The Year of 100 Rejections: Wins, Losses, and Lessons Learned (Month #3)

March was my third month of the The Year of 100 Rejections.

If you’re new here: As one of this year’s learning projects, I’m trying to learn how to write fiction by failing systematically. My goal is to collect 100 short story rejections by end of year 2018.


Here’s how this month went:

  • I finished 2 short stories. This was the same number of stories as last month.
  • I made 5 submissions. Last month, I only made 3 submissions.
  • I received 4 rejections. Last month, I received 3 rejections.

Total so far: 10/100 Rejections.

If you’ve been following along, you’ve probably realized two things:

  • I’m behind schedule. I wanted to have 15-20 rejections by now, but I’m only at 10.
  • There isn’t any data this month. I provided detailed graphs for months 1-2, but there aren’t any for month 3.

I figured this would happen sooner or later.

Put simply, what happened this month was that I “fell off the wagon.” This happens all the time when setting long-term goals—we break our rules (eating a cheat meal) or lose motivation, and everything falls apart.

Here’s what I think knocked me off the wagon:

  • Time constraints made me break my habits. For months one and two, I had a good habit of daily writing going (averaging 500-600 words a day). Last month, this habit broke because I launched a small business that ended up sucking up a lot of my time. I fell off the wagon and never got back on.
  • Falling motivation. Along with this break in habits, I felt less motivated to write stories in March. I think this happened for two main reasons: (1) there isn’t much of a writing community around me, (2) I’m not getting enough clear feedback to help me learn.

Plans for Month #4

With the above in mind, what should be my goal for Month #4?

My number one priority, I think, should be to get back on the wagon. In other words, for April, I want to get back in the habit of writing every day.

Learning, finishing stories, etc. is important, but none of that will happen unless I get in the habit of writing again.

Here’s how I’ll try to do this:

  • Go back to basics. When habit systems fail, it’s important to reset at a lower level. If I try to do all the work I was doing before, I’ll burn out and fall off the wagon again.
  • Make daily goals easy. As part of “going back to basics”, I want to make my daily goals easy to achieve. Something like “Write 100 words after turning on the computer” might be a good habit to work towards.
  • Not worry too much about the big picture. It can be de-motivational if I realize that I “need to get 90 more rejections”. This month, I won’t worry too much about how many rejections I need to get. Rather, I’ll focus on just writing things and trying to enjoy the process.
  • Get more involved in a community. Thought I told myself I’d join some writing groups, I haven’t actually gone to any meetings. I think it’s about time to do that. I’ve signed up for an event next weekend… We’ll see how that goes.

That’s all for this month. Not that good of a month, but every month can’t be perfect 🙂

See you at the end of Month #4!

The Myth of the “Perfect Person”

Philosopher John Armstrong’s How to Worry Less About Money is one of the best books on money I’ve ever read.

He’s the first thinker I know to point out that many of our money problems are not about money at all—they’re about psychology. Financial freedom isn’t about being filthy rich. It’s about psychological freedom.

Recently, I found another great book of Armstrong’s titled Conditions of Love: The Philosophy of Intimacy.

In it, Armstrong dispels a common myth that many of us hold—the myth of the perfect person.

Let’s take a look.

Love is not a treausre hunt

love-as-a-treasure-hunt.png

Many of us see love as a treasure hunt.

This delusional belief goes something like this: “There are billions of people in the world.  I haven’t met her yet, but—somewhere out there—the perfect person is waiting for me. I just have to keep trying. When I meet her, all my problems will be solved!”

Most people today would choke on their cappuccinos (squirting milk out of their noses, no doubt) if you said, “I’m searching for the Holy Grail. It’s only a matter of time until I find it.” But nobody bats an eyelash when we say, “I’m searching for Mr. or Ms. Right. I just have to meet enough people and it’ll be okay.”

Armstrong writes:

“One major theme of this myth is that there is a ‘right’ person for each of us. If we can only find this person our problems will be over. … Correspondingly, what goes wrong in love always derives from attaching ourselves to the wrong person – or the wrong person getting attached to us.”

So what’s so problematic about this belief?

At first, it sounds pretty reasonable. After all, some people are clearly “wrong” for us. I would not want to date a drug addict or marry a woman who beats me each morning with a baseball bat.

Here’s the mistake, though: Just because some people are better than others does not mean that the perfect person exists. 

You might as well say that, because some foods are more nutritious than others, there is a single food that will give you all the nutrients you need for the rest of your life. (Please, don’t even get me started on Soylent.)

It gets even worse.

Our expectation that a perfect person exists guarantees failure, says Armstorng:

“…the demand for compatibility is never satisfied. The list we make always leaves room for new demands – and hence new ways in which people can turn out to be incompatible. … When people agree about almost everything, the few points of difference can still seem – to them – enormous. …the ‘right person’ is specified so closely that they will never find such a person; they will always be disappointed because whoever they find will fall short in some way, will fail to meet one of their requirements. But, in their own eyes, this is not a shortcoming of their own; it is simply bad luck.

When we are ensnared by the vision of a perfect person, we compare all others to a unreachable standard… and find everyone lacking.

To seek perfection is to climb a staircase that never ends.

“I’m perfect just the way I am… But everyone else sucks.”

This impossibility of finding perfection isn’t what bothers me most, though.

For me, the most frustrating part of the “myth of the perfect person” is how it lets us ignore the other half of a successful relationship—ourselves.

“Attention is diverted away from the seeker. They have no responsibility to be loving; they imagine that when they do find the person love will be easy, will flower spontaneously and survive of its own accord.”

To say, “I’m just waiting for Mr. Perfect to come along” is to say that you have no personal responsibility for what happens to you.

When a relationship fails, we do not consider that we might lack humility, empathy or understanding. Instead, we invoke a convenient excuse and say, “We just weren’t right for each other.”

The ideal of Ms. Right objectifies love, which blinds us to the need to work on ourselves:

“The problem is not finding the person but in finding the resources and capacities in oneself to care for another person – to love them. Searching for the right ‘object’ diverts attention from finding the right attitude.”

“I’m going to IKEA to buy me a wife.”

The search for love is fundamentally different from the search for flight tickets, buried treasure, or living room furniture. Desk lamps do not change. People do.

“A second problem with this attempt to find the ‘right person’ is that it does not pay enough attention to the ways in which priorities change through a relationship. A woman who has – as she thinks – no interest in having children may, from within a loving relationship, come to have a different view.”

Many people (myself included, in the past) have a mental “checklist” of all the qualities they want Mr. or Ms. Right to have—smart, funny, big wallet, blah, blah, blah.

Two mistakes here: (1) a checklist assumes we know what we want and (2) it assumes what we want will stay stable over time.

Before I met my wife, my plan was to stay single and continue my travels around the world. I didn’t want to marry for at least another decade, and couldn’t ever see myself “settling down”.

After meeting her, these priorities changed. I saw new value in community, solidarity, and many other things I had been blind to before. Even the idea of kids (gasp!) suddenly didn’t sound so bad.

Ten years ago, I had no idea who I would be today. And, in turn, I have no idea who I will be in another ten years.  How could I possibly calculate “perfect”?

“The calculation – the picturing of the perfect partner – presupposes that we can enter a relationship with a clear-sighted and complete understanding of our needs and capacities. This is to see a relationship as a kind of garment which merely goes on top of, and does not in any way change, the inner person.”

 

The ways of thinking that come from high school textbooks—where problems are clearly defined and have “right” answers—do not transfer well to love, politics or decision-making in the real world.

Incommensurability: You Are Not a Jigsaw Puzzle

Now, a final point on why “perfection” fails.

 

Human beings have many needs, and not all of them are compatible. Some of these needs will drive us towards relationships, others will pull us way.

 

A person in a wonderful relationship may start to crave freedom and independence. But when this person goes through a divorce or a breakup, he may find that—after a few months of feeling “free”—he suddenly misses his former partner and wishes he could go back.

There is no free lunch, no choice without some accompanying shadow, says Armstrong:

“…even if we rationally (and sensibly) come to a [relationship] conclusion one way or another, we still have to live with the consequence that something important has been sacrificed. And the scar of this sacrifice lives on in our experience of love, introducing a permanent pain and dissatisfaction into otherwise very healthy relationships. Love, then, can never be the coming together of two perfectly compatible creatures. We are not like jigsaw pieces which can, if only we find the correct piece, lock together in perfect accord. It is as if each person actually belongs to several jigsaws at once and hence fits perfectly into none.

Personally, I’ve found a sort of stoic acceptance valuable here.

By not believing in a perfect solution, I’m more able to appreciate the ups and downs of life, and a lot more able to withstand the inevitable conflicts (“Did you really forget to put your socks in the washing machine, again?!”) that come with any relationship.

 

Love as cultivation

One last thing before you go.

If we reject the myth of the perfect person, what “mental model” should we use in its place?

To start, let’s look at this paragraph from Armstrong:

“One of the ordinary tragedies of love occurs when one person is well intentioned and well disposed towards another, but has no adequate idea of how to make the other person happy. It is one thing to feel loving towards someone, another to translate this feeling into words and actions which make the other person feel loved.”

I did not have a happy childhood.

One of my most vivid, and painful memories, is of my mother and I both in tears after another nasty argument. “Why can’t you understand?” said my mother, “I love you so much. Why can’t you understand?”

It is one thing to love, and another to express love.

Armstrong writes:

“People can be better or worse at seeing opportunities to make their affection apparent… This has nothing to do with strength of feeling or intensity of longing. Instead it has everything to do with perceptual acuity and imagination.”

 

Realizing love is not simply about finding the right person. It’s also about cultivating a set of valuable skills:

“…love is an achievement, it is something we create, individually, not something which we just find, if only we are lucky enough. ….love is dependent upon many other achievements: kindness of interpretation, sympathy, understanding, a sense of our own needs and vulnerability. And these kinds of capacity and awareness do not spring suddenly into being. Each requires patient cultivation… We place too much emphasis on finding the right person and not nearly enough upon the cultivation of qualities which allow us to deserve love and which enable us to give love…”

Work on yourself, and good things will come.

For many more interesting thoughts on love, check out Armstrong’s book.

 

Visualizing the Meaning of Life: The Drip Coffee Model

Recently, I found a book by Israeli philosopher Iddo Landau titled How to Find Meaning in an Imperfect World.

This is not a self-help book. Instead, it’s full of clear ideas on how to think about the meaning of life.

Let’s take a look.

The Wrong Questions?

When a judge asks a man, “Why did you beat your wife?” there’s a problem. The judge is assuming that the man did beat his wife. The question contains an assumption.

Questions about meaning in life contain assumptions too:

  • “What’s the meaning of life?” Assumes that there’s a single meaning.
  • “Does my life have meaning?” Hints at a “yes” or “no” answer.

Neither of the above assumptions is true, says Landau. Our lives can have many meanings—in fact, they should have many meanings. And meaning in life isn’t about “yes” or “no”… It’s about enough.

To understand this, we first need to shift our thinking from “meaning” to “value”.

calvin.gif

From Meaning to Value

Landau argues that problems of meaning are really problems of insufficient value:

“…to see life as meaningless or as insufficiently meaningful is to see it as a life with an insufficient number of aspects of sufficient value. In other words, those who take life to be meaningless feel that there is a gap between their expectations and reality: a gap between the degree of value that life should have and the degree of value that it actually does have.”

When life feels meaningless, it may mean our expectations are too high (perfectionism).

But it also might mean that we really don’t have enough value in our lives—perhaps we are overly self-conscious, live alone, have no friends, hate our job, and are drowning in both loneliness and existential fear. (I know what all of that feels like. It’s not good.)

Now here’s why this shift from meaning to value is so powerful.

First, it’s a lot easier to ask “Are there enough valuable experiences in my life?” than it is to ask, “Is my life meaningful?” The question is less vague. Also, there’s a whole field called value theory that studies how we create and discover value—a lot of work is already done for us.

But for me, the most important thing about value-thinking is that it opens two paths. To find meaning, we can either:

  1. Add more value. We can identify activities that are (or might be) valuable to us — gardening, meditation, volunteering, etc.— and do more of them. Or, we can work in reverse, removing activities that reduce value (say, by ignoring angry reader complaints about typos).
  2. Change our thinking. We can also change the way we see what we already have. Perhaps our life already has sources of value, but we just aren’t looking at things in the right way. (Example: I know a Japanese man who thinks his beautiful wife and daughter are “destroying his life” because, in a struggle to support them, he has no time to do other things… Yet, I know he would be devastated if they disappeared.

With this in mind, let’s refine our thinking.

Visualizing Meaning

The way most of us see meaning in life looks something like this:

meaningfulNOT MEANINGFUL.png

With this mental picture, we see meaning as an all or nothing, on or off, yay or nay kind of problem. This is both intimidating and un-useful.

Instead, Landau suggests we are better off seeing things as a spectrum. Imagine a number line that runs from 0 (absolutely meaningless) to 100 (absolutely meaningful).

Right now, you are somewhere along that line:

sepctrum.png

Somewhere along this line, there’s also a psychological flag:

meaningfulflag.png

When we have enough value in our lives to pass this psychological flag, our lives start to feel meaningful.

Why I like this model better:

  • It shows we already have value. Most likely, your life is not devoid of value. Rather, you probably already have some valuable things in your life. You just have to work on moving up.
  • It’s less scary. It’s a lot less intimidating to move up a few inches than go from meaningless to meaningful.
  • The goal is clear. All we need to do is (a) move our flag or (b) get closer to the flag.
  • It allows for fluctuations. Value doesn’t stay constant over a lifetime, or even from moment to moment. With this model, we can imagine ourselves moving up and down the line as time passes.
  • It (sort of) considers psychology. The flag helps us visualize how our expectations also change. This is why people with high (and mistaken) standards can feel their life is empty.

However, I think there’s one weakness to this model—although it considers psychology, it doesn’t consider psychology enough.

The Drip Coffee Model

During the holocaust, some victims were able to maintain a sense of meaning while others were lost in despair. Although they had similar experiences, their psychology affected whether life was meaningful.

In other words, value is not just about objective experience. It’s also about your interpretation.

Landau covers this in his book, of course. Finding more value in life isn’t just about making more friends or seeing more sunsets. It’s also about recognizing the value in what you already have.

However, I don’t think he gives a good way to visualize this.

To help myself visualize, I came up with the drip coffee model:

coffeedrip.png

First, imagine a coffee pot with a filter above it.

Now think of all the potentially valuable things in life—sunsets, late night conversations over wine, YouTube lectures, Beethoven’s symphonies, etc. These are the things you “pour” into your filter.

If enough of these things make it through the filter and into your coffee pot, life feels meaningful. If not enough stuff makes it into your pot, life feels meaningless.

To fill your pot, you can’t just worry about what you poor. You also need to worry about whether the stuff you’re pouring in gets through.

A Japanese friend of mine has a lovely wife and two beautiful children. Yet, recently he has started to think that his family is destroying his life. “I have no freedom to do the stuff I want to do,” he says. “I want more time for myself.”

His wife and daughter are no longer making it through his psychological filter. Gratitude exercises—or perhaps a disastrous event—may change his perception, but, for now, he is blind to the value of what he already has.

This is why perfectionism is so toxic.  You can see perfectionism as having a really, really, strict filter. Nothing except the highest of achievements make it through our psychological filters. As a side effect, we become blind to all the small-yet-valuable things in life.

How to Make Coffee

Now let’s try to apply this model to our lives. How can we fill our coffee pots?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, we can:

  1. Add value. Pour in more things of value.
  2. Appreciate what we have. Let more things through our filters and into the coffee pots.

To figure out how to add value, we can reflect on our past, study what has worked for others, read books, think about ethics and politics, and so on. We can also look at what we do daily and ask, “Is this really valuable to me?” If something is not valuable, maybe we should stop doing it.

To appreciate what we have (and train our psychological filters), we can do mindfulness meditation, read stoic philosophy, have a chat with a Buddhist monk, start gratitude journaling, spend 48 hours fasting, and so on.

Iddo Landau says the goal of his book is to take the meaning of life “off its pedestal.” I think he’s done exactly that… Maybe “forty-two” wasn’t our only answer.

 

Yuval Harari on the Paradox of Historical Knowledge and the Real Value of History

I made a terrible mistake.

I tend to ignore bestseller lists because it’s so easy for authors to buy their way onto the lists. There’s so much noise and so little signal.

But sometimes this means I miss a really good book. Yuval Harari’s bestsellers—Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorroware an example. They’re good. I wish I’d read them sooner.

In this essay, I look at two terrifying yet fascinating ideas from Harari’s Homo Deus.

Good Prophets Never Win

First, let’s look at what Harari calls the “paradox of historical knowledge.”

Let’s say you’re the prophet in a small, rural village. Your divination magicks tell you that, in the next few hours, your village will be burned to ash by an all-consuming fire.

Desperate to save your village, you rush out in the village square. “Fire! Fire!” you shout, eyes filled with tears. “There will be fire!”

Hearing your cries, the other villagers extinguish their tobacco pipes, douse the cooking fires, and pour water on the dry wood of their huts. Then, gathered together in the village square, they wait, trembling with fear.

Hours pass. There’s no fire.

One villager, a young teenage hothead, throws his straw hat on the ground. “Liar!” He shouts. “Where’s the fire you prophesized? You’re a sham!”

This is the difference between prophecizing about the weather (also known as forecasting) and prophecizing about people. Clouds don’t care about the weatherman’s opinion. People do.

This is a key to Harari’s paradox.

Sure, knowledge can help us to understand the world. But humans also react to knowledge:

“Some complex systems, such as the weather, are oblivious to our predictions. The process of human development, in contrast, reacts to them. Indeed, the better our forecasts, the more reactions they engender. Hence paradoxically, as we accumulate more data and increase our computing power, events become wilder and more unexpected. The more we know, the less we can predict. This is the paradox of historical knowledge. Knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless. But knowledge that changes behaviour quickly loses its relevance. The more data we have and the better we understand history, the faster history alters its course, and the faster our knowledge becomes outdated.”

The more we know, the faster we change. To understand this change, we accumulate even more knowledge. Then we change even faster.

Instead of a leisurely Sunday morning stroll through Japanese Zen gardens, history is now blindfolded, has its hands tied, and is running at breakneck speed through a technological minefield:

“Today our knowledge is increasing at breakneck speed, and theoretically we should understand the world better and better. But the very opposite is happening. Our new-found knowledge leads to faster economic, social and political changes; in an attempt to understand what is happening, we accelerate the accumulation of knowledge, which leads only to faster and greater upheavals. Consequently we are less and less able to make sense of the present or forecast the future.”

These days, the view that more knowledge equals a better society is so common that I guess you could call it the premiere Western myth. What I love about Harari’s books is that he is not afraid to pull this myth apart.

Knowledge leads to better technologies, but there’s no guarantee that it will always improve the human condition. Knowledge has done great good, but it has caused great evil.

We thought that the Internet would bring us together. It has, in some ways.  But it can organize terrorists, make teenagers hyper-self-conscious and afraid of human contact, and isolate us in self-reinforcing bubbles of like-minded thought.

Before the 20th century, humans had no way of systematically wiping themselves out. Now, we can.

“I’m reading Sun Tzu to protect my Facebook account from hackers.”

Now, another interesting idea.

When an annoying student asks, “Teacher, why do we study history?” a common response is to say, “Relax, dear child. We study history so we don’t repeat the same mistakes again.”

This seems sensible to me, but Harari disagrees:

”…historians are asked to examine the actions of our ancestors so that we can repeat their wise decisions and avoid their mistakes. But it almost never works like that because the present is just too different from the past. It is a waste of time to study Hannibal’s tactics in the Second Punic War so as to copy them in the Third World War. What worked well in cavalry battles will not necessarily be of much benefit in cyber warfare.”

I am not sure what to think here.

I understand that the history of war may tell us little about how to deal with Russian cyber terror. But it still seems to me that, if human nature stays somewhat constant over time (which is debatable), then we should be able to extract lessons from history on how to—and how not to—live our lives.

Either way, Harari cites another benefit that he sees as “the best reason to learn history.” History is not just about studying mistakes or predicting the future. Rather, history is also a way “liberating” ourselves:

“Though historians occasionally try their hand at prophecy (without notable success), the study of history aims above all to make us aware of possibilities we don’t normally consider. Historians study the past not in order to repeat it, but in order to be liberated from it.”

What does Harari mean by “liberation”?

“I’ve got to water my lawn or all my neighbors will think I’m poor.”

Take the American lawn. These days, it seems that everyone in the American suburbia has a lawn, but I rarely see them here in Japan or during my travels through Southeast Asia.

Why?

Well, it turns out that lawns, historically, were used by rich aristocrats to flaunt their status. Like some of us blow hard-earned money on big diamonds, our ancestors blew excess cash on gardeners, water, and exotic plant life just to prove they were well-off enough to do so.

By understanding the history of the lawn, we can say, “Well, maybe I don’t need a lawn after all.”

Here’s a beautiful paragraph from Harari:

“Each and every one of us has been born into a given historical reality, ruled by particular norms and values, and managed by a unique economic and political system. We take this reality for granted, thinking it is natural, inevitable and immutable. We forget that our world was created by an accidental chain of events, and that history shaped not only our technology, politics and society, but also our thoughts, fears and dreams. The cold hand of the past emerges from the grave of our ancestors, grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.”

Our view of the world is not the way things have to be but shaped and biased in ways we will never fully understand.

We shake our heads at the people of past, saying, “Wow, did really put powder in their wigs?” But people of the future (assuming there are any of us left), will look at us and say, “Wow, did those fools really try to put butter in their coffee and upload their brains into the Internet? Hah!”

History isn’t a boring activity done by dusty people in the back rooms of libraries.

It’s a psychological battlefield.

The future is made up of the past. If you want people to imagine a better future, you start with history. And if you want people to not think about the future… you burn all the books.

“Movements seeking to change the world often begin by rewriting history, thereby enabling people to reimagine the future. … Only a string of chance events created the unjust world we know today. If we act wisely, we can change that world, and create a much better one.’ This is why Marxists recount the history of capitalism; why feminists study the formation of patriarchal societies; and why African Americans commemorate the horrors of the slave trade. They aim not to perpetuate the past, but rather to be liberated from it.”

In the words of the great economist John Maynard Keynes: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”

Ideas are powerful stuff.

Divination as a Decision Tool: Can Superstition Help Us Make Better Decisions?

Meet Sally:

sally

Sally is in terrible trouble.

Why? Well, Sally made some mistakes, and somehow (it’s always “somehow”) she’s ended up with two boyfriends:

sally-2

I’d personally always go for the one with a beard…

The situation is turning ugly, and Sally has to pick a man.

How does she choose?

Sally reaches out to a well-educated business consultant, who (after Sally obediently wires several thousand dollars to his offshore, Cayman Islands bank account) says, “Make a table with two columns. Label the first column ‘Boy A’ and the second column ‘Boy B’. Then, write down all the reasons you like both of them. Afterwards, calculate the probabilities…”

Sorry, I fell asleep writing that.

What if I told you that—to make a better decision—Sally would be better off ignoring her consultant and flipping a coin instead?

“Oh great and knowlegable Coin, master of the universe…”

The above story, slightly modified to make it more fun to write, comes from German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer. Gigerenzer is a pioneering researcher in rationality and real-world decision making.

Nobody cares, says Gigerenzer, whether Sally’s coin lands on heads or tails. Rather, the coin flip is important because it trigger’s Sally’s inner voice.

From Gigerenzer’s Risk Savvy:

“If you are having difficulties hearing your inner voice, there is a much faster method: Just throw a coin. While it is spinning, you will likely feel which side should not come up. That’s your inner voice. You don’t have to make any complicated calculations to hear it. And you don’t have to bother looking whether heads or tails came up.”

Sounds wacky, I know.

But let’s think about it. Let’s say Sally flips her coin and it lands on heads. Boy A, who won the flip, shouts “Yeaaaaa!” and begins to run around the room, jumping, howling and pumping his fists.

Immediately—even before she finishes the flip—Sally hears an inner voice whisper from deep within her unconscious. “Hey Sally,” says the voice, “You real, true love isn’t Boy A. It’s Boy B…”

Wow, I should sell that script to Hollywood.

This unconscious voice is an example of what Gigerenzer’s calls a “gut feeling” or “intuition”. And, contrary to what your professors might have told you, this gut feeling can be incredibly good at making decisions.

From Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious:

…deliberate thinking about reasons seems to lead to decisions that make us less happy, just as consciously thinking about how to ride a bike or put on a spontaneous smile is not always better than its automatic version. The unconscious parts of our mind can decide without us … knowing its reasons, or … without being aware that a decision has been made in the first place.

We’ve seen this again and again. When people rely on intuition to choose among preferences (say, for movie posters or for bottles or wine), they enjoy their decisions more.

But it’s not just that.

Our business consultant’s alternative method—what Gigerenzer calls “calculated intelligence”—often fails in the real world.

To list outcomes and calculate probabilities works when dealing with risk—that is, when all outcomes and probabilities are known. It doesn’t work when dealing with uncertainty, which is something different altogether:

In everyday language, we make a distinction between ‘certainty’ and ‘risk,’ but the terms ‘risk’ and ‘uncertainty’ are mostly used as synonyms. They aren’t. In a world of known risks, everything, including the probabilities, is known for certain. Here, statistical thinking and logic are sufficient to make good decisions. In an uncertain world, not everything is known, and one cannot calculate the best option. Here, good rules of thumb and intuition are also required.”

So, in fields from stock market investing to geopolitics to warfare to, yes, your future marriage partner, the outcomes are not known and will never be known.

That’s when intuition comes into play.

Now, let’s move from coin-flipping to another wacky decision tool: divination.

“Shh, be quiet. The president is consulting the I Ching”

Paolo, one of my readers, wrote a fascinating post. Paolo suggests that we can use the I Ching—an ancient Chinese text used in divination—to help make better decisions.

In a simplified form, here’s how the I Ching works:

  • Sally has a problem
  • Sally generates a random number from 1-64
  • Sally looks her number up in the I Ching, and the I Ching gives her a confusing answer
  • Sally (in some cases) repeats the process to get another confusing answer that talks about how the future will develop

I installed a app to try it out, and here’s what my I Ching said:

THE ARMY. The army needs perseverance And a strong man. Good fortune without blame.

This sounds so silly, but here’s what Paolo writes:

[To make a difficult decision], I can use Balanced Scorecards, create a weighted matrix or one of the methods suggested in the technical literature.
The problem is that real life still makes you face problems that do not have a perfectly rational answer. Or maybe they have one, but some personal, deeply ingrained bias makes it impossible for us to see these. Or maybe it makes an alternative, no matter how improbable (and irrational) too compelling to be discarded. These situations are usually linked to moral or emotional elements, and there is no way to use a classical decision making process to come out of the quagmire.

 

The I Ching doesn’t predict the future. Instead, it gives you a vague, silly answer that you have to try and figure out. And that’s why it works:

And why is this useful? [Your intrpretation of the I Ching] will make your own “hidden” bias come out in the open, and you will decide to do what you wanted to do in the first place.

Now, an important question: When should we defer to our intuition?

“I’ve never flown a plane before, but I’m sure my intuition will save me.”

The point of this essay wasn’t really about Sally’s marriage or the merits of the I Ching. And I’m certainly not arguing that we wholeheartedly embrace superstition.

Rather, I wanted to look at how intuition—which is often frowned upon—can help us make decisions in the real world.

With that said, it would be suicidal to rely on intuition all the time. Some things are better done with careful, conscious and deliberate thinking.

So how can we know which method—deliberate or intuitive—we should use?

Here’s Gigerenzer, again in Gut Feelings, with a clue:

Intuitions based on only one good reason [a form of intuitive thinking] tend to be accurate when one has to predict the future (or some unknown present state of affairs), when the future is difficult to foresee, and when one has only limited information. They are also more efficient in using time and information. Complex analysis, by contrast, pays when one has to explain the past, when the future is highly predictable, or when there are large amounts of information.

As always, thanks for reading.

 

 

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