Thinking About Meaning

A challenge for me over the last few months is thinking about building a meaningful life and a career within that life. I am at a stage in life where it feels that a lot of doors are open for me in terms of a career trajectory, and choosing one direction is scary because I don’t want to close out better opportunities than where I decide to point myself, and I don’t know exactly which direction is indeed going to feel the most meaningful and fulfilling.

 

I have come to understand that in many ways what we choose as our ultimate goal is less important than the effort we put into achieving that goal. Colin Wright puts it this way in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, “The journey itself is meaningful. The goal is important, but the act of working toward it, even when painful or disheartening, is meaningful by association.” I want to have a solid and inspirational goal to work toward, but I also recognize that the effort toward the goal will teach me unexpected lessons, will create new avenues for opportunity, and can be what helps my life be fulfilling.

 

As I move forward, I am trying hard to identify problems that I have a skill set that I can apply to those problems. My hope is that I will identify a goal where my abilities can help contribute something positive to mitigate a serious problem to at least a marginal extent. With a solid trajectory, I believe I can find satisfaction by continuously  engaging in habits and processes that help me work toward that goal. I am frustrated that I cannot see my path forward as clearly as I can see where I have come from, but I am confident that meaningful action will open the right doors for me.

 

I think that my thoughts on fulfillment are something that should be shared more broadly in society. We seem to find meaning in things that don’t really exist and we don’t really seem to know what we mean when we say we want to have meaning in our lives. Finding meaning in a spiritual sense is not something that resonates with me, and is not something we should expect to resonate with everyone on the planet. Finding meaning in material goods is problematic for a whole host of reasons, and ultimately seems to leave a void in our lives. Identifying goals that in one way or another make the world a better place and trying to work daily to improve the world by pursuing our goal appears to be a robust way of at the very least creating fulfillment in our lives. Finding absolute meaning in our goal may still be difficult or impossible, but hopefully the actions that take us toward that goal will make us feel valuable and useful, and hopefully that will create a sense of fulfillment.

Selective Attention

I listened to an episode of the After On podcast this last week, and the guest, Dr. Don Hoffman, suggested that our brains did not evolve to help us understand reality, but evolved to help us survive, which often did not require that our ancestors have the most accurate view of reality but instead had the perceptions necessary to avoid lions, work as a tribe, and pick healthy berries. What we see when we look around us is only a small fraction of the world, our eyes are only able to perceive a rather narrow range of electromagnetic radiation (light). With the fact that our brains did not evolve to give us the most clear picture of reality and with our inability to fully perceive all of reality, we must remember that there are reasons to be skeptical of the thoughts produced by our brain.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, author Colin Wright discusses the outcomes of our brains cognitive shortcomings. He writes, “This tendency to pay more attention to the seeming unlikely events that happen to and around us is called “selective attention.” Our brains have a bias toward patterns, and ignore so called uninteresting data…” Wright suggests that this is part of the reason our brains our so bad at statistical thinking as I described yesterday. Statistics is hard because we selectively pick out certain things as important and have a distorted memory of the world based on what we happened to see and notice. Wright continues describing what this means for us, “Which in turn result in our finding meaning in what is almost certainly meaningless…familiarity and feeling of significance is merely the consequence of our brains wigging out over the perceived connection, due to its pattern-finding predilections. Because that’s what it does.”

 

When we recognize that we did not evolve to develop a perfect view of what is happening around us and that our brains only selectively record a small chunk of reality, we can begin to think about how approach the world. We know our brains look for patterns and behave quickly, but that the patterns the brain picks out might not be fully correct or meaningful. We don’t have to eat Pringles every time our team is in the playoffs, because we are aware that our brain is making a false connection between us eating specific chips and our favorite team winning based on a perception that doesn’t really exist. What I am ultimately getting at is that our brains can invent realities that seem reasonable, but are based on cognitive errors, selective attention, and don’t actually align with the physical reality of the universe. We make sense out of meaningless things around us and start to attach symbolic importance to things that should not have any importance in our lives.

 

This distorted reality may not be a problem at an individual level with how any of us move through our lives. No one is going to care too much if you believe you need to drink a specific coffee every morning or sit in a specific spot, but as this mode of thinking scales up to a societal level, we must recognize that beliefs resulting from cognitive bias and error can lead to a world that doesn’t operate equitably for all members of society. Public policy must be grounded in the best empirical science and data that we can collect (even if our interpretation of the data is always going to be imperfect) so that we can distribute our finite resources in a reasonable way, and we must cut through our false narratives to avoid stigmatizing groups and discriminating against people who see the world differently from us.

The Trouble of Probability

“Most people, it should be noted, are terrible at offhandedly understanding, or even estimating, probability,” Colin Wright writes in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Without specific training, human beings generally seem to be pretty bad at statistics and statistical thinking, as Wright states. Our ability to estimate how frequently something should occur or the relative risk of something is not as good as one would think considering the power of our brain to recognize patterns and help us evolve to the point where we are as a species.

 

We really didn’t evolve to be good at numbers. Humans evolved in small tribes that likely numbered 150 people or less. As hunters and gatherers we likely just didn’t deal with numbers that were so large that we needed complex statistics to understand them. The largest numbers we probably really focused on were 10 or 20 and we have enough fingers and toes to help us there. As our societies began to take shape and grow, numbers and statistics still were not the deciding things that determined whether ones genes were passed on or not. Story telling has always had a much greater influence on the human mind than statistics.

 

For most of us, the fact that we are bad at statistics probably doesn’t matter too much. We can invest in mutual funds or index funds, have someone else tell us how much money should be taken from our paycheck automatically, and we will be fine. But if we want to engage with public policy, if we want to do the most good we can do, and if we want to approach the world rationally and leave it better than we found it, we must not only understand a base level of statistics, we must be able to understand how little statistical grounding most people have for their decisions. Convincing someone to make donations to help indigent people is much easier if you can focus on a single individual with a compassionate story who needs help. Overwhelming a person with statistics regarding the number of people who need aid will not convince anyone that their action is necessary. Giving your neighbor or uncle a dizzying array of data points around climate change and global warming is probably less effective than focusing on a single whale that washes up with plastic bags in its stomach, less effective than a story about coral bleaching along the Great Barrier Reef, and less valuable than a visual story of storms destroying the house of someone who looks like your neighbor or uncle. We must work to understand science and statistics ourselves, and we must take what we learn in dry numerically dense academic papers and craft a story that shows people exactly what they will lose if they do not act, or how they can be a hero if they do take the action we encourage.

Rhythms and Routines

I started a new job a few months back and my commute time has doubled. I was already driving a good distance across Reno, NV (I know it is not LA, San Francisco, or Washington DC but it was still not fun), and now I am driving about twice as far to our State Capitol in Carson City to work for the Legislature. My drive time is now about an hour both ways, for a total of two hours of commuting daily. In addition, where I work has less amenities in the office, which means I need to bring more, prep more, and plan more with what I eat and what I need for the day. What this new job has created for me, with new limitations on my time, is a daily routine where my entire day feels like it is in a time crunch and where I need to be on point at every second if I want to fit in everything and be prepared to have a successful day at work.

 

I am leaning very heavily into my daily routines now. I wrote in the past about Colin Wright’s thoughts on routines in his book Come Back Frayed and Michael Bungay Stanier’s views on habits in his book The Coaching Habit. Today I have another quote from Wright and his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Right now I am relying on a particular rhythm to help me be successful and live life the way I want to live. But, the rhythm I am building right now does not have to be permanent. I do not need to live this way forever and I can choose whether I want to maintain this rhythm and let it dictate my life, or whether I want things to change. About our rhythms and routines, Wright includes the following, “Many of us fall into rhythms relatively early in life, and then decide, either consciously or subconsciously, that the rhythm we’ve come to know is the totality of life. This is it. This is how things are. The evidence of me experiencing life in this fashion seems to be supported by the hypothesis that this is how life is meant to be; the only way it can be. But this isn’t the case.”

 

I know I can change my daily routine and I’m sure future jobs will necessitate a change in my routine, but a bigger question for me to think about is whether I want to change the general rhythm of my life or whether I want to continue with the general orientation of current life. I try to exercise daily. I try to do a lot of reading, especially during my lunch break, and I try to write each morning. Many of my evenings end up being spent with my wife watching tv, especially if we eat, but none of these pieces of my routine have to be a constant part of my life forever. For me, and for anyone else, little experiments in life are always possible. I could decide that I want to try something different from running or spin biking and try a boxing gym for workouts. I could decide that I don’t want to pursue reading any further and try doing things that are more social and engaging. And at an even bigger level, I could decide that I don’t need to live in a house and could find a small apartment, spend less money on my living arrangement, and take a more flexible job closer to home with different hours to open up different parts of the day.

 

What is important to remember, and what Wright is saying in his quote, is that life is flexible and full of possibilities. We don’t have to settle into any one particular way of living and we can try on different life styles. Just because we were raised a certain way, just because we happen to find ourselves relying on (or simply falling into without noticing) specific routines does not mean that our lives have to be set in one particular way from now until we die. We can have great success and achieve a lot of goals within our routines, but by shaking them off and experimenting, we might find new avenues of life that resonate with us on a more profound and meaningful level, or we might just find a renewed passion for something in life that we did not know could give us meaning and value.

To More Fully Understand Reality

I really love science. Most of the shows on my podcast feed are science shows, and even though I am not a scientist myself, I love listening to new discoveries and trying to think about the world in the way a scientist would. Even though he is not a scientist himself, Colin Wright, in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, has a whole chapter dedicated to experimentation and what we are doing when use the scientific method to understand the world around us. This entire chapter resonated with me since I like to think about the world scientifically.

 

I spend a lot of time trying to approach the world in a rational and empirical way, continuously doubting the stories I tell myself and wanting objective confirmation of the things I experience. I forget how foreign this way of thinking can actually be for much of humanity. Many people do not truly approach the world following the scientific method and have not been trained to think in truly scientific ways. Our ancestors for thousands of years evolved in small groups where we could understand reality and bond at the same time by telling stories that explained how the world operated and how humans should exist within it. It is only relatively recently in human history that we found out how to interrogate the world through experimentation to truly see what was happening in front of us.

 

Wright writes, “Our understanding of the world, the galaxy, the universe in which we live, is increased through a scientific model, which allows us to posit ideas and then test them systematically.” A challenge for humanity is recognizing that we further our understanding by developing testable hypothesis and designing experiments that set out to prove those hypothesis false. It is too easy to prove what you want to believe is true and approaching science and the universe in this way presents us with too many opportunities to nudge the data and methods to get the results we hope for. Setting out to rigorously try to disprove your theory leaves you in a place where you never quite confirm what you believe, but as you eliminate different alternatives that would prove your thoughts false, you gain more confident that your idea is an accurate reflection of  the world. “We observe, we experiment, we refine and experiment some more, and we eventually learn something that we can express and act upon.”

 

Wright suggests that part of why this is so hard for so many people is because, “this is in part a consequence of having been told since birth that our opinions are just as good as anyone else’s.” We live in a world today where we feel as though we are supposed to have an opinion about everything. It feels like we should come up with the answer for every problem, even if we have no reasonable basis for having an opinion. I believe that is part of why we operate unscientifically, but I also think that human nature does not favor believing in something because we have systematically tested it and ruled out alternatives in a legitimate manner. It is far easier, and often more comforting, to believe the world is a certain way because it feels intuitively correct. Striving to use the scientific method in our lives, however, has incredible payoffs as we step away from the false narratives and stories we create in our head and learn to live with more accurate information that better reflects the reality of the universe without preconceived expectations of what that reality should be.

Longing for Impossible Things

I currently have Fernando Pessoa’s book The Book of Disquiet (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) on my headboard for a little bit of reading before bed. The book was not published during Pessoa’s lifetime, but was compiled and published after his death. It is a collection of Pessoa’s inner thoughts existing as diary entries, reflections on his life, disjointed feelings, and a set of observations about the world. The book includes incredibly written and translated passages like the following:

 

“The most painful feelings, the most piercing emotions are also the most absurd ones – the longing for impossible things precisely because they are impossible, the nostalgia for what never was, the desire for what might have been, one’s bitterness that one is not someone else, or one’s dissatisfaction with the very existence of the world.”

 

Pessoa is incredibly honest with himself through his writing and he seems to be able to interrogate every emotion and every thought he has. He is so good at it that it painfully tears him apart as he is unable to distinguish between himself, the natural world, the stories he creates of how it all ties together, and his unending awareness of everything inside and outside of himself.

 

His quote above stands out to me because I find such incredible inspiration and power in dreaming of large and almost unattainable things. At the same time, giant and ambitious goals terrify me, and leave me almost paralyzed, too afraid to take action but afraid not to dream. I constantly dream of things could have been different, of the steps and actions I could have taken to truly be on a path toward the greatness I desire, and dissatisfaction seems to lurk around every corner if I look for it. But like Pessoa, I recognize how vain and fruitless this way of thinking can be. There is a fine balance in life between believing in the potential of the future, and being paralyzed between the danger, fear, and monotony of every day life. Understanding how absurd our thinking is and recognizing the fallacies of our stories seems like a way to navigate between our ambitious goals and our defeating self doubt.

 

Greater awareness of who we are and the stories we tell ourselves can help us understand if our goals meaningful enough to make great sacrifices for. Recognizing how our narrative drives us gives us the ability to push back against our self doubt and allows us to craft a new framework that is not as limiting for who we are and who we want to be. We can even get outside the story of our goals and see what small actions we can take to begin to make progress toward our goals, defeating the paralysis we may feel. The recognition of the power of our inner narrative is the one thing that Pessoa seemed to be missing, and it also seems like the one thing that could have helped to change his fear and paralysis.

Avoid Ascribing Guilt or Menace

I have been engaged with Stoicism for several years now and even though I work on recognizing my thoughts and reactions to the world around me, I am still frequently surprised by how quickly I can assume bad intent in another person and view others as terrible people when they do something I don’t like. Driving down the freeway and having someone speed past me, having to walk past a person smoking a cigarette, and even just having someone stand in front of the item I need at the grocery store are a few examples of relatively meaningless situations where I have found myself ascribing negative qualities and traits to other people who inconvenience me. My mind seizes the opportunity to say something bad about this other person and begins to tell me about how I am superior to them. It is only once I have realized that I have started to do this that I can pull my brain back and recognize that I am no better than anyone else and that these people did not do anything with the intent to harm, frustrate, or inconvenience me.

 

Colin Wright has a quote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, “It’s worth remembering that we cannot know what’s going on in another person’s head. We’re far more likely to see a stranger’s actions through our own lens than to attempt to look through theirs. When a stranger does something we perceive to be wrong, we’re likely to imbue that action with malice, whereas they might only see a harmless act. Our biases and prejudices color our perception of the world, and recognizing this, and working it into our math when we’re attempting to discern what’s happening, is on of the better ways to avoid ascribing guilt or menace to situations that are honest mistakes or blatant misinterpretations.”

 

For the most part, we live our own lives within a world filled with lots of gray. I don’t mean that the world is literally the color gray, unless maybe you live in a city like Seattle, but rather we operate within a set of rules and constantly bend them when it is convenient for us to do so. Our deviations from rules might be harmless, we might know that no one will notice so we won’t get caught, or we might tell ourselves we are breaking this rule just a little bit this one time so its no big deal. We like rules with flexibility where we can get away if we do the wrong thing if it doesn’t feel too bad and we dislike rules where there is no room for discretion (thanks to Robin Hanson for this). We see ourselves and the negative things we do in a more positive light (most of us) while viewing strangers and people who annoy us (like our younger siblings or neighbors) in a more negative light.

 

Constantly telling ourselves that we are good but that everyone else is bad is not just an inaccurate way to approach the world, but it is also bad for our health and bad for society. We know that we bend the rules all the time and rationalize our behaviors and decisions. We know that we spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves and how our decisions benefit us with little thought for others. We should keep this in mind and not be so quick to ascribe poor qualities to other people and we should recognize that they are thinking about themselves and not thinking about directly offending or inconveniencing us. Spending all our time being upset about others, channeling outrage to make ourselves feel superior, and looking for everyone else’s flaws is going to spike our stress responses and cause health problems. Letting this urge go will help us live more healthy lives, and will also help us connect with these people who frustrate us. By getting out of our own heads, we can connect with others in ways that might actually get them to also be more thoughtful and to behave better, or at least annoy and inconvenience us a little less.