May 26, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 18: Improving rationality, defining our fears, and the selective skeptic test

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

1. Improving rationality with a beginner’s mind

“Clearly the words rational and irrational can be quite loaded. People are always labeling those who disagree with them ‘irrational.’ What we need is a simple definition that can be applied as a way of judging, as accurately as possible, the difference between the two.​

The following shall serve as our barometer: We constantly feel emotions, and they continually infect our thinking, making us veer toward thoughts that please us and soothe our egos. It is impossible to not have our inclinations and feelings somehow involved in what we think. Rational people are aware of this and through introspection and effort are able, to some extent, to subtract emotions from their thinking and counteract their effect. Irrational people have no such awareness. They rush into action without carefully considering the ramifications and consequences.”

— From The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene

We are not rational beings. Emotions have a way of bleeding into our decisions, coloring our choices. By accepting this reality, we can build countermeasures against our innate biases. Yet, all too often people do not move beyond the acceptance stage. They believe that most people are irrational, but not them; they are more rational than most. This line of reasoning reminds me of a passage from Nassim Taleb's bestseller, The Black Swan:

“We humans are the victims of an asymmetry in the perception of random events. We attribute our successes to our skills, and our failures to external events outside our control, namely to randomness. We feel responsible for the good stuff, but not for the bad. This causes us to think that we are better than others at whatever we do for a living. Ninety-four percent of Swedes believe that their driving skills put them in the top 50 percent of Swedish drivers; 84 percent of Frenchmen feel that their lovemaking abilities put them in the top half of French lovers.”

The majority of people believe that they are above average, just like the 94% of Swedish drivers. But this is the wrong approach for learning. It's better to assume we are below average and need to improve our skills than to assume the opposite and reject advice. Japanese Zen calls the practice of retaining an open mind to our abilities “beginner’s mind”. When we approach everything as a beginner, we remain open to new information and don't hide behind ego-centric statements like: "I know better than them", or "they're wrong and I'm right". Epictetus said it best:

"It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows."

Perhaps paradoxically, approaching life as a beginner is the surest way to become a master.

2. The glorification of wealth

“Money has its legitimate uses. You should not deny this, nor should you attempt to make a show of some imaginary disdain of the pecuniary. Money is, however, merely an instrumental good. Utility is the sole virtue of the stuff. In and of itself, money makes you no wiser, no more virtuous, and no more admirable, than does any other instrument. Do not envy those who possess more of it than you, and do not pity those with less.​

"You can discern nothing about character, integrity, or self-respect in a ledger or bank account. On what account do you shun the homeless or the penniless? What did Diogenes possess? Where did Socrates hide his riches? Did the Buddha carry a golden alms bowl? Did Jesus offer the Sermon on the Mount from a palace? In their names, the world has been offered priceless benefits—but this has not been accomplished without a price. The virtuous use of money is the key.”

— From Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure by William Ferraiolo

There is a tendency in the 21st-century for the younger generation to glorify the accumulation of wealth. Not just the riches themselves but also the holders of those riches.

While it's fair for people to celebrate the business achievements of entrepreneurs, it's wrong to hold them up as moral examples because of those achievements. There is no correlation between financial success and good character. Yet many people conflate these two positions, believing that those who accumulate wealth have morals, ethics, and virtues worth emulating.

The effect this is having on the younger generation, college students in particular, is well documented:

“According to survey data gathered by the American College Health Association in 2019, 57.5 percent of college students reported feeling that ‘things were hopeless’ in the last year, 67.4 percent reported feeling very lonely, 66.4 percent reported feeling ‘overwhelming anxiety,’ and 14.5 percent reported having ‘seriously considered suicide.’ Suicides have increased in the United States in the last decade, especially among young people.

“Three trends coincide with crises of meaning in young adults. First, what they view as the goal of a good life has shifted. More than 80 percent of college freshmen in the 1970s said that one of their important goals in life was to find meaning and purpose. By 2018, that number was down to 42 percent. What are they aiming at now? More than 80 percent of them said that one of their primary goals was to become rich.

"Second, young Americans now report historically low levels of feelings of personal accomplishment—they have changed their goals but feel no closer to achieving them.

"Third, psychologists observe plummeting levels of social trust among young people—they have less satisfying goals, less capacity to accomplish them, and believe nobody is going to help them.”

From The Good Life Method by Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko

Browse my highlights from The Good Life Method

Practical Advice

1. Where in your life might defining your fears be more important than defining your goals?

“The entrepreneur and writer Tim Ferriss has spoken of the exercise of ‘fear setting’—of defining and articulating the nightmares, anxieties, and doubts that hold us back. Indeed, the ancient roots of this practice go back at least to the Stoics.

"Seneca wrote about premeditatio malorum, the deliberate meditation on the evils that we might encounter. ‘Exile, war, torture, shipwreck,’ Seneca said, ‘all the terms of the human condition could be on our minds.’ Not in the form of fear, but in that of familiarity. How likely are they? What might cause them? How have we prepared ourselves to handle them? For Seneca, the unexpected blows land most heavily and painfully. So by expecting, by defining, by wrestling with what can happen, we are making it less scary and less dangerous at the same time.”

— From Courage is Calling by Ryan Holiday

To tackle any large change in life with fear setting, we start by dividing a page into three columns: define, prevent, and repair.

We pick a single fear, say a career change, and fill the page out like so:

1. Define: Write down all of the worst things that could happen if you took that step.

2. Prevent: What could you do to prevent these things from happening? Or even minimize the likelihood of them happening?

3. Repair: If the worst-case scenario happens, what can you do to repair the damage?

Ferriss suggests asking a question while filling out this exercise to gain a broader perspective:

“Has anyone else in the history of time, less intelligent or less driven, figured this out?”

You can find details on the entire practice here.

Part of the second half of the exercise asks you to list the costs of inaction:

What might my life look like in 6-months, 12-months, and 3-years if I do not make this change?

Ferriss describes why this question is so powerful, explaining that humans are great at anticipating what might go wrong but rarely consider the consequences of not changing anything.

You can watch Tim Ferriss's 13-minute TED Talk for further information.

Read my summary of Courage is Calling

2. The selective skeptic test

“I call this type of thought experiment the selective skeptic test: Imagine this evidence supported the other side. How credible would you find it then? Suppose someone criticizes a decision your company made, and your knee-jerk reaction is, ‘They don’t know what they’re talking about, because they don’t have all the relevant details.’ Selective skeptic test: Imagine the person had praised your company’s decision instead. Would you still think that only insiders are informed enough to have valid opinions?”

— From The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef

The selective skeptic test checks for confirmation bias, in where we accept information that reinforces our beliefs and reject that which does not.

In the case of receiving feedback, we tend to ignore criticism but accept praise, even if both are coming from the same person.

It's relatively easy to distinguish criticism from hate, yet we often conflate them. A beginner's mind can help circumvent confirmation bias by approaching feedback with an open mind.

Rather than supposing that we know better than those who provide feedback, we could use the selective skeptic test to imagine how we'd feel about that same person praising us. If someone told us that our work needed improvement, we could dismiss them by saying, 'they don't know what they're talking about; I've done this for years!' But what if the same person praised us? Would we feel the same way? 'They don't understand what they're talking about; I'm not that good.' Or would we accept their words at face value? ‘What a kind person, how objective of them to notice my talent!' If we accept the praise and reject the criticism, we're succumbing to confirmation bias and would do well to assess each piece of feedback rationally.​

Quotes to Ponder

1. Jerzy Gregorek's maxim on choosing the difficult option now to prevent long-term problems from compounding:

"Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.”

2. Carl Jung on loneliness being the absence of connection, not the absence of people:

“Loneliness does not come from having no people around you, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to you.”

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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