cigarettes. Say you were watching too much TV and needed to force yourself to focus more? Set an alarm that would go off at the end of each episode. What all of these situations do is that they force your System 2 into an action. And as it turns out, that brief moment of intervention can go a long way to helping you stay disciplined.

Telling ourselves we need to something is easy, but forcing ourselves to do it is usually not. Oftentimes, we find ourselves really motivated at the start but see that motivation wane off as time progresses and routines kick in. It’s easy to stay focused and disciplined in the short run, but the challenge is to to maintain it, otherwise, there’s no point in trying in the first place.

I think decision points are a very powerful tool, if used correctly, and cleverly to be that extra push that you need to stay focused, motivated, and disciplined.

Writing Things Down

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For a lot of people, this won’t come as news to them, but for many others, it will be life-changing. I remember a time not too long ago when I was the least organized person I knew. I was constantly missing deadlines, forgetting to do activities I promised I’d do, and unable to stick to any plans I made. My life was pretty chaotic. Strangely enough, I wasn’t really miserable. I still managed to somehow get by. My lack of organization didn’t kill me, but it severely crippled me.

The worst thing was I never really thought there was a problem to begin with. Sure, people closest to me would sometimes hint that I should be a little more organized every now and then but my laid back attitude was the perfect weapon to resist those criticisms. I listened idly as their words glided by, and despite the fact that there were many areas of my life were taking a hit, they still weren’t enough to wake me up.

Interestingly, the day I did wake up didn’t come as a result of a dramatic event that happened in my life that forced me to rethink how I was living. It was actually out of pure boredom and curiosity that I decided to Google search ways to become more organized.

It was then that I was exposed to a great book by David Allen called “Getting Things Done Fast”. I read some reviews and really liked what I was hearing, so to speak. I decided to go pick up a copy the very same day. The amazing thing about the book was that what was being preached was so simple yet so profound. I took away a lot from the book, but the main thing that really stuck with me and is a major part of how I live my life today was simply to write things down.

I found my medium which was my smartphone. And I tried really hard to make it a habit to write things down. Any idea I had, anything I needed to do or buy, any person I needed to see, and any events I needed to attend, I wrote it all down. Yes, to those of you who have been doing this their whole lives, I finally learned that keeping a diary was actually very useful.

The general idea was simple. Your working memory can only process so much information, and every day, you are bombarded by tons of different things to remember and retain. And each of those things had different levels of importance, and deadlines. You simply could not keep track of everything efficiently, and if you tried, you’d end up feeling mentally exhausted and supremely inefficient. This was such a revelation to me, and I remember being really excited when writing things down actually started yielding results. I felt I had so much more energy and time.

The reason why I never picked up the habit sooner was because as a young teen, I thought that wasn’t a cool way to live. That being so organized was something you just do when you’re a grown up, and never think about when you’re younger. And that conviction was so strong that it stayed with me, for years, well into my adult life. Old habits truly do die hard, and this was one of the hardest habits I’ve had to kick.

After I got into the habit of writing things down, I found myself becoming much more organized. In fact, I became somewhat obsessed with the idea. I tried to find to research what the best apps out there were, and I still do till this day. I learned to prioritize more, to understand what things really are important, and what things just aren’t. It was a moment in my life when I learned to grow up and I’m thankful that it came at a time when I was in a safe learning environment, and not out in the real world.

So if you don’t already, write things down. It works.

How to Live with Regret

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I’ll never forget the advice I was once given about regret. A friend of mine told me after we had been talking about the countless hours just wasting time and energy on things that weren’t important, “Never regret anything, because everything that’s good in your life is a result of your past actions, good and bad.” I agreed at the moment, because it made me feel better about myself. But when I thought about it a little more carefully,I realized there was a bit more to it than that.

For me, regret is the ultimate learning experience. If you regret something you’ve done, you’re likely to try to avoid doing it again in the future. Even if you regret the fact that you didn’t do something, missed a great opportunity, you’re also likely to actually try do those things the next time around. In contrast, if you live with no regret, if you believe that everything you’ve done, good and bad, are all contributors to your happiness now, then there’s no room for improvement. You’ve created a limit for your personal growth that is molded by the effects of the actions of your past.

I think there are two different types of regret that most of us experience. Call them ‘good regret’ and ‘bad regret’. Good regret is what I’ve described above. If you’ve made a wrong decision that in a situation where you should have made the right decision given the knowledge that you had at that point, then that’s good regret. It’s good because you can learn from it; it can teach you to make a better decision the next time you face a similar problem. It will make you aware of the fact that you do possess what’s required to make the right decision.

There is, however, bad regret. This is when you make a bad decision in a situation where you couldn’t have made a better decision given your knowledge at the time. In other words, you couldn’t have known better. For example, say you were playing a physical sport two years earlier that you loved. In one of the games, you end up hurting yourself really badly, and now, you can’t play sports anymore, and end up regretting that you played that game, or trying harder than you should have. In this case, it’s bad because if you could theoretically go back in time, you would have still done the same thing given the amount of knowledge you had.

An example of good regret, conversely, is if you spent months binge drinking and having fun without any consideration towards your studies or fulfilling whatever goals you’ve set forth for yourself. The idea is that you did have the knowledge at the time to be more aware of what you were doing, but chose not to do it anyway. I think it’s good if you regret those conscious choices because you’re now feeling a sense of responsibility towards towards making up for lost time, and avoiding making those same mistakes again in the future.

It’s also good to regret living your life a particular way you shouldn’t be living, according to other people’s expectations. it’s good to regret not being more assertive, more brave, more proactive. It’s good to regret not being more organized, more empathetic, more determined. It’s great to regret those things because you give yourself the opportunity to become those things now.