Optimism is a skill

The missed irony is that it is only because of the things offered to us by of modern life that we have the luxuries of safety and time to find fault in everything. Becoming optimistic about the things we have learned to take for granted or even rail against is both possible and simple. We need to take the action of being optimistic and repeat it over and over again until we get so good at it that we no long need to will it to happen. It’s a skill after all…

I have been called cynical and I can accept that. I consider myself to be skeptical given that I believe most people have the ability to do things and just choose not to. Cynicism is a little dark in that the world and everything in it is going to crap, which is not the view that I hold. Mine is closer to knowing that things could be better if people choose to make them better. As a collective, I don’t really believe in people. When talking about individuals though, I believe in them.

That seems like a violation of statistics given that the median or mean usually make the best guess when it comes to the predicting the performance of an individual in a specific group. Some people will be better, some people will be worse and some will fall right in the middle. There is no reason for me to believe that an individual person can when, within the group, the average person doesn’t. I think that reflects two interesting things about by experience of reality.

The first is about the direction I look and the second is about the impact personal choice has on reality. Stats are all about the what happened before. When making a prediction about the future based on stats, you are actually looking backwards in time to predict the future. This is great for generating a list of probabilities, which is valuable information, but it is always looking back since it is based on things that have actually happened. We can look forward as well, to consider things that have not yet happened. This is turning away from statistics towards the realm of imagination. We have agency and when we use it to choose what we pay attention to and what actions we take, we dramatically influence how reality unfolds.

The point here is that the future has not yet happened, so we can choose to do the things that will influence the outcome. Just because we have become very efficient at causing our life to be how it has up until now doesn’t mean that it MUST happen that way. But, all things being equal, it will probably be the same as before, more or less average with a slight improvement over time.

My belief that an individual can do better is a forward looking view. It basically says that things can be different and that everyone has the potential to make them different. We are powerless to change the past, the future can be anything. All that is needed is for us to choose to do the things that will contribute to a brand new future and to then put in the extra effort to make them happen. While statistically this isn’t something that the average person will do, anecdotally, people can and will choose to do the impossible from time to time.

So a future that is different from the past is possible, but unlikely.

The cynical label does not surprise me given where it comes from. People who do not know me have not yet experienced the optimism I am capable of. They hear my thoughts about the group and assume all they need to about me. People who know me well have identified that I am more than willing to be optimistic in the face of another challenge that was just like that last one. Those who did not rise to the opportunity and for which the optimism was misplaced cannot call me cynical or won’t call me skeptical. They know I’m a realist for being skeptical of their potential actions given their previous performance.

Optimism is a skill. People learn to be optimistic or pessimistic and the lessons are lifted from their experiences. Importantly, these experiences do not need to have ever happened. A pessimistic person can have a negative thought about something that has not and may not happen and this can reinforce their world view. This is no different from other things, thoughts carry almost the same weight as real life experiences and are subjected to the same cognitive biases, just in the opposite direction. For example, when someone experiences something that goes against their world view, they will tend to dismiss it by coming up with reasons why the experience does not represent reality. When this same person has a thought, it will be coming from their brain and is subject to all of their values and beliefs. It will be filtered and will usually reflect their understanding of the world meaning that a pessimistic person will have pessimistic thoughts – about their actual lived experience AND about things that have not yet happened – which further contribute to their pessimistic world view.

Cultivating optimism is fairly straight forward and you grow it in same way your create more of anything, focused attention and repeated practice over time. It has the unique property of being on one side of a continuum, which makes different from learning how to play guitar. Most skills are binary and independent meaning they do not really have an opposite, you either have skill or you don’t – the opposite of being able to play guitar is not being able to play a guitar, so you either either play it or not (or play with a level of prophecy or not play with that level). The opposite of playing guitar is NOT playing drums. This is an important distinction because acquiring a skill that is binary is not a zero sum endeavour. Learning how to drum does not eliminate your ability to play guitar so after you learn something about drumming, whatever guitar skill you have will remain more or less intact.

Coexistent / dependent skills that exist on a scale or continuum do not have this property. They are non-binary, and they exist on different type of scale that has absolute skill on both ends and no skill in the middle. But at either end are the skill and its opposite or its counter skill.

Optimism coexists on a scale with pessimism on the other end. In the middle is no skill and this is where everyone starts off. To learn how to be optimistic or pessimistic one approaches it the same way they would anything, they pay deep attention when trying to be optimistic or pessimistic and they practice frequently and consistently, overtime. So far this is exactly the same. The divergence occurs when one engages in the opposite behaviour – the optimist acts pessimistically or the pessimist acts optimistically. These are opposite behaviours and the practice of one impedes the formation of the other. The more one practices, the worse they get at the opposite. When compared to binary skills were skills decay is the result of not practising, coexistent / dependent scaled skills decay when not practised and when its opposite skill IS practised.

This is the big challenge that is presented to people who wish to become more positive. Let’s assume that they want to become more positive because they have noticed that there is a cost associated with their level of negativity. This is an easy assumption given that there IS a cost to being negative, one that isn’t paid by neutral people. Since they are negative, they have obviously spent a lot of time practising this negativity. They are highly skilled in finding and pointing out what is wrong with any given situation. Most likely they have automated this process so that what immediately comes to mind when anything happens is the worst possible interpretation or prediction. This changes their psychological state which creates an internal physiological state that is unhappy and stressful. These further impact the mental state and the thoughts that arise and even the parts of the brain that are functioning or active, causing the negativity to re-up, increase or cycle. It’s a toxic mental disaster and tough to break free from.

For the sake of illustration, lets say that on the Negativity – Positivity scale, that runs from -10 to + 10 they are a -8. That’s a very dark place to be and this value reflects a skill level that is remarkable. A lot of work has gone into becoming this proficient at being negative. The up side is that they do have the capability to take action and to work hard at cultivating a skill, the down side is that this is evidenced by the existence of a skill at a level that does not lend itself to improving anything. Regardless, if we want to move a -8 to a -6 we need to add 2 to it or we need to let 2 negativity skill units decay. In this case, if a -8 negativity person want to become a neutral or a positive person they have these two options.

What does this look like from a practical point of view? Well, to an outsider the immediate elimination of toxic negativity as the vocalized negative thoughts will land as a shift towards neutral. But this does not necessarily indicate a shift away from internal negativity and the person may still be automatically uncovering and giving internal voice to negative thoughts. They probably are doing this because they are very good at it, when they do it they are maintaining their skill level. Eliminate the toxic component will improve their life but it will do nothing to move them towards neutrality.

What matters here is the internal voice or thoughts. negative thoughts create negative emotions that lead to negative actions. The opposite is equally true, positive thoughts create positive emotions which lead to positive actions. To shift someone from a -8 to 0 the negative thoughts need to be eliminated to allow for the skill to decay thought lack of practice or positive thoughts need to occur to add skill units to the opposite skill (a process more akin to mathematical averaging). This is much faster given that skill decay is actually organic decay or cell death that prunes back unused connections during cell turn over. This takes a while and given that it is a passive process, things can occur that prevent it from happening – it’s easy to imagine a negative spontaneous reaction to something that serves as sufficient stimulation to justify the maintenance of a neural network.

Clearly then, if you want to gain control over the movement towards a neutral level of negativity you need to take action and create positive thoughts and when when negative thoughts show-up transform them into positive thoughts. This is very simple to do and while it may seem fake or corny to a negative person, it is neither of these things.

Creating positive thoughts is just a matter of taking time to look around and identify the good things that you see. Gratitude journals accomplish this task for all who take the time to complete them. The key element is to cultivate a genuine sense or feeling of gratitude about the things you are grateful for and to sit with this feeling for a period of time. You need to trigger the emotions that are associated with gratitude and allow their associated chemicals and neurotransmitters to flow throughout your body.

Some personal examples here might be helpful. Being grateful for family, friends and other loved ones, for health, for your home, your job, your possessions, your capabilities, values and beliefs, you can be grateful for modern healthcare, the Internet, technology, science, math, the education system, your ability to read, to think, to rationalize, that you are alive, for your ancestors, for the planet, for the seasons, of the fact that all the bad stuff will eventually fade away, for clothing, for the invention of air conditioning, central heating, the discovery of electricity, for the space program, for gravity, the wind, etc…. There is no limit and there are many things to be grateful for.

Initially it might take a while to trigger the emotion and to then to sit with it but with practice firing the emotion will get easier and you will get to linger in it for as long as you want; you’ll choose to stay with it because gratitude feels good. In the early days of practising gratitude you will need to sit in the emotion for 30 to 60 seconds and you will pick 2 or 3 things day to be grateful for. It is a five minute exercise at most that is done everyday. Within a day it will begin to shift your negativity level.

Given that we are working on creating a skill, the relationship between practice and fluency can be used to our advantage. It makes sense to practice being grateful, being positive, and seeing the up-side to daily occurrences. Throughout the day, take a few moments to think about something you are grateful for and to really bath in the emotions these thoughts trigger. When something good happens, think about it, trigger the positive emotional response and soak in these good feelings. Take a few moments during the day when you are feeling absolutely nothing at all to try and see the positive aspects of the things that have happened. Here we are dealing with the things that didn’t trigger a negative thought and that you lived through without paying any attention to.

Changing negative thoughts in to positive thoughts is a two step process. The first step is identifying when a negative thought arise. The second step is changing it into a positive thought. For best results, each one needs to be identified and transformed. For a very negative person, this can be time consuming and mentally draining. Do this keeping three things in mind. The first is that it gets a lot easier with practice. You are in essence creating a new process and skill of mindfulness which takes time and practice but is well within everyone’s capabilities. The second thing is that this gets a lot easier when you done in conjunction with the gratitude journaling because the journaling practice shifts thoughts towards the positive size of the scale. The third thing to keep in mind is that you are remarkably negative. This can be a little overwhelming when you begin to pay attention to your thoughts and notice the sheer number of negative ones. The number doesn’t matter, negativity is a skill and a habit it isn’t who you are. You’ve made the decision to be a positive person so the transformation has already begun. Missing some isn’t a big deal simply do your best to identify and convert as many as you can.

What do you change these negative thoughts into? That is up to you. When someone at work does something that demonstrates their incompetence, be grateful that you have the abilities. When their error increases your work volume, be grateful that you have a job. When you have to clean-up after someone else, be happy that you can and that you don’t leave a mess for other to deal with. When someone cuts you off in traffic be grateful you are not in the same hurry they are or that you don’t have spend any of your life with them. You have creative licence here to change the negative thought into whatever you like. There are no rights or wrongs, you are basically trying to interrupt the conditioned pattern of negative thought, negative feeling, negative action. Over time identifying that a negative thought has popped up will be enough to shut it down but until then every one that you notice pop up gets converted into something positive.

Final thoughts:

I am grateful for the abundance of low cost high quality food. While I don’t eat most of it the fact that it is there makes me feel good, but only when I think about it. I’ve normalized this part of life and don’t as a general rule think about it unless I put deliberately effort into doing so. Most of the good things in life are like this; we are so accustomed to them being there that we just filter them out and ignore them. This is even more true for a person who is on the negative side of the scale, they have definitely habituated everything to the point of eradicating the potential positive feelings associated with modern life. The missed irony is that it is only because of the things offered to us by of modern life that we have the luxuries of safety and time to find fault in everything. Becoming optimistic about the things we have learned to take for granted or even rail against is both possible and simple. We need to take the action of being optimistic and repeat it over and over again until we get so good at it that we no long need to will it to happen. It’s a skill after all and we know how to develop those.

No Evolutionary Reason To Become Healthy – Particularly As We Get Older

Because of our genetic code, any one who wishes to improve their health as they get older will need to spend a lot of time doing things that run against that programming. This is not an easy task because the behaviours that are required to cause this change have little or no history in our ancestral past. This is not impossible and is in fact rather simple – although it is very hard – consistent attention, practice, and recovery over time.

As a personal trainer I found that there were two groups of people who were extremely easy to train and who were almost certain to get good results. The first group was competitive athletes. These individuals were unstoppable, self-motivated and relentless. They did what they were asked to do, as hard as they could, and paid very close attention to their actions. They ALWAYS improved and most of them probably achieved their physical potential in terms of movement proficiency, explosive speed and strength. If you want to feel capable, train these people. They will improve and you will feel like you can do no wrong.

The next group of people who were great to train were women, usually parents of 2 or more children. These individuals acted like athletes – the followed instructions perfectly, paid attention when they worked, and were highly motivated to get the best possible results out of the limited time they had to spend training. They also improved, although not necessarily as quickly as their potential would allow because balancing being a mother with training is tough and their workouts were always going to be secondary to their family responsibilities.

Everyone else was a crap shoot. As a general rule, younger people do better than older people. Single men up until age 40 do better than their their female cohorts. Single women who do not like working out, married men in general, and older people all fair equally poorly.

I’m not certain why this is, but I have a few guesses. First off, working out to improve any goal is tough. If someone likes working out, they’ll deal with this toughness and do what is asked of them. But learning how to like working out is a skill that must be learned and mastered through practice. If that practice hasn’t been put in when the person is younger, it may already be too late as the toughness can simply be too much to overcome. They may go to the gym or work out, but they don’t do everything they need to make gains – they don’t work hard enough, they don’t eat appropriate amounts of food, and they don’t replace bad habits with good ones.

Next, there is a lot biological programming that is geared towards keeping things as they are. Body fat is store energy, traditionally used during a famine. This is an evolutionary proven method formed during a time when food scarcity was a reality that it isn’t today. Becoming lean makes no survival sense according to our genetic code; fine so long as there is a constant and stable supply of food and when it is interrupted, a life threatening problem. Eating high calorie foods is also intrinsically rewarding. Most human being release dopamine in response to fat and sugar combinations specifically and fat or sugar in general, so we are motivated to seek out and consume foods containing these macro-nutrients. Green leafy vegetables offer very little in terms of intrinsic reward. While it is true that we can teach ourselves to find these food rewarding, that is a skill and must be practice in order to cultivate it. Generally speaking this won’t happen, and if it does, it is more likely to occur in the younger population.

The final reason why I would say it’s very tough for people who are older than 30-35 years of age to get into better shape is that there is no evolutionary reason to do it. Becoming a parent gets tougher as we age and while those who are older may be in a better financial position to be raise children and have a better temperament as parents, the statistics on positive reproductive outcomes reduce as both sexes age. These negative outcomes may actually provide a disincentive in terms of improving body composition.

Consider the fact that, generally speaking, women allow men to determine who the best mates are – given that men work it out themselves who is at the top of any dominance hierarchy, the best potential mates for women have in actuality been select by other men. At the top of these dominance hierarchies tend to be strong men with good posture, two characteristics that are linked to higher levels of testosterone and growth hormone. Without an exogenous supply of these hormones, men who are in the late teens to late 20s will have the highest levels. The statistics reveal that reproductive success and outcome is greatest for men in this age range.

Men select reproductive partners because of factors embodied by the women themselves. These tend to be waist to hip ratios, body fat levels and posture. Social norms not withstanding, this excludes younger women, and women over the age of 30. An examination of the hormonal averages for women indicate a bell curve distribution with a peak for women in their early 20. Reproductive success and outcomes are also bell curve shaped and map almost identically onto the hormonal averages.

For women and men, the story is the same. When the hormone levels are lowest, reproductive success is lowest. When hormonal levels are highest, reproductive success levels are highest. When hormonal levels are highest, desirability to the opposite sex is also highest. Women and men tend to desire reproductive partners who represent the greatest likelihood of reproductive success. This means high testosterone and GH for men, and higher estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and GH for women. It is not surprising that when people who belong within these groups workout, they change body composition very quickly. The opposite fact is also not surprising, when those who fall outside of these groups workout, the changes in body composition take a lot longer, and may not happen at all in-spite of the fact that fitness levels improve as do a number of other health markers.

There is no evolutionary reason for people to get into better shape, particularly when they have moved past the peak of their hormonal profile. Reproductive outcomes are worse – pregnancy success rates are lower, birth defects and developmental challenges are higher. Given these facts, a narrative justification can be given to the difficulties in changing body composition as people age – for the betterment / fitness of the species, the things that make an individual attractive to the opposite sex evaporate and are harder to achieve when the risks of pregnancy begin to increase.

So what?

Learning how to like working out is a skill that must be learned and mastered through practice. While some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to find it more pleasurable or easier to like than the bulk of the population, activity is still required to trigger the expression of this increased potential.

It is easier for younger people to teach themselves to enjoy exercise than it is for other people for a few critical reasons. First off, they haven’t spent nearly as long learning what other non-movement activities can be rewarding therefore they are more inclined to put the time and effort into lifting something heavy in an earnest attempt to trigger a dopamine release. Second, they have a more favourable hormone profile that improves the rate of result acquisition; this reinforces the actions they are taking and, while “liking” exercise is not the same thing as being rewarded, it’s a distinction without much of a practical difference. Finally, younger people usually have way more opportunity to exercises, which will make them better at it. Proficiency, particularly when compared to others, does tend to result in a greater sense of satisfaction.

Gene expression and any learning will have much larger impact the earlier in life they occur. A child who learns to associated movement with the sensation of feeling good or who conditions their brain to release reward chemicals in response to movement will, on average, be more active throughout the entirety of their life and will enjoy the benefits associated with an active lifestyle. Similarly, a child who takes advantage of the time and the opportunity to discover many of the different foods that trigger the release of reward chemicals will, on average, consume more of these specific foods over the course of their life. They will, as a consequence, experience sub optimal health outcomes and may increase their risk of disease when compared to those who do not eat a lot of these foods or those who consume them in moderation while engaging in a more active lifestyle. We can therefore conclude that gene expression and learning have compounding effects over time, good or bad.

Unless you like working out because you are genetically predisposed to or you find it to be rewarding because you put the effort into teaching your brain to release reward chemicals when you do, you are NEVER going to feel like getting into great shape, and even less so as you get older. Our genes exist as they do because they gave our ancestors a survival and reproductive advantage. They were shaped by mutations and in response to the various environments over millions of years, but at no point during this time was there ever a long lasting abundance of food. Those species that survived were able to handle intermittent periods of food scarcity because they would over eat when they could in order to store energy as body fat, move as little as necessary, and down regulate their metabolic rate when calorie consumption would drop. Genetically speaking then, we are programmed to be fat, lazy, and to seek out and gorge on high calorie low nutrient foods. These three tendencies are never a part of any weight loss, health or body composition improvement plan.

Because of our genetic code, any one who wishes to improve their health as they get older will need to spend a lot of time doing things that run against that programming. This is not an easy task because the behaviours that are required to cause this change have little or no history in our ancestral past. This is not impossible and is in fact rather simple – although it is very hard – consistent attention, practice, and recovery over time.

Complaining Is Not Helpful – It Makes Everyone Who Hears It Unhappy And Motivates Them To Withdraw

When someone has developed a habit of complaining, we can be sure of at least one thing: they are repeating a successful behaviour – doing something that worked before – and are seeking the same outcome. Their decision making matrix MAY be populated with an inaccurate piece of information, but we KNOW with certainty that their actions are goal directed and, if nothing else, historically effective at leading them to that goal.

My name is Patrick and I am a complainer.

There, I said it. While I am certain that complaining is not a disease, it does lead to some very poor outcomes. The main one is that it doesn’t do anything positive. In fact, it nearly always makes a person feel worse. If talking about everything that is wrong with your life moves you to do something about it then it may be worth doing, otherwise it only serves to make you feel bad and to reinforce any views you held that triggered the negative thoughts in the first place.

Complaining is toxic. It creates negative emotion in everyone who is exposed to it. Even those people who agree that what you are saying is factually true become infected with the poison of dark emotion. When they listen to you complain, you begin to make them feel bad. They won’t want to be near you and they won’t have any desire to listen to you. No one likes toxic people so complaints for their own sake are incredibly alienating.

Consider what complaining without taking further action might reveal about you to other people – you are stupid, lazy, or have a very low opinion of yourself.

Stupid because you stopped thinking as soon as you saw what was wrong and decided to bitch about it; the complaint is not necessarily the indicator of stupidity, that is revealed when you didn’t do anything to change the situation when you noticed what was occurring because you are not smart enough to think up a solution to make things better.

If you are not stupid, you are probably lazy because you know what to do to fix the situation and just can’t be bothered to do it. A small action to improve your situation would require about as much energy and probably less time than what is being consumed by complaining about it.

Okay, so you are not lazy or stupid, and continue to complain. Assuming you know how to fix the situation and have the energy to do that, maybe you believe you are a piece of crap who deserves only to exist in the situation that you find yourself in. Maybe, if you were a better person, a person of some worth or value, you’d take enough pride in your life and do the things that are needed in order to make it better.

This final one may be a little tougher to wrap your head around, but the rationale I am using goes something like: every day we take thousands of actions, most of which are aimed at addressing wants, while the remainder are aimed at addressing our needs. When resources are low we shift focus, slightly redirecting an increased portion of our effort towards addressing needs. Therefore, when we do not take a specific action that we have awareness of and the ability to take, that lack of action is actually the taking of an action aimed at addressing a specific need. In this instance, that need is to provide or generate evidence that we do not deserve for that thing to occur. Sure this is a version of a counterfactual argument, and this makes no material difference when you track in and exhaust all of the other possibilities. We take care of our needs and when we do not take a known action, we have TAKEN care of a need.

Regardless of which of these three is true, the people around you will make the proper decision and move the hell away, and can you really blame them? You are stupid, lazy or have no self respect, this is the trifecta of contagious uselessness and it is a fact that anyone who is repeatedly exposed to these qualities will begin to manifest and display them. People can’t wait to get away from you because being around you makes them feel bad and will, over time, turn them into the same thing. You ending up friendless is an act of self preservation or self compassion by the people you once called friends.

This is why I say I am a complainer, not because I complain but because I used to complain. All that really means is that I am just not complaining right now. The ability is strong within me and it can come out with very little provocation and during moments of inattention.

As such, it is best that I treat it like a disease because left unchecked, it will ruin my life. It will repel everyone and everything that I love and I will see removed from my life will be all of the things that make it worth living. It will tear me down revealing a shell of what I could have been had I just fixed the problem as soon as it was identified.

So what?

Human beings are exceptionally pragmatic and logical operators that take actions to achieve a specific outcome. This will occur even if they have no conscious awareness of what they are seeking or what action they are about to take. Knowing this allows us to work backwards from an outcome or action and surface the intention and a persons underlying values, beliefs, and personal identity.

HOWEVER, the world is very complicated and affords us ample opportunity to get things wrong. But the feeling of being wrong and being right is the same; being wrong only feels different when we REALIZE that we are or were wrong. The consequence to this is that people end up acting pragmatically and logically with incorrect information.

Human beings are practically identical to each other and the differences between us are the result of a variation in very small number of genes. This means that all human beings have the same needs and mostly the same wants (this is the area in which there will be some variability).

Out of the near infinite number of possible actions that a person can take at any moment in time, human behaviour is actually limited to a very low number of them. Very few of our actions are new, and most of these new actions will never be repeated because they will not yield the result we are seeking. Those that do lead to a desired outcome will be repeated over and over again.

When someone has developed a habit of complaining, we can be sure of at least one thing: they are repeating a successful behaviour – doing something that worked before – and are seeking the same outcome. Their decision making matrix MAY be corrupted with inaccurate information, but we KNOW with certainty that their actions are goal directed and, if nothing else, have been historically effective at leading them to a goal.

A Few Questions Worth Knowing The Answer To – Post Revisited

… objective reality and the truth do not matter to the brain and do not need to be factored into the simulation that is running. If knowing and keeping them in mind will improve evolutionary fitness they will be, but if they do not contribute to this, and they do not, it is actually better that they are never known or, if they are uncovered, ignored.

The human brain is able to and will automatically begin to run different experiences on the simulation in an effort to figure out what is going on or what WOULD need to be true in order for a possible outcome to be achieved.

A number of years ago I was talking to a friend who had gone to speak to a therapist. Their reason for going was mostly just curiosity, but they were also motivated to some degree by the unused portion of their company group benefits.

I wrote about this in the December 2012 post titled A Few Questions Worth Knowing The Answer To and focused specifically on two of the questions that my friend had found compelling enough to remember. These questions were:

  • What did you go without because there was no suffering in an experience?
  • What was it like to have things go bad around you without warning?

At the time my thoughts about the questions were that they were reflective and introspective. Anyone who was willing to take the time and put in the effort to answer them would stand to learn a great deal about themselves. I have not moved off of this view in the years since, but this view has expanded dramatically and I have a much better appreciation of what the therapist was trying to cause to happen by inviting my friend to consider these questions.

The brain is a very remarkable and slightly funny thing. Remarkable in just how well it creates the experience of being alive and in how it goes about doing it. The brain is an organic computer that is running chemical and cellular software that makes EVERYTHING possible. The software is a bunch of processes, which take input and generate output. One of the processes is consciousness. It receives input from a variety of sources – everything we experience, know, think, believe, feel, and understand – and the lived experience of consciousness is the output of this process. It is slightly funny because most people never notice that it is happening.

Which is a shame because when you actually notice what is happening as it is happening, it feels really good. And the more often you notice it, the greater the influence you can exert upon it.

Instead, we spend nearly all of our time on one of three different things: narcissistically obsessing about the world in terms of us being the absolute center of it, seeking out reward in terms of triggering dopamine releases in the reward centers of the brain, or spending time in a state of mild discontentment – bad enough to prevent feeling content / still / peaceful and yet not bad enough to actually do something about.

These three states, or the taking of the actions that are required to create them, are completely understandable. We ARE the center of the universe. The brain, the software it contains, the information that our senses provide, and the content of our memories combine to create a simulation of the world that is completely focused on us. I’m not sure that anyone could come-up with a better approach if tasked with finding a solution to the problem of staying alive, reaching a point of being able to reproduce, and then keeping our offspring alive long enough to become self-reliant and independent all while trying to manage the thousands of things that are simultaneously occurring and battling for scarce resources.

No matter what else life might be about, the undeniable fact, and one that is shared among all living beings, is that every single individual MUST be motivated to maintain life and to reproduce. If either one of these is missing, the individual will either die or will not pass along their genes to the next generation. The outcome is the same regardless, their genes cease to exist and the diversity of the species gene pool will be reduced.

Digging in deeper here, it becomes clear that believing that we are the center of the universe is a very effective way of ensuring that we will try to continue to live and will take the physical actions that historically lead to reproduction. The fact that we are one of 7.75 billion people alive on the planet at this moment in time, that every individual gene we have is also located in the genetic code of other human beings, or that the universe is so big that it has the effect of rendering every location in space statistically empty – three things that can also be known as fundamental and objective truths about the world – need not ever be considered. In fact, objective reality and the truth do not matter to the brain and do not need to be factored into the simulation that is running. If knowing and keeping them in mind will improve evolutionary fitness they will be, but if they do not contribute to this, and they do not, it is actually better that they are never known or, if they are uncovered, that they be ignored.

By believing that we are the center of everything, we increase the changes that we will act in a way that ensures that our genes continue to exist.

The second activity, that of seeking out the experiences that trigger the release of dopamine in our brains reward centers, is much easier to understand, at least early on in our life. Somewhere along the way, a mutation occurred in the genetic code of our ancestors that had their primitive brain release dopamine in response to the things that promote survival. Our operating system still contains the code that has us seek this out because activation of this part of the brain is associated with improved survival. Sex, eating (particularly fat and sugar), solving a problem, pattern matching of sensory information to something in long term memory, learning, and social connection are things that will trigger the release of this neurotransmitter in the reward centers of the brain in all people. These things are innately rewarding and it is easy to see how each one of them is linked to improved survival outcomes and generational gene transmission.

The reward system is an innate system and it is precoded by the time of our birth to become activated in response to certain physical interactions with the external world. However, it can be programmed to release reward chemicals to practically anything. For example, while going hungry has historically been something that will reduce the chances of surviving and is therefore not one of the innate stimulations that will cause the activation of our reward centers, we can train the brain to release dopamine in response to the sensation of being hungry IF we manufacture a meaning that we perceive as being worthy of reward. The discipline high is an example of this novel pairing.

Always keep in mind that the innate purpose or function of the reward centers is to serve as a reinforcement mechanism which will increase the reoccurrence of the activity that caused the release. Sugar and fat are high in energy and since life requires a lot of energy, it behooves us to seek out and consume as much high energy food as we can. There is a direct relationship between sugar and fat molecules and the release of dopamine making these substances at least potentially addictive. This does not mean that we are powerless to NOT eat them, just that when they enter the body, the brain will react by releasing dopamine. However, there are other innate activities that trigger the release of reward chemicals, so we can train the brain to release them in response to anything, so long as we trigger the release in close temporal proximity to the thing we want to find rewarding. This is why people can find the most banal and meaningless things rewarding. While I am not a fan of musical theatre, some people love it simply because they have trained their brain to release dopamine when they watch them.

The final thing that human beings tend to do, spending time in a state of discontentment that isn’t just enough to get them to do anything about it but is sufficient to prevent them from feeling content / still / peaceful, is more of the same. Ensuing survival is about taking specific actions quickly whenever those actions are required. Feeling fantastic or the reasonable possibility that we well feel this way – which is effectively the way we feel when whenever our reward centers become active – serves as the motivation / incentive to take action. The opposite feeling, that of physical or psychological pain, serves as the disincentive for NOT taking an action; in the case of pain, the individual is motivated to STOP any action that the brain believes is causing the pain. From a fitness perspective, the objective is the same, to trigger action that will increase the likelihood of survival. Reward is approach, expansive, and repeat while pain is retreat, constrict, and avoid.

While it is true that there can be degrees of reward and punishment, we can view both as being on or off. If reward is on, the brain learns an association between a behaviour / action and feeling good. If pain is on, the brain learns an association between a behaviour / action and feeling bad. After the learning has occurred, the approach / avoid determination will be available to the simulation that is running on the brain. This ensures that when it perceives a similar or same situation it will initiate the corresponding approach / avoid action behaviour. When neither one is perceived, no approach or retreat action will be initiated which will help the individual conserve energy; or at least not waste it by taking an action that has not been demonstrated to improve fitness outcomes. Feeling “bla” is the second most desirable state for a human being to achieve because it indicates that things are safe, survival will continue and that there is no need for any action to be taken.

In 2012, when I made the initial post, I didn’t have a clear understanding of the critical role that reward, bla, and punishment play in the brain and life of people. The cool thing is that my knowing or not knowing will make no difference in the operation of the computer and software. The brain does not get wrapped around the axle with these things and conscious awareness of what is going on is not a requirement for the system to work perfectly.

The power of the questions is their ability to cause the person to consider the incentive / disincentive that the situation represents to them. They accomplish this by taking advantage of another quality of the brain, which is the tendency for it to assume that there is an answer to every question it encounters and to automatically and unconsciously begin to try to answer it.

If we consider for any length of time the question “what did you go without because there was no suffering in an experience?” we quickly notice that the question assumes that the listener went without something because the experience was neither good nor bad. If we assume that this is true, the narrative description of what occurred was that no approach or avoid lessons were learned because they remained in the bla or neutral state. The question implies that there was a fitness lesson to be taken from the experience, but that the brain did not pick-up on it because there was no reinforcement or punishment. The event unfolded, the person lived through it, and they remain unchanged in terms of their likelihood that they would repeat it or avoid it in the future.

This is the amazing thing about the human brain and language. Unlike living beings that have smaller brains and rudimentary or not existent communication skills, the human brain is able to and will automatically begin to run different experiences on the simulation in an effort to figure out what is going on or what WOULD need to be true in order for a possible outcome to be achieved. By listening to and hearing the question, the brain parses the information and then uses the relevant parameters to try and surface an answer. Whether or not there is an actual answer never gets considered because the brain just automatically starts the process and works on generating output.

The therapist was very aware that the situation my friend was talking about is historically a situation that people find very challenging and unpleasant. My friends experience of it as neutral or bla meant that there was not going to be much learning going on and this would amount to a squandered opportunity. The question served as a trigger for the creation of a lesson that may end-up being helpful in the future.

The question “what was it like to have things go bad around you without warning?” is the second half of the same process. The language implies that something negative occurred, which primes the listeners brain to consider the punishment / avoidance aspects of psychological conditioning. It also serves to validate congruence; if the answer is something positive or negative, there is a good chance that they did not answer the first question accurately. This is a situation that the brain will not allow to continue because it does not handle inconsistency very well. Even if nothing specific happens in the moment, the brain will be activated in an attempt to reconcile the lack of congruence between the two answers.

Years later, I still believe that these two questions are fantastic. They are helpful for anyone who takes the time to answer them as they force the brain to search long term memories, run various simulations in an attempt to solve the problem, and they provide valuable feedback about the quality and nature of the experiences in the past. They are introspective and manufacture reward and punishment states to allow the person to gain new lessons and move forward having harvested the experience more completely.

This Is Happening, So Just Come To Peace With It

One of the interesting things about required future actions is just how energy taxing they can be when you are not working on them. As soon as you know it exists, the energy burn begins immediately. The longer you put it off and kick it down the road, the more energy it will burn

Something remarkable happens when we make our peace with what is about to happen and just start doing it. It may not necessarily become easy, but it does become easier. This makes sense because resistance is expensive. It take a whole lot of energy to come-up with reasons why the world shouldn’t be the way it is and this energy will always be required because the world is the way it is – if you actually have to do something, you have to do it. If it is inevitable it will exist in your future until you take care of it.

One of the interesting things about required future actions is just how energy taxing they can be when you are not working on them. As soon as you know it exists, the energy burn begins immediately. The longer you put it off and kick it down the road, the more energy it will burn. The opposite is true, as soon as you start to complete it, you stop burning energy on it and begin to put energy towards it. The moment it is done, the transaction is completed.

Open loops are extremely taxing because our brain directs some energy towards the next and all actions that are needed to close the loop. In the book Getting Things Done they recommend that you make a list of all the things you have to do and then take some time to write the first next next that has to be completed to move the item towards completion. This closes the loop and stops the energy drain because documenting the task somewhere means you won’t forget it and knowing what the next first step is is a step towards completion. You may then spend time on figuring out the step after that one, and so what, that how you solve problems anyway.

I’m not talking about open loops here. I’m talking about the strong wish or desire to change reality to flip a required action into the not-required column. Chances are that if you could change reality that way you would already have done so. Since you cannot do this, it is a fact that any energy spend on this endeavour is simply wasted. Denying reality is not a practice that is helpful when one truly has no choice but to eventually do something.

In almost every case, if you had done it as soon as you realized it needed to be done, you would already have completed it. Worse case is that you have moved it forward, but the reality is more likely to be completion.

The term “get after it” applies perfectly. It is impersonal enough to paint the activity as just something you have to do and it does imply that the thing is there to be done. When it is right in front of you and a necessary part of your future, you may as well catch up to it and take it out!

Suffering Is The Excessive Focus On Oneself

Reflective pain has a much longer half life than reactive pain. It continues long after the cause of the pain has stopped precisely because the individual has been damaged.

Pain is not the same thing as suffering. Pain is not reflective, it is a real thing and it exists in the moment. It is a representation of now and is useful at getting an organism to stop doing something that is potentially harmful. Imagine grabbing a hot utensil or hot pan. The pain receptors in the hand fire, sending signals to the spinal cord and up to the brain. There will be a reflexive response to these signals, the goal being to stop doing the thing that immediately proceeded the pain. You will let go of the hot utensil or pan and this will stop the immediate sensation of pain.

If the pain stops, reflection on the nerve impulses that made it into the brain can begin and perception takes place. Generally speaking, not a lot of cognitive cycles will be dedicated to reflecting on what has just happened because there is little need to learn from it. Existing automatic responses were sufficient to avoid injury. There is no point in wasting time and energy solidifying the avoidance strategy. The one that exists works fine.

Depending on the nature of what just happened the pain may continue. If you have actually done tissue damage, the pain receptors will continue to send signals to the spinal cord and up to the brain. This does not mean that there is an immediate threat, it means that there has been a real threat and the reflexive response was not sufficient to avoid damage. It is also an indication that the nature of the pain is important, that what was automatic was not adequate to avoid injury. It is in the best future interests of the individual to process this information further and create a more robust avoidance strategy to employ moving forward. Tissue damage is not good, so let’s not experience it again if possible. The best way to eliminate the same in the future is to spend time processing it to increase the amount of mental stimulation and increase the amount learning that comes from it. The brain will adapt physically to this stimulation, laying down organic material to be used as memories in the future. This is the way we learn to avoid grabbing things from the oven.

Suffering has a survival purpose too. It is to help the individual to ruminate on something that happened that is potential harmful and should be avoided in the future. However, it doesn’t need to last for very long in order for the lesson to be learned and for an avoidance stratagy to be created. Imagine when you were 6 and blurt out an answer at school. The teacher scolds you for not raising your hand and some of your classmates laugh. While this isn’t as simple as the hot utensil example, it is very much the same thing.

It has been know for a long time that the brain releases chemicals in response to the sensation of pain. Something that has been uncovered recently is that many of these same chemicals are released in response to perceiving certain things in the environment. A lose of autonomy, a lack of certainty, a lack of fairness, a lose of relatedness and a lose of status all cause a similar chemical cascade as hitting your hand with a hammer. What is different is that the pain receptors in the body do not fire because there is not actual cause of pain. The pain receptors that do fire are the ones that fire as a result of the reflection on pain – the ones that fire when in response to tissue damage. Reflective pain has a much longer half life than reactive pain. It continues long after the cause of the pain has stopped precisely because the individual has been damaged.

The outcome of this is potentially very profound. If we take the example above of shouting out an answer. There is a loss of autonomy, as the teacher is exerting control over us. There is a loss of certainty because we suddenly do not know what will happen if we shout out the answer in the future. It will not seem fair because we are getting scolded for doing something that we and other people have done in the passed. In scolding us, our certainty about our relationship with the teacher will be called into question. A 6 year old brain does not have the necessary life experience nor the capability to know that there will be a moment after this. Most importantly, the status of the child has been thrown on its side when the other children laugh. As hard as it is to deal with the teacher exerting control, they are still the teacher and are at the top of the dominance, competence, and prestige hierarchies, at least within the boundary of the class room. The other students are supposed to be on the same level. When they laugh my social status takes a clear hit – my peers are laughing at me and therefore I am not as good as them. In this example, the brain of the 6 year old fires up and releases large amounts of reflective pain chemicals in an effort to prevent future damage.

Keep in mind that the response to the threat is very real and that the brain processes perceptions of these violations as it would process actual pain. It does not matter that to an outsider that the attempted behaviour correction by the teacher and the other students response does not actually make-up a real threat. The perception by the individual is sufficient enough to cause a reflective pain response geared towards creating a strategy to avoid the situation / action that immediately preceded the pain.

More importantly, we’re dealing with a 6 year old here. First off, they don’t have a very formed brain – their prefrontal cortex has not developed so they are incapable of processing what has happened effectively. They have few executive functions, little or no concept of the future, and practically no abstract thinking capabilities. Their incomplete and less than capable brain is being forced to create a pain avoidance strategy with limited experience and insufficient long term memory. All they are able to do is generalize to a specific behaviour and outcome pairing that is void of the necessary context to make the proper decision. They are going to get it wrong unless there is a clear explanation and reconciliation of the violations that occurred.

The teacher can, for instance, explain about raising hands and proper turn taking, about the consequences of shouting out, then can mention that it is the behaviour that they do not like or that is unacceptable and therefore the child’s choice that is unwelcome NOT their opinion. And the teacher can take efforts to ensure that the other children understand that if they had chosen to do the same thing, their peers would be laughing at them. The goal is to correct / explain the perception of any of these violations to provide the child and all the children the appropriate context to make sense of what actually happened. Teaching children is not easy and doing so well requires enormous amounts of patients and understanding.

But we’re not 6 anymore yet we continue to process the world as though we are – the pattern has been established and it works. Maybe we learned to not say anything. To keep our mouth shut in class and to suppress any aspect of our personality we incorrectly attributed to being the cause of the reflective pain response that occurred when we were 6. This is not good. It is understandable because keeping quiet DID prevent the same outcome, so silence is an effective strategy. It has just been generalized to everything as opposed to the specific action of speaking out of turn in the classroom setting.

This is how pain becomes suffering. Pain is reactive at first. There is no “me” or “self” in pain, there is no subject. We do something, it hurts, we stop, the pain stops, we continue along. If tissue damage occurs, the pain becomes reflective. This is adaptive and it helps to inhibit a specific action in the future. The terms of reflection are that “action A” caused “outcome B” to the subject “me”. Don’t do A in the future. The subject is not present in the pain response, the is no “me”. There is in fact very little action and outcome because reactions are automatic and tend have very little to do with consciousness. Reactions are over before we knew something needs to happen.

Suffering has the subject, and your suffering has “you” at the centre of it. Other peoples suffering is abstract, yours is real. It is narrative, but it is a real thing in so far as it impact future the future. And anything that happens to you happens to you, and it causes a chemical response similar to pain. Which makes you notice it more, and causes you to feel worse about it. It becomes a cycle and dysfunction is the inevitable outcome.

What do you do about suffering? Well, simply put, you make the decision to notice it as soon as you can and to detach from it the moment you notice you are suffering. If it is pain, you have reacted to it; you don’t actually need to worry about pain. You cannot in fact not address pain, it requires training to ignore pain and most people haven’t put the time in. Suffering on the other hand can be ignored. It doesn’t even need to be experienced. The moment you notice a hint of negativity and “yourself” in your thoughts label it for what it is by saying “there’s suffering.” By interrupting the pattern you buy some time to start to notice that nothing is actually wrong and that almost nothing in the physical world is actually happening. You are thinking, there is some brain activity, but there is no cause of pain and therefore no pain. Any pain response you are experiencing is the result of a perception of a thought that has you at its centre.

This is an effective approach that anyone can train themselves to have. It’s hard, but very simple and after you put the time in, the process becomes automatic and you gain the freedom to choose if and when you will suffer, maybe even liberating yourself from it entirely.

Practice What You Perform Because Performing Is Practice PLUS Competition

“You aren’t going to step up when it’s game time, you’re just going to do what you’ve done in training.”

Put another way, if you want something you have never had, you have to do something you have never done.

Either one works and both are true.

This is why practice is so important. Doing something new is never easy but it is possible when the pressure is low. It takes a lot of mental energy to create the impossible in working memory and then to take the action to make it real. When the pressure is high, so much energy is directed towards dealing with that pressure that there are just not enough resources available to do the required mental work to perform an unrehearsed movement in a controlled way so as to predictably lead to a desired outcome.

The human brain is an amazing thing. It has the ability to create temporary neural networks to allow coordinated brain activity that can cause brand new and novel things to happen. If not for this capability, human progress would be very slow and individual development would seem like a crawl.

If we assume that most of what we do that allows our species to exist is genetically programmed, and that’s a fair assumption given how almost every member of our species operates the same way – digestion, walking, the experience of hunger, communication, etc…. – this doesn’t account for all of the new skills technological progress has made possible and created a need for. Typing as a skill didn’t exist for most of human history because and yet every human being can learn how to type. Scratching a record on a turntable is a skill that anyone can learn, yet it’s about 60 years old. Most of the games we play on smart phone didn’t exist 5 years ago, but we can learn them and become very proficient at them.

It does not seem to matter what the task is, human beings can learn it and some will get very good at it. Statistically speaking, there will be a normal distribution curve for everything that can be done with most people being average and a few people being remarkably good and remarkably bad at it.

I find this thought reassuring. Even if some new comes out tomorrow and I find myself to be an outlier in the very low capability realm, there will be something new in a couple of days that I can become good at. And a few days after that something will be invented that I will be exactly average at. The world remains interesting and there is always going to be a place in it for me.

The key to remaining relevant is being open to acquiring these new skills and to be willing to do what is required to learn them. The formula is simple. Practice, consistently, over time, while paying as much attention to what you are doing as you possibly can. It needs to be practice and not performance because performance is not just practice in front of people. Performance is a completely different skill. If you are not well versed in performing, practising in front of other people will just mean you are doing two things poorly. This is not the most effective way to get good at something.

People Act Like The Truth

You consciousness can lie, your body can’t. Given that people are more likely to tell a lie than to act one out, it makes a lot of sense to watch people more. When listening and hearing, it is best to keep in mind that they may be saying what they want to be true vs. what they know to be true.

Heather has a number of habits that make her a very effective leader. One of them is to never assume that what people say is completely true and to instead watch them closely to see what they do. I asked her why she does this and she replied with, “people act like the truth.” After letting that land and settle, she continued, “they are free to say whatever they want or to say whatever they think others want them to say, but they don’t act with the same intention. Their actions are going to be a reflection of what they believe is true about the world and they represent their best attempts to get what they want based on what they believe is true. If you want to know what people think listen to their works, if you want to know that they believe watch their actions.”

I have found this very interest. I tend to be someone who thinks out loud so what I believe at the start of a conversation is often very different from what I believe by the end of it. I also do a lot of thinking when I write; this more closely resembles what Heather was talking about. I have a very tough time writing something that I know is false and often find myself revising a paragraph to correct something that isn’t true, isn’t clear or is obviously misleading. Sentences will disappear only to be replaced with ones that paint a more complete picture of what I believe is fact. And my word choice will regularly include softening words to add distance for the notion that I have presented as true. “Generally”, “traditionally”, “often”, will find themselves in my writing to guard from the possibility that I unintentionally relate a falsehood.

I am capable of doing more traditional types of thinking – the stuff we do in our heads – and I enjoy it. Much of it is of a good quality but I am well aware that it doesn’t track as close to the truth as what I write or what I end up saying towards the end of a conversation. I’m free to think whatever I like and will use this thinking time to go to places that I wouldn’t write out simply because they do not, or not yet, have a firm foundation in reality.

Heather’s observation holds up with me. If I am going to think something that isn’t true it is more likely going to happen when no physical actions are taking place – speaking and writing are both physical actions. And when it comes to communicating what I believe is the truth, that is more likely going to happen when I’m communicating in a way that requires more physical movement.

I have a difficult time acting in a way that doesn’t reflect my view of the world. I suppose it isn’t impossible, it just doesn’t happen often enough for me to remember when it has. This is aligned with Heather’s observations so I’m willing to assume that it is true and consider what it means in practical terms.

Your consciousness can lie, your body can’t.

Given that people are more likely to tell a lie than to act one out, it makes a lot of sense to watch people more. When listening and hearing, it is best to keep in mind that they may be saying what they want to be true vs. what they know to be true.

In social situations, how people act is a reflection of what they believe. If someone acts disrespectfully towards someone else, it’s safe to conclude that they do not have a lot of respect for that person. Someone who knowingly cuts in front of other people in a line does so with the belief that their need to get to the front is greater than the collective need of those they cut off. It does not indicated that this is how they feel all of the time, cutting a line repeatedly would be an indication of that, just that in this moment in time their perceived need is greater.

If someone says they want something to succeed but do not take the necessary steps to move it forward, it is very likely that they may want it to succeed but that they do not believe it can or that they do not believe they have the capability to make it work. Sabotage is a great example of this; be it self sabotage or sabotage of another, it is a reflection of the belief that someone is unworthy of success.

The quality of business partnerships can be revealed by the actions of each partner. When one partner is doing the lions share of the work, they care more. When the other partner aware that they are doing a lot less of the work, it reflects that they believe they have a right to do less. This can indicate that they do not believe it is an equal partnership regardless of what they have said.

The nature of romantic relationships is also very clear when looking at the actions of each party. Like business relationships, the person who does more of the work likely cares a lot more about the relationship than the other. If one of the parties is not pulling their weight, it can indicate that they are not that into the other person, but it can also indicate that they do not believe the relationship will work or that they deserve to be in a good relationship. If they are aware that they are not doing their share, this lack of effort could be an act of sabotage, self or otherwise.

A lot of the point Heather was making focused on identifying the incongruence between words and actions because when they are out of alignment the person is not telling the truth. She wasn’t saying that they are necessarily telling a deliberate lie, just that what they are saying is not true. How could it be true if their actual actions are not the same as their words? Actions are real and have physical consequences in the real world. Words have a much smaller impact, one that is effectively zero when compared to the consequence of physical action. They may intend no harm and actually be trying to shape the future by saying something that they wish was true in an effort to make it true. Their actual intention will only be revealed after they act and any incongruence is revealed.

Heather uses this technique to pin point when and how to coach her staff or other clients. She doesn’t make a value judgment in the moment and instead tries to lend a hand and help them uncovered what they want while pointing out the fact that their internal world view does not allow them to act in a way that will move them in the desired direction. Very often people are unaware that their actions indicate their beliefs and that other people are able to read these beliefs very quickly. When this leaked information is revealed to them, they are nearly powerless to continue to broadcast the inconsistencies. At worst, the people adjust what they say so as to stop speaking falsehoods. The best outcome is that they become aware of the incompatibility between their wants and their world view and take strong steps to adjust their world view to snap it into alignment with what they want to have happen. Usually though, it is something in the middle with smaller action steps aimed at getting them to act in a way that is in-congruent with their limiting beliefs. Over time, this changes their belief because actions in the real world are evidence or proof of how the real world is. This cannot be ignored for very long and after a few of them, the transition occurs and there is a match between their words and actions, indicating progress.

This is why faking it until we make it is so effective at challenging beliefs, changing our emotional state, and changing our world view. Physical actions are based on what we know or believe to be true. It follows then that someone who not very social but acts in the way of a social person would provide the evidence they are in fact social. Someone who is not active but chooses to work-out intensely 3 times a week is in fact active. Someone who believes they are not worthy of love but takes the actions that indicate they have self respect and love for themselves will suddenly find themselves attracting the love of others. Someone who claims to be disorganized but sets about keeping their room in order will find their story dissolving to be replaced with statements about their organizational abilities.

The whole thing is very cool and accurate enough to use anywhere in your life. Even if the incongruency is not an indication of a mismatch between their desires and their beliefs, identifying it gives you a head start in where to look and what to consider when trying to make sense of peoples behaviour. I am sure there are other reasons why someone would say one thing and do another but the fact that they do this is important and should be explored. Maybe they are lying and are trying to get away with something; in such cases you are always better off confronting them about it. It may cost you a connection with someone who isn’t being honest with you. This isn’t a bad thing, particularly if you are invested in the outcome given that when we want something, we are very willing to ignore evidence and good judgment to convince ourselves that everything is fine. The only way you will know if there is a good reason to say one thing and do another is to ask the person about it when you notice it. Their answer will reveal a lot about the next steps you and they need to take.

Disruption = Destruction

Disruption technology is zero sum while innovative technology tends not to be. The reason for this is very simple, people have a certain amount of money that they are willing to spend on something, so when a disruptor shows-up, even if their service is significantly cheaper than what it is replacing, people are not going to have more money to spend on it. They may, for example, take more rides, but they are not going to be spending MORE money than before.

After the disruptors have done their thing, the world is a little worse off and a few people have way more money.

My wife absolutely loves watching me rant about Uber. She says it’s remarkable to see someone get so animated and passionate / angry about something that has very little impact on them personally. Her’s and mine is a click-wirr stimulus response type thing. My brain receives “Uber” as input and I’m set off. There is a glance from her and she disengages her hearing and starts watching the one man outrage show. I think she finds it amusing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I actually think that Uber is a very good service. While I do not have my own account, the two times I have used the service with someone who does have been great. The first time, I happened to leave my cell phone in the car, and getting in contact with the driver was very simple – he ended-up coming back to the drop off location so I could get it back. The second time was a drive to the airport in Las Vegas and the driver didn’t say much of anything, which is great because the more expensive cab ride from the airport a few days before was polluted with the driver complaining about Uber and how they were ruining everything. Listen buddy, that’s my rant…

My problem is not with Uber specifically, it is with “disruption” technologies because they are creating a shittier world as they make a few people a lot of money. Disruption technologies are things that break the status quo or present a new way of doing an existing business that makes things easier or cheaper for the user.

They need to be contrasted with innovative technologies that alter the underlying way things get done. Disruption tech does the same thing but in a slightly different way, while innovation tech accomplishes the same goal using a completely different method. Phrased differently, innovation solves a problem in a new way. Disruptor tech solves a problem the same way as before except it uses slightly different pieces. If we think about the Luddites, their concern was that the loom was going to put them out of work because it was a machine that did the same job as the people. That is disruption. Outsourcing your textile manufacturing to a country that has lower cost labour is disruption. Innovation is creating a new fabric. Convincing people that they no longer need to wear clothes is innovation.

The key distinction here is that with disruption technology, things remain more or less the same and most people who are not directly involved in the area will never notice much of a difference. Sure, prices may change, availability may improve, quality may change and how they engage the area might be different, but at the end of the day, fabric is fabric regardless of how it is manufactured. With innovation, the lives of the people will change more dramatically. Prices, availability, quality and method of engagement will probably be completely different, but there is a very good chance that an area will disappear outright and a new one will begin to take over.

The printing press is a great example of innovation. Before the printing press, ideas / stories were passed along via two main methods – word of mouth or in handwritten books. Monks have been credited with being analogs to the printing press in that a room of them would listen to someone telling a story and each would write out by hand what they heard. This was slow, expensive and imprecise; although it tended to yield more consistent results than the word of mouth telling of a story from one person to the next. These technologies were less than ideal and each made possible and very likely a multitude of errors given that what each person wrote was not necessarily the same and every new listener was going to remember certain parts of a story with more clarity than others. The invention of the printing press was an innovation in the purest sense of the word because it dramatically improved upon the existing methods for capturing ideas / stories / words. Exact copies were now possible, and these copies could be made years and miles apart. This lowered the cost of books and increased their range of distribution. The monks were liberated from the task of transcription, for better or worse, and the story tellers could continue to do their thing so long as there was someone who was willing to listen to them. The key thing is that the monks and story tellers were not simply replaced by other monks and story tellers, they were replaced by something that was completely different and vastly superior.

The internal combustion engine is another example of innovation. It eliminated the reliance on animals for transportation and dramatically increased the load that people could move around the streets and roads. Farriers, blacksmiths, people who built buggies and others were disenfranchised by the creation of the gasoline engine and the subsequent creation of cars and trucks. While this was bad for them in the short term, the new market that was created by automobiles offered ample opportunity to retrain and return to work. There was also an induced demand created by cars and trucks, which resulted in an increase in productivity, jobs, transportation, and an ease in life.

Keep this example in the back of your mind as you continue to read because it contains most of the positive things that innovation sets in motion and will be referenced again later when I talk about niche markets and hyper specialization.

I have no doubt that had I been around during the transition from horse to internal combustion engine, I would not have been ranting about it. While there were a few people who lost out, nearly everyone either recovered or received a boost in the quality of their life. Engines were not simply outsourced versions of horses, they were completely different things that required their own industry and infrastructure.

Now compare this to disruption technologies and the source of my outrage will become very clear. Political parties are a type of disruptive technology. At a simple level, consider liberalism and conservatism and assume that there are two political parties with one operating with one of these approaches. Assuming that there is a 50:50 chance between either party, half of the time will be spend being governed by liberal policies while the other half will be spend being governed by conservative policies. This polarity means that society will be, over time, somewhere in the middle. The swings back and forth will have the effect of stopping one set of policies and starting the other set, and vice-versa. This is disruptive, but it has a moderating effect and the longer it continues, the smaller the negative impact will be of the changes.

In this example, the politicians lose their jobs and some portion of the tax revenues will likely be reallocated away from some things and onto others. For the individual people who are involved, it will be tough, but they will adapt and hopefully get back on their feet quickly. The point is that a change in government is very much like a change in the colour of paint – the house remains the same, it just looks different.

A more relevant and destructive example is that of Uber. Uber is like one side of the two party system mentioned above. But unlike that example, Uber is brand new to the game and it now represents an alternative to the well established approach that has existed for a long time. This means that those who are already doing the jobs that Uber will replace have no history of dealing with change. Maybe some places had a second or third taxi company that represented competition for customers, but each company was held to the same rules in terms of regulation and each company was running effectively the same business model. While this wasn’t ideal, it worked and it offered a level of predictability to all of the players. The business owners knew what they were dealing with in terms of revenue and costs, and their drivers knew what they needed to do in order to keep their job and to grow their business / wealth. The government benefited from licensing fees and tax revenue. The riders benefited from knowing exactly what to expect when they took a taxi ride somewhere. While it wasn’t as good as driving your own car or being driven by a friend, the taxi industry satisfied a need and offered people the opportunity to get driven somewhere for a fee.

Along came smart phones, 4G / LTE, and someone with the motivation to see the world slightly different from the status quo. The idea is very simple in hindsight and could not have come to be without the advances in telecom and electronics manufacturing. But once everyone had the ability to remain connected to the Internet from anywhere via their own high powered handheld computer, the traditional taxi model becomes antiquated and revealed to be much less than optimal.

What is Uber? It is an app that facilitates connections between people while allowing for the location of each user to be recorded in real time. It isn’t a taxi company because it doesn’t have most of the things that a taxi company has. It is more akin to a parent who is going to pick you up from the party or bar and drive you somewhere for a fee, but instead of calling them to come and get you, you use a phone app. And unlike the taxi company, it is mostly decentralized having data centers and corporate headquarters in some city somewhere. There is no terminal or maintenance center for fixing the cars, and no office for the drivers and dispatch workers to go to. The dispatch step has been replaced with a computer program and algorithms to connect people who are requesting a ride to people who are offering a ride. The terminal and maintenance center has been eliminated because the drivers just go to where ever they go when it is time to get maintenance done. This means that Uber has much lower overhead than traditional taxi companies and fewer local employees performing support, maintenance and dispatch roles. These jobs evaporate and the lack of a physical office means that rent is not paid. While I am no fan of rent seeking behaviour, I am a fan of people having jobs and of the tax burden of a city being paid by as many people as possible. So the “technology” aspect of Uber has cost at least a few jobs and reduced tax revenue. However, this aspect of the company has allowed it to get out of, or away with not, collecting and paying tax on the rides, and for the drivers to avoid paying licensing and other regulatory fees. Income tax is also not collected or paid by the company for any of the people who are driving because they do not view them as employees. Added together these things amount to huge losses in terms of revenue for the city.

This is not a great situation, but it would only be so bad if Uber as a company was making money, but it isn’t. In fact, it is hemorrhaging money, which is odd given that the cost of doing business should be lower than for a traditional taxi company. They connect riders with drivers, determine the price of the ride and then take their cut of 25% of the fare price. They get an interest free loan for the period of time between when a ride is completed and when they pay the driver (their week runs Monday 4am to the following Monday at 3:59AM). And in-spite of these things, they have lost an average of around 5.4 millions US dollars per day since they started operating and something north of $20 million a day in 2019.

NOTE, it is kind of tough to get exact and up-to-date numbers for the company, but 2019 estimates are coming in at a loss of $8.5 billion. Q2 2019 losses were 5.2 billion of which $3.9 billion US is linked to IPO costs in the form of shares. Q4 losses should be in the neighbourhood of $1.2 billion, or around $13 million per day.

Let that sink in, if such a thing is even possible. The company plans on losing half a billion dollars this quarter after losing 5.2 billion last quarter. The company is on track to lose more than 6 billion dollars this year and in the nine years that it has existed it has spent more than 10 billion.

What the hell?

Who is making money if not the company, the newly unemployed traditional taxi workers, or the government? It’s kind of hard to say but the best guess would be any one who works for the Uber corporation and their associated vendors / service providers, the people who drive for them, and anyone who makes money maintaining their private cars. Traditional taxi drivers are making less, and many have had to supplement their work by driving for Uber or Lift.

The riders are seeing a value in it though as evident by their adoption of Uber as a form of transportation and the decrease in use of taxis. However, the evidence that Uber is cheaper than traditional taxis is not conclusive. At off-peak times and in some cities you will pay less for an Uber ride, but in other cities and during peak times it may be less expensive to take a traditional cab. That being said, many people do prefer Uber and use it exclusively. For them, it is a better option than traditional taxis and they are more than willing to continue to use it.

It’s worth saying that their app is very good and it makes things a lot easier for riders. It also seems to make things easy for the driver as well. Both of these are good, and the fact that it is easy for the drivers is important because most of their drivers are NOT professional drivers meaning they do not come from traditional taxi companies. There is a good chance that your Uber driver will have a full time job and will only work a few hours each day to generate some extra money. This is an important fact to consider given how difficult it is to generate a decent income driving for one of the ride share companies. The pay is okay if you have a full time job elsewhere, but as a source of full time pay most people cannot make it work. It is also a job that does not have any security or much recourse in the event someone levels an untrue accusation against a driver. The company is free to deactivate any driver or users account at will and has no obligation to get to the bottom of any disputes.

Did / do traditional taxi companies have a problem that a lack of any real competition allowed to continue? Yes, some of their drivers were less than respectful and would not get off the phone when they were driving. Some of them were rude and some of them didn’t seem to like people very much. But many of them were and are first rate professionals who care about their customers, their cars, and their profession. Getting a cab could be problematic from time to time, particularly during busy times, and the notion of having to talk to someone on the phone to request a ride is outdated and no longer necessary. People who travel a lot needed to know the phone number of the local taxi company, which is easy enough to do, but represents an extra step that an Uber account eliminates. The location feature of Uber also takes care of the open loop associated with wondering when the cab would arrive – it’ll be about 10 minutes doesn’t do much to quell the uncertainty of not knowing something. And maybe the price of a cab ride was higher than it should have been.

The fact of the matter is that Uber does, on the face of it, fill a need that its users believe they have. The traditional taxi companies didn’t seem to do much to address the concerns and instill loyalty in their customers, so when something else came along, people were willing to try it out and finding it to be a better experience completely jump ship. This is the nature of progress and the passage of time. Without adequate competition people lose their taste for blood and stop bringing their A game.

The problem with this has to do with weathering the storm while making the needed changes to win back customers. Traditional taxi companies do not have the bank roll that Uber does. Most are small businesses with thin margins that do more in the realm of keeping a few people employed vs. generating a lot of profit or wealth for their owners. They were also asked to pay a lot of business tax and their employees paid a substantial amount of income tax, along with whatever regulatory fees the local government was asking them to pay. The service they were delivering is not the same as the one that Uber is delivering and, as a consequence, it cost them a lot more money to remain in business. Yes, Uber identified the business that taxi companies SHOULD be doing – that of connecting those who need a ride with those who have room in their car and a willingness to drive people from point A to point B – but when they arrive in a city they are offering a ride share service and NOT a traditional taxi service. And they have deep pockets and have been able to lose money, an average of a billion US dollars per year, and not go under.

This is why they are considered a disruptor and it is why I really do not like the outcome they are causing to happen.

They are losing money, they are pushing traditional taxi drivers, workers and companies out of the business, the jobs they are creating are not the same as the ones they caused to be eliminated, and the only people who seem to be benefiting are the riders, the moonlighter who doesn’t need a full time job and the initial shareholders who have seen their initial investment jump in value. This is a big problem for those who are negatively impacted and a potential problem for riders in the future.

Without the bank roll to keep going, traditional taxi companies will start to cut cost in an attempt to stay in business. This means that their drivers will get paid less and the service quality may begin to drop (here I’m thinking about the driver from the Las Vegas airport complaining the entire way about how Uber and the local government were screwing him over as opposed to making the day of two people who were visiting one of the coolest yet strangest cities in North America). After some period of time, the company will close its doors leaving Uber and other ride share companies to service the city. This means fewer jobs and less tax revenue.

But now that Uber is a publicly traded company, they have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to maximize profits. In an area in which they have no competition to keep prices inline and no government regulation to dictate the price they get to charge, they WILL increase their rates. This will mean that it will begin to become more expensive to take an Uber ride.

The end result for successful disruption technologies is less choice, higher prices, and lost revenue / income for people and, in the case of Uber, cities. Since the city doesn’t suffer a loss in revenue, it means higher taxes for those who live in the city and for the businesses that are located there.

Travis Kalanick, one of the founders of the company, has done very well. While he no longer works for Uber and wasn’t their leader during their IPO, he was given 117.5 million shares that he has begun to sell. The IPO price was around $47, the lowest the price has been since then was $25.58, and today it is trading around $37. He is a billionaire and will, in all likelihood, never have to think about having a need for money again.

So what?

Disruption technology is zero sum while innovative technology tends not to be. The reason for this is very simple, people have a certain amount of money that they are willing to spend on something, so when a disruptor shows-up, even if their service is significantly cheaper than what it is replacing, people are not going to have more money to spend on it. They may, for example, take more rides, but they are not going to be spending MORE money than before. But this doesn’t actually apply to Uber because the cost of the rides is not significantly lower. People have made the decision to pay someone to drive them somewhere so they are simply choosing who to give the same amount of money to.

The reason why innovative technologies tend not to be zero sum is because of induced demand. There will be a lot of people who lose out initially, but the new technology changes things in such a way that it ends up lifting almost all of these people up and then above where they were before.

This means that there are going to be a lot of people on the losing end of ride sharing. It begins with the traditional taxi drivers, moves onto the taxi companies and municipal governments, and will eventually begin to negatively impact us, the customer or end user. The winners are few in numbers, with the biggest being the early investors and the people who own shares in the company, assuming that it ever reaches the point of paying a dividend.

This topic is going to grow in importance over the next few years as AI, 5G, and acceptance of the gig economy make it possible for technology to do a job, or a portion of the job, that is currently performed by a human being. It is entirely possible that one day in the future your Uber driver will be a Medical doctor or lawyer who has seen the majority of their work transitioned over to an app or other piece of technology.

NOTE: This article was written towards the end of 2019 and reviewed during the first few months of 2020.

They Are Not Stupid, They Are YOU

There is a single objective reality on which each one of us construct our own individual experience of being alive. We are all given access to the same collection of molecules and their movements and are tasked with making sense out of them in such a way as to allow us remain alive using as little energy as possible.

Let me tell you two stories before I get to the point of this post.

There is a large group of people in the United States, although not a majority of the population, that cannot understand why Donald Trump’s approval rating is going up during the last full week of March 2020. They believe that he has screwed-up the response to covid-19 and are becoming increasingly alarmed at the increase in people who have tested positive for the virus along with the jump in deaths. To them, HE is the key reason why things have gone so badly off the rails. The administration was very slow to respond to the virus in a tangible way and in the main ways the scientists and epidemiologist have and had been suggesting. The key exception to this is the travel restrictions that were implements on January 31, 2020; although it is not clear that there is much agreement on what exactly this achieved and if it was in fact a travel ban.

At the same time, there is a large group of people in the United States, although not a majority of the population, that cannot understand why his approval rating is not much higher and has only recently begun to climb at a pace faster than snails. They believe that he has responded decisively, quickly, and powerfully, as a leader should in times of crisis, and that he is the one who will carry the entire country though this and back to the land of milk and honey. And they KNOW that if other leaders would start listening to him, the entire planet would be victorious over the virus and quickly be returned to the time of plenty. Until people get out of his way, things are going to continue to degrade meaning that what should only be a minor hiccup will become a major problem. One that HE is going to have fix when he gets reelected in November.

Now on to the post.

Like it or not, there is only one story here (or above). There is a single objective reality on which each one of us construct our own individual experience of being alive. We are all given access to the same collection of molecules and their movements and are tasked with making sense out of them in such a way as to allow us remain alive using as little energy as possible.

As such, there is no way that any one gets it right, and a very low probability that any two individuals share exactly the same version of things. Identical twins, for example, are as close to being the same as anything can be and their versions of the world are not exactly the same. The critical component therefore is how an individual interacts with these molecules and then in how these interactions impact the matter from which the person is constituted. With this in mind, it is clear that different people can have different experiences, or near identical ones, that will cause very similar interactions with their molecules. This will result in outcomes that are very close to the same.

Phrased another way, experience shapes outcomes MORE than biology shapes outcome. Both play a role, but given that biology doesn’t change much over time, experience does most of the heavy lifting.

This does not really map neatly on to any of the prevailing narratives being shaped by people in either of the two groups mentioned above.

Both sides say the same thing about the other side, the same things that people have been saying about the other side for as long as there have been two people who do not agree about something. What is most interesting is the most of the things they say are based on biology and NOT experience.

For example, some on the more liberal side of things will say “anyone who votes for Trump is an idiot” while some on the conservative side will say “anyone who doesn’t support Trump is an idiot.” Notice that neither side suggests anything like “people who vote for (or against) Trump have been shaped by their upbringing in such a way that they privilege certain things over others.” In fact, when you look back over the last 8 years or so for patterns in the exchanges between members from each group or from the broadcasts by members of each group, there is a lack of any agreement to respectfully disagree or to even see the other side as being a member of the same species. THEY are crazy, stupid, sheep, etc… and that is as far as it goes.

Note that I am not suggesting that no one is capable for performing this type of analysis or that there are not people who do it. I am saying that there is a tendency for people who have strong set-in-stone opinions to be much more vocal about them than those whose opinions are more loosely held and which are informed by evidence.

There is a level of unworkability in all of this, given how interconnected and mutually dependent everything is on everything else, and it is based off of the false assumption that people are different. Yes, on one very real level each person is different from every other person; the molecules from which “I” am composed are not the same molecules from which “you” are composed. You are not me and I am not you, and neither of us is anyone else. BUT we are more than just our matter. We are our matter PLUS the impact that our actions have on the physical world AND the impact that the physical world has our matter. So while it will always be true that we are not the same thing, when we view the world in terms of matter and consequences, we are no longer able to say that we are completely different. This may seem like a silly distinction but the material consequences of ones actions can become a part of another persons experience of being alive, or of that experience by many people, just as the actions of other people can materially impact us.

If we take identical twins as an example, because they are as close to being identical as human beings can be, we can easily see the divergent outcomes that are generated by having different interactions with the physical world.

Look at the following image of identical twins:

Image from https://www.historyofvaccines.org/

Both of them were exposed to the same pathogen – the smallpox virus – and the outcomes were very different. The twin on the right had been exposed to the smallpox vaccine while the brother on the left was not. The results are very different.

My point is that being genetically identical is not sufficient enough to ensure the same outcome. What is also needed is to have the same experiences, at a very similar time, in the same order, consistently for years. With reference to the image above, it is easy to imagine the similarity between two people who both received the smallpox vaccine and the difference in appearance between the two vaccinated people and the unvaccinated one.

When you are susceptible to and get exposed to smallpox, there will be a particular outcome. However, when you have had the experience of being exposed to a similar but much less severe virus before getting exposed to the smallpox virus, the outcome is completely different.

In the event it seems like I am comparing liberalism or conservationism to a virus be aware that I am doing EXACTLY that. Both of those political approaches, along with every other approach, is a collection of ideas that come together to form a view. There are merits to all of them just as their are shortcoming. When you take the time to consider each of them it can become very difficult to make a determination about which one is best, which one is the worst, and if any of them were designed to allow evil to flourish over good. The truth is that the world is much more complicated than what a simple binary “good” “evil” dichotomy is able to capture.

Context is critical, and without context we lose our ability to know what is going on and why things are occurring. Cell death, for example, is viewed as a bad thing – you really do not want your healthy cells to get killed or to die – and we take extra care to avoid things that will kill tissue. However, chemo therapy works because it KILLS cells; ideally it kills a small number of healthy cell but when battling cancer the death of healthy tissue can be viewed as collateral damage. IF the tumor is destroyed and the death of the person is prevented, it is viewed as a win regardless of the destruction to the surrounding tissue.

This is the point. The context in which one is exposed to an idea will contribute considerably to the impact that the idea will have on them. It is therefore very easy to imagine how the same idea can cause a very different outcome.

It would be a mistake to believe that any outcome is certain, even if we were to assume that we were able to control the nature, ordering and timing of every experience. Equally erroneous would be the belief that ALL liberally minded people believe exactly the same things just as it would be wrong to believe the same of conservative leaning people. In fact, MOST of what people believe is the same and while we tend to get fixated on the differences, most of the principles of political theory are shared between all of the different approaches. There are leaders, citizens, wealth, revenue, commerce, industry, and labour, as examples.

The most valuable thing we can take out of all of this is that we really do not know why people are the way they are other than being certain that biology and experience play a role to some extent. Given this, it is impossible to know that you would not hold the same views as someone on the other side of an issue had you not been exposed to different things than you were while you were growing up. The evidence for this is the fact that my great grand parents never learned how to used a smart phone while I did. Their lack of ability in this realm was not a consequence of their intelligence level, it was the outcome of their lack of experience with smart phones – given that the technology did not exist during their life time. We have every reason to believe that they would have learned how to use them had they been invented before or during their life time.

So what?

Consider leading with compassion and kindness before transitioning to the examination of experience. Being a human being is not easy. Life can serve-up one insult after another for you and for everyone. Just because we live through the ones life inflicts upon us does not mean that we will ever have any appreciate of the ones dealt to others. Take a breath and respond to others with less venom and force than seems appropriate.

Consider the possibility that the only thing that prevented you from holding the same views as those you disagree with is the luck of your birth. Had you been born into their body and them into yours, there is no reason to believe that you would believe the same things that you currently do.

Accept that every person has nearly exactly the same biology and the same brain as everyone else. There are very few actual outliers on the planet. Difference in talent and intellectual horsepower can make a big difference but when compared to any other species, human beings have effectively the same talent and brain power.

Finally, when considering making a value judgment about someone who does not hold the same opinion as you, stop yourself from making it. THEY are YOU and YOU are them; at least you would be if you had had the same experiences. We’re in this together and the longer we spend in a state of alignment with others, the great the contribution we will make to the quality of life for ourselves and for those who come after us.