What I’m Learning: Day 14/365

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

How to Be Alone: An Antidote to One of the Central Anxieties and Greatest Paradoxes of Our Time

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

“Solitude, the kind we elect ourselves, is met with judgement and enslaved by stigma. It is also a capacity absolutely essential for a full life.”

So begins Maria Popova in a well-written, excellently curated essay on the art and beauty of spending time with oneself. Sharing various passages from Sara Maitland’s book, How to be Alone, Popova invites the reader to reconsider and reclaim the lost practice of solitude. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

Maitland on the experiences that stimulated her interest in silence and solitude:

I got fascinated by silence; by what happens to the human spirit, to identity and personality when the talking stops, when you press the off button, when you venture out into that enormous emptiness. I was interested in silence as a lost cultural phenomenon, as a thing of beauty and as a space that had been explored and used over and over again by different individuals, for different reasons and with wildly differing results. I began to use my own life as a sort of laboratory to test some ideas and to find out what it felt like. Almost to my surprise, I found I loved silence. It suited me. I got greedy for more. In my hunt for more silence, I found this valley and built a house here, on the ruins of an old shepherd’s cottage.

On the paradoxes of our avoidance of aloneness:

Being alone in our present society raises an important question about identity and well-being.

[…]

How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfillment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?

[…]

We live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.

We see moral and social conventions as inhibitions on our personal freedoms, and yet we are frightened of anyone who goes away from the crowd and develops “eccentric” habits.

We believe that everyone has a singular personal “voice” and is, moreover, unquestionably creative, but we treat with dark suspicion (at best) anyone who uses one of the most clearly established methods of developing that creativity — solitude.

We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone.

[…]

We are supposed now to seek our own fulfillment, to act on our feelings, to achieve authenticity and personal happiness — but mysteriously not do it on our own.

Today, more than ever, the charge carries both moral judgement and weak logic.

Maria Popova adds,

Curiously, and importantly, mastering the art of solitude doesn’t make us more antisocial but, to the contrary, better able to connect. By being intimate with our own inner life — that frightening and often foreign landscape that philosopher Martha Nussbaum so eloquently urged us to explore despite our fear — frees us to reach greater, more dimensional intimacy with others.

Maitland on how solitude improves social interaction:

Nothing is more destructive of warm relations than the person who endlessly “doesn’t mind.” They do not seem to be a full individual if they have nothing of their own to “bring to the table,” so to speak. This suggests that even those who know that they are best and most fully themselves in relationships (of whatever kind) need a capacity to be alone, and probably at least some occasions to use that ability. If you know who you are and know that you are relating to others because you want to, rather than because you are trapped (unfree), in desperate need and greed, because you fear you will not exist without someone to affirm that fact, then you are free. Some solitude can in fact create better relationships, because they will be freer ones.

Popova ends her piece by sharing Maitland’s list of five benefits to be procured from the practice of solitude:

1. A deeper consciousness of oneself
2. A deeper attunement to nature
3. A deeper relationship with the transcendent (the numinous, the divine, the spiritual)
4. Increased creativity
5. An increased sense of freedom

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalks podcast

Allison on Strategy, Profits, and Self-Interest

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Allison on the business philosophy that drives his organizational and personal success:

We have a very strong value system at BB&T. We strongly believe that having the right principles is the foundation for organizational success, and the personal success, and ultimately the happiness of employees…We have ten core values at BB&T. Underlying those values are what we think are the three great virtues: purpose, reason, and self-esteem.

During his conversation with Russ Roberts, Allison shares and expounds on his ten core values:

1. Reality: Start with facts. What is, is. Wishing something so does not make it so.

2. Reason: Our capacity to think logically is the key to our survival, success, and happiness.

One of the things we teach our employees is not to have high IQ’s, but to have what we call an active mind…A person with an active mind is committed to learning and they’re particularly effective at being experiential learners. And they reason they can learn more effectively from experience is that they do two very important things: they learn very effectively from their mistakes because they avoid what we call evasion. Evasion occurs when I’m presented with some piece of information that at some level I know needs to be examined, but I refuse to examine it because threatens something I want to believe about myself or I want to believe about the rest of the world. So I literally don’t hear it. And when you evade, you can’t learn. And learning from your mistakes means admitting you made a mistake at a deep level if you’re going to change. The other aspect of an active mind life is to recognize that life is a constant education…to learn from life, you have to stay in focus, you have to express the ultimate aspect of free will which is the choice to focus your mind or not, to be here or not, to pay attention. When people can’t focus, they can’t learn. So we challenge our employees, in the context of reason, to have an active mind, to refuse to evade, and to stay in focus, and to learn from life.

3. Independent thinking: Thinking for oneself. Being responsible.

Independent thinking makes two things necessary and possible: responsibility and creativity. We think the most important psychological decision anyone can make is to choose to be responsible for themselves. If you aren’t responsible for yourself, if you view yourself as a victim, you’ve given all your power away….you can’t change anybody else. You can only change you, so you’re responsible for you. Also, all human progress is based on creativity. Unless somebody does something better, there can’t be any progress and anything better is gonna be different. And creativity is only possible to an independent thinker. Somebody that thinks like the crowd can’t be creative, can’t be innovative, can’t contribute to human progress.

4. Productivity: the drive to achieve.

We think in a free society, in a free market, profit is a good thing. It’s simply the difference between the value of what we create and the cost to create it. The bigger the difference, the better. So we try to run a very profitable company. To be profitable, you have to be very efficient, you have to be very productive. At the individual level, productivity is that gut-level commitment to get the job done. And I find the difference between high-performers and non-performers is often a psychological phenomenon. We often find that non-performers are looking for a reason to fail. There’s something that’s keeping them from being successful. And high-performers face the same obstacles, but they have that gut level commitment to get the job done.

5. Honest: Don’t try to mislead people. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Don’t claim a level of knowledge you don’t have. Keep your agreements.

6. Integrity: Acting consistent with one’s beliefs.

We believe that if you develop your principles logically based on the facts, those temptations aren’t temptations, they’re just ways to fail…What we think that integrity requires is not sacrifice, but integrity requires a long-term perspective on your life…Some things that might look good in the short-term will hurt you in the long-term and you need to run your life with a long-term perspective.

7. Justice: “Those that contribute the most ought to receive the most.”

8. Pride: “It’s a psychological reminder to do good and it’s a psychological reward for having done good.”

9. Self-esteem and self-motivation:

Work is more than work or else you’re missing a lot of  what life is all about. You need a sense of purpose for your work and you recognize that work is a means by which you can earn self-esteem along with the financial rewards. We need the tangible things in life. We don’t diminish that in any context, but it’s more than that. We’re looking for people that are self-motivated because they realize their work is about who they are as a human being at a very deep level and they have to have passionate and energy in their work in that regard.

10: Teamwork: The willingness to work towards a common goal

We think that teamwork has three dimensions: We think the reason people typically fail at teams is that they didn’t do their own job well, so we expect you to do your job well. We also insist people root for their fellow teammates to be successful…We think the most destructive of all human emotion is envy. And sometimes we envy our fellow teammates and instead of learning from them and getting better, we try to undermine them…Envy is bad. It’s bad for you. It’s a very destructive kind of emotion and we want to drive that out. The final aspect of teamwork is what I call intellectual. It’s understanding how your work affects the rest of the team.

On the goodness of profit & the dangers of taking advantage of others:

We believe in creating win-win relationships. We don’t want to take advantage of our clients. Part of our mission is to help our clients achieve economic success and financial security. We expect to make a profit doing that and we’re very explicit about it, but we also expect to earn it. We expect to provide them with a better quality of life…We aren’t trying to make a profit by taking advantage of people. We’re trying to make a profit by earning a superior reward for a superior service.

We believe that our employees should act in their rational self-interest. Taking advantage of other people, which is called selfish, isn’t really selfish. It’s actually self-defeating. In business you see that very practically. You might fool Tom. You might fool Jane. Pretty soon, Tom and Jane are going to tell Sue and Fred and nobody’s going to trust you. We also think that when you try to focus on taking advantage of other people, that creates the possibility of you becoming paranoid…When you try to manipulate other people’s consciousness, it has very bad psychological consequences for you.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Daniel Kahneman on Bias (Social Science Bites)

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Kahneman on the distinction between two systems of thinking:

Well, there are really two ways that thoughts come to mind. So when I say ‘2 + 2’ the number 4 comes to mind, and when I say ‘17 x 24’ really nothing comes immediately to mind – you are generally aware that this is a multiplication problem. The first kind of thinking, which I associate with System 1, is completely associative, it just happens to you, a thought comes to mind as it were spontaneously or automatically. The second kind of thinking, the one that would produce an answer to the question by computation: that is serial, that is effortful. That is why I call it System 2 or slow thinking.

System 1 is defined really as anything happens automatically in the mind that is without any sense of effort, and usually without a sense of authorship. So it could be an emotion, an emotion is a System 1: tt is something that happens to you, it isn’t something you do. In some cases it could be even an intention: a wish to do something which you feel is something that happens to you. Now the domain of System 2 is that when we speak about System 2, we speak about effortful thinking, if you will, and that includes not only computation and reasoning, but it also includes self-control. Self-control is effortful. And so anything that demands mental effort tends to be classified as System 2 or slow thinking.

On our tendency to think in auto-pilot & how System 1 thinking makes us vulnerable to misjudgment:

Well, one characteristic of System 1 or the automatic thinking is that something comes to your mind almost always – appropriate or not. Whenever you’re faced with a question or a challenge very likely something will come to your mind. And quite often what comes to your mind is not sm answer to the question that you were trying to answer but it’s an answer to another question, a different question. So this happens all the time: I ask you how probable something is and instead of probability what comes to your mind is that you can think of many instances, and you will rely on that to answer the probability question; and it is that substitution that produces systematic biases.

We rely on systematic thinking much less than we think we do. And indeed much of the time when we think we are thinking systematically, that is when we think we have a reason for our conclusions, in effect the conclusions are dictated by the associative machinery. They are conclusions produced by System 1, in my terminology, which are then rationalized by System 2. So much of our thinking involves System 2 producing explanations for intuitions or feelings that arose automatically in System 1.

Well when people are asked a political question ‘What are you in favor of?’ we always are quite capable of producing rationalizations or stories about the reasons that justify our political beliefs. But it’s fairly clear that the reasons are not the causes of our political beliefs, mostly. Mostly we have political beliefs because we belong to a certain circle, people we like hold those beliefs, those beliefs are part of who we are. In the United States for example, there is a high correlation between beliefs about gay marriage and beliefs about climate change. Now it’s very unlikely that this would arise from a rational process of producing reasons: it arises from the nature of beliefs as something that is really part of us.

So this is an experiment that was done in the UK, and I believe that Jonathan Evans was the author of the study, where students were asked to evaluate whether an argument is logically consistent – that is, whether the conclusion follows logically from the premises. The argument runs as follows: ‘All roses are flowers. Some flowers fade quickly. Therefore some roses fade quickly.’ And people are asked ‘Is this a valid argument or not?’ It is not a valid argument. But a very large majority of students believe it is because what comes to their mind automatically is that the conclusion is true, and that comes to mind first. And from there the natural move from the conclusion being true to the argument being valid. And people are not really aware that this is how they did it: they just feel the argument is valid, and this is what they say.

On why we don’t use System 2 thinking more often:

Because it’s hard work. A law of least effort applies. People are reluctant, some more than others, by the way, there are large individual differences. But thinking is hard, and it’s also slow. And because automatic thinking is usually so efficient, and usually so successful, we have very little reason to work very hard mentally, and frequently we don’t work hard when if we did we would reach different conclusions.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

Austrian Economics versus Mainstream Economics | Mark Thornton

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Austrian economics is the oldest continuous school of economic thought. It was essentially founded in 1870, but we date our roots back to 1730. So we’re the oldest school of economic thought. We’re actually also the smartest school of economic thought. There’s probably a hundred or maybe a thousand mainstream economists for every Austrian economist today. And oddly, we are also the fastest growing school of economic thought…Mainstream economics, generally Keynesian economics, but there’s other schools of thought out there as well, they use very complicated methods. They use elaborate mathematical modeling, supercomputers, laboratory rats, all sorts of things to try to predict the future of the economy. Their goal is prediction and they’re willing to use anything, they go to any expense to come up with accurate predictions, even using unrealistic models about human behavior. The Austrians, on the other hand, have a very simple approach…using logic and reasoning to try to understand human economic behavior and various economic processes. While that’s simple, it’s not necessarily easy.

Thornton then delves into a  few of the different aspects between Austrian economics and mainstream economics. Beginning with the basic differences between success and failure in terms of economics and economies, he claims that Austrian economics posit the source of success in free markets, private property, and sound money. Mainstream economics affirms that government regulation and things like the federal reserve, central banking, and the control of the money supply is essential for economic success.

Thornton then goes on to argue that Austrian theory has a better track record throughout history of predicting various sorts of economic realities. Citing Ludwig Von Mises and F.A. Hayek’s prediction of the great depression at a time when mainstream economists thought we were in a new era of economic prosperity, Murray Rothbard’s prediction of the stagflation of the 1970’s, Austrian economists’ warnings about the coming tech stock bubble of the 1990’s when mainstream economist thought we were in a new era, and the successful prediction of the housing bubble in the early 2000’s, Thornton shows how the Austrian school has outperformed mainstream economics in its ability to predict major economic crises.

When discussing deflation, Thornton argues,

Deflation for mainstream economist is literally the black hole of economics. In other words, if you see prices falling in an economy, for them that can lead to bankruptcies and foreclosures with assets having to be sold off at auctions and that’s causing lower prices which is causing bankruptcies, and foreclosures, and layoffs leading to even still lower prices and the economy literally swirls down the black hole like water down a toilet. So they’re fearful of this and they’re willing to do anything to prevent it, going to extreme measures such as putting out hundreds of billions of dollars out there to try to keep prices up. Austrians have a completely different view. We view deflation as a perfectly normal part of the economy where we expect in a free market economy on sound money for prices of things to go down; like the prices of computers going down, the prices of television sets going down, the price of cell phones going down. We would expect in a free market economy, the prices of everything would be going down slowly over time.

Thornton shows how “in a crises, deflation actually plays a critical role that the mainstream economists don’t see.” He talks about how deflation is a “shock absorber”that reallocates misallocated resources back to productive areas that consumers want.

Thornton also discusses how Austrian economist disapprove of bailouts because it essentially amounts to giving out money to bad companies, thereby giving bad incentives to both good companies and bad companies.

Activity XI: One episode from my favorite podcasts list

When Willpower Isn’t Enough: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In this interview, Katherine Milkman,  a behavioral economist, discusses various concepts related to willpower, temptation, and positive habit formation. Milkman’s interest in this research was inspired by her own struggles with unwanted habits:

I struggle a lot with willpower. And I find it difficult at the end of a long day to get to the gym, I find it difficult to stick to my diet, I find it difficult to stick to my goals more generally. And … one of the things I’ve found curious is why, and what I can do to solve those problems for myself and for others. And that’s where a lot of my research focuses.

One of the concepts Milkman discusses is what she calls “temptation bundling”:

What I realized is that if I only allowed myself to watch my favorite TV shows while exercising at the gym, then I’d stop wasting time at home on useless television, and I’d start craving trips to the gym at the end of a long day because I’d want to find out what happens next in my show. And not only that, I’d actually enjoy my workout and my show more combined. I wouldn’t feel guilty watching TV, and time would fly while I was at the gym. So when I talk about temptation bundling, I mean combining a temptation — something like a TV show, a guilty pleasure, something that will pull you into engaging in a behavior, with something you know you should do but might struggle to do.

So what if you only let yourself get a pedicure while catching up on overdue emails for work. Or what if you only let yourself listen to your favorite CDs while catching up on household chores. Or only let yourself go to your very favorite restaurant whose hamburgers you crave while spending time with a difficult relative who you should see more of. Those would all be examples of temptation bundling.

On the distinction between temptation bundling and commitment devices:

I see temptation bundling as a new type of commitment device with some distinct features from standard commitment devices. So a standard commitment device typically provides some consequence if you fail to engage in the intended behavior. And so this is a little different. What we’re doing here is basically combining two commitments with each other and they sort of fit like puzzle pieces. So you’re using something that’s instantly gratifying to create a pull to provide the motivation you need to do something that’s unpleasurable at the moment of engagement. And then the other component that’s different is that you can actually have complementarities, which is an econ-speak term for peanut butter and jelly, two things that would go better together and are more enjoyable together than they would be separately. And so, one of the neat things about, for instance, only allowing yourself to watch your favorite TV show while you’re at the gym, is the fact that you might actually enjoy your workout more and you might enjoy the TV show more when you do them together, whereas a traditional commitment device just penalizes some behavior.

On how Netflix could be used to help people practice temptation bundling:

Gymflix is one of my favorite suggested products. So imagine that you took a company like Netflix and you called it Gymflix and you let people set aside certain TV shows for gym-only access, my research suggests that a product like that might be very attractive to people.

On the “fresh-start effect and how it can be used to help people initiate constructive action:

The popularity of New Year’s resolutions suggests that people are more likely to tackle their goals immediately following salient temporal landmarks. If true, this little-researched phenomenon has the potential to help people overcome important willpower problems that often limit goal attainment. Across three archival field studies, we provide evidence of a “fresh start effect.” We show that Google searches for the term “diet” (Study 1), gym visits (Study 2), and commitments to pursue goals (Study 3) all increase following temporal landmarks (e.g., the outset of a new week, month, year, or semester; a birthday; a holiday). We propose that these landmarks demarcate the passage of time, creating many new mental accounting periods each year, which relegate past imperfections to a previous period, induce people to take a big-picture view of their lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviors.

So one thing we’ve tried is just reminding people that a given day is a fresh start. So, for instance, we have one experiment where we reminded people that a certain day was the first day of spring. And we experimentally compared people who we reminded a certain day was the first day of spring, with another group that we didn’t. And the group that got that first day of spring reminder was more motivated to pursue their goals and receive a reminder about their goals specifically on the first day of spring, when it was labeled as such. And so, you can think about just reframing a given day, reminding someone that it is an opportunity for a fresh start is one intervention that might increase engagement in fresh start behaviors. You could also think about just asking people to do things that are good for them on fresh-start dates. So you might try to roll out, for instance, a planning prompt campaign or offer people an opportunity to sign up for a commitment device or for a temptation bundling device on a fresh start date when we know their natural inclination and their motivation to do things like exercise and diet — and, by the way, we also found the “fresh start effect” with non-health related goals, so looking at things like financial goals and educational goals. So whatever it is that they’re striving to do, if we provide them with the tools they need at a moment when they’re feeling fresh, they may be more likely to take advantage of those tools and start a good, new habit.

On why we should support research aimed at helping people improve themselves instead of just allowing Darwinian forces to eliminate the weak

There are a lot of different answers. One could be that you simply want to see better outcomes for people who maybe didn’t realize what they needed to do or were too busy to figure out what they needed to do. So this is one way of helping people who maybe really would do this if they had the time and energy and education. Another answer would be that there’s huge social benefits, right? So even selfishly, we all pay the costs when other people fail to exert the willpower needed to take care of themselves. And so, you can even think of a selfish reason for engaging in this kind of research and providing these kinds of nudges, which is that society is going to pay the cost when bad things happen to people who didn’t take care of themselves. But I like to think of it as a more altruistic motive.

Activity XII: Read one Blog Post from Favorites List

Why not? by Seth Godin

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Concise but powerful:

If technology gives you the chance to speak up, build a platform and help show the way, why not use it?

If someone offers you a project or a job with more leverage and the chance to both learn and teach, why not take it?

If you can learn something new, more efficiently than ever before, if the opportunity to leap presents itself, why not?

Now is a good time.

Godin’s advice echoes that of my colleague Isaac Morehouse. In his first podcast episode, he challenges himself and his readers to ask “why not?”

I’ve found asking “why not?” in place of “why?” to be almost a kind of breakthrough in my life, tremendously valuable. Now obviously, in every situation it’s not going to apply. But whenever possible, to flip the question and ask “why not?” instead of “why?” has been hugely valuable.

From leaving his hometown in Michigan for a life in Washington D.C. and moving to Charleston to starting up a podcast, Morehouse discusses how he’s been able to make exciting new discoveries. Godin’s post and Morehouse’s podcast invoke the question “why do we not spend more time asking why not?”