Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Thinking and Choice: The Architects of Destiny

My homeboy, Seneca, chillin' at the villa and pondering life.

How are you, NIP?

            A couple of weeks back I had the pleasure of meeting up with a friend for a beer after work. He’s a smart guy and a deep thinker, and our philosophical dialogue ran the gamut during those two hours. Out of the various topics we discussed, though, the one that stuck with me the most and has subsequently haunted me since that day is the decline of what I’ll call good-old-fashioned-thinking. He’s a teacher too, and we both noted and dread the aversion to thinking that many of our students display. It’s not just today’s youth, however—although it seems the most pronounced in them—it’s seemingly increasing across all demographics. We talked about how our tools shape our minds, with the technological innovations of the twenty-first century being the primary culprit in this perceived decline of thinking. Between Google’s algorithm essentially predicting how we think and our increasingly shrinking attention spans brought on by our soundbite culture rife with texts and Tweets, we are unwittingly eroding our ability to think about topics in robust and meaningful ways. But we need to reverse this trend, and the only way how is to reclaim and hone our ability for contemplating life and all that it contains.

            Thinking is not easy work and, what’s worse, we must force ourselves to overcome the tendency to always take the shortest route to our conclusions. This phenomenon is detailed at great length in Daniel Kahneman’s erudite tome Thinking, Fast and Slow, which examines this critical attribute of human behavior through a plethora of psychologically rigorous research trials conducted across decades. Though they are not very technical terms, Kahneman uses the shorthand abstractions, System 1 and System 2. They don’t necessarily correlate to specific parts of the brain in a physical sense, but are conclusions borne out of the numerous experiments he and his research partner carried out.

In essence, according to his research, System 1 is the system we use the vast majority of time, mainly because—as with everything else in nature—systems tend to prefer simplicity and to perform a function with the least amount of energy or effort. The brain is functionally a pattern-recognition machine, and is constantly gathering data and compiling it in ways of which we are largely unaware; therefore, System 1, Kahneman states, is one that operates mostly on heuristics, a word that roughly means “discovery” in the ancient Greek sense. However, because we effectively compile these databases in our minds and are always seeking patterns on a subconscious level, System 1 generates these rules of thumb and biases that guide our thinking most of the time to make it easier for us to process information. Unfortunately, we often get caught in these intractable ruts in our decision making process, which lead to much errant thinking and, occasionally, disastrous outcomes.

            System 2, on the other hand, is the one we should be using all the time, but it takes effort to override the heuristics and biases of System 1. We must think through problems and issues carefully, coming to conclusions slowly. Yet as Kahneman notes multiple times throughout his book and in his own words, “System 2 is lazy.” Only certain situations will provoke it into coming online, and so we must therefore train ourselves to override System 1 by trying to actively engage System 2 more often in our daily routines. We must, in essence, force ourselves to think. This is precisely what I found so distressing about our conversation at the bar—our tools, specifically our technological marvels such as smartphones (most ironic appellation ever!) and the number one Christmas gift this year, the hoverboard, only serve to increase this innate tendency toward sloth, both mentally and physically. But if we are seriously interested in living our lives well and becoming the architects of our destiny, we must learn to use System 2 often so that we can make sound choices and construct a meaningful life.

            Freedom, as my philosophical friend and interlocutor at the bar would tell you, is the cornerstone of existentialism. And perhaps the most essential aspect of that freedom is the freedom to choose. In conjunction with contemplation, then, choice becomes the pencil in our hands as we draw up the schematics of our lives. Similar to the metaphor I used in the earliest letters of the hammer and chisel that creates the sculpture of our lives, our personal magnum opus, the informed choices we make are the lines we lay on the schematic of our individual destiny. Whether we want to admit it or not, much of the choices that we make each and every day have a bearing on the way our lives unfold. If we are not proactively thinking about life and our place within it, many (if not most) of our choices will be reactionary in nature, which can leave us feeling overwhelmed and seemingly out of control. Thinking and choice, therefore, are inextricably linked and to forgo the former means you will have little of the latter.

            This is not to say that you have limitless choices and endless freedom if you are actively thinking about life, however. Even those who make a concerted effort to set aside time for reflection realize that there is only so much control we can exert over our choices, and that is why thinking is even more essential to making good choices about our lives. In a book I read over the Thanksgiving break, William Irvine’s A Guide to The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, the author discusses how the Stoics split their worldview into a dichotomy of “things over which we have control” and “things over which we have no control,” focusing exclusively on the previous one because it reduces the amount of anxiety, worry, fear, et cetera in our lives. Irvine takes this dichotomy and breaks it down even further and renaming it as “the trichotomy of control.”

            The first part of the trichotomy of control is “things over which we have complete control,” which, as Irvine notes, is effectively our inner lives. Unless we have serious mental disabilities or disorders, we are in complete control of our thoughts, attitudes, and general disposition (at least in the aforementioned System 2 that does the active thinking). The second part of the trichotomy is “things over which we have partial control” and includes most of our external interactions with other beings and objects. It is the outcome of the first and third parts of the trichotomy colliding with one another. For example, I have no control over a coworker or stranger who chooses to insult me, but I can control my reaction to it. I can get angry or I can laugh; either way, I’ve made a choice. And the more I have conditioned myself to think before reacting, the more I contemplate this trichotomy of control, the more fruitful my thinking will be and I retain a good measure of both control and composure. The third part of the trichotomy is obviously “things over which we have no control” like the weather or gravity. They are simply facts of life with which we must contend and to spend any mental energy on them is typically unnecessary.

            Where are you on this continuum, NIP? Do you constantly perceive yourself to be a victim of circumstance, or are you living an engaged life that is rife with reflection? No matter where you are, there is always room to grow and improve. I know that I have spent a fair amount of time contemplating life, its meaning, and my contribution to the lives of others over the last two decades or so, but at the age of 40 I feel as if I am only  starting to realize just how valuable and precious the ability to think and choose truly are. And it’s never too late to learn this. It’s never too late to realize that you have a duty to yourself to think about life—as well as how you are living it—every day. It doesn’t have to be an “all day, every day” activity, either; even if it is only ten minutes every morning, begin by carving out a small niche in time that allows you to reflect on the life you have lived, are living, and want to live in the future. Don’t worry about the past, but learn from it. Focus on the present and plan for the future. Think deeply about topics you love, and discuss them with others who share your passion, all of which will help you grow. Most importantly, let the most impactful choices you make come only after thoughtful deliberation (and, if possible, discussion). You have the freedom through thinking and choice to be the architect of your destiny…use them both wisely.

Keep pondering, NIP.

- Ryan