A fork in the road

I’ve been thinking a lot lately (yes, it hurts). My reading on cognitive biases has naturally led me to reflect on my own decision-making processes. From there, it was only a short leap to casting a critical eye on what I spend my time doing. Where do I put my energy, my creativity, my passion?

I’m not getting any younger, after all. Neither are you, by the way. (You’re welcome.)

I wasn’t all that satisfied with what I came up with.

Then, today, I read something on Seth Godin’s blog:

So many things are now completely up to us, more than ever before. Where and how and when we work and invest and interact and instruct and learn… If you think you have no choice but to do what you do now, you’ve already made a serious error.

This prompted even more philosophical constipation introspection. What motivates my choices for how I spend my time? I decided that when I spend time doing something, it’s because:

  1. I really want to do it
  2. I have to do it
  3. I think it’s what I should do
  4. I do it because I’m avoiding doing something else

All four are arguably legitimate modes of action.

Perhaps the key to a satisfying life is making a conscious effort to maximize time spent doing things that fall under category number 1.  And because there are only 24 hours in a day, maximizing number 1 necessarily means minimizing 2, 3, and 4. Simple math. I can do that!

Well, I spend a lot of time procrastinating (number 4). This one should be easy to deal with, right?

Not so fast. The thing I’m avoiding doing is obviously a number 2 or 3. Do I really have to do it, or don’t I?  Sometimes it’s really hard to differentiate between have to and should. Avoidance is much easier.

Oh, I say, I have to pay the bills, do the shopping, fix dinner, change the sheets. But do I, really? How many of those number 2s are really number 3s in disguise? How many of them were once upon a time number 1s? There’s probably a lot more wiggle room here than I think there is. They’re sneaky little devils, those number 2s.

And then there’s number 3. Could he be the elephant in the room? Clearly, what I think I should do with my time is a complex construction that I’ve been building up since childhood, dependent on my parental upbringing, the culture in which I live, the financial and emotional situation I’ve gotten myself into, the social feedback I get on a daily basis. How can I quantify that rationally?

Geez, this is getting thorny. I can see I’m going to get snagged down in semantics. Math only gets you so far (right, Descartes?). Time to get out of this particular philosophical bramble patch.


In fact, I think this kind of rational reasoning applied to decision-making is fundamentally flawed. Here’s why.

When I said, above, “The thing I’m avoiding is obviously number 2 or 3,” you agreed with me, didn’t you? Who would procrastinate to avoid doing something they really want to do?

Answer: most of us.

Rationally, it’s totally counterintuitive, but I think it’s true. Dig deep and think about what it is you really, truly want to do. And I’m not talking about eating a handful of jelly bellies, here, I’m talking about how you use big chunks of your time during the day. If you feel like you’re doing what you really want to do, that you’re living your dream, then congratulations. Pass Go and collect $200. Send me $100.

But if you don’t, if you wake up every morning and fill your days with 2s, 3s and 4s, it’s likely that doing the thing or things you really want to do would put a lot of what you’ve carefully built up over your whole life into jeopardy. That’s a scary proposition. My adrenaline spikes just thinking about it. Run away! Run away!

See, we’re emotionally hard-wired to avoid scary situations, and if the thing we really want to do feels dangerous, we’ll avoid doing it. And we’ll make up a whole lot of reasons to explain it all away, reasons that involve have to, should,  and later.

Here’s my thesis: Number 1 is the elephant in the room.

How badly do you want to do what you think you really want to do? Because until you can commit to really wanting to do what it is you really want to do, then you’re going to fill your life up with 2s, 3s and 4s. You will probably feel vaguely unfulfilled and dissatisfied. You might even complain about it. Oh, well, that’s life.

So here goes. There’s something I really want to do, but doing it will be a big deal. It will mean that some of my number 2s, 3s, and 4s – in other words, what I am doing now – will have to change.

It’s my choice. It’s up to me.

(to be continued…)


Last fall, I promised to do a series of posts on cognitive biases. A cognitive bias, in case you’re not familiar with the term, is a kind of built-in mental shortcut that we take when making decisions. Usually, we’re not aware we’re doing it.

Here’s a classic example, the framing bias: You’re sitting in front of a bunch of potential investors. What do you tell them – A: that your product has a 1 in 10 chance of succeeding, or B: that it has a 90% chance of failure?  Doh. 

Here’s another, the anchoring bias. You’re in a store. Everything on the rack is over $200. You see a sweater for $50. What a good deal! Now you’re in another store. Everything on the rack is under $50. You see the exact same sweater, for $50. Not such a good deal after all?

I’ve been doing a bit of reading on the subject, and it turns out we’re brimming with biases. We think we’re rational, that we can look objectively at a situation or listen to someone and weigh his or her words impartially, but we can’t. We’re highly illogical creatures bound up in a complex net of emotion and suggestion, living under the illusion that our brains work like computers.

It’s so bad that I’ve totally lost my desire to write about it. If you’d like to get depressed, too, here’s a short reading list:

Part of my disgust stems from my observation that the current political charade that is going on in the US, otherwise known as the Republican Primaries, is a stunning and vivid example of how to exploit most of these biases. Biases like the exposure effect, in which you tend to increasingly prefer something when you are repeatedly exposed to it (like a face or a slogan), and the illusion-of-truth effect, in which you are more likely to believe a statement is true if you have heard it before – whether or not it really is true. That the machine so blatantly exploits our cognitive weaknesses should perhaps not come as a surprise, but I still find it deeply disappointing and disturbing.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve taken away from all this reading is that humans have an innate need to tell a story. We may vary somewhat in our tendency to make irrational decisions, to act on instincts that lie far beneath the surface of our consciousness, but the one thing we all have in common is our need to create a narrative that ties it all together. We do something or make a choice, and then we make up a story to explain why we did the thing or made the choice. Experiment after experiment has shown this to be the case. That’s what most of the billions of neurons inside those big brains of ours are doing: making up stories to rationalize our knee-jerk reactions.

We’re storytelling machines.

I think it’s high time we stopped settling for fairy tales, where everything is nice and simple – good versus evil, rags-to-riches, a stranger came to town – and started insisting on stories that reflect the real complexity of the world we live in. Then I think we might actually have a fighting chance of making decisions that would benefit us and our children in the long run.

Here’s a snippet from a TED talk on the subject by Tyler Cowen. I highly recommend you watch the talk or read the transcript. And then think about the political landscape. Then pass the Prozac.

One interesting thing about cognitive biases – they’re the subject of so many books these days. There’s the Nudge book, the Sway book, the Blink book, like the one-title book, all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories.

So what are the problems of relying too heavily on stories? You view your life like “this” instead of the mess that it is or it ought to be. But more specifically, I think of a few major problems when we think too much in terms of narrative. First, narratives tend to be too simple. The point of a narrative is to strip it way, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it’s a story about your own life or a story about politics. Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we’re too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it’s, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don’t have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you’re lowering your IQ by ten points or more.[…]

If the presidential candidates followed this rule, lowering their IQ by 10 points every time they told a good versus evil story, they’d be brain dead by now. Wait. They are! Welcome to the world of zombie politics.

I saw a video the other day on YouTube, classic Newt Gingrich blasting Mick Romney. You know what he saves for last? The ultimate thing that should slam Romney into the ground, make him a laughing stock, un-electable? Hint: he shares it with John Kerry.

You’ll have to see it to believe it.

Now, enough depressing stuff. Here’s the good news: Somehow I got through the quality control filter and snagged a spot in Friday’s TEDx Lausanne audience!  I’m particularly looking forward to a talk by Steve Edge, who describes himself as “Designer, branding guru, dyslexic and madman.” More on that next week.

Image: wingedwolf


It’s January 6th, epiphany. This is the day the three kings apparently saw baby Jesus for the first time. Epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, “appearance” or “manifestation.” The Greeks were referring to things like the appearance of the sun on the horizon at dawn, an enemy, or a god.

When the word “epiphany” is used in English today, it usually refers to an idea or an unusually profound insight. I’ve had an epiphany! Marc exclaims. Maybe my stomach hurt because I had two apples, five kiwis and four cups of coffee before heading out for my run today! (actually, in all fairness, he probably wouldn’t have said epiphany. He’d probably just say I just thought of something. And I’d reply, Did it hurt?  And then he’d tell me about his gastric situation and I’d say, well, doh, what did you expect?)

That an epiphany can be both the physical manifestation of something or someone as well as a purely cerebral manifestation of insight – a light bulb going off in your head – is an oddly apt illustration for our times, in which the boundaries between the virtual and the physical worlds seem to be increasingly hard to pin down.

Oh, I see. What an epiphany.

One current buzz phrase is “augmented reality” – if you’re interested, my friend the Spime Wrangler writes about the topic beautifully on her blog. It means that we infuse extra layers of meaning onto objects in the physical world. But what, really, is reality? We already experience the physical world through the filter of our oh-so-fallible senses. Add some Bailey’s, and my reality is definitely augmented, and in a good way. Come to think of it, does it make any sense at all to even talk about “reality” as such?

Over the holidays, on that long trans-Atlantic flight, I finally got a chance to read Incognito by David Eagleman, the one I told you was on the top of my list back in June when I wrote a post about inspiration. Here’s the thing. Reality, augmented or just garden-variety, is a construct. Seeing has very little to do with our eyes and everything to do with our brains, which are masters of taking what they can get and creating out of it a world in which we can survive. Eagleman uses the example of a man who has been blind most of his life. He has an operation that restores his vision. But his brain doesn’t know how to interpret the incoming data. None of it makes any sense to him. He can see, but he can’t “see.”

He gazed with utter puzzlement at the objects in front of him. His brain didn’t know what to make of the barrage of inputs. He wasn’t experiencing his sons’ faces; he was experiencing only un-interpretable sensations of edges and colors and lights. Although his eyes were functioning, he didn’t have vision. […] The strange electrical storms inside the pitch-black skull get turned into conscious summaries after a long haul of figuring out how objects in the world match up across the senses. Consider the experience of walking down a hallway. Mike knew from a lifetime of moving down corridors that walls remain parallel, at arm’s length, the whole way down. So when his vision was restored, the concept of converging perspective lines was beyond his capacity to understand. It made no sense to his brain.

Talk about feeling sea-sick! The amazing thing about this is that it took Mike’s brain only a few weeks to adapt. Now he sees just like you and I do.

Eagleman uses another example, this time a blind rock climber named Eric Weihenmayer, who in 2001 became the first blind person to climb Mount Everest. He “sees” using a grid of electrodes in his mouth, a device called a BrainPort.

Although the tongue is normally a taste organ, its moisture and chemical environment make it an excellent brain-machine interface when a tingling electrode grid is laid on its surface. The grid translates a video input into patters of electrical pulses, allowing the tongue to discern qualities usually ascribed to vision, such as distance, shape, direction of movement and size. The apparatus reminds us that we see not with our eyes but rather with our brains.

This kind of rocked my boat, particularly when Eagleman went on to reveal that the BrainPort is also being used to feed infrared or sonar input to the tongue so that divers can see in murky water of soldiers can have 360-degree vision. Eyes in the back of your head, indeed. Just one page later, I had to put the book down so my brain wouldn’t overheat. Here’s why:

In the future we may be able to plug new sorts of data streams directly into the brain, such as infrared or ultraviolet vision, or even weather data or stock market data. The brain will struggle to absorb the data at first, but eventually it will learn to speak the language. We’ll be able to add new functionality and roll out Brain 2.0. […] this is not a theoretical notion; it already exists in various guises.

Now why anyone would want stock market data plugged directly into their brains is beyond me, but I know Marc would love a direct feed from ESPN.

That’s probably enough to chew on for one day. This wide, wonderful world is already amazing, even with the limited sensory apparatus we’re born with. Just thinking about what more might be out there – the rich smell and sound experience of the dog, the razor-sharp vision of the eagle, the reverberating echoes of the bat – well, it’s tempting, isn’t it? But remember that just because a data stream can be piped in, that doesn’t mean our brains will know what to do with it. That five-pound lump between our shoulders is notoriously fallible when it comes to decision-making and rationalizing.

So here’s the epiphany of the day: Be like the Greeks. Watch a sunset. Watch your enemy approach over a far-off hill. See the face of the gods in the clouds outside an airplane window.  And when the light bulb of ephiphany goes off in your brain, remember that your brain is a fallible organ, eager to create meaning from nothingness, and bask in the wonder of it all.

Lightbulb image: Shuttermonkey