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.”

 

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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.

 

Flags

Flags
I was driving in my car one night, and was surprised to see 8 or 9 cars in front of me with young teens raising German flags while wearing their jerseys proudly and with so much passion.

In Lebanon, it is not uncommon to see supporters of other nations, especially Brazil or Germany. These fans parade around their towns or cities to demonstrate their passion for a particular country. I shouldn’t have been surprised since growing up in Lebanon had taught me to at one point embrace the world cup culture, and even be a part of it.

While hearing the constant beeping and yelling from my car, a thought occurred to me. There was a strange resemblance between those young, enthusiastic football supporters and those who with just as much passion would raise flags of their particular political group. The same look on their faces, the same blind passion, and the same unmistakable pride did not fill me with joy or enthusiasm, but rather depressed me.

What I saw in front of me was something I believed to be very wrong about this country. Blind passion and lack of critical thinking are the hallmarks of our problems, and while it is much more preferable to see people waving flags for sporting reasons rather than political ones, it is still disheartening to know that something about being Lebanese causes us to return to our tribal roots.

I’m not saying that rooting for a country is bad. I have been a fan of Italy for over 12 years, and I support them very passionately. But I do so quietly, and silently, without the need to display it to everyone I know. It would be much better, I think, if we practiced democracy in the same way in Lebanon.