Want to live like an Instagram star and travel the world shooting sexy videos with your amazing partner?
I can’t help you, sorry.
On the other hand, if you are looking for knowledge, meaning, and fulfillment in the real world, you’ve come to the right place. For the next ten minutes, I will present 28 nasty traps and 14 smart things you can do to improve your life.
Hang on — this may be bumpy.
28 Nasty Traps that are Holding you Back
- Pretty much everything we do is about signaling to others rather than creating, adding, or obtaining real value. Signaling means brand names, credentials, certificates, clothes, height, looks, money, points, social media, likes, followers, etc. It’s not clear what “real value” is, anyway.
- Most of everything is made up. If you think money is fiction — try nations, religion, society, conflict, laws, government, education, science, medicine, dating, marriage, news — these are all games people have invented, and those who play the game well do best. That does not mean they understand the world.
- There are no such things as “fundamental truths.” You do not have “a relationship with Christ.” Everything does not happen for a reason. No one knows anything about nutrition (even those with PhDs). We barely know our own kids, there is much your spouse will never tell you, and we hardly know ourselves. Warren Buffett mostly just got lucky. Scientific peer review is little more than a game. Even flossing has come under scrutiny. The list of shared delusions is very long.
- A few things are not made up. This is reality. It is hard to find, difficult to measure, impossible to categorize, and exists separately from our understanding. Our map of reality is remarkably inaccurate. Mine is, Bill Gates’s is, and so is yours. We need to recognize that before we can do anything about it.
- Most of us are not really that good at making decisions. You can make a good decision and get a bad result. You can make a bad decision and get lucky. We don’t track this stuff, we don’t have a system, the questions are more important than the answers, and we can improve dramatically.
- What each of us believes is a loose pile of random half-concepts based not on our own investigation of the world but on our relationship with other people. Just as we don’t understand how our car engine works, few of us look very deeply into matters that form our core beliefs. We are lazy. We trust belief platforms (friend networks, hashtags, political parties, publications, channels, experts, repetition, marketing, authors) to do the work for us. There are strong financial incentives to lead those platforms.
- Communication is mostly noise.
- Trying to get other people to believe in your ideas is a waste of time. Better to just build things and see if they fly. Most won’t (for random reasons). People get excited about things long after they are good ideas.
- Today’s world is a popularity contest. It’s how we elect politicians, do science, choose which videos to watch, what to buy, or books to read, choose what to discuss and think. A trend starts from some random source, then whatever is trending tends to accelerate, and whatever bubbles up to the top rules. This may not be optimal for society, but it’s the Justin Bieber/Donald Trump world we live in. Politicians will become more alike as they simply go with polls, trends, and Twitter feeds to get elected. Maybe they always have.
- Journalists know nothing. Why should they? They don’t get paid to know things. They are just gaming the system to win for themselves. Same as everyone else. There are a few exceptions, but not many.
- The entire education system is broken. It’s designed to create obedient yet overconfident experts who add no value to society. Don’t get me started on leadership or MBAs!
- A remarkably small number of people are willing to change their beliefs when they receive new information.
- Successful people believe they cause their own success. They are wrong (but don’t tell them that, they won’t believe you).
- We believe people are responsible for their own success and treat them accordingly. Most CEOs are over 6 feet tall. It’s our fault.
- You are not on a journey. Your goals are illusions. You have no idea where you are really going (and that’s okay).
- We think we see, but mostly we don’t. Our visual system can only see a tiny spot in front of us, and our brain puts together our picture of reality. Our brains are easily fooled. See for yourself.
- The things we don’t do are far bigger than the things we do. We all walk past huge opportunities weekly.
- Our brains continually reshape our “memories” of the past. We don’t know what actually happened, even though we think we do.
- Storytelling is incredibly powerful. People use it to get us to believe what they want us to believe. We are naturally convinced by stories.
- Most markets are very efficient. We often think we have some kind of knowledge of the future or inside information, but that’s an illusion.
- The more skill everyone has, the more luck determines the winners. The person who wins the gold medal at the Olympics is not the best in the world. The best writer is not the richest. The best-performing investor is the most likely to underperform in the future, and the most brilliant business person is most likely to screw up next time.
- You are statistically illiterate. And yes, it matters.
- Almost nothing grows linearly. Our minds like to make linear projections into the future. Yet we can develop nonlinear skills.
- Complex adaptive systems are unpredictable. Focus on the edges.
- We’re never going to understand how everything is connected. We might think we understand cause and effect, but most likely we’re mistaken. Again, this is a skill.
- It’s all about the incentives.
- You don’t agree with much of what I’ve written here. That’s because your brain is wired to defend your current belief system rather than …
Now for the good news: there are two ways out of all these traps:
Blue Pill: How to Win Without Understanding the World
This is actually fairly easy. If you only learn one skill in life, forget everything I’ve just written and learn how to sell. If you can sell, you’ll probably be fairly happy and fairly comfortable you entire life long. You may sell a lot of things no one needs, you may not come to understand the world, but you may not regret anything when you’re at Disneyland with your happy kids.
Red Pill: How to Actually Change Your Mind
On the other hand, you can put in the hours it takes to become a different person from the one who started reading this just a few minutes ago. It comes down to one thing: question your assumptions. Work hard to reshape your approach to understanding the world. Get rid of bad habits and form new ones. This is going to take 1–4 hours a day for 2–5 years, and then you’ll probably want to continue rebuilding and resharpening your tool kit for the rest of your life. I didn’t say it would be easy. You won’t get a certificate. But you will understand the world better, and you might be a better person because of it. At the very least, you’ll say “I think there are two sides to every story” and “I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that” more often.
- Be willing to question everything. Question all your assumptions. You live in several interlocking complex adaptive systems — don’t assume you understand how anything actually works. Don’t assume you know why people behave the way they do. Always go down to the assumption level and assume something is wrong there. This will pay off immediately in your relationships with others — ask questions rather than make assumptions.
- Read at least 30 minutes daily. Read everything I have provided links to (but first, learn how to read effectively). Read Thinking Fast and Slow, by Danny Kahneman. Read Better Humans for ideas to test and see if they actually work for you. Reflect and make small changes. Research how you can set up systems to use your time better. Use audiobooks to “read” while you are out on a walk or commuting.
- Watch 30 minutes of video daily. A good place to start would be Kahn Academy. Learn about econometrics. Just go to YouTube and type in “Stanford Decision Science” and spend a few days watching those videos. Watch every Veritasium video except one. Start with this one. I did this for years and still do. (Keep reading for a surprise.)
- Read papers. Do I love reading poorly written academic papers? I don’t. But I do it anyway, because about a third of them are interesting and contribute to my worldview. That’s why I probably visit scholar.google.com at least once a day. Beware — there is a lot of outdated and bad stuff there. You have to use your critical thinking skills. But I think it’s worth it.
- Subscribe to newsletters. I probably get a dozen newsletters I really pay attention to. Find your dozen and make sure you are up to date. Unsubscribe from the rest.
- Tune out the rubbish. Get rid of things that are holding you back. At age 14, I opted out of organized religion and never looked back. I recently started reading Surveillance Capitalism and stopped because I realized it was the author’s one-sided quest to get famous. I unsubscribed from the New York Times years ago (but still read the front page daily). I generally tune out the news, because it’s noise. If you are questioning your assumptions, you must also question your normal information sources.
- Engage with people. I often write to authors whose books I have read and even meet them. There’s a lot of action using Slack, Telegram, Twitter. I spend at least 30 minutes a day interacting with others online.
- Try things. Get good at failing. Build this skill: a) try something new, b) it works or it doesn’t, c) it works? Put more fuel on the fire. d) It failed? Reflect and learn from the failure. This is what Google does. Try at least one new thing a week, and get rid of one old thing a week that is holding you back. Build these muscles. Keep trying. It’s not how many times they knock you down that counts, it’s how many times you get back up. Trying counts more than thinking, because it’s the trying-failure-learning loop that moves you forward.
- Become statistically literate. Read the amazing Flaw of Averages, by Sam Savage. Read Doug Hubbard and Gleb Tsipursky. Spend time at the Cochrane Library web site (I can’t count how many hours I have spent there).
- Check in weekly at your new favorite watering holes. Besides reading books, there are tons of online videos, blogs, and resources. The way I do it is to have a separate Apple workspace (screen) on my Mac and put each of them in its own browser tab. Here are mine:
- Overcoming Bias
- The Money Illusion
- Marginal Revolution
- Macro Musings
- Slate Star Codex
- Crooked Timber
- Andrew Gelman
- Brad DeLong
- Judith Curry
- Tony Heller
- Dom Cummings
- Simply Statistics
- Closer To Truth
11. Find and spend time with those who are already doing these things. Join a community of like-minded people. Make it a point to meet others whose opinions you value and want to learn from. Reach out to people and see who will have lunch with you or take a phone call. Ask questions by email. Just telling people you want to learn is often enough to get them to want to spend time with you. If you don’t have a local meetup, create one. Put together a group to work on these things and share meals and knowledge.
12. Write or speak or communicate what you have learned. Join the heretics and look foolish. Get up in front of your local group and report on a book you’ve read. Question authority (even 16-year-olds who speak at the United Nations). Start a blog. Start teaching a short course somewhere, or teach a workshop, or get involved with someone else who is. Or go to your kids’ school and try to figure out how to help them stop filling kids’ heads with nonsense (let me know how that goes). If you’re not a natural creator, start helping someone who has the right message but needs more resources and amplification.
13. Acknowledge your mistakes. People say about me: “David is opinionated, yes, but I’ve seen him many times get rid of an opinion and pick up a new one when he sees that his previous one was wrong. He’s weirdly flexible in that way.” I have a habit of getting back to people to tell them I was wrong about something, even if it was a conversation we had months ago.
14. Be the change. Most of the big stuff is broken. Start caring about the big stuff and forget the small stuff. Show people that you have abandoned your platform belief system and are now looking at the world on a case-by-case basis. If enough people did that, everything would change for the better. If political candidates could get elected by saying “Hmm, that’s a good question, I don’t have a snappy answer, have there been any meta-studies or randomly controlled trials?” — that might change our entire political system.
I didn’t say this would be easy, but after twenty years of mistakes and ten years of learning, I do say it will be fulfilling.
Surprise: If you want to watch the videos, they are all waiting for you at my YouTube channel, so get started!
David Siegel is a serial entrepreneur in Washington, DC. He is the founder of the Pillar Project and 2030. He is the author of The Token Handbook, Open Stanford, The Culture Deck, Climate Curious, and The Nine Act Structure. His newsletter is at CuttingThroughTheNoise.net. He gives speeches to audiences around the world — see his speaker page if you would like him to speak at your next event. His full body of work is at dsiegel.com.