The Process of Writing

I listen to lots of podcasts and have a handful of authors whose output I follow fairly closely. Those authors frequently discuss the importance of writing, their process, and what they gain from trying to write each day. One thing is clear from these authors, the process of writing helps with the process of thinking.

 

At the end of his book When Dan Pink writes, “the product or writing – this book – contains more answers than questions. But the process of writing is the opposite. Writing is an act of discovering what you think and what you believe.”

 

I have heard this a lot. That writing is something that helps take nebulous thoughts and organize them together. That writing is not taking the thoughts one already has and putting them down on paper, but that writing pulls disparate pieces that we didn’t always realize we were thinking, and combines them in a logical and coherent manner. We discover through research and close assessment of our mind what we think, and present that to the world.

 

For me, writing is a way to connect with the books that I read. It is a chance for me to revisit them and remember the lessons I learned and think again about the pieces of books that I thought were most important when I originally read them. For me, writing is as much re-discovery as it is discovery. I don’t pretend  that my writing is genuine and unique inspirations from my own mind, but rather reflections on why I found what someone else said to be important.

 

Generally, I believe that Pink is correct. I also think that writing is more than just a discovery of our thoughts, but a creation of our thoughts. Give students an assignment to write from a particular point of view, and even if they previously did not hold such a point of view, afterward they are likely to adopt that point of view. This is not so much idea and belief discovery, but belief formation. Part of our brains are rationalizing the words we put on the page, so to defend ourselves for writing those words. We may create new thoughts through writing just as we may discover thoughts and ideas that had already been bouncing through our mind. What is clear, however, is that writing forces the brain to be more considerate of the ideas that fly through it, and to create narrative and coherence between those ideas, organizing thought in new and more profound ways.

More on Temporal Landmarks

According to Daniel Pink in his book When, temporal landmarks can come in two varieties, social and personal. Social temporal landmarks are the dates that everyone shares in common while personal landmarks are the significant dates in our own lives such as birthdays, anniversaries, and dates of significant life events. Studies presented in Pink’s book show that both types of landmarks can serve as helpful anchors for jumping off points. Students are more likely to go to the gym on a Monday, at the start of a semester, or on the day after their birthday than on other random days.

 

Pink describes the anchoring effect this way, “This new period offers a chance to start again by relegating our old selves to the past. It disconnects us from that past self’s mistakes and imperfections, and leaves us confident about our new, superior selves. Fortified by that confidence, we behave better than we have in the past and strive with enhanced fervor to achieve our aspirations.”

 

In the physical world, we can make changes that literally do shut a door on one aspect of our lives. We can move to a new city, we can sell all of our TVs and gaming consoles, we chop down a tree and pave over the place where it used to be. These changes can have physical manifestations that designate something new, something different, and prevent us from continuing on as we always have. Temporal landmarks are not physical and permanent in the same way, but can still serve a similar function for us. They break apart a continuous stream of time and allow us to make distinctions between ourselves now and who we have been in the past.

 

Pink also argues that part of the strength of temporal landmarks is in the way they allow us to reflect and think about who we are, what we have historically been or done, and what our aspirations are for our futures. He writes, “Temporal landmarks slow our thinking, allowing us to deliberate at a higher level and make better decisions.”

 

My example of making a physical world change to change our behaviors is an example of taking a deliberate step to help us make better decisions. Temporal changes don’t necessarily create a physical barrier which changes our behavior, but they do give us a mental stopping point at which we can pause and consider how and why we do something. Rather than continuing on auto-pilot these landmarks make us pause and consider whether we are going in the right direction, whether we are regressing back toward a place we don’t want to be, or whether we can change course and achieve what we want. In many ways, without actually being a physical barrier, these temporal landmarks operate in the same way. Simply because they are not tangible doesn’t make them any more real in the ways we think about our lives, the changes we experience throughout life, and how we make decisions.

The Case for Doubting Oneself

Our actions always make more sense to us than they do to others. To us, what we do and why we do the things we do fit in with an internal narrative that is always running through our head and playing out in our lives. We understand the world in a way that is logically coherent based on our experiences and perceptions of the world.

 

The problem for each of us, however, is that our experiences, perspectives, and perceptions are woefully inadequate to actually understand the way the world operates. In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca includes a short piece that explains how we should think about our thinking given these inadequacies of our mind:

 

“Crates, they say, … noticed a young man walking by himself, and asked him what he was doing all alone. I am communing with myself, replied the youth. Pray be careful, then, said Crates, and take good heed; you are communing with a bad man!”

 

The point here is not that the youth is actually a bad person, but it is that the narrative and story within our own heads is misleading. It makes judgments and assumptions based on limited, often biased information and creates stories that it claims to be true. We are tricked into believing the falsehoods of our own mind, and if we give our mind too much trust, it can lead us astray.  The advice from Crates conveyed by Seneca is to recognize that our minds are not wholly trustworthy, and to be careful when we are consumed by our own thoughts.

 

In my own life, I have found it to be helpful, but at times almost paralyzing to recognize how little information my mind actually has when it is making decisions and reaching conclusions. I find that I often doubt why I feel a certain way about another person or an event, and that I often pause to consider the information my mind is acting on before I do something, even when my actions or the outcomes are trivial. Occasionally this puts me in a place where I feel that I cannot take action, because I cannot entirely support my reason for doing or believing (or wanting to believe) something. On the whole, however, I feel that it does make me a more considerate person. I recognize times when I want to be outraged at something, just to signal to others how virtuous of a person I am that something outrages me. I often find that I want to complain about others, just to raise my own status, and I try my best to pull back from those urges. These are positive notes stemming from my self-awareness induced hesitation, but my hesitation also leads to situations where I am not as outspoken or decisive as I should be. As an example, I should probably be more outspoken about the importance of climate change legislation or science in general. I am not as willing to take a visible stand in an effort to say that, regardless of policy or party/identity, the behavior and language of our president is unbecoming of the nation’s chief executive and unacceptable in our public discourse (ever here is another example of me hesitating to be as direct as I think I should be).

 

A recognition that the mind cannot possibly observe, analyze, and act on every piece of information available is powerful in being a more thoughtful and considerate person, but it can be paralyzing in negative ways. When we pause to think while others impulsively act, we give away some of the power we gain through self-awareness. The bombastic who dominate conversation through impulsive outbursts have an advantage in controlling the narrative when we hesitate to be more thoughtful in our discourse. We would all rather be the rationally calm individual in our lives, but it feels that the ignorantly loud person will always dominate the conversation when we choose this approach. I think we should nevertheless strive for greater self-awareness and calmness in our thinking, and as a society we need to do a better job of recognizing the importance of these skills, so we can be better at socially rewarding individuals who can control their impulses.

To See Our Own Face

Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is exactly what the title suggests. It is a disquieting look at the world around us, making us think, question the every-day, and second guess what it is we believe and accept. Pessoa dealt with sever depression, and writes about his challenges with depression in stark and honest terms. He pulls apart experience in a way that is unique to him, and makes us question the experiential sums of the filaments of reality that we perceive.

 

Included in the book’s translation by Margaret Jull Costa, is a short piece about seeing ourselves in the mirror: “Man should not be able to see his own face. Nothing is more terrible than that. Nature gave him the gift of being unable to see either his face or into his own eyes. 
    He could only see his own face in the waters of rivers and lakes. Even the posture he had to adopt to do so was symbolic. He had to bend down, to lower himself, in order to suffer the ignominy of seeing his own face.
    The creator of the mirror poisoned the human soul.”

 

We easily become self-obsessed in our world today. We can spend hours looking at just pictures of ourselves if we wanted to. We have so many ways to capture our image and post it where we want. We can place mirrors and reflective surfaces throughout our world, to constantly look at ourselves and dress up the outside answer to the question, “Who am I?”

 

In Pessoa’s mind, we were never supposed to look at ourselves from the outside to try to answer and define that question. His quote shows that he believes we ourselves cannot provide an answer to the outside question of who we are, and that it should be publicly shameful to try. To turn inward, to become self-obsessed is a curse. To remain ignorant of the self, to be focused outside oneself and to exist as part of the social group of others to which we belong is where the human mind was supposed to be. The mirror split us and our definition of self from that collection, and poisoned the mind by forcing us to always consider ourselves first. Our ancestors from whom we evolved could not look back at themselves with a clear view of who they were and wanted to be as an individual. It is only with human created technology that we can focus the light back at ourselves, and take control to define ourselves as the outward image that is presented to the rest of the world.

Press Secretaries

I have written in the past about the idea and model that our brains act as press secretaries, taking the information that comes into the mind and presenting it in a way that makes everything happening in the mind look as good as it possibly can. This idea comes back in Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain where the authors expand on the idea. They write,

 

“Above all, it’s the job of our brain’s Press Secretary to avoid acknowledging our darker motives – to tiptoe around the elephant in the brain. Just as a president’s press secretary should never acknowledge that the president is pursuing a policy in order to get reelected or to appease his financial backers, our brain’s Press Secretary will be reluctant to admit that we’re doing things for purely personal gain, especially when that gain may come at the expense of others. To the extent that we have such motives, the Press Secretary would be wise to remain strategically ignorant of them.”

 

I really like the way that the authors describe the role of the conscious part of our brains as acting as a press secretary. By keeping us consciously unaware of our motivations for action, we can be strategically ignorant of why we do what we do. Strategic ignorance is common when we pretend that the things we do don’t have external consequences for others, when we don’t want to face the reality of science, or when we just want to avoid doing some unappealing task. In most cases we probably recognize that we are not fooling anyone when we claim we don’t know what’s really happening, but at least it gives us a slight cushion to be comfortable while hoping that the negative consequences don’t come back to bite us.

 

Hanson and Simler continue the metaphor, “What’s more – and this is where things might start to gt uncomfortable-there’s a very real sense in which we are the Press Secretaries within our minds. In other words, the parts of the mind that we identify with, the parts we think of as our conscious selves…” It is easy to ignore the parts of ourselves that don’t align with the story we want to tell and present to the world about what great people we are. It turns out it is so easy because we are not consciously aware of those parts of ourselves. We are just the press secretary who is handed the script about all the great things happening within us.  We purposefully avoid those parts of us that look bad, because we don’t want to acknowledge they are there and have to explain ourselves in spite of those negative aspects of who we are. By simply ignoring those parts of us and sticking to the happy script, we can look great and feel great about the wonderful things we do, even if those wonderful things don’t measure up to the sanitized version we present to the world. There is a lot taking place behind the scenes, but lucky for us, we are just the front facing conscious press secretary who doesn’t see any of it.

Recognizing the Status Quo

I am not great at recognizing when the status quo is working well for me, but might not be working well for others. Sometimes, I am really not at all good at even recognizing what the status quo is or being aware of the status quo. What I can usually recognize, however, is when someone or some force is working to change the status quo in a way that is unfamiliar or even scary to me. Especially when the possible change in the status quo might require that I lose something that I benefit from, I notice the status quo and have an instant reaction to entrench myself against the change.

 

The status quo never actually needs to be the status quo. If we try to be more aware of what is the status quo for us, we can start to look for ways to change the status quo that won’t hurt us or cause us to lose something, but might move things in a new direction that might be better. We can almost always return to the status quo if we find that our change doesn’t really make the difference we hoped it would make. In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be Colin Wright writes, “the status quo remains the status quo because it’s been our status quo.”

 

It is worth remembering that oftentimes our status quo is totally random. We have a drawer in our kitchen full of utensils simply because when we first moved in we happened to toss the spoons and forks in that drawer. We never sat down to really think about where we would like our utensils and what drawer would be the best for them. It just happened and became the status quo, and changing it seems like more effort than letting it stay.

 

A lot of our lives is driven by a status quo that we haven’t really thought much about. When we try to change it, people who benefit from the status quo, or people who think that it is working and therefore doesn’t need to be changed will entrench themselves. We see this with things like the electoral college, a company changing a logo, or a friend suddenly changing a hairstyle. I think that on an individual level, being more cognizant of the status quo and remembering that often times the status quo is random or the result of a compromise that worked 200 years ago can help us adjust to change more easily. We can think through why things are the way they are, and if they don’t seem to make much of a difference, we can be more open to letting things change. There is no reason our lives should be constrained simply because the status quo happens to be the way it is.

Changing Your Views on a Group of People

An unfortunate reality in our world is that we don’t have a lot of incentives to change our beliefs about things. What we think and feel regarding a specific item is heavily influenced by more than just our own experiences and rational thoughts about that thing. Our social groups, self-interests, and group identities can shape our beliefs and make it almost impossible for our beliefs to have any flexibility. In this setting, changing our beliefs may require that we break with a group identity, view the world in a way that is inconsistent with the rest of the people around us, and acknowledge that our narrow self-interest is not what is in the best interest of a larger society.

 

Colin Wright wrote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be and related the idea directly to the ways we think about groups of people. He writes, “If we’ve spent our lives hating, or at least feeling superior to, a particular group of people, but then are exposed to convincing information about that group that makes us hate them less, that’s a very awkward moment. Taking this new information seriously would mean having to choose between continuing on as we are now, with our existing biases, our existing way of interacting with these people, our existing group of friends who probably have he same set of biases that we now feel compelled to question, or changing all that.” Wright shows that changing one’s views, even when there is good reason, can be awkward in one’s personal life. Beyond simply saying, “I was wrong,” changing one’s beliefs means that you then have to tell others (who you may have been very close with) that they are still wrong, and that can be hard for many people.

 

I don’t have a solution here for how to improve the likelihood of changing people’s minds. Instead, what I am doing is pointing out how many factors are involved with changing our minds. We should recognize that we may hold many of our beliefs for reasons we don’t want to acknowledge, like peer pressure or self-interest. Given that many of our beliefs may be influenced by factors beyond our own rationality, and given the difficulty we may have in changing our beliefs if they are indeed wrong, we should try to be more flexible in general with how we see the world and how we think about our worldviews. Being skeptical of our own knowledge doesn’t feel as good as telling ourselves that we have it all figured out, but it is probably a better place for us to be. We might not be able to change other people’s views (especially on ideas that are highly visible and salient), but at least we can be more honest with ourselves about the beliefs we have and hopefully more willing to change our beliefs because we never clung to tightly to them in the first place. This in turn may help other people to be more vulnerable in their own beliefs and slightly more open to change.

Building Models and Examining the World and Our Thoughts

This morning listening to an episode of Conversations with Tyler, Russ Roberts, the guest on the show said something that really stood out to me, “I used to believe that…my models described the world, as opposed to gave me insight into the world.” We operate in a world where there is no way for us to ever have complete information. There is simply too much data, too much information, to much stuff going on all around us for our brains to perfectly absorb everything in a reasonable and coherent way.

 

You do not notice every blink, you could never possibly understand every chemical’s smell that makes up the complex aroma of your coffee, and you can’t hold every variable for that big business decision in your head at the same time. Instead, our brains filter out information that does not seem relevant and we key in on what appears to be the main factors that influence the world around us. We build models that sometimes seem like they describe the world with spectacular clarity, but are only a product of our brain and the limited space for information that we have. Our models do not reflect reality and they are not reality, but they can give us an insight into reality if we can build them well.

 

No matter what, we are going to operate on these models in our daily lives. We develop a sense of what works, what will bring us happiness, what will create well-being, and how we will find success. We pursue those things that fit in our model, toss those things that don’t fit in the model to the side, and somewhere along the line begin to believe that our model is reality and criticize everyone who has a model that doesn’t seem to jive with ours.

 

A more reasonable stance is to say that we have developed a model that gives us insight into some aspect of reality, but is open for adjustment, improvement, or could be scrapped altogether in favor of a new model if necessary. The only way to do this is to be an active participant in our lives and to work to truly understand ourselves and the world around us. The quote from Roberts on Cowen’s podcast aligns with the quote that I have from Colin Wright today. From Wright’s book Becoming Who We Need To Be I have a quote reading, “It’s not enough to just smell the fragrances that drift our way every day. We have to take the time to pull those aromas apart, to figure out what components go into them, and compare and contrast them with others. We have to be awake and aware, not just alive. We have to be participatory in our own lives, and give our mental capacities a reason to keep operating and expanding, otherwise they will, quite understandably, if we’re using biological logic, begin to shut down to save energy.”

 

Deciphering the aromas is a metaphor for understanding how we are interacting with the world and how the world exists around us. If we retreat to safety and comfort by believing that our models are correct and perfect, then we fail to improve our understanding of the world and our place in it. Our mind atrophies, and the potential we have for making the world a better place is continually diminished. Simply believing something because it benefits us, makes us feel good, and is what people similar to us believe can drive us and the world into an inefficient place where we fail to do the most good for the most people. There is nothing wrong with that world, it is an option, but if we believe that human flourishing is worth striving for and if we believe that we can help improve the living standards for ourselves and the rest of humanity, then we must use and expand our cognitive capacity to better understand the universe to improve the world for ourselves and the rest of humanity. Your model is incomplete and gives you insight into one aspect of reality, but you must remember that it is not a perfect description of how the world should be, and you must work continuously to build a better model with better insight into the world.

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.

Blind Spots From Pride

“The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see? What am I avoiding, or running from, with my bluster, franticness, and embellishments?”  This quote comes from Ryan Holiday and his book Ego is the Enemy. In the quote, Holiday is encouraging us to have enough self awareness to recognize the times when we are acting out of pride and when we are thinking so highly of ourselves that we do not clearly see our own shortcomings and the areas where we need to improve. Developing an awareness of our pride and being able to look at ourselves clearly is a powerful skill to cultivate to better connect with others and to learn and grow as we work toward our goals.

 

Feeling proud of ourselves is comfortable. After a good workout, when we receive praise at work, and when we buy that shiny new thing we have had our eye on for a while, our pride steps in and tells us how amazing, hard working, and smart we are. People applaud our good outcome on a project, give our gym post a like, or turn heads as we drive down the street and this makes us feel validated and as though we are doing all the right things. Unfortunately, none of this truly matters and if we start to believe that all of these things define us and are what make us a great person, then we are building a false foundation to stand on. Our pride takes over and we begin to tell ourselves how amazing we are because of the praise and attention we have received.

 

The danger here is that we become blind to what really matters. Focused on ourselves, we likely allow our relationships with others to wither, we likely miss the new market trends and opportunities, and we likely fail to recognize other areas in our life where we can improve ourselves to prepare for future challenges. Believing we are great sets us up to fail by making us overconfident in our own abilities. It takes away the focus on improvement and growth that tells us that we must put in extra effort on the small details and must cultivate strong habits that help us grow each day.

 

As Holiday writes in his book, being more humble about our successes, our abilities, and who we are will allow us to better engage in the important things in the world. When we recognize that we don’t know everything, don’t have all the skills necessary to stay at the top of the mountain in a changing landscape, and don’t have innate abilities that will never fail, we are more likely to treat those around us with more kindness and compassion and we are more likely to be comfortable with the daily work that helps us overcome the obstacles we face. Humility builds a self-awareness and an accurate sense of our strengths. Through this humble self-awareness, we can take a more measured approach to ourselves, our goals, and the actions we take each day.