24 June 2020

According to a famous study, the most common regret of old people on their deathbed was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”.

Well, I’d like to dissect a little bit what “true to self” might mean. How do we know which of our thoughts are coming from our true self, and which of them are coming from outside. I am not going to claim that someone is trying to plant certain thoughts in your head. Instead I assert that most of our thoughts are not genuine.

They are mind tricks played on us by our environment. Every tweet, post, article that we read, every ad that we see, every movie or show that we watch occupies a part of our consciousness. It doesn’t go away when the event is over, but instead it lingers and decays. And then the environment re-enforces it.

This dynamic is hard to see from an individual level. We all are able to think critically about our environment and seemingly make each decision for ourselves. Yet, if we switch the vantage point and look in aggregate it becomes crystal clear.

Consider a parallel universe far far away where exists an imaginary company called JarJar which produces and sells jars. They create a new type of jar called “meesan jarjar”. In terms of quality and price the meesan jarjars are the same as mason jars in our universe. Over time JarJar the company does all kinds of marketing, from traditional ads to hidden ads, to reverse psychology PR. They do packaging experiments, promotions, and discounts. They pay the “customer acquisition cost” and they capture a part of the market.

Each individual customer may have their own reasons for going with a meesan jarjar instead of mason jars, which may seem rational. Asking each of them might reveal a story about how their reasons, or lack of reasons. The reason might be clear to them or it might be subtle enough that it evades reasoning. The most effective reasons are strong enough to affect behavior, yet subtle enough that the subject doesn’t realize they’re being controlled.

When you look in aggregate - the fact is there - a significant number customers have changed their behavior as a result of JarJar’s growth efforts. In other words - JarJar has pulled a mind trick on us.

A company, a movement, a religion, an influencer doesn’t care what we think, as long as we do what they want us to do - to buy their product, to pray to their god, to shout their slogans, or to like and subscribe to their channel. They just try convincing us to bid their will in various ways, until something works. They don’t necessarily realize the mind tricks they’re playing on us - they’re just doing whatever works for them.

Back to our individual point of view.

Next time that we think we need to buy a certain item - where did that thought come from? What does buying that item achieve for us? If I buy meesan jarjars, do they make my cooking more enjoyable?

These questions are hard to answer when we identify with our thoughts. Especially since all mind tricks worth their dinero are subtler than thoughts. Instead, we can observe our thoughts, but try not to identify with them. For example, if you think “I need to call Jar Jar”, instead reframe it as “There is a thought that I need to call Jar Jar”. Then go one step further and ask “Where is that thought coming from?” Is it coming from an inner need to spend time with a friend, or is it coming from a social obligation.

Going through that exercise even a couple times reveals that we cannot trust our thoughts to have our best interest in mind. This is a deeply unsettling conclusion. For a while I didn’t know what to do with it.

I still don’t know, but I’ve been taking steps to try and re-align my thoughts with my happiness and prosperity.

  1. Making space for my thoughts to develop without external influence. I often place my phone and laptop and other electronics outside the room at night, and I only keep a notebook to write stuff down. After a few minutes my mind stops itching for my phone.
  2. Meditating and trying to get in touch with my feelings, to evaluate stuff in my life through a clearer perception of my feelings. Meditation calms the waves of my emotions and makes it easy to see what’s beneath them. I’m still a beginner.
  3. Trying to get my information from more primary sources and randomized controlled experiments. While I still consume a lot of “clickbait” high glycemic index information, I’ve been appreciating more the process of making my own conclusions from the facts.
  4. I’ve also eliminated caffeine and greatly reduced the amount of alcohol I consume. These are ways to escape from what’s actually happening in my head. Caffeine suppresses my feelings, and alcohol suppresses my thinking.

I opened this story with the study of the regrets of the dying. And this study has had a bunch of criticism. To be honest, today I don’t care about minimizing my regret when I get old and feeble. What I care is about is living in a manner true to myself, because I’ve thought about it and I’ve searched my feelings, and I’ve found that I suffer when the independence of my thinking is impaired.

Thank you for reading.

One short post per week, discussing actionable mental models. Join a community of readers, who receive these posts over email.