Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Giving Yourself Advice

A piece of wisdom popped up in the midst of a recent David Brooks column.

Addressing the problem of how to give yourself advice, Brooks wrote:

We’re better at giving other people good advice than at giving ourselves good advice, so it’s smart, when trying to counsel yourself, to pretend you are somebody else. This can be done a bit even by thinking of yourself in the third person. Work by Ozlem Ayduk and Ethan Kross finds that people who view themselves from a self-distanced perspective are better at adaptive self-reflection than people who view themselves from a self-immersed perspective.

Fair enough, I’ve recommended this before.

Still, it makes good sense. It tells you that you cannot solve your problems by getting in touch with your feelings. It tells you that introspection is not the way to go.

In truth, these two bad mental habits, promoted by the therapy culture will make it more difficult for you to address and solve a problem.

If you want to give yourself advice, thus, to solve your problems, deal with your issues and manage your life, step back and ask yourself what you would advise a friend who was in the same situatoon. Get out of your solipsism and observe yourself objectively.

I grant that this is not very easy. We have been trained, through our culture, to look within and to seek out our hidden motives, not to analyze a situation objectively and dispassionately.

These culturally prescribed habits of thought make it more difficult to manage our lives.

But, if you have learned them, you will find that it is not very easy to overcome this habit of thought and to look at yourself as though you were someone else.

How can you do it?

First, write things down. Not in the sense of writing a story, but in the sense of taking notes.

The mechanical process of writing distances you from a problem. After you have written down a problem’s parameters you can step back from it and examine it as though it were being experienced by someone else.

All writers know that their ability to edit and revise their work derives from an ability to look at their drafts with fresh eyes… that is, as though it had been written by someone else.

Second, don’t ruminate or introspect.

When dealing with a problem you need not look deep into your mind to try to find your Self. It’s a fool’s errand. And it will distract you from the issues at hand.

The solution will often be staring up at you from the page.

Third, God is in the details.

When writing about a problem try to look at it as an objective observer. That involves focusing on the details, on the facts, regardless of how irrelevant they seem to be. People who are adept at solving problems have done the extra work needed to amass all of the facts, relevant or irrelevant.

Think of yourself as an artist who has focused on his model, not as an artist who thinks that he is pouring out his soul onto his canvas.

Great artists are great observers of detail.

Fourth, don’t narratize.

Don’t turn your problem into a story. You will end up as a skilled storyteller who cannot deal with reality. Or worse, you will become your own worst literary critic.

As it happens, this advice runs directly counter to that offered by an expert named Timothy Wilson. One does not quite understand why Brooks, after correctly suggesting that you look at your problems as though they were someone else’s shifts to Wilson, who wants people to look deeply into their souls.

In the interest of fairness, we will examine the Wilson approach, as presented by Brooks:

Finally, there is narrative. Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia suggests in his book “Strangers to Ourselves” that we shouldn’t see ourselves as archaeologists, minutely studying each feeling and trying to dig deep into the unconscious. We should see ourselves as literary critics, putting each incident in the perspective of a longer life story. The narrative form is a more supple way of understanding human processes, even unconscious ones, than rationalistic analysis.

Wilson writes, “The point is that we should not analyze the information [about our feelings] in an overly deliberate, conscious manner, constantly making explicit lists of pluses and minuses. We should let our adaptive unconscious do the job of finding reliable feelings and then trust those feelings, even if we cannot explain them entirely.”
These paragraphs explain well how NOT to solve your problems.

First, Wilson is suggesting that we can solve our problems by ignoring them. He wants us to delve deeply into our unconscious minds to discover what we really, really feel.

This will, he suggests, make us all into literary critics, offering sage commentaries on our life narrative. He should have noticed that literary critics are non-participants, they are not creators.

This is a variant of Freudian approach. One does not quite understand why Wilson is offering up a recycled version of a treatment model that is not designed to help you solve your problems.

Note well, Wilson wants people to analyze the information about their feelings, not the facts at hand. His is a perfectly solipsistic approach, one that will make it impossible for you to look at your problems objectively or to solve them.


David Foster said...

This approach was taken by Andy Grove and Gordon Moore at Intel when they were being beaten up on memory chip pricing by Japanese competitors:

"I looked out the window at the Ferris Wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I turned back to Gordon and I asked, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” I stared at him, numb, then said, “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back in, and do it ourselves?”"

Ares Olympus said...

Sure, good avice, BUT this either-or reductionism is annoying. Why is ignoring your soul's preferences so vital to rational problem solving? Why is unreasoned intuition or feelings solipsistic?

E.F. Schumacher noted there are two types of problems in the world, which he called convergent and divergent. So it might be advice on convergent problems is going to be generally good, but divergent problems are less applicable to simplistic advice.

So its not to say objective advice you give to another, or yourself is bad, but it needs CONTEXT of personal preference, and possibly divergent goals that are not satisfied by objective measures.

In problems of irreversible decisions the WORST advice perhaps is advice you take because it "makes sense", and allows you to sidestep your doubts and pretend reason is on your side SIMPLY because you've only considered one small point of view within a problem.

There's a phrase "of two minds", and once you identify the existence of "two minds" on a problem, simplistic advice from any source isn't going to do you any good, that is, at best its propaganda that tries to rationalize away what's uncomfortable.

For Schumacher, discerning whether a problem is convergent or divergent is one of the arts of living.

Convergent problems are ones in which attempted solutions gradually converge on one solution or answer. An example of this has been the development of the bicycle. Early attempts at developing man-powered vehicles included three- and four-wheelers and involved wheels of different sizes. Modern bicycles look much the same nowadays.

Divergent problems are ones which do not converge on a single solution. A classic example he provides is that of education. Is discipline or freedom the best way to teach? Education researchers have debated this issue for thousand of years without converging on a solution.

He summarises by saying that convergent problems are those that are concerned with the non-living universe. While divergent problems are concerned with the universe of the living, and so there is always a degree of inner experience and freedom to contend with. According to Schumacher, the only solution to divergent problems is to transcend them, arguing that in education, for instance, that the real solution involves love or caring; love and discipline work effectively, but so does love and freedom.

Anonymous said...


Stop writing

Ares Olympus said...

I wonder how Robin Williams would advise a friend on the subject of suicide?

Sky Williams replaces advice with a request... "Before you do anything, let me know."

Its hopeful, yet no one who is prepared to kill themselves is going to talk to someone who is going to try to talk them out of it.

I never seriously consider suicide, but remember at least once as a "thought experiment" when I was a teenager, hard to remember, but I accepted it as a legitimate escape, if I wanted to reset all expectations, I had an out. But it did put my little problems in perspective, so I could see I really didn't have to do things I didn't want to do. I had a choice to say no to the world, the ultimate no.

So according to this blog, you're not supposed to tell stories to solve problems, but I guess where that "advice" fails is we're already telling ourselves stories, and so reflection is then a process of deconstruction - identifying what stories have lead to the predicament, and then the truth or falseness of those stories can be challenged.

If you want to defeat an irrational story, you have to make yourself aware of what it is, and explore it.

Maybe Robin Williams had accurate feelings and stories of his predicaments of living, and acted rationally, or maybe his stories were lying to him. We don't know.

It does remind me of Byron Kate's "The work"
1. Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
2. Can you absolutely know that it's true? (Yes or no.)
3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without the thought?

So maybe the only "advice" you can give yourself or anyone is to ask questions that can clarify facts, opinions and beliefs.