One of the first problems I’ve had to deal with as a troubled new adult was fighting my own brain. For somebody educated in a certain way, understanding there are other correct ways to deal with a certain situation required several bumps. On the head. Algorithms helped, for a while, but school only sort of teaches them – it won’t show you how to make your own. School teaches standard ways of solving things. They forget to teach you how they found those ways. When I started with algebra and trigonometry again, after years of neglect – I was having trouble understanding the concepts. I mean, it’s math, right? It’s supposed to be hard. Well, no. There are many ways to explain how something works – I just hadn’t crossed paths with the explanation I could comprehend. I was fighting a learned behavior to understand a simple concept – all it took was to look at it from a different angle.
Let’s look at circles – for instance. We have the very famous constant called pi – and we use it to describe what the circumference, diameter and area of the circle. It’s supposed to have infinite digits. Ever wonder how they found it, how they’re calculating its mind-boggling infinity? Think of it as an adult, not as a kid with the textbook open in front of your nose. It blew my mind to think that calculating pi is as easy as dividing the circumference of any given circle by its diameter. I knew the definition but I didn’t know how to actually use it. What I’ve read was meaningless until I saw it in practice, as a picture. I mean, you draw a circle. You measure the diameter (using a rope or something) and the circumference of that circle. Now divide those two and there’s pi. There it is. We’re so used to knowing the value of this beautiful number we sort of forgot how to find it, we forgot what it really means. We’ve buried ourselves in details and they’re drowning us – I, for instance, was looking at the definition of pi from a equation perspective. The definition calls for pi = (2*pi*r) / (2*r). Knowing the circumference is 2*pi*r and the diameter is 2*r, dividing the two gives me pi (represented as “pi = pi”) – not its specific value. Why? It’s easy to miss. I forgot to scale up. I forgot that 2*pi*r is a number – a bloody number like 10 or 15 or 22, one you can directly measure using simple tools (even a rope, like I said), and I don’t have to simplify it. Pi is constant, no matter the scale of the circle – and by focusing on the radius and how to represent the concept of diameter and circumference we’re actually confusing things. It’s our brain fighting us. Not every equation is better off reduced or simplified.
Let’s put it another way – if I’m fighting you over who should get an orange, it’s because we both perceive it as the object of the argument, as indivisible. If we’re asked what would we use it for and I say I want to eat it and you say you want to make some marmalade from the peel of the orange and some orange juice I got in the fridge – we’d see the solution in an instant. You get the peel and I get the rest – easy peasy, end of argument. We can’t see the solution of our argument unless we simplify the problem. Sometimes things need to be simplified, looked at as a sum of their parts.
Both ways of looking for answers – either go up (generalize, focus on similar characteristics and test rules) or go down (simplify, focus on differences and test connections) the scale of magnitude – are part of something called lateral thinking. Sure, there are other components – but these two are something everybody can do. This process of picturing stuff is awesome. It challenges you to look at a problem in a different way. For instance, how would my opinion on something change if I were to challenge my perceptions? If it were to change on a big scale – maybe the problem is caused by my own brain and the problem isn’t really a problem.
This modus operandi is used to challenge individuals, to facilitate change. I’ve done it a few times myself. Let’s say I think I’m not good at math, that I believe I’m not smart enough. One way would be to use years and years of therapy and slowly change my self-esteem. Another way would be to bury my head in mathematical formulas and textbooks, sort of like trying to break down a door by repeatedly hitting it with my head. Or maybe I give up and keep on going as “not a math person”. My way of going about it was a bit different, something that joined those two ways. I looked at people and saw sweat – not intellect. So I planned to sweat at it but after trying the same idea over and over and never being able to go past it I finally made a breakthrough when I found those two ideas and put them to work. Everything can be explained by analogy. There is no single way of explaining concepts and ideas – there are many ways. A vector can be explained using matrices – just like when you’re trying to solve algebraic equations. An equation can be explained by trigonometry. The whole Cartesian representation of equations led to graphs and now you can use graphs to solve equations. Limits, integration, differentiation, all work nicely by way of graphs. You can explain human behavior using math. You can explain decisions making and figure out how to make the optimal decision when negotiating stuff – it’s real and it’s called game theory – using math. Same thing with physics, all you have to do is simplify (reduce) it to a math problem and then take it up a notch by way of analogy.
There is no single best way of looking at reality – that’s the point. We’re creatures of habit, we’re used to doing things the same way and looking at things the same way, over and over again. It can be used against us, too. Our behavior can be predicted, manipulated. Those who know how to do it can use our brain against us. And they already do that – it’s called marketing, politics. If we’re a group religious people – what comes our way has features we can identify with – we’re more likely to vote for politicians supporting our morals and view of the world. If we’re religious, we’re more likely to vote for people who exhibit similar behavior, even if it’s only on the surface. If we’re atheists – we’re more likely to take a stand against what we view as deeply religious. We’re more likely to oppose religious practices. It’s important to understand our values, our habits – can lead to idiotic choices and stupid decisions.
The map is not the territory – a somewhat well-known quasi-famous neuro-linguistic programming principle we’re usually ignoring when it comes to our own mind. It means what is apparent to us isn’t necessarily apparent to somebody else. My truth is not your truth. We both see an orange and want it – you want it for the peel and I want it for the pulp, but unless we ask questions or somebody else points it out to us we’re more likely to continue fighting until there’s a winner and a loser. Our representation of the world differs. It’s similar in key points – but it’s different where it matters. Let’s see now, how can I make that more obvious. A picture of an elephant is not the elephant – it won’t cover the smell, the size or the unseen part of the picture. The whole truth contains any number of smaller truths – each revealed by how we’re looking at it, how we’re defining it.
“We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” – Werner Heisenberg.
Some people learn by watching others, others learn by hearing concepts explained, others use kinesthetic learning – they’re all right. It works for them. Those are all ways of representing the same thing. If a teacher explains a concept by just talking then those of his students that learn by watching demonstrations will be at a disadvantage. They’re not dumb, they’re just different. It’s not their fault – it’s the teacher’s fault. I know, I’ve been there. On both sides.
Habit can easily be used against us – to prove we’re not up to some challenge, to prove we’re defective, to make us do the things and think the thoughts others want us to do or think. Let’s say some newspaper wants to increase site views for its online version. It knows the preference of current readers – by way of ranking the viewer count of articles, by way of comments, polls, and so on. They will create controversy because it’s self-propagating. Let’s take my previous article – a British (as in not catholic) tabloid creates (as in makes up) a story that in some other (Catholic) country priests took children to a religious camp (it was a 3 day religious forum a few weeks before Easter) and exorcised them (which they didn’t). The readers (not catholic) would be outraged – the story would propagate among other news sources with similar readership – and to hell with the truth. It will divide the world between Catholics and non-Catholics. Any truth will be interpreted by each side according to their own moral code – those outraged will interpret Catholic comments as validating their fears of religion while the Catholics will interpret the comments of the outraged as attacks on their faith. Two sides battle, the newspaper wins. Controversy brings visitors which in turn increases advertising budgets. No wonder nobody cares about the truth, it’s counterintuitive. Each side wants validation while the newspaper wants money – they all get what they want in the end.
There are ways to achieve most of what you want and tons of what you’ve never dreamed of in your wildest dreams – in fact there’s a bit of truth in Margin Call – they say “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat”. I agree, though it’s not a recipe for success, it’s a recipe for survival. Very few want to be first – those are the leaders. They either succeed or they fail, but they try until they do. They’re the ones to watch for. Some want to be smarter – they usually work for the leaders. I can count on the fingers of no hand how many people having both traits I know personally. They’re Copernicus, Galilei, Da Vinci, Jobs, Buffett, Gates, Musk – that kind of people. Those who cheat – those are the dangerous sort. They’re everywhere, too. They steal, they demean, they bully – they’d do anything to get ahead. It’s the people who think the end justifies the means. It’s those who got their jobs through their connections – those who laugh at women working as a stripper to pay for university. That sort. Their favorite truth: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. And most of the time, they’re also right.
If you want to understand how something works, don’t limit yourself to tradition. Use analogies, look for things with similar characteristics – they might provide more satisfying answers. You can fail, yes, but it’s not true failure – it’s a different picture. A different representation that won’t work. It’s like when a child says “I’m not doing bad things, I’m doing only good things but they come out bad”. You’re not failing, you’re finding ways of not succeeding. You learn from failure – it won’t define your character.
Understanding how reality works also makes you immune to manipulation – it’s easy to manipulate someone willing to avoid responsibility. Think of racism, for instance. You find your target group, you point out another group based on prejudice and fear and tell your group they’re to blame for their problems. You create controversy based on half-truths, exaggerations and outright lies (whoa there, how did a half-truth get in there?) and you let them amplify it. You let them build it, escalate it, each group will defend themselves but perceive the other group as the aggressor. Then you say you and only you have the solution to their problem. Instant leadership. Instant profit. It worked for Hitler, you know. Now it works for racism, for xenophobia, for feminism and many other “ism”s. Conservatives versus liberals. Socialists versus capitalists. Wealthy versus poor. Tabloids versus quality newspapers. Religion versus science. Believers versus non-believers. Christians versus Muslims. What you think is what somebody else wants you to think. Your brain is not yours anymore. Unless you change.
Changing yourself is extremely hard – you’re not fighting only others but also yourself. You’re fighting decades of constructed neural connections. You’re fighting decades of bad habits and bad information, decades of fears and learned behavior. It won’t be fast, it won’t be easy, but it’s worth it.
There is no such thing as a free lunch. You either work to afford the price or you’re the equivalent of its price (from the other side’s perspective). A free item, in this case, means you’re selling yourself – you’re surrendering control over your actions – for that item. You either play chess or you’re one of the pawns that’s being pushed across the board – without control over your own decisions, to be used and discarded on the whim of the chess player. If you’re the pawn, get used to never controlling your happiness or future. Don’t you ever forget that. Decide who you want to be, the hunter or the bait.
Everything has a price – the measure of value. You can’t measure what value your product has, it’s different for different people at different times – but you can measure what people are willing to pay for that value. You can measure price, what they accept to pay for your product. To make something, you’ll use resources – the money equivalent of those resources is called the cost of that something. There is always a cost, sometimes hidden and sometimes quite obvious – and nobody will want to sell something below what it cost them to make it. Free stuff equals publicity. The more influential a person is, the more free stuff they get. Think athletes, think sponsors. They have fans, they have followers, they have people who build their whole identity around them. They’re like a herd of drones – all copying the image but not the effort. They see success as something to be copied, something transmisible by clothes, food or semen. The herd sees the role-model using specific items so they have to use them too. It won’t matter if they need it – it’s safer to be part of the herd. They need to have an identity, to belong in a social group, even if that identity is fake. The need to please, the need to be accepted, it’s stronger than logic because people fear failure more than they want to achieve success. Fear is greater than need – you’ll learn that quickly. Changing yourself, challenging yourself, will place you in front of a raging bull wearing only a diaper – it’s what true hunters will tell you if you ask them. A friend of mine said at one time that the next action after expending the bullets from your rifle is to throw some shit in the eyes of the wounded animal to blind it – when I asked where to find shit in the forest he laughed and said – “oh, you’ll find plenty in your underwear”.. It might have been a joke, yes, though on hindsight it was a strangely accurate prediction of what would happen to me after a few years.
From the same film I’ve mentioned earlier:
The real question is: who are we selling this to?
The same people we’ve been selling it to for the last two years, and whoelse ever would buy it.
And you’re selling something that you *know* has no value.
We are selling to willing buyers at the current fair market price. So that *we* may survive.
Are you a willing buyer of worthless crap?