When you look closer

A recurring phenomenon in life is the inevitable change in your perception of people, and the rule is: the more you know someone, the richer the representation you have of them, and as a result, the more your perception will have changed.

When you first meet someone, they leave a first impression. Sometimes it’s positive, other times, negative. You meet them a few more times, and still you’re not really sure if you have a perfect read on them, but you think you do and based on that judgement, the relationship either gets deeper or falls apart.

But regardless of how many times you see this person, whether it’s 5 or 50, you’re seeing a distortion of who that person is. You know absolutely nothing about their history, their background, their real thoughts and feelings, what the people who know them the most think about them, their family, their secrets, their potentially malicious intentions, their future, their dreams, their integrity, their value system, their mental health.

And yet, based on few simple heuristics and lazy thinking, you make your decision to either proceed in this relationship or not. It’s actually quite miraculous that anyone of us decides to proceed at all. It could very well be that the person beneath the facade has the worst intentions towards us and is deliberately setting up a trap.

So how do we deal with that unfortunate reality?

Be alert.

Like most things, a lot easier said than done. Watch carefully what the person does and says, and take them both very seriously, and keep track. Put your memory to good use and if you can’t do that, then document.

If we are to believe, and it’s not a stretch to believe, that we are indeed a collection of multiple personalities, then it is plausible that at any given moment one of the hidden personalities will shine through, unexpectedly, in a moment of laziness. It’s even important we notice that in ourselves. In fact, it’s especially important to notice it in ourselves.

I would think that’s exactly what self awareness is. Watching out for our behaviors and noticing when something is off. The keenness of obersevation should especially be high with other people.

People slip up all the time. Spend enough time with someone who has malicious intentions, and no matter how well they try to conceal it, they’ll slip up. It’s only a matter of time. Sometimes, if you’re naive and forgiving, you’ll let it pass. You’ll give the person the benefit of the doubt, and that’s acceptable, but when you see signs multiple times, it’s time to make a move, or you’re dinner.

It’s rare to make these decisions because things are never black or white. Dangerous people will never walk around with ‘danger’ stuck on their foreheads, and it’s a lot harder to detect certain kinds of dangers.

Some people are dangerous not because they might kill you, but because they might systematically try to cloud your judgement. Some people are dangerous, not because they want make your life hell, but because they want to make your life great, so you’ll be afraid to leave them. Some people are dangerous, not because they want something you have, but because they will work very hard to make you think that they have something you want.

Human beings are dangerous in an infinite number of ways. They’re also great in an infinite number of ways. The best skill you could probably pick up in life is gaining the ability to accurately recognise both as fast as possible. Your life depends on it.

Advertisements

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;”

Self Determination is the only way

Here’s a good lesson. Don’t ever make big life decisions that aren’t self determined. As in, don’t get into a relationship with someone if you didn’t plan it, don’t get a job if you didn’t want it, don’t hang out with friends you didn’t carefully choose.

The experience you gain from doing things that aren’t self determined are valuable, very valuable.

But there will inevitably come a point where doubts will start to show up. What you’ll automatically do is try to trace everything back to the start, to the root. And if you realise that you weren’t active at that critical point in time in seeking out what you wanted, but rather took things as they came along, then you’re in for a rude awakening.

Don’t go into a major you didn’t choose, don’t go to parties to please others, don’t pick and choose what you want to say to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, especially if what you have to say is something that needs to be said.

This isn’t advice to everyone, it’s advice  for people who have agreeable tendencies.

When you choose, you accept the burden of responsibility. That’s no easy task, but it’s worth it. That’s how you become a hero in your own story. And it’s not like you have an alternative, you’re either hero or victim.

You can either fight for the time you have like it’s the most important thing in the world, or you can give it up to other people who want it more.

An unexamined life may not be worth living, but a life not self determined is no life at all.

 

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.”

 

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.

 

Fighting with Monsters and Staring into the Abyss

‘He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby becomes a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee” Nietzsche

I’m not sure what Nietzsche meant by this quote, and while interesting to find out, is not the point of this post. I remember feeling a quiet stillness when reading it for the first time, and since then, it’s always been in the back of my mind. It’s a rare piece of language that I can read many times over, and still feel puzzled and intrigued by it.

First, let’s break it down. The quote has two parts. The first relates to fighting with monsters, while the second relates to staring into the abyss. Both the first and second contain a reflexive, mirror-like consequence.  I would interpret both as basically meaning the same thing, with the second part emphasizing the first part.

What are Monsters?

I think one of the reasons I find the Nietzsche quote really interesting is because it is true on multiple levels. It is as true for the trivial as it is for the serious. We generally have the tendency to manifest into malicious creatures when presented with a certain set of circumstances. We could call our perception of the set of circumstances the “Monster”.

One set of circumstances could be work, another could be a game, a bad habit, a relationship, or social life. A set of circumstances are external realities that exist independently of us. Our perception of these external realities influences our behaviors.

As you dig deeper, you may be able to uncover the details of each circumstance. The subjective resolution of the image of the Monster varies in size depending on what particular set of circumstances most strongly attracts you. If I have a minor tendency to play a game on my phone every now and then, it’s a minor monster. My perception of this particular circumstance is not very powerful. However, If I am binge drinking all day every day, my perception of drinking is a Major Monster.

So how does the Monster come to exist? This would depend on the interplay between our subjective perception and the external reality. Here are some features of the external reality that would give rise to the Monster.

Here are some characteristics of activities that have the potential to create a Monster.

  1. Attractive Force: Pulls you in
  2. Dangerous: Potential for Future Harm.
  3. Ambiguous: You don’t know what the future carries.
  4. Hunger: Like an organism, the activity lives or dies depending on whether you feed it.
  5. Magnitude: How powerful the activity is. An activity that has the previous 4 features but lacks any real power to affect you can only lead to a Minor Monster.

Seeking the Thrill

Most people have at least tried to seek out thrilling, adrenaline-inducing experiences to some degree. Some have tried and burnt their fingers and never tried again, while others have jumped in head first and experienced it indefinitely, and finally, some people have tried to flirt with these monsters harmlessly at first, but ultimately lost the battle.

There are many possible interpretations for why we almost universally look for Monsters in our lives. Maybe we are evolutionarily wired to look for harmful creatures and try to destroy them. It may be that our tendency to seek out thrilling experiences is only an echo of our ancestors past that manifests in us as deep, subconscious urges.

There are other explanations of course, but the reason why I would tend to go this direction is that we certainly don’t consciously choose to chase Monsters. In other words, if one was being rational, they would never subject themselves to unnecessarily harmful activities. Some people get addicted to jumping off of airplanes or breaking high-speed records on the highway. There is no rational justification for these activities as the risk/reward ratio doesn’t make any sense.

But we tend to do them anyway, because, on a very deep level, we are likely used to associating thrill with triumph. When we successfully hunted or killed dangerous animals in the past, we achieved sustenance, security, and love and admiration from the tribe. If we perceived the act of hunting animals as the only way to survive, our perception of hunting animals developed into a Monster. We became killing machines and eventually directed out power inwards towards fellow human beings.

It might be the case that only after we encountered and slaughtered animals, and developed our fighting power and capacity for harm that we embodied our ideas of the animals we were so fearful of. These same animals killed and threatened our kin and pushed us to seek out ways to become powerful. We manufactured better tools with sharp edges that mimicked the teeth and claws of our enemies. We figured out, on some level, what the requirements for successful killing are, and we accentuated them. These requirements may have been a certain degree of aggression, sharp edges, or speed. We not only imitated animals, we created an exaggerated mirror that we could use to decimate animals, not only through physical tools but through psychological conditioning. We might have turned into an amplified, ruthless version of what threatened our survival.

Perhaps people today have a deep yearning for that feeling and when they can’t find it anywhere, they create it by giving birth to a new Monster.

To recap, life circumstances, in themselves, cannot be Monsters. They are merely life circumstances, and different observers would experience the same set of circumstances differently. The Monster itself depends on the observer or the mind. The real Monster is not just a set of circumstances, it is our perception of that set of circumstances. We perceived the tiger as an imminent threat. That perception itself led us to become more powerful, violent as a response. When we “fight with monsters”, we are only really fighting with our own perceptions of reality.

Whether it’s drinking too much, or smoking too much, or killing too much, or eating too much, or gaming too much, or spending too much time on social media, or being abusive to others, we are experiencing nothing but internal battles. We are only really fighting with ourselves, and depending on what we are fighting for and depending on who we are, we either give rise to Major Monsters or Minor Monsters.

It’s a battle because the counter position always exists. Imagine being addicted to day trading, one part of you wants to get out, while the other wants to stay in. The part of you that wants to stay in no matter what the circumstances gives rise to the Monster. The day trader used the graphs and charts as tools, gets angry and motivates himself like a warrior and perceives the stock market as a fierce tiger. To the day trader, he isn’t the Monster, he’s only trying to take down the Monster to gain the admiration of the herd.

But in reality, the Monster is in his head. A part of him feeds it, while another part destroys that perception, and depending on who wins that battle, the day trader either finds a safe exit or develops his perceptions into a Major Monsters and loses.