All Means And No End

Douglas Rushkoff in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus:

“We have set in place an economic system whose growth works against our own prosperity.”

He explains that the central assumption of our economic lives — that further economic growth will create continually rising prosperity for all — is broken. Companies are designed to take money out of the system so in the end they vacuum up the playing field altogether, impoverishing the markets, consumers and employees–on whom they ultimately depend.

 

As we unfortunately absorb capitalistic principles into our daily lives, we also have inherited their flaws. One of them being the need to constantly grow. And just as much as it is unsustainable for businesses, it is equally unsustainable in our daily lives since we can never be certain whether we have achieved enough. The inevitable consequence is disappointment from endless ambition on the one hand, and bitterness when things don’t work on on the other.

 

Matt Haig explains wonderfully in his book Reasons to Stay Alive how our culture constantly threatens us to “improve.”

“The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind. To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.”

To achieve what Haig calls ‘the revolutionary act of being calm’ requires constraints. We tend to assume that “keeping our options open” means living with more freedom. Harry Emerson Fosdick provides an important context for freedom:

“Self-denial is not the negative, forbidding thing that often we shake our heads about. In one sense there is no such thing as self-denial, for what we call such is the necessary price we pay for things on which our hearts are set.”

One must choose to live up to standards based on one’s own judgment about what is good. Then when the world incites us to improve in some way we can interrogate those ideas and ask whether they are opportunities to exercise our values and, if they aren’t, we can be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’ Within simple everyday things like working, walking outside, talking with people, bathing, and eating can be found all the opportunities to live according to chosen values and be fully awake, fully alive and fully human.

 

Self improvement has infiltrated all aspects of our lives as if to suggest that unless an activity is doing some kind of optimization or fulfills some end, it’s not worth doing. I like to think of meditation as just practicing ‘being’ — a time to attempt experiencing a reality deeper than goals, narratives, expectations and desires. But as Mike Powell in Meditation in the Time of Disruption points out, even meditation has been exploited to serve some kind of means.

“Whereas some come to meditation as a way of reckoning with the incredible gifts existence has already given them, others come because they want to see what else is in the bag. This sort of rhetoric only gets ramped up in reference to meditation as a performance booster. For example, the promise that meditation will make you more effective at work seems to have a lot more salience and motivational charge than the promise that meditation will just make work feel a little less important overall.”

“All told, this is a bleak picture,” writes Alexandra Schwartz in Improving Ourselves to Death, published in the New Yorker. She asks, “If the ideal of the optimized self isn’t simply a fad, or even a preference, but an economic necessity, how can any of us choose to live otherwise?” And then provides this answer:

“This isn’t a message of hopelessness. On the contrary, what it actually leads us towards is a better way of finding happiness. Once you realize that it’s all just an act of coercion, that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be, you can begin to free yourself from your demands.”

Recognize the coercion being acted upon you and free yourself from your demands. Find things to do that will not improve you in any measurable way. Go for a walk in the woods. Think about the vastness of the cosmos. Go to a museum and look at art. Or read a book.

 

In The Bookish Life: How To Read And Why, Joseph Epstein explains how reading is one of those things that don’t need to be of concrete use in order to have value.

“What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind. “I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding,” Montaigne wrote, “but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” What Montaigne sought in his reading, as does anyone who has thought at all about it, is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” As I put it elsewhere some years ago, I read for the pleasures of style and in the hope of “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness,” and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.”

To Tell A Story Is To Be A Manipulator

A quote by Peter Marin in his article Spiritual Obedience (Harpers Magazine Feb 1979) from Sam Harris’ book Waking Up A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, does a great job of articulating a particular vulnerability we all have as humans:

“I remember going a few years ago to a lecture in which the speaker, in the name of enlightenment, had advocated total submission to a religious master. The audience, like most
contemporary audiences, had been receptive to the idea, or more receptive, rather, than they
would have been a while back. Half of them were intrigued by the idea. Drawn to it. Total submission. Obedience to a “perfect master.” One could hear, inwardly in them, the gathering of
breath for a collective sigh of relief. At last, to be set free, to lay down one’s burden, to be a child again-not in renewed innocence, but in restored dependence, in admitted, undisguised dependence. To be told, again, what to do, and how to do it. … The yearning in the audience was so palpable, their need so thick and obvious, that it was impossible not to feel it, impossible not to empathize with it in some way. Why not, after all? Clearly there are truths and kinds of wisdom to which most persons will not come alone; clearly there are in the world authorities in matters of the spirit, seasoned travelers, guides. Somewhere there must be truths other than the
disappointing ones we have; somewhere there must be access to a world larger than this one. And if; to get there, we must put aside all arrogance of will and the stubborn ego, why not? Why not admit what we do not know and cannot do and submit to someone who both knows and does, who will teach us if we merely put aside all judgment for the moment and obey with trust and goodwill?”

That vulnerability? We want to believe. In what? In anything that can make sense of our feelings. Life is hard. It’s easier when there is an explanation. Looking for reasons isn’t something that our brains can turn off. And for that reason we are easily manipulated. The manipulator needs only two things, a story and the means to tell it.

For most of human history a story could only be told orally. (From an evolutionary perspective, one reason it makes sense that we would believe stories  is because for most of our species’ history one could only hear a story from a person they knew and trusted.) Oral stories gave way to written ones, which gave way to stories on the radio. A great Radiolab episode called War of the Worlds  tells the story of how Orson Welles in 1938 was able to captivate audiences with his radio drama about martians invading earth. The show was made in a way that was incredibly believable, to the point that people turned off their radios and readied themselves to fight the invaders. In the show they demonstrate that others have taken the War of the Worlds script and seen similar results in places like Quito, Ecuador and Buffalo, New York — each with their own version of inciting mass hysteria. As they go on to explain, with War of the Worlds Orson Welles created the initial playbook with radio that all modern newscasters have since mastered with TV. Not a day goes by without “breaking news” that some threat may or may not affect you — but you’ll have to wait until after the commercials to find out what.

So after oral, written, radio and tv stories came the stories we now consume via the internet. At first humans could only manipulate those within the sound of their voice. Then it was just the select few humans who were the gatekeepers to mass media. Now with the internet, the tools for manipulation are in each of our hands. Each of us has a story and the ability to share it far and wide. This unprecedented ability is causing some serious negative externalities. As Frank Bruni explains in his New York Times article, The Internet Will Be the Death of Us:

“Before he allegedly began mailing pipe bombs to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and others, Cesar Sayoc found encouragement online — maybe not in the form of explosives instructions, but in the sense that he could scream his resentments in a theater that did the opposite of repudiating them. It echoed them back. It validated and cultivated them. It took something dark and colored it darker still…The internet is the technology paradox writ more monstrous than ever. It’s a nonpareil tool for learning, roving and constructive community-building. But it’s unrivaled, too, in the spread of lies, narrowing of interests and erosion of common cause. It’s a glorious buffet, but it pushes individual users toward only the red meat or just the kale. We’re ridiculously overfed and ruinously undernourished.”

He goes on to quote Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple,

“Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false.”

“Rogue actors” are taking advantage of this new-found ability, but so are the rest of us too. To tell a story is to be a manipulator. Your manipulation may not to be a conscious effort to incite others to violence but it’s still a manipulation that we’re all affected by. And your ability to distribute your manipulations has never been easier.

Tim Urban in his article 7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook, exposes beautifully how manipulative we all are when given the chance. We can’t help but use the same time-tested tactics of Orson Welles and your local TV broadcaster to craft images of ourselves while reinforcing and defining the groups we belong to.

We need to acknowledge the stories that we indulge in, recognize the complexities of reality and practice self-introspection. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, explains,

“[People] are encouraged to follow their feelings. If they feel offended by something then they have been attacked. They’re supposed to not question those feelings. But part of wisdom is the ability to say, “now wait a second, are there other ways to look at this?” These are crucial skills for critical thinking. These are crucial skills for mental health and we need to be teaching young people at all stages to question their first interpretations, look for evidence and improve the way they interpret the world.”

This is the only chance we have at escaping the weaponized story telling that bombards us.

All Stories Are False, But Some Are Useful

In his Book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari calls it the cognitive revolution. About 70,000 years ago a genetic mutation altered the inner wiring of Homo sapiens, enabling them to think and communicate in unprecedented ways. Humans began telling stories and share ideas and myths. We are the only species to have developed this capacity to comprehend ideas and events that we’ve never personally experienced. These stories, myths, beliefs, religions and ideologies enabled the cooperation needed for large groups to work together. The cognitive revolution laid the necessary groundwork for the agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago, followed by the scientific revolution about 500 years ago.

The statistician George E. P. Box said,

“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

In the case of the cognitive revolution that can be rephrased as, “All stories are wrong, but some are useful.”

The benefits of this ability to believe stories that enable cooperation surround us. Harai explains:

“At the heart of our mass cooperation networks, you will always find fictional stories that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one-another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland, and the Serbian flag. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they all believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights—and the money paid out in fees.”

But of course, this cooperation superpower can also backfire. There comes a time when some story is brought out into the light and we see it for what it really is — not some absolute truth, but a mere antiquated social norm. Because beliefs run so deep, people get offended at the insinuation that their “way of life” is hurting others — to them it’s just the way things are and always have been, not a story they’re telling themselves.

For example, Anastasia Basil in her article, Relax, Ladies. Don’t Be So Uptight. You Know You Want It, delineates the movies, ads, and TV shows that have socialized sexism and misogyny in America for generations. Ideas, beliefs and behaviors once thought to be “ just the way things are” is in fact just a story — one that needs to change.

She says,

“No one thinks of themselves as a byproduct of a generation…You’re aware of the trends and social attitudes of your generation, but your thoughts, proclivities, and the votes you cast are entirely your own. Or are they?”
“We are all byproducts of a collective mindset. Those who question the mindset of their time and shine light on its moral defects are considered malcontents. And yet, it is malcontents like MLK who are (later) lauded as heroes — not for upholding America’s values, for shaping them. Here’s a fun game. Ask yourself: What strongly held opinion of mine will my grandchildren one day struggle to understand?”

It takes deliberate effort to look inside and question your motives, beliefs and worldview.
As Basil goes on to say,

“The 23 percent of Americans who supported civil rights in 1963 knew exactly what they were doing. They didn’t accidentally do the right thing. They weren’t accidentally on the right side of history. Instead of bullheaded allegiance, they questioned, examined, and took a knee to the moral defects of their time.”

That deliberate effort required is something that needs to be experienced. The realization needs to come from within. You can’t cause it to happen to someone by providing them with information.

Monica Hesse in the Washington Post article He thought white men were vanishing from TV. I disagreed. So we conducted an experiment, writes, about a man on Facebook who felt white men were increasingly absent from TV, and he surmised that a push toward gender and racial diversity had shoved them out. So she tried to correct him by sending links to studies showing he was wrong. One, from San Diego State University, found only 24 percent of 2017’s films had a female protagonist. It didn’t work so instead they decided to make their own data by watching an hour of the same channel, coding ads by gender, by voice-over vs. on-screen appearance, main actor vs. extra. By the end of the hour he had changed his opinion, “In reviewing these statistics, I have to change my opinion. They do represent the population fairly well. There are some commercials that don’t have any white males in them, but this is to be expected.”

Hesse says,

“Our worldviews are shaped by our experiences. We all obsess over our own scars until we start to think they’re symbols for broader injustice. We believe what we feel. And then we believe our feelings are facts.”

This kind of change is available to all of us if we’re willing to be wrong, if we’re willing to accept that we may be part of the problem and if we’re willing to put in the hard work to uncover the stories we tell ourselves.

A Reliable Path To Being Present — Hobbies

Ancient philosophy teaches that the present is enough for happiness because it allows us to satisfy our simplest and most necessary desires. The idea is that there are natural desires, and unnatural desires. Natural desires are always available, or at least very simple to obtain in the present — such as a desire for water when we are thirsty can be easily satisfied. Unnatural desires, like wanting status and money cannot be easily obtained and are not in the present — therefore they cause unhappiness. Furthermore, a person who applies all his attention and his consciousness to the present will obtain the highest and genuine type of happiness — the pure pleasure of existence.

Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations has this to say on the topic:

“Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing. The longest amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?”

Sitting there blissed out on existing is not an easy mental state to get into. I think a more reliable way to achieve it is in doing things. Particularly things that are interesting to you, that are intellectually compelling and that you enjoy doing — also known as hobbies.

 

Yet hobbies are under threat.

 

One reason, explains Tim Wu in the New York Times article In Praise of Mediocrity, is that we feel like we need to be good at them.

“There’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time.”

Tim Wu goes on to say,

“In a way that we rarely appreciate, the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom. For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment.”
The promise of our civilization, the point of all our labor and technological progress, is to free us from the struggle for survival and to make room for higher pursuits. But demanding excellence in all that we do can undermine that; it can threaten and even destroy freedom. It steals from us one of life’s greatest rewards — the simple pleasure of doing something you merely, but truly, enjoy.”

Stephanie Buck in an article, Our parents discovered leisure. We killed it, describes another reason besides demanding excellence in all that we do that hobbies are becoming extinct: we’re turning hobbies into businesses.

“For many of us, the hobby is dead. Our work lives have merged with our free time, and hobbies are now often indistinguishable from second jobs. In a culture obsessed with productivity, the hobby has become the next venture.”

William Deresiewicz, in his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, tells us that this indoctrination of measuring time spent only by monetary return-on-investment starts early:

“What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.”

In losing our hobbies, we’re losing our humanity. We’re being conditioned to love our jobs, equate career with leisure, turn hobbies into side hustles and then feel self-conscious about our performance when we do them. Not only our humanity and the ability to living in the present are at stake; we’re also being robbed of simple pure joy.

Again, Tim Wu explains,

“But there is also a real and pure joy, a sweet, childlike delight, that comes from just learning and trying to get better. Looking back, you will find that the best years of, say, scuba-diving or doing carpentry were those you spent on the learning curve, when there was exaltation in the mere act of doing.”

Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, echoed this sentiment in his 1990 Kenyon College Commencement speech. In college he decided to paint a copy of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of his dorm room.

“Despite the futility of the whole episode, my fondest memories of college are times like these, where things were done out of some inexplicable inner imperative, rather than because the work was demanded. Clearly, I never spent as much time or work on any authorized art project, or any poli sci paper, as I spent on this one act of vandalism.”

We need to follow the advice of Austin Kleon in his talk, How To Keep Going,  and make everyday Groundhog Day. Consider yourself Phil Connors and ask yourself,

“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”

Phil Connors had to live in the present. He had no future, and the past was irrelevant. Paradoxically, only when he gave into the present was he able to move into the future. We too must realize that only when we disavow outcomes, let go of expectations and get lost in the present with our hobbies do we stand a chance at achieving the pure pleasure of existence.

The Price Of Facebook

We tend to believe that we are rational, profit-seeking, self-interested, long-term players, with access to information and the time and inclination to process it. Therefore the only things we would spend time and money on are things that we believe are worth more than they cost. Who would be stupid enough to consistently waste time and money on something that didn’t give more value back in return?

Look at all the time spent with our phones and social media. Over two billion people currently use Facebook. And since we only spend time and money on things that we believe are worth more than they cost — and since Facebook is free, no matter how minor the benefits, they’re still more substantial than the cost…right?

Well, as Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, says,

“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

Well-funded marketers are working overtime to take advantage of our psychological vulnerabilities to confuse and deceive us about the anxiety, personal freedom, independent thought, outrage, democracy and certainly time that Facebook costs. Yet thanks to our bias for ignorance, if anyone asked, “why Facebook?”, many would reply, “why not?”

In the New Yorker article Why Facts Don’t  Change Our Minds, Elizabeth Kolbert explains how cognitive scientists are able to demonstrate just how ignorant we are of our ignorance — in this case when it comes to our stances on political issues. Multiple kinds of studies show that even when you give people evidence that refutes their beliefs, they still fail to revise them.The ignorance only begins to crack when people are instructed to explain, in as much detail as they can, the impacts of implementing their stance.

“Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.
Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.””

So, in the case of using “free” services online, if we spent less time swiping, liking and posting and more time trying to work through the implications of social media use, we’d realize how clueless we are and stop hurting ourselves.

Let’s try it:

Seneca said,

“Our stupidity may be clearly proved by the fact that we hold that “buying” refers only to the objects for which we pay cash, and we regard as free gifts the things for which we spend our very selves.
These we should refuse to buy, if we were compelled to give in payment for them our houses or some attractive and profitable estate; but we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself.”

This is similar to a quote from Henry David Thoreau,

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

Put another way, “the value of anything is the amount of life you pay for it.” So let’s look at the record: what would your calendar say about what you value the most? Does the amount of time you’ve spent online align with your values? Is your life, as Seneca points out, worth less than the paltry friend requests, status updates and clickbait?

Ancient Stoic philosophers believed that the key to having a good life was to value things that are genuinely valuable and be indifferent to things that lack value.

William B. Irvine, in Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, attributes Marcus Aurelius to saying,

“Because we have it in our power to assign value to things, we have it in our power to live a good life.”

By assigning things their correct value we can avoid much suffering, grief, and anxiety. Consider a handful of values one could choose from to lead to a good life: honesty, hard work, confidence, love, creativity, adventure. How does time on Facebook support these or any other quality value?

For me, questions like these help me put Facebook and all other types of social media in their proper place. The information we consume changes us. Facebook isn’t free. Your life is more valuable than social media.

Making the habitual conscious and the conscious habitual

How much of your life is a result of unconscious beliefs and values?

We generally think that the things we feel, believe, perceive and the way we behave are some kind of natural essence of who we are. Further, we also tend to believe that all of that stuff just happens by itself and isn’t really in our control.

As a result, our emotions feel like they’re attached to our identities. Bad feelings make us think that we’re bad people. Negative identities lead to bad choices which further entrenches us in more bad feelings. This is a lot like what depression feels like – an inescapable spiral of slipping self-worth with no hope of change.

The way out is to realize that the way we react to things we feel, believe and perceive can be, to some degree, chosen. Epictetus, Greek Stoic philosopher, said,

“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”

It’s difficult to choose feelings but you don’t have to take them seriously. Learning to question feelings leads to unraveling their source which, in turn, leads to an ability to relate to feelings differently.

By default we absorb the values and beliefs of our parents, culture, or society and tend to accept them unquestioningly (a tip on discovering your absorbed values: What gets questioned the least? The moment something is most widely accepted is the moment it should be questioned the most). Overcoming these tendencies and deliberately choosing the beliefs that are the most helpful to us is one of the biggest challenges of life. David Foster Wallace explains in his 2005 commencement speech that “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
He goes on saying,

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

The challenge is to make the unhelpful, inherited values and beliefs that we habitually lean on conscious, and, after analyzing them, make the consciously chosen, helpful values habitual:

  1. Watch your mind without necessarily believing everything you think
  2. Discover your unconscious beliefs, examine them and their triggers
  3. Decide if they helpful or not helpful
  4. Create a plan so that when the trigger occurs you’ve got an alternative helpful explanation ready
  5. After enough practice, in any situation we’re in, we naturally feel the helpful emotion instead of the unhelpful one and do the right thing.

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”
John Gardner, Personal Renewal

The Müller-Lyer Illusion and You

Which horizontal line looks longer?
Turns out it’s an illusion called the Müller-Lyer Illusion. The horizontal lines are the same length.

 

Here’s the thing: Even after we have measured the lines and found them to be equal and have had the neurological basis of the illusion explained to us, our conscious awareness still perceives one line to be shorter than the other. One can know that the two lines are the same length whilst at the same time experience them as different lengths.This has a serious effect on our conception of the nature of experience.

 

The world around you is not the way you think it is.
Scientists believe that the illusion works because a portion of the brain that perceives that the one line is longer is “modular” — a kind of semi-independent department of the mind which deals with particular types of inputs, and automatically gives particular types of outputs, and whose inner workings are not accessible to any rational thought from the conscious awareness of the person. Consider the implications: Outside of a simple illusion, how many of our waking hours are managed by a part of the brain that is impervious to reason? Something in us that is deciding before we have any say? As David Eagleman says in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain,

“Instead of reality being passively recorded by the brain, it is actively constructed by it.”

 

In the face of such truth, one must learn to pause. Tara Branch calls it the Sacred Pause:

“Taking our hands off the controls and pausing is an opportunity to clearly see the wants and fears that are driving us. During the moments of a pause, we become conscious of how the feeling that something is missing or wrong keeps us leaning into the future, on our way somewhere else. This gives us a fundamental choice in how we respond: We can continue our futile attempts at managing our experience, or we can meet our vulnerability with the wisdom of Radical Acceptance.”

Realize your first thought is never your best thought. Your first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what you’ve already heard, always the unoriginal conventional wisdom and ridden with stereotypes and inaccuracies. To choose how to construct your own meaning means concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient; to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them and to outlast your impulses. To defeat your desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing is the only way you stand a chance at understanding anything.

 

Don’t believe the story you’re telling about the world
The Müller-Lyer Illusion counts against the claim that seeing is believing. If seeing is believing, then when experiencing the Müller-Lyer Illusion, one would simultaneously believe that the lines were, and were not, the same length at the same time; but this is irrational — how could you simultaneously hold contradictory beliefs?

 

These contradictory beliefs cause cognitive dissonance. Feelings of discomfort result when there is an inconsistency between beliefs and behaviors. Relief comes when something changes to eliminate or reduce the dissonance. In this case, you brain itself provides the relief — it chooses one line to be longer despite all evidence to the contrary.

 

So it is with the world we inhabit and our own beliefs. In every area of life, from relationships to careers, politics to religion, we can’t look at sequences of events without weaving an explanation into them based on what we already believe and have already experienced. When new ideas arrive that threaten your belief system, the truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to accept them. They are literally filtered out and might as well not exist.

 

Don’t believe the story you’re telling about yourself
Ryan Holiday, from Ego Is The Enemy explains that we need to

“resist the comfort of reducing our lives into a story that retroactively creates a clarity that wasn’t and never will be there.”

Crafting a life story out of past events or future ones that don’t exist leads to an arrogant narrative—taking full credit for any good that happens, when in fact, you’re a small part of a large universe.

 

Our brains are wired to try to make sense of things, to see patterns that aren’t there, because there is just too much information to sift through and we need to think the world is not random and that we have control. So our minds take shortcuts by constantly choosing the most likely interpretation of what we see. The brain is designed to be efficient, not accurate.

 

Sometimes the brain’s constant predicting of what will happen is helpful, otherwise we would never have any reason to be confident about anything. In some cases however, it’s predictions are incredibly harmful to us. We jump to conclusions and become expert mind readers and fortune tellers, creating negative interpretations of events that are non-existent. These distortions of thought can turn a negative event into a never-ending pattern of defeat despite little to no evidence. More thought distortions cause our brains to classify everything as either fantastic or awful, perfect or a total failure instead of recognizing everything is on a spectrum. We hang on too tightly to “should” statements about ourselves that we cannot live up to, piling guilt on ourselves. Then we cling to our “should” statements about others and are disappointed they don’t meet our invented expectations leading to anger and resentment.

 

Don’t accept your emotions as fact. Put thoughts on trial. Examine the evidence. You’re not perceiving what’s out there, you’re perceiving whatever your brain tells you.

What Price Do You Put On Your Thoughts?

I saw the Mr. Rogers documentary , “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and something Rogers said struck me.

“What we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.”

I completely agree. The information we consume affects us. It seems like a pretty believable statement but you wouldn’t think so considering how unthinkingly we consume information.

Consider the story with Facebook where user data was taken by Cambridge Analytica to use for political campaigning. People were outraged that data was taken from them without their knowing to serve them content that they didn’t want. Yet, nothing happened. Reports say Facebook usage actually increased.

A person walking out of a Whole Foods could be accused of being a fool for over paying for their natural, organic, fair-trade groceries instead of getting them from a typical store down the street. But the purchaser responds, “What price do you put on your health?” Whether or not that high-priced food is actually healthier is another debate. The laudable thing that Whole Foods customer is trying to do is be conscious and deliberate in their food consumption. When it comes to information consumption, the question not enough of us are asking is, “What price do you put on your thoughts?”

Every thought in your head is sourced from where you place your attention. The fear, outrage, disgust and contempt buzzing in our heads is directly proportional to the information we consume that gives those emotions a chance to grow. We seem to accept that the awfulness of the media is some natural outgrowth of the world we live in. In fact, it’s a reaction to the 24 hour news-cycle where leeching more and more of our attention became a business goal. There’s always front page news because there’s always a front page — not because the news on that front page is actually newsworthy. Feeling fear, outrage, disgust and contempt on a regular basis is an option — one you don’t have to choose if you don’t want to.

We are much further along in recognizing the effects of diet on physical health than we are in recognizing the effects of information on our mental health. Consider the amount of interventions and innovations that exist today to help us eat healthy: nutrition labels, calorie amounts on menus, diet books, personal trainers, nutritionists. Now compare all that to the lack of interventions devoted to improving our consumption of information. There are some ‘hacks’ to help curb smartphone addiction and some books on the topic, that’s about it.

The information that affects us is not limited to news. We also need to be concerned with tv shows, movies, youtube, comic books, Instagram feeds, billboards, music, product packaging, etc. This makes the challenge very complex. Continuing the analogy of information consumption compared to food consumption helps.

A calorie can be thought of as a unit of energy – if the amount of energy we consume is greater than the amount of energy we spend, the excess is stored in fat. This sounds simple but a calorie for one person is not the same as a calorie for another. Every individual’s ability to extract energy from food is a little different. So a calorie is a useful energy metric, but to work out exactly how many of them each of us requires we need to factor in things like exercise, food type, and our body’s ability to process energy — it’s not easy.

The same goes for trying to understand a unit of measurement for information consumed. The best tool we’ve got is listening to ourselves. We need to pause and reflect on the information we consume and pay attention to how it makes us feel.

Penn Jillette says food consumption is driven more by habit than by taste:

“It turns out everything about eating is habit. It’s all habitual. You think you have a natural inclination to like grilled cheese or donuts. Not true. All we eat is habit.”

I’m convinced that almost all content is consumed out of habit too making us feel just as lethargic as eating a bag of chips. Most of the information we consume is not even enjoyed. Consider Aziz Ansari’s test:

“Take, your nightly or morning browse of the Internet, right? Your Facebook feed, Instagram feed, Twitter, whatever. If someone every morning said, “I’m gonna print this and give you a bound copy of all this stuff you read so you don’t have to use the Internet. You can just get a bound copy of it.” Would you read that book? No! You’d be like, this book sucks. There’s a link to some article about a horse that found its owner somehow. It’s not that interesting.”

It took the obesity crisis to draw awareness to the food we eat. Let’s not wait for a crisis in mental health to draw attention to how powerful the information we consume affects our well being.

Be aware of how your attention is hijacked. Consume content on your terms, not on the phone’s. Letting Facebook decide what’s good for you to read and watch would be like letting McDonalds choose what you should eat.

To only seek information and entertainment that makes us feel good would be doing ourselves a disservice. Don’t binge on empty information calories. Broccoli needs to be consumed just as much as the salty and sweet snacks.

Remember the complexity of every issue. Attack the deep details of subjects to see the multiple facets being explored, the reasoning used by the other side and ask child-like simple questions that’ll lay bare the incredible complexity of everything.

Consider Bill Watterson’s idea, creator of Calvin and Hobbes:

“We’re not really taught how to recreate constructively. We need to do more than find diversions; we need to restore and expand ourselves. Our idea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of the television set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery-it recharges by running.”

What Does Greatness Have That Mediocrity Doesn’t?

Judging by most people’s behavior, I would say one of the the biggest fears we have in our culture is of being mediocre. People don’t just jog, they become marathoners; they don’t just exercise but go to Crossfit in order to compete at being the best at it. Workaholism is a badge of honor, reversing centuries where it was the poor who worked while the rich rested. And once adults feel like they’ve peaked, they can begin building their competitive kids. Being average is being an uninteresting slacker who won’t commit 10,000 hours of practice to something.
Is greatness everything it purports to be? I’m skeptical. Or maybe I’m trying to justify my own sense of inferiority. But when I look at what makes greatness so tempting, I see some holes. First off, here are the reasons I can come up with as to why greatness is so great:

  1. The belief that the activity we are engaging in could be more enjoyable if we were the best at it — winning feels better than losing.
  2. In our search for meaning, our current state isn’t cutting it so we reason that it must be because we haven’t reached some higher level where meaning occurs. If we were the greatest at something, that uniqueness would grant a new sense of meaning only endowed on those who are the greatest — we can earn happiness by earning greatness.
  3. We long for status. Greatness = popularity = influence = money = happiness.
  4. For some reason we feel like we don’t belong and greatness would prove to everyone that we are worthy.

Greatness, in essence, is a study of ourselves compared to others. So really, greatness is a perception more than it is a reality. That perception can be manipulated by who we compare ourselves to and what metric we use to compare with.

Malcolm Gladwell has explained that in elite universities many students seek greatness by competing with others to be accepted only to feel like they lose their greatness once they get in.

“When you are in the 99th percentile and you’re up against someone in the 99.99th percentile, you feel stupid.Then you go back to the real world, and you’re smart again. So why would you artificially put yourself in a situation where you feel so dumb that you stop doing the very thing that you went to school to do?”

Gladwell goes on to explain his experience working for a mediocre student newspaper:

“I had a way better experience than I would have had if I was at the highly competitive newspaper. I’ve never forgotten that. By virtue of being this lame, forgotten thing, I got to do more fun stuff and have a much better time than I would have at the proper newspaper.”

The satisfaction of greatness is solely inside your mind and can be achieved by manipulating the input of who you compare yourself with just as much as reaching a certain level of achievement.
Winning is something that is not completely within your control. So to use an external outcome outside of your control as the metric for success is setting yourself up for greater disappointment. Better to use an internal metric to measure yourself against that is in your control — like doing your best. The decreased anxiety of using an internal goal will increase enjoyment during the event and satisfaction afterwards.

 

Releasing yourself from the goal of greatness and reveling in the mediocrity of multiple interests might just be the thing that actually leads to greatness.
Steven Johnson explains in, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Of Innovation,” Innovators like Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin favored working on multiple projects simultaneously, in a kind of slow multitasking mode. One project would take center stage for days at a time, but linger at the back of the mind afterwards too, so connections between projects could be drawn. Breakthrough ideas don’t come out of the blue. They are found at the intersection of  all the other ideas smashing into each other in your head.

“Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities—a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity—but they also share one other defining attribute. They have a lot of hobbies.”

I have a hard time watching those talent shows on TV like American Idol. The contestants are demonstrably talented but singing songs written by other people is ultimately not what we want. One focused on greatness in music or any other field might become an expert, but greatness isn’t expertise, it’s originality and insight.

Adam Grant says,

“Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music. No one is forcing these luminary scientists to get involved in artistic hobbies. It’s a reflection of their curiosity. And sometimes, that curiosity leads them to flashes of insight.”

In this context, striving for greatness can be seen as just a competition of who can be the best at conforming. Some entity sets the rules and then it’s a test to see who is the best at subjecting themselves to be the best at those rules. Being the best at meeting some requirements really isn’t greatness despite what the people who made the rules say — of course they’re going to say that’s what greatness is, it puts them in a position of greatness.


“Your potential, the absolute best you’re capable of—that’s the metric to measure yourself against. Your standards are. Winning is not enough. People can get lucky and win. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.” ― Ryan Holiday, The Ego Is the Enemy

 

The term “hedonic treadmill” is what social scientists call the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. In other words, the happiness that is awarded those who achieve greatness is fleeting.
There are many people who reach a level of greatness only to feel empty and vapid. Jim Carrey is quoted saying,

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

So why strive for greatness if the reward is so unfulfilling? If we’re not content with our current status then there’s a good chance that no level of greatness will make us feel any better. Or to say it another way, we stand just as good a chance of being content with ourselves in our current state of mediocrity than in being great — actually we have a greater chance since it’s a place much more accessible; we can reach it within our own minds.
That isn’t to say it doesn’t take effort to be happy in our current state. Getting over our sense of inferiority is not easy. Our default setting is to avoid pain and seek pleasure, often to the detriment of the present moment.
Ancient eastern Buddhism and western philosophy both concern themselves with practices and mindsets that teach us how to let go of the past and future and live in the present to achieve a feeling of true greatness — being ourselves. To hope for an increase in pleasure from a future of greatness is to be ignorant of pleasure’s very nature. We can achieve stable pleasure only if we know how to limit ourselves to what we can obtain within the present moment, without letting ourselves be swept along by the unreasonable limitless needs of our desires.
This isn’t another way of convincing ourselves to be okay with settling. The present is everything.  Seneca said,

“He who enjoys the present without depending on what does not exist…he is without hope and without desire; he does not hurl himself toward an uncertain goal, for he is satisfied with what he has. Nor is he satisfied with little, for what he posses is the universe…like God he says, “All this belongs to me.”

The present isn’t to be suffered for a future eternal life. It is eternal life.

“Death is not an event of life. It is not experienced. If by eternity we mean not an infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then whoever lives in the present lives eternally.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein

There are tens of millions of people who are better at everything that I do. But I don’t have to compare myself with them, because I’m in a different competition. For a life to be valuable, or meaningful, it needn’t be unique. Believing that specialness is tied to meaning leads me to unnecessarily see my life as insufficiently meaningful and to miss ways of enhancing the meaning that is available. Loving the process instead of the outcome is the secret to motivation and daily enjoyment of the present.
Reaching an arbitrary level of greatness does not prove that we are great. It’s a false label that inspires our egos to think we’re superior to others. We are all always going to be imperfect and “greatness” can only cover it up temporarily.

“Imperfection is not our personal problem – it is a natural part of existing.”  – Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha

I’m not a problem that needs to be solved. I’m neither mediocre nor great. I choose to not affirm myself at all costs against the order of the world and instead delight in the splendor of pure existence.

Wearing Occasions and Practicing Philosophy

Buddhism stresses “mindfulness,” for the Greek philosophers it’s “psychological acceptance.” Both posit that human suffering is not the result of external problems but internal beliefs. Having a nonjudgmental perspective on the totality of one’s experience, learning new information-processing skills and coping mechanisms, reduces suffering and is the path to achieving spiritual enlightenment.

Practicing philosophy means to examine the reasons we have for the values and the beliefs we hold as true so that we can free ourselves from unhelpful traditions, cultures, habits and mindsets. These unhelpful beliefs are what water is to fish – invisible due to their over-familiarity. So how do you study the invisible? One way is to make use of the propaganda thrown at us everyday in the form of advertising. The strategies companies employ to get you to buy their products makes for good brain fodder in how to practice philosophy.

Consider: Consumers have most of their needs met. They also have limited money. What is a corporation with a mandate of constant growth to do? Trying to take market share from competitors is one option. If the pie is only so big, you need to take a larger piece from the competitor if you want to grow. But it’s not cheap. Consumer habits run deep.

Even better than growing market share is growing market size. Increasing market size can take on many forms: for example, a company in the computer business moves into the phone business and then moves into the wristwatch business. Or a low price company creates a tier of luxury, high priced products.

Besides maneuvering into other categories or recreating perceptions of value, the most pernicious way of creating market size is by inventing problems for which the company is the only solution. Create new customer needs and all of a sudden you’ve created more share to take.

This idea is as old as marketing itself. No one knew halitosis was a problem until the mouthwash company told us it was. Who knew wearing white after Labor Day was a sin until fashion companies declared it so? Instead of inventing problems for which the company is the solution — maintaining the problem for which they are the solution is even better. You’re never good looking enough, happy enough, travelled enough or entertained enough as long as the company keeps thinking up new ways to convince you so. In a way, marketing is a personification of the thoughts that we manufacture in our minds – which makes them so ripe for analysis. We also maintain the problematic thought patterns that keep us believing unhelpful thoughts that stroke our egos and pride.

We generally think we’re above it all, that all that advertising doesn’t affect me. Don’t be so quick to think that a thousand cuts won’t kill you. Marketing ideas get our attention by taking advantage of a host of psychological vulnerabilities that we have and then become fuel for the unhelpful values and beliefs that philosophy aims to fix. It is possible to render advertising ineffective and at the same time build our mental muscles to resist. We are awash in marketing messages, and therefor awash in practicing philosophy.

The brevity of marketing messages helps in their perception as being self-evident – too short and shallow to be given critical thought before the next advertisement hijacks our attention. Instead, let the advertisement be your own Socratic questioner. Contemplate the ad’s “call-to-action” with your own opinions and values on the topic suggested and articulate them for yourself. Ask, “who stands to benefit from this belief?” By dragging your values into the light, defending your position against or for the ad’s claim, or just acknowledging you have values will begin to break them down, expose them to the operations of critical intelligence and thus develop that intelligence in the first place. The point isn’t to double-down on your opinions or swallow marketing messages whole, but to put them into the unfamiliar, uncomfortable and endlessly fertile condition of doubt — ultimately to understand that you know less than you think.

So when you learn of a new “wearing occasion” proposed by an apparel company in an attempt to get you to buy clothes that ultimately do the same thing as clothes you already own, consider it an opportunity to teach yourself to recognize it, question it, and think your way around it.