Credit: Woman looking up (image credit)
This article first appeared on the blog of Intentional Insights, a nonprofit organization that empowers people to refine and reach their goals by providing research-based content to help improve thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns.
Once, alchemists sought the secret formula for turning lead into gold. Nowadays, we seek things that are rather more unattainable. The perfect job. The perfect relationship. The perfect family life. Perfect health. Perfect everything!
Sam, for instance, tries to get the perfect body. His diet is whatever TV says is the latest “right way.” He exercises however his Facebook feed says is “the best way it’s done” (which is it again: cardio or strength?).
However, it’s hard to keep good habits; mostly Sam just tries until he fails (which is often).
When Sam was a student, he studied the one way he knew how. He picked his major, his profession, his job based on advice from his parents, with just a few moments reflecting on his own desires or how to do the most good with his career. Medical treatment? He gets whatever he hears is best according to hearsay and best friends.
You probably don’t need me to tell you how that’s working for Sam. Sometimes things go well, sometimes they don’t, more or less at random. Things just…happen to Sam; he rarely feels in control.
Sam lives his life on autopilot. And he sometimes wonders if this is really the best he can do.
For that, I admire Sam. He has a sense that there’s a better way, that he himself can do better. He’s self-aware, seeing that his “any ole’ way” strategy isn’t working for him. Realizing that if you’re lacking results, you must be lacking…something important… is the first great key.
A golden life needs a silver bullet. Without it, for all his admirable drive to improve his life, all his energy, I fear Sam will just move from one not-very-impressive strategy to another. Life often fails to reward our effort, if that effort is not properly directed.
What approach can make us powerful, succeeding in every area of life? You might have heard it before:
Seek the truth all the days of your life
And “the truth will set you free.”
Unlike Sam, Sally seeks the truth. She looks on a mess of a thousand lies and plucks the one nugget of truth out of it. She grows more powerful as the years pass; the diamonds in the rough inevitably end up in her hands; others may be satisfied by fool’s gold, but her kind want the genuine article, and they get it.
Results. Sally’s work is rewarded with results. She sifts through diet advice and finds what really works. Changing habits isn’t easy for anybody, but Sally figured out how to make that work for her, too. Her exercise plan works. She has a feeling of control in her life. She knows exactly why she chose what to study and the work she wants to do. The truth has served her well.
The star’s natural state is to shine surrounded by darkness on every side. Truth’s natural state is to shine amid frustrated, useless lies on every side. The truth-seeker’s natural state is to succeed on every side, while others ask “What’s your secret?” Sally’s secret is not assuming that she holds the truth, but to keep checking whether what she believes is true, and how well her beliefs enable her to accomplish her goals.
It’s so tempting to believe that we have the truth, isn’t it? Who would admit otherwise? Indeed, anyone you ask will be willing to tell you the way to success.
If we want to get to New York, which is worse, having no map, or following a map to Congo? The answer is even more obvious when maps to New York are right there for the taking, but we’re not taking them because we “already have our map.”
Caption: “New York City, just like I pictured it!” (image credit)
This is why seeking the truth is only a first step. What if we just fall for the most convincing fake “truth” on the market?
Nate Silver, enjoying incredible success in his work of predicting the future, wrote a book called The Signal and the Noise¸ all about how to find the true “signal” (the truth) when it’s cut up in a thousand pieces and hidden, scattered in “The Noise” (fake answers). This is our second great key, finding the answer. Not just finding an answer, finding the answer, the truth.
These are the two great trials in life, the two gates on the road to success. First, asking the question, and second, finding the (right) answer. Finding our ignorance, then finding its cure. Starting a quest for truth, then resisting the siren call of fake answers.
What will happen when Sam learns to find the signal, the lighthouse in the distance, the guiding star, instead of going from one noise to the next?
He will succeed. He will move from one area of his life to the next, finding the useful tricks out of the useless, each adding to his chest of knowledge like precious gemstones. One area of his life after another will shine like the sun, as Sam himself begins to, one struggle after another defeated and trophied, a victory to be rightly proud of.
This is called rationality, of the real kind. Rationality is about results. And results come from finding the one path that leads upwards out of a thousand confused paths going nowhere.
Why rationality? Why not just be satisfied with what we’ve got, never looking for a better way to study, to work, to make decisions, to parent, or date, or get in shape, or get our life in shape? Why not be be satisfied with whatever answer we picked up along the way, and be satisfied with the results our efforts give us?
Then again, why shouldn’t you succeed? Don’t you want to stride through life, growing stronger by the day? Why shouldn’t you go from one area of life to the next, becoming healthier, happier, more capable, more successful, more anything you want?
There is a way. But there is also a cost.
Caption: Person holding flashlight shining at the stars (image credit)
Can you lift your head up and search the stars? Can you admit that you have to look if you’re going to succeed?
Even if you pass this test, there is a second. Can you admit that if you didn’t spy the right answer the first time, you might not spy it the second? That you need to learn how to judge truth from error? Can you accept it if the truth isn’t what you thought it was, what you hoped it was?
If so…Then I repeat, there are answers.
Remember, the first great trial is realizing you have to look for answers. The obvious thing is to look for answers where you have none. But far more subtle (and difficult) is the need to look for answers where you already have some, but need to ask, “Am I letting a made-up map keep me from looking for a genuine one?”
recommend How To Actually Change Your Mind
to escape the chains of false knowledge.
And the second great trial is to become discerning, to get the right answer. To see a palace of glass and find the diamonds hidden in plain sight. To view the waving, warping kaleidoscope of fanciful ideas and see through their distraction to the truth. The signal amid the noise. Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise and other books like it are here.
Seek truth all the days of your life, and the truth will give you power to set yourself free. Be rational. Those who seek the stars for a lifetime, one day become stars themselves.
Questions for Consideration:
- Why don’t we always feel in control of our lives?
- What happened the last times you tried to improve your life?
- Why do people say “knowledge is power?”
- Why do we sometimes feel certain about things, only to later find out we were mistaken?
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Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky runs a nonprofit that helps you reach your goals using science to build an altruistic and flourishing world, Intentional Insights, authored Find Your Purpose Using Science among other books, and regular contributes to prominent venues; and is a tenure-track professor at Ohio State. Consider signing up to the Intentional Insights newsletter; volunteering; donating; buying merchandise; and/or support him personally on Patreon. Get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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