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Opinion psychology

The Doer vs The Thinker

There are many ways of categorizing people according to their personalities, but a simple and effective one is into doers vs thinkers. Here, I define the thinker as someone who’s main profession is to think about matters abstractly, this can be the professor, novelist, or artist. The doer is defined as someone who is reacting to events that are happening in the external world, and this is how he makes a living. A trader, a mechanic, or a doctor are doers.

My observations on doers and thinkers have been more pronounced with time. I notice that people who are doers and thinkers become more extreme versions of what they are. It is easy to see why – a repeating pattern of self-reinforcing behavior will inevitably lead to the exaggeration of one’s predispositions, especially within the context of an economy that offers immediate rewards to those who specialize.

The Characteristics

The doer is engaged with the possibility of new experiences that are always changing, with the same thinking patterns. The thinker is submerged in a world of predictable routines but unpredictable thinking patterns. The doer is less likely to change the way they think about the world, because it is too inefficient, he will only refine his established routines. But the thinker is ready to change his own paradigm, because he doesn’t mind getting sidetracked. For the thinker, a fuller understanding of the world can only be possible by adopting many different points of view, and doing so takes time.

Each person is a combination of both thinker and doer, of course, but each population certainly has easily identifiable doers and thinkers.

The doer complements the thinker, but it is difficult for the thinker to do the same, although not impossible. The ideas of Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Milton Friedman have had a large effect on the lives of doers. So have the ideas of philosophers and psychologists.

The doer is only interested in what is manifest, while the thinker is interested in potential. The thinker does not care so much about what is, but cares about what is possible. The thinker is an idealist, the doer is a pragmatist.

To Change the World or to Interpret it?

Slavoj Zizek says we must interpret the world. Our tinkering has fucked things up, now it is time to stop tinkering, to take a step back, and to try to understand the historic moment where we are in, and where we should move from here. But this is not possible, since the economic cycle does not go on arbitrary vacations to give people the chance to do some philosophy.

Even if Zizek wanted to take a step back, and wanted some people to follow suit, this is not passivism by any stretch, and I don’t think it is intended to be. Inaction is a form of action. Nassim Taleb, the trader turned professor, would vehemently disagree with Zizek, and so would Peter Thiel. These guys think that thinking leads nowhere, and the only path forward is to do, and not think. Or rather, to do first and think later.

Taleb’s logic is simple. We are not very smart, imaginative, or capable of figuring out solutions a priori. The only way to learn is to engage with the world. Some arguments he has made: There are hundreds of thousands of drugs that are being produced each year. Only a handful of them are being used for their intended purpose at inception. If you wanted to create the best tasting dish, and you had to choose one of two teams to prepare it for you: the first would be a team of renown chemists, while the second would be a team of slightly overweight men who enjoy eating – the latter team would be more successful. Why? Through trial and error.

The only way to learn is through trial and error. Conjecture and philosophical abstraction lead nowhere. Our models of the world are faulty, because we cannot process reality in its entirety, we can only see a distorted version of the world. The process of trial and error is a more effective way of gaining insight about the world than thinking. This is the foundation of science. Prior to the scientific method, knowledge was only possible through the idiosyncratic opinions of exceptional individuals. Science unified human knowledge, by eliminating bias. In entrepreneurship, the Lean Startup method, first advocated by Steve Blank, then popularized by Eric Ries, is now the dominant way of approaching starting a business.

Peter Thiel says that people are resorting far too much to introspection in a paper he named “The Straussian Moment.”

But I wonder if Zizek is not right when he says, that instead of constantly trying to move fast and break things, it would be wiser to step back and understand what is going on. But when we stop to interpret the world, under what lens should we interpret the world? And isn’t it naïve to think that by dialogue, the opposing positions of people can be reconciled? What is the purpose of thinking if, unlike the scientific method, unification of thought will never be possible?

Consider the problem of subjectivism. When thinking abstractly, and becoming too attached to either theories or thinkers, we lose sight of the objective reality. The world is too complex to be explained through one ideological perspective. Since there are opposing narratives, and this can be seen in the news every day, each side chooses to focus on one set of events from history and ignores all other information. As Chomsky remarked, to read the news well, you must be mindful of the reality of bias.

When Zizek says that we must interpret more and do less, will this only result in a battle of ideas, with each side speaking past the other, without real change. Do conversations about the future lead to change, or does change lead to conversations about the future?

The Blind Spots

But it is not just that there is a dichotomy between thought and action, but there is also a dichotomy between being accurate and being effective.

In Monty Pythons Life of Brian, the revolutionary political thinkers of Jerusalem conspire around a table and debate which plans they want to implement. They hold consecutive meetings embellished with pointless bureaucratic pronouncements before they discuss how they will topple the government,  but when they are interrupted by a messenger who tells them of the real political change that is occurring outside, they do not stop what they are doing, but convene for another meeting to plan what to do next. 

This schism between what is and what could be, thinking and doing, highlights the comical situation the world ultimately finds itself in. 
The men of action, specifically those that are in positions of power, are often too busy doing things but spend little time thinking. While those that think don’t do very much and their ideas are ultimately inconsequential. And so, the world moves unthinkingly while those who think take note of the disparaging reality. This is like the individual that continues to live recklessly and make mistakes while being aware of the dangers of his action yet feeling himself powerless to oppose them, the human organism moves forward, self-aware but inconsequentially so.

Thinkers should move outside their concentric circle of thinking friends and explore the world of the doer, to take note of the drawbacks and the advantages and to achieve a minimum amount of competence in this realm. It is not useful for thinkers to trap themselves into their own worlds – as gratifying and comfortable as it is. It is also important for the thinker to learn how to converse with doers. The doers should do the same, and take time to introspect, and to think about their behavior. The danger for them is their addiction to fixed patterns of behavior where they require an appropriate external response, and as Freud recalls in his book Civilization and its Discontents, many wise men have warned against being too dependent on external gratification for internal peace.

Each person needs to be at peace with what they naturally are, but too much comfort can lead to complacency and to blind spots. The Egyptian God Horus was the eye on top of the pyramid – the Egyptians placed attention on top of their hierarchy. Attention is a defense mechanism against chaos – it protects the individual and consequently society from intruding forces. It is great to capitalize on one’s strengths since mastery can only be achieved by a consistent commitment to what one does best, but it pays to understand what one does worst, for the things that are most damaging are often hidden from sight, and can only be uncovered when certain ignored faculties are unlocked.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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