Sunday Wisdom No. 79
Despite being absolved of all responsibility, absinthe was outlawed and remains almost unobtainable, whereas lead, known to be poisonous for over 2000 years is still being readily used. Why?
Welcome to Issue 79
👋 Hi, I’m Abhishek. Welcome to Sunday Wisdom, a weekly newsletter packed with timeless insights on better thinking and decision making that you can use at work and home. I appreciate you being here. If you are getting value from this, you can buy me coffee or share this newsletter with a friend.
Societal Mass: Why Harmful Things Stay On
In this article, I’ll tell you two stories: one of lead, and another of absinthe.
Even before there was gunpowder, there were strong indications that exposing ourselves to a lot of lead had severe side-effects, but within 50 years absinthe was used, abused, and abandoned when it was no worse than any other alcoholic drink of the same strength. Why?
Absinthe was outlawed, and remains unobtainable in many liquor stores even today, whereas lead, known to be poisonous for over 2000 years is still being readily added to paint to prevent cracking, and to paint toys even though non-toxic options are available. Why this difference?
We have trouble delaying gratification, so we do a lot of things that are first-order positive, second-order negative. Sugar is a good example.
But people who can do things that are first-order negative, second-order positive have a real advantage.
Intuitively we know the value of delayed gratification, but don’t put it into practice. We are conditioned to think in terms of today and tomorrow rather than months or years ahead, especially when it comes to thinking.
We never make time to think. We see thinking more than a few minutes as a waste of time. While we may take 30 minutes to come to the same conclusion we came to 25 minutes back, we’ll likely have a better idea of the nuances of the situation, including which bits matter the most.
Thus, we’ll know what to watch for and we’ll know how to frame things to appeal to other’s interests. Not only will collaboration take less time, but we’ll make fewer mistakes. That’s a real advantage.
Making time to think is a great example of something that’s first-order negative with some future payoff that’s not easily visible. Schedule time for thinking. Protect this time as if your livelihood depended on it, because in a lot of ways it does.
Why I Never Want to Make Money
As much as our parents, teachers, and the Govt. would want us to believe, getting rich is not about hard work.
We are made to believe that if we put our head down and do our work diligently we’ll eventually become rich. Well, it’s not true. You can wait tables eighty hours a week, and never get rich.
Yes, hard work matters, but it has to be pointed in the right direction. For example, you get rich by doing hard work that generates wealth, not money. This is why I don’t want to make money, and generate wealth instead.
Timeless v Timeful
Adhering to timeful advice is outsourcing a certain part of your life strategy to recent history. But when you outsource decisions that change your life trajectory, do you want to bet the house on the wisdom of yesteryear?
Silicon Valley was once uniquely good at identifying timeful advice. This power weakened as the tech industry scaled, but it is more important than ever to distinguish between timelessness and timefulness.
There are many types of advice you should follow more, so come to your own conclusions on which advice is timeless versus timeful.
Things you want to look for when evaluating strategic decisions:
Compounding: If the outcome of your decision will compound, insource it. The dollars in a given financial decision may seem small, but the compounding effect of finance makes the outcomes highly consequential, such that the seemingly small benefit of insourcing is larger than it appears.
Irreversibility: Can the decision, once made, be reversed? If not, insource it. Career paths and partners are hard to reverse.
Stereotype: If you’re making a decision because it’ll help you fit in, think twice about it. Not all cultural consensus is bad, but stereotypes are a form of ill-supported consensus, so they’re worth questioning.
Iteration: If you do something repeatedly, like reading the news, you should think more deeply about how and why you’re doing it.
Magnitude: If the decision you’re making is obviously big, like your choice of career, it’s worth insourcing it.
Owning your future requires questioning “timeless” advice, and coming to your own conclusions.
There are only so many ways you can say “I agree”. Agreeing tends to motivate people less than disagreeing. Readers are more likely to comment on an article when they disagree with it, and in disagreement they have more to say.
There are two types of communication culture: high context and low context.
In a low-context culture, communication is explicit and direct. What people say is taken to be an expression of their thoughts and feelings. You don’t need to understand the context—who is speaking, in what situation—to understand the message.
A high-context culture, on the other hand, is one in which little is said explicitly, and most of the message is implied. The meaning of each message resides not so much in the words themselves, as in the context.
For most of our existence as a species, humans have operated in high-context mode. Our ancestors lived in settlements and tribes with shared traditions and settled chains of command.
But the internet has a low-context culture. Everyone expects their opinion to be heard and, increasingly, it can be. With less context to guide our decisions, the number of things on which “we all agree” is shrinking fast.
Social media users have more diverse news diets than non-users. You are almost bound to encounter opinions that upset you on Twitter; much more so than if your only information source is a daily newspaper. Instead of creating bubbles, the internet is bursting them, generating hostility, fear and anger.
One reason online discourse is so often so furious is because it has been designed to be this way. Content that outrages is more likely to be shared. Users who post angry messages get the status boost of likes and retweets.
It’s often said that if humanity is to rise to the existential threats it faces, we must put our differences aside. But when we all agree–or pretend to–it becomes harder to make progress.
Certain parties often play dirty during arguments—attacking their adversary from unexpected, hard-to-defend angles. Instead of looking for solutions that might work for everyone, they treat every negotiation as a zero-sum game in which someone must win and the other must lose. Instead of engaging with the content, they attack the person as a way of asserting their status.
By contrast, there are those who enter a negotiation expecting to succeed because they are, or perceive themselves to be, in the stronger position. They may well therefore adopt a more relaxed and expansive approach, focusing on the substance of the disagreement and looking for win-win solutions.
When a debate becomes volatile and dysfunctional, it’s often because someone in the conversation feels they are not getting the face they deserve. This helps to explain the pervasiveness of bad temper on social media, which can sometimes feel like a status competition in which the currency is attention.
For parents who refuse vaccines, it’s more about opting in to a group than opting out of a treatment, like getting a gang tattoo. The refusal is more about who one is and with whom one identifies than who one isn’t or whom one opposes. This is also true of those who opt in to vaccines: our desire to be associated with mainstream views on medicine is also a way of signalling who we are. That’s why arguments between the two sides quickly become clashes of identity.
In front of an audience of colleagues, people are more likely to focus on how they want to be seen, rather than on the right way to solve the problem. The less that people feel compelled to maintain their face in front of allies, the more flexible they feel able to be.
When we’re in an argument with someone, we should be thinking about how they can change their mind and look good–maintain or even enhance their face—at the same time.
Find meaning. Distinguish melancholy from sadness. Go out for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a romantic walk in the park, spring at its most spectacular moment, flowers and smells and outstanding poetical imagery smoothly transferring you into another world. It doesn’t have to be a walk during which you’ll have multiple life epiphanies and discover meanings no other brain ever managed to encounter. Do not be afraid of spending quality time by yourself. Find meaning or don’t find meaning but “steal” some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. And you need to be.
👋 That’s All!
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As always, please give me feedback. Did any of the stories resonate with you? Do you disagree with anything? What do you want more or less of? Any other suggestions? Please let me know in the comments.