Sabotage Information

“Our minds are built to sabotage information in order to come out ahead in social games.” In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about the ways in which we act out of our own self-interest without acknowledging it. We are more selfish, more deceptive, and less altruistic than we would like to admit, even to ourselves. To keep us feeling good about what we do, and to make it easier to put on a benevolent face, our brains seem to deliberately distort information to make us look like we are honest, open, and acting with the best of intentions for everyone.

 

“When big parts of our minds are unaware of how we try to violate social norms, it’s more difficult for others to detect and prosecute those violations. This also makes it harder for us to calculate optimal behaviors, but overall, the trade-off is worth it.” As someone who thinks critically about Stoicism and believes that self-reflection and awareness are keys to success and happiness, this is hard to take in. It suggests that self-awareness is a bigger burden for social success than blissful unawareness. Being deluded about our actions and behaviors, Simler and Hanson suggest, helps us be better political animals and helps us climb the social hierarchy to attain a better mate, more status, and more allies. Self-awareness, their idea suggests, makes us more aware of the lies we tell ourselves about who we are, what we do, and why we do it, and makes it harder for us to lie and get ahead.

 

“Of all the things we might be self-deceived about, the most important are our own motives.” Ultimately, however, I think we will be better off if we can understand why we, and everyone else, believe the things we do and behave the way we do. Turning inward and recognizing how often we hide our motives and deceive ourselves and others about our actions can help us overcome bias. We can start to be more intentional about our decisions and think more critically about what we want to work toward. We don’t have to hate humanity because we lie and hide parts of ourselves from even ourselves, but we can better move through the world if we actually know what is going on. Before we become angry over a news story, before we shell out thousands of dollars for new toys, and before we make overt displays of charity, we can ask ourselves if we are doing something for legitimate reasons, or just to deceive others and appear to be someone who cares deeply about an issue or item. Slowly, we can counteract the negative externalities associated with the brain’s faulty perceptions, and we can at least make our corner of the world a little better.

Will We Lose Conversations?

With the internet social media world we live in, you can always find the perfect niche community for your interests. I love podcasts and like geology and there is a perfect show for me: The Don’t Panic Geocast. I enjoy stoicism and thoughts about overcoming obstacles and I can literally find forums on Reddit all about Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way. In many other areas of my life I am able to find the perfect group of strangers online who share my interests, want to talk about the things I want to talk about, and share the same general worldview and background as me. This is fantastic for me personally and I am very comfortable listening to the geology podcast and reading about stoicism, but if I only engage in these communities then I risk losing my ability to communicate beyond these small niches.

 

Colin Wright describes his fears of a world where conversation becomes impossible in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. He writes, “One of the fundamental challenges we’ll face in the coming years, I think, will be figuring out how to have conversations … about anything and everything. How to have discussions about important things and relatively mundane things, and how we might have those conversations with a shared understanding that we’re trying to achieve the same thing, even if that might not immediately appear to be the case.”

 

The fear that Wright has is that we will become so accustomed to communicating within our own sub-communities that we won’t be able to have real conversations outside our groups. The words we use and the definitions we attach to those words will begin to shift and overtime will signify who is part of the group and who is not part of the group. Sometimes this will be obvious to both insiders and outsiders, but sometimes it won’t be obvious to either, and conversation will break down as each side fails to recognize that words are not being use in the same way. Similarly, certain things will become running jokes within a circle (like ice is a mineral in the Don’t Panic Geocast community) and we will make references that either intentionally or unintentionally leave other people out. This might help with bonding for our small group, but it can be alienating to people outside our group and can drive wedges further between our niche communities and the outside world.

 

If we end up in a world where we become so enclosed within our niche communities that we can’t have any real conversations beyond them, then we face a lot of negative consequences as a country and planet. Pragmatically working to solve problems may take a back seat to trying to enhance the status of ones community, or ones place within the community. Shared meaning could break down, preventing us from having real discussions about real values and priorities. If we cannot come together and step beyond our niche communities then we won’t be able to avoid identity politics and we will feel more isolated in the real world even if we feel deep connections with our online communities.

Roughing It

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca encourages us to avoid living a life that is motivated by material possessions. He encourages us to recognize times when we desire more and more comforts and pleasures in our lives and to remember that we will never be satisfied with our things, and will always desire more.

 

An unfortunate reality for us humans is that the things we want seem to give us less satisfaction over time. We become accustomed to the heated seats in our new car, the large TV becomes normal, and the new espresso machine gets old and we stop thinking about how happy we are to have freshly  brewed coffee each morning. The question becomes, how can we be content with what we have and avoid landing in a place where we are never happy and constantly need to buy more stuff as if attempting to fill a hole in our lives?

 

Seneca has some advice, “Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “is this the condition that I feared?”” What Seneca advises is that we spend time going without any comforts. That we picture what total failure would look like in our lives, and live in that way for a short while to truly experience the loss of our comfort. In today’s world this may look like locking up our GPS watch and smartphone, wearing only our most junky tennis shoes for a few days, sleeping on the floor in the living room (as if we didn’t have a bed) with our oldest pillow and thinnest blanket, and eating just canned beans and rice for a few days.

 

Living with nothing for a short period of time may help us appreciate the things we take for granted in our lives. It also can help us see that all the comforts we rely on, that we were so excited to get at first and that we forget about over time, are not things that are essential to our survival. By remembering not to rely too heavily on these comforts, by seeing that we could live without them, and by roughing it for a little while, we can develop better relationships with our stuff.

The Bounds of Opinion

“Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless,” writes Seneca in Letters From a Stoic. Nature is indifferent to humans. The world exists and life exists upon it, but the world doesn’t seem worried about what life flourishes, how it flourishes, and what life does. It simply carries on and life must react to what happens across nature.

 

In our lives we have an extreme number of desires, of thoughts about good and bad, and of preferences for one outcome over another. All of our desires, our fears, and our thoughts lead to expectations about how we think the world should be, but nature is not aware of our beliefs of how it should operate. We bring to the world a complex set of ideas, and they are continually batted around as if they were meaningless.

 

Seneca’s quote above is about recognizing that there is no reason that the world should be a certain way, and there is nothing that makes the world conform to the beliefs and views that we have. There is an unlimited number of ways to want the world to be, and while in a sense the way we view the world determines how it seems to us, there is something that seems to be separate about the world. It operates on its own, even if our views and decisions make it seem to behave one way or another. We can work toward different outcomes, we can strive for something different, and we can attempt to actualize our preferences, but ultimately it is all just opinion built upon an indifferent world.

 

This is not a nihilistic sentiment or something we should feel discouraged by. What it means is that the universe exists and we have come to exist within it with the ability to manipulate and change parts of it. We have great opportunity to use what the universe contains and we are limited by only our imagination, the laws of physics, and the initial conditions of the big bang. We can’t change the laws of physics or the initial conditions of the big bang, but we can always change our imagination and thoughts, and we can always learn more about our universe and what is possible within an indifferent nature.

 

Bringing this down to an individual level, we can take pressure off ourselves by recognizing that there is no perfect way that we or anything else ought to be. The universe does not care. We are matter that is cognizant of its own existence and from our self-recognition flows the ability to examine and perceive so much more than just the matter within ourselves. From us flows the ability to create the reality we see around us and to create the opinions, thoughts, ideas, and preferences that we bring to the world. It is up to us individually to recognize the opportunity we have and to act accordingly.

Desires

A frustrating thing about humanity is that we get tired of what we have pretty quickly. A new house, a new job, a new car all become part of our normal and fade to the background just a short time after we have them. The newness of the thing and the excitement it makes us feel disappear, and instead of appreciating what we have, it just exists with us as we start to look at other things we want.

 

This is part of the human mind that kept our ancestors striving for more and pushing to live better lives. Part of this mindset drove our evolution and helped get our species to the place we are at today. But in each of our individual lives, we can take this too far. Seneca, in Letters From a Stoic, has some advice with this in mind.

 

“Fix a limit which you will not even desire to pass, should you have the power. At last, then, away with all these treacherous goods! They look better to those who hope for them than to those who have attained them.”

 

We have all seen unnecessary and extravagant uses of money that seem more like showing off than anything else. What Seneca’s advice says, is that we should find a point where the use of money, the consumption of goods, or the continued accumulation of power just seems over the top. At that point of ridiculous extravagance, we should place a marker for ourselves saying no more. Over time, we should work to fit more things on the opposite side of that marker, constantly thinking about the things in our lives that are meaningful, help us live better, help humanity advance, or that just show off. The more we can be content without needing wealth to flaunt, the more we can live a meaningful life that we can enjoy. The limit we set can be at any point, which means it can be extremely extravagant, or it can be very modest. Learning to remember what we have and appreciate the things we have achieved and attained will help us as we place our marker which we do not desire to surpass.

Being Content Without a Great Fortune

In Letters From a Stoic a passage from Seneca reads, “How noble it is to be contented and not to be dependent upon fortune.” Something I find myself returning to all the time is the idea that I am fine and complete on my own, without needing external validation from someone else to tell me that I have value. I can be successful, I can pursue my interests, and I can participate in society without needing someone else to tell me what I am doing is good. I don’t need someone else to tell me when I have become successful or if I am still not up to par. I don’t need another person to tell me that what I spend my time working on and engaging with is worthwhile.

 

The quote from Seneca reminds me of those efforts of mine to be ok with who I am and what I do. To be dependent on fortune is to be dependent on someone else for external validation and is to be continually striving to fill part of ourselves with things that will never fill us. The reality is that we don’t really need that much money in the United States to survive (compared to the life of mansions, porches, and Lululemon that we picture in our minds). We definitely need some money, and having a lot of wealth makes life a lot more bearable, but we don’t actually need as much as we generally pursue. At a certain point, buying a new sports car, buying a bigger house, wearing designer clothes, and mounting a huge TV on your wall becomes about something other than the thing you are purchasing. Those extravagant purchases beyond what is really necessary become a statement. They are a way for us to show the world what we have achieved and to ask someone else for their validation of our lives.

 

When I was getting to the end of my undergraduate career my motivations for my behaviors and desires became more clear to me. I started to see that I had placed expectations on myself that were driven by a need to impress my family. I wanted to land a job right after school that would make my uncle say, “Wow, good job, all that hard work paid off.” I wanted to buy a house that my mom would look at and say, “Very impressive!” And I wanted to buy a sweet classic muscle car that my brother would see and say, “Dude that’s awesome.” My entire mindset was focused on what I thought other people wanted me to be and achieve, and not on what I actually wanted to work toward or what I actually needed.

 

When we can be content with ourselves individually we can live a more peaceful life. When we can see that the external motivations on our life are made-up and likely can’t ever be achieved, we can start to focus instead on goals that are truly meaningful to us, rather than aim toward goals that are meaningful to someone else. Best of all, we can turn that attitude outward and become more accepting of people without requiring them to show us something impressive to deserve our love, friendship, and respect. This puts us in a more healthy place where we work toward creating value as opposed to working toward obtaining things and we place our own value in meaningful relationships and making the world a better place.

Blind Desires

I think we need to do a lot more coaching with young people, starting early in high school, to discuss careers, ambitions, goals, and what the world is going to expect from young people once they leave high school or college and begin to enter the work force. In the United States, once we complete our education (and sometimes before our education is complete) we enter the job market and a world where we compete for jobs and compete for status. Our world becomes centered around a career that takes up 40 hours of our attention and focus each week. When we are not at work we retreat to our homes where we try to show the world what we have and how special we are. The goal for many of us become increasing what we have to show our high status. We want to go upward, to earn more, to be more, and to have more.

 

But why do we share this desire? Who sat down with all of us to tell us that what we must do is push ourselves in our career and become wealthy to define ourselves as successful? Who told us to all want more and more things? Why do we all desire more expensive cars, bigger homes, and a more impressive title? I would suggest that these are generally blind desires that we organize our life around without deep thought as to where these desires came from.

 

We should sit down with young people to talk about pitfalls of following this traditional path. We should talk to young people about research which seems to indicate that social interaction can be as important for happiness as ever expanding wealth. We should talk about the importance of not just building up our own career, but of building systems and communities that can bring people together, rather than just building up ourselves to show off.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “we are plunged by our blind desires into ventures which will harm us, but certainly will never satisfy us; for if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago.” I don’t think everyone needs to abandon capitalism, stop working, and give up all desires, but I think we should be more considerate when we think about career decisions and the work we spend our time with. If we decide that we need a big house, an expensive car, and X number of material goods to be happy, then we will make career and work decisions that trade off our time, flexibility, possibly our health, and our relationships with others so that we can have these things. We should turn inward to make sure we are not pursuing blind desires and we should re-focus ourselves and our lives in a way that will help us find more satisfaction without needing to constantly one-up ourselves and others.

Seneca on Riches

Do you actually enjoy the things that you have? Have you become accustomed to the things in your life and do you even notice them? Does your stuff frustrate you and do you worry over your stuff? Are you living in a way where the things that you have are an aid to your life and serve to constantly make you a little more happy, or as soon as you have something do you feel remorse for spending so much to get it, and when you see it are you reminded of the cost to own the thing?

 

In my life, there have been many things that I wanted, but that quickly became part of my status quo and forgotten. Things that required me to spend time maintaining them or that did end up making me as happy as I expected, causing remorse over my impulsive purchase. It is remarkable how quickly a new home can become normal, and how our wonders at having a home can fade into frustration when we have to keep it clean or when another Friday night rolls around and we have nothing to do and no where to go so we dejectedly sit around inside. We spend a lot of time working to make money and often end up buying things that quickly become our new normal and don’t provide us with a continual source and stream of satisfaction.

 

“He who needs riches least, enjoys riches most.” Seneca writes in Letters From a Stoic quoting Epicurus. It is when we become accustomed to the bounty from our wealth and success that we become dependent on our things. Those items which fade to our background and become the status quo start to be our masters, and instead of feeling grateful for having what we have, we just assume that having the thing is what life is supposed to be like.

 

One of the ways that I have been able to get away from these types of moods is by avoiding advertising. Everywhere you go and every time you watch something, somebody seems to be presenting you with an image of an ideal life. That life is always full of friends and laughter, but it is also full of new shiny stuff. We are constantly urged to buy a new car, a new fridge, a new coffee maker, better sheets, a better toothbrush, and each day we are exposed to ads for something new. Overtime, these advertisements push certain expectations for what a happy and successful life is supposed to be into our minds. By being aware of our stuff, our emotions, and the dizzying storm of advertisements we encounter each day we can push back against the feeling that we always need new stuff, and we can start to better enjoy the things we actually have.

 

Learning Old Lessons – Body Mentality

One of the things I enjoy about reading stoic authors like Seneca or Marcus Aurelius is seeing how frequently the authors discuss something that I struggle with today even though they lived roughly 2000 years ago. We have so many problems and challenges today that feel like they are new problems for humanity, but very often people have faced the same types of issues in the past (even the very distant past) and we can learn a lot from people who came way before us. An example of this is advice that Seneca provides in Letters From a Stoic about the ways we should think of our bodies.

 

Seneca writes, “He will have many masters who makes his body his master, who is over-fearful in its behalf, who judges everything according to the body. We should conduct ourselves not as if we ought to live for the body, but as if we could not live with out it.”

 

Part of his quote and advice is about physical comfort and indulgence, but part of his quote is also about body image. Either way, both angles of viewing this quote can teach us important lessons about ourselves today through the lenses of the past. His advice feels rather contemporary in an age when how we think about our bodies is front and center in many ways in our society.

 

First, we can think of this in terms of taking pleasure in the world. If we make our whole lives about doing things that feel good like sitting on the couch, eating cheesecake, and generally looking for pleasurable and easy things to do, we will be at the mercy of others in terms of our happiness. We would be relying on things that others produce to make us happy as we would not be relying on our own efforts to build something that engages us and helps us be connected to the world. If you purely seek pleasure as your main goal, another person can always ruin your life.

 

Second, if we think of our physical body as defining who we are, we can go too far in a different direction, constantly working out, eating, and presenting ourselves in a way to make our bodies look the best they can. Our own opinion of ourselves becomes meaningless as we seek the approval of others and only define our success based on the way other people think about us. We give a great deal of control and self-value to someone outside ourselves. We likely see threat everywhere we go, and live our lives protecting our body out of fear, and not out of a desire to be healthy to live well for ourselves, our family, and for our society.

 

There are more ways to think about our physical body based on the quote from Seneca, but both ways that I presented for interpreting his quote demonstrate real world current problems in a frame from many years ago. We have evolved and changed the tools available to us to shape our body or find enjoyment, but the resulting problems and underlying psychology remain the same. It was important thousands of years ago for people to not be too indulgent in pleasure and leisure, and it was also important for them to not spend all their time crafting the perfect body to impress other people. The problems we face today are not something we have to deal with entirely on our own. We can recognize that many people have dealt with these issues and take some pressure off ourselves and act accordingly.
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Be Calm Ahead of Your Obstacle

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” Our minds work really hard to keep us safe, keep us in important positions, and keep us connected so that we can succeed and so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy a high status life. Our minds are trying to help us navigate an uncertain future, but sometimes our minds go too far and we become paralyzed with a fear that is worse than the outcome we want to avoid.

 

Seneca continues, “What I advice you to do is not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not come yet.”

 

We can live our lives worrying about what will go wrong five minutes from now, five days from now, or five years from now, but we never truly know what is around the corner. Sometimes we set artificial deadlines on ourselves and sometimes those deadlines are forced upon us, but that doesn’t mean we need to live every moment of our lives up to that deadline in fear of what will happen if we don’t achieve what we intended by that date. The fear that we feel can be useful in pushing us to get stuff done and avoid procrastination, but when we notice that we can’t sleep at night because we are worried of the negative consequences of what may happen if that bad thing we fear occurs, then it is time for us to step back and refocus on our present moment. I find that it is helpful for me to look at the fears that I have and recognize that in the present moment I am fine, and to recognize that the status quo will most likely continue if I miss the deadline or if the bad thing does happen. There are plenty of things to fear, and we should build a capacity to see that we will still be able to move on with life even if some of our worst fears come true.

 

Ultimately, we know we are going to have obstacles and setbacks in our lives, but that does not mean we need to live every moment in fear of what bad thing is around the corner. We can live conservatively and save money and resources to confidently weather such challenges, but we do not need to allow negative things in our lives to cause us trauma before they have occurred. Preparing ourselves ahead of time will help mitigate the fear, but learning to accept that bad things will happen and learning to enjoy the present moment are the only ways we can truly escape from the fear of what lies ahead.