8 Ideas That Changed My Life

I was recently inspired by one of my favorite writers to think about what “ideas” have been the most impactful for me. Since writing is just a thinking exercise, I thought a breakdown of my own would help coalesce my personal philosophy and help expand others.

Here are 8 ideas (in no particular order) for you to chew on.

1 — There is no objective reality

It seems unintuitive but it is fact. Once you understand and integrate this, so much opens up to you.

A simple example: color isn’t real. Yes, there is a wavelength of light that we experience as red, but particles of light themselves have no color — they just are. These wavelengths also reach the retinas of dogs, but they experience them in a different way. Which experience is the “right” one? Neither. We don’t experience objective reality, that would be inefficient. Our brains (which never do any experiencing themselves, only interpreting) evolved to give us a unique experience that suited our environment. The goal of that experience is not accuracy, it is survival through threat awareness and cohesion with the group.

On one hand, this makes things more difficult for our species both individually and collectively. We misjudge reality, we make mistakes, we think our experience is everyone’s experience (naive realism), etc. On the other, it is our superpower. We can create stories about our reality that allows for creativity and cooperation. We can imagine different futures, we can create value out of nothing, we can reinterpret, remix, or remake things in our heads and then in the world. We have crappy memories and our projections of the future are usually well-wide. But we can also create abstract art that motivates people to change the rules they live by.

There is a lot more wiggle room with reality than you think. This is powerful.

Speaking of brains and interpretations that leads me to…

2 — You and your brain don’t understand each other

Consciousness is a wild thing, isn’t it? You can have conversations with yourself, time travel back into your memories or forward into your imagination, and solve complex problems. At the same time, you don’t have access to the reasons for your emotions, and can’t tell yourself to fall asleep on command. It’s worth contemplating.

Our mental processes work so seamlessly in the background that we don’t notice them 90% of the time. We are fish that don’t realize they’re in water. This causes us to assume that a lot of our thinking is justified, the natural way, the right way, the truth, whatever. We create stories about ourselves, the world, and each other to make sense of things and navigate life. In the background, our brain is always asking, “what do I have to do at this moment to get along and get ahead?”

Here’s the catch — those stories are more about post-hoc justifications for our beliefs and behaviors than they are about truth. When we reason, we are not necessarily truth-seeking rationalists. No, we are much more like press secretaries who spin a story to justify actions to ourselves and others afterward.

I like Jonathan Heidt’s model for this. We (the human) are riders on an elephant (our subconscious). The elephant moves in directions that we don’t often have control over or insight into. The rider will still say, “Ah, we’re going this way because the watering hole is over there”.

Similarly, we are not good at knowing ourselves. We don’t know what will make us happy in the long-term, we don’t know why our favorite color is blue or our favorite food is sushi. We can’t explain our decisions or behaviors very well when pressed. We all have this stranger within us that is our subconsciousness that has been coded by genetics and environment. We have far less autonomy and understanding than we like to think.

To battle this, you need introspection which leads me to…

3 — The importance of meta-cognition

Our ability to think about our thoughts, also known as meta-cognition, is the best tool we have for actualization in our lives. Our brains are the only tool we really have, everything else is an extension. The quality of your thoughts is everything. It’s the world you live in, and it’s your ability to change the world we all live in. The best way to increase the quality of thoughts is through exploration and meta-cognition.

Therapy, journaling, meditation, mindfulness, learning — it’s all different forms of meta-cognition. To evaluate your thought processes and change them for the better.

The important thing to realize is that “you are not your thoughts”. Our thought patterns feel like us because they happen seamlessly and repeatedly. The most common and well-supported form of therapy is known as “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” and it is the process of examining, challenging, and changing unhelpful mental processes. The stories we tell about ourselves and the world are powerful. Some people need professional help with this, most of us need a good meditation and journaling practice.

The power of mindfulness is the ability to notice and wrestle-back control of your thoughts and emotions. It’s a nebulous, difficult journey but perhaps the most worthwhile one.

4 — Think like a scientist and an investor

As a human with a flawed brain, you need models, processes, and principles to help you make better decisions. There are two personas you can inhabit to do so. The scientist and the investor. You may not realize it, but you are performing these roles in your life often, you just may be bad at it (most of us are).

As a scientist, you need to hypothesize and experiment with, well… everything. Your ideas, beliefs, assumptions, goals, etc. The good scientist does not attach themselves to their ideas and updates them based on how well they perform.

A good scientist also understands causal relationships. Why is this important? In life, we often leap to conclusions about these causal relationships without proper investigation. This is one of the key judgment errors known as Fundamental Attribution Error, we do it all the time. (Correlation =/= Causation for example)

Between any two factors, there are only five possible relationships.

  • X causes Y.
  • Y causes X.
  • X and Y cause each other.
  • Z causes X and/or Y.
  • There is no relation between X and Y.

Understanding which relationship you’re dealing with takes some investigation, but it’s worth getting right. You can waste a lot of energy by solving the wrong problems.

Even if you are not involved in investing, it pays to learn how to think like an investor because you are always investing your time and energy. Great advice comes from guys like Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger because they have learned much about evaluating the world, people, and their own decision-making.

As an investor of time and energy, you need to ask yourself if you’re working on high-return activities (like exercise and learning), thinking in the long-term (delayed gratification) if there are opportunities for compounding, and contrary to all of the hustle advice out there — if it’s time to quit. There’s a difference between consumption and investment, make sure you’re doing the latter.

Try wearing your scientist and investor hats more often and see if things don’t get easier.

5 — The role of ego/identity in our lives

As social animals, we need approval from others about our status and worth as individuals and as a member of the group. The problem is that we can’t get that feedback all the time, and even when we do — it might not be good. The role of our egos is to create a personal bedrock of worth that we can lean on.

Unhealthy egos are too big or small. Too big and you never incorporate bad feedback. Your lack of self-awareness makes you miserable to be around. Too small and you need constant validation from others. You manipulate them into giving it to you, a narcissist.

Getting along with others and mastering yourself relies a lot on recognizing ego and responding well. Everyone’s egos rest somewhere on this spectrum and it can be context-dependent.

For example, at work, you might recognize that a teammate has an idea that they have become attached to. Their need to see themselves as an intelligent, contributing teammate is heightened because of a weakened ego. Knowing this, you will say, “that is a good idea and I appreciate the thoughtfulness you put into it, I’m not sure anyone else could’ve thought of it, however…” It’s emotional intelligence in action.

For yourself, you need to recognize your own overconfidence and desire to make yourself comfortable over better.

An example I like to use is that of NBA players who refuse to adopt the “granny” method of free-throw shooting even though it is easy and efficient. In the abstract, it makes perfect sense for them to pursue this strategy. However, their egos and identity as alpha males prevent them from doing so.

All of us are like this to some extent. We get defensive when people suggest changes to us or our work, and reason away their argument. We reject things like eating vegetarian meals or going to a religious service because they don’t fit in with the identities we build and want to hold on to. It’s self-sabotage in the name of protecting a fragile self-image.

People (myself included) like to roll their eyes at amateurish attempts at psycho-analysis like this, but this is simple and pervasive enough to be worth understanding.

6 — Moral Foundations Theory

Every now and then you come across an idea that once you understand it, you can’t escape it. It’s in your head, and you start to see it everywhere. Reading Jonathan Haidt’s (yes, there he is again) book “Righteous Minds” did that to me.

We are constantly making moral judgments, and it impacts our behavior and politics more than we realize. The condensed version of his argument is as follows:

Across cultures, moral arguments tend to fall into six foundations:

  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation
  • Liberty/oppression

Learning about a violation of any one of these is enough to trigger strong emotions if not actions. Imagine this: “A young chess student beats his elderly teacher unconscious and steals his hand-carved set to pawn for drugs” Did I make you angry?

Haidt’s eventual point is that these foundations have powerful political implications. While liberals tend to focus primarily on two of the foundations, Care/harm, and fairness/cheating, conservatives have a more equal appetite for all six. It explains why some people find some arguments so compelling and can’t understand why others don’t. It can also help us understand each other a lot more.

“We live in the richest country in history, there shouldn’t be homeless people freezing to death on the streets while corporate bankers, who lobby to protect their wealth, make millions.”

This is a compelling liberal argument because it is focused on care/harm (freezing people) who are victims of the same system that allows people to “cheat” their way to excessive wealth. It is harmful unfairness.

“The government shouldn’t be able to decide which guns I can have, it’s an affront to the constitution and would prevent me from protecting my family the way I see fit”.

This is a compelling conservative argument because it has to do with authority, loyalty, liberty, and sanctity.

We have a serious problem of cultural division in our country. It’s resulting in violence at the worst and political dysfunction at the best.

If we can’t agree in our country, the next best thing is to understand. I don’t much agree with conservatives but I can understand them better now. If we can understand the foundations of each other’s beliefs we empathize much better. That may be the bedrock upon which we move forward together as a country.

7 — Simplified Existentialism

Anyone with above-average intelligence eventually has some sort of existential struggle. If you think in the big-picture and can comprehend the absurdity of conscious life, you will run into the “oh god what is existence, why am I here, what do I do?” question.

What is the meaning of life? That has filled the heads of big-brained philosophers and millions of pages alike.

I used to spend a lot of time exploring this since it’s the only question that you need to really need to answer for yourself. I’ll try to save you some time.

  • There’s (probably) no inherent meaning to life.
  • You must create it yourself.
  • You create meaning out of pursuing something bigger than yourself. (Work, relationships, art)
  • Quality relationships tend to give people the most meaning.
  • Let this free and drive you.
  • Try to live life without (too many) regrets.

There, that’s it. Have at it. The details are up to you.

8 — Process over outcome

In poker, there are four possible outcomes. The player with the best hand wins, the player with the best hand loses. The player with the worst hand wins, the player with the worst hand loses. We like to attach the quality of decisions to their outcomes — that makes sense. However, there is a lot that can happen out of your control once the decision is made. It is hard to square the idea that we had good protocols but bad outcomes.

To extend the poker example, if you bet big with a pair of Kings but got beat with a pair of Aces — were you wrong to bet big? Some would say yes, I would say no. What the other player had was out of your control and incredibly unlucky. If you get pocket Kings again you should make the same decision. Your process was fine, the outcome that one time was not.

One of my favorite little phrases is — “process over outcome”.

We typically attach value to our work based on the outcomes it produces. “Was that a good article? Well, I’ll know depending on how many clicks it gets.” This is the wrong approach. The work is enough as long as it is work you put yourself into. Van Gogh was not appreciated in his life, a failed artist. Did the public reception at the time make his art less special? Should he have given up? No, of course not. If he was proud of his art, that was enough.

Once you create something and send it out into the world your work is done, you don’t get to control how people react to it. If you are reliant on people’s opinion of your work for your satisfaction, you won’t get far. The good work alone is enough. Of course, it is good to get and incorporate feedback — that can be part of your process.

The quality of your process is what matters. If you can create routines that allow you to practice your craft, get feedback, iterate/improve with consistency, you will win in the long-term. If you can refine your processes for decision-making without getting distracted by noise, you will win in the long-term.

I know it seems counter-intuitive but many of the most powerful truths of life are. Front-load the work into your process the outcome will eventually come your way.



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Thomas Sloan

Hi. I’m Thomas. I like to think about thoughts, and then write for clarity. Not everything here is a fully formed belief. Let’s talk :)