Exhausted from the December cold, Michael Dobranksy closed his rattling front door, threw off his coat and scarf and stretched himself across the fat sofa. Sniffing back congestion, he ran his pink hands through his hair. It was afternoon now, and the sun had gone. Outside the windows, it was black, with no birds or breeze, just stillness, behind a thin film of frost. There was nothing particularly special about the room. A television resting on a wooden stand, an old empty flower pot, and a coffee table covered in letters and unread magazines. The entire picture of the room was a varying shade of dull beige, and the dullness seemed to sap any sense of warmth, and only made Michael feel colder than he actually was.
Crushing a pillow to his chest, Michael rolled onto his back and thought about his day – the tired repetition of his work, the flat conversations with colleagues. This was a habit of his. He would return home and lie on his back and offer some kind of critique as to what had happened and question his life and what everything meant. Flying through his day as if above it, he would think ‘what is all this rubbish, what’s it all for?’ This was his usual routine, and his reflections on this day were, initially, nothing out of the ordinary. He would ask the same questions, and come to the same conclusions. That is how it was. This day however, was different. For instead of leaving his work and coming immediately home, Michael had done something different, Michael had met his parents. And Michael hated his parents, and as such, his thoughts began to devote themselves entirely to that hatred, and everything he thought was as follows:
To his mind they were a nuisance, something uncomfortable that must be put up with, like a sore back from a bad sleep. As with most children, in his parents he saw himself, or more specifically, in his parents he saw everything about himself that he despised. And this marriage of hatred, between himself and his parents permeated his being until he was no longer aware of either and simply believed that one and the other were the same and that he hated his parents and in this view was completely justified, and could prove it.
‘Not only was their conversation dull and nervous’ he said to himself. ‘But they were an hour late. It isn’t hard. It’s a lack of respect. I show up perfectly well on time and I do this without even thinking…’ Then, as usual, came the rebuke. ‘ No. I should blame myself. Yes, myself. I knew it was going to happen, and did nothing to avoid it. Stood outside –idiot! And his comment to me – my personal life is none of his business. Always been nosy – that time in August of last year of example. Always digging, when he knows perfectly well I hate it.’ Michael paused, and scratched himself. ‘August, almost a year to the day. Hadn’t thought about that.’ He felt a flush of nerves. ‘ I’m exactly the same as I was then. Exactly the same. I haven’t come anywhere. A year of my life has passed, and I’m still this. But I’ve been trying? … No, I’ve been half arsing it. Fucking around. Never any boldness; never any balls.’
Michael raised a stiff hand to his face, and pressed his cheekbone, then slid his hand down to his mouth and lips. ‘Look at me. My thin, feminine features. My skinny arms. Of course, I’d have no balls, it’s written all over my face. All this is just the result of what I am – the result of me. I’m not meant to change, I’m not that kind of guy. Everything about me is small, as if to say to everyone ‘look at me, I’m useless’, so it stands to reason that all I can ever get from life will be small – when they see me they think, ‘there he is, he’s no harm’ and they treat me as if I’m small – no, they treat me like what I am – it’s all connected.’
Standing up, Michael went over to the mirror and took in his reflection – his hunched figure, his eyes. The entire picture seemed to say ‘yes, I agree, you will never be happy, it’s best not to think about it.’ But his thoughts could move nowhere else. ‘That what it’s all about, I want to change, I want to be respected – but all of my being means I won’t. I’m made this way. I’m made to be less than other men. I just don’t measure up.’
Not wanting to look at himself anymore, he went over to a chair, pulled out his phone and tried to distract himself within the scrolling newsfeed of social media. But his thoughts spun an ever present commentary. Michael’s cold and miserable position cast lines into his consciousness and like a hungry fisherman, drew in, caught, and consumed everything it could. The happy, holidaying couple; the news of a promotion, a first house, a first child, success story, love story; each was a mocking reflection of his own ineadequacy, a confirmation with all the authority and finality of a judges gavel – that his life was intended to be worse than everyone elses and that he could never change, and was sentenced to a life imprisonment within this luckless, hopeless experience.
Drifting into a fantasy he glimpsed himself briefly as the sort of man he ought to be – the kind of man whose energy, strength, and wildness bent life into a position of servitude – but catching himself in this fantasy, Michael saw that it stemmed from his own sense of impotence, and the fantasy itself served his internal jury only more evidence to his appalling disgrace. He moaned and wanted to cry, but he never knew quite how and instead grimaced and rolled on his side, as if stricken by some ache.
When a friend’s name finally took over his phone screen, accompanied by the siren of ringing, he briefly emerged from his thoughts, stared at the phone, then put it down, ignored it, and for the rest of the evening, Michael Dobransky remained cold and alone.
ORGANS OF UNRELIABILITY
Far from being a reliable ally, our brains are in fact incredibly untrustworthy. Prone to emotionally led decision making, cognitive errors and biases, faults of reasoning (it’s worth remembering that we had to invent logic); our minds are vulnerable to being swept along uncontrollably, by elements in their own design – like a sailboat, where even before human will can have its say, the force, and direction of the wind must be accounted for, as that is the greatest driving force acting on it. Neglecting this sends an inexperienced sailor off course, but harnessing this allows the sailboat to traverse oceans. As with the wind-struck sailboat – our minds are constantly blown astray by automatic, inbuilt processes, that result in immediate, often unreliable conclusions – and it is in recognizing and harnessing these inbuilt processes, that allows us to govern our own lives.
The best thinking only occurs when you’re high as fuck.
THINKING ABOUT THINKING
The potential for your brain to consistently deceive you is enormous and highly probable, with ramifications lying in choices you make with others, the goals you pursue, the beliefs you hold, and ultimately, how you perceive yourself. Without awareness of being deceived, our capacity to self-improve is greatly hindered.
Thankfully, there is a solution.
As our mind is like a sailboat, and the cognitive errors are the wind, so to do we have a sailor in our mind. And that sailor is called metacognition.
Dating back to Aristotle’s Parva Naturalia, metacognition (meaning beyond cognition) is thinking about thinking or knowledge about knowledge. It is the act of understanding how the mind thinks and becoming aware of the patterns and forms that thought develops in the mind, and then regulating it.*
Thus there are two components to metacognition:
- Understanding thinking.
- Regulating thinking.
Or as I like to call it: don’t trust yourself; the most counterintuitive rule for personal development that I’ve ever learned. And that’s what this articles all about.
NOBODY IS AS GOOD AS YOU THINK THEY ARE
When trying to develop ourselves, we often look to people for inspiration, or more specifically, we look for people who possess qualities we lack, qualities that result in outcomes we desire – whether they be social status, material wealth, sex, power or genius – we look for the qualities in others that ensured that outcome. Traits like aloofness, being cool and collected, being seductive – there are countless traits to draw on. The problem with this way of perceiving things, however, is that in looking for the behavioral characteristics of others as the root cause of certain results, we massively undervalue the impact of situational factors.
This problem is called fundamental attribution error, and not only is it a problem for how we view others, but it’s also devastating for how we view ourselves.
Far from existing in a vacuum, people are subject to numerous external factors just as much as they are their own innate traits. It is the interplay of these two forces that affects the results we want. Now, given the role of external factors it pays to take them into account when looking for people to draw inspiration from – Jim Carrey’s wacky humor might seem like a source of charisma, but it would fall on deaf ears in the context of an angry mob. Likewise, Hitler’s impassioned ravings might stir an angry mob to action and belief, but on a date with a shy girl, he’d scare her away.
To take a more basic example, when we see a guy talk to a girl and ‘win her over’, our immediate assumption is that he has ‘charm’ or ‘game’, instead of her already liking him, or that she was extremely sexually available. Would focusing on mimicking this ‘charm’ or ‘game’ be as good an idea as learning to spot which women already like you, or which ones are extremely sexually available?
Replicating his charm and then failing to attain the same results will lead you to believe that he has or knows something you don’t, whereas looking for women who like you (unless you’re a total mess) is going to result in you ‘winning her over.’
Likewise, the fundamental attribution error can help us understand the ways in which we are poorly evaluating ourselves, and correlating our results with imagined negative characteristics.
Again, imagine approaching a woman. You walk up, confident, dressed well, smile and say hi. She turns, gives you an awful look and tells you to leave her alone. Now, was it something you did? Is it your grating voice? Your small hands? Your weak jaw? Are you just not attractive? No, it’s none of those – you just can’t charm these women like other guys, you just don’t have it.
Sure, that could all be true.
Or, her cat may have died, or she’s tired, or she ate ice cream last night and feels fat and ugly, or she’s shy, or she has a boyfriend, or you remind her of that ex she hates, or it has just nothing at all to do with you.
The solution: instead of attributing all results to innate characteristics of the individuals involved, especially yourself, question the elements that each contributed to the outcome and focus on the ones that are universal principles than specific characteristics. Not only does this allow you to avoid needlessly wound your self-esteem through imagined short-comings, it also allows you to create a personality, rather than replicate one.
TLDR – Don’t immediately assume it was yours or someone’s innate characteristics that influenced outcomes, always consider situation factors
A few prelaunch checks can go a long way.
YOUR INCOMPETENCE FEEDS YOUR OVERCONFIDENCE
The dunning-krueger effect is an observable cognitive bias where low ability individuals overestimate their ability. Resulting from a poor ability to self-reflect, difficult tasks requiring diverse, advanced skillsets can be poorly appreciated and understood, resulting in inadequate preparation and performance in response to the challenges faced.
Imagine if, say, you wanted to write a novel, start a business or revamp your dating life. What are the challenges associated with these goals? Can you really dive right in? Or should they be reflected on, broken down and properly understood?
When we pursue goals, we are in some way making ourselves vulnerable, and vulnerability is difficult enough without exposing ourselves to unnecessary failure through inadequate preparation. The dunning-krueger effect lies at the heart of why platitudes like ‘just do it’ and ‘just believe in yourself’ aren’t always the right approach. Often degraded in the self-improvement community, thinking and reflecting before you act isn’t always a sign of cowardice – after all isn’t finding out what to do an essential part of just do it.
More often than not, we aren’t as good as we think we are, and it pays to humble ourselves before our goals, so that when we do ‘just do it’, we’re launching like a SAM missile, rather than a limp flare.
The flipside of this effect is where high ability individuals underestimate how difficult a task be for others, this may offer an explanation for all the poor advice out there.
TLDR – Before you ‘just do it’ figure out what the hell you actually need to do.
YOU DON’T ACTUALLY REMEMBER THINGS AS THEY HAPPENED
Everything you remember or predict is subject to how you feel right now. Instead of being a Netflix of recollections, our minds filter our memories through the lens of our emotional world as it is happening in the present. – sadness, anger, fear, anxiety; these are the kinds lenses through which you are recalling and predicting, which you are then making decisions off the back of.
In our day to day lives, this means that choices we are making are more often than not the product of unreliable thinking. Consider this example: You’re confronted by an attractive girl you want to talk to. In your mind, you have an uneven amount of experiences with women weighted in favor of negative. So if your present mood is one of anxiety or nervousness, it is incredibly likely the memories which will spring or predictions you make will be negative, furthermore, as studies show memories are formed a the point of retrieval, it is highly likely that you will remember your memory as even worse than it actually was. So you’re trapped in a cycle of negative memories, which you remember as worse than it actually was. – and from this information you’re going to make predictions, from which you’ll take an action.
And in this instance, the action you’ll take is to let her walk away.
This hybrid of emotional memory affects not just how you remember and predict, but also the actions and the results that you get – and its fucking with you all the time.
The key to beating it is to always remember that your recollections and predictions are greatly influenced by your current emotional state, and, as a result, should not be taken as gospel. Hell, emotions even affect the way we perceive things in the first place.
How to deal with this? Always doubt yourself.
Given how much of your decision-making hinges on a faulty, emotionally driven judgment, it is extraordinarily important to stop and question yourself, how your mood is affecting your perceptions, and whether these perceptions are even realistic or useful. This can allow you to step out of your head and focus on the process. Like going up and talking to her.
TLDR – Always doubt your memories, perceptions, and predictions when it comes to making decisions. Instead, question what emotion is motiving them and base your decisions on a practical understanding of the present, and return to process.
Shared opinion + Opposite opinion =
YOUR GROUP ISN’T ALWAYS IN THE RIGHT
‘The Troubles’ – the common name for the long spanning Northern Ireland conflict – began as a campaign to end discrimination against the Catholic minority by the Protestant majority. Lasting three decades, this conflict has led to violence, warfare and, amongst other things, enormous metal walls, ironically called ‘Peace Lines’, which cut through communities, dividing the ideologies in two. A radical and brutal conflict, The Troubles serves as a bloody example of what researchers call in-group bias. The bias people demonstrate where they believe their group is inherently right, and other groups are inherently less so.
Now, as ‘group’ can be taken to mean community, race, social group, culture, religion, in-group bias can range from basic ignorance to bigotry, sexism, racism, to even the institutionalized evil of Stalinist and Nazi regimes.
In your own life, in-group bias is hopefully having a less destructive effect, but none the less is a dangerous obstacle to a well-lived life. Take for example if you and your friends are all entrenched in a social clique. For the sake of example, let’s say you’re all rugby players. The time you spend together and your similarity of interests means that your lifestyles likely reinforce one another, and your moral and intellectual development have similar paths of progression. Beliefs are reinforced, and lifestyles become mirrors. Your in-group bias will all the while say to you ‘Yes, this is the correct way to live. Our beliefs and practices are the most right and true, and they are fine, and it is only everyone else, who live another way and are wrong.’ And this bias, though convincing, serves only to suffocate your intelligent thinking and stifle the potential growth. Thus not only are you a rugby player, but you are highly likely to be limited to only being a rugby player.
The mind, it would seem, likes you to remain similar to the group.
And here’s the thing – no group is right. As every group is merely a body of various people, that body is subject to the same cognitive failings as anyone, with the group only serving to magnify these failings by its nature.
The solution? Diversify your life and actively challenge the beliefs and ideologies of your group. Cast doubt on the accepted beliefs, and instead, develop your own through reason and understanding.
TLDR – Develop your own personality and identity.
Bah, Bah, Black Sheep, have you any original thoughts?
YOU’RE PROBABLY BEING A COMPLETE PUSSY
There are outcomes in life that are so awful they inspire feelings of terror and floods of anxiety. Getting eaten by a shark, hit by a car, never finding love, never achieving our dreams. And this terror is so strong that it causes us to respond in kind; we don’t go near the ocean, we get nervous and hyper-cautious at road crossings, we defensively reject meeting new people and embrace solitude (ironically a self-fulfilling prophecy), or we take so many precautions with our idea, and listen to so many gurus that our business idea is left starved of creativity and originality. But in each of these outcomes, the probability of the feared outcomes is ignored, and instead, only the terror of the outcome happening is focused on. This is called probability neglect, and the preventative measures taken in result are harmful overreactions.
You have a 1 in 3,748,067 chance of getting killed by a shark. You’re more likely to be killed by a firework. You have a 1 in 4,292 chance of getting hit by a car. You’re more likely to die of a stroke or die of heart disease. ‘Science’ tells us that we have a 1 in 200,000 chance of finding love – but that probability neglects lifestyle design, frequency of interactions, and is stunted by the author’s preselected conditions of the woman he’s attracted to, and the very abstract concept of ‘love’ itself. By the same token, business ideas are hampered by the idea that most of them fail. In fact, business literature often cities odds as a 1 in 10 chance of success, as an example of how risky entrepreneurship is. I dunno know about you, but 1 in 10 sounds pretty good to me, considering the rewards. Furthermore, the same statistic that tells you that 1 in 10 businesses fail so you should be cautious, offers little in the way of understanding why they fail but instead offers only caution, anxiety, and worry.
Businesses that make products that people want and find useful (for many reasons) are likely to make money. This is common sense. People who live diverse lifestyles, who take care of themselves and meet and ask out lots of members of the opposite sex are likely to end up with someone. This is common sense. Likewise, if you aren’t swimming with seals or jogging on motorways, the sharks, and Wilie E Coyote deaths aren’t really a concern.
Plato once said: courage is a special kind of knowledge; the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared, and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.
The focus is ‘ought’: Does this deserve to be feared? I.e is this highly likely to be a danger to me?
The mechanism is ‘how to / how to not fear’: If this is a highly likely danger, how should I react? If it isn’t, how should I react?
In each of the instances I outlined, these are not things that ought to be feared, they’re either impossibly unlikely, or physically harmless, and in each case, the solution is little more than common sense. The solution here is to develop the germ of your bravery through rational thinking, instead of succumbing to probability neglecting terror. Apply some common sense and act accordingly.
TLDR – Don’t fear what ought not to be feared.
This image isn’t even remotely related, but I like it. So here it is.
YOU’RE NOT SEEING WHAT IS TRUE, YOU’RE SEEING WHAT YOU BELIEVE
One of the fundamental beliefs of ‘The Red Pill’ ideology is that women have it better than men – whether it be economics, to politics, to culture, to philosophy. Another belief is that although women have it better, men are inherently better. From this, it is extrapolated that men should lead, and that women are naturally submissive, and so on. Citations for this belief come from evidence such as ‘men are physically stronger’ to ‘they invented everything’. A further belief is that women are inherently untrustworthy – when, as they say, just look at the promiscuous behavior of modern women, divorce statistics, and cheating statistics.
In each case the evidence is chosen, the philosophies made, and the world view supported. But the problem is… is it even true?
Let’s take the example of invention. Yes, men did invent most things, and ignoring the social factors, in this instance men would be ‘better’ than women. But what if you had a scenario where you had a man who had invented nothing, and a woman who had invented something – would she not be better, by the same measure? So, surely it has more to do with the individual rather than the gender. Furthermore, why would invention make someone better? Is it something that is internally motivated? Is it something that is learned? Why is this measure used for anything, other than that it is an example of men having more of something than women – which is the only thing the example of invention infers. Nothing more.
I have no idea how to develop of ‘secret communication system’ that defeats Nazis, but a woman did. Does that make her better than me?
I don’t think so. I think we just had different lives. The invention itself says nothing other than the fact it was invented, it is thinking like the red pill that would add ‘because she is better.’
The red pill falls apart when individuals are taken into account – and like racists and bigots, it can only thrive on broad stroke generalizations about an entire population. On the individual level, they can only rely on cherry picked cases that support their pre-existing world view, when in fact, the simplest level of thought and observation disproves it.
This phenomenon of cherry picking is called confirmation bias.
One of the most well documented psychological errors, confirmation bias takes an existing belief and interprets information as evidence that supports said belief.
This is how ‘men made the majority of inventions’ becomes ‘men are better than women’, even though the original observation proves nothing, other than the number of inventions per gender. It doesn’t infer anything else.
The problem with confirmation bias is two-fold. First, the same way you can cherry pick evidence to reinforce your negative beliefs about others is the same way you can cherry pick to reinforce your negative beliefs about yourself. If you believed yourself unlikeable, you’d spend your time looking for validation of that. It’s a toxic pattern of thinking.
Second, the belief that sets of your cognitive bias is influenced by the same faulty errors we have discussed earlier.
When you cherry pick to support a belief, you cherry pick to support something that is likely the result of confabulations, post or prefactual bias, probability neglect or false attribution error. In all instances, it is highly likely that you and everyone else is wrong, and should be approached with skepticism, questioning the belief with reasoning, instead of checking to see where it is right.
TLDR – Be skeptical of your beliefs and others. Question everything.
You don’t know the power of the doubt side!
THE POWER OF DOUBT
Hopefully, by now you understand how untrustworthy our brains can be when it comes to holding beliefs, making decisions and living our lives.
When trying to develop ourselves as individuals, it is enormously important to develop our metacognitive abilities, that is, the ability to think about thinking, and then regulate that thinking.
But doubt also helps when it comes to others. In taking advice from self-help gurus – it always pays to question where they got their ideas from. How is it that they arrived at their success? Are they the victim of the same biases as me? And if so, how have those biases affected their conclusions, and thus their identity? Does this advice apply to everyone, or does it ignore huge swathes of the population who don’t conform?
Likewise, always question yourself and your conclusions. Question your thoughts and subject them to analysis. Am I thinking this because it is true? Or because I am angry? Do I want this because it makes me happy? Or do I want this because I am currently unhappy? Are my goals an extension of me? Or are my goals the offspring of my narcissism. Are my feeling about others true? Or are they validating a feeling? Who am I? Am I this person? Or is this person the product of my lifestyle, friends, and routine? Who am I, and what, above all do I want? Do I know – and can I ever know?
After undertaking this process of losing your self-trust, you’ll learn one of the greatest self-improvement techniques of all – instead of trying to develop through unshakeable self-belief, develop through no belief at all.
*Some consider novels to be artifacts of metacognition.