September 22, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 35: Focused thinking, Socratic questioning, and the progress principle

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.  Focused thinking

"The first person to spot the arduousness, and to pioneer focused thinking, was the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE). He became famous in Athens for standing around the marketplace asking what seemed like simple questions about what his fellow citizens were trying to achieve with their lives. They would tell him at once, and with great confidence, that they cared about ‘justice’ or that they admired ‘courage’ or that they were keen on ‘beauty’ or ‘art’. Socrates would respond not by agreeing or disagreeing but by asking them what they meant by ‘justice’ or ‘courage’ or ‘art’ or ‘beauty’. These were not unfair questions: his friends were relying heavily on these words. But after a few minutes of more searching discussion, it would always turn out that these people couldn’t say clearly what they meant.

"Socrates was getting at something fundamental: we go around feeling that our thoughts are clear, but if we submit them to further questioning, we realise that they suffer from a grave vagueness. However, there is no inner warning system to alert us to this; no intellectual alarm in our brains to shout ‘watch out, you’re being vague! You’re formulating plans with woolly ideas!’ We don’t easily realise how out of focus our minds are and how at risk we will be of hitting reefs and shallows.

"Vagueness is a problem because it means failing to pick out what really matters to us in any given situation. We might circle the right territory but we do not close in on the core issue, so our thoughts are ineffective guides to action.

"In our thinking work, we are often like miners in search of a precious metal who initially always hit a compound ore; we need (without realising it) to sift out the valuable essence. Lack of a definition can sometimes seem like a purely academic worry, but it is at the root of many failed efforts and doomed goals.

"The goal is not to become artists or philosophers, but to do something that accompanies these tasks: to move from woolly first impressions to authentic details; to go from vagueness to focus – and therefore to give ourselves the best chance of reaching what we actually seek." — From How to Think More Effectively by The School of Life

Socrates made a lifelong habit of questioning people's opinions and beliefs until his death for impiety. Far from being impious, Socrates wished to encourage others to clarify their vague assertions in order to truly know themselves. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides more insight into Socrates' ambles through Athens:

"Socrates was usually to be found in the marketplace and other public areas, conversing with a variety of different people—young and old, male and female, slave and free, rich and poor, citizen and visitor—that is, with virtually anyone he could persuade to join with him in his question-and-answer mode of probing serious matters. Socrates’s lifework consisted in the examination of people’s lives, his own and others’, because 'the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being,' as he says at his trial. Socrates pursued this task single-mindedly, questioning people about what matters most, e.g., courage, love, reverence, moderation, and the state of their souls generally."

Despite Socrates' assertion that he was not a teacher, his technique of questioning no doubt taught the Athenians a great deal. His style of questioning has since been called 'Socratic Questioning,' and aims to teach students through asking thoughtful questions, encouraging them to think deeply about the answer.

II. The progress principle

"Richard Davidson, the psychologist who brought us affective style and the approach circuits of the front left cortex, writes about two types of positive affect. The first he calls 'pre-goal attainment positive affect,' which is the pleasurable feeling you get as you make progress toward a goal. The second is called 'post-goal attainment positive affect,' which Davidson says arises once you have achieved something you want. You experience this latter feeling as contentment, as a short-lived feeling of release when the left prefrontal cortex reduces its activity after a goal has been achieved.

"In other words, when it comes to goal pursuit, it really is the journey that counts, not the destination. Set for yourself any goal you want. Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike. If you went on the hike only to feel that pleasure, you are a fool. Yet people sometimes do just this. They work hard at a task and expect some special euphoria at the end. But when they achieve success and find only moderate and short-lived pleasure, they ask (as the singer Peggy Lee once did): Is that all there is? They devalue their accomplishments as a striving after wind. We can call this 'the progress principle': Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them. Shakespeare captured it perfectly: 'Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.'" — From The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

The progress principle helps to rectify some of the problems associated with modern goal setting, particularly the notion of living for future accomplishment. Many people who immerse themselves in a goal that takes up years of their life arrive only to feel empty. The journey provided the meaning; now it's over, and they need to find another goal to embrace.

Furthermore, awaiting the attainment of goals leaves one feeling a tension between the two poles of achievement, as Oliver Burkeman explains in his book, Four Thousand Weeks:

"It’s always the case either that you haven’t achieved [your goal] yet (so you’re dissatisfied, because you don’t yet have what you desire) or that you’ve already attained [your goal] (so you’re dissatisfied, because you no longer have it as something to strive toward)."

View my three takeaways from Four Thousand Weeks

Quotes to Ponder

I. Gordon Livingston on using logical reasoning to argue against illogical thinking:

“It is difficult to remove by logic an idea not placed there by logic in the first place.”

II. Epictetus on opening the gates to our well-being from within:

“If someone tried to take control of your body and make you a slave, you would fight for freedom. Yet, how easily you hand over your mind to anyone who insults you. When you dwell on their words and let them dominate your thoughts, you make them your master.”

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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