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Don’t Get “Should” Mixed Up with “Is”

The hardest truth to swallow is that the world isn’t really fair, and it isn’t a world you’d necessarily draw up from scratch. It’s not usually what you suppose it should be. None of what’s around us came about by grand design: From a spark many billion years ago, things evolved in a fairly undirected manner (as far as we can tell).

When the world doesn't quite agree with our ideas, we often begin distorting our own cognition. We confuse should with is, and then complain or rationalize when reality shows we've gotten the wrong answer.

The history of Marxist political ideology is a pretty good example. It’s not unreasonable to think that the world should, in some cosmic sense, be a bit more egalitarian. We’re all born and we all die just the same — why should some among us enjoy the spoils while some among us wallow? Capitalism encourages that outcome to an extent, and it sometimes accidentally rewards behavior that is anti-social or simply not adding anything to the world. (A thousand derivatives traders and casino operators just cringed.)

The problem is that reality is way more complex than a simple fairness test would hope to show.

A really large-scale egalitarian society has never worked for a few interrelated reasons, chief among them that: groups don’t have power, people have power (raising the question, who specifically decides how to allocate society’s resources?); utopia doesn’t scale; market forces provide very effective carrots, sticks, and signals that directed egalitarianism lacks, among other reasons. Reaching for extreme levelness in outcomes has always been deeply problematic and always will be, because that’s how reality is constructed.

Inevitably when certain people who get into power run the experiment again, and it does not work as intended, its deepest acolytes return to first principles instead of acknowledging a flawed premise. Well, that wasn’t real Marxism. Yes the proposed system of economic distribution didn’t work, but that’s not our fault. It still should be this way. Things should be fairer. We just did it wrong. Let’s run it again!

Results like that show the brain performing some real acrobatics to keep its desired and cherished idea intact. The Greek statesman Demosthenes, living about 350 years before the birth of Christ, put it best by saying “What a man wishes, he also believes.” In other words, because we want it to be true, we make it so in our minds, evidence be damned.

We’re all subject to this bias from time to time.

In the financial world, many an investor has seen his investment go south only to complain about how unfair the damn world is, how things shouldn’t have gone that way — the CEO should have been more attentive, the creditors should have been more fair, competitors should have been more rational. It's not supposed to go like this! Far from the investor’s mind is the thought that he simply misdiagnosed a complex situation with a range of outcomes, including bad ones. But reality is irreducibly complicated — it doesn’t ignore things just because you do. It isn't supposed to be anything. It's just hard.

This isn't to be harsh. It's just the way things are. It's not about you. Nature just doesn’t care too much about your should.

This happens in relationships all the time. It’s almost an iron rule of life that marrying someone with the intent of changing them is not going to work. Who wants to be chiseled, molded, and nagged by their spouse? Who’s really been successful at that? Most of us seek acceptance, and when we don’t get it, we fight for our independence. That's just human nature.

And yet how many divorces happen due to traits that were plainly present before the marriage began? Is a continuation of long-held traits the fault of the non-compliant spouse, or was there a willful misunderstanding from Day 1?

That’s not to say that a good spouse shouldn't work to improve themselves. Of course they should. It is a recognition of the base rate that major improvements are not very common.

Think of the last major personality flaw you had that you actually shed for good. I’ll wait…

And so our lack of understanding human nature and of the complex reality leads us to bad results, frequently because we wish the world was another way. We think it ought to be another way, and we keep that conclusion even after the world shows us we’re wrong, leading to one mistake after another as we rationalize repeated errors with ought style thinking.

Start resolving to test yourself with the basic question: Do I believe this because I wish it was so, or because it actually is so? Have I acted in some way because I wish that action caused success, or because it actually does? If you can’t tell the difference, it’s likely to be wishful. And if you simply don’t know, then leave it at that: You don’t know. Resolve to find out the truth as best you can.

Instead of beating our heads against the wall, we should spend more time trying to understand the world as it is, and live accordingly. Or, in the brilliant words of Joseph Tussman:

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”

Still Interested? Check out some related posts:

The Powerful Predictor Behind Successful Relationships — When does a broken relationship start to go wrong? Whatever you’re thinking — an awkward conversation with your boss, the white lie you told about being busy that was discovered, the time you were supposed to be out with friends but were really somewhere else — you’re probably wrong.

Recognizing Our Flaws is The Beginning of Wisdom — “We are drunks looking for our lost keys under a lamppost not because that’s where we lost our keys but because that’s where the light is.”