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If we wish to change the person we find ourselves to be, we must change our thinking.
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February 9th, 2019
Every word we utter and even every word we think is part of a story we are not only telling ourselves, but a story we are continually bringing to life.
As the old logic follows: thoughts give rise to words, and words give rise to actions.
The optimist feels the implicit value of performing a good deed, while the pessimist will refrain, guarded by the reasoning that no good deed goes unpunished. Like many quaint quotes, this sentence seems like a tidy package, one that we readily feel has ample evidence in experience, and if we do not come armed with a curious question to delve further into this thought, we risk it becoming a mantra. A repeating thought that will begin to shape our actions or lack of actions.
Seth Godin has asked whether or not we should say ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’ to an AI like Siri or Alexa. He extrapolates on the point about our thoughts and words being an auto-narrative that reinforces who we are. Saying ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’ to a arguably inanimate object is a good idea because it reinforces an idea of who we think we are and who we would like to be. Marie Kondo might fit in nicely here as the cultural force urging all of us to thank inanimate objects before tossing them out in order to tidy our living spaces. Indeed we might even see a lovely empathy embedded deep within ourselves when it comes to our reluctance to part with some useless scrap of paper of item gifted long ago. Seth Godin’s question turns this potential passive empathy into an active choice. Saying thank you at any reasonable opportunity helps shape our being into one that has more gratitude.
This is somewhat like how the heart functions. The heart’s main function is to provide fresh blood to the whole body by powering the entire circulatory system. But this main function is not it’s first function. The first thing the heart accomplishes with every single pump is to nourish itself with fresh blood. Only by doing so can it be properly equipped to carry out it’s main function. Here we have a perfect, systematic solution to The Selfish Paradox. (Discussed in Episode 28). We can map Seth Godin’s question onto this allegorical image of the heart that shows itself some love before tending to the rest of the body.
When we say thank you, that good deed is first a good deed unto ourselves. It reinforces the likelihood that we will say ‘please’ or ‘thankyou’ again. The humility and gratitude generated by such actions are not without their self-serving benefits. It’s a well-studied correlation that practicing gratitude increases our sense of well-being and happiness in life. Humility, it might be argued may be instrumental in enabling our minds to have an increased flexibility and agility to pivot in order to persevere, but that is a topic to be more fully explored later.
What is left to explore about our deeds is their further ramifications beyond their immediate effect upon our own selves. How we understand these ramifications coats much of how we approach life.
We can easily hear the pessimist seeing the economy as a kind of winner-take-all zero-sum game. It’s a eat or get eaten kind of world and it’s best to keep out of the way because sticking one’s neck out only turns you into a target.
On the other hand, the optimist, who feels the implicit value of good deeds, might find the concept of a non-zero-sum game very attractive. A non-zero-sum game is essentially and simply a game where both players benefit. One of Tinkered Thinking’s Lucilius Parables, Episode 161 explores this concept in the form of a story for those who want to explore this concept in a form that’s perhaps more pleasant to digest.
Presented with these two frameworks, we might ask: is the heart an optimist or a pessimist? This might seem like a silly question, but there does seem to be an answer in the design of our vital organ. The heart certainly isn’t without some selfishness, it tends to itself first, but the majority of it’s effort and ultimately it’s main function is to give to the rest of the body. In this framework, the heart is playing a non-zero-sum game. Another way of phrasing this is by saying: there’s an organ inside all of us that is working constantly, day in night in order to give us the opportunity to do… absolutely anything.
This relatively simple concept extends to much larger entities. For example Elon Musk has stated repeatedly that the whole point of Tesla is to speed up the advance of sustainable transport. This is the main function of the company. But just like the heart which has a main function of powering the body and an initial function of feeding itself. Tesla’s first function is to make enough money to keep the whole enterprise going.
We might be able to see all businesses fitting into this simple framework. The first function is just to stay alive and keep running, but the main function is a larger, loftier and long term goal: to provide some service or product.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that successful business creators are generally labelled as optimists.
On a long enough timeline we might see that both perspectives pay in their own currency. It’s important to try and imagine this on a large timeline because of two factors: One is simply the limits of our own perspective. We just don’t get to see every little effect each of our actions has. The other is randomness. We might think of reality as being filled with a good deal of noise, and if we take some of this noise as a signal without deeply investigating it’s nature, then we can easily mislead ourselves. Chance can pile up a few failures and when this is combined with our blindness to any potential good our efforts have actually had, it starts to smell like a ripe recipe for pessimism.
It’s in these difficult times when nothing seems to be working that any person must remember the bootstrapping value of the optimist. In the same way that saying ‘thankyou’ to an inanimate object shapes us for the future, merely invoking any kind of optimism has the potential to reformat our thinking, by feeding our perspective. What this boils down to in a literal and practical sense is quaintly framed by another maxim:
Where the pessimist sees and obstacle, the optimist sees an opportunity.
But the optimist can take a step beyond this framework that the pessimist cannot. The optimist does not need to come across some object to interpret as obstacle or opportunity or even go looking for opportunity. The optimist can generate opportunity from seemingly nothing, by tinkering with the situation they find themselves in and creating something of value.
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