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The Mind is an Excellent Servant, but a Terrible Master (Reversal)

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The Mind is an Excellent Servant, but a Terrible Master

Robin Sharma

The David Foster Wallace graduation speech comes to mind when I read this quote. The message is that your mind represents your automatic, default setting, your mind does whatever it is biologically wired to do, and part of this wiring requires to be hopelessly and eternally selfish and self-centered. But there is a remedy, and it comes in the form of a liberal arts education – because it teaches you how to think.

A proper education will give you the capacity to think and will teach you decide what you want to think about. it can make you less selfish, and less self-centered. If you can choose to, throughout your boring daily routines, to avoid taking out your anger on people who get in your way, because you understand that they may be having a more difficult time than you, then you escape your default setting, and become more attuned to people around you, and less dissatisfied because your petty needs aren’t instantaneously being catered to the second they arise.

Economists think that people want money because of the utility it can bring. In other words, the mind is a rational agent that makes a conscious choice to pursue money. But neuroscience studies suggest that it is the chase of money that is its own reward.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift”

– Einstein

One experiment by Stanford neuroscientist, Brian Knutsson, showed that the nucleus accumbens, a region in the brain, lit up as a reaction to the prospect of receiving money. This is the region in the brain that tells us what we want, in a primitive way. When the same area is stimulated in the brains of rats, they will press a lever until they drop from exhaustion.

We understand the nucleus accumbens as acting like a gas pedal that accelerates our pursuit of rewards, while the prefrontal cortex acts like the rational pilot, determining which rewards are worth pursuing, and which are not. 1

The experiment confirms the idea that the mind is a terrible master and an excellent servant, capable of accelerating towards its desired goal, even if such a goal was self-destructive – if the pre-frontal cortex chooses badly. In the case of money, a generally desirable goal, you might wonder why such an example proves that the mind can be a terrible master.

First, the pursuit of money is not always desirable. It is possible to become blinded by the pursuit of money, at the expense of everything else, including one’s mental and physical health. Any compulsive gambler can attest to this.

But the pre-frontal cortex is also responsible for allowing individuals to pursue completely irrational goals. In The Laws of Human Stupidity, Cipolla describes any kind of lose-lose behavior as stupid or irrational. An example of this would be blind revenge, where both parties become worse off.

But what happens if we reverse the phrase, “The mind is an excellent master, but a terrible servant.”

Unsurprisingly, it too makes sense, since the mind is both servant and master and is both terrible and excellent. In other words, the mind is both diligent and lazy, brilliant and stupid.

The mind is a terrible servant, because it is rebellious and complicated, emotional and fickle.. If the mind was a great servant, you would never complain about your lack of willpower, you would rarely have regrets, and you would never be late for anything you thought was important.

In fact, most of the time, people know what they ought to do. The real challenge is to do it.

We think our actions express our decisions. But in nearly all of our life, willing decides nothing. We cannot wake up or fall asleep, remember or forget our dreams, summon or banish our thoughts, by deciding to do so.

– John Gray, Straw Dogs

2 replies on “The Mind is an Excellent Servant, but a Terrible Master (Reversal)”

This reminds me a lot of the Schopenhauer phrase “a man can be as they will, but they cannot will as they will.”

I like your reversal too, and it works well with “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions”, in that the mind is a great master when reason is used to facilitate and provide nourishment for ones passion, or ones will– and is a terrible servant when it fails to do so.

Though, and it’s an interesting thing about cliches and aphorisms, where you can reverse their points a lot of the time and end up with a fresh way of looking at the same truths.

Very interesting. Do you mind sharing which text by Schopenhauer this is from? And you are absolutely right about aphorisms and maxims generally. It is not only insightful to take the reverse of a common aphorism or cliche, but indicative of deeper truths about the nature of language and of knowledge. I will expand on this in the future. Thanks for your great comment.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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