Hi! Welcome to this week's digest. This is a very special "Afternoon Delight" edition, because I wanted to experiment with different send times :D (Also, is there an emoji for casually not mentioning that I didn't send this out last week? 😬🙈)
This week's topics include: the humility to withhold judgement; learning from our mistakes (with friends!); the questionable current evidence behind meditation's purported benefits; the importance of self-compassion; and how to run your own hedonic audit. Enjoy!
If you like this digest and know others who want to live an examined life, share this with them, cook a brisket, and / or play cee-lo with your family. If this e-mail was forwarded to you and you want to live an examined life, join 315 other subscribers. xoxoxo <3
"Let the hindsight of your future self become the foresight of today's self." ~ Shane Parrish
TOPIC OF INTEREST - WE SHALL SEE
TL;DR: It is really hard to see local maxima, let alone global maxima. So stop letting your ego get carried away judging the vicissitudes of life, when we truly don't know in the long run whether events are good or bad.
It all started with this Zen Fable. The farmer, and his horse, and his son, and his persistent "We shall see" attitude. My takeaway from the fable is that our egos so desperately want to judge events in the moment as amazing or awful or something in between. That judgement gives us validation - look how smart I am! (Note: We are great at reasoning our way out when we were wrong ;D) And yet, that judgement is clouded with severe ignorance - both from our myopic, limited perspective and biases, and our inability to meaningfully extrapolate out the impact of these events into perpetuity (especially for a future self who may have radically different preferences). I also see this judgement instinct as a desire for certainty and security in an inherently unstable world.
This instinct appears in many places in our lives. Sunshine = good; rain = bad. Getting the job I want = good; getting rejected from interviews = bad. Scheduling a date with the girl I like = good; being flaked on = bad. Etc. Etc.
I've been thinking about this fable and its message a lot the past few weeks, as there are some big decisions to make in my life - where to live, where to focus my professional energy, etc. In the past, when I desperately wanted to make the right choice, those decisions led to tremendous anxiety. Today, though, I have the humility to accept that I do not know what the "right" answer is. I still want to do the work and analyze the potential options, and come to a probabilistic understanding of the future. But even then, I have to accept that I still do not know what will ultimately be right or wrong.
Because what I realize now is that it's only after the analysis that the real work begins. The work of accepting that all I can do is everything that I can do. The work of being ready to embrace whatever actually happens (Amor Fati). The work of actualizing awareness and equanimity moment to moment.
BEST OF WHAT I CONSUMED THIS WEEK
PODCAST - The Knowledge Project: Getting Better by Being Wrong with Annie Duke by Shane Parrish - Annie is a world class poker player (>$3.5M publicly available winnings and 16 World Series of Poker final tables), and all of that poker playing also helped her become a world class decision maker. In this podcast, Annie expounds on learning and growth, key cognitive biases and impediments to decision making, and specific recommendations for tools to mitigate our biases and make better decisions, especially in groups. You rock, she rocks, let's all make better decisions :D
The pain is the double edged sword. We need the skin in the game in order to learn. But it's that very fact that you're losing maybe because of your own decisions that doesn't feel good to us, that makes us feel like our identity is being attacked. So now we have a choice. We can say well in the long run I have to take the pain, because my long run goal is to become a better player and to learn... I'm going to examine my decisions, I'm going to see where maybe I could have improved, where I could have made a better decision...I'm going to take that short term hit, but in the long run I'm going to feel better about myself, and have a more positive narrative of my life story... Or choice two is I don't want to feel pain right now.
The style that Eric Seidel was demanding of me is an exploratory style of thought. Which is not we're trying to confirm what we already believe and think about how great we are, which in a group forum is the same as that identity protective cognition... and that will actually cause people to move even more extreme... Now what we're doing instead is, in a group forum, saying no we are not going to tolerate that, and what we're actually going to try to do is create a more accurate mental model of the world. We're going to agree that there is some sort of objective truth, that our beliefs are in progress and under construction in some way, and that our goal is to help each other try to construct better models of the world.
When he said, is there a point to the story?, he's telling me that my goal has to be accuracy. What he's saying is I don't want to hear you reason to be right, I want you to reason to be accurate.
When somebody disagrees with us, we can very often feel it as an attack on our identity. When that happens, disagreeableness ensues. Because when you feel like you are personally being attacked, that the information being told to you is a threat, then you will react as if you are threatened. It will cause you to be defensive, or angry, dismissive. It will cause you to discredit the other person, or just decide that in general they aren't worth listening to or they have ill intent. We can definitely see this in our political discourse.
You have to be able to hear the other side, otherwise progress can't be made. It shifts your identity to a different place. Your identity now becomes about acknowledging uncertainty, how good are you at listening to the other side... it stops you from having that defensive reaction. Naturally it causes you to be agreeable in disagreement, because you view that disagreement as helpful now, rather than as a threat. It completely reframes the disagreement.
If I know that the person who is in the leadership role, that I'm having to report to, is going to be looking at the outcomes of the decision... and all of a sudden do some critique when things turn out poorly, overly relying on the outcome in order to derive the decision quality. It's going to make me make safer decisions. Decisions that are more bulletproof to criticism. More normal. It's an innovation killer.
Wrap your arms around uncertainty, it's going to make you a better decision maker. When you acknowledge I'm not sure, you naturally view your beliefs as under construction. You end up being much more open-minded to dissent. You end up being much more hungry. You're more likely to ask people their opinions and work with other people to share in this process of constructing your beliefs.
Let the hindsight of your future self become the foresight of today's self.
ARTICLE - Aeon: Can meditation really make the world a better place? by Ute Kreplin - Ute brings a thorough and objective scientific perspective to the evidence behind claims of mindfulness and meditation's benefits. This article especially reinforces to me the general importance of scrutinizing clinical research beyond the headline claims - methodology really does matter. I continue to meditate in my personal life - just because the scientific research isn't there yet, doesn't mean this practice hasn't helped me directly as well as many others. That said, meditation is just one tools in the broader mental health toolbox - there are many other options (e.g., journaling, therapy) for people who want to explore benefits in this realm of their lives.
Our meta-analysis indicated that meditation did indeed have a positive, though moderate, impact on prosociality. But digging deeper, the picture became more complicated. While meditation made people feel somewhat more compassionate or empathetic, it did not reduce aggression or prejudice, nor did it improve how socially connected one felt. So the prosocial benefits are not straightforward, but they are apparently measurable. The issue is the way in which those benefits were measured.
Meditation did indeed improve compassion when the intervention was compared with a passive control group, that is, a group that completed only the questionnaires and surveys but did not engage in any real activity... But have we isolated the effects of meditation or are we simply demonstrating that doing something is better than doing nothing?
We compared studies that had used an author with studies that had used an external teacher or other form of instruction (eg, an audio recording). We found that compassion increased only in those studies where the author was also the teacher of the intervention.
The overly positive view of meditation and the fierce fight to protect its untarnished reputation make it harder to publish negative results.
Those of a more traditional bent argue that meditation without the ethical teachings can lead into the wrong kind of meditation (such as the sniper who steadies the killing shot, or the compliant worker who submits to an unhealthy work environment). But what if meditation doesn’t work for you? Or worse, what if it makes you feel depressed, anxious or psychotic? The evidence for such symptoms is predictably scarce in recent literature, but reports from the 1960s and ’70s warn of the dark side of transcendental meditation.
In Buddhist circles, these so-called ‘dark nights’ are part of meditation. In an ideal situation, ‘dark nights’ are worked through with an experienced teacher under the framework of Buddhist teachings, but what about those who don’t have such a teacher or who meditate in a secular context?
We’ve evolved to give more weight to our flaws, mistakes and shortcomings than our successes.
But sometimes, assigning negative value to our experiences and behaviors can “ensnare” us, Dr. Davidson said, into cycles of unhelpful rumination — like when you lie in bed at night needlessly replaying an awkward interaction or repeatedly revisiting that minor typo. This is where we get into the harmful, counterproductive side of self-criticism... If this feels a bit like a Catch-22, that’s because it is: We’re evolutionarily predisposed to nitpick at our failings, yet doing so has the opposite of the intended effect.
“Research shows that the No. 1 barrier to self-compassion is fear of being complacent and losing your edge,” Dr. Neff said. “And all the research shows that’s not true. It’s just the opposite,” meaning that self-compassion can lead to greater achievement than self-criticism ever could... Commit to treating yourself more kindly — call it letting go of self-judgment, going easier on yourself, practicing self-compassion or whatever resonates most.
The second step to self-compassion is to meet your criticism with kindness. If your inner critic says, “You’re lazy and worthless,” respond with a reminder: “You’re doing your best” or “We all make mistakes.” ... Make a deliberate, conscious effort to recognize the difference between how you feel when caught up in self-criticism, and how you feel when you can let go of it.
This is the linchpin of being kinder to ourselves: Practice what it feels like to treat yourself as you might treat a friend. In order to trade in self-abuse for self-compassion, it has to be a regular habit.
BLOG POST - RibbonFarm: Hedonic Audit by Sarah Perry - Sarah's write-up offers a lot to think about in examining how we live our lives. It is important to note the contrasting perspective of those who seek to optimize positive affect in their lives (e.g., stereotypical type A overachievers), and those who seek awareness and equanimity with whatever happens in their lives (e.g., aspirational meditators). For more on that, listen to Reboot #60: The Work of Your Life with Khe Hy by Jerry Colonna (or check out my highlights from that podcast in TD Digest #32!).
Consider an alternative definition by Robert E. P. Levy... Work is different from play only in that the means are valued less than ends. Play is different from work only in that it is already realizing its value by its means, independent of what might come of it. So clearly there is no dividing line between work and play, just work-like and play-like aspects of human activities.
When thinking in terms of Levy’s definition, many distinct solutions present themselves: (1) Learn to enjoy the processes of bringing about states of affairs... (2) Seek states of affairs that are enjoyable to bring about... (3) Seek methods of bringing about states of affairs that are themselves enjoyable... These form the theoretical backbone of the hedonic audit – an introspective analysis within mental problem-solving space aimed at increasing utility and decreasing disutility, within whatever present constraints are present.
There seem to be some clear determinants and characteristics of this mental state (problem solving): (1) Learning (research)... (2) Practice... (3) Concrete final products... (4) Constraints... (5) Downtime... (6) Linearization... (7) Positive affect.
When there is no immediate threat, the theory goes, positive emotions serve to motivate people to play, try new things, get to know each other, snuggle, and figure out new ways to bring about desired states of affairs... These various thought-action tendencies—to play, to explore, to savor and integrate, or to envision future achievement—each represent ways that positive emotions broaden habitual modes of thinking or acting.
The hedonic audit is a method for evaluating and increasing positive affect throughout one’s daily activities... What is something you used to enjoy, but haven’t done for a long time? Why not? How do you feel most of the time? What tasks do you hate? What makes them bad? What was the best breath you took yesterday? The best footstep?
MOST FAVORITE FROM THE PAST
BLOG POST - Brain Pickings: 10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings by Maria Popova - Maria's blog, Brain Pickings, has added so much happiness and wisdom to my life. I've shared hundreds of her posts, in this digest, in Wharton Mindfulness, and directly with friends and loved ones. In this post, Maria reflects on her first decade of creating Brain Pickings and shares some incredible macro insights.
Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind... it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone... Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night...
Build pockets of stillness into your life... The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations.
...when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
Seek out what magnifies your spirit... Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and visit them often.
Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively. Fight it in yourself, for this ungainly beast lays dormant in each of us, and counter it in those you love and engage with, by modeling its opposite. Cynicism often masquerades as nobler faculties and dispositions, but is categorically inferior.