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Opinion psychology

A Brief History of Madness

In the previous post, The Narcissistic Personality of Our Time, I discussed the trade-off that the modern individual must face when isolating himself from his cultural roots.  

The critique that Lasch presented in A Culture of Narcissism is not towards isolated behaviors that aim to better oneself, but the belief that the combination of multiple autophile behaviors will be an inadequate substitute for traditional communities and social contracts (that asked the individual to direct their libidinal energy outwards, away from the ego).

When this was done in the past, it grounded people and gave them a sense of humility. Today’s self-centered society believes that it is the community that owes them something. And unwittingly, the modern narcissist worships new forms of religion. In the modern world, as Harari points out in Homo-Deus, it is not so much the cult leaders or religious leaders that are worshipped, but the technologists in Silicon Valley that are promising the next big breakthrough that will be the cure of all cures.

In the end, people must worship something. The self is a poor candidate, since too much self-love can lead to megalomania and delusional ideas (Secondary Narcissism). Self-love does not perform the function of a drug, it does not give people a sense of security. So when people turn their attention on something else to worship, or perhaps someone else, they are in a way, protecting themselves from psychological harm. They are blocking energy from flowing towards the self, they are standing in the way of their own narcissism.

The unfortunate truth is that human beings cannot choose to worship nothing and have a healthy sense of self. At least that is the suggestion behind Freud’s theory of narcissism. And the problem that no choice of worship is not without its problems. In the culture of the therapeutic, the problem is propagated as more people become convinced that the cure to their problems is self-understanding; they debilitate themselves. 

Psychology makes the claim that you should understand yourself, or in ancient philosophy speak, “know thyself”. Yet no psychologist has not admitted to the complexity of the self, its dynamism, and elusiveness. This is a clear double-blind. 

Nietzsche, long before the advent of psychotherapy, understood the importance of the religious instinct. That is why he created Zarathustra, a Zoroastrian prophet, who came to preach the doctrine of no divinity, in Biblical style. After Freud psychoanalyzed away the idea of God, his disciples, Jung and Adler, went on to establish their own pseudo-religious organizations, as detailed in The Triumph of the Therapeutic

A History of Madness

One of the features of this new world that we occupy is that each individual is somehow broken. If they are not being as “effective” as they can be, or capable of “relating to others” well enough, or buying into social fictions willingly, then they are “sick.” The reality is that they are not docile enough to be considered normal.

In the West there are many therapists who handle these problems professionally. And they take a fat fee for their services. In other parts of the world, therapy isn’t even an idea that people entertain. But slowly, thanks to globalization, most nations are beginning to embrace therapy. You would think that the countries that have the most therapists would have the highest percentage of psychologically “healthy” people.

Which countries have the highest rates of mental illness? You can see very quickly how difficult it is to answer such a question, not least of all because simply defining “mental illness” is highly subjective – as Szasz would point out. 

In a study being conducted by the World Health Organization the highest prevalence of mental illness (which include anxiety, mood disorders, impulse control, and substance abuse) was found among the “United States, Colombia, the Netherlands and Ukraine tended to have higher prevalence estimates across most classes of disorder, while Nigeria, Shanghai and Italy were consistently low, and prevalence was lower in Asian countries in general.” – Source

Can we extrapolate that the US indeed has the highest number of mentally ill individuals, or are these results simply reflective of a society that has embraced therapeutic definitions? In which case, the data we have is based on what is self-reported. 

How to resolve this paradox?

An answer can be found in The Myth of Mental Illness, the first point Szasz makes is that psychological diseases keep changing over time. Szasz recalled that not long ago, there were less than 20 psychological illnesses – then, during his lifetime there were hundreds. It is not that change itself is indicative of foul play – without change, there is no evolution or advancement, but the point is that we have not really discovered new illnesses, as much as we have re-categorized old behaviors. The role of the therapist is essentially to socialize the individual into the normal functions of society.

In Madness and Civilization, Foucault details the history of madness.

There was a time when the mad were mobile, where they interacted with society, and people heard them speak. There was a time when it was those who knew too much that went mad – Don Quixote went mad because of too much reading, so his priest burnt a selection of his books to cure him. There was a time when to be mad meant to be unproductive, thus the vagabonds, the idle, and the youth who had squandered the family fortune were labelled as mad. There was a time when the remedies to curing the mad was in throwing cold water at them. But confinement was the most popular tool.

Madness was recognized as non-reason, or the negation of reason – that is, non-being – insofar as it is cut off from external stimuli. In fact, doctors prescribed travel and ocean waves to restore movement, and thus the correct flow of thoughts in the mind. To cure madness, by language, for example, was to follow the madman in their illusion, or to force them to come out of their condition out of necessity (the need to work and survive).

Eventually, the mad were no longer allowed to be mobile and were locked up in prisons to make sure they were productive and not just a drag on society, they were forced to work. Ironically, this had the effect of displacing “normal” people in society from jobs, and then those people were labelled as “mad” and the cycle continued.

Then in the 19th century, it was only the unproductive mad people that were considered “mad” – this marked the beginning of the asylum.

They were forced to work so that they did not violate one of God’s commandments. The work was a way to fix their soul, and consequently, absolve them of guilt. But that was not the only rationale. There was an idea that work was a way to cure man from his suffering. When man escapes the law of labor that nature imposes on him, he seeks a world of anti-nature, and artifice, and his madness becomes only one manifestation of such a world. In describing how he succeeded, by industrious activity in being cured, Bernadin de-Saint Pierre said:

It was to Jean-Jacques Rousseau that I owed my return to health. I had read, in his immortal writings, among other natural truths, that man is made to work, not to meditate. Until that time I had exercised my soul and rested my body; I changed my ways; I exercised my body and rested my soul. I gave up most books; I turned my eyes to the works of nature, which addressed all my senses in a language that neither time nor nations can corrupt. p.104

Madness and Civilization, Foucault

The next stage, psychiatry, is when the analyst takes the role of the priest. The patient, or the madman, confesses to them their sins. In a sense, the madman is like a child while the analyst/therapist is the adult. Merely by virtue of rationality vs non-rationality, the therapist had the upper hand and did not need to use any physical force.

That was Foucault’s contention against Freud, that one did not need to archive mountains of data on a patient to analyze them. it was sufficient to merely be the rational person in the room, and in that sense, you could hold up a mirror to the madman or the patient, and they would be able to see the errors in their thinking for themselves. This is in contrast to Jung, who preferred not to maintain this hierarchical relationship.

There are two points that are important. One, the very definition of madness is dubious, not only because it keeps changing with time to reclassify old modes of behavior, but because there are political and financial incentives to convince people that they are dysfunctional. Second, the therapist has merely filled the void that was previously occupied by the priest, the family, and traditional institutions. 

My intention is not to reduce psychotherapy to an invalid mode of healing, but simply to point out its shortcomings and limitations. If we want to contextualize its position in history, we would treat it as just another human experiment (not a source of ultimate truth) that began with mesmerism and strange forms of pseudomedicine, and then evolved to psychotherapy, behaviorism, and finally cognitive science and neuroscience.  

If you would like an introduction into the history of psychology, see my summary of Ellenberger’s excellent The Discovery of the Unconscious. 

Psychology faces one final limitation: the subject-subject problem. That is, the scientific study of subjective experience requires a subject to be an objective observer of subjective experiences. On the one hand, it is impossible to derive an ought from an is. As Karl Popper pointed out, you cannot falsify psychological ideas. Therefore, as scientific hypotheses, psychological ideas (Adler, Freud, Jung) fail. But that would be the wrong lens to view these ideas. A better approach would be to see the ideas of psychoanalysis as a philosophy, like Epicureanism or Stoicism, no less valuable and important to the human experience. 

The problem only arises when a philosophy is expressed as brute fact. In recent years, there has been an accommodation in the West to the benefits of Eastern practices that used to be considered esoteric and exotic (yoga, meditation). But a few decades ago, this was not the case. 

In Altered Traits, a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson, we are told about the failure of clinical psychology in trying to cure the problems of the mind. A comparison is made between the Western and Eastern approach. 

In the West, clinical psychology tries to fix a specific problem like high anxiety by focusing on that one thing, while Asian psychologies have a wider lens and offer ways to enhance our positive side. Notice that this is akin to the dichotomy posited by Ian McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary. 

Essentially, the brain is divided into two ways of thinking (left hemispheric and right hemispheric). This is a metaphorical description and not a description of the location such modes of thinking take place in.  

The left hemisphere is sequential, linear, compartmentalizes the world, logical, and analytic. The right hemisphere is holistic, complex, receptive. Each hemisphere knows things that the other hemisphere does not know. The corpus callosum creates cooperation between the hemispheres, by excluding the other at the right time.

A great example given by McGilchrist is to compare the two hemispheres to a technology business consisting of a salesperson and of an engineer. The salesperson forges new relationships and brings in clients, while the engineer builds systems and technologies. The salesperson thinks that the engineer is free loading off of his talent, while the engineer thinks the same of the salesperson.

We can draw a parallel between the Eastern and Western approach in dealing with problems of the mind. The Eastern approach is holistic and right-brained, while the Western approach is linear and left-brained. 

Richard, one of the authors of Altered Traits, became interested in consciousness after reading the works of Aldous Huxley, R.D Laing, Martin Buber, and Ram Dass. But these interests were driven underground during his college years in New York University, where professors were staunch behaviorists (followers of B. F. Skinner). They thought that observable behavior was the only way of understanding the mind, while looking inside the mind was a taboo waste of time. They believed that mental life was irrelevant to understanding behavior. 

When French poet and Nobel laureate Romain Rolland became a disciple of the Indian saint Sri Ramakrishna near the beginning of the 20th century, he wrote to Freud about the mystical state he experienced. Freud diagnosed it as regression to infancy. 

In the 1960’s, psychologists dismissed drug-triggered altered states as artificially induced psychosis. 

And yet, as described in Altered Traits, there are tangible, scientifically measurable benefits to meditation.  

In the past, many insights about the mind have been discovered by psychologists in the West, but it is important to not ignore the subjective experience of “I”. That is, to give priority to experiences and relationships that are positive, rather than to compartmentalize subjective experiences (anxiety, stress) and to try to only understand them in isolation. 

The right-hemispheric approach to complexity is to look at the bigger picture, rather than to get lost in the details. An approach that sounds more majestic and visionary, when one gets around the negative associations we have internalized when it comes to solutions that lack scientific rigor. As Kahneman reveals in Thinking: Fast and Slow, system 2 (the deliberate brain) thinks it is playing the lead role in the movie, when in fact, it is system 1 that is the star (the automatic brain).  

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Opinion philosophy psychology

Be A Specialist (Week 47 Of Wisdom)

There is a tradeoff between intensity and extensity. The specialist is a believer in intensity, he gains his advantage by knowing something that no one else knows. The generalist is a believer in extensity, he gains advantage by making multiple bets. The specialist places more value on his own rationality, the generalist places more value on blind luck. Who is right?

First, with the help of several writers, I will make the case for intensity. In another post, I will make the case for extensity.

The business author MJ DeMarco thought that a scattered focus leads to scattered results. The polygamist opportunist, instead of having one business that thrives, has 20 business that suck. The sports enthusiast who likes to dabble in many sports would lose against a professional in any one of them. In the 48 Laws of Power, Greene reminds us that our energy is finite.

In Law 23: Concentrate Your Forces, he insists that a single rich mine that is deep is more valuable than multiple shallow mines.

Consider how the Rothschild brothers maintained their power while the rest of Europe’s elite crumbled in the 19th century. After inheriting their father’s empire, the Rothschild brothers spread across Europe, each setting themselves up in a major city. This made them vulnerable, but they maintained their unity, and this was key to their success. They married within the family and kept close contact with each other, whereas other families fell apart.

“Beware of dissipating your powers: strive constantly to concentrate them. Genius thinks it can do whatever it sees others doing, but it is sure to repent of every ill-judged outlay.”

– Johann Von Goethe.

And Schopenhauer said: “Intellect is a magnitude of intensity, not a magnitude of extensity.”

Casanova attributed his success with women to singlemindedness. When he was imprisoned in Venice, he focused all his energy into thinking about his escape. The guards tried to stop him by putting him in different tunnels when they discovered the tunnels he had been digging, but eventually, he managed to escape.

 “I have always believed, that when a man gets it into his head to do something, and when he exclusively occupies himself in that design, he must succeed, whatever the difficulties. That man will become Grand Vizier or Pope.”

– Casanova

Tesla refused to have a single master. His efforts were all over the place, and he never found the stability he craved. Intensity is the precursor to quality, whereas extensity is the precursor to quantity. But quantity cannot rise above mediocrity. Gracián warns that while the man with general interests wants to have their finger in every pie, they have it in none.

Another modern writer who wrote about the importance of intensity was Cal Newport, who said that deep work is more important than shallow work. Contrary to those who tell you that the best way to work is to accomplish multiple tasks with minimum effort. Newport points out that shallow work is easy but requires little brain power. Deep work is difficult but rewarding.

People are tempted to switch tasks because of boredom, but it is boredom that one must embrace to go beyond their limitations. Deep work is necessary and is becoming more important in a world where attention spans are fading away. The person who can focus their attention for an extended period is rare, and therefore, more valuable.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

– Steve Jobs

To engage in deep work, one must learn how to construct a schedule that allows for the maximum amount of deep work, and the minimum amount of shallow work. If shallow work, that is, work that is characterized by extensity (doing multiple things at a mediocre level) is necessary, then one should not abandon it, but figure out how to spend the least amount of time on it. For example, Jung used a bimodal system where he alternated between long hours of deep work and shallow work.

In Mastery by Robert Greene, the author of The 48 Laws Of Power builds on his previous argument when he observes that young people are in a hurry to make money and will jump from one field to the next in the hope of hitting gold, but this is short-sighted. If you are too impatient to hone a specific craft, then you will never have enough insight and ability to be in control your creations. Instead, you settle for a superficial understanding of many subjects.

To be creative, you need to delegate basic tasks to the subconscious so that you can have the head space to think of new strategies.

Both authors stress the need for deep work, but both acknowledge that shallow work is unavoidable.

If we want to take the gist of what Greene and Newport have said, we can conclude that there are two forms of work: deep work and shallow work. To become good enough at something that you can make a creative contribution, you must spend long hours, distraction free, on one thing.

But If you are an artist or an entrepreneur, marketing is a shallow form of work that you cannot avoid, unless you already have customers to sell to.

Since deep work requires a large commitment of time, it is important to make the correct choice with regards to what you choose to work on. The best way is to switch careers when you have made a small investment and did not feel that your work was engaging enough.  

Ira Glass, host of This American Life, was an intern, who moved on to become a tape cutter. He then got the chance to host some segments on air and won awards for them. He got what he wanted with patience and hard work. The best chess players studied the game for much longer than novice chess players – about 5 times more. The main theme that Newport stresses here is time. Nothing comes easy, nothing comes without a significant investment of time.

Da Vinci worked on many unrelated subjects on an extremely high level. He was a genius. Most people are not like Leonardo Da Vinci. Most people need to focus one thing for a long time to get good at it. Greene’s point is this: do not spread your attention on multiple things – unless you are either a genius, or content with achieving mediocre levels of competence.  

Focus by Goleman continues the tradition of telling people about the benefits of deep work or extended focus. His advice is to listen to your intuition. Your automatic thinking can get you in trouble if allowed to behave without restraint, but sometimes, your automatic thinking is a true measure of your personal values. Unless you pursue something that you really want, you will be unable to muster enough willpower to be great at it.

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”

– Maya Angelou

Peak is a book that commentates on the 10,000-hour rule. The latter contains the original study of professionals who were monitored over years. The discovery was that an extended time of deliberate focus was necessary to experience a marked improvement in skill level.

Flow is a book that argues that deep engagement in an activity, where one loses track of time, and their sense of self, can traverse the line between order and chaos at the right moments, and can measure their progress in precise ways, is not only the key to higher levels of mastery, but the key to happiness.

The specialist has many arguments in their favor. Insofar as one’s personal psychological health is concerned, the benefits of achieving a flow state while engaged in deep work for long hours appears to be the golden path towards mastery. Embracing a single identity and having a stable vision of the future is a psychological relief. Despite the difficulty of acquiring higher levels of mastery, and the endless hours of intense focus that are necessary, it is at least psychologically reassuring that one makes progress along the mountainous road they are on. In contrast to the generalist, the specialist is self-assured and calm, they are convinced that eventually, they will have acquired an invaluable asset in the form of a unique skill, or an advanced level of knowledge, that will be valued by others.

But the specialist is not without flaws. The marketplace does not care if the individual is engaged in deep work or becomes an expert but may instead reward those who swing the bat the greatest number of times. Blind luck, rather than expertise, is the real determinant of success, measured by material wealth.

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Opinion business philosophy psychology

Strong Men Create Good Times – Analysis

“Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.”

The quote is from a post-apocalyptic novel called “Those Who Remain” by the author G. Michael Hopf. And one could be tempted to say that things must be this way – it is the circle of life.

If such a cycle did not exist, then there would not be any interdependence between human experience in the past, present, and future. Whether we think of an individual’s life, or the life of a society, we feel a compulsion to define it according to such a narrative structure. It not only makes sense to us, but it is deeply meaningful.

Without tough times, there would be no redemptive man. The weak man is the prerequisite of the strong man, and therefore, of the hero. This is a common mythological motif. The hero is at first weak and underdeveloped, but through a series of trials with difficult adversaries, he develops strength and skill, which he uses to bring a boon to his society, as outlined in multiple stories by Campbell in The Hero with A Thousand Faces. This boon can come in the form of knowledge, or treasure, or periodic peace. Man must descend into the underworld in order to triumph. But the superlative “strong men, easy times” or “weak men, hard times” is not only optimistic – it is equally pessimistic, if not more so. Not many try to become heroes, and of those who try, not many succeed – an idea we will shortly return to.

The Life of Pietro Perugino, Painter

How beneficial poverty may sometimes be to those with talent, and how it may serve as a powerful goad to make them perfect or excellent in whatever occupation they might choose, can be seen very clearly in the actions of Pietro Perugino. Wishing by means of his ability to attain some respectable rank, after leaving disastrous calamities behind in Perugia and coming to Florence, he remained there many months in poverty, sleeping in a chest, since he had no other bed; he turned night into day, and with the greatest zeal continually applied himself to the study of his profession.

After painting had become second nature to him, Pietro’s only pleasure was always to be working in his craft and constantly to be painting. And because he always had the dread of poverty before his eyes, he did things to make money which he probably would not have bothered to do had he not been forced to support himself.

Perhaps wealth would have closed to him and his talent the path to excellence just as poverty had opened it up to him, but need spurred him on since he desired to rise from such a miserable and lowly position-if not perhaps to the summit and supreme height of excellence, then at least to a point where he could have enough to live on. For this reason, he took no notice of cold, hunger, discomfort, inconvenience, toil or shame if he could only live one day in ease and repose; and he would always say—and as if it were a proverb—that after bad weather, good weather must follow, and that during the good weather houses must be built for shelter in times of need.

Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari

In pop culture, we are constantly told about the person who overcame all odds. The founder of Whatsapp was an Eastern European immigrant to the U.S who survived on food stamps while building his business. The most innovative companies are often built during economic recessions. The stories of rags-to-riches are so numerous, that one gets the impression that it is commonplace. But that is far from the truth.

There is a humorous thought experiment by psychologist Daniel Gilbert. Imagine that whenever you watched the news, and the winner of the national lottery was declared, you watched a follow-up segment that called out the names of all the people that paid for a lottery ticket and lost. And for whatever reason, you were not allowed to change the channel. Would that make people less optimistic about the lottery? Would people be less likely to play if they truly knew how unlikely it was that they would win?  

The heart warming stories we hear about those who made it against all odds are plentiful, but in reality – they occur rarely. The child who is born poor is at a disadvantage to the child who is born rich. But as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in Outliers, there is an inverted-U relationship, where extreme wealth can result in self-destructive behaviors, so that the spoiled brat has as much chance at life success as the child who is born poor.

But when they began to make sovereignty hereditary, the children quickly degenerated from their fathers; and, so far from trying to equal their father’s virtues, they considered that a prince had nothing else to do than to excel all the rest in idleness, indulgence, and every other variety of pleasure.

Niccolò Machiavelli

We know that an easy life can lead to decadence in an individual. Some degree of urgency is required for someone to develop appropriate life skills. But we have learned from the psychoanalysts that childhood trauma can be a severe impediment in an adult’s life. The biological literature teaches us about the dangers of excess stress – the negative effects it can have on the development of the brain and of ulcers, among many other disruptions such as proper sleep and a healthy diet.

Let us return to the original quote which states that if “things are bad now, they will soon improve” and if “things are good now, then soon enough, they will become bad again.” In this view, life is cyclical. There is no linear progress. Whereas the Mathew Principle tells us that the “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” It seems that the Mathew Principle, if allowed for a few exceptions, is a better description of reality than Hopf’s quote.

This seems to be the case for countries too. The wealth of nations in the past, for example, are excellent indicators of what we can expect in the future – again, with a few exceptions. If circularity did exist, we would expect great empires to fall much faster than they do, and for undeveloped nations to rise much faster than they have. Likewise, individuals who are already doing well are more likely to do better than individuals who are doing badly.

As the lottery example teaches us, we are often blinded by survivorship bias. Hard times do not make people better. Few manage to do the unlikely and transcend their circumstances, that is why they are notable. They have managed to reverse the trajectory that was expected to befall them. But most men do not prevail under hard conditions, only a minority does – As The Pareto Principle would also predict.

These men indeed make life easier for others in society. And it is true that tough times force people to develop vital skills, but there is a difference between extreme stress and positive stress. In Antifragile, Taleb makes the point that some things do indeed gain from disorder, but only when they are stressed optimally, if they are stressed more than that, they break. A muscle needs to be stressed to grow, but if stressed too much, it will tear.

We must now rephrase the original quote in the interest of accuracy.

“Hard times, if optimally gauged so as not to produce too much stress, create a few strong men, who create good times, if the good times are excessively good, they create a few weak men, who create hard times.”

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Opinion philosophy psychology

The Principle of Least Effort (Week 46 of Wisdom)

In simple situations, a physical object will follow the path of least resistance, among a set of alternative paths. The way in which water flows is an example. A similar idea is the “principle of least effort” which applies to human behavior.

The idea was first discovered by the Italian philosopher Guillaume Ferrero in 1894. About 50 years later, the linguist George Zipf studied the principle in depth in his book Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort: An Introduction to Human Ecology. His theory, known as Zipf’s Law, was that people use language as a tool to solve problems (primarily), and that over time, the distribution of word use would reflect the human imperative to communicate efficiently.

But the application of the theory goes beyond language, with many fields making use of it including evolutionary biology, information science, web design, psychology, economics, sociology, and marketing. Intelligent creatures, whether humans, animals, or even computers, will choose the path that requires the minimum amount of effort.

“In simple terms, the Principle of Least Effort means, for example, that a person in solving his immediate problems will view these against the background of his future problems, as estimated by himself. Moreover, he will strive to solve his problems in such a way as to minimize the total work that he must expend in solving both his immediate problems and his probable future problems. That in turn means that the person will strive to minimize the probable average rate of his work-expenditure (over time). And in so doing he will be minimizing his effort… Least effort, therefore, is a variant of least work.”

( Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort: An Introduction to Human Ecology, George Kingsley Zipf)

In terms of library research, a person seeking information will tend to use the most convenient search method in the least challenging method available, and this person will stop seeking information as soon as minimally acceptable results are found. This idea holds true, even for experienced researchers. Even they will use the tools that are easiest and most familiar to them.

This reminds me of a couple of quotes by Albert Einstein.

He was once asked: “If you have one hour to save the world, how would you spend that hour?” He replied, “I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and then five minutes solving it.”

And famously, he said, “It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

One difference, it seems, between the regular person and the genius, apart from intellectual capacity, is the latter’s willingness to subvert his human tendency to always go for the convenient solution. There must have been in Einstein or Newton either a joy in solving the problem that is good for its own sake, or remarkable faith in their own ability to yield original and important insights. Otherwise, they would not have spent as much time on it. They would have done what most people do, which is to accept the most approximate version to the truth and move on.

It’s not just researchers who follow this kind of behavior, but any person seeking new information. It is the reason why you would consult a friend with limited knowledge on a topic rather than an expert. The former is more available, and if they can provide you with an acceptable answer, then you will have no need for the expert.

There are a few ideas worth thinking about at this point. We generally prefer the simple to the complex, which is why designers tend to move towards further simplicity over time. Think of the most famous logos that you know of and the most user-friendly websites that you have visited. There is a book on website design called, Don’t Make Me Think. From a producer’s perspective, it is always better to aim for simplicity so that the user is expected to put in less work.

The other idea is from a consumer’s perspective, that is, a consumer of tools. And I mean this broadly. Whether it is language itself or software applications, we will tend to use the tools that are the easiest to navigate, and the most familiar to us. But this can be a major blind spot, when you consider that an additional amount of time spent on looking for more powerful tools can be far more rewarding in the long run, even if they are more difficult at first.

Consider CMS platforms, for example. It might be easier to learn how to use Blogger than WordPress.org, since the latter has a much steeper learning curve, but over time, you will be able to do much more with WordPress.org. Likewise, it may be easier to depend on Google search (as opposed to a library) as your source for information, but there is also a disadvantage to using Google because it leaves a lot of information out. A study in 2004 was done on distance learning graduate students in Texas A&M. The results found that online research was the primary method for research, because of their quickness and accessibility. In the coming years, especially post Covid 19, it will be interesting to see to what extent physical libraries will still be used.  

When I got my own Ph.D. (in English) before I became a librarian, I thought I was a pretty good researcher, and so did my professors. But I thought so only because neither I nor my teachers realized how much I was missing. When I had difficult questions to pursue, I can see now that I usually fell prey to that strong human propensity toward “least effort”— I’d stop researching when I found only the few things that I could find on my own, and then I’d hide the problem by changing the scope of the papers I was working on: instead of discussing what I really wanted, I’d restrict the analyses to make them cover only the limited information I could actually find.

(The Oxford Guide to Library Research, Thomas Mann)

In terms of language, we now use “math” instead of “mathematics” and plane instead of “airplane.” Good-bye has replaced “God be with you.” You can also use Zipf’s law to roughly describe the distribution of words in languages. There are few common words, a moderate amount of medium frequency words, and many low frequency words.

According to Zipf, the speaker conserves his effort by having a small vocabulary of common word, and the hearer’s effort is lessened by having a large vocabulary of rarer words. This economical compromise appears in the data that supports Zipf’s law. (Christopher D. Manning and Hinrich Schütze, Foundations of Statistical Natural Language Processing)

On social media, you probably encounter new acronyms on a regular basis, as less effort is expended on language, and one can expect this trend to continue in the future. In fact, since it is much easier to connect to people today than in the past, we would expect people to find information through chatting with other people directly through email or discussion groups, rather than documentary sources such as Web Pages.

You invest more effort when you must navigate a website, but much less effort when you are communicated to by email, for example. Best practices for web design, incidentally, do follow the PLE.

Recall that this principle is not a recommendation for how you must act, but a description of how you do act. The principle of least effort is known as a “deterministic description of human behavior”. You actively try to conserve as much expenditure of effort over time.

Let us see how this can be applied to a personality concept we know from psychology, conscientiousness. This trait is divided into two subcomponents – industriousness and orderliness. Conscientiousness also has something to do with how a person views the world and the PLE brings to light a trade-off that human beings must constantly contend with, with regards to how much effort they are willing to expend in the present, in anticipation of the problems they will face today and tomorrow.

Someone who is very conscientious likely overestimates the amount of problems that they will face, thus investing much more effort in the present, because they assume that this will translate to a lower average load over time. If they do not work so hard in the present, they think, they may be forced to work much harder than they need to in the future.

Whereas someone who lacks conscientiousness calculates that they will not be required to work much harder in the future, because they discount the difficulty or frequency of the problems that they will face.

But regardless of which side of the scale you fall on, you have more to lose when you lack conscientiousness. In other words, the negative repercussions of not trying hard enough far outweigh the repercussions of trying harder than you should have. It is better to be more conscientious than less conscientious, on any level of analysis, whether from a Darwinian standpoint, or from the point of view of long-term happiness.

It is then worth re-calculating the best path forward. It may be that your tendency to avoid to adopt new tools, and your addiction to what is easy and convenient, is what is secretly in the way of your progress. It is no point in defying your own nature, you cannot help but take the path of least effort. But the idea is that your perception of the “path of least effort” could be mistaken, if you have made an error in judgement, or you are lacking sufficient facts. You may be guided by your own momentum rather than by where you want to direct your energy. The latter behavior requires what Kahneman defined as “slow thinking” – which is contrary to your instinct, but necessary for effectiveness.

Jobs seek tools, and tools seek jobs. Consider carpentry. Any job of carpentry would require the tools of carpentry to be used, in addition to the carpenter (himself a tool). But what happens when you invert the situation? What if you only had the tools? Either the carpentry tools or the carpenter. In such a cause, the tools themselves, since they can only be used for carpentry, would look for carpentry jobs. During the war, automobile manufacturers repurposed their production of cars for civilians to produce military vehicles. In other words, what determines that jobs are done, are not the jobs that are required to be done, but the jobs that are capable of being done.

Ultimately this must remind us of the famous drunk who looked for his wallet, not where he had lost it, but under the street lamp, “because the light is better there,” or of the doctor who gave all his patients fits because that was the only sickness he knew how to cure.

Motivation and Personality, Abraham Maslow

Further Reading:

Categories
Opinion psychology

The Profundity of Minutiae (Week 45 of Wisdom)

It is typical, that in times of political and economic uncertainty, for each person to imagine themselves a head of state, and to devote significant energy into trying to conceive of alternate systems of governance, a new social contract, or a better economic system.

Without the constant renewing and vitalizing supply of progressive thinking and innovation, society reaches a state of political decadence, whereby the ideas of the past are preserved like mummies, and cherished as if they were a kind of final truth, that no sane person is allowed deviate from. Clearly, such a tyrannical state, as history has taught us, is better avoided.   

But the society that transforms its politics successfully can only do so when its people learn about which traditional ideas that are worth preserving. And that can only happen through an investigation into history, rather than a renunciation of it, as something that is no longer relevant to the problems of modernity. Anyone who is capable of having a serious political dialogue has done the serious work of understanding where important ideas have come from.

Most people know, by intuition, that it is better not to solve problems of plumbing or engineering if they do not have the expertise, but to allow plumbers and engineers to do so. Yet, each person has a political opinion and believed that they are expected to have a political opinion, and each will hold to a premeditated set of arguments to use when challenged. It is as if with politics, knowledge and expertise is discounted. Each opinion is equally valuable. But the democratization of political opinion leads to the proliferation of echo chambers. Each person selects from a menu, which political package most closely resembles their beliefs. And after all choices have been made, few are brave enough to review and reverse their original positions.

The problem of confirmation bias exists, not as an accident, but as a result of a collectively accepted meme: each person believes that their own perspective is equally valuable to everyone else’s. But if there is no hierarchy of quality, then no one thinks they can improve their own political ideas. Whenever the individual falls into the narcissistic trap of discounting the countless work that has preceded him, he deceives himself with the illusion of knowing.

The few individuals who have done the work know of even the minutiae of their field; they have an understanding of each opposing position to theirs and its merits, and know, precisely, in which ways they can be mistaken. The profundity of minutiae is that it is an indication of a deep well of knowledge, it is a signal that can be used to mark the expert from the novice. The many books on expertise (Deep Work, Peak, Mastery) teach us an important lesson: it takes many years of hard work to become a professional in a given endeavor.

And yet, we see many people willing to engage in heated debates about topics they scarcely understand, that are outside their field of expertise. The Socratic method was a way to force people to become aware of their ignorance. Whenever Socrates knew that someone was not thinking carefully about something, he asked them a series of questions which demonstrated the hidden weaknesses of their convictions. Often, unchecked beliefs masquerade as self-evident truths, and absent the Socratic method, either performed by the individual on themselves, or on someone else – many unfounded presuppositions pass without scrutiny. But there are ways of recognizing when this has happened.

The first red flag is when you hear recycled points of view that make general statements that accuse the “other” of either immorality or stupidity. “If someone doesn’t agree with me, they are either dangerous or stupid” . Yet any person who has read only a few high-quality books that contradict one another, written by geniuses can see how no side can be truly be considered dangerous or stupid.

The reason why it is hard for people to admit this is not clear, but it may have something to do with the paradoxical nature of such a consolation. If you admit that the other person’s perspective is not stupid or dangerous, then you have allowed for the possibility that you are either stupid or dangerous. As an instinct against this apparent paradox, most people will stick to the more favorable assertion that casts doubt on the mental faculties or motivations of the other, rather than on themselves.

In summary, we desire to have opinions about politics, even when we are not qualified to. Those who have developed well-informed opinions, who understand even the minutiae of the problem are discredited if their opinions are not agreeable. Each person is plagued with a distinct blindness which differentiates them from others. It is not what a person knows that gives her a unique identity, but what she does not know. Ignorance is what animates people to believe in an idea strongly, not knowledge. The latter can only elucidate the ways in which any opinion is subject to problems, while the former is capable of giving strength to even the most shocking ideas, simply by omission.

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philosophy Opinion psychology

The Taboo of Uncertainty (Week 38 of Wisdom)

Thomas Hobbes, author of the notorious Leviathan, had a strange definition for “free will” He presumed that anything, whether animate or inanimate, is considered free if nothing stands in its way. If there are no obstacles, then there is freedom. If a rock is rolling down a hill without anything it in its path, then the rock is considered free.

A bear, in a forest, hunting for food, is considered free if it does not encounter a rival predator or unfavorable weather conditions. There is nothing about the consciousness of the subject that is relevant to the discussion of freedom. A human being, then, according to Hobbes, is nothing more than a complex machine, subject to the same laws of nature as are the rock and the bear, and there is nothing unique about consciousness that requires us to treat it with any special attention. Human freedom, like rock freedom and bear freedom, depends on whether the human subject is being hindered on their path towards their goal. This mechanistic vision of reality, consciously or not, has been adopted by modern, scientific man.

In the prolific Critique of Pure Reason, Kant creates an island that allows people to be isolated from the repercussions of modern science, by arguing that free will, despite the discoveries of modern physics, still has a place, and it is dependent, not on obstacles, but on conscious volition. Hegel would adopt and expand on this idea. In short, one thing that makes man free is his ability to act against his natural instincts, to choose to die for a flag or a piece of cloth or a symbol, in spite of the instinct for self-preservation.

It is not so much what is important about the nature of free will, in an objective sense, which is usually what philosophers have debates about, because whatever free will is, we will never truly know. What is important, is not whether we truly are free or to what extent we are free, but what we believe about our own free will, because that has consequences. A society where no one thinks they are free cannot have the same legal precepts as one that lacks such a belief, for example.

More than three hundred years later, Carl Jung writes Modern Man in Search of a Soul. This was a time when much time has passed since contemporary science had rejected concepts such as the immaterial soul, that has substance, is of divine nature and is immortal, that there is a power in it that builds the body and supports its life, heals its ills, and enables the soul to exist beyond the body, that it has spiritual knowledge which cannot be observed in the physical world.

Jung shows that while it may have been presumptuous for our ancestors to posit the existence of immaterial souls, our modern interpretation of reality is no less presumptuous. And in fact, the concepts that scientists have created – and all men assume they understand are no less strange or bewildering than ancient ideas about spirituality.

“But people who are not above the general level of consciousness have not yet discovered that it is just as presumptuous and fantastic for us to assume that matter produces spirit; that apes give rise to human beings; that from the harmonious interplay of the drives of hunger, love, and power Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason should have arisen; that the brain-cells manufacture thoughts, and that all this could not possibly be other than it is. What or who, indeed, is this all-powerful matter? It is once more man’s picture of a creative god, stripped this time of his anthropomorphic traits and taking the form of a universal concept whose meaning everyone presumes to understand.”

Modern Man In Search of a Soul, Carl Jung

Jung understood that our need to reduce reality to material causes and effects, was at the same time our urge to remove uncertainty and mystery, but we have not succeeded in doing so.

The scientific explanations we have discovered are no less mysterious to the human mind. And it is the same urge, to simplify reality that plagues modern man, because he now wants to make everything smooth, not just his understanding of the world, but even the way he lives his life, and what he chooses to think about, and what he chooses to ignore.

“We wish to make our lives simple, certain and smooth-and for that reason problems are tabu. We choose to have certainties and no doubts-results and no experiments-without even seeing that certainties can arise only through doubt, and results through experiment.”

Modern Man In Search of a Soul, Carl Jung

For Jung, the unknown is not something to iron out, control, or risk manage. The more we make ourselves strangers to the unknown, the less resilient, and the more our mental health suffers. And the way in which mental health suffers from too much predictability, too much rejection of the unknown and the strange, is not apparent to everyone. It is possible for someone to excel in the world but experience a strained inner life.

But the point is not to face each problem, to face each unknown, and resolve everything, but to embark on a battle uphill towards the unexplored.

“The meaning and design of a problem seem not to lie in its solution, but in our working at it incessantly.”

Modern Man In Search of a Soul, Carl Jung

The individual is taught at an early age that the good life, like Hobbesian free will, can only exist if it is unencumbered by obstacles. The less dead ends, detours, and unexpected turns, the better. So he learns to construct a distorted, idealistic vision of the world, he refuses to face his problems, and to explore the unknown, and so he is disillusioned at some later point, when things don’t go according to plan. The modern individual panics he what he has wished for is not delivered to him. He is shocked that the forces of the world do not behave like an obedient servant, and when they do not meet their pre-imagined deadlines, the world is broken and beyond repair.

Jung’s advice is to turn away from the taboo that prevents dangerous and uncertain experiments, adventures into the unknown, and unpredictable journeys into the unconscious. In Jung’s language, there is a rich amount of negation “unknown, unconscious, uncertain”, a clear Eastern influence – in contrast to the affirmations that we find in the language of the logical positivist or the scientific materialist. One wants to bury the shadow, the other wants to befriend it.     

“Whoever protects himself against what is new and strange and thereby regresses to the past, falls into the same neurotic condition as the man who identifies himself with the new and runs away from the past. The only difference is that the one has estranged himself from the past, and the other from the future.”

Modern Man In Search of a Soul, Carl Jung
Categories
Opinion philosophy psychology

Don’t Try (Week 37 of Wisdom)

Charles Bukowski, today known as a celebrated author, found success in his fifties. In his twenties, he wrote hundreds of short stories. Two of these were published, both of which barely sold any copies. This was during a time when Bukowski traveled across the U.S, and worked several blue-collar jobs. Years later, he nearly died from a bleeding ulcer. But Bukowski worked hard and while he nearly gave up writing, he was persistent until he finally found an audience that appreciated his work. .

A quote that he is known for is “don’t try.” and yet these words do not seem to be congruent with someone who never stopped trying, even though he was met with failure, repeatedly.

“Too many writers write for the wrong reasons,” declared Bukowski. “They want to get famous or they want to get rich or they want to get laid by the girls with the bluebells in their hair… When everything goes best, it’s not because you chose writing, but because writing chose you.” Bukowski didn’t decide to be a writer; nobody actually dedicated to a pursuit ever had to decide which pursuit it would be.

“We work too hard. We try too hard,” Bukowski writes, “Don’t try. Don’t work. It’s there. Looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb.” He may have meant, as the video’s narrator puts it, that “if you have to try to try, if you have to try to care about something or have to try to want something, perhaps you don’t care about it, and perhaps you don’t want it.” And “if the thought of not doing the thing hurts more than the thought of potentially suffering through the process, if the thought of a life without it or never having tried it at all terrifies you, if it comes to you, through you, out of you, almost as if you’re not trying, perhaps Bukowski might say here, try, and ‘if you’re going to try, go all the way.’”

Through this correspondence, we learn that for “don’t try” to be intelligible, we must slightly alter our understanding of what it means to try.

Bukowski never tried, according to his own definition (that is implied in his letter), he just followed his impulse. To try, means to make an attempt to change the state of nature (either the nature of the world, or your own nature). The person, who is by temperament, artistic and creative, and yet devotes his life to number-crunching is someone who is trying to change themselves. The person who wishes to appear on Forbes is trying. But Bukowski eventually realized that it is useless to try. It is much better to simply be who you are and expect nothing from it, to maintain a stoic attitude till the end.

It is hard, to take heart from this story, because while it is great that someone who had such a difficult life finally got recognition, it is clear that as practical advise, one who follows their instinct or passion may never achieve such success. Indeed, a great talent like Bukowski, almost didn’t. One must imagine the countless other writers and artists and entrepreneurs who live their lives trying to be successful in their craft and failing, and in the end, with very little to show for it.

And herein lies, I think, the deeper message. And it is one that will only be accepted reluctantly. It is not your choice. If you have a proclivity for writing, there is nothing you can do to stop yourself from writing, regardless of whether you are successful or not at it. And if you do not have a natural proclivity for it, then no matter how much you try, it will not stick. At some point, you will grow weary and stop writing altogether.

So “don’t try”, means “don’t worry”, because at some point, the answer you are seeking will reveal itself to you. That is, don’t worry about any choice you would have to make, because the choice will be made for you. That is what he means when he says, “writing chooses you” and not the other way around.

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity

The Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu

In the Tao Te Ching, there is a similar message, and it is “don’t care” which is similar to “don’t try.” To not care, means to not be attached to a particular outcome, and to not try, means to not force things. Both messages are essentially the same, in that they favor the passive over the active. They seem counter-intuitive and that is why such a message is great at grabbing your attention. It is because you are so used to the opposite message, you are used to “don’t just sit there, do something” while these messages are saying, “don’t just do something, sit there.”

This echoes the distinction between Western and Eastern civilization, and the metaphorical lateralization of the brain, which is covered in The Master and His Emissary.

But more importantly, this is an idea that clearly, many people are starving for, and are drawn towards. Being programmed, from infancy, to idolize hard work, and overachievement, of attaining goals that are considered socially valuable, the modern adolescent and young adult is inevitably disappointed by the world that they live in, because they discover two painful facts. One, that the promised goods of society are not that good or satisfying. And two, that they, as professionals or individuals, cannot be anything they want to be. It feels as if, just as Alan Watts has written, some kind of delicate ruse was played on everyone, a double-blind game – and it is only discovered many years later, and in some cases, never.

Two books, that have appealed to the masses of young people around the world (the modern capitalistic world is no longer limited to the West), and have spoken to these problems in a direct way are 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson. The first book is about finding meaning in life through the voluntary adoption of responsibility, and the vehement rejection of nihilism. The latter book is about accepting the fact of one’s limitations, and only working towards things that really matter. On the surface, both books seem to be different in that Peterson promotes activity, while Manson calls for passivity. But, both books are similar, in a fundamental way, in that they contradict the conditioning of modern society.

In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson doesn’t call on his readers to merely adopt responsibility, but to do so by finding out what is meaningful. Carl Jung, the psychologist and mystic, who was deeply influenced by Eastern thought, is probably the thinker Peterson refers to the most. To find out what is meaningful, according to Peterson, is not go through an active search, or even a process of trial and error. It is not a series of steps that one follows, and it is not scientific. It is a highly intuitive, right-brained process (metaphorically), where one tries to decipher the messages of the unconscious, it is a venture inwards rather than outwards.

In Peterson’s words, the answer you are looking for will be revealed to you, almost mysteriously. To understand why this is important, we must understand what he is not saying. He is not adopting the rationalistic Freudian position, by saying that man is characterized by such and such urges, and must therefore plan his future in a way that compliments his basic nature that is already known to him. That would be the Western, scientific approach, which calls on the individual to outline an external goal that is important and socially necessary, and to figure out how to navigate towards that goal. But the goal itself, is something that one simply decides. There is no conversation that is happening between the conscious self and the unconscious self. In other words, “Don’t Try”, because the answer you are looking for will be revealed to you in time. This also is expressed in Peterson’s “watch what people do, not what they say.”

In Mason’s book, the message is to let go of your presuppositions about the world. Most likely, you will fail at most things you do, and the only guarantee that you will be miserable is if you expect too much from society, or from yourself. This addresses the two problems I discussed previously. Peterson does so in a different way, by inverting the question. Instead of expecting something from society, you should work towards finding a meaningful way of adding something valuable to society. And as for yourself, you should, instead of acting like a tyrant to yourself, seek to understand what you deeply desire and make sure that you incorporate this into your conscious self. Manson’s approach is straightforward and blunt. Peterson’s approach is more clever and subtle (ironically). Peterson subverts the problem of individual inadequacy, by reframing the question.

“Is it that you are not getting what you want, or is it that you do not yet know what you want?”

Peterson’s neat trick, is thus, to change the nature of the existential questions that the young adult faces in the modern world. Instead of thinking that the world owes you anything, think about your own shortcomings and how you can give something back. And instead of being distressed by your personal failure to fulfill your potential, know that you are extremely limited in your abilities, and that you are probably desiring the wrong things.

Manson’s solution to the first problem is that the world is mostly bad, so why expect anything good from it? And to the second question, his answer is to focus on fewer desires, and to not be so attached to them.

Both ideas contain undertones of Eastern thought, and I believe that is why they radiated with a Western audience. Both authors were able to provide something that was missing. In previous decades and centuries, the existential question, at least in the Western world, was taken care of, to a large part, by Christianity. There was an overarching framework that imbued each individual life with value, despite whatever hardship that might be endured. In modern Western society, the Christian framework is nowhere near as ubiquitous or dominant as it once was. Yet, the answer to these existential questions have been tackled by other traditions, and perhaps, it is the exotic nature of these answers that come from the East, their unfamiliarity, that grants them social legitimacy. And the fact, that on a practical level, they work.

To not try, and to not care, or rather, to try less and to care less, is a way of mitigating for the neurotic impulse to constantly do more than what is doing – a tiring urge that will inevitably break down the psyches of most people. To look inwards rather than outwards, to take responsibility for others rather than to expect others to take responsibility of you, is a useful idea, for the health of the psyche. Many psychoanalysts, as discussed in The Discovery of the Unconscious, have recommended work as the remedy to neurosis, for example.

But more importantly, it is the bringing back of the the locus of control to the individual that is the key to healing an injured psyche. There is nothing more empowering than the ability to have control, and nothing more destructive than fatalism. But a crucial distinction must be made. There are two kinds of fatalism, there is personal fatalism (I have no free will), and external fatalism (I cannot change anything in the world).

One of the main reasons for the anxiety of the modern individual, is equating the two kinds of fatalism – because the world cannot be influenced by me, I am powerless. What Peterson and Manson try to do is to resign the individual to only one kind of fatalism, and that is external fatalism. “While it is true that you cannot change the world, you at least can change yourself.”

Bukowski’s message, “don’t try”, is similar. To try, again, means to expect that one can make make something conform to one’s expectations, “I can try to be become a writer.” But this means, on a practical level, that one must get published to become a writer. To not try, means to resign the illusion of control, and to simply follow one’s own nature. “You are free to write, but don’t expect to become rich or famous from it.”

Categories
Opinion philosophy psychology

Be Bored with a Book (Week 28 of Wisdom)

The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading,”

Nassim Taleb.  

What is a book? It is information, packaged to you in a certain way, by an author. The way the book is packaged can determine whether you grow bored from it or not. The point Taleb makes, is that it is unwise to read books in a linear way, whereby you are subject to information about only one subject, or confined by one literary style, or even one genre.

Imagine packaging everything you will read in your life into a single book. In what order do you want to consume this information, and how do you want to feel while consuming it.

One method is to go against your instincts, which is what many people do, it is something that is inherited from formal schooling. This means that you slog through a book from start to finish, regardless of how bored you may feel during this process. The other way, and the better way, according to Taleb, is to read multiple books or articles at the same time. You read until you are bored, not until you are finished.

This is an intelligent thing to do, because over time, you will find yourself reading more often, while being more engaged. This will help you retain more information. This is also in line with the science of learning. Spacing out your learning is better than cramming. See A Mind for Numbers by Oakley.

“I figured out that whatever I selected myself I could read with more depth and more breadth–there was a match to my curiosity. And I could take advantage of what people later pathologized as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) by using natural stimulation as a main driver to scholarship. The enterprise needed to be totally effortless in order to be worthwhile. The minute I was bored with a book or a subject I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether –when you are limited to the school material and you get bored, you have a tendency to give up and do nothing or play hooky out of discouragement. The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading. So the number of pages absorbed could grow faster than otherwise. And you find gold, so to speak, effortlessly, just as in rational but undirected trial-and-error-based research. It is exactly like options, trial and error, not getting stuck, bifurcating when necessary but keeping a sense of broad freedom and opportunism. Trial and error is freedom.​”  

– Nassim Taleb

But the caveat is that while you are working with and not against your impulsive tendencies while reading in this way, there is the question of whether this may impede your ability to read in a linear way if you are required to.

To solve this problem, you can choose to vary not only what you are reading, but to vary how you read. If the point is to retain optionality, and to never get bored, then it makes sense to sometimes read in a linear way, and at other times, to read a non-linear way, to sometimes absorb information through text, and at other times through audio.

If you have multiple ways of consuming information, and you consume different kinds of information, depending on your level of interest, then you are unlikely to get bored, and you will not need to sacrifice an essential skill which you may require in the future. It is important to know how to deal with boredom with novelty, but it is more important to retain the ability to deal with boredom with patience.

Categories
Opinion philosophy psychology

The Defense Against Grandiosity (Week 25 of Wisdom)

In the well-known Biblical story, God tells Jonah to go talk to his people, and to tell them things they do not want to hear.

Jonah refuses because he is too scared. While he is on a boat with others, a storm appears out of nowhere. He elects to be thrown off because he knows it’s his fault, then he is swallowed by a whale. Three days later he appears on the shore to pursue his proper destiny. 

The moral is: if you don’t follow the path you’re supposed to follow, the seas will become stormy and you’ll be in a terrible place for a length of time, and then if you’re lucky you’ll be spit back out and you will get the opportunity to do what you’re supposed to do.

Maslow wrote about the impediments that stand in the way of man’s self-actualization – why man is afraid of his own greatness and of his own destiny, even though in some moments, imagining the highest possibilities for himself brings the greatest joy. He called this fear the “Jonah Syndrome.”

It is what we would expect from a weak organism, to shy away from the full intensity of life.

“For some people this evasion of one’s own growth, setting low levels of; aspiration, the fear of doing what one is capable of doing, voluntary self-crippling, pseudo-stupidity, mock-humility are in fact defenses against grandiosity.”

Maslow

Because life is overwhelming and miraculous, humans need to repress some of it. We cannot gape at every single moment in wonder, because such a life would not be technically possible. We need to maintain some semblance of normalcy by ignoring the majestic and the beautiful, most of the time.

The problem with man is that nature has endowed him with the capacity to take in everything – an ability not available to any other animal. Man can relate not only to his own kind, but even to other species, he can choose to travel to the past or he can live billions of years into the future.

And everything inside man is strange to him. He does not understand why he was born, what he should be doing, what to make of his dreams and fantasies, or even how he should interpret his thoughts.

Man recoils from grandiosity for the same reason that he recoils from himself and his own thoughts, it is because this concept too is strange to him. But the only salvation that is available to him is to plunge into the unknown even though the dangers of doing so are numerous. He may lose the battle, he may isolate his friends, or his ego may become so inflated that he loses the ability to think clearly.

The ancient myths have consistently forewarned us of the greatest danger, and that is the betrayal of self by failing to live up to one’s potential. Should we take this warning seriously? Yes, but not without understanding ourselves first.

We are programmed to avoid danger, not only because grandiosity is strange to us, but because danger is familiar to us. We content ourselves with a comfortable routine because we want to prevent what we most want to avoid.

Not only is grandiosity dangerous, in principle, it is dangerous in reality.

A research paper showed that Grandiose narcissists are overconfident and often rely on their own intuition to make decisions. This can lead them to make less accurate decisions. And that they remain confident in their decisions and externalize blame.1

Be heroic, but with restraint, with an understanding of your loss aversive nature. Do not recoil from grandiosity or your potential but temper it with an honest assessment of your abilities and circumstances and innate nature.

While failing to live up to one’s potential is a form of self-betrayal, it is not the only form – a denial of one’s own nature is a more pernicious form of self-betrayal.

Categories
Opinion philosophy psychology

The Perception of Time (Week 21 of Wisdom)

Your time is finite, and it does not care about how you choose to spend it, or which attitude you choose to have towards it.

This leads to the paradoxical state you find yourself in. Despite how important your attitude towards time is in shaping your life, you rarely recognize it. Society has conditioned you to view time in a certain way, and all your choices are a by-product of such a point of view.

There are no superior attitudes for how to perceive time. Each has its philosophy, and no philosophy is inherently unreasonable. The hedonistic man who sees nothing but the present moment, is in no way inferior to the prudent man who lives wholly for the future.

But there are more attitudes towards time, other than being hedonistic or prudent.

In the book, The Time Paradox, Zimbardo adds two more perspectives: The past and the transcendental future.

The Past: If you see the past negatively, then you will be less excited about the present and future, you will make poorer choices.

Transcendental Future: A belief in the afterlife arms people with resilience and brings calmness of mind, but overinvestment in the transcendent can steer people towards ignoring the present.

Each time perspective comes with a cost. The only time perspectives that are never useful are past-negative and present-fatalistic. When you remember the past as a horrible time, then you will not be so invested in the present or future.

“Remember that people are more likely to regret actions not taken than actions taken, regardless of outcome.”

The Time Paradox

But If you are very conscientious, you are naturally aversive to hedonism. You will not have much fun because “fun” is not a priority. The way to overcome this problem is to be vigilant about fun the way you are about work, that is, to make sure that parts of your day or week are reserved for personal leisure and enjoyment.

If you are a present hedonist, you must take the future more seriously. You must think more about the consequences of your present decisions and accept that your lifestyle will not be sustainable over time. You must learn to structure your time better, to work more effectively, and to sacrifice leisure more regularly.

Regardless of which time perspective caters to your natural proclivities, challenge yourself to look at time differently, especially if your perspective of the past and present are negative or fatalistic.

Zimbardo argues that all extreme attitudes towards the past, present, and future are to be avoided. Like Aristotle’s Golden Mean, all is good in moderation.

The perspective you have about time changes, depending on which events you are going through, which stage of life you are in, and who you are influenced by. It is difficult to not be negative about the past when the past has been negative. Such an exercise would be contrary to reason.

It is more useful here to investigate why the past has been fatal, and whether anything can be done about it in the future, It is not merely a change of perspective that is required, but often, a change of action.

Your attitude towards the past and present may be more instructive as gauges for quality of your choices, than they are as levers that you can push or pull at your command.  

As for the hedonistic versus the hedonistic outlook. It is again, not something that can be forced. There are times when necessity imposes a sense of industry on man, where he is forced to think about the future, and other times, when the ease of circumstances produces an attitude of laxity that is too attractive to forego.

It is more interesting to be aware of how such changes in perception occur, rather than attempt to change the perception itself. The more you try to control how you want to perceive the past, present, or future – the more difficult it will be do so.

But once you understand how contingent your perspective on time is on external circumstances, and the choices you have made – you will better appreciate your moments of laxity and be more focused in your moments of industry.

In summary, what ought to be changed is not one’s perception of time. That is, it is not so much perception of reality that should be changed, but the perception of perception itself.

Instead of being fatalistic towards perception, you should understand that it changes, that it depends on your gut bacteria, the economy, who your friends are, as well as the individual choices you have made,

Instead of being taken hostage by something as ephemeral as perception, you should put more emphasis on action, and only use perception as a means of improving action.

And as we have learned from the East, there are some case where your perception may teach you that it is not action, but non-action that is missing.