How To Think by Alan Jacobs

How to think by Alan Jacobs

Fair warning, this is not a book for those looking to sharpen their thinking skills just to win more arguments. On the contrary, this book helps one recognize that losing may be just as valuable. That thinking well is not a joyful or direct path. Or, that what we believe to be the attributes of an “open mind” is more likely to be just a different form of a “closed mind” validated by a different group. Thinking is all about learning to do the uncomfortable, and if one can understand how thinking works, one may become a better thinker over all. To posit those theories, and many others like it, Alan Jacobs deals with optimism, community, solidarity, truth, social affiliation, kindness and vice by asking how they blend or contradict one another.

I especially love the fact that the book is current, and cites examples from events familiar to global state of consciousness. It helps that the author is as unbiased as a person could be, while still able to make sharp and concise points, and because of that, no other book is as important for any affiliation or creeds to benefit. In our polarized, highly emotional world, it’s refreshing, and necessary. As current as he is, he is no stranger to the history of thinking. From Luther, to T.S. Elliot, to Kannanman his references aren’t always made to simply validate, but to argue against, assert, or deconstruct the art and science around thinking.

It’s easy to assume the social conscience of the world is more worse for ware now than ever before, and the new phenomena of the internet and social media is mostly to blame. Instead of leaning into that assumption, Alan offers some perspective look back to early writers, like a quite T.S. Elliot who said, “The vast accumulations of knowledge—or at least of information—deposited by the nineteenth century have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance. When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not. And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.” That is surely something as appropriate today as it was 100 years ago.

There are quite a few gems sprinkled throughout the book that can get the wheels churning. Like how Alan challenges his readers to separate a single thought from all the context and emotion laid around it. For example, “A madman is not one has lost reason … a madman is one that has lost everything but reason.“ Indeed, the separation of fact, from emotion, or affiliation, let’s facts get tangled up into a single, lump of subjective “truth”. That affiliation and process of lumping makes it easier for us to turn every “neighbor” into what Alan Jacob’s called the “Repugnant Cultural Other” AKA  “RCO”. When more and more people are classified as an RCO based on a discrete piece of truth we decide to focus on, then we fail to allow ourselves to learn, or accept, anything else form them. As Alan puts it, “If that person over there is both ‘other’ and ‘repugnant’, I may never discover that that person and I like the same television program, or like the same books (even if not for the same reasons), or that we both know what it’s like to nurse someone through a long illness. All of which is to say, that I may forget that political, social and religious differences are not the whole of human experience.” That posit is very much a reality with the current collective human psyche. It does in fact feel as though more and more of us are at odds with our neighbors, and we are so with less and less information to guide it.

Of course separation via classifying others as an RCO goes well beyond politics and social media. As both an academic and a christian, Alan adds religion to the ring by noting, “When I hear academica talk about christians I think, ‘that’s not quite right. I don’t think you understand the people you think your disagreeing with’, and when I listen to christians talk about academics I have the precisely the same thought.”

Why do we decide to stick to a bandwagon, against all evidence to steer us away, or care to even search for a deeper truth? Alan quotes Robinson to underline this part of the human condition at play. “It is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.” Alan continues, “Why would people ever think, when thinking deprives them of the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved? If you want to think, then you have to shrink that hypertrophic need for consensus.”

Where academia is concerned, Alan pulls a quote from Jeff Schmidt’s to assert that education is not necessarily an avenue e toward greater thinking either. In “Disciplined Minds” Schmidt says, “Academia and high-racking professions are good at maintaining “ideological discipline”… people who do well … tend to have “assignable curiosity”, which is to say, they are obediently interested in the things they are told to be interested in.”

Though, there are some academic environments that are created to nurture true thinking. Alan tells an anecdote from the Yale Political Union debate club. As he observed at Yale, you are scored not just by wins, but by the number of times you flip your beliefs mid-debate. love how that metric aligns with not the speaker ability to power their will on others, but in the power and flexibility of being a good, open minded, listener.

This is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year and a great supplement to the best selling books Thinking Fast and Slow and Blink. It is well worth the time so, after each chapter, sit back, and push embrace “How to Think” better.

Reaction to Anti-Islam Protester at Phoenix Mosque

In an effort to practice what I preach  I counted down from ten to my initial reaction to this video from the Arizona Mosque Protest. I then re-constructed my reaction into this:

I’m glad we give freedom of speech to all. I’m sad they chose to use it the way they have. Im glad people showed up to use their free speech to show their love for their fellow citizens in the face of hate. I’m glad we have good Police like those to allow both sides to express themselves without escalation. I’m glad people did not resort to assuming everyone there is a thug. I don’t believe these people represent all whites or that whites need to explain themselves because of these people. I will try to be consistent in these views no matter the situation. I understand these protesters are scared and have had no help to cope with their fear as a community. That fear/ignorance is all of our faults and we should reach out to them to close the gap between their fears and their fellow humans.

Wrong and right, a practical approach to the news

A news story is just that,. It is not the entire picture of an event – it never is and probably never will be. The world creates too much information to pack into an hour or less of stories.

Responsibly balance what you interpret

This is where your brain and heart come in. It is up to you to always remember that with each story there are two sides and perspectives on every matter. It is important to remember:

  1. That groups of people aren’t all bad
  2. Power is a delicate asset (and privilege) to have over someone
  3. There is still racial (and religious and economic …) tension in the U.S., if not the world. If you ignore it then, like an infection, it will only get worse.
  4. The words we choose are powerful in fueling or dousing the issues above. Negatively classifying a group may be easier for you, but can unnecessarily create a bigger divide per #3 .

For every story you show me of a “black” person shooting a “white” person, I could Google the opposite. Show me A Muslim shot in America, I can Google a tragedy of another group’s loss. We see it every day on social media. The untold stories of a group desperately trying to prove that their group is not the problem. Sadly, I’m doing so, they often try to prove how another group is the problem. They do so directly or indirectly, on purpose or sometimes on accident. Both sides rarely get covered in the same breath. Rarely is there any attempt to see how both sides have pain, loss or tragedy. Why? What would be lost?

Wrong is not exclusive

Can we start by agreeing that these are all wrong? If a police officer dies or an unarmed civilian dies they are both wrong, right? Is it wrong when a police officer frames a civilian? Of course it is. Since they are an authority with power news of it will cause a shock wave of fear in citizens minds that hear it. More so than a story of a civilian framing another civilian. It goes for all types of power: A teacher taking advantage of a student; a political official taking advantage of their constituency; a boss taking advantage of their employee; a wealthy person kicking a homeless person on the street. People fear the powerful preying on the less powerful and praise a David that takes down a Goliath. Not all people of power are corrupt, but when corruption infiltrates the powerful the consequences can be widely devastating to a society. 

The dynamic of these fears toward the powerful are likely learned from our history: Once those of power gain absolute power, freedom is lost. – But I digress. What I am really driving at here is: it is all wrong.  Why not nurture a society that openly confronts each wrong individually and makes an effort to put an end to them all?

The Importance of Being Heard

B2T86N Businesswoman shouting at telephone. Image shot 2008. Exact date unknown.
Average Comcast call
When people aren’t feeling heard they get angry. Think of how mad you get when Comcast (or another cable monopoly) takes your money and gives you no options to resolve the problem on the phone. Being rendered powerless sucks. Of course, you *have* the power to sue or visit their office, but, for the most part, there isn’t much you can do without exerting far more effort than should be required.

Now imagine all your neighbors have no money, and Comcast does it to your entire neighborhood – at the same time or in the same building. More directly, imagine a group of any [race|religion|etc] in a town of low income or out of work people (more importantly, imagine a group “just like you” with less) that simultaneously see multiple shootings of “their own” killed on TV by an alternate group. Imagine hearing the victim was unarmed or under age. What if they felt they didn’t have a voice or options? Would they riot? Probably. Would they be wrong to do so? Yes. Is the other group wrong for killing their unarmed, less fortunate, less empowered person? Yes. It is all yes!

You don’t have to choose a side. You don’t have to say “no” to one thing just so you may agree to another. Believe it or not, you can agree it is all wrong at the same time! No one gets hurt when you support people that have been wronged. Your group will not suffer as a result. (Those that do are probably the outliers that have gotten us in this tense situation in the first place. Help educate them too.) Believe it or not you can openly understand why a person has been wronged and is angry. You can also openly not agree with how they reacted too.

The wrong & right seesaw

We often try to highlight one wrong doing to that best represent how we feel, and,  inadvertently, we can end up belittle the other wrongs that occurred in the situation. As a result, more people feel unheard and more problems pop up. What would happen if people understood the other side and let them have the voice they are dying to have. “Hey [person relating to a tragic event], we are all sincerely sorry for your loss. It shouldn’t happen and we will sincerely going to try and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” We don’t use slurs or classifications to supplement our condolences, and, then, we follow up with action.  What if we just said – yeah – about what happened – that’s not right. It shouldn’t happen again. What if those with more power or money or influence said, “Yes, I can see how we can make others feel powerless. Can I use my position more responsibly in some way? Can I use my position to squelch these issues instead of just fearing I will lose the position I have?”

Practical answers to wrongdoing

Is it wrong when a Muslim is easily labeled a “terrorist” but a non-Muslim of the same offense is just a “shooter”? Yes, of course it is. Is it wrong when an unarmed child is killed? Yes. Terribly so. Is it wrong when an officer is shot in the line of duty? Of course! It is tragic. Is it wrong that anyone is racially singled out, verbally or more tangibly so? Why do you need a rebuttal to that question? Of course it is wrong. Does it happen all the time? Yes. Far too frequently. Can we stop it all? Probably not. Can we try? Yes. Are there income gaps? Yes. Are they all for unjust reasons? Probably not. Are there many that are? Definitely. Is income inequality in those cases wrong? Without a doubt. Do we lose anything by admitting it? No.

We can always try to put an end to any of those wrongs. It is each of our individual responsibility to do so because when we don’t EVERYONE suffers eventually – in some pent up, anger filled, mob assembled way. Call it societal debt: You may want it easy now and ignore how others feel, but eventually it bubbles up – with compounded interest.

It seems like the world has so many “but”s, and “only if”s and “what about mine”s to divvy out. Sure, have those words – it’s natural. What I am asking is that you try and supplement a story with, “I see”, “I understand”, “Yes that is wrong”, “How can we make it better” or “I agree with one part, but it doesn’t help anyone that they said the other.”

My approach

How does it work in practice in my mind? Well if you read this far maybe you’d like to know 😉 If a group I don’t agree with says something that makes sense I try and say “okay that is a good point. I agree with that single point.” And follow up with ,  “However I don’t think it is right to also say X. Can you dig into that more?” or “can you explain what you mean by Y?” Do I fear I will lose my overall position if I concede one iota of ground? Absolutely. But that fear is one to battle within yourself, not support. It is really hard to do, but when it is all said and done I feel like often both sides walk away feeling more bonded, fulfilled and with much to think about.

I have found, as I take this approach of openly agreeing to points that make sense to me (even if the larger argument does not) and being specific with what I don’t agree with, the other side follows suit. As a whole the debate becomes a conversation. I have found that you may get flack for saying “I agree with what you said, but you probably shouldn’t use this word”, or asking “why did you use that word?” may get an initial negative reaction, but it often ends well.

I am also trying to be more balanced on my social media. If a story has a fair point (no matter what side) I try to “like” it. If people gang up on a figure or group, but the point the group is making seem reasonable – I try to ask them to dig in more. Even at the risk of being deemed “wrong” or some sort of traitor by my friends for asking.

If the story has terms that divide unnecessarily like “thug”, “terrorist”, or uses grouping terms like “cops”, “blacks”, “muslims” I try to dig a bit deeper into their reasoning. Why? As Ghandi said, be the change you wish to see. It is just as much an exercise in self improvement than it has to do with changing minds. It is hard as $h!t to do those things – and deep down I know it is the overall right thing to do. Usually working on things with that combination are pretty valuable in life.

 

I may get flack for this post, but in the spirit of it – feel free to let me know where you disagree and I will try to see your side while offering mine 🙂

 

The Good Ol’ Days (satire)

I miss the good ol’ days
You know
where I could like who I like
hate who I hate
And not have to worry about being
“Politically correct” and
not get corrected all the damn time

Ah, yeah, the Good ol’ days
I could keep to myself if I wanta
make jokes about whoever I wanna
and not get persecuted for it
not lose my job for it
I was secure

The good ol’ days
I could sit where I wanted
in my own section
with my own kind
and just relax
and breathe
and rest

Ah, the leave it to beaver days
Yeah, that’s when we had it right!
breakfast was waiting for ya every mornin’
no questions asked
separate beds, schools, offices and water fountains
life was easy
you knew your role
it was less complex

The good old days, dammit!
no one was being “watched”
no one was worried about being “recorded”
there was no “social media”
just MY media
it was quieter
less noisy

Back then, only WE had the Nuclear bombs
Ya know what I mean?
only we could vote
our word was the last word
everything was clean cut
we were right
it was easy

Yeah, I wish we could go back
to those good old days
where everyone (who mattered)
had it good
like me

What he learned by asking his own questions may shock some – but it shouldn’t

I think this is true all around the world. Rarely do powerful individuals represent an entire nation. Sadly, those that are bent on hate, domination or simply wish to see the worst in people get the most attention in our country and others. That’s what fuels the divide – the news and politics hoping to spark a nation’s fears to cause conflict, get ratings or advance an agenda. Don’t be someone’s pawn. Ask your own questions, start your own conversations and meet the people being ruled by the “other side.”

Guns Germs and Steel

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This book has been suggested to me numerous times by friends across many of my circles. So, I had to give it a shot.

The first few chapter were a bit slow (a lengthy,  seemingly repetitive explanation of how small islands grew and lost their kingdoms.) However, once you get past them it picks up quite a bit and you begin to realize why it is on so many people’s “top reads” list.

Guns, Germs, and Steel gives a deep cumulative explanation of how some civilization were able to rise, fall, or never to progress at all. If you’ve ever wondered why native Americans got all the European’s diseases and not the other way around or why some secluded tribes didn’t advance as quickly as the west, you should read this book. If someone you know ever made an ignorant racist comment on why their race is superior and you didn’t exactly  have the data to refute the superficial facts – you should 100% read this book. If you are a history nut, it is insane if you have yet to read this book – so give it a go. Power through the first few chapters and then let it ride 😉

http://www.amazon.com/Guns-Germs-Steel-Fates-S…/…/0393317552

You can see my running read book list on Facebook here https://www.facebook.com/sshadmand/books

Thanks for the invite Emma Watson! I support “we” through He for She

Below is Emma Watson’s “He for She” campaign speech. If you haven’t seen it yet it’s a worthwhile 8 mins of perspective. As she said,

“How can we effect change when only half is invited?” …

“Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong.”

She does a great job in helping reset perception, open the door for conversation, validate both sides, and convey a strong message for change. All the components that make for a great ambassador.

 

As Macklemore said in his popular song “Same Love” that will ring true in spite of the generations of people delusional about any inequality they thinks is “right” or “appropriate” at any particular time – be it race, economics or gender bias – it’s simple:

“It’s human rights for *everybody*, there is no difference!”

 

Sure, we could say “who are these entertainers think they are?”. But I think it’s more important that we appreciate their choice to use their influence for good, to support those around us for their basic civil rights, and most importantly giving us a moment to ask ourselves,

“maybe it’s time it I spoke out and influenced change to help those around me too.”

Book Review: Thinking Fast and Slow

ThinkingHow do the implications of how quickly you can add 3+3 and how much time you will take calculate 11*27 have on your daily life? Well – quite a lot says Daniel Kahneman, the writer of Thinking Fast and Slow and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics. The fundamental occurrence between the “think fast brain” (which he calls Version 1) and the “thinking slow brain” (called Version 2) dictate how well we are able to make decisions at large. This book helps lay down a more clear understand of how we are able to, or unable to, make decision as they relate to specific topics such as finance, bias, regret, politics, happiness and more.

In it Daniel describes how the Version 1 brain allows us to make quick decisions using heuristics so that we don’t freeze up (like our Version 2 Brain would do) when we are asked a complex questions. Unfortunately although effective often times those heuristics are very wrong and we rarely are able to notice when they are. How can you slow your brain down when it is thinking fast and speed it up when thinking slow? It starts first with an understanding of how they fit together. It helped me understand why I have always created “rules of thumbs” and “red flags” in my life while having a desire and fascination for also creating “repeatable processes” and my love for making “extreme theories” that guide me through my decision making process. Based on the book it is a fairly optimal way of allow yourself to think fast as often as possible with an backup system to slow down and challenge what sounds good with what has been predetermined to be an irrational thought pattern.

This is a great foundational book for understanding how the mind interact with the world around it through a mix of psychology, statistics and probability. It is Freakonomics meets Tipping Point meets Stumbling on Happiness (all of which I greatly enjoyed reading). Where as each of those books are more focused on answering questions for a specific subject matter, Thinking Fast and Slow is a far more robust book that jumps into all the inputs and outputs surrounding life. Think of it as A History or Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson for the human condition.

 

I’ll leave you with another example of the fast thinking heuristics and the slow deliberate one battling it out:

A man drives a gas guzzler that gets 10 miles per gallon and his more environmentally friendly friend has an economic car that drives at 30 miles per gallon. In an effort to improve their carbon footprint they both upgrade from 10 mpg to 12 mpg and from 30 mpg to 40 mpg. Which upgrade has a greater net effect to the gallons used if they both drive an equal number of miles?

Let your quick mind answer, then grab a calculator and check your hunch. In the example the 10 mpg person improved by 10% where the 30 mpg increased by 33%. The difficulty is in the use of miles per gallon as the metric which does not work well for this comparison.

Now calculate them both before and after the upgrade traveling 3,000 miles.

3000/10=300
3000/12=250
50 less gallons used

3000/30=75
3000/40=50
25 less gallons used

The gas guzzling friend made a greater improvement to the world twice as much than the Eco friendly one.

You can see my running read book list on Facebook here https://www.facebook.com/sshadmand/books

The difference between the US Debt & Deficit.

The super short version:

Let’s say Sam gets $50 per year in allowance (revenue), but owes his Mom $100 in “debt” after two years.  He accrued that debt by spending $100 per year. So, he spent $50 more per year  (“yearly deficit”) than he made in allowance.

2 years * $50 yearly deficit = $100 debt.

 

As told by others:

More depth of the difference between debt and deficit: http://ptmoney.com/us-federal-debt-vs-deficit/

Even greater detail specifc to the US economy as it relates to taxes, social security, military spending etc:

http://useconomy.about.com/od/fiscalpolicy/p/US_Debt_Deficit.htm

The History of the US Debt

Breakdown of US Debt Over Time:

Here is a breakdown of debt accrued over 40 years:

http://www.skymachines.com/US-National-Debt-Per-Capita-Percent-of-GDP-and-by-Presidental-Term.htm

Here is a picture snapshot from the site incase your feeling lazy:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Per Presidency Comparison:

This is the total debt accrued per president in a more condensed format:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I crossed checked it with the treasury data to make sure it was kosher – you can too: http://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/histdebt/histdebt.htm

 

Reflection:

The great thing abot history and numbers is it help remind us there is a difference between what rememebr and what really hapened.

If your going to base your opinions on these numbers and term, please know what they are, or else not only are you doing the country a diservice, but you are letting people use your naivety to control your feelings on an issue.

Opinion:

As you can see it isnt a question of president,  the larger issue is that spending more than we make has been an issue without our country as a whole for a long time. Many of us complain about the economy in a warm room with a bed to sleep onand food in our stomach. (Of course many do not, and we need to fix that too), but we spend more than we should, and then hope someone will save us so we can do it again. That might be a better issue to reflect on then the unsubstantiated blame game.

Are you part of the solution or part of the problem? Debate to improve, not to beat.

As we work together let’s keep in mind that one another argument can bring us together through learning or tear us apart through insults. Here are some tips to “keep it clean and productive” if you are thinking about getting in a debate with someone you know, or about something you think you know.

It’s not like this list is meant to be a rule book, but it couldn’t hurt to think about these things next time you get heated about issues. If your purpose is to improve, unite, progress, or fix then I strongly suggest following it. If you enjoy yelling and making claims whether or not they are true or helpful because it makes you feel good, well – you have much more to worry about then winning a casual debate.

  1. Do you truly want to improve and/or find a solution to your problems.
  2. Do you have any facts or examples to back your claims? Can you simply show the source of the facts that upset your, or that you do not agree with to allow the conversation to progress forward?
  3. Is your comment contributing to a divide, or working to decrease one between the person you are arguing with, or the group or person you are talking about?
  4. Do any of your claims contradict another of your claims in anyway?
  5. Could you make a list of your claims to show there is not a contradiction?
  6. Is your statement inflammatory and/or does it question someone’s legitimacy based on your perception of their race, ethnicity, or religion?
  7. Are any of your claims based on the fact that you think someone is out to get you, purely for their hatred of you and/or the country they are trying to govern? Do you really truly think these people hate you and want to destroy the country they also live in?
  8. Can you write down the principle of what you AND they are arguing about? If not do so, or ask them to do so. Make sure you are arguing about the same thing at the same time.

 

If you think everything is going “down the drain” then what is it that yelling will do to change it? What do you win if you’re right? Work hard on making a difference through learning, discussing, and finding common ground.