What You Say Is Not Necessarily What They Hear – And That’s Your Fault

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.

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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 and misunderstanding.

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 this post:

“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 thick.

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 future.

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 polite.

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 business contract.

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.

That Time I Said Something Wise

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

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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.

“So what?” – When It Isn’t About Money

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


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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 exercise.

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 outstanding.

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 market.

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 it.

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….

Strong Opinions, Loosely Held

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.


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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.

Affective Forecasting – Post Revisited Part 2

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.

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This is the second half of the post Affective Forecasting – Post Revisited.

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.

The 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.

Attention 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.

Generally 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.

Learning 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.    

Affective Forecasting – Post Revisited Part 1

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.

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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.

In the 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 so wrong.

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.

The level 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.

But this 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.

Five 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.

The 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 Truth And Media Bias

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.

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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.

Gas Lighting – Vice-Signalling And A Lack Of Self-Respect

There is an innate tendency for people to seek out information that validates their beliefs and to resist information that does not confirm what they believe to be true, and when given access to all of the information of the world via the Internet, there is no reason for someone who is motivated to believe something to ever to be exposed to anything that contradicts it.

The truth does not matter when it can be ignored.

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The concept of gaslighting was first introduced in the 1938 play “Gas Light” by Patrick Hamilton, which was made into a movie a couple of time. The story is set in 1880 when houses are artificially illuminated with candles for the lower classes and gas for the middle and upper classes. The husband and wife, main characters, live in a big house that is lite with gas. Their relationship is not a good one. The apartment above remains vacant after the murder of a rich lady who had a lot of expensive jewelry. The husband spends the evenings searching an upstairs apartment for the jewels but he doesn’t tell his wife where he is going or what he is doing. Of course, he uses the gas lights when he searches the upstairs apartment, which causes the lights in the rest of the building to glow more dimly. His wife hears sounds coming from the apartment and notices the lights getting dimmer but when she asks her husband about these things he tells her that they are not happening. He does it so frequently and so convincingly that she begins to doubt her own experience of reality and starts to question her sanity.

This is the origin of the term “gaslighting” and it is a powerful way to manipulate other people. It is a long game and it tends to work more effectively on people who have a connection to or a reason to care for manipulator. The effects are cumulative and will only occur after repeated exposure. In general, it works because someone lies so convincingly and so consistently about a subject that the victim begins to doubt their own experiences. It will not work when the person knows that they are being lied to, either because they have proof of the lies or they have other social proof that their experience of reality is actually true, and it cannot be said that a person who is motivated to believe the other persons lies is suffering from gaslighting.

Recall or consider the Asch conformity experiment that asked subjects to answer a question about line length. Subjects were placed into groups with other people who were, unbeknownst to them, confederates and working with the experimenter. The group was shown two pictures, one with a single line drawn on it and one with three lines drawn on it. They were then asked to select with line in the second picture matched the length of the line in the first picture. When the subject answered first or when the previous answers did not agree, they would always answer correctly. But when they answered last and there had been complete agreement on a particular line, they were more likely to offer-up the same answer. This is not a case of gaslighting even though most of the subjects did, at least some of the time, go along with the answers the rest of the group gave. These subject consciously made the decision to conform and give the same answer as the rest of the group members. At no time did they question their belief that the group was answering incorrectly. They simply made the decision to go along with the group to avoid the negative feelings associated with standing alone. This is a critical distinction because it illustrates the importance of the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. In Asch’s study, the subject doubted the sanity of the other group members, with gaslighting, the victim doubts their own sanity.

The play came out in 1938 and for a few decades nothing much came of it other than it being a moderately interesting evening of entertainment and a decent thought experiment in terms of “what would you do” in a similar situation. However, during the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, the term began to build-up steam and started to take root in mainstream consciousness to refer to any deliberate actions that were taken to undermine someone’s perception of reality. It is now widely accepted as a manipulation tactic used by narcissists, sociopaths, and people who wish to destabilize another person’s view of what is real.

The timing of this is not much of a surprise either. We are now living in what many consider the post truth era. This is a time in which the truth is much less important than being right or being believed. It happens to coincide with the elimination of tight social groups and the formation of virtual social groups that coexist around a shared interest in a particular subject or way of viewing the world. This creates a powerful selection bias effect that convinces each member of the group to believe that their point of view is much more common and much more significant than it actually is. Consider the current political climate. While it may seem like the world is very polarized, it is about as polarized as it has ever been. The distribution of political leanings maps perfectly onto the normal distribution curve that is highest in the center and drops off on either side. Most people are moderates and are very tolerant of the other moderates. They just go about living their life and accept that other people will have views that are different from them. Those who do not agree are not wrong, they are just people who have a different perspective. If we assume that the middle is made-up of the one standard deviation above and below the mean, we need to accept that this will amount to 68 percent of the population. If we assume that it is made-up of two standard deviations above and below the mean, we need to accept that this will amount to 95 percent of the population. Either way you look at it, the middle is MASSIVE while the fringes are tiny.

However, our large population and the Internet has given us the ability to seek out, find, and connect with like-minded people about any subject, regardless of geographic location. The ability to broadcast anything in real time has given the small numbers of fringe members the ability to echo and amplify their message creating the illusion that there are more of them than there are. Compounding this illusion is the relative ease at which people can disregard information that does not support their point of view. There is an innate tendency for people to seek out information that validates their beliefs and to resist information that does not confirm what they believe to be true, and when given access to all of the information of the world via the Internet, there is no reason for someone who is motivated to believe something to ever to be exposed to anything that contradicts it.

The truth does not matter when it can be ignored.

This was not the case until very recently. When the population was low and the ability to find and connect with people who shared your particular perspective was severely limited, we had no choice but to listen and coexist with those who were near us in a geographical sense. Our views were balanced and tempered by the exposure to other people who held a slightly different perspective of the same subject. We needed to get along with them because they lived close to us, so we learned how to tolerate other points of view and likely learned things from the people who differed from us giving us a better understanding of facts, evidence, and the truth. Gaslighting was rare when we were exposed to a variety of people who had a diverse collection of perspectives.

Gaslighting has really taken off over the last 10 years because the ability to self-select the information we consume and the groups to which we identify as being a part of. And it is a real problem.

In fairness, I don’t really care what adults do so long as it doesn’t impact the freedom, safety, and liberty of other people. My view is that the human brain is an amazing thing that has a massive storage potential in terms of memory and it is innately coded to assimilate sensory information in a way that allows it to create mental processes to perform powerful and arbitrary tasks. The world would be a much better place to live if everyone used their brain to its potential by bringing in the most accurate information available and then allowing it to write the code to handle the process of living more effectively, but this isn’t what people are going to choose to do. If you’re over the age of 25, there is still hope for you because the brain maintains its powerful abilities for the duration of life, but you are your own problem now. You are an adult and you have every right to choose the life you are going to live.

It is a problem for the people who are not adults because they are in the process of learning how to be adults and they have always existed in the post truth world that favors virtual interactions with little social cost over the face to face interactions that reveal other human beings to be a slightly different version of the same thing they are.

Gaslighting in this context is much easier to accomplish and a lot more damaging in terms of long term consequences. Younger people do not have the life experience that contributes to knowing much about anything. Most of their time has been spent getting up to speed with the skills most of us take for granted – the 80% of the skills that all human beings have in common. Moving, talking, learning how to read language, learning how to interact with the physical objects in the world, etc. consume much of learning opportunities in the early parts of life. Young people are also much more open and just accept what they hear as being the truth because they don’t have a choice. Their lack experience with almost everything means that in order to learn anything they have to assume that what they experience is the truth and are at the mercy of the intention of the people they encounter.

In a way, this is worse than conscious gaslighting. With gaslighting the person knows the truth and is being manipulated into thinking that maybe their view of reality is suspect. It’s not a great situation because being taught to doubt your experiences of reality can create a habit or behavioral pattern of doubt. However, the cause of the problem is the misplaced trust in someone who is willing to weaponize this trust as a way to take something that they want. With young people, there may not be any knowledge or notion of the truth. Their first experience with the truth will be the implantation of a lie that serves only to manipulate them and to give-up whatever the liar wants from them.

Consider what gaining knowledge about a complex subject is like. Imagine the totality of what is known about something would fill-up a fifty page notebook – both sides, single spaced, in the times new roman font at a size of 11, with one inch margins top, bottom and sides. This is about 70000 words assuming 1400 words per page – 700 on the front and 700 on the back – and is a considerable amount of information and it will take a number of years to learn.

Now think about what happens to the person on their first day when they are exposed to the subject. There is a moment when they go from not having the notebook, meaning they do not know that there is a subject, to them getting the notebook. This moment is important because it serves as the introduction to both the fundamentals of the subject and the fact that the subject is a thing that can be known that they do not know much about. They are very vulnerable at this point because all they have is an almost completely blank notebook with very little typed-out. It might have a title and a few sentences, but most of it is empty and there are no page numbers. There is no way for them to know how long the book is because they know almost nothing about the subject other than the title. At this moment in time, and for a few pages at least, they have no choice but to type-out EVERYTHING they hear about the subject and commit it to memory because unless they start filling-up the note book, they are never going to know anything about it.

This empty notebook phenomenon isn’t isolated to young people, although it is much more prevalent with them. We can be exposed to a completely new subject at any time in our life and when it happens, we are just as vulnerable as the young person is to disinformation, lies, or biased / unbalanced information. There will be an almost complete transcription, word for word, of everything that is said for a few pages and this information will make-up the foundation of the persons understanding about the subject. Ideally, the authors of these foundational sentences will be honest brokers of the truth and will make it clear that what they are sharing is only a tiny portion of the totality of the subject. This was much more likely in the past, when the teacher was someone from the immediate community and the information was shared or taught via a face to face interaction. There was also a long term relationship or connection between the student and the teacher meaning that the teacher would likely play a long lasting role in the process of education about the subject and if so, they would be around to see the positive outcomes or the consequences of what they taught. When dealing with smaller social groups, there is a cost to lying or setting out to manipulate and that cost is paid by both parties creating a disincentive for the teacher to act selfishly.

We now live in a world that looks nothing like that. Balance doesn’t matter because of the size of the population. Interactions are transactional and manipulation frequently goes unnoticed and even when it is, it is very often unpunished. People can get away with saying whatever they like, with little disincentive for deviating away from the truth and the potential for big reward by presenting biased, incomplete, or wrong information as fact. The inevitable outcome to this is an abundance of people who have the first 20 pages of their notebooks filled with garbage, propaganda, or conditional facts, that serve only to benefit the person who exposed them to the stuff in the first place. This leads the owners of the books to be certain about things that are wrong, and to contribute to the potential gaslighting of the people who are close to them. This isn’t exactly their fault, they have never been exposed to both sides of the story and since they do not know enough about the subject to know how long the book is, they have no basis for believing that there is a lot of stuff that they don’t know and have yet to learn or that what they have been taught was bullshit and existed only to control them in some way.

It gets a couple of steps worse though. As much as I have contempt for people who manipulate others just so they can get what they want, I can at least understand their motives. It’s sneaky and awful, but their intentions leave clues and are very simple to figure-out once you start to consider the possibility that they are not acting selflessly. The moment you begin to follow the money or the payout, their reasons for doing what they do are obvious. These folks are bad, but they are predictably bad and bad in very specific ways. The people who cause me the most consternation are the ones who are gaslighting but for no reason obvious reason. These are the ones who could and should be acting differently but are just not taking the time to be careful or educated enough to actually be helpful to other people.

If it isn’t clear the type of person or things I am making reference to here, consider what gets posted to most twitter accounts that is of a derogatory nature. Almost everything that anyone does makes logical sense to them, although it may not be based on reality. If someone doesn’t have the right information, there’s a much better than random chance that they will get something wrong. But having the power to broadcast is much simpler than the world is, leading everyone to have an almost equal voice. Most of what people say is going to be wrong under certain contexts and anyone who understands the subject only under those contexts has the power to point out just how stupid the person is for making their statement. The truth is that both people are correct, except person A doesn’t have the same content in the first 10 pages of their notebook that person B has, and neither one knows how long their notebooks are. All they know is that what they know is all there is to know so anyone who disagrees with them is insane.

There is no possibility for balanced perspective or for learning. The only thing that comes of it is an argument or fight between two people who know only enough to be dangerously ignorant and absolutely certain that their point of view is infallible. The only thing that stops it from being gaslighting is the complete lack of respect or connection between the two people who are trying to convince the other that they are wrong.

The collateral damage is anyone who happens to respect and trust one of the participants who doesn’t share their point of view. These people end-up getting steered away from their perspective as they become convinced that it is incorrect REGARDLESS of how they came to hold the point of view. Without realizing that they are being impacted by someone who has very little understanding of the subject, they flip the switch on what they know is fact and turn it into fiction. They have learned a new piece of disinformation and the wedge of doubt has been hammered into their level of certainty that the person who taught them the thing in the first place was correct or that they should be trusted in the future. This has potential long term negative effects in that it can whittle down the number of people that the young person considers sources of truth.

Again, when this concerns adults, I don’t care all that much. Everything I am saying here is well documented and available to anyone who cares enough to seek it out. For adults in western society there is no longer such a thing as ignorance, there is only willful ignorance (a legal term) or ignorance through laziness (a narrative colloquialism). They have the opportunity to acquire whatever information they need to make an informed and well educated decision, so any failure to do so is purely the result of an unwillingness to put in the effort.

Willful ignorance in contemporary law, and its historical counterpart willful blindness, refer to the action of deliberately not learning the facts in an effort to avoid future accountability or prosecution. For example, someone agreeing to drive a car across the border only to claim that they didn’t know that there was contraband in the trunk. While it may very well be true that they didn’t know that there was anything illegal in there, they are still responsible for crossing the border with it because it is reasonable to expect that someone should know what is in the car they are driving OR that they should have been suspicious about the request. Willful ignorance is also one of the main reasons why there are so many signs at airports telling you to NOT check any luggage that you did not pack yourself.

Not knowing something, when you reasonably should have known or when you actively avoided finding out, opens you up to criminal prosecution. It is very serious and on the same level as having taken the actions with full knowledge – the willfully ignorant is as guilty as the person who planted the drugs, the main difference is that the person who planted the drugs isn’t sitting in the police station or border security holding cell. The only possible defense to willful ignorance is plausible deniability which holds that the person was far enough removed from the information that it is not reasonable to believe that they would have actively had to take steps to avoid knowing it. Consider a long haul truck driver who has picked-up a sealed load at a distribution center that turns out to have drugs hidden in the cases of coconut milk. It is not reasonable to expect them to check the entire load, particularly when it has been pre-cleared and has a customs seal.

This concerns gaslighting because gaslighting is intended to make the victim doubt the validity of what they know to be true or to doubt what they believe about reality. While lying will be a component to it in most cases, the perpetrator does not necessarily need to lie or to even know what the truth is. All that is required is the intention to cause doubt or psychological uncertainty and to take actions to create this outcome. This is important because honesty and truth telling are the antidote to gaslighting. The truth is the objective definition or description of reality, therefore anytime someone tells the truth, they are making factual claims about what is real. Someone who consistently tells the truth can be counted on when doing an ecology check to vet the quality and accuracy of another’s assumptions or claims. Truth teller will shamelessly state that they do not know when they do not know. In fact, their locus of control is completely internal meaning that they care a lot less about being believed than they do about telling the truth OR NEVER telling a lie.

This is the essence of my beef with the post truth era and with people in western society who say things that are not true. It isn’t that they are making their own lives more difficult, they are adults and are responsible for making their own decisions, and I don’t care all that much about their experience of life. It is that they are making other people’s lives more difficult. They are, by my thinking, willfully ignorant and therefore a step above complicit in allowing the truth to fall by the wayside; particularly given the ease at which the truth can be uncovered via the Internet.

This begs the question, are they gaslighting? Well, consider the fact that telling the truth is the antidote and the only way to immunize others from it, anyone who is lying might be gaslighting. It then comes down to their intention when they talk – are they saying what they are saying to cause the listener to doubt their view of reality? The answer here is less straight forward, but in a world were learning the truth is a matter of putting in a little bit of effort and were avoiding the telling of a lie is simply a matter of saying “I don’t know,” we’d be foolish to extend any charity towards someone who is willfully ignorant and vocal. They are choosing to lie when saying nothing, admitting that they do not know, or when finding out the correct answer are available options.

It comes down to why someone would do this, and this is why I consider it to be gaslighting. They want other people to believe that they know what they are talking about and that they know the truth. Neither of these things is true, therefore they are trying to convince the listener to believe that reality is different from how it actually is. When they could simply announce that they do not know or that they are putting forward a guess or an opinion, or when they could hold off on saying anything until they know the answer, they are making the decision to speak in an attempt to manipulate the person they are talking to.

It is dangerous because it might work. The listener may view them as an expert and a source of truth. They may start to disbelieve something that is true. They may even stop listening to someone who is an honest broker of the truth simply because the other person doesn’t soften any of their statements with words like “opinion” or “I think.” And any of these things make the future of the listener much more difficult because they have promoted a gaslighting liar into their circle of influence and demoted a mentor or truth teller out of this circle. The only possible outcome here is a degradation in the quality of their view of reality.

Again, NONE of this is necessary. All of the answers are available to anyone who is willing to put in the effort to find them. Yet it is happening more now than ever before which is making a lot of things worse for young people and the adults who are afflicted with this pathological and chronic willful ignorance.

The Internet is both the cause of and the solution to the pandemic of gaslighting. The truth is out there, readily available to anyone who is willing to take the time to find it. But there is less of an incentive to put in the work to learn how to get along with people we do not agree with, now that we can self-select our social groups and the information that we consume. We are beginning to see the negative outcome of this now that people who are less tolerant to having their ideas challenged and are less willing to value different opinions have a platform for vocalizing their disdain and irrational phobia of the people who hold incompatible perspectives.

My view is that gaslighting is an indication of a lack of self-respect and it amounts to vice-signalling. Laziness is a vice, so anyone who is willing to avoid putting in the effort that is required to find answers in favor of saying whatever they feel like is making a strong clear statement about how much they value their brain and their wisdom – not enough to do an Internet search and manage their way through whatever discomfort new information triggers inside of them.

Fifty Years Ago – Excitement, Fear, Bravery And The Moon Shot

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On July 21, 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buz Aldrin walked on the moon. Neil took the first step at 02:56:15 UTC meaning the date was July 20th in North America, it was a little before 11 PM EST. This marked the actualization of a goal publicly stated by JFK on September 12, 1962 during a speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas. The length of time between that speech and the first manned moon landing was 2503 day or 6 years, 10 months and 8 days.

That September day in 1962 was not the first time that President Kennedy had talked about sending a man to the moon. He had made a similar proclamation to Congress on May 25, 1961, which was less well received. At the time, a small majority of Americans were not in favor of the mission. It was an ostentatious goal that was guaranteed to be very expensive. The view was that the money would be better spend on addressing domestic issues. In the strange way that history seems to frame things, everyone was correct and wrong at the same time.

It was very expensive, and it turned out to be much more expensive than the initial estimates. A case can be made that it would have been better to spend the money on fixing domestic issues, at least in the short term, but the long term domestic benefits of the program far out wayed any short term cost. The money was spent throughout the country and the Apollo Program had at one point 400000 Americans working towards its completion.

In the 2500 days between the Rice Stadium speech and the launch of Apollo 11 the impossible was done over and over again and the world would never be the same. The fields of computer science, chemistry, engineering, manufacturing, behavioral sciences, and organizational behavior were either invented or advanced in the course of the endeavor. These discoveries were shared with humanity once the goal was achieved and the strategic importance of keeping them secret was gone. This changed EVERYTHING.

2500 days seems like a big number until you realize that the difference between life in 1962 and 1969. At the time Kennedy made the speech, the US had launched 4 manned missions, two of which were orbital and accounted for 6 laps around the earth, 3 each with Mercury Atlas 6 and Mercury Atlas 7. The other two were suborbital flights and were basically ballistic launches. So much work needed to be done, so much science needed to be discovered or invented, and there really wasn’t any reason to believe that what he was putting forward as a unifying goal was even possible. More science needed to be done and more technological advancement needed to be achieved in the next 2500 days than had been done or achieved in maybe all of the days before that moment. Nothing like a stretch goal and a strong national desire to beat the Russians to make the impossible possible!

I used to talk to my father a lot about the space race of the 1960s. He would speak about the level of optimism about what was possible and a collective awe every couple of months when a new space mission would demonstrate that another impossible problem had been solved. There was amazement with Mercury when the US was taking the first steps, a growing confidence with Gemini when the US was working out the kinks, and an absolute certainty that the future was going to be amazing, and completely different from the past, once the US got through the set-back of Apollo 1 and the deaths of Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee, and Apollo 8 orbited the moon in December 1968.

These conversations were always exciting for me because I wasn’t alive when it was all going down and my dads enthusiasm when talking about what it was like during that time made his stories very easy to listen to and hear. He had a good memory for the details and had been powerfully impacted by the events that seemed to change the world every few months. It was clear to him that the space race was going to have a big impact on every other area of life and he was curious enough to try and figure it all out before it became obvious to everyone else.

More than almost any other event or series of events, I would credit the moon shot and the impact it had on my father for how he decided to raise his children. He was amazed and he normalized amazement to us. The source of the amazement was modeled to be the achieving of the impossible through effort, collaboration, trial and error, learning and the application of the lessons. A process repeated over and over again until the imagined idea becomes a lived experience by a human being. Problems had a solution and if enough people worked at it, sharing their discoveries and adapting their approaches base on the new information, an answer would be found.

He was always keen to use the word “we” when it came to problem solving and making life better. When I was very young I took it to mean myself, my brother, my dad, my mom, and a few people who were close to us, but there was a moment when he expanded my understanding of the word to mean “all of humanity.” While the Russians had not yet landed anyone of the moon, they had contributed considerably to the space race and without these contributions the entire thing might not have happened when it did. He was careful to re-frame our thinking away from the Russians being the losers of the moon race and on humanity being the beneficiaries of the successes of the Americans.

JFK cited the difficulty of the goal as being the thing that would move the American people to work together in a collective effort to make it a reality. Maybe it was his experiences in WW2, maybe it was the collaborative efforts of being 1 of nine children, maybe it was the result of his time at university, maybe it was just the way his brain worked, but he was absolutely correct. The space race and the moon shot he announced in 1962 did serve to unite the American people generally and the work force specifically to do things that had never been done before and have not been repeated in the 50 years since. There is no ignoring the progress that was made in the 2500 days before he spoke at Rice Stadium, but his speech served to punch this progress into a gear so high and for a sustained period of time that our species hasn’t been able to match again.

I still believe that my dad was right to teach my brother and me that “we” could do the impossible so long as the individual people were willing to do their part, learn from their and other peoples mistakes, and adapt to the lessons. It was done once and there is no reason to believe that this potential has evolved out of us. But I’m less certain that it WILL ever happen again. We are the same but different from the post WW2 people. Genetically we’re the same, but operationally we are very different.

We are as afraid as they were, but we do not have a common enemy to unify against or a shared view of evil to work hard to prevent from being a thing again. We are afraid of ideas and feelings now, and not necessarily bad ideas or feelings. Life has become so easy that it is as though we have run out of things to fix and have instead broken off into factions and made the decision to view the other factions as the problems that needs to be solved.

Kennedy didn’t make the Russians bad, evil or wrong. He didn’t spend much time talking about them in terms of the space race other than to say that they would continue to do what they were doing and that meant that the US had to do the same. He was able to get the public to accept that the Russians were there and would always be. And in doing so he was able to free-up the minds of the public to do what they needed to do.

This might be the greatest lesson from the entire thing. We only have a finite amount of resources so we need to be strategic with how we invest them. Cultivating and maintaining a sense of fear about something that isn’t going away is one way to use them, but it doesn’t allow anyone to make the most of what they have. When he set the goal of going to the moon and effectively told the country that the Russians were going to try to do the same thing, he basically said “be scared, and do it anyway.” It was a request to be brave and to work hard, and the message landed perfectly. 2503 days later two men walked on the moon. Whatever threat the Russians had been had not altered the course that Kennedy had plotted, it had not stopped the Americans from doing the impossible, and it had not materialized triggering a global catastrophe.

The text of this speech appears below:

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon…We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.

John F. Kennedy, 1962
Audio File of this portion of the Rice University speech by JFK 1962