November 10, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 42: Introspection clouding self-perception, telic and atelic activities, and belief vs. inquiry

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

I.  Introspection clouds self-perception

"In her book about self-awareness, Insight, Tasha Eurich points out some counterintuitive findings. Introspection appears to be generally correlated with lower well-being, higher anxiety, lower attitudes about oneself, and most surprisingly, lower self-awareness. In truth, introspection can cloud our self-perceptions and unleash a host of unintended consequences. Sometimes it may surface unproductive and upsetting emotions that can swamp us and impede positive action. Introspection might also lull us into a false sense of certainty that we’ve identified the real issue. Buddhist scholar Tarthang Tulku uses an apt analogy: when we introspect, our response is similar to a hungry cat watching mice. We eagerly pounce on whatever ‘insights’ we find without questioning their validity or value.

"Eurich says those who introspect by asking ‘what’ questions are far more effective than those who ask ‘why’ questions. But it isn’t hard to change a question to start with a different word without really changing the question itself. The real key to the ‘what’ questions is that they tend to be more objective than ‘why’ questions. Although our self-reflections are necessarily subjective, we can work to make them far more objective." — From Designing the Mind by Ryan A Bush (bolded passages are from Insight by Tasha Eurich)

Tasha Eurich describes self-awareness as:

"The ability to see ourselves clearly, to understand who we are, how others see us and how we fit into the world."

According to Eurich, 95% of people believe they are self-aware, but only 10-15% are. The correlation between introspection and lower well-being is found in those who ask ‘why' questions that lead away from the truth by creating alternative narratives.

Eurich provides the following example in her TEDx talk:

Nathan, a brand manager, received a terrible performance review from his new boss. Instead of asking, "why are we like oil and water?” He asked, “what can I do to show her I'm the best person for this job?”

The 'why' questions lead to the wrong form of introspection, causing us to ruminate on the past. By contrast, 'what' questions can lead us toward meaningful opportunities for growth.

II. Aristotle's telic and atelic activities

"In his Metaphysics, Aristotle contrasts two kinds of action. Some are 'incomplete,' such as learning or building something, since 'if you are learning, you have not at the same time learned' and if you are still in the process of building, the structure is not yet built. Completion comes later, if at all. Then there is 'that sort of action to which completion belongs'—meaning that it’s never incomplete. An example of this is thinking: the moment you’re thinking of Aristotle, you have already thought of him.

"Aristotle calls activity of the first kind kinêsis and the second energeia. Stealing jargon from linguistics, we can say that building a house and learning the alphabet are 'telic' activities: they aim at terminal states, in which they are finished and thus exhausted. ('Telic' comes from the Greek word telos or end, the root of 'teleology.') Walking home is telic: it’s done when you get home. So are projects like getting married or having a child. These are things you can complete.

"Other activities are 'atelic': they do not aim at termination, a final state in which they have been achieved. While you are walking home, you are also walking, as you can walk with no particular destination. That is an atelic activity. So are parenting, spending time with friends, and listening to music. You can stop doing these things, and you eventually will. But you cannot exhaust them. They have no limit, no outcome whose achievement brings them to an end.

"With telic activities, satisfaction is always in the future or the past. Your ambition is unfulfilled, and then it’s over. Worse, your engagement with what you value is self-destructive. When you pursue a cherished goal, you aim to succeed, and so to end your engagement with something good. It’s as though you’re trying to destroy a source of meaning in your life. When you value the process, your relation to the present, and to failure, is quite different. Because they do not aim at terminal states, atelic activities are not exhaustible. Your engagement with them does not annihilate them. You can stop walking, or thinking, or talking to someone you love, but you can’t exhaust those activities, leaving no more to be done." — From Life is Hard by Kieran Setiya (view my three takeaways)

We will engage with both forms of activities throughout our lives. But, if we wish to be satisfied in the present, we should focus on the process rather than the outcome when engaging in telic (future-based) activities. Atelic activities are joyous in and of themselves and require no modification.

Aristotle's division of activities is similar to the Stoic dichotomy of control, the practice of separating what we can control from what we cannot. Epictetus, a former slave, turned Stoic philosopher, wrote that only our thoughts and actions are under our direct control; everything else is out of our hands. We discussed this further in Mind Macros 20, but here's a quick summary:

We can influence many situations that are beyond our control. The majority of life's challenges fall into this category. For example, we cannot control whether our boss decides to grant us a promotion; their preferences are their own, and fighting them would be a losing battle. However, we can control how hard we work, our commitment to the company, our teamwork, and so forth.

Derren Brown describes this concept with the analogy of a tennis match in his book, Happy. Brown advises that we should not worry about “winning the game,” a result that is beyond our control. Instead, we should focus on playing to the best of our abilities, which is under our direct control.

Quotes to Ponder

I. Carl Sagan on accepting uncomfortable truths.

"The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true."

II. Friedrich Nietzsche on belief vs. inquiry.

"If you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire."

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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