Unsolicited Advice (Part 3)

Reflecting on it now, I don’t think I give all that much unsolicited advice these days. I doubt that was the case when I was younger… but I’ve learned that energy is better spent in some directions than others.  I think that most of this friction happens when someone shares their perspective, and I share one which is in conflict with theirs.  Personally, I enjoy this exercise as it’s an opportunity for us both to learn and for our perspectives to evolve.  If it’s something I don’t know much about, I’m much more of a listener than a talker but if it’s something I’ve researched or studied, I’m eager to present what I know in the hopes of the other person learning something.  When the other person is open-minded and also looking to learn, it usually leads to a great conversation.  Think Joe Rogan with Neil Degrasse Tyson.  The problem seems to arise when the other person is closed-minded and not looking to learn.

When I’m talking to someone who’s well researched and knowledgeable, they’re more likely to teach me something than I am to teach them.  When talking to someone who’s rooted in their beliefs, it’s like there’s no progress to be made.  My logic and evidence only serve to frustrate them.  That’s usually where I get called a know-it-all. They get further frustrated by the idea that they can’t change my mind without logic or evidence.   That’s usually when I get called argumentative or combative.  Then I’ll say something along the lines of, “without any evidence, is it possible that it’s not true?”  And that’s where I get labeled an asshole for challenging their beliefs.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to understand those criticisms.  The first several times I heard them, I took them to heart and assumed that the other person was right.  Like I said, I want my friends to challenge my beliefs and call me out on my nonsense.  When they do, I almost always give them the benefit of the doubt and do all that I can to understand things from their perspective.  But then I learned that people carry a great deal of bias in their own advice and that you can’t take everything at face value, especially with an open mind.  If you do, you can be convinced of anything.  And Along the way, I was convinced of many things.  And learning that they weren’t true the hard way, I’ve adopted a new strategy.  If someone can’t explain something to me in a way that I understand, then they have no right to ask me to adopt that perspective.  And rightfully so, if I can’t explain something to someone in a way that they understand, I have no right to expect them to agree with me.  I quite like this approach as it prevents the bad information and the only limit to the good information that gets in is your ability to understand it.  It’s important to be both open, *and* critical.

Even with this approach, people will label me as argumentative, or combative, or stubborn, or someone who thinks they’re always right.  It’s exhausting at times.  Especially when they’re trying to explain something like creationism or flat earth and they’re frustrated with me because it’s not working.  The truth is I don’t care if *I’m* right, I care what’s right.  As someone who embraces the unknown, if I don’t think I know what I’m talking about, I’ll simply say I don’t know or here’s my best guess.  If I think I know something and I’m wrong, the best thing that can happen to me is someone pointing out why I’m wrong.  Why?  Because that’s my opportunity to learn, improve, and arrive at a better understanding.  But what happens when I think I’m right, and someone else thinks they’re right?

This is what I’m trying to navigate right now because everyone seems to have a strong opinion about everything these days.  Someone will volunteer a perspective, and I’ll challenge it.  They’ll provide their reasons, and I’ll provide my criticisms.  I’ll provide my reasons and they’ll provide their criticisms.  In a real conversation, this is where the fun part begins and through facts, reason, and good faith, you hopefully arrive at a common understanding.  When that dynamic plays out through enough people, collectively, humanity gets way smarter.  Unfortunately, that dynamic isn’t nearly as common as “well you have your beliefs and I have mine, so we can just agree to disagree.”  Imagine someone telling you that about the earth being flat.  Seems silly right?  What about someone telling you that about evolution?  Less silly considering that most of the world is deeply religious.  What about politics?  Well considering how divided we are right now, how are we supposed to make up any ground while we’re all agreeing to disagree?

While I’m not committed to this perspective, something has occurred to me.  When people call me stubborn, or argumentative, or someone who always has to be right… it’s usually when I’m standing my ground on something.  If I only stand my ground on things that I  know well and am rather confident in, is that a fair reaction? If I’m always open to seeing new evidence or logic that would challenge my understanding of something, why the animosity?  So I’ve reflected back on some of these claims over the last year:

  1. Racism is not the solution to racism.
  2. Big corporations aren’t inherently evil.
  3. Crystal healing is most likely placebo.
  4. Truth and reality matter.
  5. It’s important to be punctual.
  6. Science and religion are not the same.
  7. We shouldn’t assume something to be true without sufficient evidence.
  8. The end doesn’t justify the means.
  9. Compassion and intelligence are important to problem solving.
  10. Weed isn’t all bad.
  11. Trump is a corrupt individual and most likely will not finish his term.
  12. Technology isn’t evil.
  13. The earth is not flat.

And yet when I stand my ground on my understanding of something, it’s said that I’m being difficult.  If I provide evidence and sources, I’m exhausting to deal with.  I look forward for opportunities to agree with people, but I won’t agree for the sake of getting along.  I can disagree with someone and get along just fine… but in an age where your collective identity matters more than your individual identity, and your identity is established along ideological lines… it seems like agreeing with your tribe is more advantageous than ever.  In the short-term anyways.  I suspect we’re witnessing what happens when it plays out in the long-term term.  Rather than using the tools that allow us to learn and find a common ground with one another, we’re opting to avoid people we disagree with and surrounding ourselves with those who are ‘like-minded’.  But what happens when you have a disagreement with those people? Feminism seems to be approaching some sort of civil war as they fight over things like whether women in porn objectification or liberation.  As this plays out, we get more and more fragmented.. always chasing a safe space that we feel good in.  And eventually, we’re alone.  As the individuals we were meant to be, with our own views and perspectives, based off our own unique experiences.  If only we could appreciate that individuality today, we might be more motivated to find the common ground with one another.  If we had that motivation, perhaps we would refine the tools needed to challenge our own beliefs and understand the perspectives of others.  Perhaps with those tools and confidence, we’d be able to appreciate how disagreements and good conversation are an easy opportunity for everyone involved to learn and be better off.  And maybe with that optimism, we would be much more open to hearing the advice of others.

It’s funny, I often say that people are easier to understand when you think about them like squishy robots.  I may have had a breakthrough.  It occurred to me that when changing the mind of someone else, what you’re effectively doing is changing the programming.  What happens if you introduce a new line of code to an existing program that is in direct conflict with the previous programming?  You get an error.  And if you’re the computer program who has been mostly functional in its tasks, you have to decide whether to reject that new line of code or rewrite the program to accommodate for that new line of code.  I think that’s a lot of what we’re seeing right now.  These facts or ‘updates’ are coming out, and not everyone wants to update to the most recent version.  Some people don’t understand the updates or why they’re necessary while others don’t want to deal with having to rewrite so much of their existing programming to accommodate for the update.  The end result is that the majority of us aren’t working on the most up-to-date software and it’s creating some very serious issues.  When people are working on different versions of software, it makes communication much more difficult.  If the updates are far enough apart, it’s like they’re not even speaking the same language anymore.  And there’s no shortage of people who think that they’ll be just fine without the update.  But we all know how that turns out… you get left behind.

I think the solution to unsolicited advice isn’t hacking the primal or emotional parts of the brain.  It’s the logical brain that understands things and it’s there’s a permanence to understanding things which doesn’t exist in feelings or urges.  I think the key to unsolicited advice is in understanding how to change someone’s mind and that the key to changing someone’s mind is reprogramming them from the ground up.  Before you can introduce that line of code, you have to address the underlying lines of code which are in direct conflict.  Before you can drop some truth on someone,  you have to address the underlying beliefs that it challenges.  Otherwise, it just doesn’t add up and it’ll be easier for them to reject the new information for the sake of comfort in their old beliefs.

Unsolicited Advice (Part 2)

This last year has been a rather interesting case study in my effort to help people.  During this time, I’ve probably had my greatest success and greatest failure.  I’ll start with my failure, the co-founders of the company I was working with.  They’re in their 50s and very much seasoned social justice warriors.  They are of the perspective that feminism can do no wrong, big corporations are inherently evil, and all white people are racist.  I got the impression they held some of these views but they never really came up as we had so much else to focus on.  When they did come up, I did my best to challenge them respectfully.  For example, I would say something like, “I was raised as a feminist, but it doesn’t seem like I have very much in common with the more radical feminists of today.” or, “Within all of feminism, have you seen anything that you wouldn’t support?”  These questions weren’t well received.  The fact that I was even asking them was enough to show that I wasn’t loyal to their cause.

When we first got into these conversations, I thought I was making headway.  Someone would bring up a topic, someone else would agree, someone else would double agree… then someone like me would try and introduce a difference voice into the echo-chamber.  Not for the sake of changing minds, but for the sake of engaging with differing perspectives.  Once people were engaged, I’d say something like, “From what I can tell, melanin can only tell you two things about someone: The color of their skin, and how likely they are to get a sunburn.”  Which would be supported by something along the lines of a, ‘YAASS QUEEN!”  Then I’d follow it up by saying something like, “this idea that you can determine how much privilege someone has experienced by the color of their skin is just silly.”  The response would be much less enthusiastic.  But it did open up more serious conversations, which was my intent.

The more serious conversations usually took place in smaller groups or one-on-ones, and in person or across chat.  When they didn’t understand my perspective, I provided sources.  I’d suggest something like reverse racism wasn’t going to be the solution to racism, and use a well-known quote from MLK to show that he understood the same thing.  Or I’d suggest that not all big corporations are evil and point to Tesla which is arguably doing more for climate change than any individual or small business.  I was hoping that these would be the challenges that would open them up to another perspective, but I was wrong.  Instead, they just stopped engaging with me.  Many of these conversations stopped dead in their tracks because they never responded.  If asked why, they were busy.

This dynamic came to a head this summer.  After they had already established that I wasn’t ‘their kinda people’, we had one more clash.  Twice in two weeks, the founders had showed up 15-20 minutes late for our weekly meeting and instead of apologizing and getting straight to work, spent the first few minutes testing out new healing crystals they were given.  The first time, I was given one and asked if I could ‘feel’ it’s power.  I humored them, held it and followed instructions, and felt nothing.  I was told that I just didn’t have ‘it’.  I laughed it off and and we proceeded with the meeting.  Later that night, rather than playing to my own bias, I thought it would be better if I did some research on crystal healing.  Turns out it’s probably placebo and nobody has ever been able to demonstrate otherwise.  The second time they brought out healing crystals to start a meeting, I mention it.  I don’t come out and say that crystals are fake and they’re silly for believing in it.  I say that after the other week, I didn’t want to hold a biased perspective so I went and looked up some studies.  I asked if they’d be interested in hearing what the studies said.  They said sure, so I did.  The founders snap back and I’m told that they’re just scientists and that science is just another form of religion so it can’t be relied upon.  I challenge that view saying that the difference between science and religion is that with science, you’re encouraged to accept new evidence so that your perspective can evolve, whereas with religion, you’re discouraged to accept new evidence so that you can maintain your existing perspective.  Both of them started going on about personal experiences with crystals and said something along the lines of ‘you can’t tell me that what I felt wasn’t real’ to which I say, “you’re right, but I don’t think it’s fair to assume that those feelings came from the crystals and not your body.”  They start aggressively asking how do I explain psychic mediums and astrology.  I tell them it’s psychology, primarily the Barnum effect and that I’d be happy to show them what’s going on there too.  They end up getting really frustrated with me and snap, “Don’t challenge our beliefs.”

*Sigh*

I thought I was helping.  I really, really did.  I thought I was being nice.. and reasonable.. and supportive.. and understanding.. and none of it seemed to matter.  We never fully recovered from that disagreement and I’m no longer in a leadership role with the company as a result.  But what was my alternative?  Contribute to their echo chamber to make them feel more comfortable around me?  Not say anything because we disagree? Not be motivated to help them?  Not find solutions to the problems I’m faced with?  None of those seem like reasonable solutions.

 

The second example is someone who I met earlier this year, but I’d like to spend a few minutes on where..  I met her at a personal growth seminar which a mutual friend had invited us both to.  Heading into the seminar, they asked that we choose something that we’d like to get out of the seminar.  My request was learning how to tell people what they need to hear in a way that they want to hear it.  I never made the assumption that I would always know what someone needed to hear.  I only accepted that there were times where I saw an obvious solution to an obvious problem and wanted to effectively communicate that to another person.  Since it was a weekend seminar and acted as an intake program for their bigger package, there were a lot of people who arrived skeptical.  By the third day, most of the room trusted the facilitator completely… to the point where many of them were willing to shell out close to $10,000 for a week-long leadership camp after a, “and if you sign up now, for a limited time, we’ll give you the super discount which won’t be available later!” kinda pitch.

I learned the same thing from that seminar that I’ve learned through watching politicians for years, it’s not about what you say, it’s about making the other person feel good about what you say.  The seminar absolutely presented a lot of good information, including a few hard truths.  But following each of these exercises, their senses were bombarded by positive affirmation.  The affirmation showed up in a variety of ways, including applause from the crowd, personal touch in the form of hugs, words of affirmation from your peers, even the kinda music you’d hear from a Disney movie when your favorite character has their big breakthrough.  It’s as if they understood that they could explain things to their crowd logically, but that it wouldn’t be as well received without an element of emotional reinforcement.  There’s a great book about marketing by Simon Sinek called ‘Start with Why’ which suggests (quite accurately) that people don’t buy your product because of your product, but rather because of how they feel about you.  When crafting your marketing, it’s not about what you do or how you do it, but rather why you do it.

When I first saw Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on the topic, I thought it was genius.  I still think it’s genius, but now I think it also highlights a deep flaw in our ability to analyze and be critical.  Sinek, is effectively saying it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing or how you’re doing it, as long as people agree with why you’re doing it.  As long as people agree with your why, they’ll be willing to overlook the how or what.  I gotta say, that explains a lot of the world right now.  Trump supporters don’t seem to have any consistency on approving what he’s doing or how he’s doing it… but just about all of them agree on the why… “Make America Great Again!”  Just about every major Trump policy has been rebuked for good reasons and from real experts.  Almost all of Trump’s policies are ultimately going to be counter-productive to making America great again.  But it doesn’t matter.. because it isn’t about the how or what, it’s why.

Taking that another step further, does everyone who cares about why over how and what?  Not really.  The engineering crowd, the coding crowd, the legal crowd… these are careers that are built on the how and what.  These are also careers that require a deeply logical mind.  How and what are functions of logic and therefore functions of the brain’s neo-cortex.  The why that Sinek seems to refer to isn’t a philosophical why (a logical why), but rather one which is designed to invoke a strong emotional reaction.  That emotional reaction sits in our limbic brain and is a very powerful driver of behavior.  Arguably the only stronger drivers of behavior are our most basic of instincts, fight, flight and sex.  When you consider how often and how effectively sex has been used in marketing, this starts to make sense.  It seems as though a very real approach to marketing is triggering the more primal parts of the brain into adopting a positive stance on a product or service, in the hopes of it driving purchasing behavior.  If sex doesn’t sell, use emotion.  Why are we so reluctant to communicate with our customers based on the merits of our products or services?  Well… probably because it doesn’t work very well.

We spent a lot of time angry at corporations for what they do to us with very little consideration for the fact that they reflect our demand.  I don’t think it’s fair to be upset at companies for marketing to our baser instincts or the lowest common denominator when that’s how we insist on shopping.  Just like it’s not fair to be upset with those who choose to support their friends by just listening and trying to make you feel better.  Because that seems to be what we’re looking for.  Personally, I put the responsibility on the individual.  If you’re shopping, don’t abandon the why, but don’t ignore the how or what either.  In fact, once you find a why you like, feel free to be very critical about the how and what to give yourself the best chance at being happy with your purchase.  Similarly, when you’re going through something and want input from a friend, don’t abandon the value of getting something off your chest or speaking your mind, but don’t expect that friend’s input to only be things that make you feel good.  Being presented with a hard truth is very uncomfortable.  If you accept it, it forces you to realign your entire reality with something you just learned.  This is not easy.  But consider the alternative.

 

And now we actually get to my second example, the friend who I met at the personal growth seminar in the spring.  From my understanding, she lived a fairly sheltered childhood, then went off to university for a business degree.  In her early 20s, she got a decent paying corporate gig and partied her heart out.  As she started to grow beyond that phase, she found that Yoga had played a very positive role in her life and started the journey of becoming a Yoga teacher.  When I met her this spring, she was most of the way through that training and actually off to Costa Rica for another Yoga camp.  We got along really well during the seminar, and started hanging out a bit afterward.  I’ve now known her for about 8 months and I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone grow as much as she has in those 8 months.

When I met her, she was still somewhat sheltered, but clearly very smart.  As we started chatting, I found that she had really committed herself to the ‘spiritual’ side of yoga.  It wasn’t that she was already there but rather, she was trying to learn and fit in.  Some of it made sense to her, but as she put it, some of the other stuff seemed ‘witchy’.  For example, it made sense that we all had a deep connection to nature which we don’t understand all that well.  It made less sense to pour the blood from your menstruation in a clockwise fashion under a tree during a full moon (I hope I got that right).  She knew that there was wisdom in some of what she was learning, but also had some serious reservations about the rest.  Because of the tribal dynamics in those groups, it was an all-or-none kinda thing.  Either you’re in, or you’re out, and I got the impression she wasn’t sure.

In response, I told her that from my perspective, there was a lot of wisdom in spirituality.. that it was a metaphorical way of understanding things that science hasn’t figured out how to explain just yet.  I gave examples that resonated and let her know that she could still be a great yoga teacher knowing this… and that perhaps this would be a path for her to become an amazing yoga teacher.  Considering that she was targeting men and the corporate crowd, a greater emphasis on the how and what might be just as valuable as the why.  This made sense to her, and it led to a lot of great conversations between us.  And then it didn’t.

One of the things I’ve complimented her on endlessly, and deservedly so, is her open mind. I think it’s an absolute gift and responsible for her not being rooted her in beliefs.  But I’ve noticed a downside to that open mind, and it’s that it changes often.  On more than one occasion, she came to me with a new perspective, which was much more in line with her old beliefs.  Because it was be such a pivot from our last conversation, it wasn’t hard to notice that she had been talking to someone else who had a strong opinion on what she was doing.   In each case, it seemed like someone from that tribe saw that they were losing a member and did their best to reinforce the tribe’s beliefs.  She would come to me projecting strength and confidence but all I could see was conflict and lack of clarity.  It’s why I’ve done my best to never tell her what to think, only how to go about understanding her world more accurately.

In these conversations, I challenged her beliefs, called her out on her nonsense, and encouraged her to make thoughtful decisions over emotional ones.  All the kinds of things I would hope for from a good friend.  Sometimes the conversations were difficult.  Sometimes there were tears.  Sometimes she was legitimately upset with me… but I don’t think she ever doubted my intentions.  I really did see someone who was taking just about everything that I was throwing at them… all the things that it took me years of blood, sweat, and tears to learn… and was just chewing through them all.  A little discomfort here and there seemed like a very reasonable price to pay for this level of progress.

A couple weeks ago, she came to me with the biggest smile on her face and said that she finally listened to some Jordan B Peterson and Neil Degrasse Tyson.  While from vastly different perspectives, both speak to the value of truth, reality, and developing the tools to understand them better.  She spoke like the entire universe had opened up to her in the clearest of ways, and I knew exactly where she was coming from.  It was something I had been through.. and something I was trying to help her get to.  I was confident that once she was here, she would have the foundation and tools necessary to arrive at her own understanding of the universe… not one based on beliefs borrowed from others.

That big breakthrough wasn’t the result of some strategic link I sent her or a witty thought I had planted in her mind months ago.  It was her.  I had encouraged her to listen to these individuals before but for whatever reason, they didn’t stick.  Then months later, she rediscovered them on her own and there it was.  That didn’t upset me in the least as the breakthrough itself was the ultimate goal and I was just super happy she had arrived.  And she thanked me for my part in helping her get there.  That moment is exactly why I do what I do.  We both had big smiles on our faces and were excited about what this meant for her in the bigger picture.

It was in that moment, I reflected on a dynamic I’ve been trying to improve.  She would arguably be a best case example of me trying to help someone grow as an individual.  She and I had differing perspectives when we met, but (I think) we were always respectful of one another and eager to approach things with an open mind.  While most of our conversations were academic, some became very emotional and led to discomfort and tears.  In those moments, I did my best to be supportive while also maintaining the point I was trying to communicate.  While I suspect this made those moments more difficult at the time, I also think that this was imperative to her stepping outside her comfort zone and truly challenging those beliefs.  Maybe this can be understood as me forcing her to face her beliefs.  Maybe this can also be understood as her forcing me to accept her beliefs and me standing my ground – in the interest of her future well-being and our friendship.  Either way, there had to be a better way of going about this.  An approach that didn’t risk giving up the breakthroughs she’s had, but also an approach which doesn’t risk what happened with the co-founders.  It’s easy to say that someone’s mind must be open before it can be changed, but I’d like to put the responsibility back on myself.

A few nights ago, she texted me asking for moral support after she had seen some disturbing pictures.  As she had spent so much of her life sheltered, she managed to avoid knowing about some of the atrocities going on in the world.  I told her that her naturally positive attitude towards life is a quality that I admire, but it’s not the same if you arrive there while ignoring the darkness in the world.  I think it takes an enlightened mind to remain genuinely positive while being aware of humanity’s greatest misdeeds, and that it’s something we should all strive for.   As someone who had just looked at pictures of things like decapitated children, she was having a very strong emotional reaction.  Considering that she had texted me, and was asking for support, I thought I should probably start by listening and let her calm herself down by articulating what she felt.  Then I asked her why she felt that way, knowing that if she could turn these emotions into thoughts, she would no longer feel the way she did.  Even better, as thoughts, you retain all the same advantages of that emotion, without having to deal with the burden of such intensely negative feelings.  Despite trying to listen and understand, I was reprimanded for not giving the kind of support that she needed.  She was looking for emotional or moral support, and this clearly wasn’t it.  I was so confused.

She said things like why couldn’t I just be there for her this time and look to help her next time?  I responded by saying that sounded like a dick-move.  If I had the option of helping you get through this in a healthy way this time or next time, why would I wait until next time?  Wouldn’t that mean you would have to go through something like this twice?  Why would a friend want that for you?  Why would you want that for yourself?  We had a good laugh… I think she understood where I was coming from.. but it still didn’t feel the way she wanted it to.  So I had to ask, how do you tell someone something that they need to hear, in a way that they want to hear it?

I pointed out that even with her, there was plenty of pain and discomfort in our conversations.  While the end result seems to be something we’re both very happy about, I’m hoping to learn of a better way of getting there.  Given the nature of the conversation, she was still upset with me for not giving her the kind of support she had wanted.  As a result, she challenged me saying that I’m not always right, and that I subscribe to my own story, and something along the lines of I’m too confident for my own good.

*sigh*

Unsolicited Advice (Part 1)

Back in the day, I had a friend forward me a Harvard Business Review article on sales types.  There was an element of sales to our job and he wanted to point out that I fell into the ‘challenger’ category.  The challenger would hear the customer out, identify where they had a mental block around the transaction, and then challenge that block.  While this was among the most successful approaches, it was not the most common.  The person in this position had to be confident in their own expertise, accurate in their analysis of the situation, and willing to tell the customer that they were wrong.  In most cases, the customer would hear that they’re wrong, be surprised, and want to know why.  This was an opportunity to drop some knowledge on them that could very well influence the sale in a positive direction.  This has proven to be one of the the most effective approaches when buying the product or service was genuinely in the customer’s best interest,

But what if your solution is in their best interest, but the person doesn’t want to hear it?

This is what I’ve been running into over the years and I’ve found it rather challenging.  I’ve learned that at the core of who I am, I’m a problem solver.  If you bring me a problem, there’s a good chance I’m going to try and provide a solution.  It’s like a reflex.    I also learned that unsolicited advice on how to live one’s life was rarely well received.  It didn’t matter if the problem was clear as day, or the solution was tried and true, if they didn’t want to hear it, they didn’t want to hear it.

Perhaps the most classic example I’ve faced is trying to be supportive of a girlfriend who’s facing a problem with an emotional mindset.  When men reach out to other men about their problems, they’re usually looking for a solution.  From my experience, when a woman reaches out to you with a problem, offering a solution will make the situation worse.  There’s a short but highly entertaining and informative YouTube video that speaks to this call It’s Not About the Nail.  You have a young couple sitting on the couch and the girlfriend is talking about a pain in her head and the anxiety she has around it.  Then a new camera angle shows that there is an actual nail in the girl’s forehead.  The boyfriend sheepishly asks if it might be the nail causing all this pain.  She snaps at him saying it’s not about the nail.  He pushes back saying that the nail in her head might be the cause of all this.  She snaps at him again telling him to stop trying to fix everything, that all she needs is someone to listen to her.  He tries once more suggesting that what she probably needs is that nail taken out of her head, but she cuts him off and says “see, you’re not even listening now.”  He says fine and decides to listen, so she goes on to describe all these symptoms of the pain from the nail.  He musters up a, “well that all sounds.. really hard.”  She responds with a soft, “thank you.”

I still find this dynamic to be so confusing.  I do see value in having someone to talk to about the problems you’re facing, but I also think that you should also be interested in the advice of the person you’ve chosen to confide in.  Perhaps it’s based in comfort.  When I face a challenging moment, I pay very little attention to how I feel in that moment because I’m focused on overcoming the challenge.  Perhaps for some, it’s not about overcoming the challenge but about feeling better.  And perhaps for those individuals, telling someone who will nod along, be agreeable, and gives that impression of unconditional support is what helps return you to feelings of safety and comfort.

This has proven itself to be a significant challenge in my life as my two biggest motivators seem to be solving problems and helping others.  When I see someone facing a problem, my mind races to a best solution and I’m eager to help them get there.  But it seems as though the more I want to help, the less interested they become in hearing what I have to say.

After having been through that ‘Nail’ scenario a few times, it wasn’t difficult to see that if a woman came to me with a problem, it was unlikely that she would be looking for a solution, and more likely to be looking for someone to listen and understand.  I also noticed that women, in this context, were far better listeners than men.  In one relationship, I said that I might make a better problem solver than her friends, but that I probably wouldn’t make as good of a listener for the same reasons.  I suggested that if she just wanted to vent, that her friends were a better option.  But that if she was ready to solve a problem, I was always ready to help.  She understood, thought it was fair, and I was excited to see how it worked.  It worked terribly.  She called me in tears one day about her pet having injured himself.  I clued in and realized that she was probably looking for someone to listen… so I did my best and I think I did pretty well.  Then she calmed down and shifted to asking about some legal issues she was facing from a car accident a couple years ago.  So I ask if she’s looking for me to listen, or for solutions to problems.  She thanks me for checking in, asked for solutions, and proceeded to lay out the problem.  The solution happened to contain an inconvenient truth.  She didn’t want to face the fact that she would bear some responsibility for the incident and that there would eventually be consequences.  She broke into tears, was upset with me for not being compassionate to her situation, and then decided that she wasn’t ready to hear what I had to say and hung up.  A few months after we broke up, she texted me to let me know how much she appreciated those moments and how valuable they were to her in the long run.

It was almost a couple years ago that she sent me that message and it helped me notice something.  A big part of what I do is I try to understand the situation in the most honest terms possible.  If I see a difference between my understanding of the situation and their understanding of the situation, I’ll try to understand why.  In most cases, it seems as though the problem is rather obvious and the solution is rather simple.  The difficult part is that it includes a hard truth, an inconvenient fact which they’ll have to face if they are to truly solve this problem.  The problem I’ve observed about hard truths is that they challenge your existing beliefs, and it can be much more comfortable to retreat to your existing beliefs than it is to venture into the unknown.  And instead of recognizing that this fear, discomfort and anxiety are a result of moving away from the comfort of your beliefs and towards truth and the unknown… you assume the messenger is the one making you feel this way.

I came across a Mark Twain quote recently that speaks to this dynamic and something bigger that we’re all dealing with in some way right now, “It’s easier to fool someone than to convince them they’ve been fooled.”

Power Vs. Efficiency

I’ve been trying to understand power.  What is it?  Why do people want it?  What does it help you accomplish?  Is it something I should pursue?

A younger me sought power for the sake of doing good.  Average me could do some good, powerful me could do lots of good.  Seemed like power was only a bad thing when in the hands of bad people.  I suspect that’s the understanding most people are under.  I’m not so sure.

Consider this…  If we accept this idea that only good people should be powerful, then we’ll actively look to empower those who we think are good while tearing down those who we think are bad.  Sounds like most of history right?  But who gets to decide who is good and who is bad?  It’s not always so obvious.  And what happens when the powerless become powerful?  Do we achieve balance? Or do we create another dominance hierarchy?

The first quote that ever stuck with me was, “Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  So by empowering someone, what are we really doing?  If we look throughout history, the powerful have never been without corruption.  It didn’t matter at which point in history, or which culture, or which political ideology you followed, power corrupted all.  Yet when we see corruption among the powerful and call foul, our first instinct is to take the power from them.

That’s probably the beauty of democracy, the power of the people is distributed among the people.  At least that’s how it’s supposed to go.

So is everything just about power?  Being the oppressor or being the oppressed?  I doubt it.  There has to be another level to this.

What about me?  What would I do if I had power?  As someone who prioritizes integrity and the good of others, how would I be corrupted.  What if my intentions were to do the best I could for everyone I was responsible for.  What if my inner circle included everyone?  Why doesn’t that sound like power?

I have an idea.

What if power was the anti-thesis of efficiency?  Here’s a simple example:  You have someone within a company who gets to hire any person of their choosing for a position.  When that person hires their friend instead of the best candidate, it’s a demonstration of power.  When that person hires the best candidate, it’s a demonstration of efficiency.  It doesn’t matter how powerful a person is, as long as they’re making the best decision for everyone involved, it’s an exercise in efficiency.  It only becomes an exercise in power when those involved disagree with the decision being made.  Why would you need to impose your will when your decisions are best for everyone and are being welcomed by others?

This idea of only the good should be powerful… there’s another level to it.  The reason why we have such a hard time agreeing on who should be powerful is because we have such a hard time agreeing on who (or what) is good.  If we could come up with a decision which we universally recognized as good… it would be because it was what was most beneficial to those involved.  If that decision was to the immense benefit of everyone involved, I have a hard time perceiving that as power.  Taking everyone’s needs into consideration and deciding what was best for everyone involved seems like a remarkable if not impossible exercise in efficiency.

Perhaps we’ve established two ends of a spectrum.

It’s Not a Disability, It’s a Genetic Variance

Over the last few years, I started realizing how much trouble we were having communicating with one another.  Less so for close friends and family.  Much more so when it comes to discussing ideologies with strangers.  Having failed at so many of these conversations, I may have learned something.  If we want to have more meaningful conversations, we need to do a better job of being honest with one another.  And that includes using the most accurate language available to us.

I hear the word disability tossed around a fair bit.  There now seems to be a disability for everything.  It’s like if you’re anything other than the ‘perfect’ human blueprint, you are somehow lesser.  And this is your disability.

Fuck that.

I read something interesting a few months ago about the victim mentality.  Someone was asked why it had gained in popularity and what made it attractive.  The answer was rather simple:  it was an easy way to be powerful.  The traditional route to power was through hard work and success, and it usually took  years.  In a society that celebrates and protects victims, why invest the time and effort into building yourself up through accountability and responsibility when you could get the same result through claiming your victimhood?  Why put in the long hours and make the hard decisions when you could look for ways in which you’ve been marginalized and call foul?

Disabled?  Why even try?  Why would you want to overcome your challenges?  Why would you want to try and find your gift?  Why not tell the world that you got a raw deal and that it’s their responsibility to make it up to you?

Because of Stephen Hawking and everyone like him.

Put him in a pro football game and I’ll show you someone who is appears severely disabled.  Place him within an academic environment where he can research, study, and share his knowledge… I’ll show you one of the most gifted individuals of the last century.  It’s only a disability when you apply yourself to the wrong task.  That means it’s not a disability, it’s a misalignment.  Your genetic variance needs to be aligned with the right task for you to do what you do best.  I would imagine Gronk would be about as successful at teaching theoretical physics to a group of PhDs as Hawking would be at catching an end-zone pass.

I think it’s about time we start making an effort to understand the situation for what it is.  There are plenty of illnesses which are real.  There are all kinds of foreign substances which can be introduced to your body which will mess your shit up.  That’s where it’s important to understand how to heal the body and bring it back to a sustainable equilibrium.  But I can’t help but think that this is very different from most if not all physical or cognitive ‘disabilities’.  Those aren’t disabilities, those are genetic variances.

When I try to think about myself from the perspective of disability, I can see plenty that’s wrong with me.  I get pretty bad pollen allergies every year.  My vision isn’t perfect.  I qualify as dyslexic.  I have a series of lingering sports injuries including chronic lower back pain and metal in my arm.  I have a heavily deviated septum.  My sense of smell sucks.  I binge eat.  And etc. And etc. And etc.  And it’s not like I’m unaware of them.  I’m working on improving the ones I can, and not stressed about the rest.

It’s funny, I’m thinking back to when I grew up and it the was kind of neighborhood where nobody was short on disadvantages.  Everyone was aware of what was making their lives hard.  We didn’t complain or expect someone else to change it though, we just assumed the deck was stacked against us.  What we would do was use that a measure of whose success was worth celebrating.  It wasn’t about who had the greatest accomplishment, it was about who did the most with the least.  I can’t help but be grateful that I was raised with that perspective.

When I think about who I am and what I’ve been given, with the perspective I have today… I see something pretty cool.  All things considered, I think I got a pretty good roll of the genetic dice.  But like anyone else, it’s a mixed bag.  The way my brain is wired allows me to do certain thing exceptionally well while it struggles with others.  Dyslexic?  Why?  Because my brain is wired to do things differently than someone else’s?  And what if I can do these things better than the average person?  Is it a disability?  Who’s to say that my unique genetic variance doesn’t simultaneously display symptoms of dyslexia while allowing my mind to do all kinds of other cool things that others struggle with

We are all our own deviation from the human blueprint.  Each variation of that blueprint comes with its own advantages and disadvantages.  And those advantages and disadvantages wills shift depending on circumstance.  The best thing we can do for ourselves is understand where we have the potential to be exceptional at and apply ourselves to the best of our abilities.   The best thing we can do as a society is to support the discovery of what makes us different, and then to support the pursuit of being our absolute best at it.  Through this, I can see a happier, more productive world.

Whatever it is that you are, there is something you do better than anyone else. If you spend your time doing that, you are not disabled, you are gifted.

Truth & Reality, and why it matters (Part 3)

This marks my third attempt at trying to tackle a subject that I started over a month ago.  Part of me feels like it was a failure that I couldn’t do this in one try.  Another part of me feels a bit foolish for thinking I could create any semblance of a summary on the topic (regardless of attempts).  And yet another part of me appreciates that I took a crack at it and for having learned a few things along the way.

For over a month now, I’ve been asking myself why truth and reality matter.  I’ve been reading other peoples’ interpretations of the matter.  I’ve watched TED talks on it.  I’ve talked to friends about it.  And I’ve even revisited uncomfortable conversations where this was the theme.  I keep coming back to the same thing:

If truth and reality don’t matter, what does?

That’s the answer that popped immediately into my head the first time I asked it.  I thought it was a novel response, but also a bit of a cop out.  Answering a question with a question is always a bit cheeky and I was looking for something a bit more concrete anyways.  But I kept coming back to that.  Finally, I thought to explore that direction a bit further.  And as is usually the case, while in the shower, I made progress.

It comes down to this frustration of mine.  When people feel that we’re all entitled to our own truth and our own reality… that we don’t all share a truth and a reality… I lose the ability to connect with them.  The example that comes to mind first is talking to religious fundamentalists about the age of the earth.  The scientific consensus is 4.5 billion years old while various religious texts suggest only a few thousand years old.  If you were to approach one of these individuals and suggest that the earth might be much older than they believe, they might tell you that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs.  If you were to provide them with evidence which challenged their belief, they might respond by saying that god put that there to test their faith.  If you were to provide them with logic which challenged their belief, they might respond by saying god put you there to challenge their faith.  No matter what you might do or say, it only confirms their narrative.  Rather than continuing to try and understand the reality which we all live in, that person has committed to their tribe’s interpretation… one in which I struggle to find common ground.

I suspect this theme is well understood by those who work at mental health institutions with more extreme disorders.  When someone shares a reality with you, there’s an alignment.  With an alignment, things like communication, empathy, intuition, and chemistry are possible;  and can even become effortless.  When that alignment is absent.. I’m picturing a therapist trying to communicate with someone who has severe dementia.  They exist in two different worlds.  Both have a genuine belief that their world is real, but the two exist in vastly different interpretations of the same reality.

Without a shared reality, we lose the ability to connect with one another.  If we were chess pieces, reality would be our chess board.  If you’ve decided that you’re a checker, we’ve likely lost the ability to interact in a meaningful way.  And if too many people start to think they’re playing checkers, we lose the ability to play chess.  Chaos.

But how do we know we’re chess pieces and not checkers?  Isn’t it important to explore alternative explanations?  Is that not a primary purpose of freedom?

The hard truth is that we’ll probably never know for certain whether we’re playing chess or checkers.  The way in which our minds sense, interpret, and then hallucinate our realities, there always exists the potential that this is all a grand dream (or a simulation being run by advanced aliens).  And the hard truth we must accept is that this possibility will always exist and we must understand it to move forward.  Yes it’s a possibility, but one which has only ever existed in theory.  Everything we’ve ever observed would suggest that our reality is real.  Technically it is still an assumption, but it’s the assumption that all other assumptions are built on.  If we can’t agree on this, nothing else that we might agree on would have any basis in reality (because we couldn’t first agree on reality).

I often look at the universe through the lens of building blocks.  Matter has building blocks.  Math and physics have building blocks.  Even logic has building blocks.  When I’m thinking about connecting with old friends, things are seamless.  The building blocks of trust and familiarity are already there.  If I presented a new idea, it would be received fairly.  If the information was good and the logic was sound, my friends would look at that as an opportunity to learn and expand their understanding of the universe.  If it was bad information and faulty logic, they would make fun of me relentlessly.  Either way, this requires us to understand that we all live in our own interpretation of a shared reality.  What truly exists in my reality also exists in theirs and vice versa.  None of our interpretations are entirely accurate or complete, but some interpretations are more accurate and more complete than others.

If I were to try and have a conversation with strangers in which I was challenging their beliefs, one would hope that we would still agree on the basics.  Basics like the laws of physics, the value of logic, and that we all exist within a shared reality.  I would go so far as to say that if we all had a deep understanding of each, we’d be far more constructive in resolving conflicts and learning about the world around us.  Unfortunately, that’s not often the case.  Instead, I’ve found that people prefer to maintain their beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence or reason.  And that’s where you start migrating away from the reality which we all exist in and start to build walls around the interpretation of reality you’ve created for yourself.  While potentially harmless at times, I can’t help but think that this, as a way of life, is deeply counter-productive to humanity’s goals.

 

I think I’ve made a case for why reality matters, but truth isn’t necessarily the same thing.  I’ve been grappling with the difference between a true statement and a universal truth.  Coming up with definitions we can all agree on is important to conversations like these.. otherwise we’re using the same words but talking about different things.  It’s important to have that common ground.  While there are nuanced differences between a universal truth and a true statement, I think that from the right perspective, they’re both the same.

A true statement would be something to the effect of looking down at your shoes, seeing red shoes, and then saying that you are wearing red shoes.  But what if your shoes weren’t red?  What if you had a genetic variance that caused you to see your green shoes as red?  You would see red, meaning that it was a true statement.  But if everyone else saw green, are the shoes not green?  I think this is the nuance between a true statement and a universal truth.  A true statement is an honest recollection of your interpretation of our shared reality while a universal truth is something which is true for everyone, whether or not they realize it.  And I can’t help but think that they are still the same thing.  Something to the effect of when someone makes an inaccurate ‘true statement’, it’s an act which occurs in reality.  If something occurs in reality, that action is true to everyone; ergo, the statement is false but the action is true.

And perhaps therein lies the monumentally confusing feat we’ve been struggling with.  With all of our genetic and cognitive differences, we’re bound to interpret our shared reality differently from one another.  It’s like we’re photographers, all taking pictures of the same scene.  While only one scene exists, we’ll produce a variety of pictures.  Some will be a difference of perspective, some will be a difference of equipment, some will be a difference of technique, and some will come up with their own wacky shit.  That’s not just OK, that should be encouraged.  But we must remind ourselves that our pictures are not the scene.  Our pictures are glimpses of the scene, just as the worlds which our minds project are only glimpses of the world we all live in.

Logic is how we find truth.  Truth is how we find reality.  And perhaps finding reality is a good start to understanding our place within it.

Truth & Reality, and why it matters (Part 2)

I take small breaks from writing here and there, but this one was different.  I had written the first half of this entry with the intention of writing the second half shortly after.  I struggled though.  The rest of my life continued to bombard me with questions about what I thought truth and reality were.  I wanted to be sure before I wrote anything else.  I’m still not.  But fuck writers block…

 

Last night, I was hanging out with one of my favorite people who happens to be going through some of the same challenges I’m going through.  She came from a more conservative background, earned a business degree, worked in insurance for a while and eventually came to realize that there was a more liberal side to life that she had been missing out on.  She’s now a yoga teacher who recently competed her schooling on holistic nutrition.  She made the transition from the corporate crowd to what she calls the ‘woo woo’ crowd.  It seemed like she was pretty happy about how it was all going.. peace and love to everyone.  What could be wrong with that?

She dove in head first.  She was greeted by sisterly love, magic, wonder, positivity, gratitude and all kinds of good vibes.  From what I understand, it can be a very nice place.  But she started to struggle a bit during some of the teachings when things got a bit religious.  Ironically, much of this ‘new-age’ crowd borrows from ancient practices.  From crystal healing, to chakras, to rituals that largely sound like witchcraft.  At one point, she was at a yoga course which taught her to save the blood from her menstruation and pour it by a tree in a counter-clockwise fashion under a full moon.  I might have gotten some of that wrong, but the point stands.

She told me that some of this was starting to feel a bit ‘witchy’.  Something wasn’t sitting right.. and like that itch that you just can’t seem to scratch, she started asking questions.  Some of those questions were directed at her peers.  Some were directed towards me.  As the weeks have gone by, we’ve both been trying to reconcile the spiritual with the scientific realm.

We know that science exists because science is simply the practice of accurately explaining our reality.  If spirituality also exists, and exists within our reality, it can also be explained through science.  Again, just because it’s possible to explain something through science doesn’t necessarily mean that we have those answers today.  I think there’s something powerful to the idea that spirituality can be explained through science.  Perhaps this separates those of us who are looking for the truth from those who aren’t.

When I think about the idea of science explaining spirituality, I think of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.  Reading that book is the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had.  It laid out the facts of the universe in such an eloquent way that you couldn’t help but feel a connection to everything else that has ever existed – A ‘oneness’ with the universe.  Simple facts like there being more bacteria cells in your body than human cells can make you question who you really are.  Suggesting that the same breath of air you’re taking now contains molecules of air which were breathed by the likes of Napoleon, Beethoven, and Lincoln reminds us of how interconnected our planet is.  And knowing that we are stardust brought to life… provides all the beauty, wonder, and magic that I need to feel good about my place in the universe.

What were to happen if I were to bring these ideas to someone who was fundamentally religious?  Would they keep an open mind?  Would they engage in a genuine conversation in pursuit of the truth?  If what was discussed made sense to them, would they consider changing their beliefs?

Probably not.

The scientific community has become fairly accustomed to writing off the religious crowd as unreasonable when it comes to challenging their beliefs.  They might be reasonable in other areas of their lives, but their beliefs are their beliefs.

Never in my life did I consider myself to be religious.  I spent most of my high school and university years considering myself an atheist.  Eventually, I realized that despite all the knowledge and understanding that humans have acquired over the years, we were still in no position to determine whether or not ‘god’ is or was real.  As far as I’m concerned, we’ve still yet to come up with a definition of god that we would all agree on.  I liked this perspective though.  It left the unknown within the realm of the unknown.  No undue assumptions.. no beliefs.. just an appreciation of what we know and a sense of curiosity and excitement for what we may learn next.  Add in a learned appreciation for a metaphorical understanding of the universe, and I started calling myself spiritual.

What I knew of the spirit was that while it may have no weight, emit no energy, or cease to exist when our physical bodies die, it was an intangible representation of what made us unique within the universe.  Perhaps there was a connection to the realm of philosophy.  That was an element of myself which I was glad to explore.

As the idea of spirituality started to grow outside of the religious crowd, I was happy.  Being able to understand what’s beyond what we can see and touch is important.  I was very much looking forward to connecting with these individuals and having these conversations.  While I’m glad to have this perspective and share it with those who would listen, I seem to be the odd one out in the world of spirituality.  As I’m starting to learn, spirituality has evolved into its own brand of religion.

When I think of the ‘spiritual crowd’, I’m starting to see them as a counter-balance of the religious right.  Both can be a rather delightful crowd of people, especially if they consider you to be part of their tribe.  But the further you go into the fringes of these demographics, the more radical their viewpoints become.  Hmm… maybe that’s what I’m up against.

One of the more extreme views of the left seems to be postmodernism.  As much as I’ve read, I’m still having a hard time defining it.  Perhaps that’s the point.  In the world of postmodernism, nothing is real.  And if nothing is real, logic and reason can’t really exist.  And if logic and reason don’t exist, truth becomes subjective.

…. And everyone lives their own truth.

There it is.

 

Originally part 2 was going to be my explanation of why truth and reality matters but it looks like I’m going to make this a trilogy.