Let Go of Self-Justification

It can be startling and unsettling to confront how bad humans are at describing reality with any objective accuracy. Because of the way our brains work, how perceptions are distorted, the ambiguity of language, we seem forever destined to never really know this world we are living in. What are we to do?

One answer is to accept that there is no one objective truth so stop searching for it. Instead, we can put our efforts into understanding ourselves a little better, allowing for navigation between the many truths that exist for people, to achieve success.

In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explore the role of self-justification in our creation of reality. We make assertions about the world as if they are facts while being completely blind to the subjectivity inherent in knowing anything. Essentially we create a narrative about the world that reflects our beliefs about the kind of person we are and assign to this narrative a ‘truth’ which does not, in fact, exist.

What is self-justification?

It is not the same thing as lying or making excuses. … [It] is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done. In fact, come to think of it, it was the right thing.

Self-justification is a portrayal of the brain that, despite its stated goals or desires, is not interested in truth, but rather self-preservation. Admitting you were wrong may save relationships and lives, it may prevent distress and war, but it will also force you to admit that the narrative you have constructed about yourself is wrong. And depending on how committed you are to that narrative, you may be unable to even see that you made a mistake, let alone confront it.

Self-justification has costs and benefits. By itself, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It lets us sleep at night. Without it, we would prolong the awful pangs of embarrassment. We would torture ourselves with regret over the road not taken or over how badly we navigated the road we did take. … Yet mindless self-justification, like quicksand, can draw us deeper into disaster. It blocks our ability to even see our errors, let alone correct them. It distorts reality, keeping us from getting all the information we need and assessing issues clearly. It prolongs and widens rifts between lovers, friends, and nations. It keeps us from letting go of unhealthy habits. It permits the guilty to avoid taking responsibility for their deeds. And it keeps many professionals from changing outdated attitudes and procedures that can harm the public.

The book contains many unsettling examples from politics and law enforcement. Research based stories of officials who refused to admit their mistakes even when confronted with irrefutable evidence they were wrong. The more invested you are in a situation, the more extensive your narrative, the more likely that narrative has become intertwined with your self-worth and self-esteem, and therefore the harder to rewrite it in light of your errors.

Perhaps the most startling examples of the descent into irreversible self-justification is the research conducted on what the authors call ‘the closed loop of clinical judgment’. They discuss the total lack of evidence to support the theory that traumatic events are suppressed by the brain and contrast this with the amount of clinical practitioners who will enter into therapeutic relationships with the pre-supposition that the client’s current troubles are being caused by traumatic events that they don’t remember.

It becomes a no-win situation for the person seeking therapy – either they spontaneously remember past trauma (which, actually, is the one thing they were not likely to forget in the first place) or they say that they have no memory of being traumatized (in which case the therapist assumes the memories are still being repressed). Either outcome reinforces the self-justified narrative that the therapist has created.

As evidence accumulated on the fallibility of memory and the many confabulations of recovered-memory cases the promoters of this notion did not admit error; they simply changed their view of the mechanism by which traumatic memories are allegedly lost. It’s not repression at work anymore, but dissociation; the mind somehow splits off the traumatic memory and banishes it to the suburbs. This shift allowed them to keep testifying, without batting an eye or ruffling a feather, as scientific experts in cases of recovered memories.

This speaks to investment in the narrative. This is not about admitting that yelling at your spouse about forgetting to buy ice cream was a mistaken over-reaction. In the case of these practitioners, this is their career. It is also the many lives they may have destroyed by unintentionally encouraging false memories of trauma. It would not be easy for any of us to admit mistakes when the consequences of those mistakes are so devastating.

How can we remember things that didn’t happen? Because self-justification has an effect on our memories.

Between the conscious lie to fool others and unconscious self-justification to fool ourselves, there’s a fascinating gray area patrolled by an unreliable, self-serving historian – memory. Memories are often pruned and shaped with an ego-enhancing bias that blurs the edges of past events, softens culpability, and distorts what really happened.

We remember our past in a way that confirms what we believe of ourselves in the present.

When we do misremember, our mistakes aren’t random. The everyday, dissonance-reducing distortions of memory help us make sense of the world and our place in it, protecting our decisions and beliefs. The distortion is even more powerful when it is motivated by the need to keep our self-concept consistent.

The authors present many fascinating examples of totally fabricated ‘memories’. Not ones that are intentional, but situations in which the memories were believed to be genuine and turned out to be false. In all cases the memories had been unconsciously altered or created to support a self-justifying narrative. For example, believing you are an independent free-spirit, you remember your actions as always having been so, or conversely you remember the past as more awful than it was in order to support your narrative of strength and change.

If a memory is a central part of your identity, a self-serving distortion is even more likely.” How many of us have come across our old journals or diaries, and felt like they were reading the life story of someone else? We will frequently look at the entries and say ‘wow, I don’t remember being like this at all’.

Okay, so our memories are unreliable. Hardly a surprise. For the millions of people who frantically search for their car keys every morning, it will not be shocking that your fourth year birthday cake wasn’t the bad-ass Batman you remember, but a cute puppy with giant eyes. So why worry about memory?

The self-justifying mechanisms of memory would be just another charming and often exasperating aspect of human nature were it not for the fact that we live our lives, make decisions about people, form guiding philosophies, and construct entire narratives on the basis of memories that are often dead wrong.

When we use our memories to strengthen our narratives, it causes huge dissonance when those memories are revealed to be false. It often requires a rewriting of the entire narrative. This is incredibly hard for humans, provoking what can be thought of as an existential crisis. If I am who I am because of my experiences, what happens when those experiences cease to exist? Do I, in a sense, cease to exist as well?

Admitting Mistakes

In order to be able to admit mistakes, to correct the spiraling self-justification that can have devastating consequences for ourselves and others, we need to accept that “something we did can be separated from who we are, and who we want to be. Our past selves need not be a blueprint for our future selves. The road to redemption starts with the understanding that who we are includes what we have done but also transcends it, and the vehicle for transcending it is self-compassion.”

This clears the path. It allows us to let go of the past and focus on building the future. More of this would result in an inevitable boon to society.

What is needed is a deep understanding not only of what went wrong then but also of what is going wrong right now, the better to prepare for what could go wrong with current decisions.

The authors argue that is a problem, particularly endemic to North America, that we associate mistakes with failure. We need to shift the thinking, to see mistakes as part of the learning process, necessary steps on the road to making things better.

The amazing thing is, most of us find it refreshing and positive when people admit mistakes. We long to hear our politicians or intellectual leaders or even our relatives say ‘yeah, I messed up. No excuses, I own it, and now I want to fix it’. Hearing this frees us and allows us to do the same.

So try it out. Right now. Think about a mistake you’ve made recently. We all have; with our kids, our partners, our colleagues. Pick one. Think about the narrative you told yourself in the aftermath. Now kick that narrative to the curb and leave it there. You don’t need it anymore. Then find a mirror. Admit to yourself you made a mistake.

Last step. Go find the person you hurt and own up to your mistake. I know this sounds scary, but the more we do this the more authentic and rewarding our relationships will be.

What We Can Learn From The Laboratory of Literature: Two Great Thinkers

We all have a feeling that literature is important. And yet many of us avoid the category altogether, feeling it's a waste of time to pick up literature when we can learn so much more from non-fiction. Literature, however, isn't a waste of time at all. In fact, literature saves us time.

Literature rapidly increases our learning. We learn through experiences, either our own or those of other people. Literature amplifies our exposure to a range of situations and events that would otherwise take decades for us to experience ourselves. For example, we can safely learn what it's like to get divorced, quit your job and fly to another country on a whim, have an affair, be in love, or kill someone.

Literature allows us to live other lives. We can be a Princess or a Prince. And we can explore what's really on our minds, which makes us feel less lonely. We can be good or evil. We can explore taboo sexual fantasies and more. Importantly, we can explore with an honesty and safety that is generally unavailable to us in our day-to-day life. We don't have to compromise. As Emerson wrote, “In the works of great writers we find our own neglected thoughts.”

Through literature, we develop emotional connections with characters and a shared community. We witness unparalleled kindness and terror. And though these experiences, we start to learn about ourselves and others. Reading the right passage can feel like the author knows us better than we know ourselves. It can put coherence to things we've only felt. If we are the territory, good literature can be the map.

Literature opens us up to a wider range of emotions. We learn to shift our perspective by putting ourselves in the shoes of others. We learn about who we are and who we want to be. And we experience the second order consequences of choices without having to live them ourselves.


Umberto Eco in On Literature and Jean-Paul Sartre in What is Literature, expand on our sense community.

Literature allows for community. All literature encompasses at least a community of two: the reader and the writer. And each member plays a valuable role. As Sartre writes “each one trusts the other; each one counts on the other, demands of the other as much as he demands of himself.”

The community of great books becomes so large that it becomes part of our culture. When this happens, the work allows us to share experiences with others we've never met, making us better global citizens. Eco explains “certain characters have become somehow true for the collective imagination because over the course of centuries we have made emotional investments in them.”

Many generations of people have experienced Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice and Athos from The Three Musketeers. These stories have become part of our shared fabric, even for those who haven't read the books. We transcend time and place. These characters make us feel. Whether it's the joy that Elizabeth felt reading Dary's letters or the sadness that Athos felt because he could never come to terms with the complexity of Milady. And importantly we learn moral lessons. Who doesn't know ‘all for one and one for all.'

Eco suggests that literature has a lot to teach us about fate, or destiny, because no matter one’s desire, the story is already written and cannot be changed. As a reader we discover more than information, “it is the discovery that things happen, and have always happened, in a particular way.”

We all wish we could change stories. That we could sit down with a character and say ‘hey, aren’t you overthinking this retribution thing? Or, just be honest with her, she loves you’ and rewrite their endings. Eco thinks this is part of the power of literature, “against all our desires to change destiny, they make tangible the impossibility of changing it. And in so doing, no matter what story they are telling, they are also telling our own story, and that is why we read them and love them.” Through this emotional investment, we start to see the world through the eyes of others, with their limited information.

Literature further contributes to developing community by participating in the creation of language and identity. Eco writes that “without Dante there would have been no unified Italian language,” and then goes on to say “we might also think of what Greek civilization would have been like without Homer, German identity without Luther’s translation of the Bible, the Russian language without Pushkin, or Indian civilization without its foundation epics.”

The language used in works of literature that attract large communities enters the lexicon and becomes part of the identity of the collective. Even if you haven't read the original work, its impact is accessible to you. For example, how many of us know that a ‘foregone conclusion’ originated in Othello? Or that to call someone a ‘laughing stock’ came from The Merry Wives of Windsor? These phrases started in the works of Shakespeare, but the huge community of readers has taken these beyond their original pages and made them part of everyday speech to the extent that we no longer associate them with literature. They are just ‘how we speak’.


Another value of literature is its link with freedom.

The freedom to express ideas that challenge people, to create language to capture aspects of the human condition, to bring to the forefront stories that go against the majority and which in doing so might make us uncomfortable. Sartre writes, “the freedom of writing implies the freedom of the citizen. One does not write for slaves. The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy. When one is threatened, the other is too.”

Literature questions. It asks, what if? What if she does this? What if the world looks like that? It places characters in a certain time and space, imbues them with particular qualities and lets them go, showing us what can happen if we marry the wrong person, ignore our values, or survive a war. And thus implores us to question as well. Are we making the right choices?

This, of course, implies that we have choices, and thus Sartre’s link to democracy. To write and to read both involve freedom. Thus the value of literature is more than the stories, it is also the link it provides to others, the sense of community it can develop, and the social structures it supports.


Still Curious? Here's a list of fiction that influences and inspires

Get Smart: Three Ways of Thinking to Make Better Decisions and Achieve Results

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
— Abraham Lincoln


Your ability to think clearly determines the decisions you make and the actions you take.

In Get Smart!: How to Think and Act Like the Most Successful and Highest-Paid People in Every Field, author Brian Tracy presents ten different ways of thinking that enable better decisions. Better decisions free up your time and improve results. At Farnam Street, we believe that a multidisciplinary approach based on mental models allows you to gauge situations from different perspectives and profoundly affect the quality of decisions you make.

Most of us slip into a comfort zone of what Tracy calls “easy thinking and decision-making.” We use less than our cognitive capacity because we become lazy and jump to simple conclusions.

This isn't about being faster. I disagree with the belief that decisions should be, first and foremost, fast and efficient. A better approach is to be effective. If it takes longer to come to a better decision, so be it. In the long run, this will pay for itself over and over with fewer messes, more free time, and less anxiety.

In Get Smart, Tracy does a good job of showing people a series of simple, practical, and powerful ways of examining a situation to improve the odds you're making the best decision.

Let's take a look at a few of them.

1. Long-Time Perspective Versus Short-Time Perspective

Dr. Edward Banfield of Harvard University studied upward economic mobility for almost 50 years. He wondered why some people and families moved from lower socioeconomic classes to higher ones and some didn't. A lot of these people moved from labor jobs to riches in one lifetime. He wanted to know why. His findings are summarized in the controversial book, The Unheavenly City. Banfield offered one simple conclusion that has endured. He concluded that “time perspective” was overwhelmingly the most important factor.

Tracy picks us up here:

At the lowest socioeconomic level, lower-lower class, the time perspective was often only a few hours, or minutes, such as in the case of the hopeless alcoholic or drug addict, who thinks only about the next drink or dose.

At the highest level, those who were second- or third-generation wealthy, their time perspective was many years, decades, even generations into the future. It turns out that successful people are intensely future oriented. They think about the future most of the time.


The very act of thinking long term sharpens your perspective and dramatically improves the quality of your short-term decision making.

So what should we do about this? Tracy advises:

Resolve today to develop long-time perspective. Become intensely future oriented. Think about the future most of the time. Consider the consequences of your decisions and actions. What is likely to happen? And then what could happen? And then what? Practice self-discipline, self-mastery, and self-control. Be willing to pay the price today in order to enjoy the rewards of a better future tomorrow.

Sounds a lot like Garrett Hardin's three lessons from ecology. But really what we're talking about here is second-level thinking.

2. Slow Thinking 

“If it is not necessary to decide, it is necessary not to decide.” 
— Lord Acton

I don't know many consistently successful people or organizations that are constantly reacting without thinking. And yet most of us are habitually in reactive mode. We react and respond to what's happening around us with little deliberate thought.

“From the first ring of the alarm clock,” Tracy writes, we are “largely reacting and responding to stimuli from [our] environment.” This feeds our impulses and appetites. “The normal thinking process is almost instantaneous: stimulus, then immediate response, with no time in between.”

The superior thinking process is also triggered by stimulus, but between the stimulus and the response there is a moment or more where you think before you respond. Just like your mother told you, “Count to ten before you respond, especially when you are upset or angry.”

The very act of stopping to think before you say or do anything almost always improves the quality of your ultimate response. It is an indispensable requirement for success.

One of the best things we can do to improve the quality of our thinking is to understand when we gain an advantage from slow thinking and when we don't.

Ask yourself “does this decision require fast or slow thinking?” 

Shopping for toothpaste is a situation where we derive little benefit from slow thinking. On the other hand if we're making an acquisition or investment we want to be deliberate. Where do we draw the line? A good shortcut is to consider the consequences. Telling your boss he's an idiot when he says something stupid is going to feel really good in the moment but carry lasting consequences. Don't React.

Pause. Think. Act. 

This sounds easy but it's not. One habit you can develop is to continually ask “How do we know this is true?” for the pieces of information you think are relevant to the decision.

3. Informed Thinking Versus Uninformed Thinking

“Beware of endeavouring to be a great man in a hurry.
One such attempt in ten thousand may succeed: these are fearful odds.”
—Benjamin Disraeli


I know a lot of entrepreneurs and most of them religiously say the same two words “due diligence.” In fact, a great friend of mine has a 20+ page due diligence checklist. This means taking the time to make the right decision. You may be wrong but it won't be because you rushed. Of course, most of the people who preach due diligence have skin in the game. It's easier to be cavalier (or stupid) when it's heads I win and tails I don't lose much (hello government).

Harold Geneen, who formed a conglomerate at ITT, said, “The most important elements in business are facts. Get the real facts, not the obvious facts or assumed facts or hoped-for facts. Get the real facts. Facts don’t lie.”

Heck, use the scientific method. Tracy writes:

Create a hypothesis— a yet-to-be-proven theory. Then seek ways to invalidate this hypothesis, to prove that your idea is wrong. This is what scientists do.

This is exactly the opposite of what most people do. They come up with an idea, and then they seek corroboration and proof that their idea is a good one. They practice “confirmation bias.” They only look for confirmation of the validity of the idea, and they simultaneously reject all input or information that is inconsistent with what they have already decided to believe.

Create a negative or reverse hypothesis. This is the opposite of your initial theory. For example, you are Isaac Newton, and the idea of gravity has just occurred to you. Your initial hypothesis would be that “things fall down.” You then attempt to prove the opposite—“things fall up.”

If you cannot prove the reverse or negative hypothesis of your idea, you can then conclude that your hypothesis is correct.



One of the reasons why Charles Darwin was such an effective thinker is that he relentlessly sought out disconfirming evidence.

As the psychologist Jerry Jampolsky once wrote, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”

It is amazing how many people come up with a new product or service idea and then fall in love with the idea long before they validate whether or not this is something that a sufficient number of customers are willing to buy and pay for.

Keep gathering information until the proper course of action becomes clear, as it eventually will. Check and double-check your facts. Assume nothing on faith. Ask, “How do we know that this is true?”

Finally, search for the hidden flaw, the one weak area in the decision that could prove fatal to the product or business if it occurred. J. Paul Getty, once the richest man in the world, was famous for his approach to making business decisions. He said, “We first determine that it is a good business opportunity. Then we ask, ‘What is the worst possible thing that could happen to us in this business opportunity?’ We then go to work to make sure that the worst possible outcome does not occur.”

Most importantly, never stop gathering information. One of the reasons that Warren Buffett is so successful is that he spends most of his day reading and thinking. I call this the Buffett Formula.



If you're a knowledge worker decisions are your product. Milton Friedman, the economist, wrote: “The best measure of quality thinking is your ability to accurately predict the consequences of your ideas and subsequent actions.”

If there were a single message to Get Smart, it's another plus in the Farnam Street mold of being conscious. Stop and think before deciding — especially if the consequences are serious. The more ways you have to look at a problem, the more likely you are to better understand. And when you understand a problem — when you really understand a problem — the solution becomes obvious. A friend of mine has a great expression: “To understand is to know what to do.”

Get Smart goes on to talk about goal and result orientated thinking, positive and negative thinking, entrepreneurial vs. corporate thinking and more.

Seduced by Logic: Émilie du Châtelet and the Struggles to create the Newtonian Revolution

Against great odds, Émilie du Châtelet (1706–1749) taught herself mathematics and became a world authority on Newtonian mathematical physics.

I say against great odds because being a woman at the time meant she was ineligible for the same formal and informal opportunities available to others. Seduced by Logic, by Robyn Arianrhod tells her story with captivating color.

Émilie and her lover and collaborator Voltaire realized that Newton's Principia not only changed our view of the world but also the way we do science.

“Newton,” writes Arianrhod, “had created a method for constructing and then testing theories, so the Principia provided the first truly modern blueprint for theoretical science as both a predictive, quantitative discipline—Newton eschewed qualitative, unproven, metaphysical speculations—and a secular discipline, separate from religion, although by no means inherently opposed to it.”

This, of course, has impacted the way we live and see ourselves. While Newton is relatively well known today, his theories were not easily accepted at the time. Émilie was one of the first to realize his impact and promote his thinking. In the late 1740s, she created what is, still to this day, the authoritative French translation, which includes detailed commentary, on Newton's masterpiece. Voltaire considered du Châtelet “a genius worthy of Horace and Newton.”

Émilie du Châtelet didn't limit herself to only commenting on Newton. The reason the book still stands today is that she added a lot of original thought.


How did Émilie du Châtelet come to learn so much in a world that overtly limited her opportunities? This is where her character shines.

While her brothers were sent to the most prestigious Jesuit secondary schools; Émilie was left to fend for herself and acquired much of her knowledge through reading. While her brothers could attend university, “such a thing was unthinkable for a girl.”

Luckily her family environment was conducive to self-education. Émilie's parents “were rather unorthodox in the intellectual freedom they allowed in their children: both parents allowed Émilie to argue with them and express opinions, and from the time they were about ten years old, the children had permission to browse freely through the library.”



Émilie would grow and enter an arranged marriage at eighteen with thirty-year-old Florent-Claude, marquis du Chatelet and count of Lomont. Less than a year later she gave birth to their first child, Gabrielle-Pauline, which was followed seventeen months later by their son, Floren-Louis. Another child, a boy, would come six years later only to pass within two years. His death caused her to remark on her grief that the ‘sentiments of nature must exist in us without us suspecting.'

“Sometime around 1732, she experienced a true intellectual epiphany,” Arianrhod writes. As a result, Émilie would come to see herself as a ‘thinking creature.'

“At first, she only caught a glimpse of this new possibility, and she continued to allow her time to be wasted by superficial society life and its dissipation, ‘which was all I had felt myself born for.' Fortunately, her ongoing friendship with these ‘people who think'—including another mathematically inclined woman, Marie de Thil, who would remain her lifelong friend—led Émilie to the liberating realisation that it was not too late to begin cultivating her mind seriously.”

It would be a difficult journey. “I feel,” Émilie wrote, “all the weight of the prejudice that universally excludes [women] from the sciences. It is one of the contradictions of this world that has always astonished me, that there are great countries whose destiny the law permits us to rule, and yet there is no place where we are taught to think.”

To become a person who thinks she became a person who reads.

“Presumably,” Arianrhod writes, “she studied Descartes, Newton, and the great English philosopher of liberty, John Locke, because when she met Voltaire a year after her epiphany, he was immediately captivated by her mind as well as her other charms.”

In an early love letter, Voltaire would write to her “Ah! What happiness to see you, to hear you … and what pleasures I taste in your arms! I am so fortunate to love the one I admire … you are the idol of my heart, you make all my happiness.”

“When Émilie and Voltaire because their courtship in 1733,” Arianhod writes, “she was twenty-six, and he was thirty-eight (the same as-as her husband, with whom Voltaire would eventually become good friends, thanks to Émilie's encouragement and her efforts as a diplomatic go-between.)”


Arianrhod writes of Émilie's struggles to learn:

Émilie’s plan to become a mathematician would require all her courage and determination. Firstly, envious acquaintances like Madame du Deffand would try to cast her as a dry and ugly ‘learned woman’ or femme savante, despite the fact that she had such appeal and charisma that the handsome duc de Richelieu, one of the most sought-after men in Paris, was rumoured to have once been her lover, while the celebrated Voltaire adored her. Of course, some of her female contemporaries admired her scholarship: Madame de Graffigny would later say, ‘Our sex ought to erect altars to her!’ But many were irritated by, or envious of, her liberated commitment to an intellectual life, because Émilie was very different from the glamorous women who ran many of Paris’s legendary literary salons. It was acceptable, even admirable, for such women to know enough of languages and philosophy to be good conversationalists with the learned men who dominated salon gatherings, but it was expected that women be modest about their knowledge. By contrast, Émilie would become famous as a scholar in her own right, thus angering the likes of Madame du Deffand, a powerful salonnière who claimed Émilie’s interest in science was all for show.

There were few truly learned women of the time, the belief being they were “either pretentious or ugly,” something that lingered “for the next three centuries.”

If you're going to blaze the trail, you really have to blaze it.

At thirty-five, (Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis) Maupertuis was both ambitious and charming. When he agreed to tutor Émilie, he probably expected her to be a dilettante like his other female students: he had quite a following among society ladies. But her first known letter to him, written in January 1734, is both deferential and eager: ‘I spent all yesterday evening working on your lessons. I would like to make myself worthy of them. I fear, I confess to you, losing the good opinion you have of me.’ Perhaps he still doubted her commitment, because a week or two later she wrote, ‘I spent the evening with binomials and trinomials, [but] I am no longer able to study if you do not give me a task, and I have an extreme desire for one.’ Over the next few months, she sent him a stream of notes, trying to arrange lessons, asking him to come to her house for a couple of hours, or offering to meet him outside the Academy of Sciences – women were allowed inside only for the twice-yearly public lectures – or outside Gradot’s, one of the favourite cafés of the intellectual set.


It was this kind of intensity – as expressed in this multitude of requests for rendezvous – that fuelled gossip among her peers, and jealousy from Voltaire. Until the late twentieth century, most historians, too, seemed unable to imagine a woman like Émilie could be seduced only by mathematics – after all, until then, few women had actually become mathematicians. But it is true that many of Émilie’s letters to Maupertuis have a very flirtatious style – it was, after all, an era that revelled in the game of seduction. There is no evidence to prove whether or not they ever became lovers in those early months, before she and Voltaire had fully committed themselves to each other, but her letters certainly prove that all her life she would continue to hold a deep affection and respect for Maupertuis. In late April 1734, Émilie wrote to Maupertuis: ‘I hope I will render myself less unworthy of your lessons by telling you that it is not for myself that I want to become a mathematician, but because I am ashamed of making such mediocre progress under such a master as you.’ It was, indeed, an era of flattery! (Voltaire was quite adept at it – as a mere bourgeois, he often needed to flatter important people to help advance his literary career.) Although this letter suggests Émilie was simply using flattery to extract more lessons from her mathematical ‘master’, she always did have genuine doubts about her ability, which is not surprising given her lack of formal education and the assumed intellectual inferiority of her gender. She would later write, ‘If I were king … I would reform an abuse which cuts back, as it were, half of humanity. I would have women participate in all human rights, and above all those of the mind.’


In the translator's preface to her late 1730s edition of Selected Philosophical and Scientific Writings, Du Châtelet highlights a few of the traits that helped her overcome so much.

You must know what you want:

(Knowledge) can never be acquired unless one has chosen a goal for one’s studies. One must conduct oneself as in everyday life; one must know what one wants to be. In the latter endeavors irresolution produces false steps, and in the life of the mind confused ideas.

She considered herself a member of the ordinary class, and she wrote about how regular people can come to acquire talent.

It sometimes happens that work and study force genius to declare itself, like the fruits that art produces in a soil where nature did not intend it, but these efforts of art are nearly as rare as natural genius itself. The vast majority of thinking men — the others, the geniuses, are in a class of their own — need to search within themselves for their talent. They know the difficulties of each art, and the mistakes of those who engage in each one, but they lack the courage that is not disheartened by such reflections, and the superiority that would enable them to overcome such difficulties. Mediocrity is, even among the elect, the lot of the greatest number.

Seduced by Logic is worth reading in its entirety. Du Châtelet's story is as fascinating as informative.

Get More Done By Working Less

In Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues that work and rest are not opposed but rather complementary to each other.

“When we define ourselves by our work, by our dedication and effectiveness and willingness to go the extra mile,” he writes, “then it's easy to see rest as the negation of all those things.”

Thus our cultural view of rest influences our relationship to rest, creating an aversion—the mistaken belief that rest is for the weak. Because we mistake rest as the opposite of work, we avoid it. This view, however, is flawed.

“Work and rest are not polar opposites,” Pang writes. Rather they complete each other. Some of history's most famous people from Charles Darwin and Bill Gates to Winston Churchill, took rest very seriously. Rather than prevent them from accomplishing things this was the very thing that enabled them.

Our aversion to rest is rather new. Almost every ancient society shared the view that work and rest were complements to one another. The Greeks saw rest as the pinnacle of civilized life.

Rest is not something given to you to fill in the cracks between work. “If you want rest, you have to take it” Pang writes. “You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take is seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.”

What is rest?

We think of rest as binge watching Netflix and drinking wine but, while that's a form of rest, it's a flawed view that prevents us from resting more. “Physical activity is more restful than we expect, and mental rest is more active than we realize.”

In an interview with Scientific America Pang hits on what the brain is doing when we're resting:

The critical thing to recognize is that when we are letting our minds wander, when our minds don't have any particular thing they have to focus on, our brains are pretty darn active. When you do things like go for a long walk, your subconscious mind keeps working on problems. The experience of having the mind slightly relaxed allows it to explore different combinations of ideas, to test out different solutions. And then once it has arrived at one that looks promising—that is what pops into your head as an aha! moment. The people I looked at are able to construct daily schedules that allow them to draw on that process in little increments.

For creative people—or anyone who deals with complexity, long walks or even strenuous physical activity is an essential part of their routine. Just take a look at Thoreau, Nietzsche and Kant's views on walking.

Pang argues that a four hour “creative work day” is optimal for producing.

While we work 8 or more hours a day, most of that is just busywork. Effectiveness and total hours worked are two different things. Learn what moves the needle and focus your work efforts on that, ignoring or getting rid of busywork.

The Science of Sleep: Regulating Emotions and the Twenty-four Hour Mind

“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original; instead, it is a continuing act of creation.”


Rosalind Cartwright is one of the leading sleep researchers in the world. Her unofficial title is Queen of Dreams.

In The Twenty-four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives, she looks back on the progress of sleep research and reminds us there is much left in the black box of sleep that we have yet to shine light on.

In the introduction she underscores the elusive nature of sleep:

The idea that sleep is good for us, beneficial to both mind and body, lies behind the classic advice from the busy physician: “Take two aspirins and call me in the morning.” But the meaning of this message is somewhat ambiguous. Will a night’s sleep plus the aspirin be of help no matter what ails us, or does the doctor himself need a night’s sleep before he is able to dispense more specific advice? In either case, the presumption is that there is some healing power in sleep for the patient or better insight into the diagnosis for the doctor, and that the overnight delay allows time for one or both of these natural processes to take place. Sometimes this happens, but unfortunately sometimes it does not. Sometimes it is sleep itself that is the problem.

Cartwright underscores that our brains like to run on “automatic pilot” mode, which is one of the reasons that getting better at things requires concentrated and focused effort. She explains:

We do not always use our highest mental abilities, but instead run on what we could call “automatic pilot”; once learned, many of our daily cognitive behaviors are directed by habit, those already-formed points of view, attitudes, and schemas that in part make us who we are. The formation of these habits frees us to use our highest mental processes for those special instances when a prepared response will not do, when circumstances change and attention must be paid, choices made or a new response developed. The result is that much of our baseline thoughts and behavior operate unconsciously.

Relating this back to dreams, and one of the more fascinating parts of Cartwright's research, is the role sleep and dreams play in regulating emotions. She explains:

When emotions evoked by a waking experience are strong, or more often were under-attended at the time they occurred, they may not be fully resolved by nighttime. In other words, it may take us a while to come to terms with strong or neglected emotions. If, during the day, some event challenges a basic, habitual way in which we think about ourselves (such as the comment from a friend, “Aren’t you putting on weight?”) it may be a threat to our self-concepts. It will probably be brushed off at the time, but that question, along with its emotional baggage, will be carried forward in our minds into sleep. Nowadays, researchers do not stop our investigations at the border of sleep but continue to trace mental activity from the beginning of sleep on into dreaming. All day, the conscious mind goes about its work planning, remembering, and choosing, or just keeping the shop running as usual. On balance, we humans are more action oriented by day. We stay busy doing, but in the inaction of sleep we turn inward to review and evaluate the implications of our day, and the input of those new perceptions, learnings, and—most important—emotions about what we have experienced.

What we experience as a dream is the result of our brain’s effort to match recent, emotion-evoking events to other similar experiences already stored in long-term memory. One purpose of this sleep-related matching process, this putting of similar memory experiences together, is to defuse the impact of those feelings that might otherwise linger and disrupt our moods and behaviors the next day. The various ways in which this extraordinary mind of ours works—the top-level rational thinking and executive deciding functions, the middle management of routine habits of thought, and the emotional relating and updating of the organized schemas of our self-concept—are not isolated from each other. They interact. The emotional aspect, which is often not consciously recognized, drives the not-conscious mental activity of sleep.

Later in the book, she writes more about how dreams regulate emotions:

Despite differences in terminology, all the contemporary theories of dreaming have a common thread — they all emphasize that dreams are not about prosaic themes, not about reading, writing, and arithmetic, but about emotion, or what psychologists refer to as affect. What is carried forward from waking hours into sleep are recent experiences that have an emotional component, often those that were negative in tone but not noticed at the time or not fully resolved. One proposed purpose of dreaming, of what dreaming accomplishes (known as the mood regulatory function of dreams theory) is that dreaming modulates disturbances in emotion, regulating those that are troublesome. My research, as well as that of other investigators in this country and abroad, supports this theory. Studies show that negative mood is down-regulated overnight. How this is accomplished has had less attention.

I propose that when some disturbing waking experience is reactivated in sleep and carried forward into REM, where it is matched by similarity in feeling to earlier memories, a network of older associations is stimulated and is displayed as a sequence of compound images that we experience as dreams. This melding of new and old memory fragments modifies the network of emotional self-defining memories, and thus updates the organizational picture we hold of “who I am and what is good for me and what is not.” In this way, dreaming diffuses the emotional charge of the event and so prepares the sleeper to wake ready to see things in a more positive light, to make a fresh start. This does not always happen over a single night; sometimes a big reorganization of the emotional perspective of our self-concept must be made—from wife to widow or married to single, say, and this may take many nights. We must look for dream changes within the night and over time across nights to detect whether a productive change is under way. In very broad strokes, this is the definition of the mood-regulatory function of dreaming, one basic to the new model of the twenty-four hour mind I am proposing.

In another fascinating part of her research, Cartwright outlines the role of sleep in skill enhancement. In short, “sleeping on it” is wise advice.

Think back to “take two aspirins and call me in the morning.” Want to improve your golf stroke? Concentrate on it before sleeping. An interval of sleep has been proven to bestow a real benefit for both laboratory animals and humans when they are tested on many different types of newly learned tasks. You will remember more items or make fewer mistakes if you have had a period of sleep between learning something new and the test of your ability to recall it later than you would if you spent the same amount of time awake.

Most researchers agree “with the overall conclusion that one of the ways sleep works is by enhancing the memory of important bits of new information and clearing out unnecessary or competing bits, and then passing the good bits on to be integrated into existing memory circuits.” This happens in two steps.

The first is in early NREM sleep when the brain circuits that were active while we were learning something new, a motor skill, say, or a new language, are reactivated and stay active until REM sleep occurs. In REM sleep, these new bits of information are then matched to older related memories already stored in long-term memory networks. This causes the new learning to stick (to be consolidated) and to remain accessible for when we need it later in waking.

As for the effect of alcohol has before sleep, Carlyle Smith, a Canadian Psychologist, found that it reduces memory formation, “reducing the number of rapid eye movements” in REM sleep. The eye movements, similar to the ones we make while reading, are how we do scanning of visual information.

The mind is active 24 hours a day:

If the mind is truly working continuously, during all 24 hours of the day, it is not in its conscious mode during the time spent asleep. That time belongs to the unconscious. In waking, the two types of cognition, conscious and unconscious, are working sometimes in parallel, but also often interacting. They may alternate, depending on our focus of attention and the presence of an explicit goal. If we get bored or sleepy, we can slip into a third mode of thought, daydreaming. These thoughts can be recalled when we return to conscious thinking, which is not generally true of unconscious cognition unless we are caught in the act in the sleep lab. This third in-between state is variously called the preconscious or subconscious, and has been studied in a few investigations of what is going on in the mind during the transition before sleep onset.

Toward the end, Cartwright explores the role of sleep.

[I]n good sleepers, the mind is continuously active, reviewing experience from yesterday, sorting which new information is relevant and important to save due to its emotional saliency. Dreams are not without sense, nor are they best understood to be expressions of infantile wishes. They are the result of the interconnectedness of new experience with that already stored in memory networks. But memory is never a precise duplicate of the original; instead, it is a continuing act of creation. Dream images are the product of that creation. They are formed by pattern recognition between some current emotionally valued experience matching the condensed representation of similarly toned memories. Networks of these become our familiar style of thinking, which gives our behavior continuity and us a coherent sense of who we are. Thus, dream dimensions are elements of the schemas, and both represent accumulated experience and serve to filter and evaluate the new day’s input.

Sleep is a busy time, interweaving streams of thought with emotional values attached, as they fit or challenge the organizational structure that represents our identity. One function of all this action, I believe, is to regulate disturbing emotion in order to keep it from disrupting our sleep and subsequent waking functioning. In this book, I have offered some tests of that hypothesis by considering what happens to this process of down-regulation within the night when sleep is disordered in various ways.

Cartwright develops several themes throughout The Twenty-four Hour Mind. First is that the mind is continuously active. Second is the role of emotion in “carrying out the collaboration of the waking and sleeping mind.” This includes exploring whether the sleeping mind “contributes to resolving emotional turmoil stirred up by some real anxiety inducing circumstance.” Third is how sleeping contributes to how new learning is retained. Accumulated experiences serve to filter and evaluate the new day’s input.