Five in one

Here are four five pretty unrelated things that have been on my mind:

Entrepreneurs: sell vs befriend

I, like I am sure millions of other people, keep getting followed by all sorts of dealers who promise to “help small business” and lead to “explosive growth” on social media. Why do these people exist? How have they not been banned by everyone? Or will selling hope always be big business?

It would be nice to have a community of entrepreneurs. But what do entrepreneurs do? They sell and they compete. Trying to have a community of entrepreneurs is like trying to farm spiders. They will eat each other.

A community of this nature could only form based on prior friendship, where social bonds are stronger than the need to sell. But most of these communities offer to put you into a network for a small fee: this doesn’t exactly inspire warm and fuzzy feelings. The circular nature of their business is also worrying. Conferences, seminars, mindset trainings, honestly…

I have, on the other hand, made many friends online, who happen to be entrepreneurs, but never directly in connection with their entrepreneurship. (You know who you are. Perhaps, some of you would like to meet my recently acquired Buddhist friend.)

Nietzsche: is it all lies?

I am quite worried about how things are unfolding in the US.

Nietzsche keeps getting brought up. He has to be the most misunderstood philosopher. Did his relatives doctor his writings too much after he died? Or is he just forever contradicting himself?

Any Nietzsche scholars very welcome to comment on this article of Nietzsche and the alt-right.

Curate or censor?

In other news, Google recently stopped Gab, apparently a sort of Twitter for people who get banned from Twitter, from being able to be downloaded from their Playstore. Apple stopped them a little earlier this year. Also, Instagram’s Kevin Systrom wants to curate the Internet.

Taleb is in a new battle with the establishment.

Vaccinate or die

France is tightening vaccination requirements. I support vaccines, of course. As a society though, are we better off having people die from preventable diseases or limiting their freedoms?

Diabetes is a preventable disease, but I don’t see anyone being confined to a gym by law. Though the herd immunity argument makes vaccines different. In addition, the fact that it is children who are affected makes vaccines different, but then again we can’t stop some people overfeeding their children with junk. I’ve taken enough trips on routes that serve hospitals to know that you don’t have to be above one year of age to be served Coke in your bottle.


There is a philosophy that suggests that taking responsibility for everything that happens to you is the best way to live (e.g. William James).

I think that the world is one giant furnace of entropy and within that we each have a small island we call the self, where we can affect things. I cannot force someone to ask me to come to their party, but there is a myriad of things I can do to try to gently weasel my way into it.

The single most damaging thing I do, my worst bad habit, is fretting about things I cannot control. In other words, I feel responsible for things that are beyond my reach. I sit there and feel like a failure if I am not invited to the metaphorical party.

The question is: does this fretting push me to look for solutions that I wouldn’t have found if I just rested within my boundaries? Or are parts of William James and his followers’ philosophy just soothingly empowering wishful thinking? Or am I even doing damage by fretting and preventing myself from seeing ways to get into the party? Please share your thoughts on this last thing.

P.S. I couldn’t find a picture of a weasel, so here is a nice chilled out otter. I must take some of my own pictures soon.

Words as violence

The Russians have a law against offending the feelings of religious followers.

It came up again today because a magazine did a (somewhat) explicit photoshoot in a church they considered abandoned:

offending feelings of religious people russia ethics
Source: Vkontakte

It turns out the church wasn’t entirely abandoned and was occasionally used. This may result in a court case against the model/photographer/publication involved: not because they perpetrated land belonging to the church, but because they offended people’s religious beliefs.

A man recently received a suspended sentence for catching Pokemon in another church for this reason.

Is the fact that the Russians want to protect the religious any different to the snowflakery millennials are getting accused of?

In West it is kind of the opposite, but the same principle applies. We’re most worried about offending those who fight for more modern things, e.g. non-traditional genders.

It’s a past time of mine to observe the parallels between two places that most people consider as different as night and day. And it allows me to ask: why is there such a global cross-cultural tendency to protect the feelings of minorities through law?

In a recent case, a woman was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter because of what she said. Of course, her words were evil. It was emotional abuse taken to the limit.

But can words really be equated to violence?

I think that this would only encourage physical violence by closing a steam valve. It makes little of victims of real violence. There’s something wrong with putting genuinely violent people in the same category with someone who likes to rant.

Incitement to hatred? Obviously it would be ideal if we all agreed and lived in peace and love. But assuming that we’re not moving to a utopia any time soon, isn’t it better to allow people to peacefully rant and speak freely than to encourage them to band into groups and get violent against the establishment which is what we achieve by marginalising them? In fact, ranters of a denomination could verbally spar with other types of ranters. Might it even be a healthy debate?

Perhaps non-violent hating is like a small forest fire:

“Small forest fires periodically cleanse the system of the most flammable material, so this does not have the opportunity to accumulate. Systematically preventing forest fires from taking place ‘to be safe’ makes the big one much worse.” – Nassim Taleb. Antifragile : things that gain from disorder.

Similarly, marginalising the “haters” just leads to real violence.

Having said that, I can relate. I have often felt like I needed trigger warnings. I get very upset at certain images in films and documentaries. But I would never feel that someone owes it to me to prevent me from them: if I made a choice to watch a film, that’s just part of the consequences. Being honest, I don’t watch that many films for this precise reason.

Virtually every book or film I process results in an overwhelming spillage of thoughts and emotions (hence, this blog). In fact, I am still haunted by a number of books I read.

When I was in school, we were always given a book list for the summer. Part of me wishes I’d never read Three Comrades and The Collector. Part of me is enraged that there wasn’t a trigger warning on those books. But by reading these books I learnt what I do and don’t like – and why.

But let’s just imagine that words aren’t violence and flip the question: should it be a crime to offend people’s feelings?

P. S. I am meant to be working on Philip Larkin‘s poetry, but I’m not a fan, hence, all this 🙂

Randomness as seen by Nassim Taleb

“Probability is not about the odds, but about the belief in the existence of an alternative outcome, cause, or motive”

Disappointed by Ayn Rand’s overfitting of consequences onto causes, I moved on to the book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time: Fooled by Randomness by N.N. Taleb.

What is Fooled by Randomness about?

Taleb is pretty clear on that:

“This book is about luck disguised and perceived as non-luck (that is, skills) and, more generally, randomness disguised and perceived as non-randomness (that is, determinism)”

This has to be one of my favourite paragraphs in modern non-fiction:

“It [determinism] manifests itself in the shape of the lucky fool, defined as a person who benefited from a disproportionate share of luck but attributes his success to some other, generally very precise, reason.”

Rand would argue that that’s intellect and taking responsibility. Instagram tells you it’s positive thinking. Richard Branson would tell you that it’s looking after your people and taking risk – though I’ve never had the “pleasure” of properly familiarising myself with his wisdom. Ryan Holiday would argue that it is one’s ego that gets in the way.

Life is more random than we care to admit

“... Just as one day some primitive tribesman scratched his nose, saw rain falling, and developed an elaborate method of scratching his nose to bring on the much-needed rain, we link economic prosperity to some rate cut by the Federal Reserve Board, or the success of a company with the appointment of the new president “at the helm”. Bookstores are full of biographies of successful men and women presenting their specific explanation on how they made it big in life (we have an expression, “the right time and the right place” to weaken whatever conclusion can be inferred from them).”

“Symbolism is the child of our inability and unwillingness to accept randomness; we give meaning to all manner of shapes; we detect human figures in inkblots.”

I find this very funny as I am the author of “Cliff notes” on Ireland’s secondary school poetry course. I enjoy looking for patterns where there are possibly none. My job as a doctor is right about the same: fit symptom A with symptom B and develop a list of differentials. While endless creativity is helpful with the Cliff notes, the situation with diagnoses is quite different. Taleb would argue that the conclusions I come to are more of a reflection on me than the material I am reflecting on.

“European intellectual life developed what seems to be an irreversible taste for symbolism – we are still paying its price, with psychoanalysis and other fads.”

Taleb table of confusion fooled by randomness

If there is one cause for this confusion between the left and the right sides of our table, it is our inability to think critically – we may enjoy presenting conjectures as truth.

“We are flawed beyond repair – at least for this environment.”

But it is only bad news for those utopians who believe in an idealised human kind.

He describes utopians (Rousseau, Godwin, Payne) as people who believe that knowing what is good for us will lead to that choice. So for example, telling people that obesity leads to health risks would lead people to lose weight according to this group.

On the other hand, he regards the likes of Popper, Hayek, Friedman, Adam Smith, Tversky and Kahneman, Soros, etc as people who see the world as it is and subscribe to scientific fallibilism.

Taleb advocates going around emotion rather than rationalising them:

“Ridding ourselves of our humanity is not in the works; we need tricks, not some grandiose moralizing help”

Taleb on happiness

Taleb calls upon Plutarch’s Lives:

“The observation of the numerous misfortunes that attend all conditions forbids us to grow insolent upon our present enjoyments, or to admire a man’s happiness that may yet, in course of time, suffer change. For the uncertain future has yet to come, with all variety of future; and him only to whom the divinity yet to come, with all variety of future; and him only to whom the divinity”

The modern equivalent has been no less eloquently voiced by the baseball coach Yogi Berra, who seems to have translated Solon’s outburst from the pure Attic Greek into no less pure Brooklyn English with “it ain’t over until it’s over”, or, in a less dignified manner, with “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings”.

fooled by randomness taleb key points
Now entering Wicklow

Taleb, not unlike Rand, believes in thinking hard, but reminds us to not take our own conclusions too seriously:

“Trading forces someone to think hard; those who merely work hard generally lose their focus and intellectual energy. In addition, they end up drowning in randomness. Work ethics draws people to focus on noise rather than the signal.”

I was very comforted to read the following on clarity vs correctness from Taleb. He spends this entire book fighting against the temptation to oversimplify and overexplain”

“Beware the confusion between correctness and intelligibility. Part of conventional wisdom favours things that can be explained rather instantly and “in a nutshell” – in many circles it is considered law. Having attended a French elementary school, a lycee primaire, I was trained to rehash the popular adage: Ce qui se congoit bien s’enonce clairement Et les mots pour le dire viennent aisement (What is easy to conceive is clear to express/Words to say it would come effortlessly)… Borrowed wisdom can be vicious. I need to make a huge effort not to be swayed by well-sounding remarks. I remind myself of Einstein’s remark that common sense is nothing but a collection of misconceptions acquired by age 18. Furthermore: what sounds intelligent in a conversation or a meeting, or, particularly in the media, is suspicious.”

He gives many examples of things that were genuinely new and good, but rejected when they originally were presented. This supports the whole “makes sense instantly” notion:

“Any reading of the history of science would show that almost all the smart things that have been proven by science appeared like lunacies at the time they were first discovered.”

Having worked with startups, I’ve always been told that one should be able to explain what your company does in one sentence. I just want to remark that this is for the “benefit” of investors alone.

Not everything is worth trying to explain

“I have a trick to know if something real in the world is taking place… The trick is to look only at the large percentage changes. Unless something moves by more than its usual daily percentage change, the event is deemed to be noise. Percentage moves are the size of the headlines. In addition, the interpretation is not linear; a 2% move is not twice as significant an event as 1%, it is rather like four times. The headline of the Dow moving by 1.3 points on my screen today has less than one millionth of the significance of the serious 7% drop of October 1997… We cannot instinctively understand the nonlinear aspect of probability.”

Confidence intervals are more important than the estimate

This point is related to the importance of variance as well as averages:

“Professionals forget the following reality. It is not the estimate or the forecast that matters so much as the degree of confidence with the opinion. Consider that you are going on a trip one fall morning and need to formulate an idea about the weather conditions prior to packing your luggage. If you expect the temperature to be 60 degrees, plus or minus 10 degrees (say in Arizona), then you would take no snow clothes and no portable electric fan. Now what if you were going to Chicago, where you are told that the weather, while being 60 degrees, will nevertheless vary by about 30 degrees? You would have to pack winter and summer clothes. Here the expectation of the temperature carries little importance concerning the choice of clothing; it is the variance that matters. Your decision to pack is markedly different now that you are told that the variability would be around 30 degrees. Now let us push the point further; what if you were going to a planet where the expectation is also going to be around 60 degrees, but plus or minus 500 degrees? What would you pack?”

taleb tricks to deal with being fooled by randomness
Just one track!

Consistency as path dependence

Taleb argues against the compulsion to keep our opinions the same and expect the same of others. From a logical stand points he is completely right. From a psychological one – we suffer greatly when we have to deviate from consistency and we simply don’t trust people who change their opinions. He gives the example of G. Soros, a man her described as “complicated”. He attributes at least some of Soros’ success to this ability to not be married to his views:

“They are totally free from their past actions. Every day is a clean slate.”

Taleb goes on to explain that we have evolved this for obvious reasons:

“Think about the consequences of being a good trader outside of the market activity, and deciding every morning at 8 a.m. whether to keep the spouse or if it is not better to part with him or her for a better emotional investment elsewhere.”

Stoicism as seen by Nassim Taleb

“It is the attempt by man to get even with probability.”

I think that’s a very curious interpretation! A slightly escapist one, but interesting all the same.

“The only article Lady Fortuna has no control over is your behaviour.”

We probably cannot overcome our biases

The epiphany I had in my career in randomness came when I understood that I was not intelligent enough, nor strong enough, to even try to fight my emotions. Besides, I believe that I need my emotions to formulate my ideas and get the energy to execute them.

The good news is that there are tricks.

Avoid eye contact to avoid an emotional response

Psychopathy central, I know. But sometimes, it’s better to prevent motional contagion, for example, in a road rage situation:

One such trick is to avoid eye contact (through the rear-view mirror) with other persons in such encounters as traffic situations.

Don’t listen to people who aren’t definitely worth listening to

Taleb argues that it is best to not engage in reading comments and reviews from people who don’t have a lot of credibility as their comments are more about them then they are about the work supposedly being reviewed. My personal experience certainly agrees with this. This is one of the most important lessons of the book. It’s also a very good thing to remember when asking advice (or, God forbid, getting unsolicited advice). This point subtly arises from the confidence interval point mentioned above.

Manage your exposure to things that have a strong emotional impact on you

Yet I have experienced leaps of joy over results that I knew were mere noise, and bouts of unhappiness over results that did not carry the slightest degree of statistical significance. I cannot help it, but I am emotional and derive most of my energy from my emotions. So the solution does not reside in taming my heart. Since my heart does not seem to agree with my brain, I need to take serious action to avoid making irrational trading decisions, namely, by denying myself access to my performance report unless it hits a predetermined threshold. 

This certainly resonates with me. As I mentioned, I have an online venture. Whenever a sale happens, I get an email about it. In the early days, I used to get so excited when someone made a purchase – it was great! Then I found that if I opened my emails, but the inbox did not contain any such notifications, I would feel a bit disappointed. Furthermore, if a sale was made, I didn’t feel compelled to work quite as hard! If it wasn’t – I was there thinking outside the box of what I could do better. I quickly learnt to only check that email account once a day.

One of the most irritating conversations I’ve had is with people who lecture me on how I should behave. Most of us know pretty much how we should behave. It is the execution that is the problem, not the absence of knowledge.

And the bit that is lacking from most awareness campaigns.

I am tired of the moralising slow-thinkers who pound me with platitudes like I should floss daily, eat my regular apple and visit the gym outside of the new-year resolution… We need tricks to get us there but before that we need to accept the fact that we are mere animals in need of lower forms of tricks, not lectures.

I am not sure I agree. I am quite allergic to these tricks because quite often just like the lecturing, they do not work. However, unlike the lectures, they are held to a lower standard of evidence.

We are not designed for schedules

Our ancestors didn’t work to deadlines. In the second edition of the book, Taleb goes on about how we are designed for randomness: we are more like firemen meditating between calls. Optimising everything may be a very poor decision that will take away the very things that we are trying to achieve – as far as the big picture is concerned.

We favour the visible, tangible and narrated – and scorn the abstract. Maybe I should turn to writing fiction?

nassim nicholas taleb randomness tips to avoid biases
Just a pink house with a gladiolus. How random…

Love of labour: a bad romance with the illusion of security

The more things change, the more they stay the same. But this time it is really different:

employment is an illusion of security

What an uncomfortable graph. Sometimes when things scale, they are just a bigger version of the small thing. However, at times, they also develop new properties. A population of cells becomes an organ – and has new properties. A large teddy bear can be used as a pillow, while a small one cannot.

What can a large human population do that a small one couldn’t? What does it mean for the individual?

The above graph of world population vs time scares me because we’re going into the unknown. In a sense, each one of us is less important. It takes much more to compete. If you are “one in a thousand”, in 1800 that would have got you places. Today, not so much.

What does that mean for individuals? Can such a demand for food, water and energy be met, never mind sustainably? How do we find a place in such a competitive imminently expanding world? Albeit we’re no longer accelerating the growth, the sheer numbers are a little bit unnerving.

competing with a growing population

Not to fall into conspiracy theories or 1984/Brave New World despair, but for the sake of an analogy, consider cows, or minks, or any other farmed animal. I’ve always felt that breeding animals to kill them is a kind of (?necessary) evil, but it is somehow made better by the fact that they are bred. They don’t have to worry about food and get to have lots of babies. In a roundabout way, they have won in the Darwinian casino.

But then I wondered: if cows and minks are bred for their meat and their fur, are we kind of… bred for economic growth?

Each one of us has to comply with the assertion that success comes from having lots and lots of things in order for this to be perpetuated. Few people look for fame and fortune to exercise some kind of power (if you prefer “change the world”) – and to be fair I have respect for such people.

employment in the context of a growing population
“Idle as trout in light”

I get the sense though that to most people, fame and fortune is an end in itself. Furthermore, I suspect it is a product of our culture rather than just hedonism. For a proper first principles hedonist, it would never make sense to work so hard to have things they will never get time to enjoy.

I’ve always found it fascinating that the very people I know from school that were so rebellious that they just wouldn’t comply with the simplest of instruction become exemplars of compliance and obedience when there is a paycheck involved.

It’s someone’s birthday?

“I’ve work tomorrow.”

Can’t stand the sight of the boss?

“I have to go to work.”

Wife giving birth?

“I better get to work, so.”

It seems that no amount of personal problems can stand in the way of being at work. And when it does happen, the rest of the working tribe treats it as some kind of weakness and/or deceit to get out of doing work.

Buckminster Fuller comes to mind:

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

“Inspectors of inspectors”… The irony. A friend of mine, a former employee of a multinational once pointed out: we have trackers for trackers. Entire days are spent changing amber to green and red to amber.

Some also theorise that very few jobs require 9-5 x 5 days a week. A lot of time is spent being idle. Why then do the employers insist of you being there? I would argue it isn’t the employer: it’s the culture. Some people won’t take their job seriously if they are given the autonomy to manage their own time (though I always bet on the opposite when looking for people in my own ventures).

If you think about it, it’s kind of disrespectful to insist that someone is there just so that their boss has the option of coopting them into some work engagement. Another interesting (?side) effect is that predictably a person has no strength to create anything outside of work. An eight hour day of being surveyed and judged, a draining commute, an uncomfortable suit and a toilet seat you cannot sit on… As Taleb puts it:

“In short, every organization wants a certain number of people associated with it to be deprived of a certain share of their freedom. How do you own these people? First, by conditioning and psychological manipulation; second by tweaking them to have some skin in the game, forcing them to have something significant to lose if they were to disobey authority –something hard to do with gyrovague beggars who flouted they scorn of material possessions.”

I wonder if it is becoming harder, though, to be a gyrating roaming monk (these days they have a Mac and are called digital nomads) given that the population is growing. Is there room to be an individual? Nietzsche has his concerns:

“Those who commend work. – In the glorification of ‘work’, in the unwearied talk of the ‘blessing of work’, I see the same covert idea as in the praise of useful impersonal actions: that of fear of everything individual. Fundamentally, one now feels at the sight of work – one always means by work that hard industriousness from early till late – that such work is the best policeman, that it keeps everyone in bounds and can mightily hinder the development of reason, covetousness, desire for independence. For it uses up an extraordinary amount of nervous energy, which is thus denied to reflection, brooding, dreaming, worrying, loving, hating; it sets a small goal always in sight and guarantees easy and regular satisfactions. Thus a society in which there is continual hard work will have more security: and security is now worshipped as the supreme divinity. – And now! Horror! Precisely the ‘worker’ has become dangerous! The place is swarming with ‘dangerous individuals’! And behind them the danger of dangers – the individual!”

It’s pretty clear that Nietzsche’s talking about institutional employment.

This essay of mine isn’t about robbing the rich or some other way of getting out of work. It’s not promoting Zuckerberg’s universal basic income. It’s about the fact that work is indeed glorified. Much of what is called work is being trapped in purposelessness.

employment is an illusion of security

And it’s not even work that is glorified: nobody cares about the labour of a painter who hasn’t (yet) made their hobby into a job or a blogger, or whoever. It is the stamp of approval from some institution that people really respect. Perhaps, it is just easier to relate to.

I suppose, being Russian, I can’t help but be reminded of how easily institutions fail. Countless Russian firms have risen to unbelievable heights and quickly died in the last 20 years. Even the USSR itself: seeing such a behemoth collapse shatters one’s faith in institutions.

And it wasn’t even that weak, with real industry and gargantuan natural resources. In a completely different context, where I am now – Ireland – also has become a State and gone through a couple of different names in the XX century. That empire disappeared too.

Nietzsche above and Taleb (in multiple works) have spoken about this security that people look for. The security that people trade a portion of their freedom for. Clearly though, it is an illusion. Remember 2008?

nietzsche fuller taleb on work and employment
The chap in the pink shirt knows how to party like it’s 1728

Meanwhile, the seaside restaurant beside me boasts having been established in 1728. Chin chin, Mr Taleb, and chin chin to everyone being creative and working hard to not lose your individuality among the impending billions.

philosophers on employment
Chin chin!


Friday’s 5 cognitive curiosities journal club

A weekly trail mix of thought-provoking essays and research.

1. The madness of mindfulness

From The Financial Times

Lately, there’s been more and more of a backlash against mindfulness. It’s only natural given the rate it is growing at and the unscrupulous many who try to earn some cash riding this wave and promising mindfulness as the true path to the moon and the stars.

An understandably overwhelmed mother standing amidst Lego pieces gets a push notification on her phone that it is time to be mindful. This seems to have been the straw that broke the camels back. She goes on a rant about the appful pursuit of happiness. Caustically, she remarks on the passive aggressive nature of the simplicity of the mindfulness proposition and the real-life difficulties of its application. Of course, the article isn’t about mindfulness, it is about the cult of commoditised mindfulness and its many apps. It is quite overwhelming indeed – if you are the kind easily gets swayed by trends.

2. Time will show – and only time

From N.N. Taleb

N.N. Taleb, the closest thing we have to a popular philosopher today, brings some seemingly obvious, yet profound, insights:

…Actors gossiping about other actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted, say one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. The heuristic became known as the Lindy Effect. The Lindy effect is one of the most useful, robust, and universal heuristics I know…

Being reviewed or assessed by others matters if and only if one is subjected to the judgment by future –not just present — others

Academia can become a ritualistic publishing game

3. Music works the same way as heroin

From Nature Scientific Reports

Music’s universality and its ability to deeply affect emotions suggest an evolutionary origin. The research shows that endogenous opioids are critical to experiencing both positive and negative emotions in music, and that music uses the same reward pathways as food, drug and sexual pleasure. Our findings add to the growing body of evidence for the evolutionary biological substrates of music.

4. The internet and our brains are more similar than we think

From Neural Computation

The Internet relies on not being overloaded in order to work. The solution involves controlling information flow such that routes are neither clogged nor underutilised. To accomplish this, the Internet employs an algorithm called “additive increase, multiplicative decrease” (AIMD) in which your computer sends a packet of data and then listens for an acknowledgement from the receiver. If the packet is promptly acknowledged, the network is not overloaded and your data can be transmitted through the network at a higher rate. With each successive successful packet, your computer knows it’s safe to increase its speed by one unit, which is the additive increase part. This process is quite similar to our brain’s long term potentiation, i.e. memory formation. But if an acknowledgement is delayed or lost your computer knows that there is congestion and slows down by a large amount, such as by half, which is the multiplicative decrease part. This is called long-term depression (nothing to do with clinical depression).

5. The “bouba-kiki”effect: words sound sharp or soft on a subconscious level

From Psychological Science

The “bouba-kiki” effect, originally reported over 85 years ago and replicated many times since, shows that people consistently pair the soft-sounding nonsense word “bouba” with soft-looking, round shapes and they typically pair the sharp-sounding nonsense word “kiki” with spiky-looking, angular shapes.One may argue this is good old onomatopoeia, however, the researchers did a series of curious visual experiments showing people the nonsense word in a congruent (bouba-circle) or non-congruent (bouba-angular) shape. The images were shown in one eye, while the other eye was shown flashy distracting images. The congruent pair was noticed first, indicating that participants perceived and processed the relationship between word and shape before they were consciously aware of the stimuli.

Have a great weekend everyone.

Steal my checklist and stop feeling overwhelmed in the mornings

When I hear the word checklist, I think of bored looking men with clipboards standing by conveyor belts, doing quality control in a soulless brave new world factory worshipping Henry Ford. However, things changed when I first had to actually use one – during a flying lesson. It didn’t seem that bad at all, providing reassurance and a sense of completion. The negative reinforcement of doing 2g must have kept this thought dormant for a long time, but I decided to revisit these beacons of productivity that I imagine all the perfect people from Instagram tick off every day.

checklist to use in the morning
My first flight was out of Biggin Hill near London with flirty Irish-Italian instructor who insisted on doing 2g straight away

There are things that are inherently hard to do.

Realistically, getting out of bed is something that comes easily to a very select few – and these select few change every day, depending on what they expect from their day.

For those of us, who are less than euphoric on most mornings (i.e. slightly less than 100% of people, the slightly less bit accounted for mostly by people in acute mania or still high from the night before), a checklist could be a good way to ease the drift towards existential questions or reflection on the pressure of a brand new day, another attempt to achieve, another day to seize and make the most of, squeezing out the last drop where anything that wouldn’t make NutriBullet engineers blush simply isn’t enough.

That’s the real Nutribullet challenge. I cannot emphasise the usefulness of waking up at the same time every day. I use the iPhone Bedtime feature for this. It’s generally good for the circadian rhythm and creates a sense of control.

how to use checklists to make mornings easier
Sometimes you have to be on autopilot to enjoy the view

How do I keep up with being a doctor, an editor, a blogger, travel, house-hunt, read Nietzsche and get 8 hours of sleep? Well, my success rate is a little volatile.

In order to stay moving ahead, there are certain things that I simply must do every day. I have a startup checklist – things I do every morning – and things I do throughout the day. I use an app called Checklist+, or sometimes I just print it on a page.

My morning checklist achieves one main purpose: it takes out the need to make decisions.

Decisions are extremely consuming for our metaphorical RAM, especially when it is the morning and the possibilities seem so vast. It’s not like I will forget to brush my teeth if I don’t look at the checklist. It is that I don’t have to figure out: “what do I do first?” which can be extremely taxing when I just wake up.

checklist for the morning for a girl
There is something life-affirming about pink Edwardian letters

The alternative, on many mornings, is feeling out of control as I rush to work and resent having other people’s checklists imposed on me, or going straight to the laptop, surrounding myself with green tea paraphernalia and snacks, only to realise by midday that I haven’t actually done much other than worked in a virtual mailroom. The loss of productive time however, doesn’t stop there. It dictates how the rest of the day will unfold. It is the mood setting that matters:

You see the 10 push ups in the checklist? Do they build any real muscle? Hardly. What they do is they set me up to feel healthy and capable of overcoming challenges.

I am much less likely to go creeping on a former classmate’s Facebook page or drinking hot chocolate after doing even a few pushups than I would be if I had just spent the morning lazying around in my pyjamas. It’s that phenomenon of consistency that Cialdini talks about.

My next item on the agenda is the domino piece.

… As distinct from the Domino’s slice from yesterday’s dinner. The domino piece is the most important item on my work to-do list or the one that makes all other pieces irrelevant. I deal with the thing I resist the most first. Perhaps this is why I find mornings so cognitively taxing. [I will insert a proper reference for this soon]. However, having spent years chiselling out this productive approach, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

My 2nd checklist is the one for the day. It allows me to move forward. This isn’t work related, and it doesn’t change day to day.checklist for a successful dayMindfulness helps me to stay in touch with reality. Walking is simply good for us human beings, as N.N. Taleb says. He can nearly match a word count of his essay writing to his miles walked. It’s near impossible to stay cognitively refreshed unless one reads. Exercise goes without saying.

I have lots of other, more specific checklists. It’s an ENTP thing. We like lists. I don’t get them done perfectly everyday, but it is a good guide.

I mentioned the sense of control a few times here. The point isn’t to be a control freak.

One of the most important lessons I learnt from dealing with my own students is that a sense of control is the ultimate source of motivation and agency. It is the natural predator of learnt helplessness – which is far more pervasive in our lives than we think.

Checklists allow us to remain in control without investing expensive cognitive RAM – because they are our checklists, not Henry Ford’s.

Dearest reader, if you’ve read this far, you know what to do.

  1. Pick a wake-up time (or let your child pick it for you).
  2. Make your own checklist. Just one.
  3. Drop your expectations and keep it very simple.
  4. Do it for 10 days and reward yourself for doing it. Does Pavlov ring a bell?

You may also like: Top 5 music apps for mindful focus

Validation and self-esteem

I’ll drop my glove, to prove his love; great glory will be mine.

Leigh Hunt

Vanity and fair are simple words. However, it was only recently that I understood what these words mean together. In more contemporary English, it means an exchange of validation between two people. What got me thinking about it is the book I recently read by Robert Cialdini called Influence. It describes the mechanics of how easily people’s need for validation  can be used to play them in a Machiavellian way.

Validation is always a treat. We must be wired for it. Given that humans are social animals, it makes sense to yearn for validation as it increases one’s chances of survival. If one is part of a tribe (i.e. accepted/validated by the tribe), he/she is less likely to get eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. However, it seems that this pathway gets hijacked an awful lot.

addicted to validation

I think the best way to explain this is by looking at an extreme example: narcissism, because the logic is the same no matter where someone is on the spectrum. I grew up with and subsequently encountered some florid narcissists – though I didn’t always know it at the time. While the full blown narcissistic personality disorder is relatively uncommon, traits thereof appear quite ubiquitous. I will loosely use the word narcissistic here to signify anyone with traits of the disorder. During my late teens I loved high-achieving people and hated arrogance. It made no sense to me why somebody would act so unpleasantly. I thought that arrogant people believe they are better and that I am not worth their time. It turns out that’s only half-true.*

I subsequently figured out – through a mix of psychiatry training and reading (Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence is brilliant for this) – that arrogance is a form of insecurity. However, the exact same insecurity can be revealed through being super friendly (hence, not all narcissistic people are arrogant**).

Much of it boils down to the source of one’s self-esteem. I hypothesise that a self-esteem based on external circumstances is one of the factors that contributes to much unhappiness and perhaps even the poorly understood personality disorders – such as narcissistic, histrionic and emotionally unstable.

What does that actually mean? What is it like to be narcissistic (or a person with some narcissistic traits)? Most people think they are deluded with their own glory. This can be true – if the narcissistic person doesn’t have insight into just how hooked they are on validation. Sadly, having insight doesn’t instantly cure it. If the person with narcissistic traits does have insight, it’s a never ending cycle of feeling high from validation, feeling pathetic for being like that and seeking more validation to take the edge of. New Insights Into Narcissistic Personality Disorder highlights their fragility, internal vulnerability and external self-enhancement, their attempts to regulate insecurity by numbing emotion, especially in interpersonal contexts and their preoccupation with blame, and criticism.

For some, it is “I think therefore, I am”. For people with narcissistic tendencies, it is “I produce a good reflection, therefore I am worth existing.”

Interestingly, patients with narcissistic personality disorder have intact cognitive empathic ability and can identify with thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others. However, their capacity for emotional empathy is compromised, especially their ability to care about and share feelings of others.

Having one’s self esteem decided by external factors is hugely painful. It’s like waking up every morning and feeling awful about oneself – and yearning to encounter something or someone in the world that will prove that one’s actually worth something. No amount of proof will ever stop this feeling of emptiness for very long.

This proof could be likes on a social media post, getting any sort of good news, a reassuring friend, attention from a member of their desired sex – anything that reminds them that they aren’t near worthless (which is the default setting). This is also why so many narcissistic people are high achievers. Actually “being the best” is sometimes the only way to get rid of the pain.

If one’s self-esteem is only lifted from the depth of despair by accomplishments (validation), then he/she will do anything to accomplish – and ease the pain.

If one’s self-esteem is set externally, validation is like an addictive drug. If it’s  set internally, validation is like an occasional glass of wine. These two types of self-esteem are also knows as contingent and non-contingent.

However, what does that even mean, “set internally”? Having an interest in mindfulness, I often come across things like loving-acceptance, unconditional positive regard, etc. Maybe the reader understands them better, but more often than not, they make me feel like there’s something fake there. To me, an internally-controlled self-esteem means answering the question: is a person proud of his/her actions.

It’s impossible to hold oneself fully responsible for one’s circumstances. Yes, over time, patterns emerge that reflect the small decisions made everyday. However, there is so much beyond our control that one needs to be cautious making conclusions about themselves based on results. As all of these kind of musings, this is specific to the person in question. Some people are perhaps too laid back about how much they control and others – too intensely determined to control everything. (See this post on how to find good tailored advice.)

I think that one has to always learn from their results, but it isn’t always true that their results are a reflection of their actions. Even learning from results is tough because it is so hard to attribute results to causes.

So to bring one’s self-esteem back to being internal, one can only judge whether he/she is happy with their actions and decisions given the information they had at the time.

This post is to some extent inspired by N.N. Taleb’s commencement speech transcript. It’s not like any commencement speech I’d heard before. He says:

…I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening, and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life. Let him or her be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel.

Taleb says that by his definition, he’s not successful. Fair enough. However, he doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who lacks in self-esteem. This goes back to how different people use the same words to mean different things. Obviously, to Taleb being successful is a kind of a luxury, not a must-have. Otherwise, if one looked in the mirror and resented themselves everyday, that’s a shortcut to despair.

need for validation ruins self-esteem

I wonder what it’s like for other people. For me, my 18 year old self had no clue about how the world works, so I can’t adopt this definition of success – it’s pretty useless to me. Maybe though, that’s Taleb’s point – that one should think back to their idealistic self and see what they would think. I probably shouldn’t say what my 18 year old self would think of me now, but I do wonder what Taleb got up to so that he doesn’t approve of.

I think that’s it though – reconnecting with one’s internal self-esteem is an uncanny exercise of separating oneself into two people and getting one to judge the other’s decision and actions – not their results.

Perhaps, at this point the concept of acceptance become relevant. Otherwise, it is the same old addiction to validation sugar coated with forced positive thinking.

* Whether a narcissistic person believes they are better depends on their insight into the need for validation and their actual achievements. However, narcissists do prefer to associate with people they see as being worthy of surrounding them.

** Some narcissistic people are sweet and charming. Different people use different strategies to feel special and seem worthwhile to others.

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