It was as though he was saying “yeah, life, it’s the worst” followed by the rhetorical question “but what are you gonna do” having asked and found out that I wasn’t depressed and was willing to keep going for as long as it lasts.
Last year I went to see my doctor for something. I cannot for the life of me remember what it was about specifically but as is the way with him, we chatted a little about life and how I was feeling about things. I answered his questions truthfully because that is what my role was, based on my most recent reading of the “Big Book Of Social Conventions” that doesn’t exist.
I remember now why I went to see him. It was to get a prescription renewed but it also had something to do with the fact that I had started to realize that life is tough and it remains kind of hard even though I am getting better at it. While I am not as physically fit as I used to be, I have no trouble putting in a full days labor if that is what the day calls for. The toughness that I was noticing was not of a physical nature – I think on some level the brain has come to terms with gravity, the mass of things, and the practical implications of the stuff Newton was ranting about after that apple hit him on the head. We have dealt with momentum, inertia, and the tendency for everything to try and drop into the center of the earth for so long that we just sort of accept that. Even if we concede the loss to physics, we still have to play the game and constantly hold things up.
The challenge that I was relating to him was more of the existential struggle that some measure of people will notice, think about, and share with their doctors. It is the struggle that I think those without children will become more aware of because there is nothing in their life that fills them with blind hope and dogmatic optimism about the future of the planet. My saying this as a lot to do with the feeling I get when I watch a parent interact with their child and celebrate the days tiny successes – like the drawing of a stick figure family that includes the correct number of people is a solid indication that the child’s intellectual horsepower will result in them curing some awful disease. They have to be optimistic because who really wants to be responsible for teaching a young person what the world is all about? Plus, they get to see first hand the magical power of the human brain taking in, making sense of, and then interacting with the real world. All of the little benchmarks in their child’s development are actually something truly remarkable. But having no children, my days are filled with interactions with once children who afford other people no reason to be optimistic that tomorrow will be any different than today or that their parents optimism was ever anything but misguided. I deal with grown-ups and if I was forced to describe us all in one word that word would be “average.”
Average is not very good, and it is certainly no reason to be optimistic about anything other than the continuation of mediocre. I am a data point in all of this so no part of me is honestly suggesting that my contribution to “average” is doing anything to lift the score. Life is not easy, talent is rare, and becoming good at something requires consistent and frequent hard work. Being average at something takes just slightly more effort than being utterly useless so it should not be surprising that the world just kind of sucks, mostly completely.
Now I have been aware of this fact for a long time; at least my brain has been aware of it simply because it has been the thing that has had to deal with it in much the same way as it has had to come to terms with gravity. The transformation recently has been that I have become consciously aware of this fact and it has started to grind me down and make me kind of realistic about today and the future. Today is going to be a lot like yesterday and tomorrow is going to be a lot like today. Very little changes other than the coat of paint, even if it seems like so much is changing. It is years of nothing, then a moment of shifting to the left, followed by more years of nothing. Repeat, but with the occasional jog to the right, or backwards, and a new iPhone that requires a different cable so your charging problem is back, rebranded but it’s the same problem you solved three years ago.
When I was talking to him, I didn’t take a moment to consider just how unsympathetic he could have been. He’s seen more than I have, and what he has seen is about as raw and unvarnished as anything can be. So while I was dealing with there being too many people in line or some store worker just hating me because they hate their job and me showing-up serves only to remind them that they are at work, he has been dealing with rot and decay, and the eventual end of each individual person. But he’s a grown-up, knows full well what the world is all about, and still asked me how I was doing.
I said something like life was kind of a drag and that if I had any advice to give it would be to not start it. This caused him to ask about self harm and I honestly replied “no, I’m going to see it through to a natural ending, whenever that is. It’s just that every day is more or less the same – wake-up, eat, go to work, work, eat, leave work, go to the store, shop for food, go home, make dinner, eat, watch some TV, feel like I’m wasting my life, feel stupid for feeling like I have it bad when I have it really good, go to bed, dream, wake-up and do it over again. It’s life, it’s what it is. It continues long after you get good at it and start to lose interest. I just wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but that isn’t really how things go.”
He kind of laughed because he’s a doctor and it was a true statement. Maybe it was a little funny too, I don’t really know, but I know my life is easy compared to almost everyone else who is alive right now, and better than EVERYONE who had lived before 1950.
But the brain doesn’t work that way, which is a bug and not a feature if you were to ask me. It seems nearly powerless to hold in mind just how crappy things used to be and instead chooses to track in on just how crappy things are right now. While we should be smiling because we know NO ONE who died from lockjaw or from blood poisoning when the compound femur fracture they got when their horse threw them ended-up getting infected, we choose anger instead because our selfie from the Kiss concert only got 87 likes or because McDonald’s now serves some breakfast items all day.
Sure, we can force ourselves to think about the good stuff and to generate a sense of gratitude, but that requires effort and tends to earn us the label of Pollyanna.
He didn’t offer me any advice or criticism and just kind of nodded in agreement with what I was saying. It was as though he was saying “yeah, life, it’s the worst” followed by the rhetorical question “but what are you gonna do” having asked and found out that I wasn’t depressed and was willing to keep going for as long as it lasts. Killing myself was never on the table as I’m not even unhappy that I am alive. It was as though he was just checking in to make sure that my sudden realization that the living of life is a very different experience than thinking about “life” had not been so destabilizing as to render me unwilling to keep at it. And once he got that confirmation, the potentially very serious health crisis evaporated and it was just two people in a room talking about the primary disincentive for stasis. Life has to suck most of the time or else we won’t do anything. Even when it doesn’t suck, we have to find things to complain about in order to create the motivation to do something different.
Of course, we didn’t talk about that part of it. He has a job to do and I have a role to play, and neither of these include tracking in on the fundamental reason why being chronically unsatisfied might be the only reason why our species has survived as long as it has. My role is to get my prescription renewed and to answer his questions as honestly as I can, and his job is to know what questions to ask and make an educated guess about how my life will unfold over the next six months based on the content of my answers.
And in fairness to him and to the medical profession in general, there isn’t anything that he can say about the topic. So long as I am fine with continuing my life, any realization that life is hard, thankless, and effectively exactly the same every day once you hit 35, is not grounds for concern. Just because I didn’t realize it before doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been this way forever. Their job is not to help me come to terms with being alive, it is to make sure I stay alive and to offer assistance and help when something starts to go wrong that can be corrected. Me waking up is not something going wrong, or that can or should be corrected.
This is the wisdom of his questions. People tell their doctors all kinds of stuff that they probably wouldn’t tell other people. My dispassionate soliloquy serves two purposes. The first is straight forward enough, it’s to let him get a handle on what is going through my mind at that moment in time to make sure there isn’t something serious bubbling just below the surface. The second is to give me the chance to say out loud what has been going through my mind recently in an attempt to make it more than just some thought. This second part is for me, and it’s a small piece of therapy because those things need to be said out loud in order to be understood and interrogated for accuracy and meaning.
By giving me the opportunity to say “life, I wouldn’t recommend it” the doctor is making sure that I listen to, hear, and process the bulk of these thoughts. So long as there is no pathology, he’s not going to be able to do much about it because he’s not an expert on me or my life. But by giving me a chance to say out loud and to another person my thoughts, he’s kind of forcing these ideas back into my brain to be reprocessed for meaning as they apply to me. While he didn’t ask the question “if what you are saying is true, is there something troubling about it or what do you find troubling about it?” these are the questions someone should consider because people talk about things that matter to them or things that they believe are important. I was reporting what I believed was significant to me at that moment in time, so I as trying to shine a light on the fact that my life had become less enjoyable and less significant than it had been. My pointing out that each day is more or less the same as yesterday or today, is an indication that my brain was no longer getting the stimulation it needed to ignore the fact that life can be really boring when you are not doing anything or are not doing enough things of value to distract you for the mundane nature of being alive. His questions are posed in an effort to get me to voice any dramatic contrasts I have been experiencing and to then try and figure out what has changed.
Related, but not exactly relevant here, is my tendency towards the thought “if I wasn’t alive I wouldn’t need to deal with this anymore.” This thought has come to my mind about five times in my life. At my absolute worst, when I was in the grips of a deep depression, I never thought about not being alive anymore. Death wasn’t a solution, I was just depressed and I made no judgment about the validity of the feelings I was having. Depression sucks, it taints everything a particularly dark color of pessimism that leaves you so certain that everything is going to suck that your motivation is capped at empty. Yet I never considered ending my life to get out of having to live another day of bedridden depression. It was as though I knew there wasn’t much that I could do about it and therefore felt no shame or responsibility for what was going on. Time, rest, a good diet, exercise, and medication would take care of things and I set about correcting the mental trajectory of my emotional system.
The five times I thought “if I was dead I wouldn’t have to do this anymore” all surrounded decisions that I was making that were causing my life to be something that I wasn’t looking forward to. For example, I had a job managing a gym in a small town about 3 hours away from Milton (my home town). It wasn’t a bad job at all, it was actually a fairly good one. I had the support of my boss, my team knew that I believed in them, and work was about 95% great. In fact, I preferred being at work than living in the apartment that I rented; I was happy to wake-up in the morning because I got to go to work and sad as hell nine or ten hours later when it was time to call it a day. It was during one of these drives home that I heard myself think “if I was dead I wouldn’t have to do this anymore.”
My problem was that I didn’t like the majority of my life. The 40 to 55 hours a week I spend at work were great, as was the 3 hour drive back to Milton and the time I spent there every other weekend. The rest of it was not all that enjoyable and as time moved along, I became more and more aware of just how little I was getting out of being alive. When I heard myself say “if I was dead…” it caused me to take a look at my life and to try and figure out how I could think something like that.
Well, for one thing, it is a factual statement. When you are dead you do not have to repeat yesterday and pretend that it is a new day. Ending life is a very extreme way to solve the problem of having to do something that you don’t want to do. It is very effective but has the side effective of being completely limiting in terms of future options.
This begs the question “was it life that I wanted to stop or was it what I was doing within my life that I wanted to stop?” given my tendency to never want to stop my life. Any time a thought about ending my life pops into my head it is ALWAYS going to be the second part of the question – because I was doing something in my life that I wanted to stop doing. But it will include something even more important, that I am the one who is choosing to do the thing that I want to stop doing. In the case of the job, I knew I needed to move on to a different opportunity and realized that doing so was going to cause some waves and consume a lot of energy. In two or three months everything would have come to pass, but the time between now and then would be tumultuous. The thought was basically an avoidance fantasy like “imagine how amazing it would be to not have to go through any of that stuff.” Whatever that stuff is, the choice I have to make is between going through it now or going through it later, and not whether or not I have to go through it at all. The eventual outcome is clear, I will have moved on, I just need to decide when that will be and announce the beginning of the end.
The other four times I have had this thought were very similar. They were about something that I was choosing to do, that was making me unhappy, and that I was free to stop doing the moment I call it as being over and I put in the effort to deal with the fall out of that decision. It is always better a few months later and never as bad as the worst case prediction before the choice is made.
Another property these experiences share is they are moments of decision between two bad options mainly because of what I chose before. When given the choice between a good option and a bad option I picked the bad option. From there the quality of the options dropped until we arrive at this bad thing and that bad thing. For a lot longer than I’d like to admit, I choose to do nothing, kicking the decision down the road raising the stakes a little higher.
This is like “The Book Of Questions” but instead of the one that is written by a normal person, it is written by a psycho or sociopath. The question “would you rather drown or burn to death?” is asked. Instead of learning something about yourself or gaining some insight about an action that you must take, your brain gets curious and you begin to wonder what life choices would have led you to a situation that has only “burn” or “drown” as the answers. There are a few back stories, and all of them begin with making a bad choice when when presented with a better option. And once it’s on, a series of bad choices lead you having to pick between two things that are, for all practical purposes, the same thing.
Fortunately it isn’t very much like the psychopath’s book of questions. The main similarity is that, at the core of it all, it is ME having been the one who made the choices that lead me to the moment. I am responsible for my place in life so I am therefore responsible for finding a new place or creating my peace with this one. My thought that it would be great to not be alive anymore was 100% caused by my brains unconscious realization that I caused it all to happen. The idea was manufactured by some mental process fantasizing about an existence that freed me of having to take responsibility for what was in order to navigate my way out of it and one that allowed me to continue to keep my head in the sand about what was actually going on. Once I learned what the thought indicated, I came to accept what was going on. The internal conscious reality instantly matched the internal unconscious reality, which had come to match external reality.
There’s a funny thing about life that all people share. The moment we accept things for how they are, much of the difficulty simply evaporates as we stop resisting or wasting effort trying to make them different and channel that effort onto dealing with the reality. When we see clearly, we stop pretending and get round to doing something about what we have seen. My doctor was right to make sure I was going to keep going and then say nothing more about it. He probably could have said something that reflect some of his wisdom, but he left the opening open for me to fill-in. “Yeah, life is tough, and you are going to have to figure it out because it is going to continue.”
He was also correct to laugh at my recommendation that no one should start life. Whether or not it is true is irrelevant, it just isn’t a recommendation that anyone can ever follow. I interpreted what he said as him saying “yes, it is better to not begin, but once begun, it is better to finish.”
Headlines matter because they act to prime the reader for what they are about to consume. Their psychological purpose is to activate particular circuits and power-up mental processes that will influence the experience of the reader. An outrageous headline activates a lot of unconscious brain activity that readies the reader to engage in in-group / out-group thinking, virtue signalling behaviour, toxic empathy, and a version of the selection bias that has them ignore or disregard anything that would serve to mitigate the outrage. It suppresses objectivity and rational though by hijacking the brain of the reader.
Today I read the Toronto Sun article by Dr. Ken Walker (who writes using the name Dr. Gifford Jones) titled Did you hear about the North American wimp epidemic? It appeared in my Google news feed and after consciously trying to ignore it a few times I found myself clicking on the link.
I was expect one of two things. The first was an article about how “men” in North America have become emotionally more expressive as they tap into the well feminine energy in an attempt to become more progressive. The second was an article that outlined the hormonal changes that are associated with consuming too much soy protein as our culture moves away from eating animal protein. It was neither of these, which says a lot about me.
The article was about pain medication and how people in North America consume a lot of it. Based on a study that was referenced but not cited – Opioid Prescribing After Surgery in the United States, Canada, and Sweden – the author talks about the finding that people in Sweden are less likely to fulfill their prescription for opioid medication after keyhole surgery when compared to people in the US and Canada.
The results were shocking. It showed that 79% of Canadians and 76% of Americans used opioid prescription drugs following these procedures. But only 11% of patients in Sweden needed an opioid drug! You do not need to be a statistician to surmise that something has gone awry in North America.
Dr. W. Gifford-Jones
As the article continues, he coins the term “pillitis” as a symptom of our mania for pills. For this, he places the blame on three groups:
The first is big pharma who have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to make as much money as possible. They manufacture and market chemical solutions to the problems that people have, and, as such, they have a conflict of interest when it comes to the truth. If they can sell the problem and the solution, they’ll beat earnings projections which translates into greater divided-ends and larger bonuses for the C level personnel.
The second group is the doctors who prescribe the medicine to their patients. Their motivation is to reduce suffering while doing no harm to the people they are helping. Being the only people in the equation who have the legal authority to say who can buy and consume most medication, they are the gatekeepers who basically introduce the end user to the drug dealers. This introduction comes in the form of a prescription, a dosing recommendation, and their blessing.
The final group are the people who consume more medication than their counterparts in Sweden. These are the “wimps” that Dr. Gifford-Jones is talking about. We are the ones suffering from pillitis, unwilling or incapable of enduring any sort of pain and only too happy to shell out cash to buy whatever magic coloured pill that has been invented to alleviate the symptoms of whatever medical condition happens to be making our life a little bit less than ideal.
While I happen to agree with a lot of what the author is saying – that many of the medical problems that people suffer from are not problems per-say, and are actually symptoms of a series of poor life choices – I have difficulty with how he goes about saying it and what he does to get the message out.
According to the JAMA article that he references, around 8 of 10 people in North America who get surgery will fulfill the prescription for pain medication that their doctors gave them. In Sweden, this number is around 1 in ten. Using logic and hyperbole, the conclusion is drawn that people in North America are wimps and the folks in Sweden are tough.
This is a little rich, particularly for a medical professional. It’s the kind of thing that I would expect from a blogger, copy writer, or pundit who has a vested interest in pushing a particular point of view. It is the very thing that kind of has me try to ignore sensationalist headlines and avoid consuming the articles they are trying to promote. It is more understandable when a writer, marketer or talking head does it as they may not see themselves having any other choice. It is a different story when a doctor does it.
This I say while agreeing with most of what the author is stating. Too many people rely on pills or medication to treat the symptoms of a problem that the person could solve if they just took some different actions – eating more whole food and more fresh vegetables, and consuming lower amounts of food will go a long way in eliminating the “need” to take heart burn medication. The body is doing its best to process the crappy food-like stuff that is being pushed into the stomach, which means making and releasing more than a reasonable amount of digestive acid. More acid dumped into a full stomach means that some of this acid is going to find it way to the top and begin to leak out. There is a very good chance that your daily heartburn would disappear if you ate less in general and consumed more things that are easy to breakdown.
As evidence that North Americans are wimps, our constant indigestion does not meet the mark. It is more likely evidence of a different condition that is not medical – it indicates that we make chronically bad choices and find the consumption of various food-like products to be so rewarding that we cannot stop ourselves from eating them.
That same thing might apply to the filling of the post-surgery opioid drug prescriptions that the doctors write. This one is a little tougher though given that very few people are doctors and that most people are compliant or obedient when it comes to the recommendations of authority figures. When the doctor hands over a prescription it is natural for a patient to be motivated to get it filled and to follow the doctors’ orders. This is the case for almost all medications and for most people, and it is behaviour that is instilled in us when we are young and any time we hear someone say something about antibiotic resistant bacteria. Super bugs are primarily created through the over use of antibiotics in animal farming and, to a much lower extent, by people not completing the entire course of antibiotics. However, since most people are not farmers, our civic duty is to take ALL of the medication the doctor prescribes and to consume it exactly how they outline.
If you do not want to be a bad person and end up ruining the future for your children you WILL do what the doctor says. Factor this into a health care system that doesn’t afford the doctor a whole lot of time to get into the ins and outs of opioid pain killers and you have the perfect recipe for the creation of a continent of wimps. The doctor told me to take the medication every 6 hours so I took the medication every six hours. And by the way, the doctor cut a couple of holes into me, pumped the area full of CO2, and scrapped or cut out stuff that wasn’t supposed to be there. Sure, when compared to the old school method of slicing a 14 inch cut just below the rib cage and having the doctor and three surgery assistants put their hand inside feeling around in your guts, laparoscopic surgery isn’t much of anything. But it is still “surgery,” albeit a much less invasive form of cutting someone open.
I don’t think this makes people wimps – at least it does not necessarily make us wimps. People in North America are much more likely to get their opioid prescriptions filled, and according to the JAMA article, are going to be prescribed a greater quantity of medication when compared to Sweden. Does this mean that doctors, as the middle people between the drug seller and the drug user, are the ones who are writing the prescriptions and are therefore in near complete control over who gets access and the quantity that they get access to? It does, but it is the wimps who are following the doctors’ orders. Does it also mean that people in Sweden are much less likely to listen to what their doctors say and to ignore the medical advice that they dispense? It does, but that is because they are not wimps like we are in North America.
Here’s the rub, and it bothers me a lot. First off, I agree with what the doctor is saying about over prescribing medication, particularly opioid pain killers. These drugs are a potential problem because they have the quality of eliminating psychological pain as well as most physical pain. Life can be tough, it can even be painful. Maybe you come home from work and your back hurts from lifting something. Maybe you come home and your spirit hurts from the realization that you are the lackey who must dance when your boss grinds out a tune on the organ. Both of these things are a version of pain, both will disappear if you take some oxy, and maybe both should be experienced because they are a symptom of something not working for your body. The ability to experience pain evolved for a reason, we eliminate it at our own peril. Not wanting to experience pain does not make someone a wimp, it indicates that the system is working correctly and that the person is psychologically well adjusted. Pain is there to motivate us to avoid something. The truth is, post-surgery pain is an indication that the surgery should be avoided and that you should avoid surgeons. That is true in so far as their interventions DID cause the pain but it is not true because when we take a long view, their actions actually reduce long term suffering.
My annoyance comes from the title of his article and on who he blames for the abundant filling of post-surgery pain prescriptions. As a doctor, he isn’t going to come out and say “surgeons in North America are prescribing more pain medication than is necessary and this is helping to line the pockets of drug companies” because it would be professionally risky and while it might be technically true, doing so isn’t on their radar. The intention of a surgeon is to reduce suffering and allow people to live with less pain and without the need for pain medication once healing has taken place. All of that being said, the JAMA article was not about people who went out and bought pain medication on the black market, it is about people for which a medical doctor prescribed the medication and that the patients bought through a well-established and legal system.
The author has a point of view and has an obligation to the publisher of the Toronto Sun to create content that will generate page views. While his article was a less than perfect marriage of these two things, it was moderately successful at the first and very successful at the second. He seems to believe that people should be more tolerate of pain and have a willingness to alter their behaviour to eliminate some of the discomfort associated with making poor choices. He also seems to believe that doctors should not be prescribing opioid medications as frequently or in the amounts that they are. But in order to get people to consume these messages, he creates an outrageous title that implies that wimpiness is the newest epidemic to hit North America.
This makes me wonder, would he have gotten as many page views if he had selected the title “Thousands Ignore Medical Advice In Epidemic Of Swedish Masochism?” I have to concede that I would have clicked on that link INSTANTLY and would have laughed at the tactic to trigger my interest and capture my attention.
Headlines matter because they act to prime the reader for what they are about to consume. Their psychological purpose is to activate particular circuits and power-up mental processes that will influence the experience of the reader. An outrageous headline activates a lot of unconscious brain activity that readies the reader to engage in in-group / out-group thinking, virtue signalling behaviour, toxic empathy, and a version of the selection bias that has them ignore or disregard anything that would serve to mitigate the outrage. It suppresses objectivity and rational though by hijacking the brain of the reader. A feel good headline on the other hand offers so much less to the brain of the reader. No problem is presented and since no one is being victimized, the moral high-ground is not so clearly found. The absence of an obvious “right” and “wrong” offers little incentive to the brain of a potential reader. Unconsciously, we KNOW that there is nothing in it for us and while we may feel good after reading it, we will not feel activated and alive in nearly the same way as we do when we read about Trumps latest tweet – regardless of the side of the fence you find yourself on, Trump’s tweets satisfy everyone because they are either outrageous or how people respond to them will be.
I do not fault the doctor for any of this. He is both a doctor and a writer, and the identity of each requires a different set of skills and behaviours. The lines are blurred a little bit with his “wimp” article because he’s using a tactic of a writer to get people to consume his medical opinion. Getting people to read anything is a tough task, so maybe he had little choice when it came down to it. However, after reading his article and the original JAMA study, I’m left wondering if it was worth the time and effort.
And that is the point of this post. Headlines are used to capture people’s attention and trick them into reading something that they would normally ignore because they trigger seeking behaviour that is, in many ways, very similar to the moves drug addicts make as the effects of their last hit begin to fade. But just like the cravings of a drug addict, we do not need to give-in to the desires that are launched by an extreme headline. These decisions to not indulge will, overtime, reduce and eventually eliminate the intrusive thoughts that lead to the impulsive behaviour of clicking to read things that we actually do not care about or that we were tricked into believing mattered to us.
I have a lot to gain from having more women working in STEM but not if any of them are being forced into doing it. If the cost of the next cool device or medical cure is some women being forced to become an engineer or researcher against her will, that is too high a price to pay.
STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. When I first heard it used in this way, probably more than ten years ago, I didn’t know or even care what it meant. I was too busy doing something to even give it a moment’s consideration. But as is the case with life and the important things, STEM was something that mattered and it started to matter more and more.
My educational background is in psychology and physical education. I did take some science classes in high school but the only STEM university placement courses I took were biology, “algebra and geometry” and kinesiology. I took about 2 weeks of calculus before calling it right in the middle of the first test. The rest of my placement classes were social science and arts (not fine). My marks were sufficient for me to get into university and I more or less stayed in the arts / humanities lane taking one biology course, a biological psychology course, and a few economics courses as electives. This meant that I read more than I did, and my degree doesn’t exactly have deep roots in the pure or empirical sciences. This is something I am fine with.
While I would do it differently if the opportunity was presented, this statement is based solely on the wisdom that the world today is very different from the world of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The truth is that I didn’t really enjoy science as much as I enjoyed other things and at the time, an enjoyment of other things was sufficient to justify going to university and getting a degree in social science or the arts / humanities. STEM was much less important thirty years ago because people still got high paying jobs that they would work for their entire life before retiring with a full pension that allowed them to travel and live a life of leisure.
I am lucky because I have a decent brain and I enjoy learning. For one reason or another, I am curious about how things work and I find the moments of realization to be exceptionally rewarding. The notion that people will have four or five careers in their working life is not a daunting task. In fact, I’m happy about it because it has forced me to reinvent my professional self a few times already. The thing is that I will never have a career that is purely in the STEM field. While I do not rule out a consulting, training or a management role in one of these industries, I am never going to be an engineer, work with complex math or to be a scientist in the lab coat sense of the word. I believe that I will be able to learn enough about any of these things to communicate effectively with my staff and coworkers should I end up in this area, but I am not going back to school to learn to be an engineer or anything like that. Those people have a skill set that I do not have and am content to never acquire.
I am a male, so my decision to take psychology in university was one that moved me into a field that was and remains majority female – the ratio of women to men is about 2:1. This did not bother me and I do not remember thinking, at least in a bad way, that I was outnumbered or that I didn’t belong. I was just getting a degree and since I didn’t have any intention of getting a masters or PhD I wasn’t competition or a threat to anyone. Towards the end of it, I was just happy that it was almost over and was more interested in moving on to the next phase of life. And when I graduated, my brother gave me a job working for an IT company that he had started and that was the beginning of my exposure to anything that was STEM in terms of a career.
I bring this up because all of this was my choice. My parents wanted their children to go to university because our brains were fast enough to make it through and because Canada provides people with opportunities that were not so readily available to my parents when they were that age and living in Ireland. But there wasn’t much pressure on us to do anything specific. My brother has a good brain for science and was considering taking a music degree towards the end of high school. Our folks didn’t care about it all that much so long as he took advantage of the chance to go to university. He’s a good writer and could have excelled at English, he could have excelled in medicine, neuroscience, whatever, and our parents would have been happy. The key was that we honor their sacrifice and go to university to take what we wanted to take. While we didn’t really have a choice about going, we were free to pursue whatever we wanted so long as we went. He earned a science degree and I earned a psychology degree and our parents were happy.
I don’t know what I would have done if my parents had told me that I NEEDED to become an engineer or a doctor. First off, medical school is really competitive and I’m not certain that I have the intellectual horsepower to gain entrance. But assuming that I do, I would have had to take a lot of science courses that did not, at the time, interest me. While engineering is less competitive and my brain is probably fast enough for it, there is still the problem of all of the prerequisite math and science courses. I did very well in year two statistics which was heavy on the math at the time, so math wasn’t necessarily out of my wheelhouse, it just wasn’t a part of my high school academic plan. I’m fairly confident that IF my parents had forced the issue early on, I could have earned an engineering degree, but it would have come at the cost of studying things that didn’t interest me and would have included a heavy serving of contempt for them.
In the last ten to fifteen years there has been a push towards generating more diversity in the STEM fields, and this push had gained a lot of force over the last five or so. On the face of it, this seems like a good idea. There is ample evidence that when the population as a whole is given access to education, the entire society benefits. And the opposite is equally true, when segments of the population are denied the opportunity for education, the standard of living and the average level of life satisfaction plummets. Brains are very useful and when they are filled with information and mental processes, the outcomes they can generate will shift the course of our entire species. This cannot happen when education is made available to only white men or to men in general. The moment all races and women are given access to a high quality education is a turning point for a society. It can take a few years for the benefits to surface, but they are inevitable and once they take hold, there is no turning back.
In fact, countries that do not offer government funded access to high quality education to all of the citizens contain a lot of people who WISH they could attend school because they are very aware of the value it has and the power it affords someone in shaping the direction and quality of their life. Women and girls are willing to risk death to go to school because they know full well how it is going to help them in the future.
So the notion that women and minorities should have access to a high quality education and the opportunity to pursue whatever field their academic interests and abilities make available to them is something that I fully support. I do not, however, believe that there needs to be more women in STEM fields or that the percentages of women and men in these fields should be equal to the population distribution of women and men – 50.4% of the population are women therefore 50.4% of the engineers should be women. Be clear, I am not suggesting that the current employment make-up is appropriate, nor am I suggesting that there is nothing to be done to ensure that women take advantage of the opportunities to pursue STEM. I am simply suggesting that there is not necessarily a “need” for more women in these fields.
This topic is radioactive and it does not need to be. For some reason it is emotionally charged in a way that gets people to put words into other people’s mouths, interpret things in the least charitable way, and to assume that any position that is counter to the “everyone is exactly the same” view as a statement that one group is inferior. It is an exhausting exercise for all parties – one group gets exhausted jumping to conclusions while the other group gets exhausted trying to clean-up a deliberate misunderstanding and walking back things they never said.
At the core of this topic is an untested assumption that there are not enough women in STEM. I happen to believe that the number of women in STEM is not as high as it should be, and I also believe that the number of men in STEM is higher than is should be – here I am talking about real numbers and NOT percentages nor am I assuming that this is a zero sum situation. For example, assume that there are 1000 STEM jobs right now and that 200 of them are held by women. The proper numbers should be 312 women and a total of 1067 jobs; meaning that 45 men left the field. Of course, these numbers are illustrative only, I have no idea what the actual numbers are.
This is actually the point, no one knows the numbers.
Which is the source of the problems when trying to have a conversation about it. People feel very strongly that the numbers are not correct, which would be fine if they just had a feeling about it, except they take action based on this feeling. The first action they take is to create a long list of reasons WHY women avoid STEM and the second action is to set about addressing all of these reasons. The irony about this is not lost on me, and I hope it isn’t lost on you either.
This is NOT how science works. Science works using evidence and facts and the moment something is shown to not be a fact, it is eliminated from both the consideration and the statistical analysis to ensure the data is not corrupted. While assumptions will be made, they are made only so they can be tested. And when they are proven wrong, they are discarded. What comes out the other end is a theory. There is a common and incorrect notion that a theory is a guess and is just something that is waiting to be proven false. It is so much more than that. A theory is an assumption that has not been proven false after countless tests and experiments to prove that it is false. In fact, scientists KNOW that if they are able to prove a well-established theory to be wrong, they are well on their way to academic legend status and possibly a Nobel Prize. Of course, the error in believing that a theory is just a guess or an assumption is based on the non-science understanding of science and is likely the result of someone mistaking hypothesis with theory. A hypothesis gets tested, a theory has been tested hundreds or thousands of time and is supported by mountains of evidence.
The whole thing about STEM starts with a conclusion and works backward to get the evidence that will support the conclusion. It isn’t an operation that pure scientists have undertaken because they would not approach the subject in this way. This is exactly why conversations about women and men in STEM fields turn into dogmatic battles about equality, power and privilege.
The scientific approach would have all of the stake holders get very clear on whether or not there is a problem and if there is, what exactly the problem is. The hypothesis that there are not enough women in STEM is not the same thing as a factual statement that there are not enough women in STEM. The moment this hypothesis is accepted as true, we have made a turn toward the unknown and are resting our foot on the accelerator. We haven’t journeyed into the realm of science fiction YET, because the hypothesis might actually be true, but we are about a moment away from leaving the truth seeking lane.
Before I go any further, it makes sense to talk about what the numbers actually say because they do not support the prevailing narrative that it is an irrefutable fact that there are not enough women in STEM.
First off, girls and boys do not differ in their abilities in STEM areas in primary and high school. The abilities of each group are statistically equal – this means that they are not necessarily identical but there is almost nothing between them. Girls however ARE better at language than boys. The difference isn’t much, but girls and boys are NOT statistically equal in terms of ability in this area. You need to let that sink in and allow the ramifications to start to surface.
The next thing to consider is that in egalitarian societies, more girls choose to NOT pursue STEM when compared to less egalitarian societies. This is something called the “Gender-Equality Paradox” because the person who labeled it was not a scientist – it is only a paradox when the premise is true, that the ratio of women and men in STEM should be the same as the ratio of women and men. If the premise is not true, the finding that a higher percentage of women will choose things OTHER than STEM when given more complete freedom to choose their course is something other than a paradox.
Also, in societies with fewer social welfare programs, more women choose to work in STEM fields. Now there is a correlations between how egalitarian a society is and the level of social welfare programs, so it is difficult to pull these factors apart. But it is worth considering that when people in modern society need security or safety, so money, more women will work in STEM. This could be due to the fact that these jobs pay more than jobs outside of the STEM fields although no one is sure.
Throw all of this together and the picture begins to become cloudy.
If it was true that women and men were the same, there wouldn’t be any difference between them on their abilities in any area. But women are better than men at language therefore women and men are not the same. Neither is better (except of course if you are talking about language abilities at which point women are). Language isn’t just one thing in the way multiplication is one thing, nor is it one thing in the way that mathematics is one thing. Language is in fact a part of EVERYTHING. While addition is a thing that exists independent of anyone knowing how to add numbers together, it is only something that we all know about because of language. The same applies to gravity, acceleration and momentum, so every aspect of physics. And everything else there is to learn. Without language, our ability to know things would be severely limited because we could only learn through direct experience.
The fact that women and men are equal in terms of STEM abilities has everything OR nothing to do with language. Everything because anything that is known and taught is taught with language and nothing because without language each individual person would have to learn everything through experience meaning that neither group would know very much about anything STEM. This is very important because language came before STEM and without language statistically NOTHING STEM would have been discovered.
So given that women are better at language and that language plays a critical role in everything, how might an enhanced language ability alter the decisions that a person makes? There are two things that need to be said about this. The first is a matter of competition and the second is a matter of choice.
Dealing with competition, if a man wants to be the best at something, they will need to do something that women are not better than men at or something that men are better than women at. This means something that isn’t very dependent upon language abilities or does rely on physical strength. If a woman wants to be the best at something they will need to choose something that men are not better than them at – physical strength – AND something that women are better than men at. The first assumption, the one that assumes equality between women and men, creates the situation that the individual MIGHT be better than everyone else (or is at least potentially as good as the other gender). The second assumption is purely about reducing competition. If there are 100 people, fifty women and fifty men, a woman who sets out to be the best are something that women and men are equal at will have to compete against 99 other people. But if they select something that women are better than men at they will only have to compete against 49 other people; this is cutting the competition pool in half, which is always a very good first step when trying to become the best at something.
This begs the questions – why would this matter and why would anyone want to be the best at anything? It matters because resources are scarce and a disproportionate share of the resources go to those who hold the top spots. Even if we do not like them, hierarchies exists and there is a certain amount of wisdom coded into our DNA that has us being operationally aware that the top is better than anywhere else on the scale so it is worth trying to reach the top. Our evolutionary history has written this fact into our genes so human beings will automatically engage in hierarchical determining behavior very early in their life. Our advanced mental functioning has allowed our species to move away from dominance and focus instead on prestige, intelligence, social status and other ways to compare ourselves to other people.
Women want their share of the resources and are willing to go after getting them by utilizing an intelligent strategy that maximizes their possibility of success. It makes complete sense, when you look at the math, that women would choose to do things that are NOT in the STEM field because those areas are hyper competitive and they do not have an innate advantage over men in this area – both are equal in terms of ability. They choose to pursue excellence in areas that offer them the best advantage, which just happen to be areas in which language plays a much larger role.
That’s the game theory piece of it. The experiential part of it is also a factor. Many women report having more satisfaction with the academic pursuit of subjects that are not included in STEM. They are good at both, they just happen to enjoy one more than the other. And remember that, all things being equal, people tend to repeat the actions for which they get rewarded. If everyone went after STEM, the doubling of the population pool would translate into a dilution of the rewards as they would be spread out over more people.
So you need to ask yourself a few questions – is the goal of having more women in STEM fields a noble one? Is making sure the percentage of women pursuing and working in STEM is equal to the percentage of women in the population a problem that we should be trying to solve? Phrased another way, if two female babies are born tomorrow morning and you had to choose between making sure that one of them ends up in STEM while the other ends up outside of STEM OR making sure they were free to choose their own path, which is the more noble goal?
It is not an easy thing to consider – well, it is, but it isn’t an easy thing to say that answer out loud because the answer is so obvious that it feels like something is being missed AND, more importantly, there is a very real sense that simply saying that you support equality of opportunity and are against forcing people into jobs that do not interest them have a quality of being trigger points to a vocal and hyper aggressive segment of the population.
But this is what it has come to for some crazy reason.
For thousands of years, women and men have been working together to manufacture knowledge, discover the nature of the world, and to keep the species going. Each did the role they were best at and while there have always been outliers, individuals who were better or more interested in the things the other side was doing, things did not break down. In fact, life was for the overwhelming majority of people and for almost the entirety of human history, nasty, brutish, and short. It was absolutely awful. Food scarcity, disease, infant mortality, death during childbirth, infection and the fact that our teeth cannot repair themselves meant an existence that was basically one insult after another.
The richest person and anyone else who was talented and hardworking enough to find themselves at the top of any hierarchy would have only a slightly better go of it. Make no mistake about it, life was dreadful by today’s standards for absolutely everyone up until the last 150 years. It got marginally better when William Thomas Green Morton discovered anesthesia in 1846, in 1847 when Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis discovered that hand washing was an effective way to prevent the spread of infection, and transformed in 1928 when Alexander Fleming discovered what would be called penicillin. This gave our species the upper hand in terms of reducing physical suffering and it began to dramatically reduce the overall mortality rates around the world. And thanks to STEM and other fields, things have been improving rapidly since.
But it wasn’t until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that birth control became completely legal, a moment that marked the beginning of the social period we are currently navigating our way through. Giving women near total control over their family planning transformed the well-established and traditional cycle of life. Starting a family could be predictably delayed until the time was “right” for all of the involved parties. This advancement, when combined with the dramatic improvements in health care and the significant reduction in infant mortality, translated into fewer children who were being born to older mothers. This means that women were taking advantage of improved access to education AND they were remaining in the work force for longer before starting their families, returning to the work force after having their children, and were spending less time being pregnant.
This changed the workforce dynamic in such a profound way that it is hard to overstate the ramification. The workforce did not necessarily double, but it did potentially double, meaning that jobs for all of these new workers were needed or else there was going to be some very severe consequences based on macroeconomic principles. The increase in supply would trigger a decrease in the demand, which tends to lower the wages. Over time, this can be managed, but when it occurs in the matter of a few years, things do not go so smoothly.
Two other factors come into play that tend to diminish the impact the role of women choosing to enter the work force in large numbers plays – civil rights and automation. All of these things are related – the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement had effectively the same goal – and when they are successful in even a small way, they have the same impact on the economy. There is an increase supply in workers in ALL levels of ability and the notion of gender and race specific jobs begins to evaporate. Then it is mostly a matter of time before everything normalizes UNLESS another significant factor begins to manipulate some of the variables. Which is exactly what automation did and continues to do.
This should not have been a surprise to anyone, considering that it is what always happens when more people start to work in an industry. More minds working a problem results in greater productivity, more complete knowledge growth and faster solutions. These translate in to quicker progress, which will lead to more automation. More automation means lay offs, leading to an increase in the supply of workers, which triggers a decrease in wages for less skilled jobs.
Most of this is great – equal rights for all people is perfectly fine. Universal access to a high quality education is an ideal situation. The freedom to choose how one exercises their liberty is very important. BUT there are going to be consequences to all of these things, and this is what is becoming very clear. People choose to do the things that they like, want, believe they need or actually need to do. And that is the beginning and end of it. Each individual only has control or impact over their own actions which means they are not in a position to make an accurate guess of what other people may choose to do. The consequence to this is that while many people have worked hard and sacrificed in order to make sure there is equality of opportunity, there is no reason to believe that anyone will take advantage of it in a way that makes sense or in a way that was predicted by those who made it all possible.
This is where we find ourselves right now and it’s a very challenging place to be. To recap:
Universal K to 12 education is available and mandated for ALL young people in North America and many western societies – for all races and all gender identities. This has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of people who are low skilled or semi-skilled, which will reduce the rate of pay for these jobs.
A dramatic increase in the availability of disposable income stemming from changes in the banking regulations, leading to a big boost in the number of people who attend post-secondary education – this results in a dramatic increase in the number of moderately skilled, which will reduce the rate of pay for these jobs.
A transition towards automation of low skill high labor jobs, causing a big reduction in the number and rate of pay for these jobs.
Strong social programs, such as government health care, social security, government pension, and welfare, ensure that people will be able to maintain a minimum standard of living REGARDLESS of how they choose to spend their time working.
A movement towards a more egalitarian culture / society gives people the opportunity to do what they want to do as opposed to doing what they have to do in order to get by.
These five variables interact and lead us to experience what we are experiencing now – an overall reduction in full time high paying jobs, the elimination of low skill full time high paying jobs, the creation of large numbers of low pay low skill part time jobs, the creation of modest numbers of high skill and emergent technology jobs, a work force that is bloated at the low skill area as all citizens graduate high school with this skill level, a level of equality of opportunity that has never existed before, and the prevailing belief that people should pursue what they are interested in vs. what pays well or will lead to something greater down the road.
Hindsight is always much more accurate than foresight, but in this area, I do not think it would have taken much for the thought leaders at the time to have an honest and frank discussion about what were the most likely outcomes of automation, universal education, a dramatic increase in the amount of money available, and the efforts to make sure all doors are open for all people. As I mentioned before, one of these things could probably have been weathered without any difficulty, but the collection of them is a lot more to handle and what things will look like when we come out the other side is going to be very different from how things looked when it began.
And this is the problem with the push to get more women into STEM fields. There was a time when this was possible, but that time has long since passed. The moment “choice” is given to people, they will exercise it and do what they want to do as opposed to doing what they have to do or are told to do. So while we cannot make any prediction about the gender or ethnic characteristics of any single person in STEM, given that women and men score effectively the same and that all people have about the same chances of having the intellectual horsepower to become a scientist, engineer or doctor, we do know that women and men do not share preferences and that some cultures value STEM more than others, meaning getting more women into STEM may not even be something that is desirable, let alone possible.
When people do not have a choice and need to make as much money as possible, they are more inclined to pursue STEM because these jobs pay more. But when people have the choice and live in a society that has social safety nets, they are going to choose the things they like or are good at. So unless women like STEM more than any of the other fields, they are less likely to choose STEM because it doesn’t interest them as much and because they are slightly better than men at the other things meaning less competition for the top jobs in those areas. If this is the case, the efforts that are being made to move women into STEM will not be successful and may actually hurt the field by causing the displacement of potential people who are not accepted into the field because of their gender.
The goal is misdirected and based on an assumption that the way things have been traditionally was a result of a desire to keep women out of STEM and not a consequence of anything else. This assumption does not stand-up to scrutiny. STEM is relatively new when compared to other fields and most other jobs. Many of the jobs that exist in STEM did not exist until the last 50 years and did not exist in the numbers they do now until recently. The end result here is that while women were not a big part of the work force for most of human history, neither were men. Most of the time has been spend with women and men doing whatever tasks were needed to keep the family fed, safe, and secure. Having a job that allows people to trade time for money to spend later is at best, a few thousand years old. Before then, people did what they had to do to survive, and getting their needs met was the only form of payment they would receive.
Yes, men have been a formal part of the work force for much longer than women, but neither has been a part of it for very long. This is mostly irrelevant to STEM because these jobs require a decent brain and a lot of education. Since universal schooling is a recent addition to society, the number of those who are educated enough for STEM was limited until recently. The statement that in 1950 there should have been more women in STEM is a reflection of the fact that there were not a lot of people in general who worked in STEM as opposed to there being a deliberate push to keep women out of these fields. There probably could and should have been more of them, it is reasonable to believe that had they learned the foundation skills to be an engineer, they would have been able to make some very meaningful contribution to engineering. HOWEVER, this is a far cry from saying that there should be equal number of women in STEM as there are men.
The problem that needs to be solved is one of access vs. participation, because it is inappropriate to force people to work jobs that they do not want. I want to live in a world that grants people the opportunity to pursue what interests them and not one that forces them to do a specific job because someone has made the decision that the gender breakdown is not appropriate. A male should be as free to pursue nursing, teaching or psychology as a female should be free to pursue surgery, coding, coaching, or engineering. And males should be free to pursue surgery, coding, coaching, or engineering while females are free to pursue nursing, teaching and psychology. If you like it and someone is willing to pay you to do it, you should be free to do what you want with you time and with your life.
And this is what I think we are in the middle of right now. We’re leveling-up the education of everyone, and making sure that people have the same opportunities. Once these things have been achieved, the people will make the call on what they are going to do with their time, even if that means choosing to do something other than what the progressives think they should do or choosing to do what they have traditionally done. Time will tell what is going on and until then, we’re all just making some guesses about it.
This brings us to the end of this post. Hopefully I can leave you with a rhetorical question to always keep in mind when you are living your life and happen across a group of people who have good intentions but little evidence to suggest that their interventions are 1) going to do anything and 2) there is actually a need to do something. When there is no clear problem to be solved or the problem that they are working to fix exists solely as proof or evidence that there is a systemic problem, there may not be anything to do at all; meaning all of their actions are a complete waste of time.
I have a lot to gain from having more women working in STEM but not if any of them are being forced into doing it. If the cost of the next cool device or medical cure is some woman being forced to become an engineer or researcher against her will, that is too high a price to pay. Frankly, I’m sick of forced labor and all of the ways that human beings have been taking advantage of other human beings since someone invented exploitation. While it has been responsible for a lot of the amazing things that our species has created or built, it’s just a dreadful way to behave and it needs to stop. So while I am not implying that trying to get more women into STEM is the same thing as the labor that built the pyramids, FORCING them into these fields is. Which would make it a bigger problem than the one that they are trying to solve. So while women can do almost all of the same things that men can do, this does not mean that they will want to do these things. Time and the opportunity to do them will shine a light on what is the appropriate gender breakdown in terms of STEM field employment. Until we have proof that there is a problem to be solved, any solution actions that are taken are most likely going to achieve nothing of value and will never deliver us to a world that is in anyway more ideal than the one we inhabit today.
It works something like this: each one of us has an identity. This is kind of like a narrative story we tell ourselves about who we are, what we do and the values we possess. This is, for the most part, an unconscious and automatic thing – we do not often find ourselves asking the questions “is this the right thing to do” or “do I believe in what I am doing?” The entire thing is so powerful that we almost always act in a way that is congruent or aligned with our identity, all without much or any conscious thought or analysis.
On March 23, 2012, I attended the Landmark Forum in Toronto. A few of my friends at the time had suggested that I go because they had both enjoyed and grown from the experience. It was something that I also found useful and it has had an impact on a lot of my life. In August 31, 2012, I posted Some Information About Landmark Education that covered my feelings about the process, at least as they existed at that moment in time. I suppose my feelings have evolved over the last seven years, so I have decided to write a follow-up post.
A few things before I begin:
I was only a participant, I have never worked or volunteered
for them, and I have no reason to believe that I ever will. There is a near
zero percent chance that I will ever take another one of their courses. This
isn’t because I think they are useless, the people I know who took a few of
them got a lot out of their experiences, so anecdotally they are valuable. I
don’t think I’ll take any more of them because I don’t want to. Since I began
my meditation practice, the source of most of my demons has become crystal
clear and most of them have disappeared.
Education alone does not set people free, consistent action over time probably can. It is hard work, thankless and void of any immediate gratification, so most people never really change in a fundamental way. We throw a new coat of paint on our life and go back to doing what we have always been doing. Knowing that we are full of crap and getting very clear on how exactly we are filled with it makes us enlighten-to-our-bull-shitting, it does not make us honest brokers of truth. I suppose that’s fine, I’m still hopeful that one day I will grow-up and become the person I was destined to become. But maybe I already have….
There was nothing unique or revolutionary about the information they provided EXCEPT for the way it was packaged. This isn’t a fault or even a problem. It’s actually more of a universal truth about facts and wisdom. These things exist even when they have not been discovered, and even when they have been uncovered, not everyone who listens will hear them. The exact reason why a message will find its way into our brain and then into our consciousness is not always clear, so Landmarks repackaging of the information is helpful and I dare to say needed because it is good information, it is true, and it allows for a solid de-cluttering of the mind of anyone the ideas happen to infect INDEPENDENT of the source.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, some things
are just crap. They are no worse when the outcome is awful, and they are no
better when the outcome is a transformation into the realm of greatness. As
happy as I am with my experience at the forum, the information that I acquired
and how it all continues to echo on in my life, I remain convinced that the
seminar afterwards was not nearly as benign. This, I say, knowing full well
that there is a very good chance that I would not have met my wife Heather had
I not attended it. The ends however do not justify the means. When compared to
the Forum, the seminar is an entirely different animal.
The Forum is introductory and transactional, the
seminar is a long haul experience aimed at capturing people for at least the
next seminar but hopefully for a long time to come. Everything about the Forum
was single serving – short concise impeccably scripted lessons, a short one on
one interaction between you and the person who was sitting beside you, and then
a quick pivot onto the next lesson. It was highly choreographed to the point
that I am nearly certain that each time the leader reached for and ate a mint,
that it was part of the script. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter because it
very easily could have been, meaning that I paid for and got a world class
The seminar was not so good, and for this I
cannot fault the leader. I don’t think I liked her very much, but I’m not sure.
She had a job to do and she did it well. My main beef was the amount of time
consumed with the attempts to sell the next seminar; which I don’t think is
necessary for something that is very high quality. That makes me laugh because
maybe it wasn’t high quality and they knew. Maybe it was only my experience
with it that was high quality and the results were the outcome of my subsequent
actions to generate a different future. Again, the information that was presented
weekly was useful. It was neither new nor revolutionary, but it was packaged
and presented in a Landmarky way, building upon the lessons from the Forum, and
using the Forum languaging to help consolidate the experience. This makes for
easy predatory listening and a click-whirr type of interaction that have people
fire off fixed responses when the speaker says one of the trigger words.
I suppose I should be as honest as I possibly can
be here because I am kind of reviewing a service that a business offers and who
I am will have a big impact on what I think and feel about the service. In
fairness, I can be a real dick from time to time. It happens less frequently
now than before, but it can be very easy for someone to form a piss poor first
impression of me that only reflects who I am about 5 to 10 percent of the time.
This 5 to 10 percent just happened to coincide with the seminar group meetings.
They were awful and I didn’t do a single thing to make the experience any
better for most of the group members.
At the first seminar, we formed groups of six
people who we would have phone meetings with once a week to talk about the
material, our experiences trying the material on, and to talk about any of the
challenges we had. As a rule, I don’t like this type of thing because it is the
phone and it is strangers. My group members were fine. They were just people
who, like me, imagined that there was an easier or better life available and
were willing to try things out to see what could be done to make it happen. I
wasn’t the same type of person as most of the members. I straight-up know that
I can be an obnoxious asshole and I exercise my right to choose to be that
asshole whenever I feel like it. My life was crap or great because of my
actions and NOT because other people didn’t do what I wanted them to do.
Superficially that contributed but when I get right down to it, other people’s
action have nothing to do with my response and assuming that I use my personal
power to think, feel and do what I need to, screw everyone else. This isn’t a
bad thing, it’s freeing actually. I make the life I want to have and I leave
other people alone to do the same. But this live and let live approach was a
little out of place with most of my group.
This is a problem with self-help groups, religions, cults, and any collection of people who identify around a particular thing, a problem that only shows up when resources are scarce and competition for them is high, or in times of turmoil, stress, or uncertainty. Basically, it is the combination of the cognitive biases of the fundamental attribution error (the tendency for us to view our own actions in situational terms while viewing the actions of others as indicators of intent or character), the self-serving bias (the tendency to view ourselves in more favorable and self-esteem enhancing ways) and the in-group–out-group bias (the tendency for us to show more favorable views towards members of the group to which we are affiliated while viewing more harshly those who do not belong to the group). These things come together to render much of our thinking about other people as subjective and a reflection of inaccurate heuristics. Available cognitive capacity and then the willingness to use it is the antidote to this problem, but when it came to the seminar group discussions there wasn’t much of either to go around.
It works something like this: each one of us has
an identity. This is kind of like a narrative story we tell ourselves about who
we are, what we do and the values we possess. This is, for the most part, an
unconscious and automatic thing – we do not often find ourselves asking the
questions “is this the right thing to do” or “do I believe in
what I am doing?” The entire thing is so powerful that we almost always
act in a way that is congruent or aligned with our identity, all without much
or any conscious thought or analysis.
Being a participant in the Landmark Forum can
surface this identity and the information can influence it. Those who resist
the lessons or are unwilling to see themselves in the story of another
participant are displaying their identity in so far as they are claiming,
“I am NOT like that.” That is neither here nor there because it is a self-improvement
workshop, so your role as participant is to try on EVERYTHING to see what comes
out of it. And it also doesn’t really matter much with the Forum weekend
because it is over and done with very quickly. This means that none of the
other participants will ever have the opportunity to notice you assimilating
the new information into your identity and observe some of the messiness
associated with this process. To automate anything, it requires consistent
mindful practice over time, which is energy consuming and can be very
destabilizing as a once held value disintegrates to make room for the
integration of an updated one.
Being a participant in the seminar, you remain
connected with people over a 10 to 12 week period, so you begin to see the
efforts people are taking to move into a different future as they get better
and better at working with the information they are being exposed to. This is
particularly obvious during the weekly group calls, at least with some of the
members. But it is messy and since no one is starting at the same point or at
the same time, the progress is frustratingly random. This was something that I
was used to, given the amount of time I had spent as a personal trainer. Some
people get things instantly, others improve at a consistent slow pace, while
others will get worse only to suddenly improve dramatically. It’s an individual
journey in the gym, just as it is an individual journey everywhere else in
life. The problem is the “group-think” that the three cognitive
biases mentioned above triggers. Well, the problem is when you are NOT a part
of the group that has been infected with the “group-think,” which was
me, unsurprisingly, given my tendency towards assholism.
In my defense for how I act, I try hard to not
automatically assume that my feelings are correct. I have been suspicious of my
brain and my emotional system for a long time, well before I knew when it
cannot be trusted and why that happens. Feelings are not thoughts, and while
both tend to influence each other in a way that makes them seem inseparable,
they are not the same and they can be pulled apart if you are willing to put
the work into it. It’s hard though, and like any skill, it’s nearly impossible
at the beginning, messy in the middle and effortless at the end. While I had
not yet gotten very good at doing this back in 2012, I had been working on it
for a while and had made some headway. This is why I was like poison to the
majority of my group.
Having no desire to be a leader, and no interest
in blindly following what the instructor was saying, I was seeking evidence or
the truth. A good idea is a good idea, and the better an idea is, the larger
the evidence pool will be for its truth. This meant that I asked a lot of
“why” questions and was guilty of asking “what reasons do you
have for saying or believing that?” which is really annoying for people
who are in the process of trying to recreate their identity. They are fine
questions, the answers are important, but having to put the work into finding
out and then explaining the answers to someone like me seems more like a
disruption than an exercise in good intellectual hygiene. It became very clear
to everyone that I was not automatically on-board with what the instructor was
saying. If I had drank the Kool-Aid, my liver had metabolized the poison very
quickly allowing me to be curious about everything that was going on.
This is the problem with in-group-out-group biases. Because my behavior was not the same as the behavior of everyone else, I was clearly in the out-group. Under normal circumstances, this doesn’t matter, people have the available mental energy to consider two different points of view. But personal development courses are NOT normal circumstances. Most of the people are in flux, moving from one identity to the next, which casts a massive cognitive shadow on the available resources. The lack of available mental energy, when coupled with my lack of conformity to the group norm, cast me as an out-group member which triggered all of the associated nonsense and erroneous thinking that are associated with cognitive biases. Things degraded very quickly and it was not all that pleasant.
The upside is that I did learn a lot about what it makes sense to stand-up for and what it makes sense to just leave alone. My own personal development and that of my clients is worth taking a stand for, but I’m less convinced that I should attempt to play a role in the journey of others simply because it isn’t helpful for them and I have better things to do with my time. It probably makes things worse. As soon as their brain flips the switch and transports me into the out-group, the lens of preconception has been dawned and my actions will obviously indicate my true intention.
But more interesting is the fact that struggling
to explain why something is the way it is or why a feeling you are having is an
indication of truth are symptoms of something problematic. What the actual
problem is can be any number of things; at the simplest would be an
unwillingness to say out loud what ones intentions or wants actually are, but
on the other side would be an over reliance on gut feelings, a lack of self-awareness,
a need to belong to group or the desire to experience the rewards associated
with social validation.
The way I see it, if you do not know why you feel
the way you feel, you cannot actually claim to be feeling anything at all. You
are having an emotional response, which may manifest as anger, sadness,
concern, etc… but it is not anything more than that. I’m of the school of
thought that in order for it to be anything other than an emotional response,
it needs some weight behind it and in this case, that force is supplied by
thoughts, thinking, logic and rationality. Without any of these, it is just
something that is being triggered by some number of unconscious thought
processes which are valid but since we do not know what they are, we have no
idea what the feeling is all about. This is not to suggest that the emotional
response is not real, it is a thing that can be measured so it is therefore
real. But it is a subjective experience that has no transferable meaning to
anyone else. The narrative reason for a feeling CAN be shared and transferred
to others, so it can also be interrogated for accuracy, validity, and
An example here would be for the Landmark
Advanced course – this is the second course in their curriculum and it is
assumed that everyone who takes the Forum and who enrolls in the seminar
afterwards WILL take the Advanced course. My friends who suggest the Forum to
me did recommend that I take it, but they were also not so set on me doing it
right away. Their advice was to take it at some point, but ONLY if I put into
action any of the lessons that were taught in the Forum. If I wasn’t willing,
able, or open to doing that, there wasn’t any value in attending anything else.
As it would happen, the next Advanced course was scheduled to run on the
weekend of the third or fourth week of the seminar, so on weeks two and three,
there was a big sales push to encourage people to sign-up. I was unsure about
going, so I made the call to wait and see what value I was able to extract from
what I had already done. On the last group call before the course, 3 of the 5
had signed-up and they were encouraging the other 2 to join them.
The next call was unreal in its strangeness. The
only other non-attendee was not on the call, so there was a full court press to
get me to sign-up for the next Advanced course offering. Now I will not lie, I
was slightly more interested at that point in time given how they were all
gushing about how transformational and life changing it was. Whatever they had
experienced had made an impression upon them, at least in terms of what a
weekend experience has to offer. But, me being me, I asked them why I should
go? What they each got out of it? How they believe their futures will be
different and better because of it? The usual types of questions I ask when
someone recommends an outlier experience to me. A $1300 weekend course is very
different from a $12 movie or a $50 dinner, so I was seeking the specifics. The
thing was that no one had any. They had had an experience and since it seemed
powerful, they took that to mean that it was significant and therefore a
worthwhile thing. A bar fight or a hangover is a significant experience, but
that does not make either one worthwhile. I was hoping to find out why the
Advanced course was like a hangover in terms of significance but unlike a
hangover in terms of the worthwhileness.
Looking back on it now, I realize that it was a
kind of dickish thing to do because it was based off of a less than genuine set
of assumptions. I KNEW that they had no idea about the answers to those
questions because the experience had not landed yet given that it had just
wrapped-up a couple of days before. I also knew with near certainty that 2 of
the 3 people would not be capable of answering the question accurately based on
the limited information they did have access to. My memory does not serve me
well here, but I have a sense that the remaining person was less vocal about
the recommendation and was passively going along with the other two. When I
started with the questions, she was able to answer with something along the
lines of “it got me into a different head space and allowed me to consider
things from a different perspective that I would not have done on my own or
without going to the course.” That is an answer that I can believe and
that doesn’t really apply to me. I have no trouble considering things from a
different head space and my life is simple enough that I just take the time when
I feel like doing it. She needed a commitment device and a sequestering and had
no trouble justifying the spend to get these. She didn’t ever bring it up with
me or the group again and for that I was grateful.
But it didn’t really make any difference because the
other two were relentless about how I MUST go. And yet, they never were able to
give me a reason why or any indication that they had figured out why they felt
so strongly about it. Which brings us back to the legitimacy of feelings if
there are no thoughts to back them up. They were having an emotional response
to something but they did not have access to the reasons why they were having
it. That isn’t anything that I will spend much time considering because when
you get right down to it, thinking up a reason why an experience is
transformative shouldn’t even be necessary if the experience was in fact
transformative, you would just know why. They have a great weekend, they were
taken on a roller coaster ride and when things wrapped-up on Sunday evening
their memory buffer was filled with the peak parts of the experience and how
they felt on Sunday when it ended. This is how experiential memory works so it
wasn’t a shock that they thought that everyone should take it. That is fine,
but it isn’t thinking and it isn’t a logical rationale for spending time doing
something. Factor in the ease at which people are capable of thinking up
justifications for anything and their lack of insight or even an answer becomes
even more revealing.
Their experience was so transformational that not only can they not give a specific example of something that will be different, but they are not even able to come-up with a justification on an ad hoc basis. This did not sit well with me. For example, I can be a dick and call someone out publically for some nonsense perspective they have. When asked later I am able to say why I did it – in terms of my reason at the time – and I’m then able to think up a variety of other possible reason that were not part of the decision making matrix at the time. That’s what a brain does when it is trained to do it. The third person had trained their brain to do it and answered accordingly. The first and second people had never asked their brain to perform this function so when I made the ask, their brain threw an error and they just said “you gotta do it, it’s transformational and it will move you towards your future possibilities.”
“I don’t, it might be, and the jury is out
on whether or not that happened for you so I’m going to table my decision for a
while so I can collect some more evidence.” The fact of the matter is
simple, what you get out of life is linked to what you put into it. A weekend
course is just a weekend course if, upon its completion, you close the work book
and never think about it again. But a weekend course, or a ten second
conversation with someone for that matter, can be transformational if, upon
completion, you never close the book or never allow the conversation to go
silent. The initial experience is just the introduction so your actions
afterwards are what will determine if it was a beginning or if it was the
beginning, the middle and the end, all wrapped-up nicely in a tight 48 hour
The first and second did more to shape my decision than I ever let on. Frankly, I wasn’t going to tell them that they didn’t have any useful insight or that they had turn me off by recommending something to me that they couldn’t actually recommend or which was recommended simple to bolster their view that it was fantastic because there was another checkmark in terms of social validation. My opinion isn’t worth that much and how I choose to spend my weekends should have no impact on the lived experience of strangers or my cohorts in a personal development class.
That was then and it was a while ago. I am very comfortable with my having taken seven years to reach this point and will say that the Forum remains a highlight in my journey through life. It wasn’t the best thing that I ever did but it has a positive emotional valiance. There are some crappy things about the weekend, the seminar and the company – primarily the push for continued enrollment and the slightly dogmatic way a few of the people end-up acting. Both of these reveal a lot more about me than anything else.
Why do I hate being sold to? Why do I care if someone else has been sold to so effectively that they instantly change their identity into someone who LIVES Landmark? These questions are neither difficult to answer nor are the answers interesting. I hate being sold to when I am not expecting it because it obliterates my flow in terms of thinking. The solid stream of information about the subject matter hits my brain and makes it do dynamic and fantastically rewarding things. I LOVE thinking and the reward systems of my brain respond to the spontaneous generation thoughts that are triggered by the material. A quick sales plug lands like punishment when I’m floating along on a dopamine bliss. As for why I care when other people drink the Kool-Aid and get after their new passion like it is their first crush, well the answer is kind of boring, this is no longer something that I do. I have given-up hoping that I can know or control the content of other people’s minds and have found the experience of letting go to be exceptionally liberating. Some people like cars, some people like the sports, others like furniture, while others are passionate about being outraged. And none of it impacts me. I’ll talk about cars, the sports, listen to people talk about furniture, and really connect about things that trigger outrage, but it’s all transient and pointless for the most part.
This final fact is really what the Landmark Forum is all about. Almost everything is completely pointless and there are a tiny number of the actions that we take that actually matter. Maybe there is more on the line for those who have children, but I’m not qualified to answer and I do not know. And even then, if there isn’t and people act like there is, or there is and people act like there isn’t, it still won’t matter all that much. The world is a big place, and it is statistically nothing when compared to the mass of the universe. I’m just a bag of molecules, seven dollars worth of carbon, and if the earth is nothing in comparison to the universe, and I am nothing in comparison to the earth, what am I in comparison to the universe? I’m going to give that question exactly the amount of consideration it deserves.
Both parties are having a very similar experience although each one of them has a very different interpretation of the ideas that are being aired. Each one will believe their idea is better because they will have felt just how right it was when they thought it. What they hear, the other person’s idea, will not have the same quality. They won’t feel it in the same way – both in terms of intensity and rightness – and it will be as though it exists as something that is different from them. Both parties will feel and belief that their solution is the best and each will likely go to bat for it.
At some point in the recent past I happened across an article titled “The Problem Of Mindfulness” that made my brain throw an error before taking over and getting me to click on the link. I am glad it did, because I got a lot out of reading the article as it reminded me about how far I have come in terms of getting clear on what the present moment is and what the experience of being in it is like. While I did have a challenge with the title, because it begs the question and therefore usurps a number of my brain cycles, I got a lot out of the mental journey caused by reading and reflecting on what the author wrote.
While I have a number of disagreements with what they say, I
think it is a good article. It is well written, it comes from the heart and
from the author’s experiences, and there is very little in it (possibly
nothing) that is distracting in terms of style, language, grammar, or sentence
structure. This final point is very critical because it allows the article to
stand on its own and to be a thing independent of the medium. The ideas that
the author puts forward are evaluated as objectively as they can be and it
seems like a lot of care was taken to remove most of the details that might
cause a subjective interpretation or trigger a cognitive bias. For example, I
had no idea the gender of the author until after I read the article and
revisited the page to do some follow-up review. Their gender is probably
important to them, but it is not relevant to those who consume the article.
This is something that I think I need to highlight more.
Ideas are good, bad, neutral, provocative, progressive, regressive,
transformational, ignorant, biased, inclusive, future-altering, creative, etc.
and, in an ideal world, they are consumed and interrogated based on their merits.
A good idea that you do not like remains a good idea, so ones opinion of the
idea should never factor into the critical evaluation of it. The best example
here, and one that may remain relevant in perpetuity, is Donald Trump. In this
case I am not actually making reference to the person. I am making reference to
the idea that is “Donald Trump.”
He does not conform to the stereotypical role of US
president or traditional western world leader. His presentation is something
closer to a mid-twentieth century union leader than a diplomat of a superpower.
There is a straight shooter quality to him that on first glance seems authentic
and trustworthy, but does not stand-up to any level of scrutiny. It is
authentic in so far as it is true that he is thinking the thing that he is
saying in and around the time that he says it, but there is no evidence or
proof that the thoughts existed before the moment or have much of a life
afterwards. There doesn’t seem to be any stacking of ideas that is building to
a grand theory or understanding of things. It is just a stream of ideas, one
after the other, and mostly non-sequiturs.
Which is why it is inappropriate to dismiss everything he
says out of hand or to accept everything he says instantly. There are a few
very good ideas in the totality of everything he communicates, just as there
are some absolutely awful things. Uncovering these things will only occur when
you take the time to divorce the message from the man and allow the idea to
stand alone. The problem here is that this takes a lot of effort and it is not
something that comes naturally or is even remotely palatable to do. It’s easier
to say “he’s a genius, MAGA!” or “he’s a dope who is ruining the country” and
then take this view into the evaluation of the next thing he communicates.
Like most things, the middle way is ideal, but it lacks all
of the power and energy that tribal reactions affords us. This is what I try to
do in-spite of the fact that it is draining and a lonely pursuit. Fewer people
operate this way now than at any time in our history and I have a feeling that
this approach will be effectively eliminated within a couple of decades. But
until then, I’m going to try to detach an idea from its creator and consume it
as though it came from someone who has a strong track record of putting forward
reasonable perspectives that are not dogmatically charged or partisan.
So given all of this, here are my thoughts on the article
title “The Problem Of Mindfulness” and the ideas that it puts forward.
The way the title reads is that “mindfulness” is a lot like
a dryer that hides a single sock, if you are in a great mood, diarrhea, if you
are feeling nothing much at all, or something between homelessness and cancer depending on just how down you are
Of course, when the page opens and the reader is greeted
with the article, the title is there, superimposed over a picture of someone’s
face, both of which are being joined by a subtitle that would, if not for the
first one, cause the brain to throw an error.
“Mindfulness promotes itself as value-neutral but it is
loaded with (troubling) assumptions about the self and the cosmos,” which
indicates that its creator is making much more troubling assumption than the
noun or verb “mindfulness” has, is, or will. Let’s also throw “can” into that
mix as well.
Before moving forward, I need to declare my conflict of
interest here. I am a fan of mindfulness meditation and a big believer in the
positive effects of disenchantment and its close relative disillusionment.
Phrased more crassly, the sooner someone takes their head out of their ass and
begins to see reality in more objective terms, the sooner they can start to do
more impressive things in the world and with their life. For example, a lot of
people have challenges realizing or learning that there is a boundary between
themselves and other people, meaning that everyone else has an experience of
reality that is theirs alone and rarely (never) is their perspective from your point
of view. This makes sense logically. So much sense that you may even think
“what a stupid and unnecessary statement to make,” which is exactly the point I
am making. From YOUR perspective it is unnecessary, so therefore it is
unnecessary. That doesn’t change the reality that until we learn to act
otherwise, our first impulse is always going to be to see things from our own
point of view followed by a castigation of anyone who is not aligned with it.
It doesn’t need to be this way, you can train your brain to
table harsh judgment of dissention for later in favor of considering how the
world would have to be in order for someone to believe something OTHER than
what you believe. Here’s the rub, the world is actually much closer to that way
than the way you believe it is.
And it is this way for EVERYONE. We evolved to get it wrong
and we do, until we realize that we are wrong and take the steps to correct our
For me, mindfulness meditation represents the main step we
can take in order to correct our path. So it follows that “mindfulness” as a
noun and verb is making reference to some aspect of what we experience when we
practice mindfulness meditation. It allows us to notice what is actually going
on from moment to moment and in doing so, creates a juxtaposition between
reality and what we think is going on. This may or may not make sense to you on
any level, but once you spend any amount of time sitting still, with your eyes
and mouth closed, noticing the sensations of your breath on the area of skin above
your upper lip and in and around your nostrils, things will become more clear.
You are probably still not going to understand what I’m talking about, but
you’ll begin to grow more certain that I am actually talking about something
that is real, and not spewing a new age or metaphysical creation designed to
improve my position on some enlightenment hierarchy. And the more you practice,
the more in-focus these two things will become – reality and the experience of
reality that each one of us manufacture from moment to moment.
With that out of the way, let us move forward and deal with
the two main goals of what I’m writing here. They are to address the authors
concern and to then address my concern with how they went about addressing
The author has a long back ground with, at least in terms of
observational exposure to, meditation. And they admit that they were bored when
they went to the temple. They practiced a few techniques during university and
later served as a control group member in a large scale University of Cambridge
study about the effects of mindfulness. Read the original article, both to
validate my summary and to gain more insight into how the author is approaching
the subject. And I’ll add that it is a good piece of writing.
They found the practice of mindfulness, like many people do,
to be rather destabilizing. For one thing, it reveals a lot about the world
that we have never paid attention to, either because we learned to ignore it or
because we never took the time to notice it. Those in the first group find
mindfulness a lot easier to integrate and it tends not to rock their world
nearly as much. They can be curious and fascinated with all that is reveals
while never feeling like they are losing their grip. The second group, those
who never noticed the things in the first place, tend not to fare so well in
the short term. Initially their mind will be blown by all that they become
aware of and the automatic nature of perception and how the brain manufactures
ones experience of being alive. But this will usually give way to feelings of
loss, confusion, and detachment. Feeling this way sucks. It won’t make any
difference if the core lessons of impermanence are taking hold, the feelings
are real and experiencing them has a negative valence until they go away. Over
time though, things will stabilize as the brain updates the software and begins
to gain confidence in its predictive accuracy. At some point in the future,
everything will be assimilated and you will move forward with a new mental
process called “mindfulness” that can be called upon as needed, and which will
run in the background making sure that your perceptions are closer to reality
than they were before.
About this fact, consider what happens when someone in a
long term committed monogamous relationship cheats on their spouse / partner.
Initially nothing happens to their partner, the world is the way it was the day
before. It will continue to be this way until they find out about their
partners infidelity. Then all hell breaks loose. Personally, I don’t think
people should cheat when they are in committed relationships. It’s a shittie
thing to do and is an act of immense disrespect to yourself. BUT, if it happens
and you make the decision to tell your significant other about it, do it as
soon as possible. Do not wait any longer than is necessary because the longer
the gap, the greater the damage you will be causing to the other person.
Cheating on a partner is bad, but continuing along as though
nothing happened for years only to come clean about it later is pathologically
selfish and has the tendency of shattering the other person’s world view. The
reason is very simple, and it is exactly the same thing that happens with the
second group mentioned above – those who did not choose to ignore how the world
actually is because they never realized how the world actually is – it causes
them to question the past and to doubt their own judgment and their
experiences. If someone comes clean five years later, they are forcing their
partner to reprocess the last five years of their life before they can move
forward. Sure, they are not going to be completely stuck at ground zero, but a
very large portion of their mental energy will be redirected away from the day
to day tasks of living and onto assimilating the new information and updating
their long term memory as it applies to their relationship, their partner, and
their shared experiences.
Over time, they will probably get through it. The brain is
remarkably resilient and can process many different types of traumas. But the
energy expenditure required to adjust to the information that your partner
cheated is proportionate to the length of time between the act and when it came
Something very similar happens when someone takes up mindfulness
and starts to realize that how they have been experiencing the world is not
aligned with reality. It will be resisted and denied until it can no longer be
disregarded. Then will come the difficult tasks of reframing and reorganizing
everything you know about the world to accommodate the fact that there is, for
example, no self. A lot of stuff will need to get torn down and rebuilt, and
this will take time and mental effort, and probably a good diet and sufficient
rest / recovery. But it can happen so long as the person stays the course and
relinquishes their attachment to their old world view. Anyone who jumps ship
will find their swim back to their old reality to be less challenging than
continuing forward, but they will be returning to a different place than from
where they left and will likely be embittered about the subject as a whole.
My own experience with onboarding meditation was similar to
what the author experienced. But I was older when I started and was certain
that my world view was inaccurate which was leading to a drop in predictive
accuracy. My journey had me leaving behind something pretty crappy and while I
was not certain about the “goodness” of what I was choosing to move towards, life
had taught me that different is good when the normal has become difficult,
challenging, or painful. It needs to be said that I had already learned to
doubt the validity of what I knew, so as destabilizing as I found the
transition, it was no more so than the year leading up to the start of the
The author does a good job at shining a light on the lack of thoroughness in the on-boarding that many people have with mindfulness practices. There is no doubt that had she engaged the practice more when she was young and being dragged to the temple, she would have been guided with a lot more vigor and care than what many people experience presently in western societies. But that is the nature of things. More care is taken with younger people as well as in places where what is being taught is viewed as important or is a big part of the traditional culture. North America is new to mindfulness, and when coming from a tradition of capitalism with a side serving of violence, it is not surprising that the care is being taken to collect the money as opposed to guiding the people.
This is not the fault of mindfulness, as either a noun or a verb, and is should not surprise anyone that the “money over everything” view is muddying the waters. The thing is this, mindfulness is like any skill, it takes time to generate, it is going to be messy in the middle, and it cannot be done for us. It is the quintessential selfish undertaking that one could argue is impaired by other people and enhanced by temporary isolation. It is like committing law to long term memory or learning how to solve advanced calculus equations, a teacher or instructor can help along the process, but the individual needs to do the practice to stimulate the brain growth to support the new memories or the new way of thinking. To this end, it is a less than optimal capitalist venture since capitalism places experience or perceived value at the top of the service offering. You cannot do mindfulness for your customers, they have to do it themselves, so the only way to make money doing it is to offer something that is scalable. Which in this case means something that is incomplete, is useless crap, or is actually counter-productive and harmful.
The medium is the message here. Those who seek enlightenment
and the cultivation of the skill of mindfulness through a smart phone get smart
phone levels of enlightenment and mindfulness. Smart phones are tools to
trigger the release of dopamine through the activation of outrage, exposure to
novelty, and social validation / approval. Mindfulness is a tool to make you
aware of what is happening from moment to moment. While these things are not
the exact opposite of each other, they are reasonable close to being completely
dissimilar. Meditation, the primary way to cultivate the skill of mindfulness,
is as close to doing nothing as someone can do without being asleep. The mind
is very active, you are alert, but you are focusing so intensely simply because
you do not want to become distracted, outraged, etc. Cultivating mindfulness is
an act that inhibits the release of reward chemicals, so it offers no hook that
business people can use to capture you as a customer.
The author talks a lot about the concept of “no self” in a
way that makes it difficult to reconcile the truth of it with the experience of
being or having a self. I am not aligned with them here. Two things that seem
to be in contradiction can coexist simply because neither one of them actually
does. It is kind of like Schrödinger’s cat or the wave–particle duality in that
sometimes something is one thing while other times it is something else (meditation
and mindfulness have NOTHING to do with quantum mechanics and my use of QM
terms is only to describe the fact that sometimes we will need to look at
things differently in order to understand them more completely).
You are a physical being, a meat sack if you will. You are
made-up of matter, and that matter obeys laws of physics and chemistry, and
other subjects. Materialism applies to people just as it applies to rocks or
dogs. The difference is, as far as we know, rocks and dogs do not have a well-formed
narrative identity of themselves. To make reference to a rock having “no self”
seems redundant. It seems similarly so, although not necessarily completely so,
to say the same of a dog. But what is the different between these two things,
and then, from these two things and us? It seems to me that human beings have
reflective consciousness that gives them the ability to think about the world
and about things that are not there or are not presently happening. Rocks do
not have this ability and while a dog may be conscious and does have the
ability to learn, we get no sense that there is any depth to their
understanding of what they are or their uniqueness in terms of being a distinct
piece of life.
What this means is that as something is happening, it is
just a meaningless thing that is occurring – it is a collection of molecules
moving in a particular direction. So in order for it to mean something, the
observer will need to take a moment to reflect upon what is occurring, allowing
their brain to interpret the collection of molecules and their corresponding vectors
as being something. But this process is not an act of mindfulness in the purest
sense of the term. It is a result of reflection and by virtue of the fact that
any meaning is generated, the person is no longer living in the moment and is
instead living in a latency period between stimulus and response.
So when we are simply experiencing reality as it unfolds
from moment to moment, there is no self. When we are perceiving and
understanding what is unfolding from moment to moment, there is a self. It is
slightly confusing but not at all if there is a willingness to understand what
it is all about.
It just seems really out of place in modern life because
without reflection, modern life could not have come to be. But no self makes a
lot of sense and is more easily observed and appreciated when someone is
sitting in a forest meditating away from everything that has been manufacture.
Simplicity allows for the sustained existence of no self because it affords the
opportunity to do nothing other than take in whatever is occurring from moment
to moment, so basically what is steaming into the brain from the senses. Other
people and manufactured material objects make this task nearly impossible
because they create the need for rules. This causes complexity and moves the person
away from the role of observer and into role of reflector in order to generate
an understanding of what is going on.
Neuroscience has revealed a lot about the nature thinking, and one part that applies to no self / self duality is captured by the two self’s phenomena. Specifically, your brain operates with information in two ways. The first way, the no-self way, is about experience. This is what happens from moment to moment and it is what is lumped into the experience of “now.” The second way is about the remembering self, which is what your consciousness recalls about an experience. While it would be partially correct to refer to this as long term memory, given that long term memories do contribute to what we remember, it is not the entire story. The truth is that most of us do not actually remember most things very well and what comes to mind when we are thinking about the past is a combination of long term memories and things we make-up on the fly to fill-in the details or manufacture a more rich or complete narrative. The point here is not to suggest that neuroscience has uncovered evidence to support the truth about what the Buddhist teachers have been saying for centuries but to lend weight to the notion that sensation / experience is a different thing than perception / reflection / remembering. So given this, it makes sense that we should hold different views about two different things.
There is a Buddhist / Zen saying that goes something like
“before enlightenment work, after enlightenment work” that addresses the next
concern the author has about “mindfulness.”
They raise a very good point, but do not track in on the
source of the issue with any vigor or accuracy, when they state: “In claiming
to offer a multipurpose, multi-user remedy for all occasions, mindfulness
oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself.”
The first part of the sentence is more or less accurate, as
it would be if it was said about anything that is put forward as a panacea or
cure to everything that ails a person, culture, or society. The second part of
the sentence is less accurate. In fairness, they were writing an article and
not a text book, so there was probably a word count limit in place for them.
However, that does not negate the responsibility an author has for guarding
their words and to speak as clearly, accurately, and concisely as possible.
Their article is not a work of fiction so it is reasonable to assume that what
is written down is factual and represents the truth as the author knew it at
the time. Putting aside their right to have and voice an opinion, that sentence
journeys well into the realm of a statement of disinformation or a statement
that is demonstrably false.
The first thing is that mindfulness is a skill, so a noun or
verb, and makes no claim about its abilities to do anything – in exactly the same
way as reading is a skill and completely incapable of promoting its virtues.
Mindfulness needs boosters because mindfulness is not alive. The problem then
is not with anything that mindfulness itself is doing but with the claims that
are being made about it. In the event that this seems so obvious and therefore
unnecessary to mention, it is worth pointing out that racism is both a problem
and a part of our internal operating system. Many skills or behaviours that
human beings are capable of, that seem to lack any value in modern life, are
there because they served a valuable survival purpose at one point in time.
Racism is not good, but the ability to identify those who are not like us and
to treat those we are similar to had a place in our evolutionary past. It is an
antiquated thing, particularly given that every unique race has suffered MORE
at the hands of those who look like them than those who look different, but so
too is the appendix and a considerable amount of our DNA given that it doesn’t
seem to code for anything at all. Well the appendix used to do something and
those unnecessary genes used to code for something that promoted survival.
So the problem with mindfulness is that people who promote
it are making extraordinary claims about what it can do and how it will impact
the lives of anyone who uses it as an approach to life. The problem the author
is making reference to is the overstating or direct lying about the utility of mindfulness
made by the people who promote it. This is something that I agree with, but it
was not stated as directly as that in the article.
The second part of the sentence “mindfulness oversimplifies
the difficult business of understanding oneself” doesn’t hold up nearly as
well, even when translated or updated to reflect what is actually going on. I
believe that the author is intending to say “the skill of mindfulness is
presented as a simple way to understand yourself.” This is true and it is not a
problem. The fact is that human beings are biological machines whose brain
manufactures meaning out of electrical impulses that are triggered by
collisions between the body and molecules that are not a part of the body. The
tree we see is a collection of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, etc. that is in tree
form. What we see is the light that bounces off of some of these molecules and
hits our retina. When we touch it, the molecules of our skin are repelled by
the molecules that make-up the tree, so this ends up stimulating receptors on
the skin that trigger electrical impulses to flow into the brain that cause the
sensation of touch. If we were to eat the tree, tree molecules would stimulate
taste receptors, if we were to smell it, tree molecules would stimulate olfactory
receptors, and when we hear the tree, receptors in our inner ear are simply
responding to air that is coming off of the tree and going into our ears.
I am not intending to be irreverent when I say that it is
“simply” anything, but our experience of a tree is so much less than any
narrative story we manufacture to capture the entirety of our knowledge about
trees. It is our brain that do all of the heavy lifting that allow us to
perceive things and to understand the world in reflective terms.
The fact of the matter is that most of what we know about
things is just a story we are telling ourselves and sharing with other people.
It is accurate in so far as it works in allowing us to navigate our way through
life with a lot of ease, but nearly all of it is just manufactured rules about
collections of molecules that human beings mostly agree on just so they do not
have to think about it anymore than they have to.
Considering and then assimilating this fact is alarming, at
least initially, but our brain will reconcile things very quickly and it will
allow us to go back to living life as though we didn’t gain the insight. From
an experiential point of view, the facts and the truth are of much less
consequence than the position and movement of the molecules that we bump into.
So no matter what we learn, life will return to normal quickly because it must
be lived by each one of us.
The skill of mindfulness is a way that anyone can gain
clarity into the nature of the world and, more importantly, the nature of our
social interactions and social conventions. It will allow someone to uncover what they are in terms of molecules
and what they are in terms of a narrative understanding, while giving them
great power to figure out what is important, what is real, and what is worth
pursuing. It isn’t going to fix anything EXCEPT the delusions someone may have
created about what is going on from moment to moment. It is not a cure for
clinical depression, it will not help someone grow taller or regrow their hair,
and it will not open up the doors to effortless success. But it can allow
someone to experience what is actually going on in the world, to gain a better
understanding of the difference between sadness and depression, it can help
someone accept the reality of their height or hair situation, and it can give
someone the clarity to figure out what actions they need to take in order to
find greatness and to then make the decision on whether or not they actually
Mindfulness, when practiced consistently, gives someone the
ability to separate the sensations from the perceptions and to then make the
decision to act in a way that makes the most sense to them in terms of these
sensations and perceptions. But that is all it is going to do. The reason some
people feel calmer when they practice it is because it dissolves the narrative,
for a short period of time, which will allow for whatever triggered emotions to
run their course before returning the person back to their baseline. There are
two ways to describe it, the first is the feeling you have right as you wake-up
in the morning without an alarm clock and when you have nowhere to go – your
mind is at ease and filled with next to nothing. It doesn’t last very long, but
while it does, it is still and peaceful and nothing is pulling it one way or
the other. The second is the feeling you have right after a very intense
workout as your heart rate and breathing return to normal. Physically you feel
fantastic and mentally you are overcome with a sense of wellness and indifference
to the world. Your mind has been parked into unflappable so you feel, for a
spell, like you are on vacation and weeks away from having to deal with the
real world again.
Now consider what you have just read and apply it to the
author’s statement: “to look for richer explanations about why you think and
feel the way you do, you need to see yourself as a distinct individual,
operating within a certain context. You need to have some account of the self,
as this demarcates what is a response to your context, and what flows from
Who we are is not a static thing, and a lot of what we may
choose to believe we are is subject to the present emotional state at the time
of perception. Before my long intense bike ride, I may be an angry co-worker
who doesn’t take the time to consider the ideas of other people before pushing
my own solution forward. At the end of the bike ride I’m more than capable of
working through their solution to actually see the merits of what they are
suggesting and realize that not only is it better than my idea, but it is the
only way forward. I would suggest that this insight occurs because the “self”
has disappeared affording me an objective perspective that is based on the
consideration of a more complete view of the available information. There is no
ego so there is no desire to be the problem solver, only a desire to have the
problem solved as effectively and as permanently as possible.
The tendency for people to see the world only from their own
perspective and to view this perspective as being more important or valuable is
a characteristic of something called disordered attachment. With the exception
of a few people, everyone has a bias towards their own point of view simply
because there is nothing so real in the universe as it. Every moment of our
waking life is experienced from inside ourselves and a good case can be made
that most of our dreams are also from our own unique point of view. “We” exist
somewhere right behind the eyes, nose and mouth, between the ears, and slightly
above our tongue and throat. All of our physical sensations have a “I” quality
insofar as they tend to originate on our skin, or at the boundary between “us”
and the rest of the world. It is reasonable that we would create and carry such
an inflated perspective given that there are only two things in the world and
that “we” are one of them; the other one is the rest of the world / universe.
But this isn’t the entire picture because EVERYONE has the
same sort of perspective and experience of being alive. When you are in a room
with nine other people, there are ten unique perspectives, each one as the sole
center of all experience. This means that no specific reality is more real than
any of the rest. As many people as there are on the planet, there are that many
versions of the real world running. So we are real, but we are not really real.
Disordered attachment is a type of psychological attachment
or dependence to something, someone or some activity. It is consider disordered
because it is out of proportion to reality or to the nature of things. The
solution I was forcing through, for example, is only held by me as the better
solution when I am attached to it and am therefore willing to dismiss the
merits of my co-workers solution. However, at the end of my intense bike ride
or at some point after around 5 minutes of meditation, my attachment has
evaporated because my emotional state has returned to baseline and I am more
able to see the world in objective terms. This can only be a good thing given
that a good idea is a good idea regardless of where it comes from. By
eliminating the disordered attachment, objective reality can come more clearly
into focus and the world can get better for all those who are relying on the
best possible results.
There are a slew of cognitive biases that have at their core
this type of disordered thinking / rationalization. The ego centric bias, the
Ikea bias, the fundamental attribution error, and conflicts of interest are
just a few of them that apply directly to the work situation I outlined. The
ego centric bias has someone rely too much on their own perspective and
experience, the Ikea bias has someone inflate the value of something that they
created well above the fair market value of similar items, the fundamental
attribution error has someone view their own decisions or actions as being
related to situational factors while viewing the decisions and actions of others
as being the result of character traits, and a conflict of interest is the
tendency for people to unconsciously act in ways that promote an outcome that
will benefit them all the while believing and feeling like they are acting
objectively. There are many more, but this list should be sufficient to provide
evidence that things are not as simple as they seem or even as we perceive them
However, intense exercise, a good night’s sleep, or a
mindfulness meditation session can go a long way in mitigating the impact of
being the center of ALL of your experiences simply because they put some
distance between the stimulus and the response. This time delay will allow any
emotional response to fade and it will reduce the perception of the magnitude
of any gain or loss.
This piece of it is rather peculiar. The “self” is something
to which things happen and this allows for the “self” to react to those things
in a way that seems like it is automatic and beyond any conscious control.
However, this is not the case for most things. With the exception of being
physically hit by something or getting physically ill, most of the stuff that
occurs doesn’t actually happen to anyone, or at least it does not actually
happen to us. We see or hear it, but our bodies are in no way implicated by
what happened. This means that the perception we have of events plays a much
bigger role in how we go about living our life than anything that actually
happens to us or our bodies. This leads to the situation that when something
occurs in the world but that only impacts us in terms of our perception or
narrative interpretation of it, we have a chemical response that causes us to
“feel” something BUT that reaction is not to anything that is real. If we think
about two co-workers putting forward different solutions to a specific problem,
not much is happening in a physical sense – some brain activity creates a
thought that is the solution, and other brain activity causes muscles to
contract in very specific ways that allow air to flow out of the lungs, passing
over the vocal chords to make a very specific sound that is the air vibration
equivalent to the thought. Both parties are having a very similar experience
although each one of them has a very different interpretation of the ideas that
are being aired. Each one will believe their idea is better because they will
have felt just how right it was when they thought it. What they hear, the other
person’s idea, will not have the same quality. They won’t feel it in the same
way – both in terms of intensity and rightness – and it will be as though it
exists as something that is different from them. Both parties will feel and
belief that their solution is the best and each will likely go to bat for it.
But this is only happening because each one is acting as
though they are something independent from the other and that the other is part
of everything else. While this may be narratively or perceptually correct, it
is not correct in terms of what is actually going on in the world. A detached
third party would simply listen to both ideas and give their opinion on which
one is the best because they are neither of the two self’s who have been tasked
with solving the problem. They get to be objective because both solutions are
coming from outside of them. Their ego does not factor into it as they get to
say “the best idea is this one” and get back to doing whatever it is they do.
They will probably feel that one of the answers is better, but they will not be
inclined to feel that their OWN idea is better simply because it came from
inside of them.
It is worth suggesting that this level of insight – to
notice that cognitive biases have a sensation and that I am as prone as
everyone else to be subjected to them – really only came to life for me when I
spent a lot of time meditating, noticing my thoughts and feelings arise and
pass away, and getting very clear that the next thing that I think about or the
next sensation that I have is most often a complete mystery to me. The most I
can do is to try and shape them by paying attention to very specific things,
but generally speaking, there is a very random nature to almost all of it.
Which brings us to the final concern the author raises.
“After a certain point, mindfulness doesn’t allow you to
take responsibility for and analyse your feelings.”
I believe that the opposite is true, that we can only take
responsibility for and gain insight into our feelings through the practice of
mindfulness. Right where the author claims mindfulness impairs our ability to own
and understand our feelings is the point I believe that mindfulness facilitates
these things. I also believe that we are talking about the same phenome and may
actually believe more or less the same thing.
It seems that their conclusion here is based off of some of the other concerns they mention; which means that all that comes after may not be rooted in reality or fact. For example, if someone does not allow for the duality of self and no-self, they are powerless to draw any other conclusion that “mindfulness doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for and analyse your feelings” because if there is no self, there can be no ownership of the feelings that are being experienced and nothing there to analyse them. But it there is only a self, the observation that thoughts and feelings just seem to flow out of our spontaneous brain activity becomes a lot tougher to notice or it must exist in a world to which it is incompatible. Both concepts are needed because there are times when we are a self and times when we are no self. The author has laid out their concerns with this part of it which has had the effect of limiting the moves they are able to make without appearing to contradict themselves or outline a paradox / problem.
I suppose I am more willing to allow for the coexistence of
mutually exclusive ideas because I am very confident that the experience we
have of being alive from moment to moment is not well enough understood to
limit any aspect or to allow us to say that “there is no self” or “there is
only a self.” There are times when it seems to be a self and other times when
there appears to be no self, so I’m going to hedge my bets by assuming that
they are both accurate while conceding that there is probably a more complete
theory or understanding that covers them both perfectly. Apart from this being
a safe move, given just how complex consciousness is, it has the added benefit of
allowing me to pick and choose the best or most effective stuff from whichever
side I happen to be considering. My goal here is to point out and highlight
what works and why it may be of value, as opposed to pointing out what doesn’t
work or the underlying historical problems with a technology such as
Cultivating the skill of mindfulness will go a very long way
in helping someone understand what feelings are and what they are not. It will
also give a person the ability to critically assess what is going on in terms
of their emotional reactions / responses. On the very surface level, knowing
that you are experiencing the sensations of anger moments before you have the
emotional experience of anger can be very helpful in determining the
appropriate course of action. Anger may be the right response, but it may be an
overreaction, and one with a big downside. On a deeper level, having a more
full experience and understanding of an emotional response will allow the
emotion to be all that it is and ONLY what it is. You can be sad because your
sports team lost, but you do not end-up devastated or left feeling aimless.
Most importantly is the fact that by gaining the ability to
see and feel emotions more accurately, you will begin to gain the insight into
what the whole thing is all about and how your brain will react to the things
that it believes are happening and the things that actually do. I would be
inclined to suggest that you cannot possibly have a cursory understanding of
your feelings or your motivations / action unless you are able to notice them
as sensations, experiences, and linguistic narrative expressions. Having access
to one or two of these things is not complete enough to be useful as each one
supplies a portion of the information. But when all three are available and
processed, we are able to create a more complete understanding of any situation
and move forward having made any decision from a place of being fully informed.
In summary then, the skill of mindfulness is an essential piece
of the equation that allows someone to figure out what is actually going on and
what actions need to be taken to ensure continued survival. Without it, we are moving
forward on autopilot, oblivious to the lack of depth in our understanding and
completely unaware of the impact our manufactured fiction is having on the
decisions we make. It allows you to figure out what is going on, what you did, and
why you did it along with illustrating the subjective and self-serving nature
of most of your perception.
Again, while I did not agree with much of what the author said, we simply have a different opinions. I see and understand the world differently than them and that is fine. They do point out some of the legitimate problems with the subject of mindfulness and how it is being introduced to the western masses. While most of these challenges are the consequence of the people who are involved and have nothing at all to do with the mental skill of mindfulness, generating awareness of these problems is a very good thing to do because it can go a long way in helping people avoid the pitfalls.
I liked the article in-spite of the fact that I did not not agree with much of it. Obviously, I believe that I can provide some of the missing insight and to help clear-up the authors concerns, but I have no problem if the author never changes their opinion. That is because their article was worth reading and forced me to dig in a little on some of the ideas or beliefs that I have about mindfulness in order to figure out what it was that I was not aligned with. At the end of the day that may have been the author’s goal – I know that it is one of mine when I write – and since the piece was well written, it allowed me to think about the subject very quickly and without having to decipher a hidden message.
So that’s the problem of titles, they are tool that is used to grab and hook your attention by exploiting a gap in the social software contained in the brain of each human being. When used this way, they bypass the need for informed consent or conscious choice, and lead you on to a page or into a place you didn’t have any plan on going.
This is an odd post because it quickly jumped the tracks and took off in a very different direction; not surprising, given that brains do that sort of thing when they are allowed to. The consequence is that this shorter post will be followed in a few days with the longer one that reflects the direction my brain took with it. The link to that post will appear in the comments once it becomes live.
At some point in the recent past I happened across an article titled “The Problem Of Mindfulness” that made my brain throw an error before taking over and getting me clicking on the link. The error it threw was analogous to a hissy fit that a 3 year old might throw when faced with a parent who is telling them to go to sleep or to eat their vegetables – they were being made to do something that they didn’t agree or want to do. It was the best attempt of a near half-century old brain to hone in on the fact that something about the real world was not aligned with the internal representation it held and that maybe the real world isn’t as real as everyone would like to belief. The declaration of “up with this I will not put” was made via an automatic hand and finger movement to cursor onto and left click the link.
The title of the article is powerful, which is the reason why it landed on me the way it did. It hooks the brain and triggers it to do things WITHOUT ever asking for permission. It is a form of manipulation, and while the ask the author is making is not a big one, on some level it is less than moral. My rational for making this declaration is that it is my brain and I therefore should have final say on what goes into it and what processes fire-up to deal with the world. I have a problem with anyone capturing any part of it without my permission or consent.
The title “The Problem Of Mindfulness” implies that there is a problem with mindfulness and unless you agree with the statement, the brain is going to handle the statement as though it is a question. This transforms the title into “what are the problems with mindfulness?” It is version of the logical fallacy known as begging the question – which occurs when an argument’s premise assume the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it. This is sort of like what happens when the question “when did you stop beating your wife?” is asked – it implies that you used to beat your wife, before it is established that you are even married. It is leading because the human brain automatically assumes to be true all of the things that are requirements for the statement to be true. Once these assumptions are made, they become “facts” unless they are immediately engaged and proven to be false.
I do not think there is any malice in what the author has done because when I read the article it is clear that they believe that “mindfulness” is being used in ways that are problematic. However, this does nothing to disabuse me of the notion that the title is having an effect on the reader’s brains that is automatic and unconscious. It is, in a way, the antithesis of mindfulness, hence the reason for my visceral reaction. Having spent thousands of hours meditating, it has become very clear to me that life is lived on autopilot for most people most of the time. I am not making a claim that the same is not true for me. My practice has only given me slightly more than zero control over what my brain is doing from moment to moment, and this affords to me only the occasional glimpse into the transient experience of being alive.
Begging the question, along with all of the logical fallacies and cognitive biases, are things that we can get a better handle on through logical means vs. experiential ones. BUT once we learn what they are and put the time in to learning how to notice them, the way they feel will eventually begin to surface. Each one of them and each one of us, will have a unique experience so I cannot say what begging the question will feel like for you. For me, it feels like manipulation or like someone is trying to sell me something, so it makes me feel queasy. But it has a tint of anger that I can best attribute to my modal-intensity being directed towards proving something that I know is not provable. Again, this is what it is like for me, how other people react to it will be different. The truth is though, most people will only react by assuming the unsupported premise is true and moving forward with whatever that belief causes them to think or do.
In fairness to all those who approach the world with good intention, two key things need to be stated. The first is that lying, dishonestly, and manipulation are very new things to our evolutionary path. Our species has had very little experience with them, so the hardware and default software we are running is the product of a world in which truth and honesty were the primary ways of operating. Advanced language that communicates abstract ideas is a necessary requirement for lying and subtle mind control to be possible. Then, in order to actually act this way, the incentive to do so would need to be much larger than the disincentive to. These factors date this type of behavior to the last 10000 years which is not nearly long enough for the brain to have adjusted to combat it.
The second thing is that the best article in the world, or the best idea that has ever come to a human beings mind, is effectively worthless if no one reads it or it is never shared with anyone. A strong title is a simple way to get people to read the article or consume the idea. If the article is helpful and moves someone forward in their life, a case can be made for skipping the informed consent or free choice part of the equation and tricking someone into reading. I do not agree that the ends justify the means but some people might.
I have been told that my articles would get better traction is they were more controversial or if they were more inclined to cause outrage in some people. I agree, and I don’t care to journey down that road. It isn’t my goal to trigger either one of those things. My purpose is much closer to the opposite of them and could be summarized as trying to eliminate suffering by helping people create order in their lives. Whether or not this is a noble or worthwhile goal doesn’t factor into it. Nor does the desire to get hits or page views. While I would love all of these things to happen – to achieve a wide reach in terms of readership and impact, and to be considered a righteous person who played a role in the betterment of the lives of many people – if my ideas do not appeal to the many or do not stand on their own, that’s just how it goes. At the end of the day I have to live with myself and I have always found it difficult to sleep well when I have tricked someone into doing something that, while it may be in their best interest, was not something they would have willingly agreed to do.
So that’s the problem of titles, they are tool that is used to grab and hook your attention by exploiting a gap in the social software contained in the brain of each human being. When used this way, they bypass the need for informed consent or conscious choice, and lead you on to a page or into a place you didn’t have any plan on going. Those who lack the mindfulness to notice it happening, may not have the ability to then liberate their attention and redirect it back onto whatever matters the most or is most important to them.
Be recklessly open about who you are and what you want out of life. This stuff needs to be shared or else it won’t come true. A common goal empowers the relationship to become more purposeful and progressive. Even if they don’t directly participate, having them on your side will go a long way in helping you be more successful.
NOTE – this is a carbon copy of the June 8, 2011 post with a very similar title How To Fall In Love Again. It is not a post revisited and, as such, it does not contain any new content. It is getting posted again because it now has the audio to accompany it.
1) Give in and accept that your ex partners are always going to have some power / influence over you and your thinking. Take the necessary steps to stop that influence from derailing your forward progress. The best approach here is to just not talk to them for a while and then slowly phase them back into your life if you are able to keep their influence in-check. If you can’t do this, don’t worry, most people can’t. They are your ex for a reason, usually because their and / or your influence did not move you both towards mutual happiness.
2) Accept that your past demons are going to have an influence on your present thinking and actions. Question things that disrupt the flow of the relationship or your partners life. Talk to your partner about these things. They aren’t likely to go away so acknowledging and working through them is a lot more effective and intimate than trying to ignore them. There is nothing wrong with your past and your future can be different. Embrace it and love the life you have lived because it has taken you to your new love. Once you know the life you have lived, you’ll be better equipped to deal with your present life because you’ll accept that there are patterns in your behavior.
3) Take the time to watch the way your partner moves, talks to people, and engages the world. Learn to notice the way they are. Look at their hands, their arms, their face. Try to notice all of their features and the way their mouth moves and eyes squint when they smile deeply. Feel the excitement build as your look at them. Learn to associate that excitement with the essence of them. Say to yourself and to them what it is that is beautiful about them. Create a linguistic understanding of who they are, not just a visual understanding. Take the time to touch them, particularly their face, neck and hands. Hold them close, feel their heat and energy against and within your body. Learn to identify the way they feel next to you. Massage them, rub their backs, find out where they are ticklish. Create a tactile understanding of who they are. Listen to their voice, the sound of their breathing, the sound of their foot steps when they are walking. Hear the way they move objects in the kitchen, the shower, the sound of the cutlery when they are eating a steak dinner. Create an auditory understanding of who they are. Smell them. Smell their clothes, their hair, their skin. Condition your nose to identify them by their smell or things that smell like they do. You are to immerse yourself in their essence and notice them, not just the things they do, but the way they are when no one is watching. If you love them, you will take the time to stop and notice all that there is to love about them.
4) Do things together that you would do on your own, but keep doing these things on your own some of the time. Sharing passions will helps to bring two people closer but you must maintain your independence with a part of them in order for you to hold onto your identify. Your partner is attracted to you because of who you are, this will go away when you combine everything and you stop being yourself.
5) Be recklessly open about who you are and what you want out of life. This stuff needs to be shared or else it won’t come true. A common goal empowers the relationship to become more purposeful and progressive. Even if they don’t directly participate, having them on your side will go a long way in helping you be more successful.
6) Challenge them and allow them to challenge you on your choices, motives and decisions. Therapy is a great tool, so a loving relationship will also contain a certain level of therapy-like behaviors. The objective here is allow your partner to empty of whatever is on their mind from the day, to have their feelings massaged out about the things that are troubling, and to basically be given a chance to talk things out and feel better. The hard part is not taking what you hear personally or injecting your opinion or solution into the conversation. You love them, but they need to suffer their own issues alone. Your role is to listen without hearing and ask questions that allow them to feel whatever it is they can’t get rid of.
7) Accept that you will never know how they truly feel about anything and, as such, you MUST remain open to the fact that their world is not the same as yours. Take the steps needed to NOT force your views upon them and to not allow them to force theirs on to you. Agree to disagree and accept compromise with both winning vs. you losing. If you can’t do this, and your new partner needs to maintain their identity, you MUST release them from whatever it is you’re a building because it isn’t a partnership.
So, these are 7 things that will help you create a climate that is conducive to the creation and expression of compassionate and intimate love. But when it comes right down to it, these are actions one would take when they are trying to figure out, as quickly as they can, IF they are with someone who is worth giving-up being alone for. Step 3 will also serve as the most powerful diagnostic tool you can get access to without going to school to learn how to identify motives based on the analysis of behavior – when you know how someone maintains eye contact during a conversation, you’ll know when they aren’t holding it the way they normally do and be able to ask quickly “what is going on?” These things change when a relationship shifts from being something good to something that is in trouble.
Basically we’re trying to get them to reach a point were they see the situation as ridiculous and of their own making. They need to see it as ridiculous because intelligent people are not capable of continuing to exist in that type of situation. They need to see it as their own making because this allows them to keep the momentum and see that they have had the power and been using it the entire time.
In the self-help / personal development world the idea of
victim language is floated. Predatory listening techniques are used by many
practitioners to identify and point out when someone’s language indicates that
they are viewing themselves as having been victimized in a specific situation
or life in general. On the surface of it, it does make a lot of sense to draw
ones attention to the moments when their choice of language indicates a world
view has them being powerless. This flows from the fact that those who have the
power to control their life have the opportunity to influence their future.
These conversation are only superficially helpful because
they lack the insight to actually empower the individual. But they feel like
something very real to both parties. The instructor / coach feels good, given
that they were successful at identifying a pattern of speech that they have
been trainer to flag given that the human brain is programmed to release reward
chemicals with every successful match. The participant / client feel good
because they now have an answer to the question “why is my life like
this?” KNOWING the answer to that type of question is rewarding because it
closes an open loop that was syphoning off mental energy that results from
uncertainty. In terms of a transaction, it is win:win. Both parties feel good
and get sufficient value from it.
But it isn’t very helpful in terms of empowering either
I’m going to cast aside the instructor, they aren’t asking
for help, and instead focus on the client / participant.
Their language is fine. It’s powerful and clearly
communicates a world view. This world view is almost completely correct. When
they say that they didn’t get the promotion because their boss doesn’t like them
they are correct. When they say they can’t lose weight because chips and candy
too good to refuse they are correct. No matter what they say, there is an
abundance of truth in it. There’s no point in lying and telling them that they
are wrong. They are in fact the victim.
This begs the question, if they are victim, who then is
Well, it’s their language, so they are. And this is the
power of it. It is only through seeing themselves as the cause of everyting in
their life that they will ever gain the ability to control this power and begin
to use it to create the life that they want.
This is where I part ways with the coaches / instructors.
The thrust of their approach is to tell their clients to stop using victim
language and start using more powerful statements as though they are the cause
of their own life. The problem I see with this is that their victim world view
has a lot of momentum. This inertia will keep things going in that direction
for a while making immediate / instantaneous change nearly impossible. To do
the opposite, they will first have to come to a complete stop before starting
to move in the other direction. Doing this requires a lot of attention and
energy, which is unreasonable given the unproven nature of the technology their
coach is asking them to trust.
Instead, we use the inertia to reduce the energy requirements
needed to help them become the cause of their own life.
Basically we’re trying to get them to reach a point were
they see the situation as ridiculous and of their own making. They need to see
it as ridiculous because intelligent people are not capable of continuing to
exist in that type of situation. They need to see it as their own making
because this allows them to keep the momentum and see that they have had the
power and been using it the entire time.
Here is how:
A) Get them to restate the victim statement.
B) Nod your head if face to face or give an ambiguous verbal agreement if remote
C) Repeat it back to them and get their confirmation that the statement is correct.
D) Ask them “so what?”
E) Listen to their answer and ask them “what then?”
F) Go back to c and repeat as many times as needed to get to some ridiculous place.
A helps you to calibrate your understanding with their world
view. B allows them to be correct and it sustains the momentum of their world
view. C give you the opportunity to show that you have listened and heard, and
get clarification if it is needed. D forces them to look inside and spend more
time thinking about their victimization. It also gets them to consider the
consequences of the situation they are in. E projects them into the future. F
begins the process again with a new starting point that is at some point in the
One of the characteristics of people who view themselves as
victims is that they rarely spend much time thinking about the long term
ramifications of the situation. People either tell them that they need to do
something different or they simply agree with them that they are victims. These
amount to “I’m solving your problem” or “shut up, I don’t want
to listen to you”. The third option is to assume that they are the experts
of their own life and to genuinely be curious about how they think the
situation will play out. Keep digging in and uncovering whatever lies below the
surface. And then go deeper and see what’s below that. At some point it will
become ridiculous and they’ll see that they have create the world they
presently live in. Once they get here, applaud them for the power they have in
making the world the way they did and invite them to consider what it is that
they really want to use that power for.
Keep in mind that anyone who has done the dialectic about
their challenges has already drawn the conclusion that THEY have caused the
world to be the way it is and that they alone have victimized their own life.
It will take a little practice and role playing to get the conversational flow down, but you’ll be surprised at just how quickly you’ll get good at helping them see their role as victim and villain. You’ll also be shocked to notice the lack of introspection or how little actual though they have put into understanding the situation. Generally speaking, once someone has seen that they are the victim they stop thinking about it and start repeating and refining the victim script. It usually doesn’t have a second act, and if it does, rarely a third. By the forth cycle through their house of cards has collapsed.
This approach has the possibility of being effective, more than the traditional approaches of agreeing that someone has been victimized by others, which gives them a pass because it externalizes the source of the problems meaning that they do not have the capability to fix the situation, or pointing out their use of victim language and coaching them to substitute these patterns for more empowering one, which continues the externalization of the source of them being wrong, simply because it makes them responsible for drawing any judgments about who is the cause of the events that are happening in their own life, and the deep dive in terms of the possible future outcomes forces them to make huge generalizations in order to support or validate their assumptions which they will easily perceive as being incorrect.
The key to this approach is that they get to maintain ownership of everything, which is valuable in two ways. The first is that by seeing oneself as the cause of an outcome, they automatically accept responsibility for being the cause of an alternative outcome. The second reason has to do with the cognitive bias called the fundamental attribution error, which holds that a person is going to view their own actions in situational terms and the actions of other people in characterological terms. This tendency results in a reduction of solution option sets when a person views other people as being the cause of an outcome because they view the other persons actions as being a consequence of their lack of abilities or an abundance of malice. But when they view themselves as being the cause, they immediately see the situation as having played a causal role and can easily be moved towards generating solutions that are solely based on changing it. They have the capacity to do this so there is a much better chance of them surfacing a solution that they are willing to implement.
This is a version of a double bind – something that leads a person to two mutually exclusive outcomes – although the ridiculous nature of the final outcome does serve to dissipate the emotional distress. Narratively, when done effectively, the person has to choose between being correct, but unintelligent and locked into a life time of suffering, or having been the cause of their situation and holding the power to do something about it. While the second option is less palatable in so far as it requires that they put the effort into making their own life better, it is usually much more appealing to anyone who is actually open to change than admitting to another human being that they are willing to continue to do the very thing that is causing their life to be crappy enough to ask you for help in fixing.
My favoring of this approach stems from the fact that I have
never seen someone respond well to being told that they are being victimized by
an external entity. The usual outcome of this is a state of learned
helplessness that serves only to inhibit action. The other option is only
marginally more effective at engendering a sense of personal power. But even
when doing this, it tends to take a very long time because they need to
mindfully create a new process of guarding their “I am” statements, which is a
valuable skill on its own, but for our purposes, serves as an intermediary
step. When quick change is desired or needed, a more direct attack of the
problem makes more sense than learning how to do something that will stop them
from doing the thing that is causing the undesired outcome.
Most people have a conditioned threshold level of effort
that they are willing to spend in order to move past a negative experience.
Since those with a high threshold tend to be the very people who fix or create
the life they want to live, coaches and trainers will never find themselves
having to help simplify the approach for these clients because the client will
simply do whatever work is needed to implement and execute the perfect
solution. For everyone else, their desired outcome is more often achieved
through methods that rely on the expenditure of the least amount of effort.
To this end, forcing their brain into a double bind-like
choice between having to reconcile the continuation of making stupid choices or
choosing to see themselves as having been the one who made those choices and
therefore is free to put in the work to make different ones, has only one
possible outcome when dealing with someone who is actually willing to change.
They see themselves as the cause, they accept that they have made the decision
on some level to view themselves as the victim, and they put in the marginal
amount of effort that is required to do something else.
NOTE: those who are unwilling to change will be easy to
identify because they will ask other people to explain what is going on, they
will not take the time and put in the effort to answer the “so what” questions,
they will have reasons that they believe for why they are actually the victim
of the actions of an external player, and they will be more than willing to
endure the negative side of the double bind – there will be no cognitive
dissonance associated with existing in a world that has them act in a way that
will prevent them from getting what they claim they want. My advice is to exit
yourself from the life of these people. Do NOT take them on as clients and do
not believe a word they say when it comes to their belief that they know you
will be able to help them. You cannot help them because they do not want help,
they want someone to do the work for them. This makes it unworkable because people
fix their own lives by taking the actions that move their life towards the
things that will make it better and away from the things that are making it
worse. Anyone who shifts the responsibility of any aspect of this onto another
person is not ready for change and is very likely looking for someone else to
blame when things do not go well.
The final part of all of this has to do with the fact that
being a victim of the actions of other people is not the same thing as being
the victim of your own actions. Not all victims are the same, although everyone
is, to some degree, a victim of their own decision making or their
unwillingness to make a decision.
This is where the power comes from. At some level, each one
of us could have done something different and if we had, we would have
experienced a different outcome. Even when we truly are the victims and suffer
at the hands of another person, we could have done something different at some
point along the way and there is a very good chance that we could have changed
course when we realized that things were starting to go badly. This is why the
cycling through the questions is so important. The client will need to realize
a few things before they will gain access to a different and more deliberate
At some point along the way, when they realized that things
were starting to go or were actually bad, they did not act. This was their
decision and even if another person victimized them afterward, it was only
because the client made the decision to remain in that position. Yes, the other
person is responsible for their action, but this does not relinquish the client
from their own responsibility in the situation. They contributed to the
situation that the other person took advantage of.
By cycling through the questions until a ridiculous end
point is reached, the double bind is created that will cause the client to
consider the fact that there is something very silly about how the whole thing
is going to pan out assuming the present situation remains as it is. This will
force them to reconcile the fact that they KNOW the future before it happens
and are therefore choosing to let this happen by choosing to do nothing about
it. If they do not like how things are right now and they really do not like
how things will become if they continue along on the same course, they will obviously
need to do something different or else they are completely responsible for the
outcome. No one else in the situation will bare any responsibility for what
Notice how, at no point in this, are they being told that
they are wrong. They are not being judged by you (the trainer / coach) in
anyway, which will put some distance between them and the notion of external
victimization. They are being moved to the point of making their own decisions
and value judgments about what is going on and are completely free to accept
everything as fine and allow it to continue. If the concept of victimization
exists at all, it will only be in terms of their own actions and decisions
leading them to a predetermined or predicted outcome. No one else will hold any
responsibility in it and if they view the possible outcome as bad or
undesirable, they are free to do something different to change it.
The benefit to this approach stems from the fact that self-discovery and independent learning play a disproportionately large role in terms of shaping future actions than anything that was taught or learned via a proxy. Understanding is the much younger sibling to realization, so someone who realizes that they have made the decisions that led them to this moment in time is at a distinct advantage over someone who understands this concept. The truth of the matter is that most people will resist and do the opposite of what they are told, so the actions of a well-intentioned coach who bypasses self-discovery in favor of telling the client what is going on will statistically do more harm than good.
Not everyone wants the things that they say they want, so
it’s also very important to take the time to allow the person to make this call
on their own. The only way this can happen is when there is full disclosure. By
helping the client surface the most likely outcome if they continue their
course of action, you are helping to free them from the future, if that is what
they want, or to become content with their future, if it is what they choose.
Again, we are not in a position to say anything about right and wrong, nor are
we qualified to make the call on what is appropriate or inappropriate for their
future. It is their life and they are the experts of it. Our job is to help
them gain clarity on what is going on, why it is happening, who is causing it
to happen, and what the future outcomes will be if they continue to operate in
the same way. If they still want help after everything has been uncovered, our
job is to help them figure out what they want and to help them determine a path
that they will take towards it.
Victim language is important only in so far as it helps them to see who the actual villain is, themselves, and to realize that it has been their own decisions that have caused the outcomes that they do not like. It is only when someone accepts that they are both victim and villain in their own life that they will be able to see themselves as being the cause of whatever eventual future they live into. Leverage this view of victim-hood to help them gain the power of becoming a benevolent villain in their own life.
Egalitarian democracies that are a mix of capitalism and socialism do tend to lead to better outcomes, but they are not without their shortcoming. No matter what approach is implemented, governing large numbers of people is not easy and there is a near 100% chance that 100% of the population will not like something about how things are structured.
Video contains strong language and may not be safe for your work place.
Chernobyl, the 5 part mini series about the 1986 nuclear disaster, is fantastic! While it does not reflect reality completely, they took some liberties with the facts to help tell the story, it has been widely praised. It is very entertaining, it does a good job explaining what happened and why, and it is a revealing look inside the USSR and how their system of government contributed to the cause and severity of the accident.
The best scene in my opinion was the one captured in the video clip above. This was our first introduction to the miners who were called upon to dig a tunnel under the reactor core to allow for a cooling system to be installed. The concern was that the overheating nuclear fuel would melt its way into the ground water, causing massive pollution and spreading the radioactivity for hundreds of miles. This would have made the clean-up impossible and it would have rendered a considerable amount of land uninhabitable for generations.
In this situation, the miners have the power and they know it. There is almost nothing that the system can do to compel them to dig the tunnel. Whereas force and fear are used to control most of the other characters, this group of people is immune to threats and this scene illustrates this fact perfectly. They only agree to do the risky work because of the consequences that would result from the core melting into the aquifer.
What captured my attention most of all is the joke that the foreman tells at the beginning of the clip – it’s worth watching the clip for the joke if nothing else.
“What’s as big as a house, burns 20 liters of fuel every hour, puts out a shit-load of smoke and noise, and cuts an apple into three pieces? A Soviet machine made to cut apples into four pieces!”
Glukhov in Chernobyl Mini Series
When I heard it the first time, I laughed, hit rewind and watched it again. I laughed again, and I laugh every time I hear it. The thing is though, it isn’t really a joke. While it may not be a statement of fact, there is no evidence that such a machine ever existed, it is only funny because it captures something that could very easily have been true and is therefore kind of pathetic.
This is not a political post, I really don’t care to talk about my views on politics because they are irrelevant. Individual people have a specific set of needs that are shared across the species and once met, they have their own unique set of wants that they will pursue. Egalitarian democracies that are a mix of capitalism and socialism do tend to lead to better outcomes, but they are not without their shortcomings. No matter what approach is implemented, governing large numbers of people is not easy and there is a near 100% chance that 100% of the population will not like something about how things are structured. The best we can hope for is that people are able to feel secure and work to earn enough money to meet their needs and pursue some of their wants. But some people will accumulate more while others will accumulate nothing and live a much harder life.
The joke is great because it is being told by a man who knows what the system is all about and is fearless in calling it out. The machine, which was designed to serve a useless and unnecessary function, doesn’t even do that correctly. It is dirty and wasteful and does a pointless task badly.
Of course, this is not to suggest that everything the USSR made was useless or pointless. Some of the technologies that they produced were first class and well ahead of their western counter parts. Nor is it suggesting that the people were incapable or unintelligent. They are just people and were more or less identical to people from anywhere on the planet. The fact is that more than two hundred thousand people were involved in the clean-up of Chernobyl indicating that, as people go, they had a strong moral compass and were willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of all people.
The joke is just pointing out that the system was not very good at determining what was needed or delivering it. Even if you know nothing about the history of the USSR, when you watch the mini series these facts will become very clear. When the safety of a population depends upon apples being cut into four pieces, relying on a Soviet machine may not be the best course of action, and particularly when the system punishes anyone who says that the machine is cutting an apple into three pieces.
The best interpretation of the joke that I read was that the apple cutting machine is a metaphor for the USSR, in that it is big, inefficient and doesn’t really do what it is supposed to do. Taken this way, the joke is a criticism of socialism / communism and ultimately of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels notion that their theory of government didn’t do what it was designed to do, and what it did do was done poorly. This interpretation does not seem like a stretch as I sit in front of a computer typing this, but in the context of the show it didn’t jump out at me. Glukhov, the miner who makes the joke, does seem like someone who is capable of thinking that way, but he’s making the joke in front of his team of miners so it isn’t actually clear that his audience would make the connection or understand it as to be a criticism of socialist and communist governing philosophy.
Which may be the point of the joke. On the simple level, the Soviet system tended to produce some pointless and inefficient machines that didn’t do what they were supposed to do and on the deeper level, maybe the system did this because that was the outcome of the system working perfectly.
After watching the series and taking some time to think about it, a few things become clear. The first is that the world is very complicated and it is very difficult to do things well, let alone perfectly. The second is that when something needs to function perfectly, like a nuclear reactor, there is no room for fear in speaking-up, the silencing of dissenting opinions or the creation of alternative facts. The final thing is about power and who ends-up being on the clean-up crew. Generally speaking, and this applies to the entire planet, those who have enough power to screw things up tend not to have the willingness or ability to fix them when they go bad.
This is athletes and is not most people. The results are a function of “athlete” as a verb as opposed to a noun. Most people will act like an athlete from time to time insofar as they can be very driven and work very hard, but an athlete is single-minded about what it is they want to achieve and they are single-minded about the willingness to do whatever it takes to move forward and achieve the goal.
A few weeks ago I was talking to an old co-worker friend from the fitness industry. We were just spit balling back and forth about who the best clients were to get. When I asked him what exactly he meant by the best clients, is it the ones who get the best results, is it the ones who are the most fun to train, is it the ones that are the easiest to train? He replied with “that is a good question, what I’m really asking is your opinion and your experience with clients who get the best results for who they are, and you know right off the get-go that it is going to be an easy experience for both people.” So for the trainer is it going to be fairly straight forward and for them as the client it is going to be very simple. It is going to be hard work, without a doubt, but it is going to be simple hard work. They are going to do what they have to do, they are going to do it as well as they can, and they are going to do it exactly as it is outlined.
Fundamentally, this is the type of question that I love answering because it draws on a lot of my experience in terms of the work that I have done in a variety of different fields along with my academic background in psychology. At its core is the question “why do people do the things that they do?”
Now we know an awful lot about how the brain works, both in
terms of the physiological things that occur, and in the fifty thousand foot
view of what goes on in the brain and the way people think – so the
neuroscience along with the psychology. There is a boundary separating these two
things. The neuroscience deals with things on a cellular level while the
psychology deals with more of a narrative understanding of what goes on. Regardless
of the differences, a lot is known about both things.
There is not much difference between human beings.
Genetically, we are all very close to identical and the physiological processes
that run under the surface are exactly the same for all people. We are coded in
more or less the same way, by and large we all have the same parts of the brain
and they all work in exactly the same way. And it is that way with most mammals
and most living things. Neurons work the same way, more or less. So given that
there is so much similarity in terms of the neuroscience, on the cellular
level, why are there different outcomes for different people? Why is it not the
That is where the psychology comes in to play. And that is ultimately the question my friend was asking. Who are your favorite clients to work with from the point of view of the ones you know are going to do well, will follow instructions and just be really easy to work with? Well, as the conversation evolved he asked if my experience backed up what I know about psychology. And that is a fair question because my experience NEEDS to back it up because if experience does not back-up what you know about a science, your experience is wrong or the science is wrong, or you have done something new that was not previously known. But one would imagine, that with enough time, over the twenty years I have been working in the industry, I would have found my way into the mean in that the average experience that I have had with people would reflect the average person.
This is more or less been what I have discovered. Some people do not get very good results. They do not get any worse, but they never move toward their goal. The stated goal of losing a few pounds or gaining some muscle, or whatever the goal is that the person decides they want, I know that there will be some people who never move towards it. They will never get worse, which is a version of improvement given that decay is the natural processes as we get older, so that is good. But when they are not moving towards their goal and improving, they are not really getting what they want.
Then there are other clients who get average results, and finally
there are the outliers on the other end, those who achieve their potential in
the scientifically determined length of time – there is an optimal level of
progress and there are a few clients who will hit this. This is ultimately what
he was getting at. When someone sits down in front of me for the consultation,
and they say “hey, I need your help in doing this thing,” who do I
know is going to get the results, and what makes me sure they will? And what then
does the science say about these people?
Well, I will work backwards. What does the science say about
people who get results? Basically it says that the people who do this collection
of things for this time duration at this frequency and for this period of time
(in terms of weeks or months or years), will cause physiological changes to
their body that are the reflection of the physiological stimulation and the
nutritional intervention. So those who get results do those specific things as
prescribed and they get these specific and predictable results. For example,
they do this program four times a week, every week for three months while
adjusting their diet in these ways and they will gain 5 pounds of muscle and
drop 5 percent in body fat.
So if that is on the surface, do X, Y and Z in this way and get this outcome, why is it that some people choose to do X, Y and Z exactly as prescribed while others will not do it as prescribed? What is the difference between these people, and the individuals who find themselves in other groups?
The science and a lot of the research that they have done with people reveals that it all comes down to consequences. On first pass, this may seem silly because consequences are punishments and punishments are about reducing particular behavioral patterns or actions. Compare this to reward, which is about increasing behavioral patterns or actions that someone takes, which is ultimately what personal trainers are asking their clients to do.
Think back onto Pavlov’s dogs that salivated at the sound of the bell when they had learned that food was given right after the bell rang. They would start to get excited when they heard the bell because they learned that the bell meant food. The outcome to this was that the dogs began to display a behavior that was not related to the bell simply because they had been reward in the past and had conditioned the reward to the sound of the bell.
On the other side of it is punishment. Whenever a physical or psychological punishment is administered to a creature in close proximity to a particular action or behavior, the frequency of them displaying that action or behavior will be reduced and overtime it will be eliminated. Now the issue with punishment is that it is not very specific meaning that whatever action the nervous system of the animal determined was what led to the punishment will get suppressed. It is not a clearly defined or a concise understanding of what exactly caused the punishment. This means that any of the behaviors that occurred in close temporal proximity to the punishment might end-up being suppressed. This leads to a situation that allows for very little testing or refinement of the connection – since the punishment MIGHT have been caused by any one of these five actions, repeating one of them MIGHT lead to a punishment so it is best to not repeat ANY of them.
This is the opposite of rewards. Rewards tend to be much more specific because there is no risk associated with testing any of the potential actions. The animal is hell-bent on finding out what exactly it has to do in order to get more rewards and it very quickly tracks down that it was this particular behavior.
What does this have to do with success with personal training clients? It has to do with the fact that consequences have a much bigger role in determining who is going to be successful. Human beings are not like any other creature. We get to enjoy things that do not happen, we get to enjoy the benefits and cost of things that are just a matter of perception, so things that we imagine and that never occur. And while any other animal will learn to avoid doing the things that cause them harm or ill-health, a human being will continue to do them.
To this later point, alcohol is good. You should never ever feed alcohol to a dog, it is not fair as it cannot consent to drink. You should not do it. But whenever they have done it they have found that the dog will drink, it will suffer hangover like effects and it will never go near alcohol again. In fact, the dog will become conditioned to avoid alcohol through single-trial learning. When it comes to alcohol, it does not like it, it hates the feeling and it knows alcohol will cause the feeling so it does not touch it ever again. Human beings will continue to do things that cause pain or that simply do not work for them over and over again in spite of the fact that they causes problems. Consequences do not mean the same thing to human beings as they do to dogs. There is a one-to-one cause and effect relationship with the dog while the consequences with human beings are impacted by a perceptual relationship. This means that the cause and effect relationship manufactured by the human could connect absolutely anything to anything else.
The science basically says that someone who shows up for consultation saying “I want to get better at X,” knowing exactly what they are seeking, is highly motivated, and they know exactly why they are doing it, will tend to get the results they are looking for. A perfect example of this class is an athlete. Athletes know exactly why they are doing what it is they are doing and are moving towards a goal. I am not going to say that they are pleasure-seeking but they are looking for something that they view as positive. They want to achieve the highest level of performance so they can increase the likelihood that they are going to win during competition. This is one group who, if they show-up in front of you, assuming you know the science to support optimal human performance and write and administer the program effectively, WILL hit their potential because they will follow the program almost perfectly. These people are seeking something. There is a huge reward in front of them and that is what they are moving towards.
This is athletes and is not most people. The results are a
function of “athlete” as a verb as opposed to a noun. Most people will act like
an athlete from time to time insofar as they can be very driven and work very
hard, but an athlete is single-minded about what it is they want to achieve and
they are single-minded about the willingness to do whatever it takes to move
forward and achieve the goal.
Most people, in general, are moving away from something they
do not like, which is not pleasure seeking. Human beings operate from a pain
avoidance point of view when it comes to altering their physical health. The
reason is fairly straight-forward, it is hard work. The easiest thing to do is
nothing. Change is not doing nothing. Doing nothing is doing what we have
automated, living the life that we are currently living. If we want to change
our life this means we have to do something other than what is automatic, which
is going to require effort. Since we know it requires effort there is a
disincentive to doing it if for no other reason than this extra effort (but
there are other reason too). Human beings do not really operate from the point
of view of spending effort unless we absolutely need to. So we will spend
energy to get pleasure, the athlete, and when it comes to everyone else who connects
with a personal trainer, they will spend energy to avoid pain. This is the
reason why we know someone is going to get great results when they show-up to a
personal trainer with a clear idea of what it is they do not want. They are the
ones who are more than likely going to do everything that is asked of them. The
motivational currency of the non-athlete are consequences.
The science basically says when dealing with consequences, the consequences need to be soon, they need to be certain, and they need to be salient. If a consequence has, in the mind of the potential client, these three properties, they are going to agree to training and they are going to commit to doing what you asked them to do as hard as they can. They are going to do what it is needed to move themselves away from the consequences that are soon, certain, and salient. If the consequences do not possess one of those properties, there is a much lower likelihood of compliance to the requests that will be outlined in the program.
The “soon” is fairly straightforward. The consequence needs
to be something that occurs in the very near future and the closer to now it will
occur the better. Far away things may as well not be things at all because the
brain really does not process things that are distant. Things that actually
exist in the here and now or have greater immediacy are going to get a lot more
effort and action taken towards their resolution or prevention.
Certain means the outcome needs to be inevitable and there is no possibility of an alternative outcome that is more pleasant or favorable. The reason for this is a cognitive bias called “the optimistic bias” which has a person believed the best case scenario in a situation when there are two alternatives presented. They are going to believe the best case and assume that is the one that will happen and move forward accordingly. This will happen even if there is only a 1% chance of the best case and a 99% chance of the negative or the worst case scenario. The optimistic bias has a person choose a 1% chance over a 99% chance. This defies logic but so do human beings. We are not logical operators so it is not surprising that we would do something that does not make a lot of logical sense. An inevitable consequence or one that is viewed as near certainty is going to be given a lot more weight than something that is viewed merely as a possibility.
Salience has to do with ones ability to visualize, imagine, consider, and bring to mind what the consequences are and what the ramifications will be upon their life. The more clearly a person is able to perceive the future outcome, the greater the level of salience and the more clearly their perception will be of the negative. This is very important because things that are hard to imagine may as well not be imagined at all. Something that is very clear to see, is very simple to imagine and a brain will work with it to a much larger degree. The specific reasons for this have to do with the amount of stimulation that an idea generates. Imagine you are looking at something very clearly and you are noticing everything about it. This is a huge stream of sensory data coming into your brain that it has to process and make sense of. The same thing is true with something that is very salient. You are able to imagine it clearly, able to feel the way it feels, see, hear and get a real sense of the negative outcome and this will generate a massive amount of data that your brain is going to process and operate on.
The more we pay attention to something and the higher our concentration is on what we are thinking about, the greater the cognitive ripple triggered by this stimulation. This larger amount of data will have a much larger impact on our mental processes. Anything that is salient, is clear, is easy to visualize, is easy to understand and experience will have a bigger wave of impact on the brain meaning that more of the will process it.
The end result? A much better understanding of the negative
outcome will lead to much better change. This is what the science says, as long
as the consequences are soon, certain, and salient, a human being is not going
to have any difficulty dealing with them. They are going to treat it as
important, pay their respect and take the action that is required in order to
address it. However, if a consequence does not have all three of these, or is
missing two of them, a person is not going to do anything about it.
Now how does this line-up with my experience? Well, it
There are three prospective clients that will show up in front of me and I will know with certainty that they will buy training and get great value out of it by following the instructions and working hard to get the results they are seeking. In each of these three cases, they match on all three of soon, certain and salient. These three types of prospects are illness, recently dumped or single, and mothers of multiple children.
This begs the question, how are the variables of soon,
certain and salient present in each of these groups?
Well if you think about illness, which is illness in the person themselves or the illness of someone they care about, it is very salient. If it is in themselves, the doctor has told them that they need to do something about their blood sugar, the extra body fat, or their blood pressure, or else they are going to die or they are going to get sick. Having the experience of the doctor telling them that sickness is inevitable unless they change course makes it very clear to them. The certainty is a doctor saying to them their blood pressure is 180 over 147, which is elevated. So unless there is a good reason for it and there tends not to be a very good reason for that, it is unhealthy and is causing a lot of unnecessary stress on the blood vessels and particularly on the brain. A blood pressure like that for a sustained period of time is setting oneself up for a stroke, a brain aneurysm or any number of really devastating neurological consequences. By ignoring high blood pressure, it is only a matter of time before an artery in your brain is going to explode, and when it bleeds out, it will cause severe intellectual mental impairments and it could actually kill you.
While we do not have any real concept of what it means to be
not alive, because we have always been alive, we have an idea and a very
negative sense of what it is like to be dead, and of what it would be like to
be intellectually impaired because of a neurological trauma that was avoidable.
A cancer diagnosis or a heart attack in a loved one has the same sort of
quality. We see someone we care about who is sick, which makes for a very salient
The certainty and soon is the doctor telling us that we are sick or destined for a health crisis when they show us a blood test that indicates an LDL level that is very high. These are understood by proxy if we see someone who is sick because this is a clear indication that it is really happening RIGHT NOW. That is a benefit, if you will, of illness. People see the consequences and they match all three of soon, certain and salient.
The second group, the recently dumped, is a weird one but it is absolutely true when someone becomes single, if they have not made the decision themselves, once they get past the grief associated with losing the relationship, they move towards a three to nine month period of getting revenge on their partner. They do not actually want their partner to suffer physically but that they want to send them a message that they screwed up dumping them, so they get after a physical transformation and taking care of the things that they put on the back burner. They take care of their health and they take care of their fitness. Maybe it is weight loss, maybe it is gaining strength to become more mobile and active in order to do things they have never done. Whatever it is, they do these so that at some point in the future they will be able to say to their ex-partner “yeah I’m doing all that stuff now, I look great, and it wasn’t me it was you. You broke up with me and now my life is so much better. You were the liability.”
Sure, this is a story that people are telling themselves, but since there is nothing at all wrong with getting into better shape, I am not going to tell them that they might want to go to therapy to understand the role they played in the demise of their relationship. With people, and particularly people who come looking for personal training advice, they do the work, they spend the time needed to figure themselves out and then come to realize that “yeah I played a role in the breakup. I was not being the best person I could be, I was not playing all out in the relationship and while I do not appreciate the fact that the relationship ended I do sort of understand that it was not working for me therefore could not possibly have been working for them.” But when it comes to those realizations, even when they arrive after spending six to nine months improving their health and fitness, it is all good. They will have a better life, they will be happier, they will be moving themselves forward and while they may not necessarily live longer they are going to enjoy a better health span and that is a big deal. While maybe it was not an absolutely necessary journey, they have done themselves and their future selves a huge favor by improving their health.
So how do the soon, certain, and salient apply here? Soon, the consequences are actually occurring. The person has been made single and is already living in the consequences. Certain, well it is the same thing, the thing has already happened and they are already living it. Whatever that is, they are right in the thick of it because they got dumped. Salient, the same thing as well, there is nothing as clear as living an experience.
The third group is mothers of multiple children. This one is
tricky and it took me a little while to figure out but really when it comes
down to it, the soon, certain and salient are all exactly the same thing as the
recently dumped group.
I do not know what it is like to be a mother but a lot of the
mothers I have worked with have all explained it in the same way: you would do
anything to improve the quality and life experience of your child knowing that your
child has no awareness of what you are doing, have done or will do. They do not
say that it is thankless, but they do say the child is completely oblivious to
the fact that you have done anything. All they know is that they had a need and
Mommy took care of it and that is the end of it.
With one child the mother is going to be able to get back to life much sooner than when she has two or three children. Children are spaced out over particular length of time and while there is no set length of time required for the mind of a mother to determine that it is time to get back to doing stuff for themselves, they are going to hit that point later if they have more children. A person could spend ten years with their primary role being mother, looking after all of the needs of the child, making sure the child is not hungry or suffering in any way that they are able to help the child avoid. Ten years to live for something other than yourself is a very long time.
The soon, certain and salient in this case? The funny thing
about this group is that these things are in the past. The person has lived the
soon, it is not that the consequences are going to happen in the future, it is
that they are happening and they have been happening. The certain, they have
lived it. Salient, the same thing, they have lived it; it is very similar to the
experience of being dumped in that it is not a thing that needs to be imagined about
what might happen in the future, it is a thing that has been happening for a
period of time.
If a mother shows up saying “you know, I’ve decided that I want to get some training,” a switch has flipped in their head because they have come to make the decision that they are going to be investing in themselves for the first time in a very long time. There is an opportunity cost associated with doing it – the opportunity cost is taking time away from their children, which has been their focus for the last decade – so they do not end up sitting across from a trainer, asking for help with improving their fitness unless they have actually done the benefit cost analysis. They are willing to say the opportunity cost of continuing to ignore their future is too great so therefore they have to do something. They know what they are sacrificing – time with their children – so they are going to make the most of their time by following every instruction and by trying as hard as they can while they are working out before returning to their role of mother, which remains the main focus of their life.
The beauty about this group in particular is that they are there for themselves in the moment, and in the future. The recently dumped the people are excited but they are there for themselves in the future – the moment they get to show off to their ex. The same applies to their illness group, they are there to avoid something awful in the future. The mother group is there to create something good in the present moment and something in the future or to avoid something awful in the future. They are going to be fully present in the present moment because they need to spend time investing in themselves.
This is how my experience has lined up with the science. When the consequences have the property of being soon, certain and salient, action is much more likely than when they are far away, hard to imagine or unlikely. When the consequence have either occurred in the past, are currently occurring or are about to happen in the near future, there is a very good chance that a person will get great results because they are going to follow the advice that is given. Since professional personal trainers only dispense advice that is scientifically valid, it is very easy to come up with the prescription that helps these people. Do this set of things in this way for this length of time with this frequency over time and you will get these results, and that is really all there is to it. Anyone else who shows up and is sitting in front of you but is there having no relationship to the consequences – there is no soon, certain and salient in what they are talking about – the chances of success are much lower.
Now there are other people who will get great results. Maybe they love working out or maybe they are really powerful at working hard to achieve a future benefit or to avoid a future cost that is not very well defined in their mind. I have worked with people who are not athletes and do not belong to one of the three groups outlined above and who do not have a clear and vibrant picture of the consequences, but who get after it like there is nothing else in their life that is more important. However, the possibility of someone doing the necessary work without the soon, certain and salient being checked off is dramatically lower.
After thinking about it for a few moments, my friends
experience did support what I was saying.
Now the objective of this post is to explain that whenever you are doing a consultation or just having a conversation with someone, I do not think it is wise for you to try and point out the consequences of their actions and the inevitable future that they are moving into order to trigger an emotional response and to then capture them in a training program. There is nothing wrong with telling them the truth and helping them see that the destination if they continue down the path they are on is not a very great place to be. That is a fine thing to do, just so long as you do not immediately capture them in a training program for that reason. They will need to spend some time with the information that has been revealed in order for their brain to fully reorganize and understand that “oh my God I’m actually cruising towards bad health and an eventual health crisis, and I should probably do something to make sure that it doesn’t go down like that.”
Triggering these thoughts and emotions in someone and then selling to them without giving them the time to process and integrate that information, can only lead to someone dealing with the consequences of a rash decision as opposed to anything else. Whenever you are having a conversation with someone who is sitting in front of you, unless they are spontaneously hitting on the three soon, certain, and salient in terms of the consequences, or they are an athlete, do not try to trigger the negatives about what could happen if they stay the course and do not try to trigger the positives of what could happen if they change course. Simply talk with them and try to figure out why they decided to have a conversation with you. If they are able to come up with the reasons why they are there and you are not able to convince yourself that these reason are not really something that they spent much time thinking about or that they are not ready to deal with, they are probably ready for training so sell it to them. But if they do not have a clear reason why they are there or a soon, certain or salient in terms of the consequences of them continuing to live the life the way they are living it, it behooves you to just have a conversation to help them figure out the reason why they are there. If they do not know and you still sell to them that then becomes the thing that was done to them.
You will have manipulated them into buying something they
did not want.
But on the other hand if you help them unpack exactly why
they are there and really help them dig in on their motivations and all of the
other things, and they are crystal clear that “yes this is what I want and I
want it for these reasons,” sell them the training because they are not going
to be upset at you for it. They are going to thank you for it because you will
be aligned with them as a partner and help them move towards their goals.
When someone comes and sits down in front of me and says “hey I am looking for your help,” and I am able to track in and find out the soon, certain and salient in terms of the consequences they are hoping to avoid, or if the person is an athlete, or if they are a member of one of the three groups – someone who has seen or is experiencing illness, someone who is recently single, or a mother who has decided to focus some of her time on herself for a change – it is a sure thing. It is not going to be easy money, it is going to be work but they are going to more than willing to put the effort in and the partnership is going to be a win-win.