“If you have reasons to love someone, you don’t love them.”
― Slavoj Žižek
There are many ways to understand the world we live in. One of the most practical ways to understand it is to put elements of it into a framework. A framework is commonly understood as a basic structure underlying a system, concept, or text. Sure, frameworks are delightful — they are like learning from someone else’s experience. What if you could just put a straw into a genius brain and consume all the knowledge. Very convenient but very biased as well.
An even easier way to understand the world is to use a shortcut called reductionism. For instance, linguistic reductionism is the idea that everything can be described or explained by a language with a limited number of concepts, and combinations of those concepts. If you take this idea further, it is easy to conclude that the stock market (as measured by the DJIA or the S&P 500 index) fell a 3,000 points in a single day because of the COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic. Of course, the virus in and of itself was one black swan event that resulted in the bedlam in the market but it is most certainly not the only one. In other words, it could be the straw that broke the camels’ back just not the only one.
However, as we live in an increasingly digitized world, we begin to believe the output that technology delivers to us is real, accurate and doesn’t need further interpretation. I believe it is quite the opposite. We need to use our in built computing power much more to uncover bias and to understand the world as the chaotic, fluid and frameless picture it is. We should try not to put a frame to something that doesn’t need a boundary. In this story, I provide a few helpful tips that have helped me personally and will hopefully help you on your quest to understand an incredibly complex and yet very interesting world we live in.
Biases, Heuristics and Total Misunderstanding
All of our world views are largely a product of the environment we grew in and therefore our experiences. My past guides so many of my present day habits and ultimately my world view. All of my biases are actively at play everday. As of last count, wikipedia mentions 104 cognitive biases. I refer this codex many times to self-identify an limit my biases control my world view.
A heuristic is any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect or rational but which is nevertheless sufficient for an immediate short term goal. Examples of heuristics involve use of frameworks, rule of thumb, an educated guess, profiling, guesstimate or pure common sense.
As is easy to understand, heuristics are extremely important tools. The only trouble we have is self-regulation. If we only use heuristics and allow our biases to reign supreme we are doomed to total misunderstanding.
Control Is A Partial Illusion
First, one of the best ways to understand the world is to read, listen to and meet people with the absolute opposite world view as you. You will find it is not very hard sometimes. To give you an example, I was listening to a podcast where the host was interviewing Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google. To my surprise, Eric mentioned that the most important factor contributing to his success was ‘luck’ . I was completely taken aback.
For a person that thought all the variables in this world are under my control, that came as a shock. Eric went on to mention one of the best examples of luck in this world today. He said I did not choose who my parents will be. I was lucky to be born in a great family. I pondered on that for a minute and suddenly my wheels started spinning. It was true that luck played a major role in everyone’s lives. Did it change my approach to my life? No. I still believe you have to be the hardest worker in the room.
In addition, I also acknowledged that talent and intellect are just one part of the equation. You can only control your effort. This sudden revelation about control being a partial illusion made me less reactionary and more accepting of people who others perceived as super arrogant and borderline sociopaths. I could empathize with more people. I don’t know about you but some of the most important life decisions I have made defy logical reasoning. I just made the decision because it ‘felt’ like the right one.
Second, I found this video and technique by Tim Ferriss very enlightening. In this highly personal and very effective TED talk, Tim attributes his escape from total mental breakdown to ‘Stoicism’ — a tool that has helped him differentiate between the variables he could control and the ones he couldn’t. He developed a process called ‘Fear Setting’ just like ‘Goal Setting’ to help him on this journey.
Third, taking a pause is a tremendous way to stop being reactionary and to be more deliberate. Get up from your desk, review your work twice before submitting. Take a break, read the email you have drafted to see if your message will not have any disastrous unintended consequences.
This Muscle Needs More Exercise
I am a huge nerd. I love acquiring general knowledge — knowledge which may not be directly relevant to your life goals but nonetheless can help you understand the world. Don’t always read to ‘gain’ something. Read to enjoy and to enrich yourself too. Do things without a purpose for a change. Ironically, that activity may turn out to be the most purposeful activity you have undertaken in a long time.
The beauty about acquiring general knowledge is that — in order to acquire it, you have to necessarily read about and acknowledge very diverse view points. As you go through the process of acquiring bits and pieces of information, you come to realize how different people view the world differently and so can you. To me, curiosity and general reading has opened me to many different worlds. In addition to being a great exercise for my brain (because I like to remember dates, names and acronyms), acquiring general has granted me infinite capacity to update my world view — an operating system to constantly update my thoughts and view points.
Secondly, before every decision, think more like an economist and less like an accountant — exercise the brain a bit more and uncover the true ‘opportunity cost’ of that decision. This practice is one of the most powerful tools in decision making. For example, one might say that writing on Medium is absolutely free. Instead, if you think of opportunity cost of writing i.e. what you are giving up to be able to free up ‘time’ for writing and you will realize the price you are willing or unwilling to pay for any endeavor.
Try to unplug several times a day and reduce your dependance on technology little by little. Try driving to a different street and getting lost only to find your way back without a GPS to help you. A rear view camera can be incredibly liberating but does it take away human judgment? Only if you don’t decide to use your own instincts once in a while.
Lastly, I don’t claim to have found the best ways to understand the world. What I shared above are some hacks I use on a daily basis. They may not solve for everything but they have helped me make giant strides towards developing an open mind.