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The Benefits of Seeing Reality

There’s an antidote to many of life’s problems that you may not realize you already have at your disposal. It can reduce anxiety and depression. It can transform your experience with pain & other difficulties. It costs no money. It’s available to everyone at any time. What is this wonder drug?

It’s reality.

Step one: come to terms with the fact that you rarely perceive reality as it is.
Perhaps you’re thinking that reality is the source of your problems, not the cure. But there is a big difference between reality, and your perception of reality. Our brains come equipped with many biases to assure ourselves that we know what’s going on even when we don’t.

In an article in Vox, “Intellectual humility: the importance of knowing you might be wrong” Brian Resnick, explains,

“Much as we might tell ourselves our experience of the world is the truth, our reality will always be an interpretation. Light enters our eyes, sound waves enter our ears, chemicals waft into our noses, and it’s up to our brains to make a guess about what it all is.”

This overconfidence in perceiving reality is not always necessarily bad. It helps us set goals and work towards them even when the odds are stacked against us. This sense of understanding feels good. Voltaire is quoted saying,

Illusion is the first of all pleasures.

But this pleasure comes at a price. There are forces at play within us that we can be unaware of that cause unnecessary pain. Rarely do we experience an event itself, but an invented story about the event. Such stories can treat a fleeting state of mind as if it were our entire and permanent self. Over time irrational thoughts and beliefs are unknowingly reinforced and lead to patterns of thought that drive negative experiences and lead to mental health disorders.

Step two: become aware of thoughts and see them for what they really are.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches that all thoughts should be treated as hypotheses – we don’t assume thoughts are true unless there is compelling evidence to support them. Thoughts need to be put on trial and we need to second guess what our brains are telling us.

Author Robert Greene explains,

…only by throwing some light on yourself and realizing that these qualities, these flaws that are built into us, they are inside you too. Only then can you begin to overcome them and use them for productive purposes.

Question, question, question. Don’t assume that the reason that you feel something, and that it’s right just because you feel it. And in that kind of process, you will become rational, you’ll become somebody who can use empathy, you will have the ability to judge people properly and accept them for who they are as opposed to continually moralizing, wishing people were something that they’re not.

You’ll have a much smoother path through life, and you’ll be much calmer and more peaceful without all that emotional baggage that drags you down. But it starts with looking inward and questioning yourself and not assuming that everything you feel or think is right.

To practice this skill of questioning, CBT practitioners use worksheets like the “Dysfunctional Thought Record,” which asks the user to write down a situation where they had an intense emotion. Then they are to think about which automatic thoughts led to that emotion, identify the distortions that those thoughts contain and then reassess how much they really believe in those thoughts. In the end, the initial emotion is reevaluated — usually leading to a decrease in intensity.

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, has said more than once that the reason he meditates is to answer the question:

“What is reality? What is really happening? To be able to tell the difference between the stories that the mind keeps generating about the world, about myself, about everything and the actual reality.”

Meditation is essentially training our attention so that we can become more aware. It allows us to recognize the authenticity of thoughts and emotions and not be overwhelmed by them. Mindful meditation allows you to practice observing a thought, or a worry, and interrupt it before it spirals out of control and causes you to anxiously dwell on it.

One way it does this, similar to CBT, is called Mental Noting. Mental Noting is the practice of using a simple “note” to give a name to what you are experiencing. It does not involve analysis or judgment. It’s simply to give your current experience a one-word label — ‘seeing’, ‘touching’, ‘feeling’, ‘thinking’ etc. The goal is that with enough practice in mental noting while meditating, it can become second nature with any experience in day-to-day life.

Steven Johnson, in his book “Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most,” writes, “The Novel is an empathy machine.”

He explains that,

“We can imagine all sorts of half-truths and hypotheticals: what-she-will-think-if-this-happens, what-he-thinks-I’m-feeling. Reading literary novels trains the mind for that kind of analysis. You can’t run a thousand parallel simulations in our life but you can read a thousand novels over the course of that life…It’s true that the stories that unfold in those novels do not directly mirror the stories in our own lives…But the point of reading this kind of literary fiction is not to acquire ready-made formula for our own choices. [What it] does teach you to do is see the situations with…a keen vision and feeling.”

In other words, reading helps us practice feeling emotions. We can observe the antagonist’s choices and feel what they feel and practice recognizing the thinking distortions the antagonist has before they do. Heroes usually carry some deeply painful event that they believe has been resolved or overcome, but which is still affecting their behavior. Screenwriter Michael Hauge calls this the hero’s “wound”. We the audience can feel the character’s wound by proxy and experience the character’s attempts to be effective while trying to not admit that the wound exists – just like we do in real life. So when the hero embarks on a journey (the plot), they are forced to confront their wound and we get practice in doing the same — ideally leading us to confront our own personal thought distortions.

We all have stories we’ve told ourselves that limit our potential and cause undue pain. Use all opportunities to practice challenging your negative thoughts with frequent reality testing: meditation, cognitive therapy or by consuming fiction. Don’t believe lies.

Nature’s Role In Helping Us Succeed

Avoiding danger is a key survival skill for any species. One way our species accomplished this was by developing systems in our brains over tens of thousands of years that would make it unavoidable for us to not notice danger, and as a result, hopefully, respond to it. This system has been identified as the negativity bias by social scientists – “even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state than neutral or positive things.”

Our modern-day brains are equipped with this finely tuned built-in brain apparatus that’s super-sensitive to negativity, but instead of using it to be hyper-aware of negative things like tigers stalking us or other tribes moving in on our territory, our brains dwell on no Facebook likes, being looked over at work, the aches and pains of an aging body or insults we received years ago.

Some people seem to be able to brush off these negative feelings effortlessly and move on with life while for others, the negativity turns into habitual thought patterns. But there’s no reason that the more negatively-inclined of us can’t learn to cope and even thrive with negativity bias and in fact, I think those who consciously learn to do so can turn it into an advantage.

First, consider another psychological finding called the “facial feedback hypothesis” which demonstrates how manipulatable the brain is. The “facial feedback hypothesis” is the idea that facial movement can influence emotional experience. Your brain doesn’t just look externally for stimulus but actually pays attention internally to what your body is doing. So, when it senses that a muscle, like those connected to smiling, are flexing, the brain attributes it to happiness, and then we feel happy. In other words, our brains can be manipulated by conscious physical effort.

Our physical bodies aren’t the only thing that can change our emotions – our conscious and unconscious thoughts affect emotions too. Thoughts can trigger emotions, like worrying about catching a flight, and they also serve as an appraisal of that emotion: as in, “this isn’t a realistic fear”. The former causes emotions, the latter dispels them.

So, you wake up and the body is stiff, your mind is cloudy, the alarm clock hurts your ears – all these physical stimuli are signals that the brain intends to give meaning to. These negative feelings remind you of a thought, “I hate my job, It’s the worst.” Now the brain has the proof it was looking for to justify the emotion – “You feel sad.” You take that sad feeling and apply further cognitive distortions to it, “I always feel sad and it will never get better.” Those thoughts are heard by the brain, it pushes the buttons and pulls the levers and releases some more chemicals and now you feel worse. You take a long time to get out of bed and you choose to skip the gym and eat a pop-tart instead — these actions reinforcing negative thoughts causing more sad emotions. Repeat this enough mornings in a row and you’ll have a personal Rube Goldberg machine of entrenched thought patterns where “waking up” = “life is pointless”. This is one manifestation of depression.

What if you chose to attribute those negative feelings somewhere else? Stiff body, cloudy mind, alarm clock: Instead you think, “This feeling in the morning? This isn’t because of work. This is the prerequisite feeling before achievement is possible. This is how you know you’re on the right track. This is what winning feels like.” The brain believes you. And again starts to look for a way to justify those thoughts. You come up with the thought, “I’m making progress at work.” The brain pushes those buttons and pulls those levers and releases some more chemicals and now you feel better. So you go to the gym and stick to your diet. Repeat and eventually “waking up” = “Life is full of possibilities.”

Apply this to every scenario where negative feelings occur:
That uncomfortable feeling of confusion isn’t proof of incompetence, but evidence of being on the threshold of learning something new.
That dissatisfaction isn’t proof of discontentment, but evidence of putting in the required amount of effort before achievement is possible.
That feeling of fear due to uncertainty isn’t proof of your incapableness, but evidence that you’re getting stronger

Exercising doesn’t feel great all the time which is why many people don’t do it. You have to come to learn that the negative feelings of exhaustion, discomfort and pain are actually good – no pain, no gain. Those feelings mean you’re doing it right and the reward is forthcoming.

Epicurus said,

“Give thanks to nature, the bountiful, because it has made necessary things easy to procure, while things hard to obtain are not necessary.”

Can one feel a near-constant sense of progress by taking what nature gives so readily and translate dissatisfaction, discontent, uncertainty and disappointment into something else? What if instead of considering those negative feelings as something to be avoided, we saw them as necessary and looked forward to them like sign posts informing us that we’re on the right track? Since those negative feelings will be there one way or another, I’d say might as well try to make the most of them.

The Narrativization Of Everything

As the competition for our attention has gotten more cutthroat, so has the narrativization of everything. In the war for clicks and pageviews, the content with the most dumbed-down, most easily digestible point of view wins. It’s so tempting to glance through the headlines and consider yourself informed.

 

Stories are decisions. There’s no such thing as “the story,” no pre-existing idea or self-determined material that belongs in “the story” by necessity of its chosen subject or characters. It’s all invented by people with agendas and worldviews that differ from your own.

 

Complex problems require complex solutions. And almost all problems are complex ones. News shows and media outlets would have us believe differently. By shaping the news into simple narratives, for-profit organizations are able to give our brains what they crave: a sense of understanding. Since our brains don’t like randomness, we are constantly looking at sequences of events and weaving our own, or other’s explanations into them.

 

We believe that our opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis. But we suffer from biases formed from the result of years of paying attention to information which confirms what we believe while ignoring information that challenges our preconceived notions. Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.

 

The truth is, anything that captures our attention — from a stone lying on the side of a road to the latest supreme court ruling — contains a captivating world beneath the superficial labels that we apply to them. The word “know” is incredibly deceptive.

“When you don’t cover up the world with words and labels, a sense of the miraculous returns to your life that was lost a long time ago when humanity, instead of using thought, became possessed by thought.” ― Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose

 

Our ignorance can feel overwhelming as explained by John Salvatier in his post, Reality has a surprising amount of detail:

“Before you’ve noticed important details they are, of course, basically invisible. It’s hard to put your attention on them because you don’t even know what you’re looking for. But after you see them they quickly become so integrated into your intuitive models of the world that they become essentially transparent.
This means it’s really easy to get stuck. Stuck in your current way of seeing and thinking about things. Frames are made out of the details that seem important to you. The important details you haven’t noticed are invisible to you, and the details you have noticed seem completely obvious and you see right through them. This all makes makes it difficult to imagine how you could be missing something important.”

 

So how do we overcome these deceptive narratives? Step one: admit you have a problem. Ask yourself, “who wins?” Does the conclusion you’ve come to in support of placing yourself above others? If so, there’s a chance you’re not seeing the whole picture.
As the wise Andrew WK says,

“When we anticipate with ferocious glee the next chance we have to prove someone “wrong” and ourselves “right,” all the while disregarding the vast complexity of almost every subject — not to mention the universe as a whole — we are reducing the beauty and magic of life to a “side” or a “type,” or worst of all, an “answer.” This is the power of politics at it’s most sinister.”

 

Step two: exercise your critical thinking muscles. You need to constantly remind yourself that there is always more to the story.

 

A steady diet of filter bubble, outrage-clickbait that is compulsively consumed in tiny doses on a small screen while being distracted by flashing alerts, likes, badges and breaking news won’t help — in fact, that kind of consumption will only strengthen the brain muscles that encourage shallow thinking.

 

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.

What’s the job you hired your career to be done?

In our society there is a lot riding on your career. Far from just paying the bills, a career needs to provide meaning, status, belonging and happiness – in a word, Fulfilling. The list of required attributes for a career to be classified as fulfilling is a long one:

  • Work that is engaging and intellectually compelling
  • Provides autonomy in how to perform your work
  • Has variety
  • Is meaningful
  • Helps others
  • Allows you to work with supportive colleagues
  • Aligns with your interests and passions
  • Provides a direct connection between effort and reward

Many people are “disengaged” with their work (68% of us, according to the latest Gallup poll) and the solution seems to be focused around finding a more ideal job – one that checks off more of the fulfilling checkboxes.

 

But what if it’s not your career’s fault? What if you’ve “hired” your career to do the wrong job?

 

Clay Christensen, Harvard Business School professor, has what he calls, “The theory of jobs to be done.” It’s a strategy to help businesses reframe their ideas on how create innovative products:
“When we buy a product, we essentially “hire” it to help us do a job. If it does the job well, the next time we’re confronted with the same job, we tend to hire that product again. And if it does a crummy job, we “fire” it and look for an alternative.”

 

Is it possible that we’re hiring our careers to do many things it was never designed to do in the first place? How about just picking a job based on what’s in demand? Balance the trade offs between money and time required. Then check off those “becoming fulfilled” boxes with the things our grandparents called families, hobbies, friends and communities.

 

I think the problem with the “disengaged” worker is not their unfulfilling job, it’s actually the modern day curse of having enough time to try to find a meaning to it all. And when an easy answer isn’t forthcoming through shallow inquiry, the job is blamed. You’ve hired your career to do a job it’s not designed to do.

 

 

Indifference is a disease

At the end of Matt Haig’s book, The Humans, about an alien who appropriates a human body and learns to enjoy living among us, there is a chapter dedicated to “advice for a human”.

My favorite is number 86:

To like something is to insult it. Love it or hate it. Be passionate. As civilisation advances, so does indifference. It is a disease. Immunize yourself with art. And love.

What does indifference look like? I think it looks like binge watching, mcmansions, designer jeans, snapchat, self expression and the radio.