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Avoiding Procrastination – Genius, Productivity & The Sisyphus Matrix

“Genius is the ability to get from A to D without going through B and C.”  

– Hollow Man, Andrew W. Marlowe

The above quote has stuck with me for a long time because like everyone else, I am attracted to the idea of genius in its many forms. From iconic figures like Leonardo DaVinci, to the golfer who can make what should take three shots in one, there is something seductive about people who can do seemingly impossible things.

I believe this attraction to genius goes as deep as our species evolution; several million years ago humans sacrificed muscle and mechanical output for brains and superior abstract reasoning. Unsurprisingly, that trade-off has echoed out from our DNA out into our society. Capitalism and thus the modern world is predicated on the notion of productivity – the idea that we all benefit when people solve the problem of how to get more with less.

Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that we seek genius’ equivalent in our own lives. We want not only to be productive but to be optimally productive about our productivity because it doesn’t take a genius to see that the ultimate skill is not a thing you learn but learning to learn itself.

But as with any good idea, our drive to be productive can be taken too far. My own experience has been that the inclination to strategize and/or optimize has caused frustration, abandonment, and failure of many personal goals.  

This post is an attempt to lay out a framework that I’ve found helpful for thinking about productivity, work, motivation, discipline, and getting things done.

Getting What You’re After – The Ideal Approach

Achieving anything in life involves some combination of an objective, a strategy and work.

The objective is whatever you set out to achieve, your goal. Strategizing and/or optimization is the time you spend improving your approach to achieving your objective. And the work is the work, the execution.

There is a tension between strategy and work, between thinking about how best to do something and actually trying to do it. Both are important, but time spent doing one is time spent not doing the other.

In an ideal world, we would have the wisdom to find the harmony between the two that gets us to our goal the quickest. But in the real world, things are messy and we don’t know what the right balance is. And because it’s easier to strategize than it is to execute, we often favor strategy over output – to our detriment.

Strategy’s Trap

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” – Mike Tyson

Our predisposition to favor strategy at the expense of execution can be attributed to the fact that strategy is fundamentally easier than executing. This is because strategizing is a conceptual exercise, a manipulation of our mental landscape which is in effect a simulation, and a simplification of reality. Execution, by contrast, necessarily entails a confrontation with reality in all its complexity.

I mention this because it underpins the fact that strategy and execution deliver feedback of differing quality. And it’s the quality of the feedback we get from strategy that can make it into a trap.

Broadly speaking, when we strategize we get low-quality feedback, and when we execute, we get high-quality feedback. Strategizing provides us with general information and is always simplified to some degree.

By contrast, by when we endeavor to execute, to do the work, we are getting feedback that is unique to our specific situation. Such high-quality feedback is often psychologically painful because it is so specific to our own limitations and shortcomings.

It’s tempting to presume that those of us who overindulge in strategy at the expense of execution do so out of laziness. But I believe it’s ambition that makes strategy so dangerous. We strategize not because it is the absence of but because it is effort.

Strategy becomes an insidious trap when it allows us to feel like we’re doing something, even if that something isn’t productive. At its worst, strategy is the junk-food of work, a procrastination for ambitious people that lets us feel good about getting nowhere.

 

SpaceX & The Hierarchy of Feedback

For a sense of how the hierarchy of feedback plays out in the real world, consider how the company SpaceX dealt with the tension between strategy and execution.

SpaceX’s objective was to create rockets that could carry objects into space and then return safely to earth. Sending rockets into space is very expensive, so SpaceX was highly incentivized to spend as much time as they could perfecting their strategy and design before spending the money to test-launch a rocket. As such, the company invested in the brightest rocket scientists and the most powerful computers money could buy to simulate how the rockets would perform.

The economics of SpaceX’s situation dictated that if there was any way they could simulate their way to a rocket that worked, they would. But they couldn’t. They had to send rockets into space because their most valuable feedback came from the information they received during each attempt at launch and each failure.

SpaceX launched more than 10 rockets costing the company hundreds of millions before they finally achieved a rocket that could return safely from earth’s orbit.

Rocket engineering is an admittedly extreme example but the principle does, I think, carry over into our own more modest objectives; irrespective of the endeavor there is no substitute for the feedback you get from getting off the page and out into the world.

Where We Over-Strategize – The Sisyphus Matrix

While we’re predisposed to favor strategy over execution, not all activities are the same. In my experience, there are two qualities of a given task, variables if you will, that determine how likely we are to fall into the trap of strategizing at the expense of doing:  

Variable 1: Pleasure/Pain – How enjoyable or difficult producing output i.e. doing the work is.

Variable 2: Confidence/Anxiety – How confident or anxious you are that given enough work, you’ll get the outcome you want.

The danger of strategizing when we should be executing is the greatest when the work is painful and the outcome feels uncertain. It’s worth noting that pain alone is often well tolerated if we know it will result in achieving our goals, and uncertainty is also bearable if we can at least tolerate going through the motions. But as the experience of a task shifts towards the combination of both discomfort and anxiety, the fear that our misery may be pointless often drives us to either quit or retreat to the drawing board.

 

I’ve titled the above table the Sisyphus Matrix because the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus is a striking, if fictional, example of how these two facets of our experience combine to shape our relationship with a given task.  

The myth tells of a king named Sisyphus who was both greedy and cunning. In order to glorify himself, Sisyphus deceived the Gods Hades and Zeus – making them look like fools.

For believing he was more clever than the gods, Zeus devised a special punishment for Sisyphus. He would be forced to roll a heavy boulder up a mountain, only to watch that same boulder roll back down the hill as soon as he’d finished, for all eternity.

Sisyphus’ punishment is terrible because it is both painful and so definitely pointless. It is the Platonic antithesis of productivity and genius – an eternity of meaningless suffering.

As such, Sisyphus’ punishment lands in the very top right corner of the matrix. Whereas a task that is both pleasurable in its execution and highly certain in its outcome would be in the bottom left-hand corner.

 

Most of our endeavors won’t be as forlorn as Sisyphus’ punishment. But because the world is a competitive place, worthwhile things are often difficult things, and so our objectives tend to cluster somewhere towards the middle right region of the matrix.

Thinking about our work in terms of these variables can help us identify when we’re likely to be pushed towards the siren song of unproductive strategizing. Again, the more painful the process and the more anxiety we have about its outcome, the greater the likelihood that we dither.  

That said, there are times when it’s right to go back to the drawing board or just plain give up. But more often than not, we succumb to procrastination in the guise of strategizing long before we’ve given ourselves the chance to get the feedback we need to make a good decision.

The Motivation Mindset And Its Discontents

“Discipline equals freedom” – Jocko Willink

When a task is painful and the outcome is uncertain, it’s often the case that my motivation seems to somehow vanish. At such times, stepping away to improve my strategy seems like a reasonable way to rekindle and reconnect with the feelings that lead me into the work. This is one of the ways I’ve fallen into the trap of over-strategizing but it also speaks to a deeper misunderstanding of the role that motivation should play in achieving goals.

When we approach our goals with what I’ll call the Motivation Mindset, we expect that our motivation to reach our goal will translate into motivation to do the work necessary to achieve it.  

For example, the motivation mindset assumes that because we’re motivated to learn French, we’ll also feel motivated to spend hours learning to conjugate French verbs. It’s also the reason people say things like, “he just didn’t want it badly enough.” when someone fails to achieve something. The flaw with this approach to our goals is that it places too much stock in the durability of motivation.

Motivation is a treacherous currency because it is a fundamentally forward looking emotion. It is a why, why you’re doing something. Motivation concerns itself with the future and because we are quick to discount the future in the face of difficulty, it is fundamentally fickle. As such, relying on motivation will almost never get you through the work required for a worthwhile goal.

An alternative, and in my experience superior approach is to approach our work with what i’d call a Discipline Mindset. Which is to say that we should expect that, irrespective of our initial motivation, discipline will be required.

Motivation and discipline differ in that if motivation is about the future then discipline is about the present. If motivation asks why, then discipline asks how? How will I get through the drudgery of conjugating verbs? By drinking a strong coffee and not getting out of this chair for an hour.

It is a subtle distinction, but I would argue it is a worthwhile one because in essence, a disciplined mindset creates more realistic expectations. The result is that instead of feeling like we’re doing things wrong because we’re bored, tired and pissed off, we can begin to recognize those emotions as signals that we’re doing exactly what we should be.

Discipline Creates Motivation

There is a further relationship between discipline and motivation that’s worth exploring. It’s how, in certain circumstances, discipline can lead to a renewed sense of motivation. This occurs when disciplined output provides high-quality feedback which in turn leads to truly productive adjustments to our strategy.

As we observe said adjustments creating real changes in the efficiency and/or efficacy of our work, the result is motivation to do more work. Which is to say that when we feel more confident that our plan will work or we’ll feel better while we do it, we feel motivated to follow through and execute.

Put in terms of the Sisyphus Matrix, motivation is the feeling we get when our perception of a task moves from Task t1 to Task t2:

This is why people spend, and often waste money on “gear” and its equivalent. It creates the expectation of a more pleasurable experience and thereby the motivation to take another shot at the work. Unfortunately, for things that require true skill, better tools often provide only a minor improvements to our process and our motivation quickly dissipates.

Conclusion – In Defense of Platitudes

“Action is the foundational key to all success” – Picasso

Slogans like the above, and many others, used to bother me for being patently incomplete descriptions of what it takes to be successful. After all, surely there is something to be said for working smarter not just harder and therefore “Just do it” can’t be a complete description of what it takes to succeed.

But if that’s the case, why do seemingly smart, accomplished people treat these blatant oversimplifications as gospel? For instance, one of my favorite artists, the filmmaker Casey Neistat has both “Do More” and “Always Be Closing” tattooed on his arm.

So how to account for this? Are people like Picasso and Casey just so lucky and/or talented that simply “Doing More” without any thought to “How To Do It” has brought them so much success that they’ve bought into the idea that their personal experience is a worthy universal maxim?  

Possibly. We are all susceptible to reading too deeply into our own experiences. On the other hand, to dismiss these people as naive and the slogans as platitudes might be a dangerous oversimplification in itself.

There is, I think, a more nuanced approach to interpreting the situation that helps reconcile the reverence with which people attend these oversimplified mantras. One that gelled for me only when I came across the following quote by the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, he wrote:

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Framed within the lens of the above quotation, I think it’s possible to view slogans like “Do More Work” as expressions of what Homes would characterize as simplicity on the far side of complexity.

Which is to say that successful people do understand that there is more to achievement than just doing the work, that there is a need for both strategy and execution. But they also understand that the dynamic between the two is such that while there is a role for being clever, it so often dwarfed by the opportunity to improve by putting our heads down and getting our hands dirty, that saying anything other than Do The Work, would be a waste of breath.



Ray Dalio’s Secret Sauce – The Truth Machine and The Good Life

This is Ray Dalio; he has built one of the greatest money making machines the world has ever seen:

Ray Dalio has written a book titled Principles. The book is over 500 pages. It’s mostly words, and there are no wizards, so a lot of people won’t read it which I think is a shame.

The good news is that the core theme of Dalio’s book can be boiled down to the following formula:

But why should you listen to Ray Dalio at all? And does his formula work? As an introduction to Principles, I’ll use what Dalio calls the secret to his success to try and answer those questions.

THE TRUTH MACHINE

According to Dalio, the secret to his success is something he calls Believability Weighted Decision Making. This is a fancy way of describing what I’ll be calling Ray Dalio’s Truth Machine. Here’s what it looks like:

FIND OUT WHO’S BELIEVABLE

Using the Truth Machine is a three-step process, and the first step is finding believable people to listen to. Because we’re looking at just Dalio’s opinion, our first step is to determine how believable he is.

To determine how believable someone is, we need to ask ourselves,

“Does the person making the argument have a track record of success and/or expertise concerning the subject matter?”

The better the track record, the more believable the person.

It’s worth mentioning that most people find Ray Dalio believable because of his professional track record. Specifically, because Dalio has accomplished two objectively difficult things:

  1. He and his team at Bridgewater have delivered market-beating returns for the past 30 years.1
  2. He built (from scratch) the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates which currently manages ~$140 billion of assets.2

Thus, Dalio is believable when it comes to the topics of investing, leadership and achieving your goals. But great professional success doesn’t always mean a fulfilled life. The question is whether or not Dalio has achieved a good life using his formula.

Because it’s nearly impossible to take a reliable measure of another person’s subjective experience, the best evidence of a track-record we have is Dalio’s own report about his life. And according to him, he’s lead an extremely fulfilling life full of meaningful work and meaningful relationships.

For me, Dalio’s report on his own life in combination with a track-record as someone who can achieve difficult goals is enough to consider him a believable person.

Open Minded Critical Thinking

After we’ve gathered believable people’s opinions, the Truth Machine process requires that all these believable people turn their brainpower toward critically and open-mindedly evaluating the logic of each other’s opinions. Critical thinking is necessary because even a person with a great track-record can be wrong.3 And sometimes a person with no track record can be right.4

While getting a group of smart people in a room together and having them open-mindedly search for the best ideas sounds good on paper, it’s worth pausing for a moment and consider how rare it is for this to actually happen.

It’s rare is because we don’t just have an idea and then carry it along with us independent of ourselves.




What does happen is that our ideas get wrapped up in our feelings and egos. So when we have ideas, we grow attached to them in a way that turns them from just thoughts in our heads to extensions of our self-worth.5

The result is that when people come together in the real world, they come to fight for their ideas, instead of looking for the best idea.

Because it goes against fundamental aspects of human nature, this is the hardest step in the Truth Machine to get right. Asking people to be critically open-minded about their best ideas is like asking master craftsmen to bring their best work to a contest where they know that if it’s not chosen as the winner, it will be destroyed.

A large part of Dalio’s success as an investor has been the result of training himself and other people to be open-minded enough to engage in just this type of process. 

Dalio’s Good Life Formula

Critical thinking means examining the underlying logic of other’s ideas. So that you can apply your critical thinking to Dalio’s opinion, I’m going to try and provide a quick and dirty explanation of his reasoning.

The first principle in Dalio’s formula is that a good life is a life full of things you value. For example, Dalio’s values are meaningful work and meaningful relationships.

Your values may be money and nice cars, and that’s ok. What is important is that you make an effort to truly know yourself in order to accurately diagnose what your values are.

Once you understand your values, the next step is to set goals that will bring these values into your life. A goal could be an amount of money, a change you want to see in the world or a job you’d like to have.6

As we all know, goals don’t just happen. Therefore the next step is to craft processes to achieve our goals. Our ability to achieve our goals comes down to two factors, our decisions, and luck. Since by definition we cannot control luck, the question of achieving our goals becomes how to make the best decisions. Good decisions, Dalio argues, can only be achieved by accurately understanding how the world works.

For example, if we want to bet on the results of a coin toss, our best method for making good decisions (bets) will be figuring out whether the coin is fair (a 50/50 chance of heads or tails) or weighted in some other way that skews the odds of the results.

As in life, the result of any single toss will have an element of luck but over many coin tosses, the weighting of the coin will act as a signal that overcomes the noise of luck.

Dalio believes that most people’s biggest obstacle to understanding how the world works is not a lack of intelligence, but a tendency to avoid confronting painful realities. When confronting the reality of the world would violate a long-held belief or entail a truth about ourselves that we don’t want to face, we avoid acknowledging the truth to protect our ego’s.

 

When we turn away from reality and make decisions based on a flawed model of how the world works. The result is decisions based on fantasy that presumes the world is one-way when really, in the immortal words of Marlo Stanfield, “it’s the other way.”  

As I hope you can see, the Truth Machine plays an integral role in Dalio’s process for getting around ego and confronting reality so that he can make good decisions, achieve his goals, get things he values, and have a good life.

 

Take A (Believability Weighted) Vote

The final step in the Truth Machine’s process is to put believable people’s opinions to a vote. But it is not a normal one, man, one vote situation. Instead, each person’s vote is weighted by their believability. More believable people’s votes count for more and less believable people’s count for less.

Each person’s weighted vote is tallied up and the opinion or course of action with the most votes selected and voila! You have a truth machine decision. 

Although it may seem a little strange at first, believability weighted voting really just a more formal way of expressing what we do in ordinary life.

For example, if you’d never studied physics and need the right answer to a physics problem, you would value someone with a degree in physics opinion much more highly than your own. In fact, you’d value their opinion so highly that even if their answer didn’t make sense to you, you’d probably use their opinion over yours.  7

When it comes to physics, it’s easy to see that only an idiot would believe the best answer was already in their own head. That’s because we understand that physics is difficult and complex. But when it comes to other areas like relationships, careers, politics and investing, we tend to presume that we can come up with the best answers on our own. And of course, that’s where we get into trouble.  

Unfortunately, we can’t take a believability weighted vote on Dalio’s formula. But you can make your opinion heard in the comments, or discuss it with your friends to get more than just your own opinion on the subject. 

The Best Worst Truth Machine

In an ideal world, by using the Truth Machine, every decision would reflect the truth about how the world works. But of course, even the Truth Machine isn’t perfect. As Dalio would be the first to admit, all the Truth Machine does is get you closer than any other system he has found.

Most of us go through life using only our own brains to make our decisions. The insight that’s made Dalio a billionaire has been to realize that his own brain isn’t that great and that that’s ok. It’s ok because he’s discovered that if he can get a lot of pretty good brains together and train them to only care about the best answer, they can get a much better view of how the world works than he ever could on his own. 

That’s the essence of Ray Dalio’s Truth Machine and the foundation of his formula for the good life. In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss some methods to bring Dalio’s process into your own life and business.

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Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy these other articles related to Principles:

Ray Dalio’s Principles – 4 Steps For Better Decisions

  1. This is hard. Billions of dollars a year are spent on out-performing the markets and few have been able to do it consistently for as long as Dalio and his team at Bridgewater.
  2.  It’s worth noting that being the largest hedge-fund does not necessarily happen because you beat the markets. It’s an accomplishment in and of itself. Becoming the world’s biggest requires strong returns but it also requires a world-class organization to support it.
  3. Einstein’s Mistakes – https://www.amazon.com/Einsteins-Mistakes-Human-Failings-Genius/dp/0393337685
  4.  Unknown Mathematician Proves Elusive Property of Prime Numbers – https://www.wired.com/2013/05/twin-primes/
  5.  Dalio writes that this is due to fundamental properties of how our brains work. Specifically, that the amygdala plays a large role in creating the feelings that give our ideas an emotional character.
  6. It’s interesting to note that this assumes you can accurately estimate the time it will take to get the things you value and that either your preferences will be stable through time or that you can accurately estimate the preferences of your future self.
  7. Is Gravity An Illusion? – https://youtu.be/NblR01hHK6U


Passion is Bullshit – Cal Newport on Finding Work You Love

Once upon a time, my job was to sell bonds. I didn’t like my job. I spent a lot of time thinking about what job I should do instead. The internet said that people should do what they are passionate about. So I thought, what am I passionate about? And I thought about it some more. But the answers were never that compelling.

There were a lot of things I was interested in, but nothing had that quality of deep and soul consuming fire which sends people up the tallest mountains or dodging bullets to feed refugees. So I kept thinking about it. And then, finally, I read Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Now I can tell you that passion is (mostly) bullshit. There is a better way to find work you love.

Why Passion Is Overvalued And Overblown

The myth that passion is the way to find work we love, like any good lie, is built on a grain of truth. That truth is that when someone is innately passionate about something, and it works out it for them, it just makes so much sense. We see someone who was born passionate become successful at what they love, and think by golly that’s the way the world is supposed to work. But we forget that this is like looking at someone who was born with a passion for playing the lottery and happened to hit the jackpot – it doesn’t mean it’s going to work for everyone.

The second reason we over attribute success to innate passion is that we tend to like what we become good at. There are a whole lot of people who did not decide what to work on based on any preexisting passion, but developed passion because they became good at what they did. These people then confuse things by telling themselves and others that they have been passionate about what they do all along.

Cal Newport opens So Good They Can’t Ignore You with Steve Jobs as an example of someone who was not always the quintessential passionate entrepreneur. In truth, Jobs was a bright young man who stumbled into something good and then developed a passion for it only after experiencing some success. As evidence, Newport cites the fact that Jobs was a co-founder at a startup company before starting Apple but abandoned his job without telling his co-founders to spend months at the All One spiritual commune. Not the type of behavior you’d expect from a person who was supposedly deeply passionate about starting a computer company.

Finally, some people just lie about being passionate. They say they love what they do because they’re afraid to admit they don’t. This is a symptom of the fact that our society presumes that to be good at something you must be innately passionate about it. So much so that many people feel it is a mark of personal failure to even admit they do not LOVE their jobs.

For all these reasons and more, passion gets way more credit than it’s due.

Ask Not About Passion But About Career Capital

Instead of trying to figure out what we are passionate about, Newport urges us to focus on acquiring what he calls career capital. For Newport, career capital is rare and valuable skills.

How is this different than the passion-based approach?

First, as a question, the career capital framework shifts the focus of our decision criteria from a question that is centered around “I”, “What am I passionate about?”, to a question that is centered around others, “What is the world looking for that I can become really good at?”

Second, it specifies that the skill must be rare and valuable. For instance, writing words on the internet about books you’ve read is not a rare and valuable skill, so getting good at that is probably a waste of time.

Third, the career capital framework does not demand passion as a prerequisite for trying things. This means you won’t prematurely disqualify things you may end up having a great career in before you have a chance to try them.

Fourth, using the career capital framework makes it explicit that you have to not only identify what skill you want but also acknowledge that you have to get really good at it. Getting good at things is hard. To become genuinely skilled at something you have to get up and do stuff that is tiring and dull and uncomfortable and you have to keep doing it, often for years. Acknowledging this up front helps you make decisions about what you are willing to pursue.*

Finally, the Career Capital approach also provides a safer road-map for getting to where you want to be because as Newport points out, passion can be dangerous. Dangerous because making decisions on passion alone can lead us to attempt things that we are genuinely unprepared for. Passion has lead many people to start businesses armed only with good intentions and no skill or contacts. Unfortunately, this is like jumping out of an airplane without really knowing how to use your parachute. Yes, you are deeply motivated to learn how to open your chute but you only have so much time to do it and the results will be devastating if you don’t. I did this when I started a business without customers. It’s painful, don’t do it.

Career capital is not as sexy as passion. No one is going to put “Develop Career Capital” on a t-shirt or mug. In fact, it’s so economically intuitive as to be banal. But it is a better approach because it both changes the questions we ask and better defines what we’re seeking.

Once You Have Career Capital, Bargain for Control

The final but critical step in Newport’s formula for achieving work you love is to bargain with your accumulated career capital for control and autonomy over what you do.

To see why these qualities are critical to having a career you love, imagine what it would be like to be a rock star without them. Yes, you’d be famous, and make a lot of money but if you only had three weeks of vacation per year, and no say over where and what you had to play, you’d probably grow to hate it in the long run.

Now imagine you’re a rock star that gets to decide where and how often you work (within reason), and you’re also allowed to pick most of the songs you play. You’d probably end up hating the former and loving the latter scenario, even though they are technically the same job.

Part of the brilliance of Newport’s framework is that he makes it explicit that our ability to set the terms of how we work can be just as, if not more important than what we do.

Work Past And Future

In 1931 the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote that given the rate of improvement in economic productivity, in the future (our present), we would only have to devote a few hours a day to paid “work.” The real problem, he predicted, would be figuring out what to do with all our leisure time.

Keynes’ vision of the future has not come to pass. We still spend a large portion of our lives doing whatever people are willing to pay us for. There has however been a somewhat compensatory shift in focus towards making that work meaningful and enjoyable.

The problem, up to now, had been that no one gave much serious thought to how to intelligently go about finding work you love. Cal Newport’s career capital framework has changed that. Both by reframing the questions we ask and by better defining what it is we’re looking for, Newport gives us the tools to make better decisions and ultimately create more meaningful lives.

 



I Is Not Enough – Amartya Sen on the Utility and Moral Dimension of Thinking Beyond Ourselves

One of the reasons for this blog is to share different frameworks of thought that I’ve found helpful or interesting with others. I am the kind of person who really enjoys having a conceptual framework for why, what and how I go about doing just about anything.

In the introduction to his book, The Idea of Justice, the economist Amartya Sen makes an eloquent case for his attempt at crafting a theory of justice. What I love about the passage that follows is that you could replace the word justice for any number of things such as: nutrition, monetary policy, relationships, investing, meaningful work, and have a compelling argument for why we should strive to build a theory around our actions and the actions of others:

The identification of redressable injustice is not only what animates us to think about justice and injustice, it is also central, I argue in this book, to the theory of justice. In the investigation presented here, diagnosis of injustice will figure often enough as the starting point for critical discussion. But, it may be asked, if this is a reasonable starting point, why can’t it also be a good ending point? What is the need to go beyond our sense of the word justice and injustice. Why must we have a theory of justice?

To understand the world is never a matter of simply recording our immediate perceptions. Understanding inescapably involves reasoning. We have to ‘read’ what we feel and seem to see, and ask what those perceptions indicate and how we may take them into account without being overwhelmed by them. One issue relates to the reliability of our feelings and impressions. A sense of injustice could serve as a signal that moves us, but a signal does demand critical examination, and there has to be some scrutiny of the soundness of a conclusion based mainly on signals. Adam Smith’s conviction of the importance of moral sentiments did not stop him from a seeking a ‘theory of moral sentiments’. Nor from insisting that a sense of wrongdoing be critically examined through reasoned scrutiny to see whether it can be the basis of a sustainable condemnation. A similar requirement of scrutiny applies to an inclination to praise someone or something.*

As compelling as this is for me, there are, I’ve been told, some people who consider an intellectual framework to be superfluous, if not downright stupid. To such people, a theory is nothing more than an extra layer of unnecessary complexity around a problem. Instead of theoretical frameworks for action, such people assign value only to their intuition and unique personal experiences.

For example, people often dismiss the need for an intellectual framework in the context of weight-loss and exercise. They say things like, “If I want to lose weight,  I just eat less and exercise more.” or “If I want to get stronger, I just go to the gym and lift heavy weights.” And in some sense these people are right, they recognize that often it is doing simple and effective things that make real progress and over intellectualizing can be a waste of time and energy.

The problem with this type of thinking is that it runs a dangerous risk of oversimplification and ignores the role that generalizable framework plays in improving the lives of others.

I say improve the lives of others because meaningful lives are the result of good decisions (on average) and good decisions are the result of understanding how the world works. In light of that understanding, the failure to try and think beyond our own intuition and experience can be viewed a failure from a moral dimension.

The failure to attempt to think beyond ourselves is a moral failure because it means we never stop to ask if and how our experiences manifest the underlying reality of the world. Such an approach to life precludes the possibility of creating a generalized framework that can be communicated, tested and then shared to better the lives of others. 

That said, there are good reasons to be skeptical of theory. Sometimes theories are bullshit.1 But the failure of an individual framework is not the failure of the method. We should consider what works for I and then carefully, and incrementally attempt to discover why and how it will work for we.

 

*Sen, Amartya Kumar. The Idea of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard U, 2011. Print.




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