Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about we what do, start here.

Category Archives: Philosophy

The Most Respectful Interpretation

Consider this situation: You email a colleague with a question expecting a prompt response, but hours or days later you’ve yet to hear from them. Perhaps you can’t move forward on your project without their input so you find yourself blocked. How do you imagine you feel in this situation?

For many of us, situations like this result in feelings of anger, frustration, or annoyance. Maybe we take it personally and conclude that our colleague is lazy or that they don’t value our time or our work. Perhaps we send off a terse reminder asking for an update.

If we’re feeling particularly revengeful, we alert the person’s manager or mention our grievance to another colleague looking for validation that the offending colleague is in fact lazy and disrespectful – a form of confirmation bias.

Perhaps this colleague has been slow to respond to communications in the past, thus we extrapolate that to all of their communications, a case of the fundamental attribution error.

Of course, it’s natural to feel anger and frustration when faced with these situations. But is anger the appropriate response?

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote about The Virtue Concerned with Anger. He begins Book IV with a description of good temper:

The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised. This will be the good-tempered man, then, since good temper is praised.

Aristotle tells us that anger has a time and place and that when applied to the right people and for the right reason, is justified and even praiseworthy. But we have to use anger judiciously:

For the good-tempered man tends to be unperturbed and not to be led by passion, but to be angry in the manner, at the things, and for the length of time, that reason dictates; but he is thought to err rather in the direction of deficiency; for the good-tempered man is not revengeful, but rather tends to make allowances.

In Aristotle’s description of good temper, he encourages us to err in the direction of “making allowances”. But how can we do this in practice?

Let’s return to our example.

We take our colleague’s lack of response personally and assume they are lazy or disrespectful, but it is important for us to recognize that we are assuming. We often instinctively chose to assume the worst of people, because it slips easily into mind. But what if instead we chose to assume the best?

In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown describes how she learned to assume that people are doing the best they can and shares a concept introduced to her by Dr. Jean Kantambu Latting, a professor at University of Houston. Brown writes:

Whenever someone would bring up a conflict with a colleague, she would ask, ‘What is the hypothesis of generosity? What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?’

By pausing to reflect on our anger we can recognize that we are making a negative assumption and challenge ourselves to invert the situation and consider the opposite: “What is the most generous assumption I can make?”

Perhaps our colleague has been given a higher priority project, or they don’t understand that we’re blocked without their input. Maybe they are dealing with some personal challenges outside of the office, or they need input from somebody else to reply to our message and thus they’re blocked as well. Perhaps they’ve decided to reduce their email frequency in order to focus on important work.

When we pause to look at the situation from another angle, not only do we entertain some explanations that frame our colleagues in a more positive light, but we put ourselves into their shoes; the very definition of empathy.

We’ve all had competing priorities, distractions from personal issues outside of work, miscommunications regarding the urgent need of our response, etc. Do we think others judged us fairly or unfairly in those moments?

The point is not to make excuses or avoid addressing problems with our colleagues, but that if we recognize we are making negative assumptions by default, we might need to challenge ourselves to consider more generous alternatives. This may alter the way we approach our colleague to address the situation. It takes effort and a commitment to think about people differently.

Someone who knew this best was the late, great author David Foster Wallace.

***

In his beautiful commencement speech to the Kenyon graduating class of 2005, Wallace reminds the students that the old cliché of liberal arts education teaching you to think is truer than they might want to believe. He warns that one of the biggest challenges the graduates will face in life is to challenge their self-centered view of the world – a view that we all have by default.

Using some of life’s more mundane and annoying activities like shopping and commuting, Wallace writes:

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

The recognition that we are inherently self-centered and that this affects the way in which we interpret the world seems so obvious when pointed out, but how often do we stop to consider it? This is our hard-wired default setting, so it’s quite a challenge to become willing to think differently.

As an example, Wallace describes a situation where he is disgusted by the gas guzzling Hummer in front of him in traffic. The idea of these cars offends him and he starts making assumptions about the drivers: they’re wasteful, inconsiderate of the planet, and inconsiderate of future generations.

Look, if I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

But then he challenges himself to consider alternative interpretations, something often described as making the Most Respectful Interpretation (MRI). Wallace decides to consider more respectful interpretations of the other drivers – maybe they have a legitimate need to be driving a large SUV or to be rushing through traffic.

In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.

A big part of learning to think is recognizing our default reactions and responses to situations — the so-called “System 1” thinking espoused by Daniel Kahneman. Learning to be “good-tempered” and “well-adjusted” requires us to try to be more self-aware, situationally aware, and to acknowledge our self-centered nature; to put the brakes on and use System 2 instead.

So the next time you find yourself annoyed with your colleagues, angry at other drivers on the road, or judgmental about people standing in line at the store, use it as an opportunity to challenge your negative assumptions and try to interpret the situation in a more respectful and generous way. You might eventually realize that the broccoli tastes good.

Richard Restak: A Simple Exercise To Read The Emotions of Others

One of Charles Darwin’s less famous works, his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, released in 1872, kicked off the idea that emotions carry distinct facial expressions. We read these emotions naturally, from birth, all the time — it’s part of our innate wiring, and how to relate to and understand others. But we can learn to read them better with some practice.

One of the complicating factors in learning to read the emotions of other people is that we’ve been taught from a young age to conceal all emotions. We shouldn’t talk about them, display them, or feel them. Reading humans is a lot trickier than any other species, because we can conceal, confuse, hide.

As a result of this, offers Richard Restak in Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain’s Potential, “[T]he reading of other people’s emotions from their facial expressions is a subtle and arcane art that not everyone learns successfully.”

And this is odd considering that a lot of success in life comes from the ability to accurately read the emotions of other people and (simultaneously) control your own.

Restak provides a simple exercise to improve our ability to read the emotions of others based on the fact that “when a person pretends an emotion, he or she activates the same brain areas that would be activated in circumstances when the emotions are naturally and spontaneously expressed.”

Start by grabbing a trusted and interested friend. Sit on the floor about 3 feet apart, and have your friend close her eyes.

Then, while gazing into her face, ask her to think about the saddest moment in her life. She shouldn’t speak or otherwise respond by sighing, touching, or frowning. Study her face for the subtle changes that accompany her recall of the sad experience.

After a minute, ask her to clear her mind and think of nothing in particular. … Observe any facial changes that may occur as her thoughts shift from sad to neutral. At this point, ask your friend to open her eyes and look directly into your eyes. Ask her once again to think about her saddest experience, then of an emotionally neutral experience, and finally her happiest experience. Keep focused on her face, particularly her eyes as she shifts from one internal experience to the other. What changes do you observe?

Now shift roles.

Let your partner observe you first with your eyes closed as you think sad, indifferent, and happy thoughts. Then open your eyes and repeat the sequence. At this point in the exercise, both of you should spend one minute mentally organizing your impressions. Then share your observations and impressions.

Here is where things get interesting. What did you observe and how does it compare to what she tells you?

Does hearing the details of what she was thinking enrich your observations in any way? While she’s speaking of the sad experience, try to see once again those earlier changes in her eyes and face. Can you now detect something in her eyes or facial expression that escaped you when you were observing her a moment ago? Listen closely while she describes how you appeared to her when you were recalling the saddest and happiest moments in your life.

The most common reason the exercise fails is that, as if by force of nature, we try to conceal our facial expressions.

Both of you must remain psychologically undefended, vulnerable. It’s also important that during the eyes-open part of the exercise you continue to maintain firm but gentle eye contact; not the eye contact of a salesperson or an interviewer, but that of a curious child who remains relaxed and open to a new experience. You’re not trying to “stare down” your partner, but intuitively enter into and participate in his or her inner experience.

This exercise is really intense. Pick your partner carefully. You’ll be dealing with subtle displays of emotion that we all have, however, unlike in social situations, you will get to test the accuracy of your emotional perceptiveness with the other person.

Still Curious? Check out Konstantin Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares to help the development of your emotional memory.

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Art of Living

“I am a person who listens for a living. I listen for wisdom, and beauty, and for voices not shouting to be heard.”

***

Krista Tippett, the host of the compelling podcast On Being, is an incredible conversationalist. From poets and physicists to neuroscientists — her show offers conversations that traverse time and disciplines. At the heart of her inquiry lies space to explore what it means to live a meaningful life.

In Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Tippett, who listens for a living, offers an illuminating slice of these conversations. As a illuminating guide, her reflections walk us through the work of a lifetime exploring love, compassion, and forgiveness.

The book is organized around virtue and “gentle shifts of mind and habit.” She explores five raw materials for living a meaningful life:

Words — The language we use to tell stories to ourselves and others;
Body — “The body is where every virtue lives or dies”;
Love — More than something we fall into or out of, love is “the only aspiration big enough for the immensity of the human community.”;
Faith — “Literal reality is not all there is.”;
Hope — Hope has nothing to do with optimism or wishing, rather it reflects reality and reveres truth. Hope is a habit.

Tippet resurfaces questions many have explored before us. “What does it mean to be human? What matters in life? What matters in death? How to be of service to each other and the world?”

Each person explores these questions at one point or another in the context of our age and ourselves. The questions are not independent. Who we are to each other is a reflection of what it means to be human.

Wisdom leavens intelligence, and ennobles consciousness, and advances evolution itself.

Life is where we explore the mystery of ourselves and others. Here Tippett offers a voice to “those raw, essential, heartbreaking and life-giving places in us, so that we may know them more consciously, live what they teach us, and mine their wisdom for our life together.”

In the introduction Tippett refuses the false duality and headlines that drive so much of our divide.

[M]any features of national public life are also better suited to adolescence than to adulthood. We don’t do things adults learn to do, like calm ourselves, and become less narcissistic. Much of politics and media sends us in the opposite, infantilizing direction. We reduce great questions of meaning and morality to “issues” and simplify them to two sides, allowing pundits and partisans to frame them in irreconcilable extremes. But most of us don’t see the world this way, and it’s not the way the world actually works. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as the cultural “center,” or that it’s very interesting if it exists. But left of center and right of center, in the expansive middle and heart of our life together, most of us have some questions left alongside our answers, some curiosity alongside our convictions.

Imagination and nuance and the spaces between headlines is where we live. The book is an exploration of these spaces.

I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn’t know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself. A sense of humor is high on my list of virtues, in interplay with humility and compassion and a capacity to change when that is the right thing to do. It’s one of those virtues that softens us for all the others.

She also offers a sobering reminder of our capacity to control.

We are never really running the show, never really in control, and nothing will go quite as we imagined it. Our highest ambitions will be off, but so will our worst prognostications.

No section of the book is more compelling than exploring words — “I take it as an elemental truth of life,” she writes, “that words matter.”

This is so plain that we can ignore it a thousand times a day. The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. From Genesis to the aboriginal songlines of Australia, human beings have forever perceived that naming brings the essence of things into being. The ancient rabbis understood books, texts, the very letters of certain words as living, breathing entities. Words make worlds.

On our affinity for tolerance she challenges us:

We chose too small a word in the decade of my birth— tolerance— to make the world we want to live in now. We opened to the racial difference that had been there all along, separate but equal, and to a new infusion of religions, ethnicities, and values. But tolerance doesn’t welcome. It allows, endures, indulges. In the medical lexicon, it is about the limits of thriving in an unfavorable environment. Tolerance was a baby step to make pluralism possible, and pluralism, like every ism, holds an illusion of control. It doesn’t ask us to care for the stranger. It doesn’t even invite us to know each other, to be curious, to be open to be moved or surprised by each other.

Words are containers.

The connection between words and meanings resembles the symbiosis between religion and spirituality. Words are crafted by human beings, wielded by human beings. They take on all of our flaws and frailties. They diminish or embolden the truths they arose to carry. We drop and break them sometimes. We renew them, again and again.

In one illuminating conversation, Tippett talks with one of her favorite thinkers about the failure of “official language and discourse” the poet Elizabeth Alexander, who read at the first Obama inauguration.

Alexander offers:

Here’s what we crave. We crave truth tellers. We crave real truth. There is so much baloney all the time. You know, the performance of political speech, of speeches you see on the news, doesn’t it often feel to you like there should be a thought bubble over it that says, “what I really would say if I could say it is . . .”

And how we are drawn to words that shimmer.

I learn so much every day from being a mother. My sons are 11 and 12, and you see the way children know when they’re being bamboozled. And they also are drawn towards language that shimmers, individual words with power. They will stop you and ask you to repeat a shimmering word if they’re hearing it for the first time. You can see it in their faces.

Words are the backbones to stories — the ones we tell others and the ones we tell ourselves.

The art of conversation I’m describing here is related, but it is something subtly and directionally different— sharing our stories in the service of probing together who we are and who we want to be. To me, every great story opens into an equally galvanizing exchange we can have together: So what? How does this change the way you see and live? How might it inform the way I see and live? I believe we can push ourselves further, and use words more powerfully and tell and make the story of our time anew.

“The world,” says physician Rachel Naomi Remen in an interview with Tippett, “is made up stories; it is not made of up facts.”

And yet we tell ourselves facts to piece together stories. Stories are how we make sense of life. Remen continues:

Well, the facts are the bones of the story, if you want to think of it that way. I mean, the facts are, for example, that I have had Crohn’s disease for 52 years. I’ve had eight major surgeries. But that doesn’t tell you about my journey and what’s happened to me because of that, and what it means to live with an illness like this and discover the power of being a human being. And whenever there’s a crisis, like 9/ 11, do you notice how the whole of the United States turned towards the stories? Where I was, what happened, what happened in those buildings, what happened to the people who were connected to the people in those buildings. Because that is the only way we can make sense out of life, through the stories. The facts are a certain number of people died there. The stories are about the greatness of being a human being and the vulnerability of being a human being.

[…]

There’s a powerful saying that sometimes we need a story more than food in order to live. They tell us about who we are, what is possible for us, what we might call upon. They also remind us we’re not alone with whatever faces us.

Becoming Wise is for those of us who want to explore the great questions of life with imagination and courage, realizing that much of life is lived in nuance that changes with who we are and, importantly, where we are standing.

Making a Change: One Small Step

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.”
— Lao Tzu

***

Change is hard. But what if we could make it a little easier? As Lao Tzu so eloquently puts it, maybe we just need to focus on that first step.

This is the time of year for New Year’s resolutions. It shouldn’t surprise you that we tend to be pretty terrible at following through on them.

The average American makes the same resolution ten years in a row without success. Within four months, 25 percent of resolutions are abandoned. And those who succeed in keeping their resolutions usually do so only after five or six annual broken promises.

With a track record like that, it definitely seems like time to look at the problem differently. There is an interesting short book by Robert Maurer called, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way; in it, he uses his experiences as a clinical psychologist using something called Kaizen to help people make changes in their lives.

Kaizen has two definitions:

  • Using very smalls steps to improve a habit, a process, or product.
  • Using very small moments to inspire new products and inventions.

For this discussion let’s focus on using it to help remove roadblocks to the behavior we are seeking, or to add roadblocks to behavior we are trying to discourage. As Maurer puts it, “using small steps to accomplish large goals.”

Thinking About Change

First, let’s take a look at change. Meaningful change is pretty hard. Our lives are homeostatic systems — they want to come back in alignment with what is comfortable.

We also live in a culture that tends to feel that bigger is better. We think that big steps or big dramatic changes will produce big results. And while this may be true a small percentage of the time, or may seem logical, it’s very rare and difficult to implement. Smaller steps are more doable both for our mind and for our body.

Let’s use the example of exercise for health. Many people want to live healthier lives and there is plenty of evidence that movement helps us to achieve those goals. However, we are often pushed to believe that only a certain type or certain level of exercise will get us where we need to be. We decide to make a drastic change to get a drastic outcome.

The issue is it’s very hard to go from no exercise to an hour at the gym everyday. The gym is expensive, you have to fit it into your schedule (travel and time there) and you have to stay motivated to go regularly to get those results you want.

The Kaizen way would be to pick one small step. It should be something relatively easy, something that takes little time and effort. For example, if you drive a car to work, purposely park as far away from the door as possible. If you bus, get off one stop earlier. But, initially, choose only one thing and do that one thing until it becomes habitual. Maurer suggests thirty days.

It almost seems too simple; so simple that you might think that you are effecting little to no change. But these changes are additive. Imagine if every month for a year you added a healthy habit to your life.

Those changes may come about slowly but they can end up being quite dramatic. In combination, they can be exponential. A total change.

The quick extreme change can actually cripple people into inaction. We reason, why bother if I can’t succeed 100%?

Too often, you meet with success in the short term, only to find yourself falling back into your old ways when your initial burst of enthusiasm fades away. Radical change is like charging up a steep hill – you may run out of wind before you reach the crest, or the thought of all the work ahead makes you give up no sooner than you’ve begun.

There is an alternative… another path altogether, one that winds so gently up the hill that you hardly notice the climb. It is pleasant to negotiate and soft to tread. And all it requires is that you place one foot in front of the other.

So let’s make our way back to New Year’s. These types of resolutions don’t work because we command ourselves to implement them in their entirety starting the very next day. It’s almost like setting yourself up for failure on purpose. So, instead of looking at the resolutions the traditional way, let’s look at some of them Kaizen style.

In the book Maurer walks us through some of the common resolutions he’s seen and the small steps that his clients have used with success in the past. Just don’t forget that any change requires eating the broccoli.

Small Steps for starting to exercise:

  1. If you can’t bring yourself to get off the couch, purchase a hand grip to squeeze while watching television (or squeeze old tennis balls). This will burn a few calories and get you accustomed to the idea of moving your body again.
  2. When you’re ready to get moving, walk around the block once a day, or take one flight of stairs instead of the elevator.
  3. Pass one additional house per day, or repeat one extra step on the staircase until you find the habit growing solid.
  4. To further increase your appetite for exercise, think about the activity you would most like to engage in – swimming? Skiing? Tennis? Find an attractive picture of that activity and place it on the refrigerator, on top of the television, or in the corner of a mirror.

Small Steps for saving money:

  1. Set yourself the goal of saving just one dollar per day. One way to do this is to modify one daily purchase. Perhaps you can downgrade from a large, relatively expensive latte to a small, plain coffee. Maybe you can read a newspaper for free online instead of buying one at the newsstand. Put each saved dollar away.
  2. Another tactic for saving a dollar a day is to share a daily indulgence with a friend. Buy one large coffee and pour it into two smaller mugs. Buy one newspaper and swap sections.
  3. If you save one dollar each day, at the end of the year you’ll have $365. Start a list of things you’d like to do with that extra money and add one idea each day. You’ll learn to think about far-off, more sizeable financial goals rather than immediate cheaper pleasures.

Small Steps for asking for a raise:

  1. Start a list of reasons you deserve more money for your work. Every day, add one item to the list.
  2. Spend one minute a day practicing your request to your boss out loud.
  3. Increase this time until you feel ready to make your request in person.
  4. Before you actually ask for the raise, imagine that the boss responds poorly – but that you walk out the door feeling successful anyway, feeling proud of our effort. (This step – really a form of mind sculpture – helps you manage any lingering fears.)

Small Steps for using time more productively:

  1. Make a list of activities that take up your time but are not useful or stimulating to you. Watching television, browsing through stores, and reading things you don’t find pleasant or productive are frequent sources of poorly used time.
  2. Make a list of activities you would like to try that you feel would be more productive than your current ones. Each day, add one item to the list.
  3. Once you have identified more-productive activities that you’d like to try, go ahead and give them a whirl – but in a very limited, nonthreatening manner. If you want to keep a journal, do so – but promise yourself to write just three sentences per day. If you’d like to take a yoga class, you might begin by just sitting in the studio’s lobby and watching students pass in and out. Soon, you will find yourself participating more fully in your activity. And you’ll hardly notice that you’re spending less time in front of the television.
  4. Each day, write down the name of one person who you feel is living a productive life. Then write down one thing that person is doing differently from you.
    (If you want to me more productive might we suggest – Productivity That Gets Results)

You will notice that some of these steps themselves are additive in nature. It’s helpful to look at the behavior you are trying to change and break it out into bite sized pieces. This will serve two purposes: it will give you more insight into the behavior itself; and it will break out the problem into sensible small steps for you to tackle.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life is a small book filled with big ideas. Much has been written about Kaizen and how it has revolutionized business practices, but it’s also interesting to look at this idea from a more personal perspective.

But first, let’s take just one small step. Good luck with your New Year’s resolutions.

Epistemology: How do you Know that you Know what you Know?

The role of perception in knowledge

It is hard to imagine a world that exists outside of what we can perceive. In the effort to get through each day without crashing our cars or some other calamity, we make assumptions about the objects in our physical world. Their continuity, their behaviour.

Some of these assumptions are based on our own experience, some on the knowledge imparted by others of their experience, and some on inferences of logic.

Experience, however, comes through the lens of perception. How things look, how they feel, how they sound.

Our understanding of, and interaction with, the world comes through particular constructs of the human body – eyes, ears, fingers, etc. Most people intuitively understand the subjectivity of some of our perceptions.

Colors look ‘different’ to people who are color blind. Our feeling of temperature is impacted by immediate contrast – People stepping outside the doors of an airport will have a different impression of the temperature if they have just come from Moose Jaw or Cancun.

Even more substantial understandings come to us through the lens of our senses. We can see the shape of a tree, or we could close our eyes and infer the shape through touch, but in either case, or even combining the two, we are relying on our senses to impart an understanding of the physical world.

The question of what objectively ‘is’, is something that has long been one of the subjects of philosophy. Philosophers from Descartes to Kant have tried to describe our existence in such a way as to arrive at understanding of the physical world in which things can be conclusively known.

Descartes introduces the idea in his Meditations: “Surely whatever I had admitted until now as most true I received either from the senses or through the senses. However, I have noticed that the senses are sometimes deceptive; and it is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once.”

Descartes famously employed systematic doubt, questioning all knowledge conveyed by his experience in the world until the only knowledge he couldn’t doubt was the fact that he could doubt.

Therefore I suppose that everything I see is false. I believe that none of what my deceitful memory represents ever existed. I have no sense whatever. Body, shape, extension, movement, and place are all chimeras. What then will be true? … Thus, after everything has been most carefully weighed, it must finally be established that this pronouncement “I am, I exist” is necessarily true every time I utter it or conceive it in my mind. (Descartes, Meditations)

Descartes confirmed we have a self. Unfortunately this self could be the one we see in the mirror each morning or a brain in a vat. If the only thing we cannot doubt is that we can doubt, essentially that guarantees us having only the mechanism to doubt. No body. We could therefore be isolated brains, being manipulated by things unknown, our entire world a mirage.

How then can we hope to claim knowledge about the physical world?

For Locke, our understanding of the world comes from our experience of it. It is this experience that provides knowledge. He says, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas: – How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store with the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety Whence has it all the materials or reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. In that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself.

He wrote that there were two types of qualities, ones that existed innately in an object or series of objects, such as size, number, or motion, and those that are wholly dependent on our perception of them, such as color or smell.

The particular bulk, number, figure, and motion of the parts of fire or snow are really in them, whether one’s senses perceive them or no: and therefore they may be called real qualities, because they really exist in those bodies. But light, heat, whiteness, or coldness are not more really in them than sickness or pain is in manna. (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding)

Experience then, as long as we have an understanding of the limitations of our perception, will confer certain truths about the physical world we inhabit. For example, through experience we can claim knowledge of how many crows are perched on a telephone wire, but not how many of them have ‘black’’ as an intrinsic property of their feathers.

Quite in opposition to this was George Berkeley (pronounced Bar-clay), for whom ‘to be’ was ‘to be perceived’. Berkeley wrote in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge:

Besides all that endless variety of ideas or objects of knowledge, there is likewise something which knows or perceives them and exercised divers operations, as willing, imagining, remembering, about them. This perceiving … does not denote any one of my ideas, but a thing entirely distinct from them, wherein they exist or, which is the same thing, whereby they are perceived – for the existence of an idea consists in being perceived.

Because our knowledge of the world comes from our perception of it, it is impossible to conclusively know the existence of anything independent of our perception. Berkeley, wrote:

Hence, as it is impossible for me to see or feel anything without an actual sensation of that thing, so it is impossible for me to conceive in my thoughts any sensible thing or object distinct from the sensation or perception of it.

This line of inquiry ultimately results in the entire physical world being called into question, as Berkeley observed:

If we have any knowledge at all of external things, it must be by reason, inferring their existence from what is immediately perceived by sense. {However} it is granted on all hands (and what happens in dreams, frenzies, and the like, puts it beyond dispute) that it is possible we might be affected with all the ideas we have now, though no bodies existed without resembling them.

If we can not know things outside of perception, and our perceptions are entirely unreliable, where does that leave us? It certainly isn’t useful to imagine your existence as the sum total of your knowledge, or that our experiences are inherently mistrustful.

What these philosophies can be useful for understanding though, is that often what we consider knowledge is more of a general social agreement on a somewhat consistent comprehension of the things before us. For example, we appreciate that the color green can be perceived differently by various people, but we organize our language based on a general understanding of the color green without worrying about the particular experience of green that any individual may have.

For David Hume, there definitely was a physical world, our perception of which was ultimately responsible for all of our ideas, no matter how complex or abstract. He wrote in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

When we analyze our thoughts or ideas, however compounded or sublime, we always find that they resolve themselves into such simple ideas as were copied from a precedent feeling or sentiment. Even those ideas, which, at first view, seem the most wide of this origin, are found, upon a nearer scrutiny, to be derived from it.

Furthermore, since all of our perceptions of the physical world are coming from the same physical world, and the nature of perceiving works more or less the same in each person, we can achieve a consistency in our understanding.

So although it may not be possible to know things with the same certainty as knowing oneself, or to be able to really describe the construct of the world outside of our perception of it, at least we can get along with each other because of a general consistency of experience.

However, this experience still admits to a certain fragility. There is no guarantee that past experiences will be consistent with future ones. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume observes:

Being determined by custom to transfer the past to the future, in all our inferences; where the past has been entirely regular and uniform, we expect the event with the greatest assurance and leave no room for any contrary supposition. But where different effects have been found to follow from causes, which are to appearance exactly similar, all these various effects must occur to the mind in transferring the past to the future, and enter into our consideration, when we determine the probability of the event.

To simultaneously understand all effects when considering an event in the future is not necessarily a limitation, thanks to our amazingly sophisticated brains. Immanuel Kant thought that the way we process the information provided by our senses was an important component of knowledge. Kant wrote in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics:

The difference between truth and dreaming is not ascertained by the nature of the representations which are referred to objects (for they are the same in both cases), but by their connection according to those rules which determine the coherence of the representation in the concept of an object, and by ascertaining whether they can subsist together in experience or not.

Kant did not support the view that the existence of objects was called into question because of the subjectivity of the perceptions by which we must experience them, but neither that all knowledge of the physical world comes from experience. Kant argued:

Experience teaches us what exists and how it exists, but never that it must necessarily exist so and not otherwise. Experience therefore can never teach us the nature of things in themselves.

Knowledge then, is made up of things we infer, things we experience, and the way our brain processes both. The great metaphysical question of ‘Why it is all this way?’ may always be out of our reach.

Understanding some of this metaphysical uncertainty in knowledge does not mean that we have to give up on knowing anything. It simply points to a certain subjectivity, an allowance for different conceptions of the world. And hopefully it offers a set of tools with which to evaluate or build claims of knowledge.

Carol Dweck on Creating a Growth Mindset in the Workplace

Carol Dweck‘s concept of Mindset permeates through every aspect of our lives.

One area particularity affected is in the workplace. We spend half of our day at work (some of you likely spend more than half) and both your mindset and the mindset of those around you will have a significant impact on your life, especially the mindset of your boss. Dweck comments:

Fixed-mindset leaders, like fixed-mindset people in general, live in a world where some people are superior and some are inferior. They must repeatedly affirm that they are superior, and the company is simply a platform for this.

These leaders tend to have a strong focus on personal reputation, generally at the expense of the company. Lee Iacocca, during his time at Chrysler, is a good example of this. Iacocca had his ego severely bruised when he was forced out of Ford. Fixed-mindset leaders tend to respond to failure with anger instead of viewing it as an opportunity to learn or get better.

So the king who had defined him as competent and worthy now rejected him as flawed. With ferocious energy, Iacocca applied himself to the monumental task of saving face and, in the process, Chrysler Motors. Chrysler, the once thriving Ford rival, was on the brink of death, but Iacocca as its new CEO acted quickly to hire the right people, bring out new models, and lobby the government for bailout loans. Just a few years after his humiliating exit from Ford, he was able to write a triumphant autobiography and in it declare, ‘Today, I’m a hero.’

He showed Ford that they made a mistake when they let him go, and he reveled in his triumph. But in his glory-basking, Iacocca forgot that the race wasn’t over yet.

This was a hard time for the American automotive industry, the Japanese were challenging the market like no one ever had before. Chrysler needed to respond to the competition or they would be in trouble again. Meanwhile, Iacocca was still focused on his reputation and legacy.

He also looked to history, to how he would be judged and remembered. But he did not address this concern by building the company. Quite the contrary. According to one of his biographers, he worried that his underlings might get credit for successful new designs, so he balked at approving them. He worried, as Chrysler faltered, that his underlings might be seen as the new saviors, so he tried to get rid of them.

Instead of listening to the advice of his designers and engineers, Iacocca dug his feet into the ground.

See, a fixed-mindset doesn’t easily allow you to change course. You believe that someone either has ‘it’ or they don’t: it’s a very binary frame of mind. You don’t believe in growth, you believe in right and wrong and any suggestion of change or adaptation is considered a criticism. You don’t know how to adopt grey thinking. Challenges or obstacles tend to make you angry and defensive. 

Iacocca was no different.

But rather than taking up the challenge and delivering better cars, Iacocca, mired in his fixed mindset, delivered blame and excuses. He went on the rampage, spewing angry diatribes against the Japanese and demanding that the American government impose tariffs and quotas that would stop them.

Blame is a big part of the fixed-mindset; when something goes wrong you don’t want to take responsibility because that would be akin to accepting inferiority. This can push some bosses to become abusive and controlling. They feel superior by making others feel inferior. Colleagues may feel this way too, but management has power. This is when you will notice the effect of mindset on your corporate culture. Everything starts to revolve around pleasing upper management. 

When bosses become controlling and abusive, they put everyone into a fixed mindset. This means that instead of learning, growing, and moving the company forward, everyone starts worrying about being judged. It starts with the bosses’ worry about being judged, but it winds up being everybody’s fear about being judged. It’s hard for courage and innovation to survive a companywide fixed mindset.

In these circumstances, the fear of punishment leads to groupthink. No one wants to dissent or put their hand up because it’s likely to get slapped. 

So what can you do if you’re new to a company and working against a fixed-mindset? This will be a difficult road but there are definitely ways of nudging your company towards a growth mindset.

Dweck outlines the main attributes that create a growth-mindset environment:

  • Presenting skills as learnable
  • Conveying that the organization values learning and perseverance, not just ready-made genius or talent
  • Giving feedback in a way that promotes learning and future success
  • Presenting managers as resources for learning.

At the end of each chapter of Dweck’s book, she has a brilliant section entitled ‘Grow Your Mindset.’ She reviews the chapter’s contents and asks the reader probing questions to help them evaluate their situation and suggests concrete ways to move forward. Here are a few pertinent examples to explore:

What kind of workplace are you in?

Are you in a fixed-mindset or growth-mindset workplace? Do you feel people are just judging you or are they helping you develop? Maybe you could try making it a more growth-mindset place, starting with yourself. 

Is it possible that you’re the problem?

Are there ways you could be less defensive about your mistakes? Could you profit more from the feedback you get? Are there ways you can create more learning experiences for yourself? How do you act toward others in your workplace? Are you a fixed-mindset boss, focused on your power more than on your employees’ well-being? Do you ever reaffirm your status by demeaning others? Do you ever try to hold back high-performing employees because they threaten you?

Can you foster a better environment?

Consider ways to help your employees develop on the job: Apprenticeships? Workshops? Coaching sessions? Think about how you can start seeing and treating your employees as your collaborators, as a team. Make a list of strategies and try them out. Do this even if you already think of yourself as a growth-mindset boss. Well-placed support and growth-promoting feedback never hurt.

Do you have procedures to overcome groupthink?

Is your workplace set up to promote groupthink? If so, the whole decision-making process is in trouble. Create ways to foster alternative views and constructive criticism. Assign people to play the devil’s advocate, taking opposing viewpoints so you can see the holes in your position. Get people to wage debates that argue different sides of the issue. Have an anonymous suggestion box that employees must contribute to as part of the decision-making process. Remember, people can be independent thinkers and team players at the same time. Help them fill both roles.

Mindset is filled with practical advice that will change the way in which you think and interact with the world. Through examples from her rigorous research Dweck eloquently explains the nature of the two mindsets and their influence on sports, business and relationships. Since culture eats strategy, it’s important to understand her main points. Understanding her core concepts will also add depth to your comprehension of metal models like confirmation bias and bias from overconfidence.

If you’d like a bit more on Mindset we suggest taking a look at Dweck’s Google talk or perhaps revisit a more detailed explanation of the two mindsets.