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.

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.

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.

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.

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.