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The mistake that took years from my life, and the life from my years

The mistake that took years from my life, and the life from my years

When I was a little kid I used to hate to take baths and showers. Well, that’s not entirely true. Being in the water was fun, it was all that soaping and scrubbing that made it a pain.

But I digress. What I found most annoying about it was the fact that I was just going to get dirty again. Why do all that work if you were just going to have to do it over again?

I guess I was probably already negatively biased against do-overs. When I was in kindergarten, the teacher had given us a crafts project to make a crucifix from construction paper (it was a Catholic school).

I, however, was not content with implementing the prescribed flat design, and decided that I would make a standing 3D crucifix, more like the ones I had seen in church. Applying the paper-engineering principles I had observed in pop-up books, I created a backpiece and struts to elevate my crucifix so it would stand up.

Immediately, the children around me began to copy my innovation, which they had quite correctly judged to be “cool”. However, this quickly brought the teacher’s attention to bear upon me, and she chided me for not following the directions.

I of course responded by explaining the many benefits of my design. She listened, and then told me, exasperated, that the crucifixes were meant to be hung on the wall around the classroom. Oops. I had just received my first lesson in the importance of gathering all the customer requirements before you begin the design and implementation!

But I also gained an immediate dislike of having to do things over, a dislike that was cemented later that year by another construction paper project gone wrong…

Later that year, we were making pilgrim hats for thanksgiving, and part of the design called for folding a piece of yellow paper in half, and cutting out a rectangle along the fold to create a square “ring” to simulate a buckle. Unfortunately, I was confused about which way to cut, and cut out the rectangle from the unfolded side, creating an H-shape instead of a ring.

The teacher, who I think never really forgave me for the Rebellion of the 3D Crucifixes, was very upset and wouldn’t give me a replacement yellow square, but instead took one of the rectangles I’d cut out and fold that, creating a ridiculously small buckle that made me feel silly when I put on the hat.

Of course, thinking back on that today, I realize two things: first, wearing a construction-paper pilgrim hat is silly anyway, no matter the size of the buckle. Second, that if the teacher had explained the whole project (once again, we were expected to blindly follow directions, without being given the full requirements), I could easily have fixed my mistake by cutting along the fold to split the “H” shape into two “C” shapes, which could then be placed adjacent to each other.

I saw this fix that very same day, actually, and I even tried to explain it to the teacher, but the right words didn’t come to me, as she was upset with me and determined to fix it herself.

Anyway, I was so embarassed by the tiny buckle as we were paraded into the church for something or other, that I vowed to always get clear what was wanted before doing something that could be a mistake.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was probably the first really big mistake I made in my entire life.

Sure, focusing on getting everything clear up front really helped in school. Teachers love it when you do everything exactly as they say, and they reward you accordingly. Heck, who doesn’t love that?

But at what cost, this academic success?

The Logic Trap

There’s a funny thing about bad logic – or good logic applied to bad premises. From the perspective that created the logic, you can’t see the flaw. And nobody can tell you the flaw, because if they twist their brain around so they’re inside your reality, they can no longer solve your problem either. They can only describe to you a different reality, in which that problem doesn’t exist – and which you therefore cannot understand!

I’ve been on both sides of that divide in reality – the side with the problem, and the side with the solution – and it’s annoying either way. I forget who first said this, but sometimes when people ask me a question, I have to “unask” the question, because the way the question is phrased, it cannot be answered, because the question is based on a model of reality in which the problem it poses cannot be solved.

Take for example, what I said in Stretching Your Self, where I was trying to decide whether coaching would be useful, from a point of view in which I was going to fail at something no matter what. That’s an excellent example of an unanswerable question, because its premises disallow any possibility of a solution.

This isn’t at all as uncommon as it sounds. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that most coaching and counselling for personal development basically consists of a person presenting their counselor with such unanswerable questions, and the counselor trying to “unask” them – assuming they know how.

(The “brief” and “rational” schools of therapy are a bit better than most at this, since they generally at least recognize that the issue is not to “fix” the patient’s problem but rather to get them to think and behave like a healthy person.)

And so, it is for that reason that I was never able to see the flaws in my kindergarten reasoning until I had sufficient understanding of how healthy people think about the same things. Within the reality bubble of my own experiences, my logic was perfectly consistent, going something like this:

  1. If you don’t do it right, you’ve done it wrong
  2. People who do wrong things are bad people
  3. Therefore, mistakes are to be avoided
  4. People who do what the person in charge wants are – by definition –not making mistakes
  5. Therefore, find out what the person in charge wants, and give it to them

Later in childhood, I would revise this reasoning slightly, to mean that I should always do what is right, whether it’s what the person in charge wants or not. This didn’t always endear me to my teachers, but by the second or third grade I was clear that “being a good person” was much more important than making teachers happy. The fact that I now had “being right” confused with “being good” was just a side effect.

But I can see now that this reasoning – and the further reasoning built on this foundation – took a lot of years off of my life, and a lot of the life out of my years.

How can I count the errors? I hardly know where to begin.

Should I mention that nowhere in this five-part formula is any place for the achievement of any goals of my own I might have? It doesn’t even come into the picture. It’s only a formula for succeeding at what other people want.

Even wrong action may be better than no action

Worse, it defines me by “right” action, and prefers inaction to “wrong” action. It provides no scope to learn from mistakes, but instead insists that I figure out what “right” is in advance, even though much of what we call “life” can only be figured out as you go through it.

I can scarcely stand to think about how many things in life I screwed up because I didn’t try them soon enough. How many things I gave up on as “too hard” because I didn’t like making the mistakes that were necessary for learning them. Let’s not even get into the problems caused by the “righter-than-thou” attitude I carried all the way into early adulthood. (And some might say I still have!)

But I’ve touched on those things in other posts here before (e.g. in The Primary Inhibition and Blocked on Chunking). The thing that I realized today, that prompted me to write this, was the do-over thing.

You see, I generalized my childhood dislike of baths to a dislike of any kind of cleaning, or indeed any chore that would only have to be repeated once you did it. At first this was just avoidance, but then I later justified it as being more efficient to let the sink get full of dishes before washing them, and so on. More efficient to leave things where I last used them, rather than putting them away. More efficient to wait until there’s nothing left to wear, before doing the laundry.

But this morning when I woke up, a thought occurred to me. All I need to do to stay ahead of these chores is to put a little more out than gets taken in. To put away even one more thing a day than I leave out, means that eventually, nothing will be left out. To clean one more dish, sweep one more room, dust one more shelf.

Yes, I wrote about “the same idea” in Falling Behind, Rising Above, but since then I haven’t been really making my “minimum payments”, in part because I didn’t realize just how minimal those could really be.

Intelligence vs. Happiness

And so the real flaw in my do-over reasoning was this: I mistook a symbolic, boolean description of reality for reality itself. It’s technically true that as soon as even one molecule of dirt hits the floor, it is now “dirty again”. But it’s not perceptually true, only analytically true. And analysis doesn’t make you happy – just see Lisa Simpson’s “intelligence vs. happiness” graph.

Lisa’s graph is incorrect, however. The graph axis labelled intelligence should really be labelled “misapplied symbol-manipulation skills”. Jean de La Bruyere claimed that “Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think,” but in fact the joke is on those who think too much.

It’s altogether too easy to rely on one’s abstract thinking skills to cover for a lack of skill with feelings. In fact, Bruyere’s comment may itself be an example of this, poking fun at those who feel in order to elevate the feelings of the thinker.

But thinking in the abstract is a serious pitfall for the intelligent person, because it can easily convince you of unreal things. Meanwhile, the person who has less intelligence is often less easily confused! (This is probably one reason why it’s said that intelligent and imaginative people are more easily hypnotized: they more readily discard their sensory inputs to go with what their thoughts tell them.)

Not that ordinary people can’t end up with dumb ideas about reality, too. It’s just that they can be more easily convinced to give them up, since they’re usually not so enamored with their own intelligence as to keep coming up with arguments to keep thinking the same dumb things.

Life = Feelings

But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is this: man was not born to think. Your brain is actually not the pinnacle of evolution or the point of your existence. Your ability to think is just a tool that’s supposed to help you get feelings.

Yeah, feelings. You know, like happiness and joy and love and pride and stuff like that. Or even simple satisfaction.

This is a pretty basic concept, but it’s amazing how often people don’t get it. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at some of the crazy comments people post, like some of the comments on my article about The Multiple Self.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people post good comments here, where “good” means that the person is asking a question or sharing an insight or other useful information. But a lot of other people seem to think that the purpose of my articles is to provide them with data and concepts to analyze, or perhaps to provide them with an opportunity to show how smart they are by regurgitating whatever philosophy or school of therapy already knows whatever it is that I’m saying.

Dude! That’s like going to a topless bar to study and comment on the lighting and choreography, while completely ignoring the naked women. “Ah yes, the reverse cowgirl, a move that was first named in the 1960’s, and is so-called because of the resemblance to a woman riding a horse…”

The point, in other words, is that it’s not what you call it, but how it makes you feel that matters. If I wrote about the reverse cowgirl, it would be because I experienced it and wanted to help others experience it. It doesn’t matter that you know what it’s called. Can you do it? Have you done it? Are you doing it?

If not, you’re making the same mistake that I did for most of my life: confusing a shadow world of symbols in the mind for the real world of people and feelings. You can manipulate the symbols all you want, and reality will just laugh at you. And all the while, your real life is passing you by. This is the true reason why the “intelligence vs. happiness” graph generally looks the way it does.

So if you want to upgrade your reality, you need to understand that simply having facts filed on your mental hard drive does not mean you “know” anything. If you can’t do it, you don’t know it. End of story.

We now re-join your life, already in progress.

Join the discussion
8 comments
  • simply having facts filed on your mental hard drive does not mean you “know” anything. If you can’t do it, you don’t know it. End of story.

    I read a book when I was 13 or so. The book was Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. The one thing I remember from that book is the word grok. This is when it first occurred to me that there were multiple levels of understanding. I have struggled ever since to try to grok the subjects I study in college. This has led me to two things: first, I often feel frustrated with myself as a result of failing to grok something, and second, it has given me a perspective that most students do not see.

    Anyways, I am not really sure what the point is, but I agree with your last statement except that I think you can experience something without necessarily doing it. I had never seen the “intelligence vs. graph” but I laughed when I saw it. The slogan on my blog is “The more you know, the less it seems.” Although I am not sure it has anything to do with my blog, at least not yet. The symbols only give us a way of defining a state or experience. It is difficult to develop any intuition by merely looking at the symbols. I think this becomes more apparent as you learn more about a subject. The more you learn the more complex things seem.

  • I enjoyed the logic you used throughout this post, and it really felt like you were going somewhere worth getting to, but I think the end was rather anticlimactic. You did a wonderful job of explaining yourself throughout most of the post, and you had me hooked, but I think a little more elaboration towards the end would have done it justice.

  • You have given me a great deal to think about. Thank you.

    I have made related mistakes. I never had to craft a crucifix but I did have to hand in a ridiculous number of written assignments in my school days. Over time, I realized my answers were often assuming knowledge of my internal state on the reader’s part. I hear that egocentrism is normal up to a certain age and gradually goes away, but I went over the top by believing that misunderstandings (caused, according to my reality, by incorrect or too brief explanations) should be avoided at all costs. Oh, and of course I stopped handing in most assignments because they were really a waste of time, much like cleaning, sleeping or other do-overs. For lack of a better word, I will call this concept “perfectionism”.

    Perfectionism, I think, leads to a general negative bias because insisting on doing things the right way involves a great deal of thinking about possible mistakes. Possible follow-up conjectures: perfectionism promotes laziness/avoidance/shyness/…

    Results? I think I’m fairly good with writing. Whenever some important topic comes up, though, writing about it will take me hours and hours (two hours for this comment, thanks to n+1 rewriting passes), and talking about it simply won’t work (unless a dialog punctured with minute-long periods of silence counts).

    The problem domain is a lot bigger than that, though, since similar mistakes have added onto it. At the very least it extends to the issues you mention (at least every second software project I start is vaporware because I have to do it The Right Way(tm)).

    The more I try to trace back other problems to this one, the more it makes sense they’re hard to overcome. To some degree, I’ve been consciously arguing that “wasted efforts”, i.e. mistakes, are bad. I’ve recently started seeing some mistakes as “good” but I guess I’ll have to be a lot more radical about refactoring. Ironically, being too radical is one of the possible mistakes I’m still trying to avoid, so I find myself standing in my own way.

    But now I shall finish my ramblings and be on my quest to make mistakes.

    Since this comment is the ideal opportunity to do so, I’d like to mention I found your “multiple self” model incredibly helpful for brain hackery (I’ve only pulled off minor hacks so far but that doesn’t make it less impressive). Thanks for that, too.

    By the way — of the two blogs that I regularly read, yours is in the top two.

  • Pascal said “the heart has reasons reason knows nothing about.”

    If I understand him correctly, he is not simply saying “sometimes we don’t understand our feelings” — he is actually pointing us towards a deeper understanding of how we learn. He goes on to explain that reason is in his view built up from “first principles” which are seen (or apprehended) through the heart.

    I think this applies to what you are talking about. We can’t reason our way out of the narrow logical realities we find ourselves in — we have to see/feel/inhabit a new way of looking at the world.

    Reason never fully understands the truth that we see with our hearts. But, once we begin to see and live in the reality of feelings, things, and bodies, we can begin to re-form our thoughts around that reality.

    Thinking too much isn’t the problem. The problem is disconnecting thinking from feeling.

    As I see it reason was never meant to be divorced from bodily experience. But, back to Pascal, reason works, and works well, only when it builds on the intuitive vision of truth by the heart.

    The enlightenment did us a disservice when it elevated the mind over the heart. In medieval times the heart was seen as both the center of feelings, and the center of thought.

    My personal goal is to develop a “good heart” in the older medieval sense, I want to have the right feelings, the right insight, the right understanding, and the right logic and reasoning.

    Then, when the right feelings are tied to the right thoughts, the inevitable result will be effective action in the right place at the right time.

    I’m very much enjoying your blog. Thanks for sharing your journey with us.

  • This post was very illuminating. I have a somewhat similar problem but quite different as well. I cannot attempt something I think I will fail. I know most of the fun of doing something comes from doing it and very rarely from the end results. But… Sometimes I am so convinced I will fail, that I make too many mistakes and of course I fail. I do not know how to unlearn this behavior and start doing things anyway….

  • Which suggest that the Government, for example, cannot be known whatsoever, and is a mysterious black box, since one usually does not have any personal involvement in it — it is forever a mystery since you can’t “do” it.

  • I liked your blog, I accidentally ended up here… The "intelligence vs happiness" part urged me to read the whole thing. I so much agree we you. Trying to always do things "right" takes up so much of one's life and time. Always planning and only once in a while actually acting. I've been in a process of trying to change this way of living for a while now, in some aspects of life I've managed to lower my expectations and/or performance, in others I'm still in the process… It's not easy to change one's self, if you really want to maintain that change….
    About the whole "intelligence vs happiness" concept, Billy Joel phrased it "don't you know that only fools are satisfied". I interpret as "if you choose to think, you can never be fully satisfied. So make sure you know it, and allow yourself to feel somewhat satisfied". Works just fine I guess.
    "Thinking too much isn't the problem. The problem is disconnecting thinking from feeling."
    Mark Ramm, you're so right. It took me so long to bring emotions back in, I had been all "logic" and "thinking". I'm still not sure where I'm standing really, but it seems like the link between thinking and feeling is essential for one's well being and inner balance.

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Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
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