One of my deepest held beliefs is that our need for coherence is a profound source of misery. We agitate for universal theories to tie everything together. Our obsessions with gurus, religion, ideology, macro, or even astrology are symptoms. We search for meaning as if it is something that’s “out there” to be discovered. I’m not holding my breath.
These quests are actively destructive when taken too seriously. When people become overly invested in any of these expeditions, we are sentenced to watching the mental gymnastics routines their precious egos cling to. It’s worse than just being cringe. It’s insidious. They dehumanize opposition so they don’t even have to consider reasonable antagonistic stances.
I just picked up Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Ethics Of Ambiguity because its description vibrates with my own feelings. I’ll report back after reading it. (See How The Need For Coherence Drives Us Mad to see if you’d be interested in reading it.)
In the meantime, I’ll share a technique that I use to resist the seduction of coherence.
A Drawer Of Curiosities
In my notes, I keep an ever-growing list of “tensions” and “paradoxes” that I encounter from reading or experience. It is a constant reminder that every bit of advice you’ve ever heard is not universal. My buddy Jake likes to say that seat belts are the only free lunch. To which I respond, “unless the presumption of safety encourages drivers to speed or drive more recklessly”. Let’s be blunt. My response is utter ankle-biting tediousness (what I call tedious some people consider their personality). The larger takeaway is there are paradoxes running loose everywhere and if we run around trying to corral them with some ill-conceived notion that it makes us “more right” or there are truths we can somehow own and wield, then we’ve done nothing but build intellectual totems to hubris.
Instead of trying to resolve the paradoxes, maybe just accept them. Name it to tame it, put it in a drawer, and move on. You don’t need the world to bend around your own brain to protect your ego. You can just have a big list that reminds you that the task is futile. That’s the antidote.
[See A Drawer Of Curiosities for excerpts from a couple of studies that speak to the benefits of acknowledging and living with paradox. I have long thought this was important and was discussing it with a friend who said there’s actually some biology behind our resistance of paradox. They sent me the links found in the appendix of that post.]
I keep another type of list that is unexpectedly satisfying. A graveyard of ideas and projects that I’ve abandoned. It’s a form of closure. It’s a form of loving and losing. There’s no need for shame or regret because you didn’t learn to play the guitar or start that business. Most text editors have a “strikethrough”. Use it.
The things you actually did instead were a filter. They revealed your priority. (If you have a problem with your priorities that’s a separate issue). By acknowledging that you will only execute on a fraction of your ideas, you lower the stakes of having ideas, and the more ideas you allow yourself to have, the more fun life will be.
A close-minded young person feels tragic. But weirdly, I think it’s even more tragic for older people whose years give them a perch to see how wide a range of experience exists across the world and its people — and then they ignore that information. It’s like locking yourself in a room with 1 friend, setting the thermostat to your preferred temperature, throwing away the key, and talking about the same old shit until you die.
Take chances intellectually and in life. List them. If there’s nothing on the list, maybe fix that. You still have time before you yourself are in a graveyard.
In How to turn problems into a curiosity engine, Ann-Laure Le Cunff describes a fun game renowned physicist Richard Feynman played as he navigated life:
One of Feynman’s most enduring characteristics was that he loved problems. Instead of avoiding them or trying to solve them as fast as possible, he would seek interesting problems, keep them in mind, let them simmer, and constantly try to connect his everyday experiences to these big questions.
“You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps.”
Similar to Alice who discovers a strange world through the looking glass, the questions you choose to keep in mind act as a mirror that reflects the world around you and makes you look beyond the surface of the glass.
Your favorite problems form a prism that separates incoming information into a spectrum of ideas — a frame that allows you to deliberately filter distractions, direct your attention, and nurture your curiosity. In short, your favorite problems become a curiosity engine.
Creating a list of favorite problems offers many benefits:
- Turn stressful situations into intriguing problems to explore
- Filter information based on whether it relates to one of your favorite problems
- Connect with fellow curious minds who are interested in similar problems
- Focus your attention on ideas that arouse your curiosity
- Notice relevant patterns and potential solutions across seemingly unrelated topics
Let’s ignore yet another advice tension (Feynman is unknowingly inviting people to double-down on confirmation bias) to give this idea respect. Feynman is saying “life is a scavenger hunt.” It wouldn’t be fun if you knew where everything belonged. If everything just snapped into place.
Instead of starting with airtight beliefs, go trick-or-treating. The questions are your plastic pumpkin and the world’s wonders are the candy. Surprises will taste sweet if you are looking to grow, and bitter if you are afraid.
Like Halloween, you choose who you want to be.