If I were to summarize the past 111 (!) editions of our Q&A newsletter in one word, it would undoubtedly be: balance
And, perhaps, allow me 😉, an emoticon: ⚖️
Going through the 'seedlings' (little gems of insight) collected in my digital library of thoughts and ponderings, I noted:
"Balance seems to be the answer to a lot of (if not all) challenges"
Reading the article 'Reason Is a Powerful Tool, but It Pays to Know Its Limits' basically put my mind firmly into the confirmation bias mode. The title alone basically did the trick.
Having a natural inclination to apply logic, deduction and analytical thinking to almost anything I encounter, the main tool used is 'reasoning'. This article just dropped my main wielding tool into the 'nice-to-have-but-not-the-solution-to-everything' basket and placed the value of 'balance' squarely in my face.
"What reason can do, incredibly well, is tell you what follows from certain premises, or certain beliefs you already have. Given the truth of something, or your belief in the truth of something, reason can tell you what else is true, or what else you should believe is true (assuming you accept that certain operations of logic are truth-preserving). [...] What it can’t do is tell you what’s true to begin with."
An excellent tool, thus, to deduce and provide (emotional) comfort and a sense of control; useless in determining what's really important to you. It was a great insight and once again made me think about how I have missed learning about these ways of looking at the world. The article itself blames this, at least in part, on how we organise our education:
"A curious feature of education is how often it narrows the mind. You become so good at using a particular tool, at employing a particular perspective and framework for seeing and understanding the world, that you eventually forget that it is just one tool, one perspective, one framework."
In trying to understand ourselves and the world around us, reasoning and deterministic thinking is just one tool. A very useful one. Equally useful are the tools that allow you to have genuine doubts about the goals, feelings and values you strive for. Do not be scared to be a sceptic. Do not be scared of dealing with uncertainty and keep the different balls in the air for some time.
The great thing about gathering your thoughts, writing about it and sharing it with the outside world, is that you're forced to deeply think about it. Moreover, the thinking doesn't stop once published. The thinking is nestled in a warm place somewhere in your brain to pop up every so often, like a new-born asking for attention when needed. At least, that's how it works for me.
Something triggered me to rethink my earlier piece on opinions and trying to be opinion-less. Thinking through the issue once more, I came to a different conclusion. Could it be that it is simply impossible to be without opinions? Like a Buddhist monk trying to be without a thought for some time, you may be able to train yourself to become opinionless over many, many years, but at what cost?
You may try to keep opinions for yourself and oblige yourself to look at issues from multiple angles, creating multiple opinions; the one somewhat stronger than the other. There was a hint to this deliberation already in the earlier article:
"Rather, focus your energy on the (small) things you can influence or being a neutral judge. Every little wind of change has the potential to grow into a hurricane."
Keywords are 'neutral judge'. You'll notice you're judging already most of the time when observing, analysing and thinking. You seem to be hardwired to do so; from a biological perspective, this judgment allows you to react fast. When a predator is coming your way, there is no use in looking at it from different angles, you should just run or hide.
When you have the opportunity to take some time, my suggestion would be to use it. Use it to take a breath and ask clarifying questions. Try to avoid reaching conclusions. To have an opinion voiced to the outside world means you've reached a conclusion. Rather than becoming opinion-less, it's probably more about being 'conclusion-less'.
Even though you can wait for that baby to start crying, there are ways to actively revisit your convictions. After meetings or events, take some downtime and ask yourself questions. Like:
"Ok, during that conversation I really tried to make that point, but my counterpart just didn't buy it. I still believe that norm/value is important for me, but how do I actually implement it or deal with it? Is it still that important to me?"
Asking yourself such questions will trigger more nuanced, more colourful pictures of the world surrounding you. As is often the case with nuances, their impact may be big. It requires some energy and discipline to get this functioning consistently. My personal experience is that it's worth the effort as social interactions become much smoother whilst not taking away the discomfort that allows for growth and development.
Did I just reinvent Stoïcism?
How fascinating when you arrive at an insight and realising you have arrived at this insight before, only through a different route. Somehow, that particular insight feels more... insightful. Having more weight. Connecting the dots. Discussing our notion that behaviour is a philosophy, we investigated how your environment influences your behaviour in different ways.
We concluded that it is wise to embrace diversity as a key element to make groups better and more efficient. We shared this insight earlier, in that instance based on academic socio-economic research:
"He [Professor Anil Gaba] shared two important messages for leaders. First, select your team to be a diverse one. This goes beyond nationality and age; you want people that look at the world 'from different windows'. Secondly, reaping the diversity rewards requires process. Foster inclusivity, so people dare to speak up and share their view."
Due to lack of time to do some further research, I'm leaving you with a thought that occurred to us last week while discussing this topic:
"Why is it, when we know diversity has such advantages, that we favour like-minded people when we get to choose our team mates?"
Surely, we do not always choose the path of least-resistance? Or, is that wishful thinking? Perhaps it gets a place on your list of contemplations for the coming Christmas period too.
Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant recently published an article on how the public can be taught to deal with misinformation, popularly termed 'fake news'. The article is only accessible by paid subscription unfortunately. The content is based on research by the University of Cambridge that was reported on in 2021 and 2017, in the context of misinformation about Covid-19 and climate change, respectively.
The process proposed to build up 'resistance' to misinformation is ingenious in its simplicity: start with a warning ("you're being manipulated"), follow up by explaining the techniques used and present an example. In addition, after some time, you may be served with a booster (e.g. another example). The result is that you're better prepared in discerning misinformation from real information. This process is based on how vaccination works; your body get acquainted with the potential invaders en hence builds up defensive mechanisms.
The different articles describe what the ideal cocktail could look like. Misinformation can usually be recognised by one (or more) of the following communication techniques:
Misinformation is potentially a big problem as it is very personal and difficult to judge objectively. Most information that speaks to your mind and confirms built-in beliefs (and prejudices) tends to be very sticky. It's the confirmation bias doing its job. When that kind of information is repeatedly being served, it's no wonder that that becomes your truth. Having said that, as there is probably is no one overall truth, at least philosophically speaking, there is also no fake news...
A good way to start is to be wary of anyone claiming something to be either fake news or the truth. Figure out why that person or institution has a need to make such claims. Combining this analysis with your own 'prepared' mindset, gives you a well-rounded, own opinion.
More research is required, but I personally see this way of preparing the public for misinformation not necessarily as a vaccination campaign. I'd rather speak of educating us to go back to basics and be really critical of what we see, read and consume. Being able and comfortable to think for yourself is a critical factor in making our world less black-and-white, more colourful and in balance.
Stress, burn-out, lack of energy. More and more people seem to suffer from it. This short video provides a very simple way to describe how stress can build up 'under the surface'. The situation causing stress might be small, but when you do not deal with it, it becomes bigger. The absolute weight of a problem doesn't matter, but the time you have to carry it does. It's a compounding factor causing exponentially increasing impact.
At the same time, not all problems or situations can be dealt with easily or swiftly, even if you want it. Often, you need others to cooperate, who may have other priorities. Or, you're so busy, time just passes by. Therefore, it will be a balance and you also have to accept some levels of stress at certain moments in your life.
This all means that you not only want to train methods to detect 'a situation' and determine actions to solve it. Focus the actions towards solving the root cause and not just alleviating symptoms. You also need to prepare yourself to deal with stress for some period of time and be resilient.
We have a tendency to capture and predict economic developments in models driven by formulas. However, the largest part of the equation is often influenced by human behaviour. Take, for example, our challenge in the energy transition. Production of renewable energy is just one part, but where most of our current efforts are put into. Business cases can be made, projects planned. However, changing the demand side of energy has at least a similar dramatic effect to become energy-neutral. Therefore, a change in our behaviour is required.
We were always taught and incentivised to use more electricity during the night. Traditionally, this was the low-demand part of the day, while supply (read: coal/gas-fired power stations) was still running. Renewable energy production is much more dominated by wind and especially sun. Most energy is naturally being generated during the day, which sometimes even leads to the cost of electricity to become negative during the day. It therefore would make sense to wash our clothes or dishes during the day, rather than saving it for the night. Our current day and night tariff structure is outdated and drives a different behaviour.
So, yes, we should invest heavily in changing our production and making our appliances more energy efficient. But, we should equally invest in changing our behaviour. Both to become more efficient and treat energy as a scarce (and expensive) resource as well as to balance demand and supply.
Behaviour has a tendency to have a long-lasting, sticky effect. Your own behaviour is also setting examples. For our children, for people that you inspire. Energy consumption is just one example. In numerous cases, we do not have to sit back and wait for our leaders to act. We can drive the change ourselves, as individuals, as a group. Our behaviour may even be the biggest driving force behind any change, for the better or the worse. Sometimes, this requires to look beyond the immediate impact on your bank balance, the 'smartest' (financially) or the socially most acceptable thing to do.
Have confidence in your actions and the fact that others will inspire you to correct them should you inadvertently take a wrong course. But, please, keep thinking for yourselves and do not just blindly follow what somebody tells you to do is the smartest thing (including what I write to you now!). Therefore, having the right kind of information and the occasional, inspirational steer is paramount to drive in the right direction.
A couple of months ago, we wrote a piece on expansion and contraction of the universe. I always love these kind of deliberations, as the sheer scale of these experiments make for a great backdrop for reframing our daily worries.
If the latest theories hold up, the expansion of our universe will stop at some point and turn into contraction. Long before this moment occurs, though, something else will have happened. Nuclear fusion happening in our stars will have come to a halt, making for a dark universe. I recently read an apt analogy for these events: fireworks. Just picture a giant array of fireworks being launched and exploding, lighting up the sky. After this giant explosion, the remaining glowing bits of debris gradually fade out before the sky returns to its usual dark self.
That's it. All that we call life is because of the moment we're in during this galactic firework show. Our sun and its brothers and sisters are the exploding bits of fireworks, lighting up our sky for a couple of billion years before they fade out and implode. Since our dominant life forms are all dependent on sunlight in one way or another, this calls for an adequate dose of relativity and humility, I think.
Worshipping the sun, as many civilisations have done for millennia, might not be such a primitive idea after all.
Our earlier article (and associated podcast) about challenges put the difficult words mentioned in it, top of my mind. Therefore, it may come as no surprise that shortly after writing it, I 'stumbled' upon an article about 'panpsychism'.
Panpsychism, in short, is the theory that the smallest forms of matter (quarks, electrons, etc.) have a form of inner life; hence, all matter, from animals to sand and rocks, have a kind of experience and consciousness. This is quite different from 'common sense' that tells us that only living things have feelings and sensations.
I'm often attracted to the contrarian view, or at least a view that goes against mainstream beliefs. It forces me to consider different angles. That in itself often leads to new insights and triggers my creativity.
Apart from that, the view of the panpsychists does make a lot of sense. Agreed, there is no scientific evidence (yet), but that doesn't make it necessarily wrong. It does make it more difficult for us to accept the theory as a potential explanation. We like hard evidence.
However, we tend to forget that our scientific methods are based on measuring and explaining what an object or matter does. How do they behave under certain circumstances and what is the best theory explaining it? Our methods do not tell us what the object is. Wouldn't it make sense to apply similar theories to the microscopic world as we do to the macroscopic world?
"All we get from physics is this big black-and-white abstract structure, which we must somehow colour in with intrinsic nature. We know how to colour in one bit of it: the brains of organisms are coloured in with experience. How to colour in the rest? The most elegant, simple, sensible option is to colour in the rest of the world with the same pen [i.e. that everything has some form of experience or inner life]."
If anything, I guess neither common sense nor the panpsychists are probably right. The truth only exists between entities interacting with each other. Electrons, molecules, humans, rocks; they will all have their views on that truth.
It is probably no coincidence. I first read an article about being useful and whether this is a worthwhile goal in life. Immediately afterwards, my eye caught the weekly newsletter by Nat Eliason that dealt with our focus on productivity.
I am currently deliberating what to focus on in my life and considering several options. In addition, the entire idea of 'always doing something useful' has somehow never been sitting well with my inner gut.
The first article, enticingly called "how to wander free and easy through life by being useless", introduced me for the first time to philosopher Zhuangzhi, who grew up more than 2,000 years ago amidst the height of Daoïsm. According to him, we don’t really need to strike a balance between usefulness and uselessness. We need to reject the idea of 'useful' altogether. Rather, try to become more in harmony with nature in its broadest sense, which includes yourself. Or, as he's quoted to say:
"...drifting, easy wandering, not caring about praise or condemnation – this is true freedom."
In his newsletter, Nat Eliason makes a strong case for considering optimizing productivity only when it optimizes your own energy levels and enjoyment. This seems rather congruent with Zhuangzi's philosophy. These are not new ideas, they are as old as humanity.
There is often the anxiety of wanting to serve a purpose, to be useful to others, to fulfill other one's desires, to have some benefit. Evaluating your performance and setting new goals for the future are excellent trigger points and wake-up calls to go one abstraction level higher; am I still enjoying this and do I really want to fill (more of) my time with it? Letting go of that anxiety might serve you the happiest moments in life.
Inspired by a glowing review Seth Godin wrote last week, I picked up a digital copy of 'The Wizard and the Prophet' by Charles C. Mann. The book is about two little-known twentieth-century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, and their opposing views on our ecological future.
Since both views are compelling, Seth wrote he "switches camps every few minutes". Mann himself also explains how diving deep into their stories made him appreciate both of their diametrically opposed views:
"Thus I oscillate between the two stances. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I think Vogt was correct. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I go for Borlaug. And on Sunday, I don’t know."
The paradoxical nature of the viewpoints made me recall a quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Exactly this is what I appreciate so much about the book already, just having read the first few chapters. A truly balanced view on this subject is rare, but it also feels like a path to a solution. When things seem paradoxical, there is generally a shift in perspective needed to solve the puzzle. Like a Zen Koan, an analytical approach doesn't cut it when the right lens is missing.
The phenomenon of time continues to be one of my favourite subjects. My last effort to write something on the tendency of time to expand and contract in relation to events, resulted in a last minute pivot. Last week, your humble newsletter writers discussed the consequences of that for our lives extensively.
Humanity measured time based on cyclical phenomena in nature, and tried to make it more precise for scientific purposes using vibrations of Cesium atoms. By that standard, we are amazed at the stories about the universe forming in just minutes. But what would happen if we measured time by the events happening to us, instead of a random number of Cesium atom vibrations?
Letting go of time as a measuring stick frees you from numerous restricting thoughts about time spent on doing work and reaching goals; it just takes whatever it takes. The same goes for the classic trap of increasing productivity versus efficiency. Focus on what you do instead of reducing time spent on activities to cram more into your day.
The most far reaching impact for me lies in my valuation of our time here on earth. I have a hard time (pun intended) wrapping my head around Silicon Valley tycoons spending astronomic amounts on efforts to extend human life to 150 or 200 years. I like the wisdom worded by Edward J. Stieglitz much better:
"The important thing to you is not how many years in your life, but how much life in your years!"
Australian writer Peter Salmon wrote an article covering a method called 'deconstruction' that was initially developed by philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1967. The idea is to become truly aware of the fact that anything -objects but also concepts, words, beliefs- does not have a fixed, single meaning. They are 'culturally' constructed by us and hence can be deconstructed to lay bare the preconceived idea and beliefs; in other words, the core assumptions that you're making when you accept an object or concept to be true and meaningful.
"To think deconstructively is to not only call into question accepted truths, but to ask in whose interests it is that they be accepted."
Derrida noted that deconstruction does not mean destruction. I interpret that as: you should try to untangle the knot without damaging the rope. It is not easy but the article does give some useful guidance such as looking for contradictions and prevailing wisdoms. Most importantly: have faith in your own analysis.
This tool seems very relevant in these times. I personally notice that many people seem to take a lot for granted; information conveyed by the media, friends or government; scientific research; opinions of thought leaders. What seems to be missing is the critical mind. In the end, there might be no truth at all. There is work to be done by yourselves to form your own judgments.
If the term 'providing value' makes you cringe a little, I can relate. I think it's over-used and clearly in vogue, considering its omnipresence in corporate mission statements worldwide. Indian thinker and writer reddy2Go recently helped me come to terms with my unease by writing this article on the value of value.
"value, like power is never given. only seized. grabbed. derived. distilled. wrenched. from experience. from interaction. by extraction."
In highlighting the importance of the interaction, the sender and the receiver in any endeavour, the two it takes to tango, he lays bare the limits of trying to make anything a one-sided effort.
"by providing value, i’m diminishing your experience. if anything i’m going to make it harder for you to get what i got. like hell i’m gonna make it easier. the easier i make it, the lesser the value of what you eventually get from me."
I think this is true in any relationship, and in business transactions more than we think. Overselling the value you can bring can be a way to land a deal, but it's also the best recipe for it to fail in the long run. Like any dance, value is in between.
Some philosophical ponderings: when two people interact, a truth exists between them. From physics, we know that the relationship between 'observer' and 'observed' essentially determines what kind of 'laws' exist in their instantaneously created mutual universe. An outside observer might see something completely different.
Take for instance, on a somewhat greater scale, being inside or outside the US at this moment. It takes great effort for a US citizen to accept the critiques on their political system coming from Europe, China and Africa. "You simply do not understand" or "you don't know what you're talking about" are commonly heard phrases. As the critiques originate from inside another frame of reference, the argumentation used often does not resonate well.
Interaction with each other creates a truth that exists between the persons interacting. Parties will accept that truth when there is trust among them. Trust, therefore, says something about the quality of the interaction between people. With millions of people interacting each day, a multitude of truths with various degrees of trust will exist.
To make this melting pot of opinions and interactions function properly, we have law and principles. These influence cultural norms and create structure and momentum in society. These 'rules of the game' differ by country and region. Does this seal the fate of being able to comment on other people or systems? Not necessarily, but it does mean, we need to be mindful of and analyse the differences between the systems and culture of the observer and the observed.
Persons that have suffered from amnesia as a result of a serious brain injury behave -on average- most like themselves in circumstances where they can act as they used to do. This may sound rather obvious. However, the important word in this sentence is 'act', because it is meant literally: how you use your arms, legs, hands, feet, body.
Ben Platts-Mills, who works for a charity that supports survivors of brain injury, notes:
"The places where they [red: amnesia patients] are most confident in their identities are the ones in which they are supported not merely to think but to do the things they love."
This phenomenon is ground for the theory that memory is not only constituted by the conscious recollection of past events but that it "involves the whole body". Another insight is that memory is often seen as the foundation of identity. This way of looking was first elaborately described by the English philosopher John Locke, regarded as one of the most influential of enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the "Father of Liberalism".
Combining the two insights feels natural to me. Someone's personality and position in this world is not solely determined by the mind or the body. It's the entire body. I even would like to go one step further: it is determined by the interaction between (human) beings. Memory will thus exist between people and will defy any damage done to your brain or your body, whether by injury or age (think of dementia!). That's comforting.
Albert Einstein's quote in our fourth newsletter makes clear there is a distinction between future and past. For a physicist, this is not immediately obvious. For example, when observing a moving car, it obeys the same laws of physics when moving forwards or backwards in time.
Psychologically, past and future are very different. We take the past for granted but feel that we can do something to affect the future. Richard Feynman, again a physicist, observed:
“We have a different kind of awareness about what might happen than we have of what probably has happened.”
Almost everybody believes we are able to influence the course of the future. On the other hand, emotions such as remorse and grief are influenced by the simple lack of belief we can affect the past. These observations of physicists can help us to accept the world the way it is. Once that settles in, it provides a solid basis for creating a future.
This sounds a lot like the ancient wisdom of Stoïcism, which we wrote about earlier ('Tranquility'). While writing this, it occurred to me that wisdom seems to be omnipresent with no past or future. Time, rather than wisdom, is just an invention by mankind.
Food for thought: if a criterium for truth is that things are only true when they can be proved logically, then logic itself can only be true when its truth can be proved logically. It's a classic circular reasoning and one of the major critiques to modernist thinking. In a nutshell, modernist strongly believe in the foundational power of practical experimentation, scientific knowledge and technology.
You can start a debate about which philosophical and cultural movement is better, but more interesting is to investigate what this observation tells you.
Realising truth itself may not be logically and therefore objectively provable, it becomes easier to have empathy towards an opinion you do not initially agree with. It also reduces the need to put energy into trying to convince others.
This does not mean you should not have or share your opinion. Differing opinions, if well-founded, create insightful discussions that broaden your views.
What is good or bad and the grey area in between is often up for debate. It is at the core of choices people make; political, economic, buying goods, careers. We spend a lot of energy in trying to convince others of our opinions and provide moral lessons. Everyone has his own truth.
For a long time, mankind has tried to find clear answers to this profound question. But are clear answers at all possible? According to philosophers Tolstoy (1828 - 1910) and Wittgenstein (1889 - 1951), this is doubtful. They claim that ethics cannot be taught or scientifically understood, but are “transcendental” and out of reach of our senses.
I think the value of discussing good or bad lies in the debate itself, as long as it is carried out with mutual respect. When keeping an open mind, the arguments will enhance your experience and understanding, polishing your gut feel and intuition. While clear, written down answers might be easier to follow, your gut is always with you, as long as you’re able not to drown its voice. I'm sure everyone knows the feeling when something clicks and just feels right.