Stop Fooling Yourself
We would all do well to remember the wise words of Richard Feynman: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool. ”If you don’t think that’s true, you’re fooling yourself.
Since the day you were born, you’ve been making a map. Only no one ever really told you that, so you’ve probably been doing it wrong and messing it all up.
The problem with your map is that it says more about you and the subjective world that occupies your every thought and shapes your every experience than it does about the objective world that lies beneath. Your map is painted in broad brush strokes based on sample sizes that are far too small and not nearly random enough. Because our way of seeing the world is a product of our environment, our maps are too heavily influenced by the particular times and places we’ve spent the most time. We don’t give enough weight to perspectives we’ve never heard or ideas we’ve never encountered before.
To draw the parallel directly, think about what the world looks like. Most of us overestimate the size of North America and Russia, and underestimate the size of Africa and South America. We forget that the map of the world that we're used to seeing is just a projection of reality. We lose sight of the sorts of distortions that happen when making a round world fit a rectangular map. We confuse the map for the territory.
The same thing happens with our own mental map of the world. We fall into the habit of thinking we access reality directly, when in fact all we ever have is a projection, a flawed representation, a map drawn from a single point of view—riddled with distortions, inaccuracies, biases and holes. We forget that what we’re hearing and seeing and thinking and feeling isn’t the world as it is, but the world as it appears to us. What we see is always, at least in part, a projection of who we are. We force the world to fit the language we use and the categories and concepts we’ve constructed. We make sense of everything through partial and particular lenses that we forget we’re even wearing.
We filter our experiences through our past, through what we know to be true, through what we’ve heard before. We fixate on certain pieces of information and let others slip by unnoticed. We place too much faith in what we think and feel and have been through, and not enough in the thoughts and feelings and experiences of others. We make bad guesses and ungrounded predictions. We impose our expectations and assumptions, and then use those impositions to confirm what we expected and assumed to be true from the start. And then we go on thinking that our view is the right one, or at least, vastly underestimate the extent to which it's wrong.
I think most of us, most of the time, forget that our view of the world is wobbly, weak, warped, wildly inaccurate and horribly incomplete. And I think most of us underestimate the extent to which we’re fooling ourselves about that fact.
The problem is that we’re really, really, really good at telling ourselves what we want to hear. Scary good. And we’re even better at not noticing we’re doing it. Even though it’s basically what’s happening every second of every day. We tell ourselves white lies to protect our fragile egos and avoid our deepest fears. We enable ourselves. We play pretend. We live in a fantasy world that we like to think is far closer to reality than it ever actually is.
We mistake our world for the world. We’re all a little egomaniacal like that. We all think we’re closer to the centre of the universe than we actually are. We all overestimate the extent to which the world revolves around us. How could we not? Everything that ever happens, happens to us. It goes without saying, and then it goes without us noticing, warping our worldview in untold ways while we fail to see how far our map has begun to depart from reality.
Our ability to pull the wool over our own eyes, to mistake our shallow rationalizations for deep reasons, knows no end. We think the things we think must be true, and then we go about figuring out why. We decide what’s good and bad, what we like and what we don’t, and then go about looking for explanations.
You remember back in school when your teacher told you that to write an essay you're supposed to do your research first and then draw your conclusions—but instead you immediately made up your mind, spent 90% of your time reading stuff that confirmed your point of view and 10% finding the thinnest and flimsiest arguments from the other side, and then wrote an obviously one-sided essay exonerating everything you thought from the start? Yeah, me too.
That’s what we all do every day. It’s easier, more convenient, and often gets the job done. We write the thesis, then find the facts and theories that fit. We see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear, and we overestimate the extent to which everyone else sees and hears the same things. We remember what matters most, the points that—conveniently—always seem to prove us right.
It’s funny how we all work for the best companies with the best products who do the most good and the least harm. As Upton Sinclair famously noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." The things we want to hear are more likely to sound true than things we don't. Convenient truths are the ones we’re least likely to question. Useful truths pass for objective reality. Oil industry folks always do seem to have the most trouble wrapping their heads around climate change.
Our default is to confirm our bias. We’re spin doctors who know ourselves too well. We know what strings to pull, what buttons to push, and where our weaknesses lie. We’re walking self-fulfilling-prophecy machines.
It's like when you love Game of Thrones and assume everyone loves GoT, and then you meet someone who doesn’t love GoT, and you try to bite your tongue and have a reasonable conversation with them. But you can’t. Because they’re not being reasonable. They clearly hate GoT for no good reason and have clearly never really watched an episode and are just trying to justify to themselves why they’ve missed out. Sure, they claim they "get it" and "understand the appeal” and “probably could get into it if they wanted to,” but then they keep insisting it’s “just not for them,” when obviously they don't get it at all and clearly don't understand anything and probably don’t deserve GoT anyway. We assume that if they really understood the appeal, they would’ve already watched it. Because to people who like GoT, the magic is real. The positives are massive, obviously a thousand times greater than the cons. It's not even close. And yet, to people who have never watched, who don't have to justify devoting all those hours of their lives to watching every episode and so much headspace to remembering everyone's goddamn name—to those people, it's still just a long, complicated fantasy show about dragons and sex and swords and whatever. To them, the cons are pretty significant, and the pros don’t seem so great. They underestimate the upside because it helps them make sense of their decision not to watch. How good could it be? And yet, to those who have watched, they’ll forever be left with the inescapable thought that those who have missed out really are missing out. They just don’t know what they’re missing.
It’s mostly—if not all—rationalization, on all sides. But that’s the point. If you’re a fan, you’re likely fine with my use of GoT. If you’re not, you likely think that acronymn is dumb and unnecessary.
The problem is the pacing. Our decisions get ahead of us. Our identities get ahead of us. Our likes and dislikes and quirks and habits lead, and our thinking follows. We draw our map accordingly and then confuse it for the real world.
People who like drinking beer, likely drink too much beer. They overestimate the pros and underestimate the cons. They experience diminishing marginal returns but fail to assess the situation objectively. People who don’t eat Mexican food are clearly underestimating how good Mexican food can be. They overestimate the extent to which it's not for them, and underestimate the extent to which they could acquire the taste, if they were so inclined.
iOS is clearly better than Android. Unless, wait, do you not have an iPhone?
Knowing the Raptors starting lineup is common knowledge. Unless you don’t follow sports, don’t live in Toronto, and couldn’t care less.
The people we like aren’t as likable as they seem. The people we despise aren’t as despicable as we’ve led ourselves to believe. The people who we think are famous aren’t as famous as we think they are. You haven’t heard of presidential hopeful Andrew Yang? Or Tati the beauty vlogger? If you haven’t heard of them before, they’ll seem insignificant. Who’s heard of them? Yet, you’ll find it hard to believe when I tell you I’ve never heard of that author or comedian or Twitch streamer you love so much. If you’ve heard the name before, you’ll overestimate the number of people who have.
Our estimates are all wonky because our maps are incomplete. We underestimate the size of the internet because we only ever see a tiny part. We know a few little neighbourhoods really well and mistake them for the entire world. We’re surprised to learn that most people have never heard of the people who we interact with online every day.
The point is that it’s nearly impossible to accurately estimate things because the world contains so many unknown unknowns. Our maps are missing entire continents. We overestimate the reach and influence of everyone who’s ever reached and influenced us, and underestimate the reach and influence of everyone we’ve never encountered. There are countless magazines and publications, vlogs, blogs, YouTube channels, and Twitter feeds that I’ve never heard of, that I give no weight to at all, that clearly matter and mean something to many people. They exist in the world, but simply don’t appear on my map.
If you love the place you live, you likely love it a little too much. You're too generous when it comes to its features and too dismissive when it comes to its faults. If you hate where you live, you do the opposite. And then you say you know the grass is always greener, yet continue staring at all the other lush lawns in all the other places.
One of the most persistent psychological findings is that people will still act and think in biased ways, even when their biases are pointed out. Sometimes it makes them worse. We struggle to ever adequately account for just how far off the mark we are to start. We’re never as skeptical of our reasons as we should be. We’re always a little too certain of our conclusions. We always drink a little bit of our own Kool-Aid, always think our shit is a little less smelly than everyone else’s.
One of the benefits of being born blind is that you learn early on that your view of the world isn’t accurate. To figure out your prescription, eye doctors sit you in a chair and pull over this big machine that holds all these lenses. And then they flip the lenses back and forth in front of your eyes until you get the clearest picture possible. One or two? One or two? They ask until you can’t tell the difference. It all just looks clearer than before.
I think about that a lot when I’m trying to see the world more clearly. Because in that moment, it’s impossible to lose sight of the fact that you’re always wearing glasses, and everyone else is too. We all only ever see a sliver of reality. It’s only by combining those different perspectives, by endlessly switching between them—back and forth, back and forth—that we can begin to see more clearly.
As map makers, we all have a responsibility to make our map as accurate as it can be and to always remember that’s all we ever have.
Because when we mistake our map for the territory, we end up fooling ourselves—constantly, every day, in small ways and large, in obvious ways and subtle, in predictable ways and ways we could never imagine.
We would all do well to remember the wise words of Richard Feynman: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
If you don’t think that’s true, you’re fooling yourself.