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September 15th, 2020
The most crucial aspect of intelligence today and in years to come is the ability for us to recognize aspects of psychology that do not benefit our aims and consciously suppress our automatic reactions. The most prevalent example of hardwired psychology gone stale and awry in modern times is the fight-or-flight response. We are predisposed to outrage and attack in situations when everyone would benefit far more from a mindful and conscientious response that is initiated with a calm and thoughtful pause. Another piece of psychology that has outlived its utility is our attraction to shiny things.
This tendency to upgrade to the fancier, glitzier version is everywhere and is often the result of comparative happiness, or what’s more colloquially referred to as keeping-up-with-the-Joneses. Tech start ups with a huge infusion of investor money pour it into fancy offices with smoothie stations and ridiculous art. Authors cashing in on their first bestseller fawn over the delivery of their new oak writing desk. First time movie stars buy that sexy sports car to spin around in. But after some time, there is often a conflict between actual utility, or how effective something is, and the purported image that an upgrade has actually occurred.
A rather fanciful example that elicits the issue comes from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. In this fantasy series, there is, among other unrealistic things, a talking bear that goes into battle with the king of his tribe. The king wears guided armor, beautifully inlaid and decked out with fancy ornamentation. Meanwhile, the character we root for as readers wears the plainest armor imaginable, composed of simple sheets of thick metal. It doesn’t take much guessing to figure out who wins the battle. The fancy ornamentation cluttering the king’s armor gets in his way and limits his movements, meanwhile, the fighter with the simpler cheaper option is far more capable and wins.
This fanciful anecdote works as a good parable and metaphor when mapped onto real life examples. The new accommodations for the tech start up deactivate the lean drive of employees that made the endeavour a success, all the while the spent money ends up looking squandered when an unforeseen obstacle makes revenues crash and suddenly the whole venture is in jeopardy. Another real-life example is contained in an anecdote from the writer Stephen King who apparently did have a big and beautiful oak desk that he purchased to write novels. Turns out the only thing he could manage to do while sitting at that big expensive oak desk was get drunk. And there’s at least been one star who couldn’t afford the car insurance for the fancy new car after that first breakout roll (Jamie Foxx? Google failed me on this attempt to place the distant memory.)
Strangely, we become intoxicated by a structure of value unrelated to the mechanics of our success and abandon what works with the logic that something fancier will work better.
Paradoxically, we need to downgrade in order to achieve the upgrade we thought we’d get via the boons of success.
But can this inefficiency be extrapolated even further to greater benefit?
What can be downgraded before the foolish upgrade to achieve better results?
An exercise from stoic philosophy illuminates this possibility. Seneca who was a fabulously wealthy philosopher in ancient Rome would often spend a few days enduring the simplest existence possible: eating plain rice, sleeping on a stone floor, wearing the garments of a beggar.
Why did he do this and suggest others to do the same? Seneca realized that if his fortunes of his situation suddenly disappeared due to the vagrancies and randomness of life and he were left to endure the most meagre existence…. He would be ready for it. The regular exposure to such a situation brings - not just a familiarity - but even a comfort. The secondary benefit is that such a varied perspective allows a person to appreciate what they actually do have. Most people undergo hedonic adaptation, which is the phenomenon of getting so used to the good life that it’s no longer good and feels entirely underwhelming. Seneca’s exercise is a way of re-priming the system to crack perspective against the good fortune of life so that each day can be filled with gratitude.
We might wonder: what else can I cut out of my life to achieve better results? What else can I consciously downgrade in order to achieve an upgrade?
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