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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How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

The title, a spin on a popular, self-improvement book, is not meant to contradict Carnegie’s work. It touches on a problem I think many of us are facing, however.

There exists a need to be liked. Call it agreeableness. And for many reasons, being agreeable can be very useful in getting what you want in business and relationships. People are obviously more likely to respond to someone who treats them well, rather than someone who doesn’t.

Agreeableness has a dark side though. Insincerely smiling, noding, and acting as if what the other person has to say is important to you, will turn you into a bitter, resentful person. Not being confrontational, open, and honest with others will substitute long-term happiness with short-term gains.

People take your words seriously. If you don’t take the risk of sounding blunt, forward, or even rude, you may inadvertently conceal your true thoughts and feelings. In any relationship, this will build resentment over time.

Being an asshole for the sake of being an asshole is a bad thing. However, being a good person for the sake of being a good person will turn you into an asshole.

Going out of your way to gain the approval of others is not a selfless thing to do. It’s an egoistic thing to do.

Why? Bad motive.

When you are trying to please others, you are usually thinking about yourself. You are thinking about how to best avoid conflict in the present in order to preserve your own feelings of well-being – similar to how a student would lie to his teacher in order to avoid punishment. In another word, hedonism.

There is nothing wrong with hedonism. Everyone should try to think for themselves and figure out what value system (if any) resonates with them. Hedonism is a set of beliefs, or maybe just one, that practically holds for a lot of people. And I would say it’s a deeply ingrained belief. It is not a by-product of the modern economy, it is the cause of it.

People respond naturally to hedonistic values. They intuitively make sense. Why they make sense to us is a different matter. I would suspect that it has something to do with our lizard brain, the ‘happy feeling’ hungry side of us. I will not go into this.

But there is something to be said about honor and truth, concepts that have been discarded from our new world like rotting leftover food. There isn’t much practical use for feeling a sense of duty for anyone or anything. It certainly doesn’t pay in the short run, and may never pay off in the long run. It’s a bad investment.

And yet when you do adopt values such as honor and truth, it feels right. You ‘just’ know you did the right thing whenever you’ve told the truth. It’s something that has constantly fascinated with me over time. Why does self-respect, self-esteem increase when you tell the truth and go down when you don’t?

When we grow up, our opinions are largely shaped by our friends, immediate family members, and society through various forms of media. Not all of these subgroups, or elements within these subgroups have one ideology or system of beliefs. They are usually variable on any level of analysis. Oftentimes, they are self-contradictory beliefs. But no matter, everything will somehow seep its way in and influence us in one way or another.

For this reason, I think it’s important to question the values underpinning our beliefs. We often discover that what we’ve programmed to do, what we’ve been conditioned to do, is often not what we really want to do, and not what we ought to do.

Sacrificing short-term happiness and stability for long-term happiness and integrity might be the best choice we can make. It’s also the most difficult.

 

The Golden Rule Alternative

golden

One of the first things you were probably taught as a child is to be courteous, and nice to others. It’s generally a good rule to live by. You’re far more likely to be a likable person if you were good to other people, and tried your best to not hurt their feelings, but is there a limit to how nice you should be? Is there a point where you can be too nice for your own good?

Some people seem to think so. They would argue that if you are too nice; then you are making yourself vulnerable to being taken for a ride. People will try to abuse your good character, and try to profit from it. While this may be true to a large extent, I don’t agree entirely with that premise in all situations.

An unfortunate fact is that most people don’t put enough effort in selecting the people they want to be nice to. If you’ve ever had anyone become angry with you because of something other people have to them, or if you have ever taken out your anger on someone because other people have upset you, then you probably already know someone who’s guilty of not putting enough effort.

I suppose that people tend to get busy with other things, and a lot of their focus is centered on their work and not enough on the people they interact with on a daily basis. They may adopt a friendly, cheerful disposition, and approach a group of people they don’t know too well who don’t reciprocate the friendly attitude. This negative response will undoubtedly affect their mood, and it will be reflected harshly and unjustly against the next person they encounter, who almost always, turns out to be someone they do care about.

The person I’m describing could be someone you know, or they can be you. In any case, I believe there are two areas that need attention. First, there needs to be some kind of realization that this doesn’t have to happen. Meaning if one puts more effort into being aware with who they interact, and how they interact with them, then many unfortunate situations where the wrong person gets the short end of the stick can be eliminated.

Second, there has to be a conscious decision to become adept at customizing relationships. In the beginning of the post, I asked if it was true that there was such a thing as being too nice for your own good. If there is an absence of customization, then yes, there is. If customization does exist, then there needn’t be such a thing as being too nice for your own good. What I mean by customization, is make a conscious effort to tailor your behavior and attitudes according to the people you intend to interact with.

What some of us tend to, it seems, is homogenize our behavior with little variability with a large number of people. I believe this is harmful for two reasons. The people who are good to you, and deserving of kindness are mistreated while those who are undeserving are indulged.

For some people, being too nice is never a burden, but a privilege. Thus, I don’t believe that making a concerted effort to be more of an asshole is ever a useful exercise. Instead, I believe it would be more useful and just if that effort were geared towards customizing your attitudes according to people. Some people are truly blessed with this skill. I know quite a few of them. They are extremely efficient at knowing exactly who they should be good to, and they shouldn’t be good to. It comes naturally to them. They don’t even have to make a conscious effort to think about it.

For others, it doesn’t come so naturally. It can actually appear confusing and unsettling when they don’t get the positive reactions that they were expecting. And it’s only because they’re nature is purer and more trusting. The Golden Rule states that you should treat others the way you expect to be treated. Despite being the best rule that there is and certainly the most acclaimed, it doesn’t really make much sense to me in all contexts.

If you wanted to be treated nicely, and you treated everyone else nicely indiscriminately, then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. My rule isn’t simpler than the Golden Rule, but perhaps can at times be more effective. Perhaps consider this one as an alternative in some cases.’Treat others in a way that you think they deserve to be treated.’

Judgment

JudgmentI can recall several moments, somewhat vaguely, when was I feeling very surprised and even confused by the behavior of some people. If you consider the fact the every single person can only experience life through their own biased point of view, it’s not too difficult to see why people are often judgmental. What I’m interested in, however, is how societies become judgmental. How particular modes of behavior are accepted in some countries while looked down upon and frowned upon others. There is, without a doubt, a behavior relativism in play here. Every culture operates within specific norms that have been randomly, or perhaps not randomly, been created throughout a very large interval of time.

How or why these customs or accepted behaviors came about is an interesting question. I have seen some Asian people chew with their mouths wide open, creating a rather distracting sound. It’s very off putting for likely anyone who has been raised in a culture that particularly teaches against this kind of behavior. I did discover, however, that this way of eating was to signal feelings of satisfaction and appreciation for the food. It doesn’t really make it easier to tolerate, but it does ease the suspicion that you might have of the other person intentionally being rude.

While having a conversation with an Indian person, I was asked to explain something and while I did, I couldn’t help but notice he was nodding his head from side to side as if to signal disapproval. I was about to stop, but then quickly realized that it was his way of acknowledging what I was saying. It was the equivalent of nodding up and down. It was difficult for me to communicate to him while looking directly at his head movements without feeling slightly confused. Overcoming years of social conditioning can seem like an impossible task.

And this was about very mundane things, like chewing and acknowledging, and yet to my mind there was a very precise ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way of doing these things. I wouldn’t consciously admit to it in that I wouldn’t acknowledge that the proper way to give someone a sign of approval would be to nod your head up and down, likewise, I wouldn’t say that the correct way to chew would be with your mouth closed. It is really all relevant, and most people know that. And yet, when actually faced with a situation that tested my tolerance, I realized that it wasn’t east at all to accept a completely opposite way of doing something.

This brings me to my thought about judgment. Fundamentally cultures, and as a result, people follow habits that are passed down to them by their preceding generations, and when exposed to new habits, they will feel the inclination to be judgmental. The reason is pretty simple. If you’ve been told that two plus two equals four is a truth, and then one day this assumption is challenged, you will likely get very agitated. Mathematical truths aren’t distinguishable from cultural truths, or moral truths in our mind. When we believe something to be the truth, no matter what it is, we will find it very difficult to denounce or suddenly undermine it.

This, in fact, must necessarily be true, otherwise, stubbornness could not possibly exist. The challenge then is to be aware of this fact, and force ourselves to distinguish between real truths and relative truths. If the effort is not consciously exerted, it would be easy to become judgmental and intolerant. Indeed, I would even suspect that people who are racist are mentally lazy, they are unwilling to exert that conscious effort for whatever reason. In other words, the smarter a person is, the more likely they are to challenge their initial impressions and the less likely they are to be racist.

Money Problems

money problemsThings that we consider self destructive can be placed in a very long list for many different reasons. Among many of these vices is a common theme, addiction.

Nothing, as far as I know, destroys our autonomy and control as much as it. Any recovering drug addict, gambler, or obese person can testify to this. When a want dominates our thinking and goals negatively then it can be the most self destructive force in our lives.

Money, like drugs and food, has the ability to cloud our thinking and dominate our desires. Many people set their goals according to how much money they can make, and make stressful life choices in order to make a more of it even if they don’t really need it.

That last statement I think deserves attention in particular. To lose the ability to make the rational choice between different choices based on clear risk reward scenarios is very dangerous. This can characterize addiction to a large extent, which makes it a taboo.

But why isn’t the greed for money taken under the same light? Why is gambling a vice to many people, but wasting one’s health and happiness to make money not considered so. Just like how hard drugs are considered evil very broadly for its adverse affects on our well being, shouldn’t money be considered so as well?

What immunizes money from the discussion? The reasons that come to mind is that the people that have the most of it have a grave interest in maintaining its importance, and they have the power and means to exercise that will. The way they can do so extends from media manipulation to direct bribery, but the means are certainly very powerful.

What’s more is that people are often unaware of this, and this can be an even bigger problem. People don’t usually think there’s any issue with this subject. This lack of awareness is exactly what makes the addiction most deadly.

The only thing more dangerous to your health than having a disease is being unaware of it.

Another reason money has broken free from the shackles of wide public criticism is that money’s hazardous effects have a much longer timeline.

Much like smoking, the problems of money addiction are only seen after a long time in most cases. Drugs on the other hand have a much shorten time period before you see the undesired effects.

A final reason is that there’s a very shady line between what amount of money a person needs to sustain a happy lifestyle and how much he wants for the sole purpose of greed. Ask 10 people how much money they think is enough for them to live comfortably and you’ll get 10 different answers. I know, I’ve tried it.

This is a problem because trying to limit one’s desired income would immediately provoke ‘communism allergies’ and fear from loss of freedom. Neither of these are necessary consequences in either case.

Whatever the reason may be, we can’t solve it on a global scale. I suppose that the best we can do, and there is much satisfaction in this for me, is to be aware of the nature of money and try to orient our goals in a way that is less dependent on it. To live a fulfilled, happy, and memorable life has very little to do, in my opinion, with how many zeros there are in your bank account.

Based on the above premise, it seems foolish then to ever prioritize money above all else. The biggest challenge, however, is to try and coexist with a society that does.