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Zero — Invented or Discovered?

It seems almost a bizarre question. Who thinks about whether zero was invented or discovered? And why is it important?

Answering this question, however, can tell you a lot about yourself and how you see the world.

Let’s break it down.

“Invented” implies that humans created the zero and that without us, the zero and its properties would cease to exist.

“Discovered” means that although the symbol is a human creation, what it represents would exist independently of any human ability to label it.

So do you think of the zero as a purely mathematical function, and by extension think of all math as a human construct like, say, cheese or self-driving cars? Or is math, and the zero, a symbolic language that describes the world, the content of which exists completely independently of our descriptions?

The zero is now a ubiquitous component of our understanding.

The concept is so basic it is routinely mastered by the pre-kindergarten set. Consider the equation 3-3=0. Nothing complicated about that. It is second nature to us that we can represent “nothing” with a symbol. It makes perfect sense now, in 2017, and it's so common that we forget that zero was a relatively late addition to the number scale.

Here's a fact that's amazing to most people: the zero is actually younger than mathematics. Pythagoras’s famous conclusion — that in a right-angled triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides — was achieved without a zero. As was Euclid’s entire Elements.

How could this be? It seems surreal, given the importance the zero now has to mathematics, computing, language, and life. How could someone figure out the complex geometry of triangles, yet not realize that nothing was also a number?

Tobias Dantzig, in Number: The Language of Science, offers this as a possible explanation: “The concrete mind of the ancient Greeks could not conceive the void as a number, let alone endow the void with a symbol.” This gives us a good direction for finding the answer to the original question because it hints that you must first understand the concept of the void before you can name it. You need to see that nothingness still takes up space.

It was thought, and sometimes still is, that the number zero was invented in the pursuit of ancient commerce. Something was needed as a placeholder; otherwise, 65 would be indistinguishable from 605 or 6050. The zero represents “no units” of the particular place that it holds. So for that last number, we have six thousands, no hundreds, five tens, and no singles.

A happy accident of no great original insight, zero then made its way around the world. In addition to being convenient for keeping track of how many bags of grain you were owed, or how many soldiers were in your army, it turned our number scale into an extremely efficient decimal system. More so than any numbering system that preceded it (and there were many), the zero transformed the power of our other numerals, propelling mathematics into fantastic equations that can explain our world and fuel incredible scientific and technological advances.

But there is, if you look closely, a missing link in this story.

What changed in humanity that made us comfortable with confronting the void and giving it a symbol? And is it reasonable to imagine creating the number without understanding what it represented? Given its properties, can we really think that it started as a placeholder? Or did it contain within it, right from the beginning, the notion of defining the void, of giving it space?

In Finding Zero, Amir Aczel offers some insight. Basically, he claims that the people who discovered the zero must have had an appreciation of the emptiness that it represented. They were labeling a concept with which they were already familiar.

He rediscovered the oldest known zero, on a stone tablet dating from 683 CE in what is now Cambodia.

On his quest to find this zero, Aczel realized that it was far more natural for the zero to first appear in the Far East, rather than in Western or Arab cultures, due to the philosophical and religious understandings prevalent in the region.

Western society was, and still is in many ways, a binary culture. Good and evil. Mind and body. You’re either with us or against us. A patriot or a terrorist. Many of us naturally try to fit our world into these binary understandings. If something is “A,” then it cannot be “not A.” The very definition of “A” is that it is not “not A.” Something cannot be both.

Aczel writes that this duality is not at all reflected in much Eastern thought. He describes the catuskoti, found in early Buddhist logic, that presents four possibilities, instead of two, for any state: that something is, is not, is both, or is neither.

At first, a typical Western mind might rebel against this kind of logic. My father is either bald or not bald. He cannot be both and he cannot be neither, so what is the use of these two other almost nonsensical options?

A closer examination of our language, though, reveals that the expression of the non-binary is understood, and therefore perhaps more relevant than we think. Take, for example, “you’re either with us or against us.” Is it possible to say “I’m both with you and against you”? Yes. It could mean that you are for the principles but against the tactics. Or that you are supportive in contrast to your values. And to say “I’m neither with you nor against you” could mean that you aren’t supportive of the tactic in question, but won’t do anything to stop it. Or that you just don’t care.

Feelings, in particular, are a realm where the binary is often insufficient. Watching my children, I know that it's possible to be both happy and sad, a traditional binary, at the same time. And the zero itself defies binary categorization. It is something and nothing simultaneously.

Aczel reflects on a conversation he had with a Buddhist monk. “Everything is not everything — there is always something that lies outside of what you may think covers all creation. It could be a thought, or a kind of void, or a divine aspect. Nothing contains everything inside it.”

He goes on to conclude that “Here was the intellectual source of the number zero. It came from Buddhist meditation. Only this deep introspection could equate absolute nothingness with a number that had not existed until the emergence of this idea.”

Which is to say, certain properties of the zero likely were understood conceptually before the symbol came about — nothingness was a thing that could be represented. This idea fits with how we treat the zero today; it may represent nothing, but that nothing still has properties. And investigating those properties demonstrates that there is power in the void — it has something to teach us about how our universe operates.

Further contemplation might illuminate that the zero has something to teach us about existence as well. If we accept zero, the symbol, as being discovered as part of our realization about the existence of nothingness, then trying to understand the zero can teach us a lot about moving beyond the binary of alive/not alive to explore other ways of conceptualizing what it means to be.

The Trojan Horse: How Marketers, Retailers, and Artists Conceal Their True Intents

“Image: The Trojan Horse. Your guile is hidden inside a magnificent gift that proves irresistible to your opponent. The walls open. Once inside, wreak havoc.”
— Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power

***

The Basics

The story of the Trojan Horse is perhaps the most famous of all the Greek myths.

The Trojan War had been going on for a decade, with no end in sight and many Greek heroes dying, when Odysseus came up with an idea that won the war for the Greeks.

Because the Trojans considered horses to be sacred, the Greeks built a large, hollow wooden horse. To make it even more irresistible, they used wood from Cornel trees (also sacred) to construct it. Odysseus and a group of men hid inside while the rest of the Greek army pretended to leave the area, destroying their camp and boarding their ships.

After some debate as to whether the Greeks could be trusted, the Trojans dragged the giant horse inside the walls of the city. The end of the ten-year siege was a huge relief to the people of Troy, who spent the night celebrating.

By midnight, everyone was in a drunken stupor. Odysseus then acted, signaling to the Greek fleet to return and leading his men out of the Trojan Horse to kill the unsuspecting guards and open the doors. The Greeks then had access to the city. They massacred the Trojans, keeping a few alive as slaves. Some of the soldiers traveled further afield, forming settlements which are supposed to have led to the creation of Rome.

Ancient Greeks saw this myth as factual, with the events occurring between 1300–1200 BC in the area near Dardanelles.

There is some archeological evidence for the existence of Troy, although most historians now accept that the story is mythological. There is probably still some basis in actual events, as sieges were common during that era.

Myth or not, the fact that the story of the Trojan Horse has survived for about 15,000 years indicates its power and utility as a mental model.

Why, exactly, has this particular story retained its grip on our imagination for so long?

We can only speculate as to why. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the Trojan Horse is not just a story. It's also a parable, a metaphor, an invitation to be ingenious, an example of out-of-the-box thinking.

Reading it has sparked so many ideas for so many people. It is at once practical and bizarre.

Using it as a mental model, we can apply the Trojan Horse story to an array of disciplines and situations. As a concept, it can be used for both good and evil.

The Trojan Horse in Marketing and Business

We live in an era when we are all besieged by marketing messages every moment of the day. Like the Trojans hiding in their city, we have learned to shut these messages out — we use advertisement blockers, throw away junk mail unopened, ignore billboards, and filter out spam emails.

In order to gain our attention, marketers often use a technique similar to the Trojan Horse. They offer people an apparent gift — a free ebook, a discount card, a sample. Only once this item has been enjoyed can its real purpose can be enacted.

A good heuristic when things seem too good to be true is to just forget about them.

Many marketing lessons can be found in the original myth.

The Greeks chose a form which appealed to their targets, using a sacred creature and type of wood. Likewise, marketers must fit their gift to the audience, making it appealing to their basic interests. The Greeks used innovative thinking, inventing a tactic which was new and therefore unexpected. If they had tried the same thing again, it would have had no effect.

Once a marketing technique is recognizable, its impact wanes. No one is going to click on a “5 ways to kill belly fat” pop-up anymore, or fall for an email from a Nigerian prince telling you just how much money you left there, or enjoy a free executable file that will clean your computer. These ruses are now well known and we ignore them. But when these techniques were new and unfamiliar, huge numbers of people were attracted by the offers.

Some examples of Trojan Horse marketing include:

  • Offering the first chapter of a book for free to people who join an email list — Having read the chapter and received more emails which connect them to the author, people are more likely to buy the full book than they would have been if they had only seen an advert.
  • Creating free high-quality blog content for an audience to enjoy — Once people are interested in the blogger's voice and expertise, the marketing can begin. Many people will at some point want to support the person whose work they have been consuming for free. This support might include buying courses, books, or consulting services or donating to a Patreon page. We developed the learning community as not only a bunch of extras for people but also a means to support the free content we provide.
  • Writing a book detailing an expert's specialized knowledge — While sales of the book are often not high, having it published benefits the expert's business. For example, Ryan Holiday has stated that his books have led to more income from speaking and consulting than from actual book sales.
  • Making the most income from revenue streams which do not appear to be the main objective of a business — For example, high-fashion brands often make more money from perfume than from clothing, cinemas rely on sales of popcorn and drinks, and some restaurants profit predominantly from sales of alcohol.
  • Creating viral branded content which people share and engage with due to its being interesting and often amusing — For example, just try to watch the Android “Friends Furever” video without forwarding it to at least one person. The adorable video wraps up a marketing message, making people more likely to pay attention to it.

In his book Permission Marketing, Seth Godin discusses the idea under a different name. When you let people into your inbox, you're letting people into your city. They might be there for good or bad reasons; it's hard to know in advance. In a blog post, Godin explains how the concept works:

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal, and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.

It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.

Pay attention is a key phrase here, because permission marketers understand that when someone chooses to pay attention they are actually paying you with something precious…

Real permission works like this: if you stop showing up, people complain, they ask where you went…

Permission is like dating. You do not start by asking for the sale at first impression. You earn the right, over time, bit by bit…

In order to get permission, you make a promise. You say, “I will do x, y and z, I hope you will give me permission by listening.” And then, this is the hard part, that's all you do. You do not assume you can do more. You do not sell the list or rent the list or demand more attention…

In the book, Godin explains how Amazon has used permission marketing to build an empire:

Using permission, Amazon can fundamentally reconfigure the entire book industry, disintermediating and combining every step of the chain until there are only two: the writer and Amazon … Amazon appears to be building a permission asset, not a brand asset.

Amazon began by offering cheap books. Once people fell for that initial Trojan Horse, Amazon offered them other products and gradually captured more and more of their online spending. Services such as Prime, Echo, and Kindle are contained within the Trojan Horse — that first cheap purchase someone makes.

Just as the Greeks invested effort into building the horse, Amazon has invested millions in technology and infrastructure. This is the essence of Trojan Horse marketing: offering a gift (with Amazon, this includes free trials, discounts, and generally low costs for popular items) and then upselling and upselling and upselling.

On the topic of Amazon Prime, John Warrillow writes:

Like many subscription models, Amazon Prime is a Trojan horse that is expanding the list of products consumers are willing to buy from Amazon and giving the eggheads in Seattle a mountain of customer data to sift through.

The Trojan Horse and the Benjamin Franklin Effect

Let’s say there is a person who dislikes you — a lot. It’s fine; this happens to all of us.

But what if you need to form an allegiance with this person? Or maybe they don’t dislike you, they just don’t know you. Either way, you need to build a relationship with them.

What should you do? Ask them out for coffee, offer a gift, ask someone for an email introduction?

One solution is to utilize the Benjamin Franklin effect, essentially a sort of Trojan Horse approach to building relationships.

The Benjamin Franklin effect is a psychological phenomenon in which we begin to like people we have done favors for. Essentially, the initial favor is the Trojan Horse, containing within it a relationship. Franklin’s original story, told in his autobiography, details how he used this during his time as a legislator:

Having heard that he [a rival who disliked Franklin] had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return'd it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour.

When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.

We can use Franklin’s technique as a Trojan Horse to gain the respect, friendship, and cooperation of other people.

Asking someone for a favor indicates that we already respect them and consider them to have something we lack — a form of flattery which serves as the gift. Once they have accepted this and performed the favor, it can be leveraged.

Examples of the conjunction between the Benjamin Franklin effect and the Trojan Horse include:

  • Salesmen use the foot-in-the-door technique. This involves making a small request (for example, filling in a survey), then trying to sell you something.
  • If someone you know has a particular area of expertise, try texting or emailing them (rather than Googling it) whenever you have a related question. One Reddit user on r/LifeProTips recommends texting your mother simple questions on a regular basis to strengthen the relationship. Doing so indicates to people that we consider them knowledgeable, making them more likely to respond to larger requests.

Robert Greene also recommends a number of Trojan Horse–style tactics in The 48 Laws of Power, concealing true intentions within a facade and using specific behavior to achieve goals.

Use selective honesty and judgment to disarm … One sincere and honest move will cover over dozens of dishonest ones. Open-hearted gestures of honesty and generosity bring down the guard of even the most suspicious people. Once your selective honesty opens a hole in their armor, you can deceive and manipulate them at will. A timely gift—a Trojan horse—will serve the same purpose.

In The 33 Strategies of War, Greene returns to the same analogy:

[B]efriend your enemies, worming your way into their hearts and minds. As your targets’ friend, you will naturally learn their needs and insecurities, the soft interior they try so hard to hide. The guard will come down with a friend. And even later on, when you play out your treacherous intentions, the lingering resonance of your friendship will still confuse them, letting you keep on manipulating them by toying with their emotions or pushing them into overreactions. For a more immediate effect, you can try a sudden act of kindness and generosity that gets people to lower their defenses—the Trojan Horse strategy. …

When confronted by something difficult or thorny, do not be distracted or discouraged by its formidable outer appearance; think your way into the soft core, the center from which the problem blossoms… Knowing the problem’s core gives you great power to change it from the inside out. Your first thought must always be to infiltrate the center… never to whale away at the periphery or just pound at the walls.

How Artists Change Your Mind

Botticelli primavera

Many artists (a term used here to denote anyone who creates something, not just those who paint canvases) have used their work to conceal important agendas.

The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Conor Oberst wrap political and social messages within beautiful music.

Bloggers such as Seth Godin and James Altucher envelop key life lessons and paradigm-altering concepts within humorous anecdotes and metaphors. The women who embroidered the Bayeux Tapestry added their own subtle views to the panoramas of war and victory.

Companies such as Toms, Ben & Jerry, and Lush use the popularity of their products to fund real change. Johannes Vermeer's most serene paintings tell complex, taboo narratives.

Botticelli's La Primavera (above) is actually an exploration of his interest in horticulture, not a study of human figures.

Consider Gatsby, throwing lavish parties with the sole purpose of attracting Daisy back to him. This is the essence of much of art — an attractive and appealing exterior conceals the true purpose.

People use whatever means are available to them to express their views and attitudes. Sometimes this is intentional; sometimes the Trojan Horse is built unconsciously. The purpose is to get a message across in a form which is palatable to people.

Few of us enjoy or engage with straightforward expressions of a particular agenda. But when it comes in an interesting form, we pull the wooden horse within the city walls with glee. Just as with marketing messages, we have become desensitized to these sorts of messages. Artists must now use ingenuity and creativity to spread their ideas.

As Walter Hamady writes:

The book as a structure is the Trojan horse of art — it is not feared by average people. It is a familiar form in the world, and average people will take it from you and examine it whereas a painting, poem, sculpture, or print they will not.

This concept of art as a Trojan Horse is extremely important.

Farnam Street itself serves as a Trojan Horse. Our intention is to spread an appreciation of the importance of clear thinking, lifelong learning, making good decisions and living a meaningful life.

If upon your first visit to this site, you had found nothing but a list of instructions, the chances are high that you would have ignored it and never returned. Through the use of stories, analogies and careful explorations of important ideas, this agenda has reached and inspired many people. When you read a post about a military tactic or the life of a historic figure, the purpose is not the narrative alone. It is about much more than that — a way of changing how people think.

In Contagious, Jonah Berger explains the power of stories as a Trojan Horse:

People don’t just share information, they tell stories. But just like the epic tale of the Trojan Horse, stories are vessels that carry things such as morals and lessons. Information travels under the guise of what seems like idle chatter. So, we need to build our own Trojan horses, embedding our products and ideas in stories that people want to tell… we need to make our message so integral to the narrative that people can’t tell the story without it.

Francis T. Marchese also advocates the Trojan Horse approach to art:

The Trojan Horse is an artifact that possesses a host of hidden agendas. Rather than presenting a one-off manifestation, the Trojan Horse offers many platoons, capable of strategically addressing the wider culture, pointing to replicable solutions through demonstration. Thus, an artwork acting like a Trojan Horse can contain the seeds of multiple strategic outcomes.

In short, when we want to spread an idea or spark change, we would do well to learn from the ancient Greeks.

People have strong defenses against anything which challenges their worldviews. By packaging it in a format which appeals to them, we can pass on meaning. Artists, marketers, and politicians (among others) have long realized the importance of this approach. It is a means of injecting our ideas, both good and bad, into people’s worlds through an apparent gift.

Footnotes
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    Trojan Horse Image via PBS.

Human Misjudgment and the American Revolution

We try to look at mental models in history through the lens of people who got it right, but once in a while, it’s beneficial to examine a model through the lens of those who got it wrong.

In this case, let's take a look at the remarkable series of misjudgments that resulted in the British losing their American colonies.

Our list of mental models includes 24 models in the human nature + judgment category, and at least seven of those were a factor in the British being driven out of America. Sometimes it helps to understand how great the consequences of these very human tendencies can be. And, perhaps more significantly, how a large group of people can succumb to them at the same time.

Bias from Incentives

Money, the root of stupidity.

In the mid-18th century, the British had a parliament, but it was very different from what exists today. As Barbara W. Tuchman describes in The March of Folly, the House of Commons was made up mostly of second sons of the nobility – the landowning class. Urban centers such as London were poorly represented, and not surprisingly Parliament tended to pass laws that were primarily good for its members.

A lot of the issues which ultimately led to the revolution were about money.

The British wanted to tax the colonies, as Tuchman explains, so they would at least pay for their own defense, which was costly. The colonists felt that, with the exception of trade tariffs, the British had no right to tax those who were not represented in Parliament.

So part of the reason Parliament passed incendiary legislation, taxing, for example, stamps and tea, was so that the members of parliament, the landowners, could pay less tax. This was short-sighted — an incentive that could never be realized. As Tuchman describes, some more thoughtful dissenters pointed out that the cost of collecting the taxes from the hostile colonists was more than what the taxes would bring in.

Tendency to distort due to disliking/hating

We have written before that “Our inability to examine the situation from all sides and shake our beliefs, together with self-justifying behavior, can lead us to conclude that others are the problem. Such asymmetric views, amplified by strong perceived differences, often fuel hate.”

One of the things that Tuchman points out a few times is the complete ignorance of the British when it came to the sensibilities and interests of the Americans. And we can’t blame this on the distance or comparative slow speed of communication. Tuchman highlights what is most startling is those in positions of power in the Parliament literally had no desire to understand the colonists’ position. “That the British were invincibly uninformed – and stayed uninformed – about the people they insisted on ruling was a major problem of the imperial-colonial relationship.”

Parliament did not seek the advice or opinion of those Brits who had spent time in the colonies as Administrators, nor did it interview the well-educated and thoughtful Americans who were in London, such as Benjamin Franklin.

Due to their own sense of superiority, the British nobility believing they were the pinnacle of humanity, allowed their dislike of the colonists to distort the policies they pursued. (Remember history doesn't repeat but it rhymes.) As Tuchman writes, “Attitude was again the obstacle; the English could not visualize Americans in terms of equality.”

You certainly don’t declare war on people you admire and respect.

Denial Tendency

To stubbornly pursue a course of action in the face of evidence that it will eventually blow up in your face is denial. We all do it, but to do it as a political group can lose you a war.

The American revolution did not start without warning. There were years of attempts by the British to assert control over the colonies. As Tuchman describes, they would institute taxes then rescind them, only to reinstate them later. The colonists had the same response every time. They rejected the ability of the British to tax them. It was total denial that kept the British trying.

The British passed a series of acts, called the Coercive Acts that seemed designed to piss off the Americans. But in reality, it was more about the total inability of the British to see the situation clearly. Tuchman says, “if Britain had really been pursuing a plan to goad the colonies to insurrection in order to subjugate them, then her conduct of policy becomes rational. Unhappily for reason, that version cannot be reconciled to the repeals, the backings and fillings, the haphazard or individual decisions.”

As we mentioned earlier, the cost of bringing in the tax was more than the tax itself. And if taxation was the issue that was driving the colonies to war, then why keep doing it? Denial is likely part of the answer.

Social Proof

“When we feel uncertain, we all tend to look to others for answers as to how we should behave, what we should think and what we should do.”

This is social proof.

The House of Commons was not a homogenized unit; there were dissenters to the British approach in the American colonies, though these voices were always in the minority. Some people argued against the taxes and the war, offering alternatives to Parliament to act in the interest of keeping the colonies part of the empire. But the majority followed their peers.

Added to this was the fact that, as Tuchman describes, the situation in America wasn’t a hot issue for most British. The nobility of the House of Commons was frequently more occupied with the various social scandals that occurred in their ranks.

What this helped to create was a situation of largely uninformed people responsible for voting on legislation that could have significant impacts. It is a human tendency to look to the majority for guidance on behavior when we are unsure about what to do. It is always easier to go with the majority than to oppose it. In the House of Commons, it was easier to vote with the majority than to take a stand against it, particularly if one wasn’t all that interested in the issue.

First-Conclusion Bias

We tend to stick with the first conclusion we reach. Because of our commitment to our own narrative, it becomes very hard for us to change our minds once we form a definite opinion. This involves us admitting we made a mistake — something we avoid, as it can challenge our very sense of self.

The core issue that started the conflict between Britain and the American colonies, which eventually led to the war, was, as Tuchman describes, the absolute conviction of the British that they had a right to directly tax the colonies, and the equal conviction of the American that no right existed.

At the beginning, the Americans did attempt some compromise. The British, however, never did.

Despite the dissent, the cost, and the effects, the British never reexamined their first conclusion. It became layered with other issues but remained at the core of their position. Tuchman demonstrates that “they persisted in first pursuing, then fighting for an aim whose result would be harmful whether they won or lost.”

Their first conclusion, the right of the British state to tax the American colonies, was never abandoned or modified in light of what enforcing it would actually result in. Even if it were true, the absolute nature of their position prevented them from finding a compromise. This bias was a contributing factor in the result the British finally had to accept. The loss of the war.

Commitment and Consistency Bias

Partnered with the first conclusion bias, this one essentially reinforces the pain. This is what causes us to “stick with our original decision, even in the face of new information.”

Although consistency is generally perceived to be good, uncompromising consistency is more synonymous with ignorance and fear. If torpedos are aimed at your boat, your crew might appreciate you turning it around, giving yourself time to regroup.

The British made attempts to solve their problems, but these were halfhearted at best. Tuchman actually depicts the British policy as not being consistent at all. The levied taxes, then they repealed them. They eventually sent a peace delegation but gave it no power to actually come to a compromise.

But they were fully committed to their overall attitude, which was, as Tuchman writes, “a sense of superiority so dense as to be impenetrable. A feeling of this kind leads to ignorance of the world and of others because it suppresses curiosity. [All] ministries went through a full decade of mounting conflict with the colonies without any of them sending a representative, much less a minister, across the Atlantic to make acquaintance, to discuss, to find out what was spoiling, even endangering, the relationship and how it might be better managed. They were not interested in Americans because they considered them rabble or at best children whom it was inconceivable to treat – or even fight – as equals.”

Given that this attitude of superiority was so entrenched, is it any wonder that the decisions made were those that reinforced this image?

Tendency to Want to Do Something

Busyness signals productivity. The faster you are walking the more important you are. Having time on your hands means you aren’t doing enough, not seizing the day, not contributing anything of value. Slow walkers are assumed to be seniors, students, or those who have nothing going on.

We can see the same trends in governments. Strong governments defend their position at all costs, while those who value negotiating or finding common ground are perceived as weaker. Powerful governments go to war. Those with less power find a compromise.

Tuchman claims, “Confronted by menace, or what is perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely to examine it, understand it, define it.”

So many times during the decade of conflict between the British and the Americans, the British might have put themselves in a better position if they had been willing to pause, regroup, or even walk away. Given some space, they might have compensated for the load of biases they were operating under and better defined and focused on a win-win solution.

But all the misjudgments flying around, combined with the innate human tendency to do something, led to chasing bad decisions with even worse ones.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that we can learn from our mistakes so as to not be perpetual victims of our misjudgment tendencies.

Tuchman concludes that the British did learn from their experiences during the American Revolution.

“Fifty years later, after a period of troubled relations with Canada, Commonwealth status began to emerge from the Durham Report, which resulted from England’s recognition that any other course would lead to a repetition of the American rebellion.”

Active Listening

“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”
― M. Scott Peck

***

The Basics

The sense that we are not being listened to is one of the most frustrating feelings imaginable. Toddlers scream about it, teenagers move out, couples split up, companies breakdown.

One of the main reasons this breakdown in communication occurs is that listening (like reading, thinking clearly and focusing) is a skill which we rarely consider to be something requiring knowledge and practice.

There is a difference between hearing and listening.

We assume that, as long as we can hear someone and understand their words that we are listening. Hearing alone, however, is not enough. Among other things, we need to comprehend what's being said and why, reflect on intentions, and consider non-verbal communication.

Listening is one of the foundations of society – it is what enables us to form meaningful relationships and connections. And yet most of us haven't thought about how we listen.

As Mortimer J. Adler writes in How to Speak, How to Listen:

We all realize that the ability to read requires training…the same would appear to be true of speaking and listening … training is required … Likewise, skill in listening is either a native gift or it must be acquired by training.

Active listening is a technique for developing our ability to listen.

As a communication technique, it is used in many professional settings but is also valuable for everyday life. Anyone who has ever seen a good therapist will be familiar with the efficacy of active listening. A one-to-one therapist will listen with intent, clarify any uncertain points, often paraphrase what is said and ask the speaker to expand. A family or couple therapist will help to resolve a conflict by facilitating calm communication through reflection, open body language, and by helping couples understand one another.

As Sheldon B. Kopp writes:

The therapist can interpret, advise, provide the emotional acceptance and support that nurtures personal growth, and above all, he can listen. I do not mean that he can simply hear the other, but that he will listen actively and purposefully, responding with the instrument of his trade that is, with the personal vulnerability of his own trembling self. This listening is that which will facilitate the patient's telling of his tale, the telling that can set him free.

For the sake of clarity, we will refer to active listening in the context of two people conversing throughout this article. However, it can occur in communication between multiple people and in groups.

Listening is difficult because it involves suppressing your ego long enough to consider what is being said before you respond.

The Core Components of Active Listening

Comprehending

To communicate, we must first understand what the other person (or people) are actually saying. This is not as simple as it appears.

In most cases, comprehension occurs instantly and unconsciously. However, a number of potential barriers can prevent comprehension, including:

  • Language barriers.
  • The use of jargon or slang.
  • Difference in culture, age, social rank and other discrepancies between people.

In Eyes Wide Open, Isaac Lidsky recommends simplifying comprehension by asking ‘can you explain that like I’m five years old?.' This is the same technique we use to rapidly improve learning. Removing jargon and explaining things in your own language results in massively improved comprehension of complex topics.

Retaining

To respond in an appropriate manner, we must understand and retain what the other person has said. Not everyone will retain the same details.

Some people recall very specific details, while others hold on to the general idea. It is common for us to only retain details which are relevant for our response.

When actively listening, we focus on the other person’s words, rather than thinking about what we can say next. Suppressing our ego is difficult. It's as if we think we already know what the other person is going to say. And we fool ourselves into thinking that we've done the work: that we not only know what the other person will say but that we've thought about it before. Only, we haven't.

There are a number of potential barriers to retention, including:

  • Cognitive biases and selective listening (we will look at this in more detail later.)
  • Distractions, either internal or external (such as fatigue or a noisy environment.)
  • Issues with memory (such as Dementia.)

Responding

Conversations are active, not passive. A conversation between people cannot occur without a response.

Active listening requires careful responses which are made possible with comprehending and retaining.

An active response should show that we understand what the other person has said, have paid attention to their words and also read their non-verbal cues.

Ronald A. Heifetz writes that “The activity of interpreting might be understood as listening for the song beneath the words.” To be an active listener, we must try to go beyond the words and form a rich picture of the other person’s emotions and intentions. However, we must also avoid inventing meaning or colouring their words with our own thoughts. The same potential barriers apply to responding as to retaining and comprehending.

To be an active listener, we must try to go beyond the words and form a rich picture of the other person’s emotions and intentions.

Active Listening and Overcoming Cognitive Biases

Active listening requires an understanding of how cognitive biases and shortcuts impact our communication. These are particularly prevalent when people are arguing and disagreeing.

Consider the following hypothetical argument between a couple, Mary and John. Any resemblance to your marriage is purely coincidental.

Mary: You never help around the house, you came home drunk twice last week, you forgot to pick the kids up from school, you never buy me flowers, you—
John: I bought you flowers on Valentine’s day!

In this instance, John is succumbing to confirmation bias in order to refute Mary’s statements. Ignoring the other claims, he responds to the one which he can easily disagree with. John fools himself into believing that because he can refute one statement, they are all false.

John: I bought you flowers on Valentine’s day!
Mary: That was the first you’ve brought me flowers in 5 years.

John is now falling prey to availability bias. He remembers one event which was recent and salient, while ignoring the preceding times.

Mary: That was the first time you’ve brought me flowers in 5 years.
John: So? None of my friends buy their partners flowers, even on Valentine’s day.

Social proof is now coming into play. John has looked to their peers for clues as to how he should behave. Rather than considering how Mary feels, he is reassuring himself that his behavior is fine because it is common.

Mary: Anyway, the flowers you brought me that time were wilted and you clearly got them from the gas station on your way home.

Here, Mary is seeing a distorted view of events due to her current anger (bias from hating/disliking.) An event which previously made Mary happy is now only further evidence of her partner’s inadequacy.

The examples above are just a few of the numerous cognitive biases and shortcuts which impede our communication.

Now, let’s imagine how this argument might have gone if John had used active listening techniques.

This would necessitate putting aside emotions and ego and rather trying to understand why Mary is upset.

Mary: You never help around the house, you came home drunk twice last week, you forgot to pick the kids up from school, you never buy me flowers and I’m sick of it.
John: So, you feel I am being a bad parent, ignoring your needs, and allowing my social life to interfere with our relationship?

John is now paraphrasing what Mary has said, confirming that he is listening. It's important to note that John is not outright agreeing with Mary. Rather than seeking to defend himself, he is making sure Mary knows he is listening.

By keeping calm and showing open body language, he can then allow Mary to finish venting her frustration without interrupting. This provides a safe and secure environment for Mary to open up and express her true feelings.

John maintains eye contact and uses nonverbal cues (such as nodding and tilting his head to indicate he is listening.) Mary relaxes a little, seeing that her partner appears to be truly interested in what she has to say.

Then, John can speak:

John: What can I do which would make you feel better about our relationship?

This question is neutral and not related to personal opinion. John has allowed Mary to explore her feelings. By continuing in this way, they can turn an argument into a valuable opportunity to understand each other better.

The result in this situation is likely to be far more positive than the initial example. Even just by reading the words, you probably pictured both scenarios somewhat differently, complete with altered tones of voice and outcomes.

Active Listening as a Means of Overcoming Conversational Narcissism

If you have ever been in a conversation with someone who is only interested in talking about themselves, you will understand what conversational narcissism is and how it makes you feel.

Sociologist Charles Derber first observed the phenomenon, wherein people allow their self obsession to manifest in their conversational practices. Rather than listening to what the other person has to say and responding accordingly, many people shift the discussion to themselves.

In Inarticulate Society: Eloquence and Culture in America, Tom Shachtman writes:

[Conversational Narcissism] is pervasive and rooted in our culture of individualism, a pattern that leads to self-absorption … by the use of ‘I’ statements, by boasting, by the tactic of asking questions only in order to demonstrate the questioner’s superior knowledge or to top the other person’s story with one’s own, and by continual shifting…The most frequently used written word in the language is ‘the’, but the most frequently spoken word..is ‘I.’

Derber describes this as the ‘shift response’ as opposed to a ‘support response.’ In The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life, he writes:

The subtlety of the shift-response is that it is always based on a connection to the previous subject. This creates an opening for the respondent to shift the topic to himself … when serving narcissistic ends, shift-responses are repeated until a clear shift in subject has transpired … The effectiveness is the shift response as an attention getting device lies partly in the difficulty in distinguishing immediately whether a given response is a sharing one of a narcissistic initiative.

Conversational narcissists will often repeat shift-responses until the conversation steers towards them. Again.

Returning to our hypothetical couple, this might look like this:

John: I’m just really stressed about work at the moment.
Mary: Me too, you wouldn’t believe what one of my coworkers did yesterday.
John: And it’s hard for me to pay enough attention to the kids when I have this much on my plate and just want to relax when I get home.
Mary: Seriously, what she did was ridiculous.
John: What did she do?

In this conversation, Mary repeats the shift-response until John finally gets the point and switches the topic away from himself.

The narcissistic nature of this is obvious in a conversational transcript but can be difficult to identify.

Support-responses are the opposite of shift-responses — they sustain the speaker’s words and encourage them. If Mary had used support responses, the conversation might look like this:

John: I’m just really stressed about work at the moment.
Mary: Why is it more stressful than usual right now?
John: Well, one of the people in my team is on holiday for a couple of weeks and I keep getting landed with their usual responsibilities.
Mary: Have you spoken to your boss about that? You shouldn’t be doing someone else’s job as well as your own.

Notice how different those two scenarios sounded in your head.

In the first conversation, Mary was purely narcissistic and just wanted to talk about herself. In the second, the couple was able to understand each other a bit better and to see a potential root cause of their conflict.

Conversational narcissism also occurs through passive behavior.

Derber writes:

Passive conversational narcissism entails neglect of supportive questions at all such discretionary points and extremely sparse use of them throughout conversation. Listening behaviour takes place but is passive. There is little attempt to draw others out or assume other forms of active listening. This creates doubt in the other regarding the interest of their topics or their rights to attention … A second very common minimal use practice involves the … delay of background acknowledgements. Although weaker than supportive questions, background acknowledgements such as ‘yeah’ or ‘uh huh’ are nonetheless critical cues by which speakers gauge the degree of interest in their topics.

As Derber illustrates, we must not underestimate the importance of our responses when it comes to active listening.

The other person does not care if we listen with great attention if our responses do not reflect this. In some cases, a comment or question is necessary. Often, a simple acknowledgment is sufficient.

In The Plateau Effect, Sullivan and Thompson explain the folly of conversational narcissism:

Most people listen with intent to do something – usually to defend themselves, or to solve a problem. Nearly everyone listens with the intent of having something ready to say as soon as the speaker is finished. Have you ever wondered how crazy that is? Shouldn’t there be a pause once in a while, as one of the speakers actually thinks about what to say, or even better, thinks about what has been said? Here’s a phenomenon you’ll observe repeatedly if you look for it: Two speakers, appearing to be carrying on a conversation, but really just giving two monologues, split up by each other, each one waiting simply for time on whatever stage he or she imagines to be on…Listeners usually can’t wait to leap to their own defense, and spend their time thinking like an attorney who’s planning a closing argument rather than hearing what’s being said. You can imagine how ineffective this is.”

How Can We Improve Our Active Listening Skills?

While there is no one method for learning to listen actively, there are a number of small changes we can make.

Active listening, like any skill, is developed by practicing, not by reading about it. By applying the concept to each conversation we have, we can gradually develop the ability to communicate well. This might include:

  • Educate yourself on common cognitive biases and shortcuts. Learn to spot them in yourself and others and to see how they impede communication.
  • Avoid trying to respond immediately. Allow the other person time to finish speaking, then provide a considered response. Consider first if it is a shift or support response.
  • Minimize conversational narcissism by keeping track of your use of pronouns. An over-reliance on ‘I’ and ‘me’ can indicate a desire to steer the conversation towards yourself. Aim to make liberal use of ‘you’ instead.
  • Adler recommends taking notes during key conversations. Although this may be disconcerting to a speaker, it is relevant in some situations. Adler writes: “The notes you take while listening record what you have done with your mind to take in what you have heard. That record enables you to go on to the second step…What you have notes…provides you with food for thought.”
  • During an argument, accept that people are rarely willing to change their viewpoint. Instead of becoming enraged or frustrated, seek to develop a clear picture of the other person’s logic. Using the Socratic questioning technique can be helpful for drawing out this information. Using active listening, it is possible to turn an argument into a calm discussion, where you can explain your own thoughts. Adler explains: “The logically sensitive speaker will ask you to follow his reasoning by accepting his assumptions for the time being – accepting them to discern their consequences, to see how they lead to the conclusions he wishes to arrive at…they are not axioms or self-evident truths…your task is to be on the alert to detect the initial premises…that provide the ultimate grounds for what is being said.”
  • Increase your motivation to listen. This is known as the affective framework for active listening. This motivation might be the desire to improve a relationship, follow instructions without wasting time, make someone feel better or to make an exchange as clear as possible.

Marc Garneau on The Future of Transportation

Marc Garneau (@MarcGarneau) is a Canadian politician, Engineer, and the Minister of Transport.

This episode of The Knowledge Project was recorded in front of a live audience in Montreal, Canada at a Junto event. You'll hear bits of French from the audience questions here and there at the end but the interview and Marc's responses are predominately in English.

In this interview, we discuss the future of transportation (including self-driving cars and their second order effects including how this changes how governments invest in infrastructure and what happens with all the truck and taxi drivers), space, what it means to be a liberal in 2017, how we—as citizens—can judge an elected politician, how he ensures he's getting accurate information in a political system and so much more.

Enjoy the conversation.

Listen

Activation Energy: The Reason Coffee Helps you Get Going

The Basics

The beginning of any complex or challenging endeavor is always the hardest part.

Not all of us wake up and jump out of bed ready for the day. Some of us, like me, need a little extra energy to transition out of sleep and into the day. Once I've had a cup of coffee, my energy level jumps and I'm good for the rest of the day.

Chemical reactions work in much the same way. They need their coffee too.

Understanding how this works can be a useful perspective as part of our latticework of mental models.

Whether you use chemistry in your everyday work or have tried your best not to think about it since school, the ideas behind activation energy are simple and useful outside of chemistry. Understanding the principle, for example, can help you get kids to eat their vegetables, motivate yourself and others, and overcome inertia.

How Activation Energy Works in Chemistry

Chemical reactions need a certain amount of energy to begin working. Activation energy is the minimum energy required to cause a reaction to occur.

To understand activation energy, we must first think about how a chemical reaction occurs.

Anyone who has ever lit a fire will have an intuitive understanding of the process, even if they have not connected it to chemistry.

Most of us have a general feel for the heat necessary to start flames. We know that putting a single match to a large log will not be sufficient and a flame thrower would be excessive. We also know that damp or dense materials will require more heat than dry ones. The imprecise amount of energy we know we need to start a fire is representative of the activation energy.

For a reaction to occur, existing bonds must break and new ones form. A reaction will only proceed if the products are more stable than the reactants. In a fire, we convert carbon in the form of wood into CO2 and is a more stable form of carbon than wood, so the reaction proceeds and in the process produces heat. In this example, the activation energy is the initial heat required to get the fire started. Our effort and spent matches are representative of this.

We can think of activation energy as the barrier between the minima (smallest necessary values) of the reactants and products in a chemical reaction.

The Arrhenius Equation

Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, established the existence of activation energy in 1889.

Arrhenius equation

Arrhenius developed his eponymous equation to describe the correlation between temperature and reaction rate.

The Arrhenius Equation is crucial for calculating the rates of chemical reactions, and, importantly, the quantity of energy necessary to start them.

In the Arrhenius equation, K is the reaction rate coefficient (the rate of reaction.) A is the frequency factor (how often molecules collide), R is the universal gas constant (units of energy per temperature increment per mole.) T represents the absolute temperature (usually measured in kelvins) and E is the activation energy.

It is not necessary to know the value of A to calculate Ea as this can be figured out from the variation in reaction rate coefficients in relation to temperature. Like many equations, it can be rearranged to calculate different values. The Arrhenius equation is used in many branches of chemistry.

Why Activation Energy Matters

Understanding the energy necessary for a reaction to occur gives us control over our surroundings.

Returning to the example of fire, our intuitive knowledge of activation energy keeps us safe. Many chemical reactions have high activation energy requirements, so they do not proceed without an additional input. We all know that a book on a desk is flammable, but will not combust without heat application. At room temperature, we need not see the book as a fire hazard. If we light a candle on the desk, we know to move the book away.

If chemical reactions did not have reliable activation energy requirements, we would live in a dangerous world.

Catalysts

Chemical reactions which require substantial amounts of energy can be difficult to control.

Increasing temperature is not always a viable source of energy due to costs, safety issues or simple impracticality. Chemical reactions which occur within our bodies, for example, cannot use high temperatures as a source of activation energy. Consequently, it is sometimes necessary to reduce the activation energy required.

Speeding up a reaction by lowering the rate of activation energy required is called catalysis. This is done with an additional substance known as a catalyst, which is generally not consumed in the reaction. In principle, you only need a tiny amount of catalyst to cause catalysis.

Catalysts work by providing an alternative pathway with lower activation energy requirements. Consequently, more of the particles have sufficient energy to react. Catalysts are used in industrial scale reactions to lower costs.

Returning to the fire example, we know that attempting to light a large log with a match is rarely effective. Adding some paper will provide an alternative pathway and serve as a catalyst — firestarters do the same.

Within our bodies, enzymes serve as catalysts in vital reactions (such as building DNA.)

How we Can Apply the Concept of Activation Energy to our Lives

“Energy can have two dimensions. One is motivated, going somewhere, a goal somewhere, this moment is only a means and the goal is going to be the dimension of activity, goal oriented-then everything is a means, somehow it has to be done and you have to reach the goal, then you will relax. But for this type of energy, the goal never comes because this type of energy goes on changing every present moment into a means for something else, into the future. The goal always remains on the horizon. You go on running, but the distance remains the same.

No, there is another dimension of energy: that dimension is unmotivated celebration. The goal is here, now; the goal is not somewhere else. In fact, you are the goal. In fact, there is no other fulfillment than that of this moment–consider the lilies. When you are the goal and when the goal is not in the future, when there is nothing to be achieved, rather you are just celebrating it, then you have already achieved it, it is there. This is relaxation, unmotivated energy.”
— Osho, Tantra

***

Although activation energy is a scientific concept, we can use it as a practical mental model.

Returning to the morning coffee example, many of the things we do each day depend upon an initial push.

Take the example of a class of students set an essay for their coursework. Each student requires a different sort of activation energy for them to get started. For one student it might be hearing their friend say she has already finished hers. For another, it might be blocking social media and turning off their phone. A different student might need a few cans of Red Bull and an impending deadline. Or, for another, reading an interesting article on the topic which provides a spark of inspiration. The act of writing an essay necessitates a certain sort of energy.

Getting kids to eat their vegetables can be a difficult process. In this case, incentives can act as a catalyst. You can't have your dessert until you eat your vegetables is not only a psychological play on incentives, it's also often less energy than constantly fighting with them to eat their vegetables. Once kids eat a carrot, they generally eat another one and another one. While they still want dessert, you won't have to remind them each time and in the process, you'll save a lot of energy.

The concept of activation energy can also apply to making drastic life changes. Anyone who has ever done something dramatic and difficult (such as quitting an addiction, leaving an abusive relationship, quitting a long term job or making crucial lifestyle changes) knows that it is necessary to reach a breaking point first. The bigger and more challenging an action is, the more activation energy we require to do it.

Our coffee drinker might crave little activation energy (a cup or two) to begin their day if they are well rested. Meanwhile, it will take a whole lot more coffee for them to get going if they slept badly and have a dull day to get through.

Conclusion

To understand and use the concept of activation energy in our lives does not require a degree in chemistry. While the concept, as used by scientists, is complex we can use the basic idea.

It is no coincidence that many of most useful mental models in our latticework originate from science. There is something quite poetic about the way in which human behavior mirrors what occurs at a microscopic level.

For other examples, look to Occam’s Razor, falsification, feedback loops and equilibrium.