The Lonely Race to Nowhere

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One of the most alarming and unsettling trademarks of today’s society seems to be the universal urge to be involved in some kind of race. People race to get an education, to make money, to get into relationships, to get a job, and to find happiness. Oftentimes, they end up with an education they never even wanted, money that made them more miserable, relationships that they never really wanted to get into, and jobs they hate doing. Most tragically of all, they almost never achieve happiness.

I think the main problem with this ‘racing’ approach, is how easily it tends to get mischaracterized with efficiency. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with efficiency as long as it is geared towards the right objectives and goals, but when it isn’t, there’s nothing more dangerous and damaging. Efficiency, like many other things in life, can effectively blind us. It can make us believe that our purpose is to get to a location, a vision, and downplays the importance of reflecting on why we should want to go to this location in the first place.

In general, the main culprits seem to stem from social pressures including family and friends, as well as media based ideals that advertise quick success, and immediate happiness. Many of the most popular shows on TV idealize those who achieved their dreams when they were young, and try to encourage you to do the same. I can’t think of any that promote introspection and careful thought. But regardless of what these external factors may be, the fact that we can choose to ignore them means that we ought to.

This cultural promotion, I think, gives birth to insecurity, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy and failure. For every success story, of course, there are a countless number of failures, and what happens when we only see success stories being advertised to us on a regular basis is the illusion that most people succeed.

Of course, this isn’t to say that one shouldn’t strive for success, that is the opposite of what I’m saying. I’m making the point, that to be successful, it’s essential to understand the reasons for why you are doing what you’re doing before you design the most efficient ways of doing them.

I think people can only be more successful if they truly believe in what they’re trying to accomplish. A lot of us seem to be driven to go somewhere, trying to get there as fast as we can, and what I find bizarre in these cases is that, oftentimes, the destination has nothing to do with what we really want. Many have gambled away their finances and health, their psychological well being, happiness, and compromised their relationships with family and friends to try to get to where they want to be, which paradoxically, are all of the things that they have gambled away.

Many people look for shortcuts because they believe that if they can do it faster than everyone else, then they’ll be the last ones laughing, that the joke will be on everyone else. The reality is quite different.  Trying to find such shortcuts ends up consuming most of your life.

Asking ‘why’ instead of ‘how’, being unrealistically optimistic about the things we really love instead of the things we think we should love, prioritizing the things that matter to us now instead of the things that we think will matter to us in the future, doubting everything instead of believing everything, listening to ourselves more than listening to others, are some of paradigm shift that I think need to happen.

Another problem is society’s condemnation of indecisiveness. I find that to be one of the most puzzling features of our time. Indecisiveness, of course, can be harmful if it was about things that don’t really matter. What to pick on a menu, what to get from the supermarket, which movie to watch, and what color socks to wear. These things are harmful because they take up too much time, and they won’t yield an amount of value that would make the time you spent deciding on them worthwhile.

But when it comes to deciding what you want to be in life, what you want to get out of it, and who you want to be with, and why, then surely, if there was ever a good reason to waste time, it’s to reflect on and ponder these questions as much as we feel is appropriate.

ISIS and The Psychology of Terrorism

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Terrorism is broadly defined as “the unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” Today and in the past decade, the most familiar form of terrorism is Islamic terrorism that we have known as “Al Qaeda” and most recently, “ISIS”. This isn’t to say that Islamic terrorism is the only form of terrorism that has existed. The past has seen Jewish, Christian, and even Buddhist terrorism. It should be noted, however, that the current form of Islamist terrorism is most worrying for many people due to (but not limited) the following reasons:

1) Ambition: As opposed to the old terrorism that predated Islamic terrorism, the current forms seek not only to topple governments and regimes, and seek purely political resolve, but have plans far greater and ambitious. The ultimate goal between these terrorists is to takeover the world, and Convert “Non-Muslims” or “infidels” into their religion, or alternatively, have them killed.

2) Method: The other worrying aspect about these new terrorists is the way they try to achieve their goals. They employ horrific, inhumane, and despicable acts of violence against their enemies and innocent civilians alike. There is no limit or guidelines to what they can, or cannot do. Their objective is to employ whatever means necessary to terrorize as efficiently as possible.

3) Background: It is not only people with mental disorders or poor, impoverished backgrounds who join terrorist organizations, some people who are well educated and intelligent may also do so. The man in charge of the World Trade Center bombings was one of those people.

Important Distinctions to Keep in Mind:

– It is important to make a distinction between groups of terrorists within the same belief system. For example, some terrorist groups receive popular support from their people and are very much integrated in their respective societies such as “Hamas” and “Hizballah”. In contrast, other organizations are very much isolated from society, and do not have such integration in society such as “ISIS”.

– Suicide bombings are not an exclusively Islamist conception. Two examples are a secular, nationalist group in Sri Lanka, called the LTTE, has practiced human bombings for over 20 years, and their bombs have caused killed a large number of civilians. Another example is the Japanese Kamikaze in World War II.

– Islamic teachings, or the Quran do not advocate suicide. “The Arabic term used is istishad, a religious term meaning to give one’s life in the name of Allah, as opposed to intihar, which refers to suicide resulting from personal distress. The latter form of suicide is not condoned in Islamic teachings.” (Library of Congress, 1999)

Motivation: 

There are many theories that seek to explain the motivations of these individual both from a personal, psychological level, and from a broader, sociological level. What seems to be prevalent very often is that these terrorists believe that they are saviors of society, and genuinely believe that they are fighting evil. They also gain feelings of value and self-worth from committing these acts against evil. Their lives seem to have a meaning, or purpose.

Other theories also suggest, that terrorism emerge from political repression, and injustice. That these individuals feel as though they are being alienated, and discriminated against because of their belief system. Even within the Middle East, the struggle between Shia and Sunni Islamic groups is more intense than those between the West and Muslims. Many have explained this hatred through repressive Shia governments present in both Iraq and Syria, and it is precisely when these political tensions escalate that these Islamist fundamentalists gain in strength, momentum, and numbers.

There are a number of factors, both identifiable, and unidentifiable that explain why otherwise mentally sane people choose to become terrorists. Some choose to fight for religious organizations that are engaged in a nationalistic, political struggle with less emphasis on religious fundamentalism, while others are on the opposite end of the spectrum.

The danger of ISIS and similar groups today is that they are thriving in the midst of the chaos that the region of the Middle East is seeing. The longer the destruction, war, poverty, discrimination, and displacement go on, the more fertile the breeding ground for disillusionment, violence, and hate in future generations.

There is simply no simple solution to stop this from happening. There are very few people who are against the total destruction of ISIS, and for good reason, this is a group of violent, monstrous sociopaths who are on a mission to kill and torture. They are estimated to have 10 to 20 thousand armed forces, and if military efforts are concentrated against them, it is unlikely that they will survive.

There is only the hope that future generations will be dissuaded to join terrorist militias through education, popular condemnation of violence, and knowledge that the world isn’t against them, and consequently be able to shape a future that is dominated by moderates and reformers rather than extremists and terrorists.

References:

http://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/pdf-files/Soc_Psych_of_Terrorism.pdf

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/0162-895X.00195/pdf

Battling Distractions and Creating Time

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I feel that one of the biggest challenges that we’re facing today is dealing with distractions. Every day, we are exposed to a plethora of information, most of which about things we don’t care about, some of which we do care about, but are not interested in learning about for the time being. Productivity and ability to focus are the victims of this recent phenomenon.

I say recent, because only a couple of decades ago, people weren’t exposed to a fraction of the amount of information we are. We almost create distractions every minute by opening new tabs, accessing several pages at once, until suddenly, we let ourselves become overwhelmed. Work becomes increasingly more challenging because you’ve created an entirely new world of tasks every time you click on a link, run a program, or open a new tab.

I find that this has been very difficult for me, personally, to overcome. There are several thoughts going on in my head simultaneously and my thoughts become blurred, I become less effective, and eventually fail at sticking to the script. Of course, the barrage of information and options are not the only things that distract you. It’s often that people you know may do that too. And the worst thing about being distracted by people is that you never expect it.

When you create several pages of information and tasks, the process is gradual, and while you do slowly start to realize that you’re being distracted from your main objective, the realization comes more pleasantly. It’s synonymous to ripping off a bandage slowly. When people distract you on the other hand, you’re caught off guard. You were doing something and suddenly you’re denied from proceeding with it.

Interestingly, it almost never matters if you’re being effective or ineffective, these distractions tend to bother you just the same. There are, of course, other things that can distract you from the task at hand. Appointments, running toilets, thunder, sickness, foul odors, animals, construction work, honking, games and many more. But I think most centrally, people you know and the internet make up the bulk of that distraction time, at least for me.

If you aren’t one of the many gifted people of the world who are able to supernaturally multitask 24 things at once, then perhaps reading my suggestions could help.

I’ve identified a couple of simple ways of dealing with them that have helped me tremendously.

Dealing with people:

I’ve always found it interesting how if you tell someone that you have a meeting, or class, or event, they’ll understand that they shouldn’t contact you because perhaps interrupting you in these cases would render them no benefit since you are unlikely to be able to respond.

I figured, that if that can be true of those particular situations, then why can’t it be true for a part of your leisure time that you’re spending on working, studying, or reading? I can recall several instances where doing something in my leisure time is profoundly more important to me than a lecture, meeting, or event. The idea that I should restrict distractions to things I care less about because they’re more formal in a social context never made too much sense to me.

My solution then is that I would schedule a particular time of day, every day, where I’m automatically unavailable, as if I have a meeting. Say, 1 hour. And I let people who contact me the most to know about it. For one hour a day, your phone goes on airplane mode, and the added benefit is that you know you need to make this hour count. Otherwise, the entire exercise is futile.

I like this idea because the restricted time frame, and the fact that you’re actively deterring interruption creates, in a sense – a motivating factor that forces you to focus more, and at the same time getting rid of those irritating distractions.

Dealing with information:

As for information, my solution was also simple. I used to be in the habit of opening several tabs at once, like the friend I mentioned earlier on, not to that extent of course, otherwise, I wouldn’t have felt surprised. What I do find to be extremely helpful is to structure my internet surfing time with a somewhat of a loose schedule. I say loose, because some element of randomness is necessary. Things will occur to me in the next ten minutes that haven’t yet, and creating a schedule too precise could be redundant. But a loose schedule would enable you to divide your time into different categories, tackling one or two at a time instead of 10 or 15. Thus allowing you to tackle each task effectively within the limits of your brain’s working memory.

I personally hate distractions as you might have already figured out by now, and if someone has some useful or interesting suggestions on how to get rid of them, I’d love to hear them.

Conspiracy Theories – The Problem

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Like almost everyone I’m sure, I’ve been told about and exposed to many conspiracy theories. Some made sense, of course, while others were utterly ridiculous. But all of them shared one very striking aspect. They were all inevitably unsatisfying. At least for me, here’s why.

Being exposed to a conspiracy theory usually starts with a promising premise. There is often a story, a narrative that allows you to imagine how the motive could be real, and perhaps why the facts are concealed so well. This introductory stage is interesting, you begin to think, wonder – perhaps there is something to this theory. Perhaps everyone else is deluded, so you start your investigation. You start to look for facts, and the second stage begins. .

It seems that many of facts you are discovering match the hypothesis amazingly well. Here, you start to get annoyed that you didn’t know this earlier. How could you have been so foolish? Why didn’t anyone say anything sooner? Your anger drives to you be more investigative. You begin to look for more facts to support the hypothesis. You start to slowly lose your capacity for critical judgment about this particular topic, and you forget that you’ve learned all about ‘confirmation bias’ and it’s harmful effects on reason and clear thinking. You start to loosen your standards for what should count as ‘evidence’ and what shouldn’t. You start to interpret numbers and statistics in a way that would always support your theory.

You then reach stage three. You’re now feeling more empowered with this information, almost like a prophet who’s on a mission to spread the truth to those who don’t know. And you do just that, you start with friends, family, acquaintances – anyone willing to listen. Some will entertain your proposition, some will even feel you’ve enlightened them, but most will laugh it off. You then argue, trying to recall facts and figures. Referring to everything you can that had you convinced in the first place. You block out what they tell you because they’re obviously wrong. They haven’t read the facts. They don’t know about the articles, they can’t, they’re not supposed to. If they weren’t convinced by the end of the argument, you are slightly disappointed that you have failed to convince them, but then move on to greener pastures.

After a while, you feel you need more reinforcement, and here, you enter stage four. You seek out people who share similar thoughts, and begin to share information. You quickly realize that they already know a lot of what you know. Some know a little more, and others much more. You feel energized, and motivated to continue and learn more.

After you build relationships within that community, your beliefs are reinforced. You feel more reassured and confident. You may even feel slightly elitist in that you possess knowledge that only a few number of people do. Time then passes, and slowly your passion, interest, commitment, and dedication reach a critical stage.

You’ve now entered stage number 5, the one that divides conspiracy theorists from everyone else. There are three alternative modes of action that you can take.

One, you will proceed with passion and venom and continue to build on your knowledge about the subject and try to reach out to more people.

Two, you will take a few steps back and rethink about how smart it really is to really delve into this, and you slowly start to lose interest and get occupied with other things in life until the matter doesn’t concern you entirely.

Three, you neither back out nor delve in, you only retain the knowledge you already have that will inevitably slowly fade with time. You don’t actively try to preach what you’ve learned, but you do so passively. If asked about the subject, you will reach into the depths of your mind and retrieve whatever information you can find, but you will do so based on social context more so than a powerful motivation to recruit more people to your way of thinking.

Based on my life experience, these are the different paths you can take, and what you choose will depend of course on your personality more than anything else (the objective validity of you beliefs). What I have always disliked about conspiracy theories is that I generally felt that they were potentially a horrible source of anger and despair and really no source of happiness and fulfillment.

Some conspiracy theories might be true, I do not deny that. Some are quite sophisticated and intelligent, but the problem with conspiracy theories is that by their definition, they cannot lead you to the truth. Indeed, if you are interested in the pursuit of truth, you will find that conspiracy theories are unsatisfying simply because their nature is that they cannot be proved. I suspect that it would be ignorant to assume that everyone is interested in the truth. I believe that this is simply not true. I find that a lot of people use conspiracy theories as emotional reassurance, a way to connect to a society, or merely a pursuit of intellectual interest. Some do it wittingly, and others unwittingly.

I think learning about conspiracy theories is a fun intellectual exercise and could make for great conversation with people, but I would prefer to leave it there. My reasoning is not only will you be unable to prove its validity, but the mere belief in certain ideas could be debilitating and destructive. If you believed some kind of theory that is fundamentally opposed to the way society works for example, you’re likely going to feel resentment, hatred, and distrust towards that society, and there’s little benefit that could accrue from that.

Instead, if some of us are naturally inclined to search for truth, I feel it would be a lot more beneficial and conducive to a sustainable, healthy, and fulfilling existence if we focused our energy towards looking for truths about matters that can actually be verified and confirmed.

problem: i think its interesting at first but then becomes useless.

The Golden Rule Alternative

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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.’

Curiosity

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“The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind, is curiosity.” Edmund Burke

Curiosity for me is an overwhelming sensation. It’s a sudden burst of energy, an old acquaintance, a dear friend. If it leaves me, so will my purpose in life.

When people describe their attitudes towards learning with adjectives such as “insatiable” and “voracious”, it’s hard for me not grin in agreement. It’s a universal feeling, and I think that’s what makes it so powerful. My concern is how sometimes we let more unimportant matters in life get in the way of it. There are so many distractions, so much mindless, addictive, superficial entertainment that numbs our minds and silences our curiosity.

To read about a subject you’re passionate about not only takes passion and curiosity, it takes patience and time. Some have taken advantage of our natural tendency to be attracted to images and highly engaging quick entertainment that substitutes for introspection and learning. I don’t say this as a criticism of culture, or the times, but as a criticism of myself and those like me. I used to be more curious when I was younger, but let my curiosity become subdued by immediate entertainment, choosing to boost my endorphin levels instead of searching for insight.

Thankfully, I have taken steps to eliminate this kind of cheap, unrewarding entertainment out of my life. I have seen people take drastic steps such as going without internet for a prolonged period of time, or putting their phone away. This, to me, is no solution at all. It only makes the problem even worse. Imagine an alcoholic trying to kick the habit by promising himself to stop drinking for a week, then going back to it. I think the better way is to eliminate dependency, not to take a vacation from it.

In other words, I believe taking permanent steps are the things that stick in the long run, because well, they’re permanent. I used to spend a lot of time playing games on my smartphone so I decided to remove all games off of my phone. In my previous post, I talked about decision points. This is one in particular that has had a dramatic affect on me. If I wanted to play a game, it would require me to search for one, and then download it. The fact that I need to take steps to play the game makes it easier for me to not want to.

The other reason I don’t believe in putting your smartphone away or going offline is because I think we’re truly lucky to be living in this era of information. It isn’t stressed enough how much access to knowledge we have. It’s unprecedented, amazingly easy and really quite remarkable. We have the ability to find information on absolutely anything in seconds. Not long ago, this was considered science fiction. To turn away from this technology is ludicrous, especially when we are more than capable of benefiting immensely from it.

The problem with distractions isn’t only that they waste time, but they kill curiosity. The amount of energy we have to learn and think is finite, and distractions are effective at draining out that energy. They are effectively wasting your time and energy. Certainly, some games have been shown to improve mental sharpness as well as shows and movies, I am not referring to those games that require you to actively use your mind. I’m specifically referring to games and shows, and game shows that don’t.

The beauty of curiosity for me, is that it exists in everyone and yet is the same in no one. a part of being human is to  have many inherent flaws that do well to hurt our growth and potential. Even some of the traits that we consider in high esteem can be damaging to our well-being. If you love too much, you can be blinded. If you trust too much, you can be misled. If you are too kind, you might be taken advantage of, if you are too brave, you may hurt yourself. Curiosity is one of the rare things that cannot be harmful when used in excess.

If you’re anything like me, and the infamous phrase, “Curiosity killed the cat” was wandering through your mind, it would interest you to read this interesting post that attempts to track down the origin of the phrase. Apparently, It was originally “Care killed the cat”, a line in a Shakespearean comedy before it was recently  changed. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/curiosity-killed-the-cat.html

    “Curiosity is the lust of the mind.” Thomas Hobbes

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.