Oh, wait a minute, there is a chocolate pie. It is right there for your present self to enjoy. For YOU to enjoy. Future self does not need to know about it. You can just have a slice and never speak a word of it, to them, to anyone. It will be like it never happened. Except if it does happen it DID happen.
It is probably going to happen to you. You are a healthy eater, you like yourself enough to do the things that your future self will be grateful you did. Heck, you LOVE your future self and are really looking forward to meeting them. For them you would do almost anything. They do not exist yet, but you are willing to do almost anything to make sure they have the best life possible. Good for you! They will thank you for it.
Oh, wait a minute, there is a chocolate pie. It is right there for present self to enjoy. For YOU to enjoy. Future self does not need to know about it. You can just have a slice and never speak a word of it, to them, to anyone. It will be like it never happened. Except if it does happen it DID happen.
Saying no all the time can be tough. It is possible and there will be a time in the future when you are glad you did. But life is not necessarily all about the future. The present moment, now, is actually a lot more real than the future. There are a lot of things to be said about getting the most out of each moment and sometimes that means saying yes to something that is a small speed bump in your journey.
You should give yourself permission to say yes to the things you like but that hurt your progress so long as you are not addicted to them and so long as they do not trigger an all or nothing type of event. Alcoholics are best to always say no to that first drink. X smokers are always better served to never take another puff. People on a massive weight loss journey are best to stick with the program until they achieve their predetermined celebration milestones. If this is not you, if you are a healthy eater who avoids sugar and baked desserts and do not have any celebrations lined-up, saying yes to the chocolate pie occasionally is not a big deal and, if done with planning, can have a very small impact on your progress.
Pay your bill BEFORE you eat. If you are going to enjoy an occasional 750 calorie dessert, create the 750 calorie deficit before you get stuck in.
If you are going to eat it on Sunday, in the 4 or 5 days before, eat 125 calories less than what you normally would or burn off an extra 125 calories with exercise. So long as doing this does not drop your calories below 1200-1400 on any of these days, it will be a wash and everything will work itself out by Tuesday or Wednesday of the following week.
Better than the lay away approach is to burn the calories as close to before the meal as possible. An intense work out primes the body to shuttle the calories into the cells that need them for recovery before moving them into fat cells for storage. If you have depleted 500 calories of muscle glycogen just before you eat a piece chocolate pie, many of the sugar calories you consume will be help replenish this energy. The sugar will spike your insulin which will also help with protein synthesis further aiding recovery and possibly help you gain some lean muscle. From time to time it is fine to look at food as molecules void of any context, provided you have done the work right before the use the molecules as you would if they were just individual ingredients.
Chocolate pie is NOT the same thing as coco, glucose, fructose, saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and water. The ingredients interact with each other to do things that the individual ingredients would not do on their own. Glucose and fat consumed together create a massive release of reward chemical that glucose or fat on their own do not. The whole is great than the sum of its parts. But occasionally and when done mindfully these treat experiences can promote a great sense of well-being with very little or no negative impact on future you. Just make sure you pay the bill before eating.
Is the person willing to pay the bill before they start – do they know the value of what they are about to do and do they know why they are enrolling you in their possibility? Are they clear on why it is important to them today and for the person they are going to become? If the answer is yes, if it is obvious that there is only one way forward, success is inevitable and this mutual partnership will work.
When it comes to personal training and basically any type of training, there are two type of clients, those who do what they are told and everyone else. Those who do the work are generally self-motivated. They may not know exactly why they are doing what they do, but when pressed on it they can come-up with a good reason, or two, or more. Intuitively they understand that they must pay the metaphoric bill before they eat the metaphoric meal – the bill is the work and every decision that moves them forward while the meal is the results they are seeking. For me, these clients are moderately interesting to work with and most of the joy comes from the validation that my methods and programs work and from the empathetic joy of seeing someone work hard, get what they earn, and feel good about it. I enjoy the conversations as well because these types of people have a lot to teach and I have a lot to learn.
Everyone else acts like training is a meal at a fine dining restaurant. It’s an experience to have and the bill will be paid at the end after they know that the experience was worth it. These people are a lot more work. There is a different problem to be solved and I may not know the answer because they don’t know the question. They don’t necessarily do what is being asked of them because they don’t really know why they are in front of me, asking for my help, on a journey that they may not even have started. It’s messy with a much lower success rate. The best case is that they actually start the journey and figure out why it is important OR that a light gets shined on the life they are living, the future that this will create for them, and a sense of peace about both.
The truth is that it is much more important to me that they find out what their goals actually are and not important at all that they achieve a goal that was never theirs in the first place.
I like my life and I believe everyone else should like their life too. If I can be of service and guide / help them automate the making of the life of their dreams then all the better. Sometimes they are already living the life of their dreams and just have never taken the time to notice it. They may not realize what is involved with chasing down a goal and that the actualization of the goal can be rather unfulfilling. After you reach your goal you are still you. You may be a leaner, more muscular, faster you, but at the end of the day, you remain you.
I used to believe that everyone should work out and improve their health. This is something that I no longer believe. I know everyone will benefit from moderate exercise, improved nutrition, reduced stress, and a more mindful approach to life, but that doesn’t mean everyone should go after these benefits. Sometimes these benefits actually make people miserable. Having single digit body fat is hard work and requires a lot of sacrifice. Once you achieve it, it requires continuous effort to maintain because it is a possession of sorts. It is now YOURS to lose, and this knowledge can generate a considerable amount of negative mental energy. And regardless of what you do, if you live long enough, you WILL lose it. Everything that arises will pass away, your discipline, your 6 pack abs, your youth, even your earthly existence.
A quick conversation can unpacked that a person just want to feel happier with who they are, the solution for which is meditation. After a few months of twice a day practice is all that is needed for the laws of nature to reveal themselves, and equanimous acceptance is bound to follow.
An effective consultation can reveal that the goal is simply to feel better. The prescription here is simple, improve posture through the use of structural balance movements, core and breath training. When we automate standing up straight when your head back and breathing deeply into our belly our psychological mind set shifts towards confidence, security, and contentment. The experience of pain is reduced and we feel and act more capable.
Cultivating and maintaining mindfulness is very easy and will add tremendous value to your life because of the compounding effect of experience over time. Improving and maintaining posture and appropriate breathing requires 5 minutes a day of work and offers similar compounding lifelong benefits. These things are easy, and anyone can achieve them. And if they are actually what the person is seeking, it is better for everyone in the long run to just go straight for them.
I am not suggesting that someone should not work out to improve their health. They should, most people should, but it is even better if the person actually wants to do it. There is no downside when someone works hard to get what they want AND need. The same cannot be said when someone gets what they need but do not want. Needs and wants are not the same and when they are not aligned who are we to decide what another person needs?
I find this approach helpful when it comes to training and coaching. Is the person willing to pay the bill before they start – do they know the value of what they are about to do and do they know why they are enrolling you in their possibility? Are they clear on why it is important to them today and for the person they are going to become? If the answer is yes, if it is obvious that there is only one way forward, success is inevitable and this mutual partnership will work. Anything other than this is an indication that they do not really know what they want or that they have not taken the time to get clear on why they want it. A simpler solution likely exists for them, one that has them invest a lot less time and allows them to go directly to what they want.
While the conversation will be taking place in the present moment, the words are being translated by a unique dictionary that was written by and for them. Even the most skilled, clear, and concise communicator will be plagued with having to relate ideas through an interpretive filter that is a reflection of the listeners’ life.
Language is both amazing and clumsy. Amazing, because there is nothing quite
like it for taking an idea from one person’s head and putting it into someone
else head. Clumsy, because there is no way to be sure that the idea that is
recreated in the other persons hear is the same as the one that was intended to
be shared. As far as we can tell, human beings are the only species with this
problem because the communicative intentions of other creatures are rather
primitive in comparison. “Get away,” “stay back,” “come here,” “danger,” “I
like you,” and “let’s get it on” are about as deep as the verbal communication
gets with non-human animals. While they are capable of communicating more, most
of the rest is communicated through modeling, which has the learner watch the
actions of the teacher. It needs to be said that gorillas and chimpanzees has
been taught to communicate with humans using sign language, and most of the
great apes in the wild will use a variety of hand movements and gestures to
communicate with their group.
Communication with human beings is many levels above what exists in the most
articulate of primate species. We are able to talk about things that are not
real, are not present, or are abstract in nature meaning there is a near
infinite number of things that we are able to share.
The problem is that we do not have any method of evaluating the accuracy of
communication on the fly and are faced with the choice of continuing to try and
share our message or disrupting the conversational flow by asking the other
person if things are still on track. Because we favor the first option, we tend
to rely on non-verbal indicators or verbal placeholders as an indirect way to
make sure the message is being received. Head nodding, eye blinking frequency
and speed, facial expressions, shifting eye gaze patterns, and single word /
sound vocalization serve as an inaccurate but highly utilized proxy for asking
“are you following me?” or “what did you hear me say?” These things are really
only accurate for indicating confusion, disengagement or overwhelm. When we
notice that our conversational partner squints their eyes and kind of scrunches
up their face, we instantly know that they didn’t understanding the last thing
we said and likely need us to step back and take another run at it. But when we
see them nodding or hear them say “right” we take this to mean that the idea
that is in our head is being reformulated inside of their head and there will
soon be a shared and complete understanding.
This is a mistake. All these communications mean is that AN idea is being
formed in their head. This idea is going to be based a little bit on the words
you are saying and a lot of their life experience with reference to those
words. In fact, what is coming up for them is mostly going to be a reflection
of their past both in terms of the literal meaning of words and the feelings
those words evoke. While the conversation will be taking place in the present
moment, the words are being translated by a unique dictionary that was written
by and for them. Even the most skilled, clear, and concise communicator will be
plagued with having to relate ideas through an interpretive filter that is a
reflection of the listeners’ life.
Almost everyone knows this but chooses to ignore it because of the ease
afforded by the assumption that our words are the same as their words. What’s
the point of getting wrapped around the axle by being overly pedantic about the
meaning of “okay” and “uh huh?” Except it isn’t even remotely pedantic and a
good argument can be made that by NOT taking the time to get clear on the
differing definitions of the words we journey deeply down the road of confusion
When I took an NLP course a few years ago, they have a number of
presuppositions that help to define the field and determine the role that each
of us play when communicating with other people. There are more than a dozen of
them, but one of them struck me much harder than the rest and it relates to
“The meaning of communication is the response you get.”
Embedded within this statement is a rich understanding about the world. It
captures what I was making reference to with the first portion of this post,
that human beings may have a shared vocabulary but this vocabulary does not
necessarily have a shared meaning. It also captures the essence of taking an
idea from one person head and putting it into another person’s head as being a
stimulus / response transaction, action / reaction exchange or a cause / effect
relationship. And it talks to a level of responsibility that the speaker has
when it comes to the meaning the listener generates from the communication.
It was a course, so it is obvious that those who choose to attend it are
invested in getting something more out of life and will therefore be willing to
see themselves has having the power to get it. In environments like this, it is
not unreasonable to see the locus of control shifted onto the participants or
students in an attempt to get them to realize that at the end of the day, THEY
are responsible for generating the outcomes they want and are therefore
responsible for the outcomes they get.
But there is an irony here that people seem to miss, and one that is having
a negative impact on communication accuracy. It has to do with the polarity of
the left and right in terms of who is responsible for what. Specifically, the
responsibility movement holds that everyone is responsible for their own
actions and is therefore responsible for the outcomes they get. The opposite of
this holds that the powers that be are responsible for the outcomes that people
get and are therefore responsible for making things better for the people they
are controlling or oppressing. Like most polarized things, the reality is
somewhere in the middle – people are responsible for their actions but not in
control of the outcomes. With reference to communication, the speaker is in
control of their words (their action) but they are relying upon the listener to
generate a meaning (the outcome). The irony with that is the speaker is the
person who is motivated to share an idea and has the incentive to have an
accurate meaning generated in the brain of the listener. Okay, that isn’t
ironic on its own, but when combined with the prevailing notion that the
listener is responsible for the meaning that THEY generate, it becomes rather
Think about it this way, when someone doesn’t take the time to check in to
determine whether or not the generated meaning is the same as the intended
meaning, they are abdicating their responsibility for ensuring the accuracy of
the communication. Sure, they’ll fall back onto the talking point of the
responsibility movement and suggest that the other person is responsible for
their own action, but this changes nothing while enriching the speakers’ belief
that they have done everything they could and any misunderstanding is solely
the result of the listeners’ shortcomings.
This is pretty screwed-up, and it makes me a little bit angry because it
lazy, careless, and completely avoidable. It is also very short-sighted on the
part of the speaker. If they have a point of view or an idea that they need to
communicate, why does the listener suddenly become responsible for the
successful rendering of that POV or idea inside their own head? Of the two
parties, the listener has the least incentive to do this work yet the
responsibility movement dictates that they are the one who has to do it.
It lands on me like arrogance because it implies that what the speaker has
to say is so valuable that it is worth it to the listener to put in the effort
to completely understand it. There are times when this is the case, but these
are few and far between. Most of the communication that comes from speakers is self-serving.
It is for their own benefit so they should do the work.
It would understandable if human beings had limited working memory and
storage capacity in their long term memory, but this is not the case. When
communicating one on one or in small groups, there is an ample supply of
bandwidth to ask the question to ensure the message is getting transmitted and
received accurately, sufficient working memory to manage the specific concerns
or word meanings that the listener has, and plenty of long term memory to store
specific details that will ensure smooth and more complete communication in the
Instead, they just want to talk, be understood and play no role in making
this clearer or better in the future.
The truth of the matter is that, for honest operators, pushing the work onto
them will result in them doing an unconscious benefit cost analysis of the
interactions. If they pay off is sufficient, they will continue to put in the work,
but they are doing it only because there is an incentive to it. When the payoff
is not sufficient, they will begin to disengage and start to not care about
what the speaker is saying. This means that we’ll listen to our bosses when
they continue to force us to do the work to understand what exactly it is that
they are talking about. It also means that we will begin to withdraw from our
peers and friends when we notice that they take no steps to adjust their
communication approach towards us when they realize that there is a gap in the
shared understanding of words or meanings.
Personally, I dislike it when someone replies with “uh huh” when I say
“thank you.” “Thank you” followed by “you’re welcome” is a behavioral pattern
that is nearly always transactional and automatic. It probably doesn’t mean
anything at all, and is just a carryover from our parents teaching us to be
Much has been written about “uh huh” being a replacement for “thank you” and
I am willing to say that I might just be old. “You’re welcome” apparently, is
loaded with meaning that serves to dis-empower the person who says it and the
person it is directed at. By saying “you’re welcome” you might actually be
implying that the listener SHOULD have said “thank you” or was obligated to say
it. In this case, saying “you’re welcome” is an act of dominance that will lead
to feelings of inferiority and eventually a state of servitude.
I did not know this.
This is actually the fault of the person who says “thank you” (apparently)
because by hearing “thank you” the listener is powerless to feel anything other
than the need to dismiss their actions as being nothing or as them simply
playing their role in a social transaction or fulfilling their obligation in a
So there you go.
I’m not in a position to say that any of this is in fact bull crap but I
feel comfortable suggesting that it does kind of have a manure smell to it. But
I do need to take the time to consider my own role and actions in it.
I say thank you when someone does something to which I am the beneficiary.
This is me, it’s a part of my programming and I am not going to make any
apology for it. IF the person I am saying it to takes it as a negative, they
are completely free to never do that thing for me again. While it isn’t my
intention to suggest that I appreciated the outcome of their action, actually,
it is. That IS my intention. Even if they are doing their job and have no
choice in the matter, I am still slightly better off as a result of their
action. I went to the hardware store and bought a drywall knife. I paid cash
and said “thank you.” No matter how transactional that is, I went into the
store with some cash and a need of a drywall knife and I left with slightly
less money and no longer in need of a drywall knife. My life is better and the
cashier played a role in that. So I express my gratitude by saying “thank you.”
If I go over to my in-laws house for dinner and I eat any of it, I will say
“thank you.” I’ll say it even if dinner is take-out or the food was delivered.
If a co-worker or a manager does something that is within the scope of their
job I will say “thank you” even though they didn’t really have a choice and are
doing it only because they want to remain employed. It’s the same thing, my
life is slightly easier because of their action and I am grateful for that.
I am willing to accept that maybe my saying thank you is unnecessary. I am
also beginning to open-up to the fact that maybe my saying it is triggering
negative feelings inside of them as the feel the dynamic shifting because of
their perception of a shift in the dominance hierarchy. My intention of sharing
my gratitude shouldn’t be the trigger to someone else’s suffering – I can be
grateful while remaining silent. As “the meaning of communication is the
response you get” presupposition suggests, if my words are causing the other
person to respond in a negative way – that is, they do not catch on to my
intention of relating my gratitude to them for their action and instead take it
that I am suggesting that they are somehow less now as a result of it – that is
in fact the meaning of my communicating “thank you.”
Framed like this it is completely reasonable that they will respond poorly when I tell them that they are a piece of crap, which explains the noise “uh huh” that the cashier gave me in return. “Uh huh” is not the same thing as “you’re welcome.” It holds none of the power of tradition that the click whir reply “you’re welcome” possess. It is also not the same thing as saying “no problem” or “don’t mention it,” nor is it the same as saying nothing and smiling or saying nothing at all. At least for me and to my ears, it is two syllables of mouth and nose sounds that land as compendious as opposed to transactional. It is so much more than uttering something that serve to acknowledge our interaction has come to an end. It lands on my like our interaction should never have begun and should never be re-established.
It is a sound that is loaded with a lot of negative meaning to me. I do not
recall when the conditioning occurred, but when I hear it, it triggers feelings
that have a pain-like flavor. It is a psychological punishment in that regard.
When I hear it, it initiates that innate unconscious process that all living
beings possess that sets to track down, isolate, and eliminate the actions that
immediately preceded the punishment. However, being a human being, my brain
deals with context when tracking down this cause of the punishment. I don’t get
all that bothered when I hear someone use “uh huh” as a substitute for “yes”
when they are in agreement with something. It only fires up when it is used as
the closer to the “thank you” “you’re welcome” interactions. When it is used in
this context, and particularly when I am on the receiving end of it, I tend to
just stop saying “thank you” the person for anything, even when they go above
and beyond or actually do something extraordinary.
And before today, just a few moments ago actually, I hadn’t realized that
there was even a possibility that this is actually what the person want. In my
arrogance, I had assumed that “thank you” means the same thing to everyone. It
hadn’t even entered into the realm of possibility that when I say “thank you” I
am communicating something that makes the other person feel bad. Since they do
not like feeling bad, they do what they need to do in order to stop it from
happening again in the future and administer a punishment. This works well
because I stop saying it.
The funny part of it is that I was thinking that they were being rude
without ever considering that it was ME who was being rude. There they were,
minding their own business, not bothering anyone as they try to do their job
and I show up, mock them, and effectively tell them that they suck by saying
“thank you.” I bully them by projecting my understanding of the term “thank
you” onto them without understanding the complexities and nuance of the social
interaction that is paying for something or being grateful that someone did a
part of their job that allows me to keep doing mine.
Thinking and writing the previous paragraph hits me like I am being sarcastic and possibly irreverent. I don’t actually know why people respond with “uh huh” when I thank them for something. I selfishly made it about me feeling slighted as opposed to being open to the possibility that something else was going on. It could be that they are just trying to save some energy by avoiding the speaking of three syllables by mouth nose sounding a substitute. But I am going to start asking when it happens because maybe I don’t know what is going on and maybe they don’t know what is going on.
I’m sure the reality is somewhere in the middle. They are not being rude and have no ill intent with saying it, but they also have no real desire to engage in a social interaction that serves no purpose and which only exists because our parents wanted to teach us that manners and politeness are behaviors and not a state mind.
The funny thing about an honest person who actually believes nonsense is that they are telling the truth when they are lying to people.
In many of the leadership books and blogs, the notion of mistakes comes up a
lot. To be a leader, you need to take action and any time you take action,
there is a chance that this action will not lead to the desired outcome.
Mistakes are a big part of learning and the best leaders in any industry tend
to make more than their fair share of them.
It makes a lot of sense to regard any mistake as lesson. This will make them
more powerful because it will reduce the long term consequences of the action.
Letting go of a poor decision is easier when we know that we are less likely to
make the same decision again in the future.
But I question the validity of the assumption that actual learning has
occurred when one habitually label mistakes lessons, given the apparent
tendency for people to do the same things over and over again. What may
actually be occurring is more akin to a karmic cleanse vs. a real lesson. It is
easier to call something a lesson and to state that the outcome was the result
of a lack of knowledge / experience than to really dig into what happened and
to accept that you had the resources to think the thing through and still chose
to act impulsively.
To be clear, I’m not talking about innovation here. Making something new
that performs its function perfectly necessitates it having been made and NOT
perform that function perfectly more than once. Each previous iteration was not
a mistake because the inventor could not have known better. Each version is a
lesson that builds upon all of the lessons from before. The outcome was not a
result of having information / resources and choosing not to use them.
What I am talking about are all of the times when taking a few minutes to
think things through beforehand would likely have revealed a lot of the blind
spots or things that did not immediately come to mind.
For example, I used to say “it takes 21 days to learn a new skill and make
it a habit” without any sense of irony. I had heard it when I started working
at a gym and it was something that we were encouraged to say to new or
potential members to let them know that changing course to move towards a more
healthful life requires some effort but that the effort doesn’t really need to
be sustained (3 weeks was all that was needed before the body would do it on
its own). The lack of irony was due to my missing the fact that I had created
the habit of saying that saying in about 30 seconds.
Some behaviors will require 21 days, others 1, some 261, etc. I was wrong. I
wasn’t learning a lesson, I was making a mistake every time I lazily repeated a
simple phrase that served a sales purpose. It turns out that I was lying because
I should have known better than to repeat something so trite and catchy. If I
had taken the required 3 moments to consider what was going on in the context
of my own life I would have realized that 21 days was not an average, was not
an actual and did not reflect how things progressed in my own life. When I was
learning to become a cycling instructor, I started practicing every day the day
after the training workshop ended; so less than 48 hours to create the habit –
I didn’t need to convince myself to practice, I was excited to do it. When I
decide to wake-up earlier in the morning, it takes me about a week of
deliberately getting out of bed at 5:15 am before I find myself walking around
at 5:16 am without a desire to push snooze and stay in bed. The habit of
mindfulness as it applies to my baseline level of anxiety has yet to full take
hold, even after years of knowing that I can be an anxious person and will seek
out the experiences that will create anxiety. My journeys down the rabbit hole
though are much shorter than before but I am still starting them.
On some level I knew I was talking nonsense. However, it was my job to sell
gym memberships so I just kept saying the line over and over again. I got good
at it. Prospective members believed me and I think I started to believe me.
The funny thing about an honest person who actually believes nonsense is
that they are telling the truth when they are lying to people. Someone who is
that convinced that life will be completely different in 3 weeks is able to convince
other people of that “fact.” There I was, pouring out sincerity, stoking the
flames of hope that their future would be better and all it would take was a
few weeks of effort before the body just did the work willingly. I closed a lot
of sales because I believed what I was saying, and that made it easier for the
people on the other side of the table to believe it too.
It didn’t take long, about 22 days after my first sale, before the evidence
began to grow that my silly little phrase wasn’t true. Over a few months it
became evident that I wasn’t going to be able to excel at selling gym
memberships for much longer because it was clear that people have a baseline
and it can take months and maybe years for it to be updated.
I moved on to management, then personal training, and finally fitness class
instruction growing further away from the notion that “it takes 21 days to
learn a new skill and make it a habit.” For me, selling gym memberships for
that club was like convincing someone to convert all of their dollars into the
currency of a country that doesn’t exist anymore – it was something that can be
done but was probably going to be a mistake and when it came time to correct
it, the exchange rate would ensure that the customer lost money. Going from zero
to a sustained full speed, which is what is required when someone makes the
decision to transform their body composition, is going to require that they
create a bunch of new behaviors, put a lot of effort into continuing to do
them, and endure whatever sense of loss going without the things that got them
to the position of needing to change their body composition in the first place
causes. It is possible, but for almost everyone it is going to SUCK.
And that is the power of labeling a mistake a lesson in the fitness
industry. There is no cost to it, so doing it eliminates the incentive to
actually change future actions. In fact, there is a disincentive to changing
because you move away from doing what you know works and into the realm of the
unknown. The new actions may not work so you will be, at the very least, going
without the sense of certainty that what you are doing is going to be
effective, and, more likely, be going without the money. Better to call it a
lesson so you get to continue to do what you did before and get the same
outcome. This is what immunizes the fitness professional from the pain
associated with making a mistake because the reframe allows the “lesson” to be
the cost of knowing something and because it ultimately is the responsibility
of the member / client / participant to put in the work. If the habit doesn’t
take after exactly 3 weeks it is probably the clients fault for doing something
wrong. The mistake was not in the BS statement, it was to belief that the
client or member was willing to put in the work to form that new habit.
So long as there is no pain associated with the action, the motivation to do
anything different will never grow. The client will experience the pain. When,
on the 22nd day, going to the gym and eating more healthful food is not the
automatic, they will begin to feel the pain of their blown expectation. And
this is the problem with not being completely honest with people when it comes
to the fitness industry. People are hopeful about their future and very much
want to believe that it will not only get very easy to do, but that it won’t
take very long for that to happen. “It takes 21 days to learn a new skill and
make it a habit” is tailor-made to capitalize on their vulnerable state of
mind. They are coached into thinking “sure, it’ll be tough for a couple of
weeks but then it will get easy and after that, it’s only a matter of time
before I look and feel amazing.”
That just isn’t true. Well, the second part of it might be, that it will be
just a matter of time before they look and feel amazing so long as they
continue to consistently put in the work in the gym and the kitchen. But for
95% of the people who take-up fitness it can be months or years before their
body and brain make the pursuit of physical improvement automatic. Until then,
and even occasionally afterwards, it will require will-power. In my experience,
the only people for which the 21 days saying actually applies are for those who
have taken a short period of time away from their exercise habit. For everyone
else there is an almost 100% chance that the saying is false and for those who
sign-up for services based on their belief of it will be disappointed and have
less money because of it.
My approach now is almost complete honesty and to even attempt to talk
someone out of joining or starting because a lot of people do not want to
improve their fitness, they simply want to be happier. While becoming a regular
exerciser can improve happiness and improve someone’s feelings of well-being,
it can also contribute to a lot of suffering, misery, and feelings of shame and
inadequacy. If you don’t believe this, consider what goes through someone’s
mind when they hit day 22 and find that they haven’t really learned a new skill
and have definitely not made it a habit. When they find going to the gym on
week 4 to be as tough as or even tougher than they did on week 1, what are they
going to think about themselves? When they start to compare themselves to the
other members who seem to be showing up 3-5 times a week without any effort and
when they remember the certainty in which the sales person or personal trainer
told them that it would only take 21 days it will be nearly impossible to not
be flooded with feelings of inadequacy and failure. Experiencing these feelings
is not conducive to being happy.
I made a mistake and I changed course because I felt horrible for lying to
people when they were vulnerable, easily influenced, and when I stood to gain
from saying something that sounded true but was clearly false. When I had to
face myself in the mirror I realized that I had been using BS to harvest
peoples hope in an attempt to help sell them gym memberships. And morally I
felt awful because I knew that I had contributed to their suffering. It wasn’t
a mistake because I SHOULD have known better and it wasn’t a lesson because I
already knew better.
This brings me to some of the other things I was told when I was learning
how to sell gym memberships. The sales managers and sales coaches tried to make
me feel bad for applying what I knew about people. The statement “how are they
supposed to believe in themselves if you don’t even believe in them?” was
directed towards me more than once. As was “who are you to judge them for
something that might happen in the future? Who are you to deny them the
opportunity to have a better life?” These statements feel like they might be
true, except I knew that they were not. It wasn’t that I was a pessimist, it
was that I was both a realist and someone with a back ground in psychology / human
behavior. I believed in the prospective members as much as I believe in people.
I knew what it took for me to change my behavior and I knew a lot of the
theories about what is required for human beings to be ready for change. The
truth is that there are only a couple of short cuts to the process and unless
someone arrives at the gym for the first time having taken one of them, having
had one of the requisite experiences OR is actually ready to change, they will
have extreme difficult making the changes.
Informed consent is a thing that is very important and it was the only thing
that we were NOT seeking. We needed and wanted their consent in terms of a
signature on a legally binding agreement to allow the gym to access their bank
account to withdraw the membership dues. The act of informing them of the
actions they were going to need to do was vacated in favor of cultivating their
hope and filling their mind with grand ideas that do not hold up. When they
failed to form the new habit it was their decision and completely their own
responsibility. When I would talk about my concerns about the entire
transaction I was reminded that maybe the habit didn’t take because I didn’t
believe in the member enough. The fact that behavior change is hard and
requires sustained unreasonable effort was completely ignored. My crappy
attitude was probably contributing to the member’s challenges in automating a
difficult set of complex behaviors that are both physical challenging and are
experienced as psychological pain. Initially I adjusted my attitude but it
became obvious very quickly that my sincere belief in other people is not
sufficient to move them to do anything more than to sign-up and come in a few
times during the first few weeks. The heavy lifting needed to be done by them.
This all comes down to the following couple of facts:
The first is that people operate using a system of rewards and punishments.
Rewards serve to fuel action and to repeat an action that lead to the reward.
Punishments serve to reduce action in general but specifically the action that
caused the punishment. At the shallowest level, things that feel good are
rewards and things that feel bad are punishments. With references to the “it
takes 21 days” line I learned, it was initially reinforced because it seemed to
be effective at getting people to sign-up for a gym membership. The closing of
the sale felt good because it meant that I had performed my job well and would
result in higher wages come pay-day. However, after the first month, I began to
notice that the new members were not that much different from me and many were
having difficult forming that habit. Their pain and eventual disillusionment
started to weigh on me. They had a desire to finally make the life of their
dreams and started with such hope that it would become a habit very quickly.
Reality landed on them HARD after the first few weeks turned into a month and
it remained a constant challenge to eat better and drive to the gym to do
movements that are not innately rewarding. Either because they were telling me
this, I was reading it on their faces, or because they stopped coming into the
gym, I was getting absolutely clear that the exercise habit is a tough one to
create. The words that had once been powerfully reinforced though sales began
to be experienced as punishments when I realized that I had lied to the people
who had trusted me.
On a deeper level, the pleasure and pain can be perceived as either reward
or punishment, and this is the area that my NOT taking the effort to more fully
inform them of what would be required to become an habitual exerciser and more
effective eater came back to haunt me. At this deeper level, were pain can be
viewed as a reward and pleasure can be viewed as a punishment, the person needs
to take the time to think about what is going on in order to manufacture the
meaning that matches reward or punishment. For me, as a sales person, closing a
sale would only feel good when I made it as clear as possible what the first
few months of the gym would be like for them and the sense of loss or sacrifice
that comes along with changing your diet to remove sugar and junk food while
increasing the consumption of highly nutritious foods. My aim became disclosing
as possible about how long it would take to reach their goal and the number of
times they would have to say “no” to something they wanted and “yes” to
something that felt uncomfortable in the short term.
Of course two things happened here. The first was that the sales managers
and coaches did not like me going off script and tried to move me back on
course; which I wasn’t having any of because I had grown tired of feeling like
a lying jerk. The second was that the members who signed-up became active
members because they were fully aware of what was about to happen, had
considered it, and had still made the decision to join. When, 8 weeks later,
they still found that they had to call upon their willpower to come to the gym
at the end of their work day, they were not plagued with any feelings of “why
hasn’t this become a habit yet?” or “what is wrong with me, why can’t I like
this?” They did not like it, but they accepted it as something that they were
going to have to do in order to get the thing that they wanted. This, more than
anything else, is the formula for success – consistent hard work over time.
They were able to view showing-up and making it to the end of a workout as
rewarding in spite of the fact that NOTHING about it brought them any
measurable pleasure. They manufactured a meaning that served as a proxy for
pleasure to allow their brain to reward the behavior.
This is what is called the “discipline high.” You trigger chemical rewards
in response to doing things that are hard, require will power, and for which
there is a big disincentive to doing. Pain becomes pleasure-like, pleasure
becomes pain-like and the person takes the actions they accepted as part of the
journey. This type of meaning manufacturing might have been what the “21 days
to learn…” statement was getting at, but it was never outlined or explained to
me this way.
Now it turned out that because of my updated approach, the powers that be
thought that I would be a better manager than sales person and I got the
opportunity to perform that role at a different club. I employed the same
updated approach with managing the team as I had with selling memberships and
they responded in more or less the same way. Improving at anything will take
sustained work, a lot of which will not be directly rewarding. The sooner you
accept this fact and just start doing it the better the process is going to go
Years later, when I look at those first steps into to the fitness field I
smile and feel grateful that they are behind me. At the time I didn’t realize
that it is a self-help industry and that no matter what I bring to the table
the members, participants, or clients will need to perform the work. I can
motivate, want, coach, etc. until I’m exhausted, but if they do not put in the
effort there will be NO transformation. They need to help themselves and until
they are willing AND doing it, nothing is going to happen.
It is a fun job for many but for me it is only fun when there has been full
disclosure and the person is agreeing to perform their role KNOWING that it is
going to be hard work, mostly thankless, void of any physical reward and is not
something that feels good initially. Each of us have the potential to learn how
to work our muscles in a way that causes them to release feel good chemicals
but reaching this point requires the body to work at a particularly hard level for
an unpleasantly long period of time. Put another way, you need to be very fit,
have strong muscles, and the ability to tolerate a large amount of discomfort
before the body will respond by releasing endorphins to numb the pain and boost
the pleasure. This can take 3 to 9 months, which is a lot longer than the 21
days I used to promise. BUT when you know that it will happen and that the
journey towards that moment might just suck completely, you are much more
likely to accept the work as part of it and just do it.
I’m now much more inclined to consider a mistake both a mistake AND a lesson. It is a mistake because the pain is a necessary part of the process. It reduces the chances of me repeating an action that causes pain. This simultaneously creates the opportunity of a future perceived contrast reward in so far as any elimination of pain is experienced as pleasure when contrasted to the possibility of that pain. The pain eliminates the actions that do not work as the prospect of pleasure serves to fuel different actions in the future. In the absence of certainty that an action WILL lead to a rewarding outcome, we leverage this hope of a rewarding outcome to keep trying.
Don’t let yourself off the hook by labeling a mistake a lesson. Your brain learns better when there is something on the line so keep it there and learn from your mistakes.
This sounded familiar to me because when I started practicing [meditation], I had the same belief that it would fix things. After years of practice I had come to accept that it did not fix anything. In fact, it does not do much of anything OTHER than make you more aware of what is going on from moment to moment. What will be will be, you just seem to feel it more intensely
If someone was to ask me about that time I said something wise I would tell them about the last full day of my third mediation retreat. But of course I would, because that was a moment when there was no doubt that the words that came out of my mouth were demonstrably truth, wise, and an act of complete compassion.
The retreats that I go on last for 10 days and are silent from 8 PM on the evening before the first day until 9:30 AM on day ten. Basically you meditate as much as possible from 4:30 AM until 9 PM, day after day after day. There are people around you, but you don’t talk to them and instructors recommend that you do not even look at other people, at least not in the eyes. It is just hours on end of you and your mind sitting quietly with your eyes closed, noticing the sensations of being alive. Vegetarian food is made available two times a day, at 6:30 AM and 11:30 AM, and there is a video discourse every night at 7 PM. There are four group sittings each day, three hour long ones at 8:30 AM, 2:30 PM, and 6 PM, and a shorter one from 8:30 to 9 PM. The rest of the time is spend mediating, resting, or looking after personal hygiene or laundry.
It can be remarkably boring, extremely intense, profoundly insightful, or a flat neutral experience. There is nothing to distract you, no phones, no TV, no music, and nothing to read. It is all you all of the time and this reveals the nature of your mind with untempered clarity.
I LOVE it and I HATE it and no matter how many times I go, the experience is never the same but always follows the same sort of pattern. It is kind of like walking along a forest trail at different times of the year. The route or path is the same but the journey is always different depending upon the season.
My wisest moment arrived at around 11:35 AM on day 10. This is the final day and at 9:30 AM the silent portion of the retreat ends. We are allowed to talk to other people if we like and it is presented as an opportunity to slowly re-integrate ourselves into the real world by communicating with the other participants. At this moment in time, each of us have more in common with each other than almost everyone else in the world. By ramping up our conversations with each other, we are in a better position to reengage the world the following morning when we leave the center.
I have no opinion about the accuracy of this and tend to find the elimination of silence to be jarring and unpleasant. As happy as I am to have the retreat wind down, the contrast between silence and people talking is almost too much for me to handle. But so is life from time to time, so maybe that is the point of it.
There tend to be three types of people who go to these retreats. The first are psychonauts. These are the people who have found out about mediation, think it is cool, and relish in the thought of completing a retreat as though it is a badge of honor or an accomplishment of something. The second are the mindful-curious. These are the people who have, for some reason, started to consider the possibility that consciousness is not the thing that they thought it was. They are not sure what it is, but they are interested in finding the true nature of the mind and what existence is all about. The final group is the psychology skewed. These people have, for one reason or another, an internal operating system that doesn’t serve them as well as it could. They are not necessarily, or even likely, to suffer from a psychological pathology that is chemical in nature or for which they need to be medicated. They just engage the world, their mind, and their brain in a way that to some degree less than optimal. This causes them existential difficulties in so far as their life is tougher than it needs to be or is lived with a sense that they are living slight out of phase with the real world.
I am a member of this final group, and I rediscovered mediation when I noticed the thought that life was tougher than it needed to be. I’ll eventually write more about the specifics, but generally speaking, I have a tendency towards feeling anxious and would have labeled my prevailing thought patterns to be those of something approximating generalized anxiety disorder.
The flavor of the conversations you have on day ten will be determined the group that you belong to and your group affiliation will be obvious based on the level and nature of the energy you give off once you begin talking again. Basically it will be one of three things – “I made it” pride, “I realized” curiosity, or “I am like this” acceptance.
I was talking to a guy from the third group on our way back from lunch when he mentioned that he was going to ask the instructor a question at the end of the next group sitting. I asked him if we was willing to tell me what he was going to ask and he mentioned that it was about anxiety. Specifically, when he was younger, about fifteen years ago, he was diagnosed with anxiety because he was having panic attacks at school. The solution was medication to be taken when an attack was starting. It worked in so far as it treated the acute nature of the attacks but it didn’t stop them from occuring. As he got older, they occurred less and less frequently and he hadn’t experienced one in five years since he had graduated from university and started working. However, earlier that morning he had experienced what felt like the start of one during the group sitting. This was a concern because he thought he was cured, so he wanted to ask the instructor how long he would have to meditate for before he would be cured. He believed that after developing and continuing a practice for a few months or years that the brain would clear itself up and he would never have anxiety again.
This sounded familiar to me because when I started practicing, I had the same belief that it would fix things. After years of practice I had come to accept that it did not fix anything. In fact, it does not do much of anything OTHER than make you more aware of what is going on from moment to moment. What will be will be, you just seem to feel it more intensely. You still get angry, you just realize that you are angry sooner and feel the anger more. You still get sad, you just realize it sooner and feel it more profoundly. Mediation helps me because these two things work together to more quickly move me through whatever emotional experience that I am having. The end result is that I feel more and suffer less, which is a positive. I am still the same as I ever was, the same code is running, I’m just a little more in tune with what I am experiencing from moment to moment and this awareness gives me the clarity to not get so wrapped up in it. I react less and more often choose to respond by doing nothing.
So I asked him what he thought the instructor was going to say and then what did he hope they would say? I don’t recall the exact words that he used, but the essence of how he replied was a single answer to both questions. That it is normal right now and that everything will go away completely within a couple of months, and maybe as long as a year.
I try to do things that reduce suffering in other beings, and baring that, I try to avoid doing things that will cause suffering. I did not know how the instructor would answer the question, but I knew how I would answer it, so I asked him if he wanted to know what I thought the instructor might say. He said sure, so I answered. Be aware that by answering the question I was trying to reduce his suffering in the long run but knew full well that the action I was taking had the potential of causing it in the short term.
“I used to want the same thing, but I come to realize that it is never going away. I am prone to experience moments of intense and almost overwhelming anxiety and went on my first retreat because I was almost certain that there was a better way to experience life. And I was right and I was also wrong. The fact of the matter the anxiety is still there and it is probably always going to be, but it doesn’t mean what it used to. It used to be something that I wanted to get rid of, so I’d resist it and approach it as a problem to solve. Maybe there were times when I was able to make it go away, but I always feared that it would come back again. I wanted to be free of it so I could just go about living my life the way I believe everyone else does.”
I paused for a moment to make sure he was still with me and started-up again when I realized that he was.
“But what meditation has taught me is that there isn’t anything wrong with me and there is no reason to actually want to get rid of the anxiety for ever. Most of the time it is just a drag, but some of the time it is actually helpful, so I know my life wouldn’t be the same if it never came back. It’s natural and normal for me, so there is no point in battling with it or labeling myself as defective or less than other people. We are all equally worthless, sentences to live out our live on this planet in the middle of more or less no where. The universe is just so big that my anxiety and your panic attacks can’t actually mean anything in a cosmic scale.”
I pause again and notice that the wheels are starting to spin a little faster in his head.
“I still get anxious. Probably just as often as I used to. It kind of feels worse now than it did before, but there is a big difference now. Now I know that it is going to pass, just like everything else. It is temporary and if I wait long enough it will go away. And you know what, then I’ll be glad it is gone. It’s kind of like the opposite of feeling happy. Happiness doesn’t mean that same thing that it used to any more because I know that it will pass and when it does I will no longer be happy. But just like the anxiety, it will probably come back in the future and I can be happy again, for a moment before it leaves.”
This pause was different, at least what I noticed was different. There was a look of pain in his eyes, and his face wore that heavy weight of the world look. This was the suffering I had anticipate causing.
“All I can do is choose what I pay attention to. That’s it. I can’t control what my brain and body do from moment to moment, at least in terms of a anxiety showing up. But I can choose to be completely happy when happiness rolls in and enjoy it for what it is, just as I can choose to notice what anxiety actually feels like. When I’m anxious I can direct my attention to the sensations on my body and notice what the moments of anxiousness actually feel like, and if I feel them all over, it it feels the same on different spots, and if my noticing the sensations of anxiety change how my brain deals with. I’m free to pay attention to it, to ignore it, or to play around with it and try to think about what it reminds me of. If I needed to act, I would have acted. Since I didn’t, there is no survival trigger for the anxiety so it doesn’t matter very much.”
He was still with me.
“But it isn’t going to disappear, or it might. I hasn’t for me, and I haven’t read or heard from anyone who has eliminated it from their life entirely through meditation. But by paying attention to it as an experience in the moment as it is happening, as opposed to treating it as a problem to solve, it starts to mean something else and this I have found to be a lot easier to deal with. But it isn’t going anywhere and meditation isn’t going to fix you because there is nothing wrong with you. You just get anxious from time to time and you have convinced yourself that it is bad. It isn’t good or bad, it’s just an experience you have from time to time. Be curious about it and teach yourself to notice what it is actually like as an experience as opposed to giving it power by making it into something it isn’t.”
There was a little back and forth, but not much that seemed to matter. I had crushed his dream that mediation was a solution to this problem and obliterated the hope that he was one day going to be free of panic attacks and anxiety in general.
A few hours later, after the afternoon group sitting, I asked him what the instructor had said and he told me he didn’t ask. When I asked why, he said that during the sitting, the anxiety started to fire-up again and he choose to just notice it as an experience as opposed to react to it as a problem. It hadn’t been all that bad. In fact, it was just something that was happening that wouldn’t be happening for very long. It wasn’t that it disappeared instantly, it just seemed to shrink in significance and became the rushing sensation that was his experience of anxiety. I thought this was great, but when he continued, I realized the wisdom of what I had shared.
“If it isn’t going to go away, I’m going to be living in fear that it is going to show up. And that thought is actually one that kind of begins to trigger it. That is unreasonable. I’m either going to be having panic attacks or living in a state of fear that I’m going to be having one. So if I just accept that they will show up from time to time and really make the effort to uncover whether or not they are a problem, I’ll at least know if I need to do something more about them. If that last sit is anything to go on, they are just kind of shittie, like the feeling you get after running up some stairs or trying to catch a train that you’re late for. My heart was going faster than normal, but I was free to direct my mind onto whatever I wanted. I didn’t have to pay attention to it. This didn’t make it go away, but it made it just a thing that was happening.”
I smiled and replied with “that’s cool, and kind of a powerful insight eh?”
The retreat ended the next day and I drove home with the radio off, happy that it was over and excited to be seeing my girlfriend again.
In the days and weeks, and months that followed, as I continued to practice, anxiety still continued to show up, and I think it will always play a role in my life. Most of the time I’m able to just label it by saying “there’s anxiety” and it fades away. Other times it gets a grip and I have a moment of wondering if I ever didn’t feel it or if it will ever go away, but then I catch myself and start to pay attention to the sensation it triggers, or the sensation that triggers it. I notice just how similar it is to excitement, or too much coffee, or to the moments after a tough working set in the gym that causes my heart rate to fly. The key is that after all of the mediation, I’m able to notice when it rolls in and make the decision to do something about it if doing something will help or to just let it be.
I am not cured, and I have very little reason to believe that I ever will be, because there is nothing to be cured from. This is how my brain operates. I’m just free to choose my approach, so by deciding to view myself as normal, and to act with curiosity when it comes along. Because it is going to come along and realizing this fact was a moment of wisdom.
When someone has a skill and they are asked to answer the question “so what?” when it concerns their skill, what comes next is an outline or list of some actions that they can take using their skill that other people might value and will be willing to pay for. A clear so what answer is effectively the instructions on how to capitalize upon a skill
Last week I had coffee with a good friend with whom I used to work. She left the company a few months before I did, and this was our first opportunity to catch-up. She and I have what I would consider actual conversation. Neither one of us view the other one as being wrong, less than, or in need of assistants or help; unless of course one of us asks for it.
The consequence to operating this way is that every conversation we have is
about me; and from her perspective, it is about her. When there are no problems
to solve, predatory listening ceases to be something that is helpful. Instead,
you listen to what the other person is saying and you actually take the time to
hear it – listening is what the words do to your ears, hearing is what the
words do to you brain. It is engaging and while the conversation may have a
starting point, there is no map and definitely no ending point. It goes where
it goes and it lasts as long as it last. And when it ends, our brain continues
to process the conversation and make whatever hay out of it that it can. This
is what I enjoy most about talking to other people, and it might be the reason
why I have a tough time making small talk and talking about the sports.
She left the company to work for a company in a different industry and is
enjoying the learning opportunities that her new role is giving her.
When I left the company, it was to pursue writing, or coaching, or, well,
something other than working for a company doing a task that I was good at but
had no real connection to. I was competent at my last job, but it wasn’t
alivening and it wasn’t a manifestation of who I am or the expression of what
brings me the most fulfillment in terms of using my brain and body.
As conversations like ours do, it moved on to what I was going to do next,
and generally what was I going to do to generate an income. Her asking gave my
brain the task of thinking more about the question “so what?”
The way I see it, the notion of value is connected to the answer of this
question. Specifically, when someone has a skill and they are asked to answer
the question “so what?” when it concerns their skill, what comes next is an
outline or list of some actions that they can take using their skill that other
people might value and will be willing to pay for. A clear so what answer is
effectively the instructions on how to capitalize upon a skill.
For example, someone who knows a lot about exercise can answer so what by
saying they can teach other people how to exercise, they can exercise safely
themselves, they can teach other people how to coach movements, and they can
review the quality of other people’s exercise programs and offer helpful
advice. Some of these things are jobs because they will allow the person to act
as a proxy or stand-in for the lack of skill other people have concerning
I have been wondering about the “so what” of my skill set for a while now.
The first moment of it in the most recent phase was about six months ago during
dinner with one of Heather’s friends and her husband. I have known this lady
for about four years and have always had extremely intense conversations with
her. She’s exceptionally bright and having lived a very different culturing
life, she has a very different way of looking at the world than I do. It’s a
welcome change although it can be a big challenge to manage being so absolutely
clueless around someone who is so intelligent. I lean into the discomfort
because if nothing else, I will get a different perspective of things if I
swallow my pride accept that I do not know as I listen and hear what she has to
say. True to form, this was one of those moments.
It was nice to have her say some lovely things to me. She mentioned that I
always had a way of talking about subjects that was free of judgment, loaded
with information, and lacking the normal dogmatism that tends to follow people
who have thought a lot about something. Talking with me was always going to be
interesting because what I would say would land somewhere between unique way of
looking at something and profound insight. I made her think, and since she
enjoys thinking, time with me was rewarding. She was always going to be better
off at the end of the conversation and at no point would she feel like I had
attempted to use manipulation to drive home a point. “You know you don’t know,
and that doesn’t stop you from voicing your theories because you almost seem
willing to be wrong so that you don’t have to be wrong like that again.”
In fairness, this is arguable the nicest thing someone as intelligent as her
could say to me, so I just keep being me around her and the talks are always
This dinner was more of the same, although I had a lot less to say because I
do not know the world from which she was speaking. She has an MBA, has recently
moved on from her last corporate job to start a consulting company; which
generated more revenue in the first three months than she was making in the
previous year, and she understands how to deliver services when there is a
demand for those service. She’s very clean on her own “so what,” and she is
more than capable of setting up the service delivery once someone else has
figured out the answer to their “so what” question.
This is where we ended-up during dinner, and it was a painful place to be.
“What is your USP Pat? You have a lot of skills and a ton of information,
but what is your unique selling proposition?” As we talked – she talked, I
listened – it was evident that I didn’t know what she was talking about, or
what my unique selling proposition is. All I knew was that I really enjoy
learning and figuring things out, and left to my own devices, I would do this
full time just for the sake of understanding the world more clearly.
I didn’t know, I still don’t, and after a few days and weeks considering the
conversation, I began to realize that knowing my unique selling proposition was
the same thing as having a clear and concise answer to the question “so what?”
Heather is crystal clear on her unique selling proposition and she knows the
answer to the so what question about her skill set. She is a shaper and leader
of corporate culture, she is able to get people to generate the solutions to
their problems, and she is able to get large groups people moving together to
achieved a shared goal. It’s frightening and remarkable all at the same time.
Frightening because she is so good at it and remarkable because people end up
figuring out and choosing to do the things they need to do. She’s kind and
smart, and plays her role without anyone feeling that she’s pushing them to do
anything. At worst they let out a sign, announce that she’s doing it again, and
play their role in solving their own problems, but most likely the people are
unaware that she’s helping them and only tend to notice a few months later when
their existence has improved dramatically.
Now of course I would be crazy to not attempt to enroll her in helping me
surface my USP, but it would be even more crazy for her to try. Relationships
work because each partner plays a role, and they work best when there is a
complement between the two. There is a risk associated with one partner taking
on a non-established role this far along in the relationship – we give each
other the space to figure out stuff on our own because neither one of us want
the responsibility of having to manage any aspect of the others life. Had she
taken on the role of leading me at the beginning, our relationship probably
would not have progressed very far. It’s a catch-22 of sorts, and as much as I
would love to get her help, we both know that it isn’t going to happen.
The conversations we have shared over the last six months have been helpful,
but they amount to conversations the one would have with a spouse and NOT to
the ones they would have with their coach. All of this being said, I have been
thinking about my USP and trying to figure-out the answers to the “so what”
question of my skills.
Last weekend when the conversation between my old work friend and me landed
at the “what next,” I felt the urge to talk about the “so what” question. The
reason was very simple, I do a lot of my thinking through talking out loud, so
the perfect moment presented itself.
I have a thought that maybe the “so what” answers are not as clear cut as
they could be. I have no difficulty understanding how someone can take an
inventory of their skills and figure-out how they can use these things to earn
an income. It’s a matter of figuring out how to use them to add value to lives
of other people. The challenge I am running in to, at least I think I am
running in to, is that I don’t share the same definition of value that is
captured by that question. I don’t care about money all that much. I have a
relationship with it, but it is a second cousin type relationship, as opposed
to a sibling type. Heather likes money, but more than that, she knows she needs
it. She’s been able to work hard to cultivate her talents to the point that she
is able to bring immense value to other people and that this value can easily
be measured using money. Money is a place holder or proxy for something else
that she needs, wants or likes, and she has been able to establish a direct
relationship between taking specific actions and earning money. I don’t have
the same relationship. Money is more of a nuisance to me than anything else. I
don’t really want anything other than the opportunity to learn, write, and
think. Sure, I need some money to pay of things like rent, food, Internet, and
transportation, but once that stuff is taken care of, I just don’t seem to give
much consideration any more.
For a very long time I didn’t actually believe that I would get much older,
so I never conditioned myself to believe that saving for retirement or a rainy
day was something that I needed to do. That isn’t one of my habits or automatic
ways of thinking. The reality is that I am now much older than I ever thought I
would be and each day I wake up, I move further away from the expiration date I
had created in my mind. The truth was that for too long there didn’t need to be
an answer to the question “so what” because I wasn’t going to be around to deal
with there having to be an answer. I was able to do what I wanted and what felt
good because bills and money didn’t matter. Money is only a thing that has
value in the future when you are earning because it is a way of circumventing
the need to trade time today for goods and services later. But for me then,
later didn’t exist to the same extent or in the same way it does now, so I
would pursue what I found rewarding vs. what I found lucrative. This was the
habit I instilled and for a very long time I was able to take the mental steps
that were required to continue this line of reasoning.
But it became unworkable simply because the world doesn’t operate that way.
Other people set about generating wealth and saving for their future. When they
connect with me, I am a mark for them because I don’t care about money so if
they are able to provide me with fulfillment, I am satisfied. They get to keep
the money because I got what I wanted. But sooner or later I was going to die,
which would take care of things, or I was going to reach the point that money
would become important because it would come to represent the future. When that
happened, I would be stuck trying to figure everything out and would need to
determine what my USP in order to demonstrate value and bring services of
What I love doing, and what Heather’s friend highlighted as a unique skill,
is not really the easiest thing to bring to market. I love figuring out how the
world works, how people think, and why things are the way they are. I’m not all
that focused though – a mechanical engineer is focused on how machines work,
and can therefore bring a very specific set of skills to the market place, a
corporate lawyer understands a very specific set of rules and is therefore of
great value to those who need access to those rules – I am as interested in how
a hydro dam works as I am about the innate reward system of the brain, so am
not all that driven to learn all there is to know about a specific subject.
This is not to say that I know with certainty that I cannot train myself to
focus my drive onto the pursuit of learning everything that I possibly can
about a specific subject, just that I am not innately driven to do this. In
fact, there have been periods of my life when I did go after specific things
with all that I had and each time I did this, I was able to bring on board a
lot of knowledge and I did show a very large improvement in those things that
surrounded the subject.
So this is where I stand right now, it’s a good place to be, but it isn’t
prefect. If I didn’t need money I would just keep devouring information and learning
whatever I could that I was moved to learn. However, I do need money, and there
is a part of me that is beginning to grow annoyed at the ongoing nature that a
need for money creates.
Now is the time to shift course slightly and focus more of my efforts on
generating a substantial enough income that I no longer need to spend any time
having to address the need for money. To either generate sufficient enough
income that I can quickly save enough money to cross its pursuit off of my list
or sufficient enough residual income that I don’t need to think much more about
What is my unique selling proposition? Well, I don’t exactly know, but I
have a very good chance of figuring it out. Just because I have never
consciously set about trying to figure it out before does not mean that I
haven’t every taken advantage of it in the past. The answers are there, I just
need to spend the time looking for them. The “so what” is not a matter of
money, it’s a matter of freeing up the time to do the things that I want to do,
and maybe that reframe is all that I need to get after it….
The truth is there even when we do not know it and cannot see it. But in order to find it, we must first accept that it is there, and in order to see that it is there we need to consider that maybe there is something that we do not know.
The first time I recall hearing the saying “Strong Opinions, Loosely Held” was a few years ago. A friend of mine, lets call her Grace, was considering a move to a different job and had the opportunity to interview with one of the senior people in the company. This person had the reputation of being incredibly intelligent in terms of processing speed, world class in terms of their understanding of the financial numbers, and in possession of the narrowest emotional spectrum that it is possible. They were not an emotional void, but they had one emotion that was always on display.
My friends experience of the interview was extremely positive because she operates in effectively the same way. While he was more skilled with the numbers part of it, Grace was much more emotionally fluent. Both were very bright and capable of making very good decisions with limited amounts of information. But it was a job interview and there were question to be answered, and he ruthlessly asked them.
Facts are facts, and it was clear to him that some of the answers were only just scratching the surface of some critical things, so he re-asked them and made it clear that he knew there was a lot more going on that he needed to surface in order to make an informed decision. This was an inflection point for her, she could play it safe by answering the questions in a way that was politically harmless or she could answer them with the whole truth and see how the cards fell. She went the complete disclosure route because at the end of the day being politically safe creates a career that is essentially an act of subjugation in terms of what is viewed to be the best way to play the game “corporation.” There is very little chance that you will reach the top by playing safe and there is no chance that you will stay there if you then decide to fundamentally change how you play the game. The notion that once you become the top leader in the company you will suddenly be free to do righteous work is false because your reputation will stay with you and people will have a very difficult time trusting and being led by you because of the lack of consistency. People notice the lack of authenticity that these actions indicate.
So she answered with the truth and he liked it. The fact was that he knew the answers already because her actions had revealed the answers. You do not get to be remarkable by doing average things and the fact that she was sitting across from him was a statement as much about her achievements as it was about her dogmatic commitment to doing world class work in a way that makes things better as well as more profitable.
She wasn’t sure if it was a test to see if she was self-aware enough to understand why she took the actions she did or if she was secure enough with her decision making process to say it out loud, or if it was for some other reason entirely. All she knew was that there wasn’t a political cost to answering completely and that there would have been if she had continued to keep things purely surface level.
It was a great conversation, a fantastic interview, and she left it feeling very good about everything she had done from the start of her career to that moment. As they shook hands he left her with a final thought – “always have have strong opinions that are loosely held” – and that was that.
When she shared this with me I was a little taken back. I consider myself to be fairly righteous and practically obsessed with the truth. Playing politics isn’t one of my strong traits and, in general, I’m going be honest even when lying would seem to benefit me more in the long run. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, they are not entitled to their own facts. Facts do not belong to people, they are not dictated by the most powerful or the winners of wars in spite of the tendency for a lot of history to be captured this way. Facts are independent, completely objective, and unchanging. If my upward mobility within a company is hurt by my expression of the truth, I will free up my own future and move on to somewhere else. It is easier to be authentic than to try and be what you think other people are looking for, and you will be so much better at it.
Consider how doing the opposite will manifest itself. It leads to a person being remarkably thin skinned because they do not have a solid foundation of belief. They will be highly sensitive to criticism and will come across as dogmatically committed to maintaining their point of view. There will be a noticeable incongruence in their efforts to try to bend the world to conform to their perceived needs and wants while maintaining their reality distortion field at all costs. This makes things harder for other people because they will not share the same reality.
It wasn’t her being completely truthful that put me on my heals, it was that he wanted to hear the truth and was willing to keep asking until he got it as opposed to just accepting the first answer and moving on. It was also shocking that he gave her some parting advice, advice which is remarkably good leadership advice.
There is no denying that he is very effective at the job he was doing, which is why she got to meet with him. He has a reputation of seeing through BS and fearlessly going after the truth because it is the only way the company is going to know what actions need to be taken and in what direction it needs to go. Being honest IS an act of kindness, even when it leaves people feeling bad. It makes sense that someone who has no diversity of emotion would approach life like this.
He knew her numbers before she walked into the room and that is the ONLY reason why the meeting ever took place – if her numbers were average or the result of anything other than the beautiful marriage of pragmatism and talent there would have been no meeting. His job was to know who the top talent was in terms of generating results and then to find out if they had the self-awareness to actually know what was going on. Her safe answer, when paired with her results, indicate that she gets it. But that would not be enough if playing it safe was a habit and not a tactic used when needed. By pressing the issue, he forced her to size him up, make a decision and then commit to it.
He is at a distinct advantage when it comes to processing information, as is anyone who doesn’t get wrapped around the axle with negative emotion or the fear of looking bad. The truth is just the truth when all is said and done. It isn’t good or bad so long as it is accepted, processed, and factored into decision making. The moment it is ignored, withheld, or denied, it morphs into something very different; generally it becomes a weapon that is used to inflict harm upon the person who is not accepting it although it may not initially appear that way.
I believe that this was a key part of the wisdom he was trying to impart to her at the end of the meeting when he referenced strong opinions being loosely held, and particularly when you are a leader of other people.
It is the essence of pragmatic leadership, both in terms of leading others and in leading yourself. You need to be sure of yourself, confident that what you know is true, and based on enough evidence that allows it to be a strong foundation on which to base all of the related decisions. But it cannot be so firmly rooted within your mind as to be unchanging, even in the face of absolute proof that isn’t correct. Leaders are right in their views and their actions. This means that when their views are shown to be incorrect, they act correctly and change them.
Life is very complicated, things are much more complicated than they seem at first glance and the more we learn about something, the more complicated it gets and the less we seem to know about it. Of course it just seems that way. The more we learn the more we know regardless of how this newly acquired information expands the map of what there is to know. The truth is there even when we do not know it and cannot see it. But in order to find it, we must first accept that it is there, and in order to see that it is there we need to consider that maybe there is something that we do not know.
This can be very hard for a lot of people. Not knowing is a very different experience than knowing with certainty. Knowing and not knowing are not the opposite of one another, not knowing is way bigger than knowing. The magnitude of the emotional of not knowing is disproportionately larger than the positive emotional experience of knowing with certainty. If knowing is a +1, not knowing would be a -10. The third option, of not knowing that there is something to know, therefore something that you do not know, is for all experiential purposes, neutral. It is not a quantity of something that can be either positive or negative, it is so much less than that. It is, in essence, nothing at all.
If knowledge was a house and specific subjects were rooms, “knowing” would be an open door leading into a room that was filled, “not knowing” would be an open door leading into a room that was empty. Not knowing that there is something to know would be a secret room that was empty and behind a perfectly finished wall. There’s no way in, but that doesn’t matter, because you have no awareness that there is somewhere to go into that you cannot go into.
The process of knowledge acquisition is the linear movement from “not knowing there is something to know” to “not knowing that which we know can be known” to “knowing that which we know can be known.” The transition between the first and second step is the creation of a door in the perfectly finished wall that leads into the empty room. Making this door requires effort and it moves a person from a neutral state to a negative state, a state that will remain until they learn the information, which is a positive state. This shifting of psychological states, from neutral to negative and from negative to positive, is what forms the narrative framework of an disincentive / incentive model to opening one’s self up to new information and then learning this information.
Logically we can understand the truth of the statement that ignorance is bliss. Being completely clueless is a lot less painful than knowing that we do not know. Even when a person enters the knowing state, the positive emotion is only temporary given the evolving nature of things and the almost complete certainty that they do not know everything about the subject.
All of this is to say that we need to be willing to endure the negative that is associated with not knowing if we are to ever learn something. This fact doesn’t matter to young people (those younger than six or seven) because their relationship with emotions that have a negative or positively valence is not very refined. They are not inhibited by the notion of having to admit that they do not know something because they have spend all of their life not knowing things and are remarkably tolerant to the sensations associated with it. But this changes as they learn more about costs of not knowing and the benefits of knowing. In fact, their relationship to these things is conditioned to be as large or as small as it is through social learning and the systems of reward and punishment that their caregivers and teachers use.
Of course, the person running the interview was not concerned with the facts of all of this. They were concerned only with the outcome, and with particular reference to my friends ability to remain open to the reality that accepting that they do not know something is painful and a critical step in moving forward. They need to act with decisiveness fueled by what they know, but remain willing to endure whatever negative comes from accepting that there is something that they do not know because there is always something that they do not know. Once they accept that there is something that they need to learn, they should do whatever is needed to gather this information, learn it, adjust their opinion and quickly get back to making good decisions based on knowing the truth.
Consider the counter positions of “strong opinions, loosely held” as a matrix of four squares – the combinations are “strong opinions, loosely held,” “strong opinions, tightly held,” “weak opinions, loosely held,” and “weak opinions, strongly held” – and the unworkable of these other options will be evident.
Those who hold opinions tightly will not learn from their own experience or from the experiences of other people. They will be impervious to the truth and everything that occurs will either be aligned with their point of view or simply be wrong and of no significance or value. Their knowledge will become dated very quickly and they will remain locked in the past, at the very moment in which their opinion was solidified and they became completely rigid. The only win in this situation is when the person is actually correct, in which case the holder of a strong opinion will direct the decisions to the correct end. The holder of a tightly held weak opinion will not present the opinion with enough force to overcome the resistance of others, rending what they know to be of no significance. In fact, this person is effectively useless to the team as the only time their decisions matter is when no one else has an opinion and they actually have the correct answer.
Someone who holds weak opinions, loosely will be viewed as lacking maturity and the experience that is required to more forcefully engage the world. This is kind of how we want young people to act, to have ideas about the world and the openness to accept new information and to allow it to update their world view very quickly. While they cannot be counted on to forcefully state their point of view, they will not drain other people with the requirement to be proven wrong before they are open to education / information.
There are two main types of people who find themselves in the middle leadership ranks of a company, those with strong opinions that are tightly held and those with strong opinions that are loosely held, because these people tend to be more vocal or forceful than everyone else, which is often taken as a sign of certainty. They are not the same leaders though. The tightly held leader will always be right, even when they are wrong, and they will rely on their forcefulness to dominate others with their opinion. When they are correct, this is fine, it can be a little unpleasant but right is right. When they are incorrect, things go off the rails as they hammer on others in an effort to break them down and get them to conform to their will. They will fight everything that they do not agree with and will take steps to sabotage others to make sure the movement forward is what they recommend. Wrong is wrong though, and since they won’t learn from it, everyone else will be at fault. Good people will disengage and the top talent will move on to different opportunities. The aim of strong opinion tightly held leaders is to control other people.
The strong opinion loosely held leader will show up in very much the same way as their tightly held counterpart, except they will be more collaborative when it comes to solving problems and planning actions. When things are happening that do not make sense their first impulse will be that there is some information that they are missing and NOT that someone else is wrong. This is fundamentally different because it allows for other opinions to exist and for the temporary existences of parallel truths. It is based on the assumption that people have the opinions their information supports so when two people differ, person A needs to know what person B knows and person B needs to know what person A knows. The moment this information is shared, both parties advance their understanding and the appropriate solution will be uncovered. The aim of strong opinion loosely held is mutual improvement and the cultivation of a shared understanding that is an accurate representation of the truth.
At the upper levels, the strong opinion tightly held leaders will all but disappear, having removed themselves from consideration due to their lack of collaboration with others and their inability to admit to and learn from their mistakes. This can make a little bit of room for weak opinion loosely held people; people who are naturally this way or through the conversion of strong opinion loosely held into weak opinion loosely held. Regardless of which, the reason is the same, people need leaders who will learn from their mistakes and from other people, and who have the humility to accept that they cannot know everything about the company. They will need to defer to the experts on their team and should not do anything that will alter the messaging from these experts. Being very aware of the impact their title can have on the members of the team will reduce the impact they have on the strategies and tactic used to accomplish achieve their vision. This cannot happen when a leader has strong opinions but is incapable of learning, of keeping their mouth shut, or of allowing what they view as wrong to occur.
The advice he gave was not specific to any role Grace might have been considering, nor was it a warning about how she was operating. It was just general advice for someone who is intelligent, highly talented, and very effective at generating positive results. These things can easily go to someones head leading to a false certainty about all of their decision making and lead to them deliberately surrounding themselves with sycophants.
Strong opinions, loosely held is good advice for everyone.
It takes effort to learn things and it is emotionally discomforting to not be certain about things – critical criteria for opening up and allow new information in. It is important to accept that the better your store of information and the higher your amount of practice, the better your processes will be and the greater your predictive accuracy.
So what can we do to improve our ability at affective forecasting other than the things that have already been mentioned in part one? That’s a good question that I’m going to try to answer, along with suggesting an alternative to trying to predict future emotional states.
In my original post, I mentioned the lack of lasting happiness that was associated with my getting visible abs and I related similar experiences that my clients reported when they achieved their fitness goals. The achieving a goal was a fine experience, but the physical transformation had no lasting impact on the level of happiness or satisfaction that was experienced. We all returned to baseline very quickly, as regression to the mean predicted would happen. The only technique that I had found to be effective that promoted a lasting happiness or sense of accomplishment / satisfaction was to anchor the negative feelings they had at the beginning of their journey and to trigger these feelings later on to remind them what it used to be like or to create a perceptual contrast between then and now. This is a trick though, it isn’t anything more than a thought experiment that generates a sense of gratitude that things are no longer the way that they used to be. It’s powerful, it’s effective, and it can keep people going when they’re not sure the effort is worth it but it doesn’t actually change the baseline. It improves affective forecasting in so far as it gives the person the ability to predict gratitude and its associated happiness and then trigger it in the future to give them the sense that they were right about their prediction.
The truth is that human beings have NO idea why they do what they do, think what they think or want what they want, or if they even want what they think they want. We are, in a word, clueless about these things. And that is fine. Does a dog suffer an existential crisis because it didn’t get the $30 food? No, it eats what it is fed and then tries to get its owner to play fetch or whatever activity brings it the most reward. Cats don’t care that they get adopted by low energy people, or high energy people, or people who do laundry on Friday evenings. They just live their life dealing with what they have to and taking whatever steps they need to in order to continue to live. So long as they aren’t being harmed and are being looked after relatively well they stay with their owner and do whatever cat things their brain has them do.
Human beings are not as wise as dogs or cats. Almost every moment of our life is an existential crisis and the source of agony. It doesn’t need to be that way, it is just that way because we choose to do the things that cause it to be that way. We suffer simply because we have not accepted that our brain controls EVERYTHING and that conscious awareness is an unintended consequence of having a large brain and that consciousness itself is just another unconscious mental process that happens to manifest itself as awareness. We over complicate things believing that we are in control of what goes on under the surface and then suffering when reality has our experience regress to the mean and our baseline level of function returns. Approaching everything with an inflated sense of optimism that the next thing we do will turn out perfectly, we repeatedly get returned to “fine” or “okay” after a moment of satisfaction.
It is probably a good idea to consider the possibility (reality) that life was not meant to be any better than it is right now. While our health and life span has never been so high or so long, there is nothing to suggest that we are any happier now than we were a hundred years ago. Things are improving across the planet, food insecurity and personal safety are concerns of a decreasing number of people, more of our species has clean water, electricity, plumbing, and equality of opportunity is being granted to more and more people in a growing number of countries. Life is easier and per capita each individual has more than at any other time in the history of the human race. But there is no indication that we are any happier. And this moves us to the final section of this post.
If we are not very good affective forecasters and if having more things, more money and a life that is easier than before does nothing to improve our level of happiness, is there anything that we can do to improve things?
The reason why I suggests a 98% certainty that any prediction a person makes about their future emotional state will be incorrect is because there are a couple of ways to actually improve things. They all amount to the same thing, taking steps to change your baseline so that when things regress to the mean they go to some place that is slightly different than before. Will this make us better affective forecasters? No, but it might make life a little easier to experience and it may allow us to have better connections with other people.
There is a Buddhist saying that goes something like “where your attention goes, your mind will follow” that represents the first step in changing your baseline. The brain is programmed to make sense of everything it comes in contact with. It can do this by actually making sense of it, by unpacking what it means, what is it, how it came to be, how it works, and so on or it can do it by ignoring it. The fact of the matter is that most of the time it takes the path of least resistance and ignores everything. It takes effort to learn things and it is emotionally discomforting to not be certain about things – critical criteria for opening up and allow new information in. It is important to accept that the better your store of information and the higher your amount of practice, the better your processes will be and the greater your predictive accuracy. This will allow you to live a life with more ease and it will allow you to spend less of your time in a state of uncertainty, confusion, denial, or having to deal with being wrong. All of these things have a negative emotional valence to some degree. While this does not automatically equate to a greater level of happiness, it is very much like the contrast happiness made possible by anchoring a negative feeling from the past and reminding someone that their life is no longer like that. It’s a start if nothing else.
But it is an important step in the right direction. Knowing things is helpful when making decisions and it comes with a bonus in the form of the chemical reward that is released by the brain when it matches a pattern or knows the answer to a question. You’ll never go wrong when you learn something that is true.
formula here is very simple, pay deep attention to the things that matter to
you and that you want to learn. Practice doing them often and over a period of
time, always paying deep attention to what is going on, and your brain will do
the rest. It will lay down the brain tissue to support the new knowledge and it
will create the unconscious mental process that supports implementing the new
information in useful and prescribed ways. Pay attention, practice consistently
over time and your brain will grow in response to the stimulation. It’s just
that simple, although it isn’t easy. In fact, it can be hard work and you are
not necessarily going to feel like doing it all of the time. Do it anyway.
But what does it mean to pay deep attention? Well, it means being aware of what is going on in your brain and body while you are practicing. It means cultivating a keen ability to concentrate on things that are not necessarily obvious or innately rewarding. It means gaining the ability to quickly identify when your mind has wandered and to then shepherd it back onto the task at hand. And doing this over and over and over again, as often as the mind wanders.
is the only way you can use your consciousness to trigger the brain growth that
will make life different, and probably easier. The fact of the matter is that
you have no idea what your brain is going to do with the sensory information it
gets. Your brain does what it does and that’s about all there is to say about
it. The only control you have is to determine what that information is, and on
the quantity and quality of that information. That is it. It would be great if
we could get the brain to do specific things with it, but we do not really have
that kind of control over how the brain functions.
speaking, the brain will run a bunch of innate processes and will have the
ability to run a number that are specific to the life you have lived. A plumber
for example will see things from the eyes of a plumber and will likely be more
aware of water and to any sounds that have a water-like quality. An animal
doctor will see things through the lens of managing the health of animals and
avoiding unnecessary stress of the living creatures that happen to share the
same geographic space as them. The point is that the plumber and the
veterinarian were not born with these mental processes. Their brain created
them in response to the things that they paid a lot of attention to and
practiced consistently over time. This is what being an expert is about. Taking
in a lot of information consistently over a period of time and allowing the
brain to manufacture or write the code for the processes that this stimulation
evokes. Sometimes these processes will be predetermined, like how to join two
pipes together or the symptoms of distemper in a cat, other times they will be
determined by the brain and based on how it responded to the stimulation, like
the first heart transplant or the idea for an iPhone.
Paying attention is a mental skill, much like reading or identifying causal patterns or relationships based on spread sheet information. It can be independently rewarding although reaching this point can take a lot of effort and hard work. Initially, we will find it much easier to pay attention to specific things that we have learn to find rewarding. Again, these things are skills and we learn to find certain things to be rewarding through the pairing of those things with the release of reward chemicals. However, the upside to this fact is that we can condition ourselves to find paying attention to the most trivial things to be as rewarding as paying attention to our biggest passion. It just takes consistent practice, over time, and the willingness to return our attention to whatever object we are practicing on everytime it wanders.
Curiosity is one of the best tools at helping this process along because at the root of curiosity is the question “what is going on here?” that the brain is almost powerless to not answer anytime it is asked. Something is always going on even if we have historically made the decision to ignore it. Being alive feels like something. Even of you are not consciously aware of the feeling in your left knee from moment to moment, your left knee is there and the sensory receptors are sending information to your brain constantly. Most of the time we are only aware of that information when something extraordinary has happened – it bumps into a wall, hot coffee is spilled onto it, you land funny after taking a jump shot – but that does not actually mean that information is not always being transmitted to the brain. The brain has had to figure out how to deal with the constant supply of information from millions of sense receptors and over time it created a mental process of paying attention only to the stuff that is in contrast to what is coming in from the surrounding sensory receptors or stuff that is very different from what was coming in from the same receptors the moment before. This is a process that allows us to effectively navigate life without being constantly overwhelmed by trivial and insignificant data; it is much more akin to an active ignoring than it is to a lack of information. And we can, with sufficient effort and practice, create a counter process that allows us to notice the information that is flowing in from moment to moment from any part of the body we want.
This is when our baseline takes a step in the direction of better. By cultivating the ability to pay attention to the sensations that come from the body, we begin to notice the sensations that are coming from the body when we are doing other things. While it may be very unlikely that your knee will vibrate or feel warm in response to someone lying to you, it is not entirely out of the question that this could happen. And if we assume that it does, by learning how to pay attention and then creating the mental process that allows you to notice the sensations in your knee, you will have effectively turned your body into a lie detector. This isn’t going to make your life better, but it will prevent you from believing lies while it will eliminate whatever negative emotions or experiences cause by finding out that someone has lied to you; which is a contrast improvement in the quality of life.
how to pay attention and turning your attention inward will reveal a lot of
stuff about the experience of being alive that you been ignoring for years. You
will very quickly notice how the mind wanders and the frequency of random
thoughts that seem to have no relationship to what you were thinking or doing
the moment before. And this is the next big step up in terms of your baseline
moving towards something that is better. You’ll probably notice that the brain
is doing stuff ALL of the time and you are only just aware of a small number of
these things. You’ll likely notice that some thoughts appear instantly and
powerfully while others seem to bubble-up as though out of thin air and only
take hold if you allow your attention to go to them. You’ll get better at
allowing thoughts to come and go and grow very comfortable with the wisdom that
no matter what it is you are thinking or feeling right now, it will not last
because it hasn’t always been there.
And maybe, with enough practice, you’ll realize that you are more of an observer of life rather than the driver of it. You’ll grow comfortable with the fact that your brain is controlling the entire thing and that you have an amazing brain that is capable of profound and unimaginable things. And you’ll get so much better at deciding what you want our of your time on the planet and paying attention to the things that will give your brain the experiences it needs to make those things happen. Life will get easier because you’ll stop spending time on the things that do not help to move you forward or the things that you are doing habitually simply because they are your baseline. While life will have fewer ups, it will also have fewer downs, which will make living it easier. You won’t suffer through the eliminated down times and you won’t suffer when the good times fade away. This may seem like a sure fire way to create a boring existence, it is the exact opposite of that. It is a stable existence that is filled with the curious pursuit of the things that you want and the chemical rewards that the brain releases in response to doing things that it has been conditioned to reward.
And in the end, it will make you a much better affective forecaster because you’ll know with certainty what you are going to feel in the future. This is slightly different for everyone, but in general it is a peaceful satisfaction that is slightly pleasant, slightly rewarding, and reinforcing. It won’t be a “high” per say, but it will make going to sleep a lot easier and it will help you get out of bed to start the next day an almost effortless thing.
I wouldn’t go back and change anything about how I arrived at this moment in time with these realization because I can’t but mostly because those experiences were critical in helping me arrive here. When I think back on my experiences of achieving a goal, there has always been a sense of satisfaction that lasted longer than any sense of happiness. Human beings have no issue with hard work and we have evolved to reward ourselves chemically when we put the effort in and get a little more reward any time we reach the successful end of a journey. Would I rather feel happy or satisfied? I think I would rather feel satisfied because it doesn’t peak nearly as high, it lasts longer, and it fades out gradually. Most importantly though I’m certain that it will be the outcome when I reach a goal and when I take any individual step towards that goal.
That’s about all there is to say about affective forecasting right now. You can keep doing what you have always been doing and get it wrong or you can take the time to improve your ability to pay attention and then use this skill to create a new mental process that allows you to experience the present moment as it is. When you do this you will shift or change your baseline and stabilize your affective experience making it more predictable. The outcome of doing this for me is that I’m going to feel satisfied when I put in the work and a little more satisfied when the goal is reached. And then I will begin to feel normal again regardless of what I achieved.
Most of the important stuff is controlled by the brain automatically and without any conscious intervention. And by the same token, most of the conscious thoughts that we have play no role in the manifestation of the quality of our life or the richness of the emotional experience of being alive. In a very real and almost absolute way, our brain does what it needs to do with conscious awareness being more of a side effect to having a large brain than a critical piece of it.
About five years ago I wrote Affective Forecasting to talk about some of my feelings about human beings inability to predict how they are going to feel in the future. I concluded that the best predictor of how we will feel in the future is how we feel right now because we have a baseline level of functioning that our brain will work to restore any time we move away from it. There are a few exceptions to this, chronic pain or becoming locked into a mental cycle that re-ups suffering, but almost everything else will be habituated quickly and allow us to return to whatever psychological state reflects our “normal.”
I recommend you give the original post a read or a reread before you continue this one. It covers some of my own experiences, the experience of some people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and some of the experiences that my clients have had while working towards their fitness goals and after having achieved them. Without fail, NO ONE was correct in their prediction about how they would feel when the future becomes the present.
half decade since I wrote the post, I have had a lot of different experiences,
consumed a lot of information, and draw almost the exact same conclusion. How
you feel right now is very likely going to be how you feel in the future. If I
had to bet on it, I would put the odds at around 98%; we will return to the 2%
later. The big difference between then and now, in terms of how I think about
the subject, is that I know a lot more about why we get affective forecasting
Life is very complicated, so the brain has come-up with a variety of ways to make living more efficient. Generally speaking, the brain needs certainty that it is populated with a world view that reflects reality well enough to allow it to make accurate predictions. This certainty serves to reduce cognitive overhead simply because it prevents the brain from cycling on the unknown. While this is more of a narrative explanation than a neurological or biological one, and it does introduce a few assumptions in order to avoid tackling the hard problems of consciousness – for example, is the cycling the result of uncertainty or is the uncertainty the result of the cycling – the outcome is the same, uncertainty is exhausting and “knowing” is mentally a lot easier than not knowing, even if the knowing is not based on any evidence.
The brain creates processes to help manage the information flow. Many of these processes function with almost complete perfection. There is a relationship between the amount of real world experience the person has, practice, and the quality of the process. The more hands on practice a person has, the better their brain will be at making predictions or guesses about a particular thing. This is what one would expect because it is the manifestation of how the brain functions optimally – physical experience with the real world is evidence and the greater the amount of evidence, the larger the memory pool the brain can draw from in order to make predictions.
These processes are created automatically and unconsciously in response to stimulation flowing into the brain. You are almost powerless to stop it from happening. In a way, the brain is innately programmed to write code to optimize the handling of the influx of information of a particular type under a specific context. And this is a very good thing! It is empowering to know that all you need to do in order to become an expert at something is to pay very close attention to what is going on while you are doing the thing and to practicing it consistently over a long period of time. By paying deep attention, you will maximize the in-flow of sensory data which will cause the brain to adapt more completely to the stimulation. Over time, the neural networks that support the most efficient way of dealing with the data will grow dense and allow for the automation of nearly perfect ways of responding.
So far so
good, but things begin to fall apart when the processes are not based on a lot
of real world evidence or practice. Processes that are formed with insufficient
information and fail to have predictive accuracy are called cognitive biases.
If we stop now and consider the world from which the brain evolved, we’ll notice that it was a complicated world, but that it was very small in terms of the diversity of things that a living being would be exposed to. It consisted of doing the same ten things each day – finding food, finding water, finding shelter, finding security, getting sleep, staying warm, protecting family, establishing connections to other living beings, maintaining social connections, and teaching the young or ignorant the skills needed to satisfy the other nine needs. Life was hard, and the experience of living was a binary flip flop between periods of satisfaction and an immediate need to satisfy something. It wasn’t good or bad, it just was, and the living beings just did what they had to continue to survive. NOTE – I left out reproduction as one of the ten things because without the ten, reproduction was a liability that was more likely to reduce the chances of survival than to promote it.
of abstract thought that was involved with living and surviving was low. Most
of what happened ACTUALLY happened, so the creature engaged the real world in a
physical way. This is the definition of evidence and the brain is perfectly
suited for this type of environment.
is no longer the world that human beings live in. Our world is much more
complex than before, and the abundance of this complexity is abstract in
nature. Most of what we know doesn’t spontaneously exist in nature. It’s real,
but not really real. It is the consequence of some creative insight that just
happened to be deemed as valuable or rewarding enough by other human beings to
get picked-up, shared, and spread throughout various sub-groups of the
population. Those who did not have the information did not understand, want or
even consider it. Those who did have it would use it to their advantage, and
would likely use it against those who didn’t have it. Not necessarily in a
direct way, although sometimes, but in a way that gave them an advantage. The
consequence was that those who had more information would do better than those
who had less.
Writing and reading, farming, and tools are examples of this. Writing and reading are very similar to teaching, but their creation eliminated the need for the teacher and student to actually spend one on one time together, and it allowed for the teacher to teach hundreds or thousands of people in one shot thus making the process exponentially more efficient and creating the opportunity for the standardization of knowledge about a subject. Farming was very similar to gathering food from the wild and hunting, but it allowed for people to concentrate their efforts onto a much smaller well defined area which reduced the labour cost per unit of food. Tools allowed people to perform more work with the same amount of labour which reduced the cost of the work. These three technologies – writing and reading, farming and tools – represented a way for people to do more of what they were already doing. They were advances that created an abundance of resources that groups were able to use to make their lives easier. They were abstract ideas or novel ways to accomplish existing goals with greater ease or efficiency.
The consequence to abundance is that everything expands, which leads to a massive increase in the amount of information that is available or known and the propagation of this information. At some point, the world in which most people lived no longer resembled the world from which their brains had evolved. The software was fine for small groups who had ten things to do over and over and over again, but it wasn’t really ready for whatever modern society was becoming. Gone were the days of direct hands on daily experience and practice, which allow for the creation of nearly perfect processes. Here were the times of indirect mental practice with abstract things that don’t actually exist in the real world. Consider traffic lights for a moment. We have a good understanding of them, but what would happen if someone who had never seen them was placed into the driver’s seat of a car that was approaching a red light (assuming that they know how to drive a car). There is a set of rules that govern the behavior of cars at traffic lights and without knowledge of these rules, things could get dangerous and ugly. Regardless of how effective and helpful these rules are, they only exist in the minds of the people who know what traffic lights are, and they only exist because someone invented traffic lights as a solution to a problem. They do not exist in the ocean and the wildlife in the forest have no need to them.
This brings us to cognitive biases. Our brain is very effective at creating mental processes that govern and control things that it has had ample sensory data for, the predictive accuracy of these process is dependent upon the verification of these predictions. Without this error correction, a process will not evolve and improve. Thinking about the traffic lights, the rules governing traffic light behavior are abstract but they are easily and consistently verified and validated. There are very few accidents with intersections (when compared to the number of cars that travel through an intersection) and much fewer with them when compared to non-controlled intersections. There is an abundance of sensory information available that is transmitted and received by people allowing their brain to create a near perfect rule concerning them.
This is not the case with most things in modern life. While there is an abundance of sensory information available about any specific topic, there are millions of topics meaning that there are probably billions of possible pieces of information to know. A billion of anything is too much for the brain to handle so it means that it will ignore practically everything. At best, it will create a sufficient set of rules that are well tested and accurate that will provide professional expertise, a set of social rules that are well tested to ensure coexistence with other people, and lot of mental processes that have not been tested but are accepted as being valid. These are cognitive biases, and human beings have shared patterns of thinking that result in the formation of a fairly consistent list of cognitive biases.
It is important to mention that this does not have to be the case in theory, and is likely the consequence of our need for certainty. Those who are innately fine with uncertainty or who have trained themselves to always assume that there is always going to be something that they need to learn about every subject and to be curious and seek out this information are much less susceptible to making decisions that are based on cognitive biases. They will either admit that they do not know and will find out or they will take the time to learn and experience enough evidence in order to correct the processes and boost their predictive accuracy.
years ago, I was less aware of what I didn’t know and the role this void was
having on my life. While I had noticed that I wasn’t very good at affective
forecasting, I hadn’t taken much time to consider why that was the case. I was
also aware that the same was true for my clients – they were only temporarily
happy or satisfied when they achieved a hard earned goal and would quickly
return to normal. My noticing this was why I had started to suggest to them
that that they track in on their reasons for seeking my help vs. the outcome
they were hoping to achieve. How someone identified that they were physically
weak and needed to improve their strength was more important than knowing that
they wanted to become stronger because two cognitive biases impact the
perception of the future when it comes to physical transformation – the
optimistic bias and the planning fallacy.
optimistic bias basically has a person believe that things will be easier and
will result in better outcomes than they will. The planning fallacy has a
person believe that things will progress more quickly and result in faster
outcomes than they will. These two things work together and, as a result, we
are lousy affective forecasters. Things take longer and are never as good as we
believe they will be.
By tracking in on the specific reason why a person realized that they were not physically strong, the focus is shifted away from imagined perception of what the future will be like and onto the reality that they’ll be able to do the thing that caused them difficulty. They will have a reference point for how bad they felt at the beginning and this can be leveraged to contrast to their life today. It can be used to motivate them to notice that even though things are moving much more slowly than they had anticipated, they are getting better as they move further and further away from the moment when they realized they were physically not strong.
Now I know this because I noticed it in myself and in others because I had been lucky enough to have the experiences that allowed me to see it occurring. This motivated me to say something about it and to then seek out the reasons WHY it was the way it was. This is the reason why we engage the help of experts. They do not suffer from the same cognitive biases, at least not in the same way, as we do. They have taken the time to be uncertain and to then seek out the evidence to update their processes to make them more accurate. After having done all of the work, they do not make the same mistakes that the rest of us do and they are actually in a position to help guide us through the experiences that we need to have in order to get what we want.
With all of this being said, my 98% guess at the odds of someone getting their affective forecasting wrong should now be becoming clearer. It’s the perfect storm of a number of factors.
The first is that we do not have a good set of rules or processes set-up when it comes to doing something that we have never done before. This opens the way to the impact that cognitive biases can play.
The second is that we are generally not very open to new information and will rely on our gut feeling and hunches to guide us vs. any objective assessment of what happened before or what is the more likely outcome. This fact needs to be understood completely because it is part of the same problem I was alluding to when I mentioned that the brain does not do well with uncertainty.
Feelings are not the same things as thoughts. Both are related to and will influence each other but they are very different things. Feelings are, for the most part, the brains way of alerting us to a memory that we have about the past that was significant. The nature of the emotion will reveal information about the memory that can provide context or other background information. The reason for this is very straight forward, the brain is very effective at gross single trial learning and can condition a very specific emotional reaction, in terms of the chemicals that make it up, to something that happens. The conditioning is very general and tends to be void of most of the contextual clues that reveal exactly what happened, why it happened, and what could have been done differently to avoid the situation. But it is a strong association and sufficient enough to trigger the release of the same chemicals whenever the brain perceives the same or a similar event. If a particular loud sound preceded something frightening, the brain will learn to release the same chemicals in the event that it hears or perceives the same sound in the future. On the very extreme side is post-traumatic stress disorder that may cause a returning war veteran to become extremely anxious or panicked when they hear a loud bang from a truck, a door slamming, or something on television. Their brain has done such an effective job at conditioning a sudden loud sound to a sympathetic nervous system response that this response will be triggered even when the person is well aware that they are in a completely safe context. This type of learning is extremely sticky and may last for decades afterwards.
Given that feelings have a real life experience aspect to them and the fact that they occur BEFORE we become consciously aware of their causes, they have a characteristic of having always been there, at least in the moment and before we take any time to reflect on what is going on, and of being very important. Both of these things are true, at least from a historic point of view. It makes a lot of sense to prime the body for a fight or flight series of actions as quickly as possible the moment the brain senses a threat. In fact, a very good case can be made that those individuals who had a tendency to be primed for action even before they were conscious of the need for action, were in a much better position to survive when a legitimate thread presented itself. It is entirely probable that a part of our operating system evolved to favor type one errors and to instantly react as opposed to waiting for validation, which promotes the likelihood of a type two error. It is better to be wrong and live than to be certain and die. It you think about it, the last person to respond to a real threat has the greatest chance of being the one who has to deal with the threat directly because they will be the last one to start running away. There is almost no cost associated with running away when you don’t need to and a huge advantage to being the first one to run when you have to.
So feelings are important, and they played a big role in keeping our ancestors alive long enough to reproduce. Paying attention to them and reacting to them is an innate part of the code that runs our operating system. But much like the nature of information that we were tasked with handling – the ten things that we needed to do every day in order to continue to survive and how our skill level with them was earned through direct experience with the physical world – our present environment is very different from the one that shaped our brains. A lot of the code is fine, but some of it doesn’t apply to the same extent or at all in modern life. A full on fight or flight response is something that will never be needed by most of us. The world is not nearly as dangerous as it used to be and now most of the things that will kill or damage us can very easily be avoided with a little bit of thinking.
I cannot say that the emotional system is antiquated or that our gut feeling should be ignored, but I will say that we have a very good reason to slow things down a little bit and to allow the source or probable source of an emotional reaction to surface before we take any action or commit to any view about the correctness or wrongness of something simply because the gut weighs in on it. The truth is that the gut is based on previous experience and we do not have instant access to the exact memory that shaped the feeling or conditioned the emotional reaction. If the conditioning was formed based on inaccurate information or under a general context and not a very specific one, the gut feeling cannot be trusted to be correct. Better decisions will become possible when we take the moment to think about things and to ensure that we do not make either a type one error OR type two error. It is possible that we will be able to take the time to figure out what the correct answer is or to lean into the uncertainty for long enough to allow logic and statistics to bring forward probabilities.
Of course, this will not happen when we go with the gut and act without thinking. And this contributes to our profound inability to accurately predict how we will feel in the future. Our initial feeling that “I’ll feel very happy when I get the body that I have always desired” or “that I will feel sad if I find out that I have a terminal illness” are gut reactions to thoughts about a potential future. They are not based on what IS and are therefore suspect. It’s true that you might feel temporarily happy and temporarily sad but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that you’ll simply return to baseline and feel the same way you feel right now.
It is our lack of openness and a misplaced reliance or trust on feelings that prevents us from taking in the information and having the experiences that are needed to eliminate cognitive biases. Education and experience is the antidote to them simply because these are the things that the brain needs to create, shape, and refine the mental processes that allow us to make accurate predictions about the world.
The final factor that contributes to our poor affective forecasting is that very little ever changes. Staying alive is a very difficult task and almost all of our mental effort is directed towards sustaining life. We are oblivious to most of this effort and tend to only become aware of the things that require us to move in order to satisfy – we get thirsty or hungry, we feel cold, we feel pain, etc. – and that is about it. Most of the important stuff is controlled by the brain automatically and without any conscious intervention. And by the same token, most of the conscious thoughts that we have play no role in the manifestation of the quality of our life or the richness of the emotional experience of being alive. In a very real and almost absolute way, our brain does what it needs to do with conscious awareness being more of a side effect to having a large brain than a critical piece of it.
The end result is that most of what we are and how we experience the world will remain as it is and as it has always been for us REGARDLESS of the things that we achieve. Everything regresses to the mean eventually. No matter how happy you are right now, if it is at a higher level than normal, you can be certain that it will not last. And as much as that is a tough pill to swallow, the opposite is also true. If you are less happy right now than normal, it won’t last and you’ll be back to normal after a while. In fact, regression to the mean is so prevalent in terms of affect that practically everything we do will have no impact on the mean simply because most of what we do is done automatically and without conscious awareness or intervention. Life is just that difficult to maintain that the ninety percent of our actions and thoughts are controlled by the brain and it doesn’t waste much effort adjusting to the things we believe that we want.
I’m going to stop this article here and post the second part of it next week. It covers what you can do to improve your affective forecasting and suggests an alternative to trying to predict your future emotional state.
The future is brain activity in the frontal cortex, the past is the organic material that comprise all of the neural networks that make-up our long term memories and the present is the influx of sensory signals and the corresponding mental processes that they trigger.
People are full of crap. Some know they are, these people are bullshitters. They are motivated by the need or a desire to be believed. They don’t care about the truth one way or the other and will only tell it when doing so helps them to get other people to believe them.
Most people do not believe that they are full of crap and will say with complete honesty that they are truth seekers and that they do not lie. I have no reason to disbelieve them when they say this, and there is a lot of evidence that indicates that they ARE telling the truth and that they work in earnest to seek out and consume things that they believe are true.
“On Bullshit” is a 2005 essay written by Harry G. Frankfurt that covers some of this very effectively. The truth teller and the liar both have an important relationship with the truth. Both know what it is and act in predictable ways when dealing with it. The truth teller will take the steps that are required to uncover the truth and to always say and do things according to it. The liar will take very similar steps to uncover it and will then say things that are untrue and will allow other people to believe things that are not true. Liars do not always lie though, which makes life a little more challenging. However, if someone knowingly tells a lie, it is reasonable to conclude that they will do so in the future and to withdraw unconditional trust for them and to stop viewing them through the most charitable lenses.
Truth tellers will always tell the truth as they know it. This is not the same thing as always telling the objective truth because that would imply that they know what that is. While this fact complicates things considerably, it is no reason to completely give-up on people and withdraw from society. We just need to be aware that uncovering objective reality is hard work, and it may not even be possible some of the time. Life is very complicated and there is a lot to learn. Sometimes we need to believe things that we do not know and do our best with what we have. This is a part of the reason why honest people will speak untruths and it is why we need to be charitable towards others who do not actively set about to mislead us.
However, there are limits to this. Someone who shows a lack of willingness or ability to learn from their mistakes, or remains completely committed to their views when evidence to the contrary has been shared with them, are acting in a way that is at least to some degree dishonest. Updating world views is hard work but this effort is necessary in order to move forward in life with a better internal representation of the objective external world. Anybody who does not put in the work to adapt to their experiences should be demoted and assumed to be less than honest. Let’s call these people the truth impervious.
The transition zone between the truth impervious and the truth teller is not a clear line, and it probably shouldn’t be. In general, we want people to be very quick in updating their world view when presented with new information. The blurred line is the result of differing thresholds for what constitutes evidence of new information. The size of the blurred line is occupied by the truth resistant.
When we are young, the line is fairly well defined. We accept everything as truth and store all of it into long term memory. This maximizes our ability to learn in terms of speed and quantity while making us more susceptible to dishonest players who try to gain from getting us to believe lies or untruths. This is the reason why it is critical to tell children the truth as much as possible and to limit the lies that you are willing to tell them. There is a cost to every lie and it is the child, or the adult they will become, who will pay that cost. It’s probably fine to tell them certain cultural fairy tales in terms of holidays about rabbits, eggs and gifts, but it may not be. It is also better to avoid answering a question choosing to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not actually sure” than to make something up. Again, telling the truth is the best course of action, but sometimes it might not be appropriate to relate this information to them too soon. So long as the withholding of information is done to prevent too early an exposure and not as a way to make your life easier there may be some downstream benefit to doing it.
But there reaches a point when the only thing that gets shared is the truth, and this point will be more or less the moment when the truth impervious and the truth resistant begin to cleave themselves off from the honest. This occurs because the person as learned a massive amount of information and is now in a position to listen more critically and to interrogate what they hear / experience against what they have stored in long term memory. They will still continue to update their world view, but they will start to become more responsible for making the decision on what to do when something goes against it. This is a big leap forward in terms of shoring up their understanding of things as they will already have developed a general case for a lot of common knowledge. The ability to identify when something doesn’t match the general case is of upmost importance in generating an advanced or expert level of skill.
It goes something like this: an experience doesn’t match their internal view of reality, but since they have crossed into the realm of critical analysis, they take a moment of pause when they identify the error / in-congruence. It’s a moment of inflection in so far as they think “what do I not know and need to know as a result of what has just happened” or “this doesn’t match my world view and is therefore wrong and needs to be ignored.” Of these two thoughts, younger people tend to favor the first while people who are older will drift towards the second. Those who are honest and in the second group will, after enough experience, change their approach and open-up to letting in new information. The challenge is in getting to the threshold amount in so far as there is a disincentive to seeking out information that does not support our present world view. It is both work and experientially painful – while not in the same ballpark as getting hit with a baseball, the brain does not release reward chemicals when consuming information or having experiences that do not match the patterns we have stored in our long term memory. This is a critical fact that makes life much more difficult for some people than it needs to be. The essence however is that for people who lean towards viewing as false anything that is not compatible with what they know to be true UNTIL they get enough information to justify changing their world view, are honest people but will initially present as truth impervious in that they will not learn from experience and will seem to view things are wrong without any evidence other than what they have stored in their heads.
You will know that it is a truth impervious person when they do not seek out evidence to support the accuracy of the new information they were exposed to and remain unmoved by evidence that is presented to them. Honest people may have a threshold for triggering change and they will change their behavior when presented with evidence. They may not update their world view, but they will not flat out deny reality. When they actually hear the evidence, it will be clear that their brain has started to process it and is beginning to answer the question “what do I not know that would make this information correct?” They will be curious as they consider what it is that they do not know.
So this is what we are left with:
Bullshitters, liars, the truth impervious, the truth resistant and the honest.
You’ll stay away from bullshitters and keep liars at arm’s length. The truth impervious will, over time, reveal themselves as unchanging and allow you to keep them at whatever distance makes the most sense. They are not the same as the other two – those who do not care about truth and those who know what it is but are willing to avoid it to get something they want or need – because they are simply just not letting in anything that doesn’t map directly onto what they know. They are useful and are only dangerous when you mistakenly believe that they are truth resistant.
The truth resistant and the honest are who you will seek out, identify, and choose to surround yourself with; assuming that you are either one of these types of people. This is the method for creating the most ease in your life and that will give you the greatest number of opportunities to learn, grow, contribute, and succeed. It is definitely worth putting in the work to find as many of these people as you can and to take the steps necessary to remain as one yourself.
This is going to require constant effort, a willingness and the ability to tolerate the discomfort of being wrong, and the willingness to seek out experiences and information that does not cause the release of any reward chemicals. This last one is the bigger challenge because as you already know, your brain releases reward chemicals when it makes correct guesses and when it matches patterns; reading something that confirms our world view is chemically rewarding and in no way punishing while reading something that doesn’t match our world view is not chemically rewarding and very likely to be punishing.
Honestly, I don’t know why anyone would do it, except for the fact that in the long run it might be better because it can make life easier and this will allow us to get more done. In the immediate time frame, it is not an innately rewarding experience. You can however condition your brain to release reward chemicals in response to learning. Making this link will serve to fuel your future quest for wisdom and truth. Doing this is relatively simple, but it requires a lot of hard work, particularly early in life, and this work can be perceived as punishment or sacrifice. If a love for learning was not instilled during childhood and adolescence, it can be developed later in life by re-framing the experience as a positive and a sound investment into your future or by learning how to pay absolute attention to the things you are learning. Suffering, that is a negative emotional experiences in the absence of physical pain, is the result of too much focus on yourself. When we pay attention to what we are learning or what is going on from moment to moment, we are no longer capable of paying attention to ourselves and this will eliminate whatever negative experience was occurring. This will serve as a reinforcement if for no other reason as the reduction in pain. Overtime, our brains learn the response and will begin to trigger it as a result of the learning.
So this is truth, learning, how to make life easier and therefore potentially better, and the categories of people in terms of their possible relationship with honestly.
The fact of the matter is that life is both work and very complicated. There is an incentive to avoid work and complexity because doing so helps to conserve energy, making it available for later in the event there is an emergency that we need to deal with. This makes sense when we consider where our species is coming from – the past when food scarcity was a reoccurring problem that killed off a lot of people each time it showed-up – but it has been much less of a concern over the last few thousand years as a result of the discovery of farming. However, the genes of our ancestors do not disappear in response to changes in the environment. They disappear either through mutation, meaning they code for something entirely different, or the individuals with those genes die before they are able to reproduce which might, over the long run, see them removed from the species IF the genes are not contained in the code of the individuals who do mate successfully. The conservation of energy genes however are ubiquitous across all species and all areas of the planet. They are not going anywhere meaning that for the foreseeable future human beings are going to default to conserving energy by any means possible and will only choose to spend it through an act of will OR in an attempt to receive a reward.
This creates an interesting situation when we factored into our understanding of the truth and learning. Sugar is sugar, and it is as useful for one specific aspect of metabolism as any other aspect of it. The brain doesn’t care HOW it saves energy, it is just coded to try and save it. Our brain uses about twenty percent of our basal metabolic energy and it is more or less on all of the time when we are awake. Heavy sessions of deep thought might theoretically burn more energy than a session of equal length involving us watching waves or sitting quietly in a darkened room but the evidence for this is inconclusive. What is clear is the increased cost of recovery from or adapting to the intense session of deep thought. When what is sensed, perceived and experienced is different from what is stored and represented in long term memory, assimilating this information will cost energy in terms of the organic cell growth of the new neural networks that contain the new and updated information. When the information that flows in is the same as the information that is already stored, nothing needs to happen.
This means that living beings have a survival incentive to avoid new information because adjusting to it will use energy that might be better spent elsewhere or held onto in the event it is needed for an emergency. Phrased another way, it is easier and cheaper in the short term to remain ignorant than it is to invest the effort to cultivate knowledge or wisdom. Any argument about medium and long term costs of this need to be tempered with the reality that the future is an abstract thing and therefore does not exist in any tangible way. Do not allow this fact to derail your understanding here because it is fairly trivial and has very little consequence to how the brain operates. The future is brain activity in the frontal cortex, the past is the organic material that comprise all of the neural networks that make-up our long term memories and the present is the influx of sensory signals and the corresponding mental processes that they trigger. The only way the future exists is when we have the part of the brain that is responsible for generating it and when that part of the brain is active; otherwise it just isn’t a thing that the brain has any awareness of or access to.
Narratively it is safe to say that learning as much as possible is an investment in the future but in practice this isn’t exactly the case. The body will adapt to EVERYTHING that it does in a way that will make doing it again a little bit easier. The improvement in capability and efficiency with each subsequent repetition will be small, but there is an improvement. The general rule of thumb is that each time you double the reps you do, you will become 20% more effective. Over time, if a skill is not practiced, no new tissue will be laid down to support it and this will result in skill decay as cellular turnover reduces the number of dedicated cells. This is why practice makes us better and is critical for maintaining high levels of skill fluency.
All of this is to say that if we are never going to do something again, it is cheaper for us to avoid doing it in the first place because this will allow us to avoid all of the metabolic costs associated with this 20% increase in efficiency. Since important things occur often and unimportant things occur very infrequently, unless it is an emergency or a life or death situation, we are statistically better off if we ignore something the first few times we are faced with it because this will prevent us from wasting energy on the insignificant and allow us to focus energy on what is important or save it for use later.
I like math and I love how useful statistics are at telling a very interesting story about what is going on, but statistics are NOT real life. They are an amalgamation of many individual stories that are themselves real life. Just because we are statistically better off doing something does not necessarily mean that we are individually better off doing it. Think about it this way, the mean is the average of all of the values. If we have to guess what any individual number is and have no other information to go on, our best option is to pick the mean value because half of the numbers will be larger and half of them will be smaller, and the mean is based on something – an average of ALL of the numbers – but not much more than that. Say we have 10 people who take a test that is scored between 1 and 10. The results have a person score each of the whole numbers between 1 and 10; one person gets 1, one person gets 2, one person gets 3, etc…. You are told nothing about the test, are told that the mean score is 5.5 out of 10 and are then asked to guess the score of person 7. You go with the mean which is about the best you can do, but are wrong because they scored 8. And guessing the mean will always be wrong because the test doesn’t give out half marks. In this case any whole number would will have a 1 in 10 chance of begin correct vs. 100% certainty of being incorrect.
This is how I think about learning from what happens. While there is energy to be saved by ignoring reality the first few times it presents itself, there is very little reason for me to worry about this energy. My body fat level puts me into the realm of being able to go without any food for at least 10 days before I might enter a danger zone in terms of starvation. There is no food scarcity where I live and, if I ever find myself in a position that the energy that was spent learning something actually makes a difference, that would be the least of my problems. I would argue that one of the major benefits of technology is the enhanced learning environment and potential that these technologies have created. I can “waste” energy learning things that don’t matter, doing things that do not enhance my chances of surviving, and adapting to novel or otherwise meaningless stimuli simply because of the work the previous 450 generations did to create a surplus of food, safety, security, and shelter. Whatever energy I save by waiting until something happens three or four times before dealing with it makes no difference in my life. I probably throw out enough food each day to pay attention to and learn from practically everything that comes along.
Of course my DNA, brain, and operating system do not consider my level of body fat or the richness of the food I waste when faced with new information. The default is to ignore, resist, and justify doing nothing. Which is fair and a big pain in the ass when it comes to the truth. There is a huge evolutionary drive for us to be right because being in that state means we do not have to do anything. There is nothing to learn when we are right because being right is an indication that we have already learned what it was to know. Great, except being right and wrong are only things that exist when you take the time to consider them. Other than what we have stored in our long term memories that we are able to access and bring to mind from moment to moment, the only things that are real are the things for which there is a stream of sensory data flowing in. Everything else doesn’t exist.
This is a type of conundrum because in order to assess something for accuracy or truth, it needs to exist and the only way it can exist is if the sensory data is allowed to enter into your brain. If it isn’t let in, the thing isn’t right or wrong, it’s so much less than that. The thing isn’t a thing at all.
There is a potential cost to letting the stuff in because if it doesn’t match what we have stored in our brains, we will need to spend energy to adapt to the new information. So this leaves us with a choice, do we ignore things and be certain to save the energy or do we pay attention to them and risk having to spend the energy? Of course, there’s a third choice which is to already know what it is we are paying attention to – or to be right about the things we are letting in.
Personally, I’m a fan of letting the stuff in and learning as much as possible, even when it may never be needed in the future. But I understand the drive of staying closed or of consuming only things that confirm a preexisting piece of knowledge. That doesn’t mean I agree with these approaches, nor does it mean that I respect the conservation efforts of people who engage in them.
The truth resistant are made-up of people who employ these tactics when dealing with reality. They’ll ignore reality for a while until they deem it time to let the new information in.
The truth impervious will also use these tactics, but they’ll rely on always “being right” when cherry picking what to let in to ensure that they never need to do anything differently. The remarkable thing about this is just how simple it can be to maintain rightness in the face of contradictory information so long as that information never makes it into the brain or when it accidentally leaks in, it is perceived in a particular way that ensures there is nothing new to learn.
If you are curious to see this in action, take a look at the web site https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/. This site deals with political biases and is an attempt to rank news sources as left bias, left leaning, least biased, right leaning and right bias. You are able to get a list of sources that match each of these categories, along with a few others, and read the sites write-up about the source.
What is most interesting is that on the page that contains the write-up, you can follow a link to the source site and read their articles for yourself. Not that big a deal, except when you start to really pay attention to what is going on in your brain and your body. We don’t simply consume information and feel nothing while doing it. Oh no, we do so much more. Whatever biases we have, whatever preconceived notions that exist inside our brains and whatever we know as the truth play a role in determining how we emotionally respond to things. When faced with erroneous information, we respond, when faced with correct information, we respond, when faced with ambiguous information, we respond. The unconscious parts of our brain that deal with complex information fire-up, do their thing, and trigger specific emotions based on their interpretation of the sensory stimuli.
If I was forced to say, I would suggest that I am a social liberal and have a slight right lean financially. I don’t think the government knows what it is doing most of the time, so I don’t believe it has a place in telling the citizens how to behave. If you are not harming other people and only engage in consensual interactions, the government should pay no attention to you. I’m a believer in public health care and some social programs, but I believe that people should work as much as they can to pay their own way unless they have a strong reason why they are not able to or have been able to get someone to consent to paying for them. I have very low expectations for politicians and I expect them to lie because I don’t think a completely honest person could effectively run a country.
All of this being said, I have a tendency to avoid news sources that have a right bias and notice that I feel off when I am consuming news that has a strong left bias. The right stuff seems like superficial nonsense and the left stuff seems too over the top and unreasonably fatalistic. The stuff in the middle lands better because it just seems like they are revealing a series of facts about things that happened. It is as though they are reporting the news as a kind of boring list of things that occurred and leave the rest of it up to me to figure out.
This is much closer to what the world is actually like. Nothing is as good or as bad as it seems in the moment. What a thing is will become clearer over the days and weeks that follow. Was it good or bad that such and such won an election? Well, it was both. Things will be different because of it, some of the things that were good will get better, some that were bad will get worse, some things will stay the same, other things will reverse valence.
But in the moment, it’s amazing, or awful. It feels like it matters more than anything else ever could or ever will. Which is true, given that the future only exists as brain activity in the present moment, but in a few minutes you’ll have moved off of it and onto something else that matters more than anything ever could or ever will.
This is the reason why we need to consume information from all sides of an argument, particularly from the side that we do not align with. You may never change your mind about it, but it is important that you understand that there are people who believe things that you do not believe and that you know what these things are. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle between two polarized points of view. But you’ll only find it when you allow for the existence of the other pole. When you know with certainty that they are wrong, you close off to the truth and become a little less useful at being a human being.