Misunderstanding as Mismatch

“…you can choose the people whose opinions you care about (and on what subjects), and you can choose the timescale you care about them on. Most people figure out the former [1] but the latter doesn’t seem to get much attention…

…You should trade being short-term low-status for being long-term high-status, which most people seem unwilling to do. A common way this happens is by eventually being right about an important but deeply non-consensus bet. But there are lots of other ways–the key observation is that as long as you are right, being misunderstood by most people is a strength not a weakness.”

-Sam Altman, “The Strength of Being Misunderstood.” SamAltman.com. December 1, 2020.

It’s a tautology. If you understand something that the person you are conversing with doesn’t, you’re going to be misunderstood. Conversely, if someone you are talking with understands something you don’t, you won’t understand them either.

On one level, it’s a question of truth. The assumption that Sam Altman makes above suggests that, over time, truth will out. But, does it? I’d argue that we rarely have opportunities to check our understanding. Either we ignore facts that conflict with our worldview, or we tend to slowly change our views with new information and forget that we used to believe the opposite before we got it. Do we care enough about our own opinions to validate them? And for most of us, the answer is that we don’t want to rigorously validate our opinions. We simply would rather just believe we are right. This, at least, is the general tendency.

So, do we care about what our past or future selves might think? Are we willing to lay out our model, stake out probabilities and evaluate how we did?

Or, more generally, is this something that we can do in community, where people join together to come to a consensus, and reevaluate our beliefs as a group in light of evidence as it presents itself. In the group setting, the general tendency becomes exponential. Groups don’t want to evaluate how effective they are because bad groups will shed members and become extinct. Individual members will then be cut adrift, looking for another group, a task that is harder as we grow older, because group dynamics and cohesion solidify in ways that exclude new members and new thoughts, both of which are disruptive.

The question isn’t whether to care what people think, the question is whether it is worth trying to create consensus or come to a shared understanding or whether it is even possible. The reality is that most conversation isn’t driven by truth, it’s driven by groups trying to assimilate members into an existing belief system.

If we cannot even understand ourselves and deal in good faith with past and future versions, how then can we deal in good faith with the mass of humanity? Conversations are based in this tug-of-war, and the value, for individuals, is exposure to new ideas and different ways of doing things. This is also true of groups, but the strategy requires forming cliques and sub-groups to change the larger belief system. All the while, it is nothing but misunderstanding and the potential for conflict.

It’s easy to not care what people think when you don’t think you can do anything to change it. Further, if those people can make your life miserable, keep your thoughts to yourself. Being Jesus and trying to save everyone, whether from their ideas or their circumstances, is very often an exercise in futility and disappointment. Undertake it when you are willing to accept that outcome and have the energy to spare.

Work != Self-Worth

“Writers, actors, musicians—everyone who’s rejected a lot—have got to learn, early on, to separate their work from their worth as a person…

…At the same time, it’s important to learn to take honest criticism or suggestions in good faith.”

—Ben Yagoda, “Separating your work from your worth: Three Questions with Ben Yagoda.” Chip on Your Shoulder. November 27, 2019.

People love to criticize. Some of them do it as habit, to make themselves feel superior, to manipulate others, and so forth. The honest part is criticism that is truly about the thing being criticized and not about the person offering or receiving the criticism.

But, even honest criticism can be wrong. In the end, it’s always your call.

Words & Worldviews

I was reading another one of those end of year life hack articles yesterday, about how changing one word can change your attitude toward obligations. The crux: instead of saying, “I have to wake up to go to work at 0600,” you change it to get, “I get to wake up to go to work at 0600.”

This simple substitution changes your attitude toward what you are doing. It is now phrased in terms of an opportunity. It makes you wonder what kind of changes would happen by reframing traditional ideas in a positive fashion.

Instead of a Ten Commandments of “Thou shall not kill” you could reframe it in a positive, “Thou shall be peaceful and help all living beings flourish.” The words we use create our worldview.

This is an important point. Our attitudes, our opinions, our ways of looking at the world are created whole cloth in our minds. They don’t exist out there in the world. They exist only in our minds. Ideas are exchanged between minds through symbols. It is our acceptance of them that gives them the appearance of being real.

In Buddhism, this is the fundamental problem of life. The mind creates fictions. We believe that we are our thoughts and emotions. We are dissatisfied with the world. We wish it to be other than it is or worry that a satisfactory situation will change (as it always does). We want to be more powerful, famous, rich, beautiful, taller, more intelligent, stronger, thinner, etc. All of which are ego delusion that assumes that the way we view the world is how the world really is and that you would be better off if you got what you wanted (even though you most likely would just want something else).

While it would be nice to be able to take the world as it comes and live in the moment as an enlightened Buddha, very few of us are there yet. In the meantime, we free to find meaning in life, even in situations of terrible suffering such as in the concentration camp Victor Frankl lived in.

In comfortable circumstances, why choose suffering? You get to choose to look at the world any way that you want. Why not start the New Year by improving your worldview and your outlook? Why not start by taking an accounting of what is really needed, how much we have and being grateful for so much abundance?

Fewer Opinions

“We have a staggering arrogance in our own belief. That can be tempered by not being 100% certain; by being provisional. No matter what the debate is, very few people have the modesty to suspend judgement on a whole range of things; most intelligent people have an opinion and are expected to have an opinion by other people – but it always requires making a personal judgement that goes way-beyond your expertise. We do it all the time.

It would be good if we were encouraged to have fewer opinions. To be more willing to say ‘I just don’t know’. Sure, sometimes you have to come down one way or another for practical matters – but being aware that that’s the case is enough.

For example, let’s say I want to take a view about whether I need to lose weight or not. There’s conflicting advice on this. I can suspend judgement – but that would be burying my head in the sand. I come to a judgement based on my very imperfect knowledge of the science. I have to do that – but it doesn’t mean that, in doing so, I have the right answer. I just think: ‘it’s the way it seems; it’s the best judgement I can make; it could be wrong. Fingers crossed!’”

—Julian Baggini, “Baggini’s Consolations For A Post-Truth World.” 3:AM Magazine. November 11, 2017.