On true fitness and how to get it, real time mindchanging, and the perils of self-criticism.
Self-criticism is hard; it’s hard to conduct well and almost always entails some kind of physical toll. Guilt, shame, beating oneself up, self-pity, self-harm, and the like: these are all examples of poorly-conducted self-criticism. It’s easy to fall into this type of thinking. On the contrary, isolating and objectifying the some information in your head so that you can subject it to serious analysis, well, that’s a different ball game. And like in all ball games, one’s ability to be effective is not based on knowledge naturally acquired: we have to actually build skills through regular and smart practice. Constructive self-criticism isn’t easy. The question is why—why do we have such an innate resistance to reviewing our own source code if it has the potential to be so beneficial? It seems we should be all for correcting errors if it means we might be better off, right? If only.
To make prominent errors in my own thought I must first have to look extremely closely at it. The location of a bug in any understood system can take a very long time, but here we’re dealing with the brain. The reason that our greatest source of help—or more aptly, criticism—comes from experiences, in moments of distraction, and directly via the words of others is that it’s just too hard to decently perform ourselves. It’s not just our own biology we’re up against but an infinite number variables, ultra-complicated interplay, and a host of other important tasks that demand my attention right now.
The strength of our innate resistance to run in debug mode differs depending on what’s coming under scrutiny. Microeconomists put happily aside, if I learn from an economics textbook that the supply and demand curve explains much about the display of equilibrium in markets then I am likely to take that idea on board without ease, even if I formerly had somewhat of a different idea in its place. This is a piece of knowledge which doesn’t affect me personally and which I therefore have no emotional affinity with. If however I am accused by my ex-wife of being responsible for her adultery, well, that will definitely rub me the wrong way. Likewise, if I spend six months writing a novel, six months fighting publishers, and six more months on a promotional tour, and then one day discover an article published in my favourite magazine about how garbage the work is, well, I will burn the magazine.
We humans are apt to shut down the error correction mechanisms when coming under criticism for something with which we have great emotional ties. It’s possible that my wife was wrong but had many good points to raise, and it’s possible that my novel was not garbage but could have undoubtedly been improved if I’d done some of the things my challenger pointed out. But this type of thinking never crosses the mind of most persons, and understandably.
It’s not only during extreme examples like the above wherein we shut up shop. The takedown of a simple idea about a subject can mean the crumbling of everything I think about that subject. It’s a mistake to think that minds should more often be changed mid-conversation, or worse, mid-debate. For the pro-X debate participant to stand even a chance of persuading the other side and any onlookers they must have integrated thoughts not just about X but about anti-X and many other areas on which their pro-X argument lies. Philosophers, politicians, writers, scientists, and thinkers worth their salt have tightly intertwined, highly integrated, comprehensive worldviews—the product of many years of serious thought, error, and learnings. Causing such persons to shift their stance on X is going to be exceptionally hard a task because it also entails shifting so much other freight.
The strongest debaters are the least likely to change their mind because the strongest debaters have the most inclusive perspectives, and inclusive perspectives involve a ton of integration and interplay between ideas, most of it not obvious at first glance. One way you could put this is: if the measure of the mind is knowledge and unification of that knowledge, as it increases, so does the risk; the deepest thinkers have the greatest amount on the line if wrong. Therefore it’s a mistake to expect minds being regularly changed in real time, especially wherein audiences are present, because almost never is an idea so independent that it can be dropped ‘on the fly’; the takedown of one idea is often the take down of many, and many ideas are what worldviews consist of. This is all to say that it’s completely normal that we have such reluctance to recognising our errors, which is the crucial first step to correcting for them.
So what can you do? The first thing to know is that although hat-drop mindchanging is probably something you don’t want to be doing often, and in fact it shouldn’t be happening often if you have well-developed thoughts on a matter, it’s not always a bad thing. Private engagement with a trusted mind as interested as you in topic X is one situation that is quite conducive to real time shifting of positions; this would typically be an in-person or phone conversation, but it could also be a letter exchange.
Second, understand that it’s not just pardonable but to be expected that others have as much resistance to changing their mind as you; this can be a gamechanger for every conversation wherein lies the possibility of heat and disagreement, because it transcends the focus from one of ‘getting the other to change their mind’ to one of making new mistakes, discovering novel positions, and locating promising connections between opposing positions, connections which could lead to something eye-opening and original.
The third thing bears the highest priority. It is to do the work. The way you stay accurate, atop the current knowledge, at the leading edge, comprehensive, aware of all possible rebuttals, and just prepared, is by doing serious post-analysis on any debates, conversations, or projects in which you participate. It’s easy to just carry on with life in the aftermath, but think of this as giving yourself an undeserved free pass. The worst thing is to become very good at speaking around a crack identified by an opponent (which could be yourself, of course) and thinking that this means the crack isn’t really a problem. Perhaps you realise a gaping hole mid-conversation, and wisely, change the topic or find a way to speak above the problem. This kind of thing happens all the time; it’s what happens after the fact that is the problem, which is, too frequently, nothing.
Being able to speak yourself out tricky situations is fine, but the muscle being built depends on the underlying intention: if you get out only for the sake of getting out—i.e., for dignity’s sake—then the muscle being worked is the one you don’t want to be working. It’s the one which with each phase of growth you become less aware of your own inconsistencies and ignorance. It’s the one which incrementally blinds you to what’s possible, thereby slowly disabling your ability to generate ideas, make connections, and create new knowledge. It’s the one which clips your wings and chains your ankles. The muscle you want to be working is the one worked by repeatedly getting yourself out of tricky situations so that you can later go back and do serious analysis in private, thereby allowing you to understand how and why you went wrong, and if necessary, change your mind. This is a habit to develop as passionately and hastily as you can, and it’s what the greatest minds do.
I’ll finish with some words about writing, namely the final two paragraphs from a recent and recommended piece.
If you don’t thinking seriously enough that you never separate yourself from the network and ‘go to work’ you can pretty much say goodbye to any chances of heterodox thought and the discovery of solutions to chronic or even urgent problems, problems of the personal and parochial type, or of the type humanity has been wrestling with for millennia and as they pertain to your life. Even if your goal isn’t to write the Great Novel or Cure Cancer, any problems you’re currently entertaining have the potential to be aided through applied thought. And the way to do that, today, is with a commitment to writing or some equivalent means by which you can get some sense-making done.
Sitting down with a pen and paper, a blank page in Evernote, or just your mind and nothing else, is a forcing function1 for deliberation and introspection. The idea is that you will get something done, that you will make some progress, tangible or otherwise. Something is not always better than nothing, but pertaining to this goal and in this age, it’s an absolute truth of the utmost importance.
- Peer-review is a forcing function for groundbreaking academic wiring (or rather, that’s the wish), the opinion of your crush is a forcing function for hygiene and use of cologne, the wrath of your boss and flexibility of your bonus is a forcing function for good punctuation and work ethic. Forcing functions are the hidden drivers of the economy, the motivators behind our behaviours, and hence very helpful things to be aware of.