What happens when we don't know
This is an 8-minute read.
This is the start.
I have wanted to write again for a while now. The exact time eludes me, but after five years of writing for an audience, I didn't publish a word for another five. Over the past several months, my momentum has gathered itself into a journaling habit. And hey, I forgot. This is fun!
It's also been incredibly helpful in understanding myself, which is why we are here today. Returning to a writing habit has helped put things in perspective for me. The world is not unknowable. For years, I have thrown up my hands and asked myself questions like 'How in the hell did that happen?' or 'Why didn't that work as I thought?'
Well Bren, I can now tell you why. Your model of how the world works was, and still is, in ways, inaccurate.
Part of this is maturation. Another part is a jolt. Last year I turned 30. Two days after that, my doctor told me I had diabetes.
In an instant, I was shellshocked. It's hard to place what the next few thoughts were, but we're here to try, so let's try.
That can't be right. I'm healthy. Look at me!
What does this even mean? Diabetes isn't that bad, right?
How could this have happened?
Can I not eat tortilla chips anymore? Pizza?!
Wait, I can't drink Modelo anymore?
This isn't right.
Shit. I better find out what I can and can't eat.
Only the last thought is a lie. I surely did not have the wherewithal to immediately hop on my grind and understand things. I was angry, frustrated, scared, and indignant. How could this happen to me? I was an otherwise healthy 30-year old male living a good life.
Perhaps too good of a life.
In reality, when I backtracked, maybe it was the bowl of cereal before bed 4 nights a week. Or maybe it was the few days a week I'd toss back some Modelos, mix in a sugary margarita, and down a basket of chips and salsa with tacos. My diet was shit, but I had no idea it was actually harming me because I looked relatively fit.
I did not understand, and that is only part of the mistake I made. We'll dive into that another day.
But the lack of understanding is why we're here. When I finally decided to look up what having diabetes meant for what I should put in my body, I started to see a fuller picture of the reality of health. Studying nutritional science gave me the basics: kill the added sugar and cut the simple carbs. More importantly, it gave me the why. It only took a wake-up call from the Doc for me to realize how important it is to understand science.
Of course, this is why we go to school, right? To learn about life? We are taught the foundations of the English language, mathematics, history, and the sciences so that we can solve the world's problems. We are meant to build a deeper understanding of our universe through our schooling. But for many of us, the approach and process don't quite land with our youthful minds at the time. Tough.
Struggling to grasp why the periodic table is laid out in the way it is? Miss a step of Geometry that stops you from understanding anything after the fourth week of the course? Well, we're moving on because there are 30 other kids that we need to think of, and we have standards to meet. Maybe you would be better suited for remedial math.
Realistically, how could the current education system help everyone? It's built for the masses, not for the individual!
Now, technology is changing that. We now understand people learn in different ways, and we have advanced tools to help people relate to abstract concepts. Virtual Reality can put us into historical representations so we can see what a (tiny) tyrant Napoleon was. Within the next few decades, we will have personalized education for everyone. This is happening even more rapidly now, which makes sense if we understand compounding and nonlinear growth.
The crazy thing is, even with those exponential advances, we won't reach our potential. We will still lack a critical understanding of humanity, because we don't teach about that now. Some of the most essential topics we could know are skipped throughout our schooling. We don't learn how the brain works or what kind of information and nutritional diet to put into our systems. We send kids out into the world without the knowledge to live a good life. And it's tough out there.
As soon as I grasped that I didn't know how the world actually worked, my life started to change. No longer was I bound by the constructs in my mind. Hell, I could push the boundaries of how I did things because I knew that other people thought the same way I was. I could ask a stranger for a favor because I understood the principles of reciprocity. And I noticed something, I was much happier.
In all honesty, it took some time, because all things take time. There is no shortcut to changing things in your life unless you rely on ridiculously low probability events. Let's take something simple that many of us do without fail - buy lottery tickets. During any given lottery drawing, your odds of winning the jackpot are 1 in 175 million. Yet, last year 49% of American adults bought lottery tickets. Half of us are idiots. Why?
It's obvious! Our minds lust for the big win, and we can't process how impossible the chances are. I apologize for yelling, but I understand the premise of lighting money on fire quite well, and this is it. Many people have said this before.
When the expected value of your decisions is improbably low, you are inevitably going to be disappointed. Things aren't going to go your way as often as you think or wish they will. The short-term fix we are seeking is not going to happen.
Instead, if we recognize that the dream is actually on the journey of achieving the dream, then we realize there is no quick fix. It's the long hours you put into honing your craft. It's giving up a Friday with friends because you want to finish writing a piece. It's scouring through research to find your perfect example. The best part of this is each step we take puts us closer to what we want to achieve, because things compound.
Stop and think about that for a second.
And I want to ask you another question or two.
This will be a regular part of our time together. I will ask a question that I hope you answer, and in return, I will show you what people around the world have answered. Through this, I hope to help you see that you are not alone in your thinking. We may form different opinions on things, but we all make decisions like everyone else.
Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman discovered this in his work with partner Amos Tversky in the 1960's and 70's. They found two ways our brains process information. The first is an intuitive, reactionary part that rapidly makes the majority of our decisions without us knowing, which they called System 1. And then there is the reasoning, analytical part that turns on when needed that they referred to as System 2. Every single one of us processes information the same, in both of those ways. This was, in essence, the thesis of his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. This book changed my life.
You can think of the two as Focus and Autopilot. When we engage Focus, we spend time thinking about something, like intently reading or planning our budget. There is a problem to be solved, and it usually requires plenty of brain power. If we think for too long, we get tired, and we usually quit.
Autopilot is different. When Autopilot is on, we use simple rules, or heuristics, based on our past experiences to make our decisions without thinking. It's easy, and it feels good. What's not to love about it? We're almost always on AP, but sometimes it drives us drunk.
We can think of those mistakes as cognitive biases. Autopilot knows what we like based on our history, and it automatically applies the same thought processes to every situation before we can do anything about it. Thing is, it's usually right. That's how we have evolved to use it so effectively. But when it's not? That's when we say and do really stupid things.
This comes in the form of things like confirmation bias - we believe things that confirm our preconceptions, even if we're dead wrong. Or anchoring bias - we over-rely on the first thing we hear. Yikes! My favorite is clustering, when we see patterns in totally random events. There are hundreds more.
How do we go about reducing our cognitive biases and better understanding our reality? Through education. The foundation to living a better life is through deeper understanding. Through a deeper understanding of our world - how it works, why people do things they do, and what our limitations are - we can live a better life. That's at the crux of everything I want to share with you.
So part of this space will be focused on mistakes. I will even call this series On Mistakes, so no one is confused in the slightest bit by my aim. In it, as you may assume, I will share my mistakes with you. I will tell you why they are mistakes, based on our current scientific understanding.
And I will tell you how I went ahead to fix these mistakes. I hope that maybe, just maybe, my words resonate with you and spark a deeper understanding of how you can improve your life. If a single one of you achieves a goal because you've come to understand the world more clearly, I'll have succeeded.
What I haven't come straight forward with is why I plan to share my mistakes with you. Mistakes are, by default, embarrassing. For 30 years, I have fucking hated making mistakes. I've added the naughty language in an attempt to show how much I truly detest it. They physically pain me. When we make a mistake, we feel a sensation that flutters through our body. Our blood temperature rises momentarily. Our emotions overrun our brain function. And we usually react like children, causing long-term damage in the process.
But it doesn't stop there. The thought stays in our mind, seeping into seemingly every thought we have. Instead of working through the problem, our brains fixate on how awful it was. Before we know it, we're spiraling into a feedback loop that tells us we'll be fired any moment now.
So why would I want to do this? Why would I want to air my own dirty laundry?
Well, if I can bring everything back to one principle I try to live by, it is to speak and act with candor. Even if it hurts to say, do, or think, being candid allows me to live as authentically as I can to the mind and body I occupy. Only by embracing our own limitations can we improve our lives. Only by sharing how we see things can we improve the situation. And at the end of each day, I want to live a better life.
So I hope my mistakes - the errors in judgment, the lapses in discipline, the crimes of being unaware - help you see what I have come to see. Building a deeper understanding of our reality can help you live a better life.
This is the start. The start of understanding why.