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Practical Philosophy

Things I Learned This Week #1

1. Ask questions before you begin to learn a topic

The world is complex. We can’t understand absolutely everything without going mad.

So our brain has to filter what to learn and what to ignore. It does this using a “survive and thrive” filter.

Will this information help me survive and thrive? If yes, it must be important, so our brain prepares itself to learn it. If not, we don’t learn it, even if we try.

This is the premise behind inquiry-based learning, and a practical way of doing this is with the traffic light system from ICanStudy (a course about learning how to learn efficiently).

First, red light: Before I begin to read a chapter of a book or watch a lecture, I write down a list of topic questions I am curious about.

For example, with my Discovering Personality course, I was about to watch a lecture on Conscientiousness. I jotted down some questions I was curious about:

  • What is the overall meaning of conscientiousness?
  • How does my low industriousness score impact my career progress?
  • How can people with low industriousness / high orderliness get things done?

This primed my brain to be curious about answering these questions during the lecture.

Second, green light: During the lecture, try to answer those questions.

After this, you go back to red light; ask more questions, then green light, and so on.

In inquiry-based learning, your curiosity drives the learning process. This helps you pass your brain’s Survive and Thrive filter, so you learn what you hear.

2. Learn things in the order of your interest

Since we take in information based on our survive and thrive filter, it’s best to order your intake of information based on what interests you the most.

So instead of reading chapters 1, 2, 3 then 4, we may benefit from reading chapters 3, 2, 1 and 4. Whichever topics interest us at the time – since that is what we will actually take in. We want to aim for active rather than passive reading.

This combines well with inquiry-based learning, as described above. Write down your questions of what interests you, then look through the chapters to find the answers. Rinse and repeat.

3. If motivations are our goals, then emotions keep us on track

For the past few months, I’ve been studying in my spare time. To begin, I wrote down a list of strengths I wanted to build upon:

  • Communication
  • Understanding Psychology
  • Management
  • Customer Success

Why? Because successful people build their reputations around their strengths – so I need to build my strengths.

Building these strengths are my goals, and therefore, my motivations. This is according to Dr. Jordan Peterson in his Discovering Personality course.

Emotions, he says, are designed to help us steer ourselves towards reaching our goals. When we progress towards our goals/motivations, we feel happy. When we diverge from them, we feel unhappy.

4. We are driven by our personality traits

Why do we do the things we do? Why do I feel this way? Why do others see things differently to me? Well, according to Dr. Jordan Peterson, a lot of it is down to our personalities.

So what is a personality? When we are born and our early years of childhood, we develop personality traits. Personality traits dictate our “low resolution solutions to the world”. I like to think of them as our default set of responses. They are designed to help us respond to the world’s complexity.

When things go wrong, do we blow it out of proportion? Or do we take it and quickly move on?

When we disagree with somebody, do we speak up? Or do we prioritise their opinion over ours?

When we miss a deadline, do we feel deep shame or do not care too much?

In Discovering Personality, we are presented with 5 personality factors:

  • Conscientiousness – Our attitude to work and organisation
  • Agreeability – Prioritising others over ourselves
  • Openness to experience – Our attitude to intellectual pursuits and creativity
  • Extraversion – How much do we feel positive emotions?
  • Neuroticism – How much do we feel negative emotions?

Our personality traits are great predictors of how we feel and behave.

  • Conscientiousness is the second biggest predictor of success, behind IQ.
  • People who are too agreeable tend to secretly resent having to follow the wrong opinion of others.
  • People who are incredibly low in agreeability (the bottom percentile) are disposed to be predators or criminals.
  • Anxious and depressed people tend to have higher levels of neuroticism.

Realising that everyone has a different perception of the world is rather mind-blowing. We are all, literally, different beings. We see and feel the world differently.

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Practical Philosophy

Making plans but not following through

I have a problem. I am pretty well organised and I like to plan the future. It makes me feel organised. But sticking with the plan and following through with completing tasks is much more difficult.

Take for example, daily planning. Cal Newport’s Deep Work got me all excited to use daily plans. I would begin my day with a 20 minute planning session. At first, I did it, and it felt great. But after about a week, I stopped. Even though I planned my days in the morning, I would often deviate from the plan to do more rewarding and creative activities.

Funnily enough, I’ve recently discovered why.

Recently I’ve been taking the Discovery Personality course with Dr. Jordan B. Peterson. As a first step, we complete the Big 5 Aspects personality test. It’s apparently got a lot of empirical evidence behind it, so I took the results seriously.

What explained everything was my level of Conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is disposition towards our work and organisation. Having a high conscientiousness score is second biggest predictor of success, just behind IQ.

Now I’m moderate in Conscientiousness. But within that score are two sub-factors which explain my great ability to plan but unwillingness to follow through.

I am high in orderliness. This is my preference for keeping things well organised. But not in a Marie Condo kind of way… But a simple, usable way. I like clean designs, simple layouts.

I like things to be easily accessible and simple. This is true. I hate it when I have too many desktop icons, for example.

Jordan Peterson says the root cause of orderliness is our sensitivity to disgust. We want to keep the bad things (like pathogens) out. We do this by building walls, keeping things organised, protected and predictable. Interestingly, orderliness is a predictor of authoritarianism.

People high in orderliness are well suited to management positions. Unpredictability is scary. It’s chaos. It is the unknown. We like to keep chaos under control by articulating it into order. We like to explain the unknown – why did X client leave us? Can we systemise our work? Can we create a daily plan to optimise our productivity? Is there a framework to do this?

But just because you love organisation doesn’t necessarily mean you follow through with your plans. That requires industriousness.

Industriousness is the other sub-aspect of conscientiousness. It is the ability to execute on plans. The self-drive. The willpower. The tenacity of getting things done.

I’m in the 27th percentile when it comes to industriousness. In other words, out of 100 people, I am the 27th most industrious. No wonder I have a hard time getting things done.

People with low industriousness tend to fail in academia and business because they don’t put enough effort into their work. Tragically, people with a high IQ but low industriousness are typically recognised as under-achievers. High potential but without follow-through. Lost potential. Yikes.

The result of moderately-high orderliness and moderately-low industriousness is that while I like to plan and create goals, I often fail to follow through with them. It’s an odd combination.

So what am I to do? Luckily, somebody asked Dr. Jordan Peterson in this question at the end of the course.

To summarise his advice: Make your goals small enough to complete. This may be embarrassingly small, but it’s about making plans sure you are actually following through with your plan.

If my I cannot achieve my goal of “follow my daily plan”, then I should shrink the goal into “check my to-do list first thing in the morning”.

This idea of focusing on smaller, incremental gains, is also mentioned in ICanStudy, a course on learning how to learn efficiently. Focus on making 1% incremental gains each day. Over time, this will tally up and you will have made massive improvements.

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Practical Philosophy

Playing to win versus keeping your conscience

In The 48 Laws of Power, you’ll find many Machiavellian strategies to climb the dominance hierarchy, not limited to:

It’s pretty clear these strategies work. Author Robert Greene includes numerous stories of historical figures following the laws to great success. He also includes stories of figures who lost their heads for disregarding the laws.

However, after reading 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson, I wonder about the psychological price-tag these laws come with.

Take for example, the law of being careful not to say too much. This makes sense. Many times, we say things we regret, so pausing and thinking before we blurt things out is probably a useful practice. But how far can it go?

“For a long time I have not said what I believed, nor do I ever believe what I say, and if indeed sometimes I do happen to tell the truth, I hide it among so many lies that it is hard to find.” – Niccolò Machiavelli

Lies, built upon lies, built upon more lies. Is it sustainable? In 12 Rules for Life, telling the truth is a tenet. And this isn’t for a pious reason either – the pitfall of telling numerous lies is that you create a kind of personal hell for yourself – and for others. This is similar to the consequence of not doing the right thing.

Ultimately, there has to be a balance. Sure, we’re playing to win. At the same time though, that doesn’t mean it should be at all costs. If the journey in which we get there involves us seriously bending our ethics, we probably are not aiming at the right goal.

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Practical Philosophy

Positive and negative behaviour spirals

Certain activities and behaviours are self-perpetuating. In other words, doing X causes you to do more of X. This can be an upward, or downward spiral.

An example of self-perpetuating spiral is drinking. When you begin drinking, it feels great. Each sip reduces our self-consciousness. We feel more comfortable. But this good feeling only lasts as long as we keep drinking. The moment we stop, we begin to sober up and that good feeling goes away. We need to keep on drinking to keep feeling good.

The problem with drinking in excess is that it classically leads to alcoholism – a negative spiral. In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson highlights the tipping point, the moment when the drinker discovers that alcohol cures his hangover in the morning. The cure causes the problem and the problem causes the cure. Around and around we go.

But there are positive spirals too. In the first lesson of the book, JP talks about walking straight with your shoulders back – standing tall and confident. Interestingly, standing in a confident manner is linked to our levels of Serotonin – the feel good neurotransmitter – and this is typically an indicator of personal success. Biologically, the same can be seen with lobsters. Successful lobsters walk tall, while failing lobsters hunch over and take up as little space as possible.

Jordan Peterson’s argument is that by walking tall and confident, people will treat us differently, and this will actually make us more confident too. A positive cycle. Act confident -> Become more confident -> Serotonin higher -> Become more confident -> Serotonin confident -> Become more confident. The appearance of confidence perpetuates itself.

The same was said in The 48 Laws of Power, which highlighted the massive importance of appearances. Take for example, Christopher Columbus. He would blend in with the aristocracy with his confidence and aristrocat-like behaviours, even though he came from a family of weavers. By doing so, they treated him like one of their own – and funded his 4 trips across the Atlantic. His self-confidence was self-perpetuating.

In summary, we need to be careful of falling into negative spirals, especially with bad habits. At the same time, we should try to create positive spirals of behaviour like showing confidence, working productively, and so forth.

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Practical Philosophy

The consequence of not doing what you know is right

Lying, cheating, stealing, doing what we know is wrong, all creates a personal “hell” for us. We feel guilt, shame and in the end, resent ourselves for doing it. We know what is right – usually – but doing it is often inconvenient, requires confrontation, or is scary. We have to try. If we don’t we lose a bit of ourselves.

Recently, I went with my girlfriend to a steak restaurant in Chit Lom, Bangkok. We had visited this steak restaurant before, many times. But more recently it had changed ownership. Now, when we walked inside, we were immediately presented with an aquarium tank, filled with 3 small sharks. When you put a shark in a tank, it doesn’t grow. It grows to about 10 inches, instead of 8 feet.

We ate our meal out of convenience, but I regret not walking out. There I was, fine dining next to captive animals that would never see the ocean again in their lifetime. It still puts a bad taste in my mouth. I let it slide. I didn’t do what I knew was right. I lost a bit of my soul.

A few days after this, we had another situation. My girlfriend told me that a security guard at her company car park was exhibiting creepy behaviour. He would follow her car, call her beautiful, and wait while she got out of the car. The final straw came when he knocked on her car window, and said “Happy new year, beautiful”. He then repeated it when she got out of the car.

When my girlfriend said she felt unsafe, it was quite clear what I needed to do. Like before, I knew what the right course of action was. In this case, I needed to confront the security guard. To tell him his behaviour was unprofessional and threatening. To warn him that if he did it again, we would have a serious problem.

So I did it. This time I didn’t let it slide. I did what I knew was right. I confronted him, and he shrank before me like a school-kid, profusely apologising. I did what I knew was right, and because I did this, I came out intact.

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Practical Philosophy

Articulate chaos into order

Why is it that, when we feel lost, confused or in despair, talking to a friend can make us feel so much better? The answer is that articulating our experiences can help us better understand what happened, and how we can use this information in the future.

When I experienced a pretty serious financial emergency running my business last year, it made me question a lot of my perceptions. Was my business model valid? Was I a terrible business person? Was I a failure? In an emergency (emergence-y), the scary and unknown emerges and creeps into our world. What was once order is now chaos.

To deal with emerging chaos, we have to articulate the situation, and quickly. Articulating problems helps us organise our thoughts. It can help us bring together separate instances into a coherent narrative.. so we can establish what to do next. We need to ask ourselves what happened (the past), where we are now (the present) and what we are going to do about it (the future).

First question, what happened? Ok, I bought way too much inventory and ignored my budget. Terrible move. I know I have a tendency to be less organised, and that’s why I created a budget in the first place. For the first time, I ignored it and spent too much.

Second question, where am I now? I have $5,000 in the bank account. I have just enough money to pay for taxes, but I won’t have enough to re-order inventory. I feel incredibly guilty about this and the stress is overwhelming.

Third, how am I going to move forward? I will create a website sale to get some immediate cash-flow, and I will inject $5,000 of my own money into the business to keep it going. I will forgive myself for making an honest mistake (other people have done the same thing). I will move forward, following the budget from now on.

By articulating my emergency, I confronted the chaos. I pointed a flashlight into the dark and scary tunnel of the unknown and illuminated it. This made it much less scary, and the stress much easier to bear.

Thoughts from 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson.

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Practical Philosophy

Just listen

Active listening is being 100% focused on to what your conversation partner is saying.

The biggest challenge is “calming our inner schizophrenic”. This is our tendency to think about what to say next. It is our mind wandering, thinking of a new topic or preparing a clever answer. In either case, it’s us, talking to ourselves, rather than listening to what the other person is saying.

Active listening is to drop all of our cares about “what to say next”, and to just focus 100% on what your partner is talking about. When you feel your mind wandering, be mindful of it, and bring your attention back on what your conversation partner is talking about. Just listen.

When you just listen, you get more out of your conversations. First, your brain is primed to learn what the person is talking about. When we passively listen, we tend to forget it quickly.

Second, your conversations will get way deeper, and way more interesting. You will pick up on ideas beyond the surface level. You will discover underlying emotions, motivations and connections to other ideas you may have.

Third, you will build rapport. A good conversation partner listens to what you have to say. This is why active listening is the first phase in any negotation. You need to build rapport and trust before you can begin to influence behaviour.

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Practical Philosophy

The insufferable Alpha Geek

For a large part of my 20’s, I definitely believe I partly was an Alpha Geek. After some early entreprenerial successes in my late teens, I was setup to become a proper nightmare to work with. At my first digital marketing job, I got reported to HR, not once, but twice, for my conduct in working with agencies. I wasn’t afraid of speaking my mind about poor strategies and I probably worded things insensitively.

The Alpha Geek mentality is not practical. First, it makes you incredibly difficult to work. Nobody likes to approach an Alpha Geek because they fear being criticised, or called stupid. This means the Alpha Geek has a tendency to be ostracised – and certainly not promoted. If you have ambitions, you have to drop the Alpha Geek mentality.

The Alpha Geek mentality is also not sustainable. Everybody gets humbled eventually. I certainly did, several times. The first time was when I lost my client base as a freelancer. The second time was after I made a series of poor decisions which nearly collapsed my e-commerce business. Both instances made me think “Maybe I’m not as good as I think I am”. And that’s a healthy thought to have because hubris is really a form of self-deception. Opening my eyes to my own fallibility and breaking out of my fixed mindset was the first step in really making personal and professional progress.

The Alpha Geek is a concept introduced by Camille Fournier in The Manager’s Path.

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Practical Philosophy

Great people design their reputations

Julius Caesar was known for the dramatic. Crossing the Rubicon was a symbolic act of “no going back”. Later, he would wear red at parades, like Mars. He would host gladiatorial games to rouse the people. He would ride Cleopatra through the streets of Rome. One thing could be certain: Julius Caesar made it a reputation to put on a show.

In The 48 Laws of Power, author Robert Greene points out that great people deliberately choose their reputations. They pick a strength, and focus on building as much attention to it as possible. With enough attention, their strength becomes a reputation.

Genghis Khan deliberately built a reputation as a merciless conqueror. Any cities that rebelled against the Mongols were massacred – in some cases including the women, children, and even pets. The result was that neighbouring cities would immediately surrender out of fear of repurcutions.

Winston Churchill developed a reputation of being a dramatic orator. This carried weight, and made his words carry a kind of magical weight to them. Listening to any of Churchill’s speeches today still carries this magic – and partly because of his reputation.

Society is based on appearances, and because most people act the same way, most people get lost in the crowd. To get noticed, you have to make an effort. And the best way of doing this is to develop a reputation for something you are great at.

According to Robert Greene, the early parts of our career should be devoted on building this reputation: to get as much attention as possibler to our key strength. That could be communicating, or negotiating, or working hard, or leadership, etc.

And interestingly, this is the same recommendation as put forward in the career development book The Squiggly Career. In this, the authors first task readers with choosing several strength to develop into “super strengths”; strengths they want to build reputations out of.

If we don’t build our own reputation, then other people will. What do people talk about us when we step outside of the room? Who knows. An insightful exercise is to ask other people what they think your main strengths are. I did this with my ex-boss and colleagues, and had unexpected results.

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Practical Philosophy

Words have unintended consequences

In both How to Win Friends and Influence People and The 48 Laws of Power, the authors highlight that you should be very careful when disagreeing with people. If somebody raises an incorrect point, and you correct them, they will often perceive it as a challenge to their intelligence. Being argumentative is a quick way to build resentment, regardless of how right you are.

Recently, I caught up with an old friend. In our conversation, we talked about a mutual friend. “Yeah, she’s doing this now.” “Oh, she’s travelling there.” “Remember when you asked what school she went to because of her bad spelling?” Oh shit. It must have been a bad joke I made years ago. Nonetheless, I felt terrible and apologised. It was a stark reminder that when you say things, you cannot take them back.

Saying less is generally better than saying too much. It’s wise to control your emotions and reign in the need to make that sarcastic comment. Why? Your words and actions have unintended consequences.