Resource: Common Sense Eats Common Talk (RibbonFarm guest post by Stefano Zorzi)
“…avoid looking for general frameworks too early”
Common talk is when we repeat phrases, theories, and ideas without critically subjecting them to scrutiny. They are memes we proliferate because of mass acceptance.
Common talk appeals to our need for harmony. This need often trumps the truth.
Common talk is macro. Common sense is micro. The way to avoid the tempting traps of common talk is by focusing on the micro.
Focus on the particulars, details, specifics, and experimental data before leaping for the big-picture conclusion.
When common sense conflicts with common talk, put the burden of proof on common talk.
Practice explaining things in your own words. It not only helps you learn more effectively, but it helps you see through the frequently overlooked gaps in common talk.
Defaulting to common sense is a precautionary measure against irrational group-think, but it’s not foolproof. Common sense is often wrong, but we should only conclude this when sufficient evidence has been gathered.
Common sense is affected by structural realities. Changes in the real of politics and economics, for instance, can cause artificial or surprising contradictions to otherwise rational common sense expectations.
Stefano Zorzi on the essence of common talk
“Common talk is the unreflective parroting of smart-sounding theories, stories, and arguments without applying any test, even the most basic one, to verify their validity.”
Why it’s easy to go along with the majority:
“Faced with a dominant opinion, it is easy to doubt ourselves and question whether we are qualified to contradict so many other people.”
“As social animals, we need a collective worldview within which to operate. Common talk is one of the main ways we construct that worldview.”
Roy Baumeister on why consensus often trumps truth:
“…groups value consensus and shared reality, and so members are often reluctant to bring up information that goes against the emerging consensus. Although critique and argument would best serve the group’s epistemic goals, the goal of harmony tends to suppress those processes.”
Zorzi on why we get trapped in common talk and how to get out:
“People pick up on things when they somehow are looking for them. They are, in other words, receptive to a particular type of message. Common talk is particularly tempting for those who have an affinity for explanations, for overarching stories, for big-picture thinking. These seemingly coherent narratives have something in common: they all focus on the macro. If macro thinking makes common talk attractive, it also makes it vulnerable to turn into big disappointments. The barriers to bullshit lowered, common talk can drag us to the false belief that we can rationalise the complexity of the world we live in, and inhibits our ability to erect defences against collective illusions. For these reasons, common talk, rationalisations, and narratives are failure prone. To say it like Nassim Taleb, they are “fragile”. The same Taleb offers us a way out from this trap, encapsulated in this quote: “it is easier to macrobullshit than to microbullshit”. If we want to stay away from the temptation of the macro we need to turn our attention to the micro.”
How common sense differs from common talk:
“Common sense sits at the opposite side of common talk along the macro/micro divide. Its focus is tangible and practical. Observations and experiences as opposed to rationalisations. Common sense is inherently micro.”
On what makes common sense so powerful:
“Its value doesn’t lie in the ability to offer comprehensive explanations, but rather in its empirical validity.4 Traditional common-sense knowledge, like simple heuristics and grandmotherly advice, is the ossified product of observations. They have endured through time not because they are attractive but because they work.”
When common talk conflicts with common sense:
“Because of its empirical and practical nature, I argue that common sense should be considered “default-right” while common talk should be considered “default-wrong”. In other words, faced with a dilemma, the burden of proof lies with the statement that contradicts common sense.”
Timothy Snyder on the power of using your own words:
“Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying.”
On why paraphrasing improves our learning and thinking:
“If we cannot explain a concept in plain terms, there is a high likelihood that we are either falling prey to consensus thinking or that we are simply indifferent to the validity of our statements. Writing and teaching are two great ways to avoid this trap. More often than not, they lead to an accurate realisation of our true level of understanding.”
Sean Rose on how writing down our thoughts reveals the gaps in our understanding:
“Writing is hard because it often ends up being the process through which you realize that you don’t actually understand something.”
How structural realities set the context for what’s common sense:
“Substantial structural changes – in economics, politics, or technology, for example – can also undermine the validity of our common sense. These are situations where previously reliable mental models stop working and new ones – new common sense – need to be created. We are currently facing one of these structural rearrangements as we move from an economy based on scarcity (industrial) to an economy based on abundance (information). Sensible industrial-age values like thriftiness, planning, and risk minimisation are now losing relevance and are being replaced by “new” ones like experimentation, learn-fast-fail-fast, and optionality.”
An important limitation of common sense:
“Another significant shortcoming of common sense is that it has limited explanatory value. Common sense can be a valuable compass to guide our behaviour, it can help us spot and debunk flawed theories or common talk, but it does little to explain new phenomena or prove the validity of new propositions.”
The uncertainty is how society functions:
“society rarely moves at the speed of precaution. Significant changes are initiated by people that find confidence in unproven convictions and are brought forward by people that disregard rationality to follow them.”
Resource: The Risk of Discovery
Biographical accounts of human achievement tend to underemphasize the risks involved in people’s choices. Isaac Newton, for instance, is praised for his discoveries in physics, but we don’t emphasize how much time he devoted to alchemy.
Like Newton, we have many possibilities before us and more than one might look promising.
“Because biographies of famous scientists tend to edit out their mistakes, we underestimate the degree of risk they were willing to take. And because anything a famous scientist did that wasn’t a mistake has probably now become the conventional wisdom, those choices don’t seem risky either.”
“Biographies of Newton, for example, understandably focus more on physics than alchemy or theology…Physics seems to us a promising thing to work on, and alchemy and theology obvious wastes of time. But that’s because we know how things turned out. In Newton’s day the three problems seemed roughly equally promising. No one knew yet what the payoff would be for inventing what we now call physics; if they had, more people would have been working on it. And alchemy and theology were still then in the category Marc Andreessen would describe as “huge, if true.” Newton made three bets. One of them worked. But they were all risky. ”
Resource: James Baldwin on Freedom and How We Imprison Ourselves
Freedom is something we need to choose and we are free to decide how free we’re going to be.
The simplest way to become unfree is not by being outwardly oppressed, but by being inwardly apathetic. Living apathetically and on autopilot is the fastest way to become unfree.
The job of the writer is to capture and convey thoughts that everyone else is too preoccupied to do.
You have two selves: The self you imagine you are and the self you actually are. If you remain attached to the former, you will self-destruct. If you confront the latter, if it disappoints you, you can rise to the occasion of being your best self.
Things are valuable, but not more valuable than people. People are the non-things that give value and meaning to things.
Baldwin on freedom as a matter of choice:
“Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be. One hasn’t got to have an enormous military machine in order to be un-free when it’s simpler to be asleep, when it’s simpler to be apathetic, when it’s simpler, in fact, not to want to be free, to think that something else is more important.”
On the writer’s role in society:
“The importance of a writer is continuous… His importance, I think, is that he is here to describe things which other people are too busy to describe.”
On doing the work to transcend your fantasies and become your true self:
“There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead and I don’t believe that anybody in this country who has really thought about it or really almost anybody who has been brought up against it — and almost all of us have one way or another — this collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.”
On the value of things and what make things valuable:
“We have some idea about reality which is not quite true. Without having anything whatever against Cadillacs, refrigerators or all the paraphernalia of American life, I yet suspect that there is something much more important and much more real which produces the Cadillac, refrigerator, atom bomb, and what produces it, after all, is something which we don’t seem to want to look at, and that is the person.”
On each individual’s responsibility to make the world what it is:
“A country is only as good… only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become… I don’t believe any longer that we can afford to say that it is entirely out of our hands. We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”
Resource: Getting Things Done by David Allen
There are two fundamental problems in life: Not knowing how to get what you want or not knowing what you want. There are two solutions: Make it up and make it happen.
Life is a continual process of creating and fulfilling. To be a human being is to be one who expands and evolves.
You don’t need to know what your ultimate purpose is. You only need to know what to do next.
Getting things done is not a productivity hack. It’s an explicit approach of something we all do intuitively and and very often ineffectively.
“As Steven Snyder, an expert in whole-brain learning and a friend of mine, put it, “There are only two problems in life: (1) you know what you want, and you don’t know how to get it; and/or (2) you don’t know what you want.” If that’s true (and I think it is) then there are only two solutions: Make it up. Make it happen. ”
“Things that have your attention need your intention engaged. “What does this mean to me?” “Why is it here?” “What do I want to have be true about this?” (“What’s the desired outcome?”) Everything you experience as incomplete must have a reference point for “complete.” ”
“Getting Things Done is not some new technology or invention—it simply makes explicit the principles at work within what we all do implicitly. But with that awareness, you can then leverage those principles consciously to create more elegant results. ”
“Life affords no higher pleasure than that of surmounting difficulties, passing from one step of success to another, forming new wishes, and seeing them gratified.” —Dr. Samuel Johnson
“Your life and work are made up of outcomes and actions that you engage in more or less consciously. Whether they are merely less-than-conscious responses to your environment or more conscious results of your directed focus is the choice you will always have. If you have any intention to expand your experiences and expressions beyond simply being at the mercy of the world as it comes at you, the opportunity is there to recognize, develop, and master the art of getting things done. The challenge will continually be to apply the two essential elements of this art: defining what done means and what doing looks like. This is not always that easy, especially when dealing with some of the more subtle and sublime areas of your life experience; but without challenges, you would never learn or grow. ”
“Wisdom consists not so much in knowing what to do in the ultimate as in knowing what to do next.” —Herbert Hoover