When Reputation Matters

I wrote recently about the need to let your reputation die so you can remain free and not become a slave to the good opinion of others.

But is concern for your reputation only dangerous, or does it provide value as well?

If strangers don’t like you, I don’t think there’s a lot of value in trying to change that vs continuing to follow your own North Star.

But if those who know you best begin to think ill of you, maybe there’s something to learn from it.

It’s undoubtedly true those those closest to you and with the best intentions can be your greatest hurdles. The respect and pride of those who love you can lead to a mush of sellout choices and a victim/martyr life. But there informational content in your reputation among your close friends. It’s like a mirror that lets you see things you cannot from your inside-out perspective.

The danger isn’t in examining the information reflected back to you by your reputation. The danger is in seeing the opinion of those around you as a destination, rather than a reading of your trajectory. Don’t let it tell you where to go. But don’t ignore information about yourself that can come from the way those who know you see you.

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Being Wrong and Being Smart

“If a machine is expected to be infallible, it cannot also be intelligent”
— Alan Turing

This quote got me thinking. I asked TK Coleman what he made of it and we had a pretty interesting discussion on the relationship between being right and being intelligent.

If you’re always wrong, you’re not smart. But if you’re never wrong does it mean you are smart? TK said no, and I think I he’s onto something.

Imagine someone who plays Trivial Pursuit. Getting a lot of answers right is impressive. But if someone gets every single answer perfectly correct every single time, something’s up. They memorized all the correct answers. They’re unerring, but also kinda dumb.

Why is it dumb?

For one, it’s on odd use of time. Who would determine that getting every answer right in Trivial Pursuit was worth the time to memorize all the cards vs all the other things you could do with that time? Probably someone who has a perspective that’s out of whack. Maybe they overly value winning a meaningless board game. Maybe their opportunity cost is low.

Another problem is that it signals a misunderstanding of the point of Trivial Pursuit. It is meant to be a challenge. It’s fun when you know some, but not all the answers. It’s fun when you have to work to remember and make associations. To memorize all of them and never miss is to not play the game everyone else is playing. It shows a kind of social stupidity.

It might also imply fear or arrested development. If Trivial Pursuit cards can be memorized, why not apply that brain power to a new, bigger challenge? Why stick with games you are guaranteed to win? Engaging only in activities where you’re the school yard bully signals something missing in your motivator.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but you get the general idea.

So maybe what Turing and TK are getting at is that intelligence is more complicated than knowing stuff. Maybe it’s about ability to learn. Maybe it’s about change and progress. Progress can’t happen without new challenges. New challenges are, by definition, full of unknowns. Unknowns mean you won’t know the right response every time. You’ll get stuff wrong. You need that feedback to incorporate into your worldview so you can alter your understanding, then get it right. The process is intelligent, even if the answers at individual steps are sometimes wrong.

Maybe to be infallible is to me immobile.

I’m not sure if this is what Turing meant, but there’s something in it.

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The Peace of Mind in Probabilistic Thinking

I’m a big believer in agnosticism. (See what I did there?)

There are so many things that don’t require a strong opinion or position, and don’t warrant dying.

It’s very stressful to be confronted with questions and claims about culture, physics, politics, psychology, health, economics, history, ethics, aesthetics, and philosophy and feel the need to have a clear answer. Especially when answers immediately get interpreted as sides and you’ll get lumped in with some tribal collective blob and be associated with whatever bundle of biases they may have, real or imagined. It’s like behind every possibility lurks a mob shouting, “Are you with us or against us?!”

This is bad for curiosity, learning, and fun.

Besides having fewer opinions and focusing on individuals instead of collectives, another way I’ve found relief from relentless pressure to pick is to think in probabilities instead of binaries.

“Do you think eating gluten is bad for you?” is the kind of question that makes you feel a bit uneasy. You know about the weird tribes in this debate and don’t want to be in them. Still, maybe you’re interested in the topic for yourself or as a general curiosity. If you’re not content with, “I don’t know”, try assigning probability.

“I think there’s a high probability that too much gluten is one cause of my digestive problems” is way more relaxing. You don’t have to give up the examination. You don’t have to stay out of the conversation entirely. But you distance yourself from binary conclusions and tribes, individualize your opinion, and leave open the possibility that your sliding scale of probability can change with more information.

You can’t fake it though. If deep down you’re a hard-liner (which is not all bad in every situation, just very, very dangerous), pretending to be probabilistic to seem sophisticated will only make you more stressed. If you can begin to unwind the reactive need to pick a yes/no and assign probabilities, you will find a release of tension and an expansion of curiosity. You may even be able to read Twitter debates with a smile instead of rage!

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The First Rungs on the Success Ladder

We live in abundant times. This presents an interesting conundrum when it comes to succeeding.

Success is not the result of pure luck or genetics. Success is a discipline that can be learned. You can deliberately build your ability to succeed. Pick a challenge. One that’s hard but not too hard. Persist until you figure out how to overcome that challenge. It builds confidence that you take with you to the next, slightly bigger challenge. That’s how you learn success.

But what if you begin with a challenge that’s too big?

You can just as easily learn failure. I don’t mean learn from failure, which is what happens while you’re persisting at a challenge that’s big enough but not too big. I mean learn failure as a habit or mindset. If you take on a challenge outside your current capabilities, you will in all likelihood get disheartened, internalize your insufficiency, and extrapolate it broadly.

Thus the conundrum of an age of abundance.

If we accept some form of Maslow’s hierarchy, the most basic human challenges of food, shelter, and safety are taken care of. We’re born into the middle of the pyramid. This is not a bad thing. I don’t want my kids to have to scavenge for food and clothing. But because success compounds, those born into abundance can miss out on the first, most basic forms of success, and then find the rest out of reach.

The extreme example of the kid born into great wealth and status is familiar to us from books and movies. The first challenge that kid is faced with is self-actualization. All the smaller battles have been won on her behalf. That is a really massive challenge. No wonder there are so many dysfunctional trust fund babies.

But it’s not just the uber-elite. A lot of young people feel like failures and struggle to succeed at anything. In the world of careers, with which I am very familiar, you have people in their twenties taking on their first job and experiencing existential trauma because they feel the need to find work that speaks to their deepest calling. They’re starting with self-actualization, which is too big a challenge.

They never had to fight the small battle of just learning to finish a task without praise. They never had to fight the slightly bigger battle of earning their first five dollars. They never overcame the challenge of learning to show up on time and not get fired. They never learned to overcome escalating social challenges like being ignored or misunderstood.

Well-intentioned parents save their kids from all the small, early challenges and point the kid to big ones. The kid who never learned how to cope with not being chosen first in basketball is told “Get into an elite university”, or, “Become a doctor”, or, “Make me proud.”

So a lot of people are wandering around feeling lost because they don’t know how to “make a dent in the universe”. It’s not because they are failures. It’s because they skipped too many steps. Figure out how to walk before you try to run.

Imagine if we tried to help babies out by building mechanical legs and hooking them up to IVs. “Poor kid was crawling on the floor, barely mobile, and totally reliant upon his mother for food. We’ve solved that, now he can move around and tackle bigger, more creative problems!”

It would destroy the development process. The kid would never walk, never bond, and probably have digestive health and psychological issues forever.

When we remove grunt work, low pay jobs, skinned knees, hurt feelings on the playground, and all the small challenges that kids confront first, we remove the first rungs on the success ladder. When we place big epic battles for meaning as the first our kids ever face, we make failure easier to learn than success.

Fight smaller battles. Win them. Then fight slightly bigger battles.

Don’t worry about slaying dragons until you learn to swat flies.

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Ignoring Information as a Form of Intelligence

I took my son to get a prescription the other day. We knew exactly what we needed and just had to jump through the protectionist hoops of the cowardly medical cartel to get it.

When the doctor asked about his symptoms, he described at length over a long span of time everything he’d experienced. I wanted to interrupt and just tell her the one-sentence I knew mattered to her in the whole story, but I decided not to. I remember when doctors asked me similar questions in the past, and I thought they needed every detail (probably in part because I assumed they were House-like detectives who would gain insight from the details, instead of mostly disinterested pill pushers.)

With time and experience, I learned which bits of information didn’t really matter. Not just talking to doctors, but everywhere.

I worked for a guy who had me scan and summarize every piece of incoming mail as if they were of equal importance. He’d double check to make sure I hadn’t discarded anything without running it by him. It was a huge time suck. Then I worked for a guy who was the total opposite. He’d get annoyed if I brought anything to his attention that wasn’t totally and completely interesting, urgent, and relevant. That’s when I realized that probably 90% of incoming mail is useless.

In fact, 90% of pretty much any incoming information is useless.

If not useless, at least not actionable, and certainly not worthy of mention in conversations or meetings meant to drive action.

I’ve seen my kids provide way too much information in several situations, and I have too. The inability to spot useless information is a sign of a young mind. The more intelligence is developed, the more information gets left out. People who tell you only the parts that really matter have a kind of genius.

I know time and experience are needed to develop this kind of omission intelligence. I’m not sure if there are other ways to enhance it, or to what extent certain people are predisposed to it. But it’s subtle and very valuable.

I’m sure you can think of all kinds of worries and dangers in becoming good at ignoring things. Perhaps there are some. It’s not the only kind of intelligence, but it definitely is a kind of intelligence.

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The Best Advice Never Looks Like It

I’ve received some excellent advice in my life.

Most of the time, it doesn’t seem like great advice. It seems like simple, obvious stuff I already know, or close enough. Then six months later I have the, “Ohhh, now I see. Wow. That was great advice.”

I don’t know if this is because I’m arrogant or dense, or if this is an inevitable process. Information without enough context isn’t that useful. If a marathoner tells you that the last few long runs in your training regime will be harder than the race itself, you’ll smile and nod. It won’t seem that useful. Six months later, when you’ve got just two more weekend long runs at 20 and 22 miles each before the marathon, it will be the most comforting, inspiring advice imaginable.

This is why it’s hard to recognize good advice.

Bad advice, I think, is easy to recognize. It just feels stupid right away. Your gut knows it’s off. You can read misaligned motives and incentives. It makes you grumpy, and not in a challenge you want to rise to sort of way.

Good advice usually doesn’t feel bad right away, it just doesn’t feel that amazing. It becomes more profound with each passing unit of time+experience. Not all simple-sounding advice turns out to be profound. Some of it turns out to be no more than meets the eye. But some of it gets better with age like a fine wine.

Makes me wonder what great advice is currently marinating in my brain that I haven’t yet recognized as such.

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