Practical Philosophy

Break monsters down

Sometimes we face problems that we don’t think we can solve.

“Oh, I can’t talk to her.”

“I don’t think I can give this presentation.”

“I am too shy to ask for a raise.”

In such instances, we are confronted by Chaos; the terrifying unknown and all of its possibilities. Our imagination conjures up scenarios of all the possible negative outcomes – rejection, humiliation, and so on.

In Discovering Personality, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson recommends a solution to dealing with the anxiety these situations induce. He says we should break down large problems into smaller, precise problems, and then voluntarily confront them.

Let’s look at the first problem, “Oh, I can’t talk to her.” Let’s break down the problem of asking out a girl into smaller challenges to build confidence. Could we talk to a stranger, perhaps? Could we smile at a stranger?

When we break down the problem, the monster shrinks. We shine a light into the darkness, and turn chaos into order. Things don’t seem so scary once we break them down into smaller problems. Focus on making incremental gains than giant leaps, just like when tackling procrastination.

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.

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.