Nine Rules of Thumb For Life
In philosophy, a “razor” is a rule of thumb or heuristic - a rough and ready way to cut through a problem and choose between competing hypotheses. A razor isn’t an infallible rule, but a principle which gets you to the right answer more often than not. William of Ockham, a fourteenth century English monk and philosopher, is credited with the most famous razor: that the correct solution is probably the simplest one, with the fewest number of moving parts. Razors are themselves methods of simplification. They are useful at the margin, when choosing between answers that are otherwise equally plausible. Observing that a razor isn’t always true (“Sometimes, the correct explanation is the more complicated one!”) is to completely miss the point. The point is that all else being equal, a good razor will usually steer you in the right direction.
William of Ockham only had one razor. I have nine. Does that make me a more important thinker than William? I leave that to the judgement of history. In the meantime, here they are:
It’s better to do things than not do things. A razor should sound so simple that it verges on dumb. Indeed this one might be dumb, but I have often found it useful in situations where I know that not doing the thing will be fine (‘if I stay in tonight, I’ll be perfectly happy watching TV’) but doing the thing might have some payoff in terms of pleasure or learning or profit (‘maybe I will enjoy that party/concert’). The hardest decisions to make are ones where the stakes are quite low and you know you’ll probably be happy either way and that’s where this rule comes in particularly handy. It invites more variation, opportunity and serendipity into your life. One useful aspect of a regular newsletter it that it constantly forces you to ‘do the thing’ (write the idea, or half-idea). When you do more things, you raise the chances that some of the things will be great or will pay off in a big way. The greatest artists and innovators tend to be prolific.It’s good to have a bias towards doing the thing.
Stick to the plan. Yes, there are all sort of moments in life when a plan needs to be thrown out or heavily adapted. But I find myself relying on this one quite a lot. Counter-intuitively, the more uncertain your environment, the more you need it. Since I’m self-employed, I’m constantly faced with decisions about how to spend my next hour or day and I’m lucky enough to live in a world full of options and diversions. So when I make a plan for my time I often find myself tempted by different choices in the moment. My brain then stages a battle between Present Me - impulsive, quite dim but brilliant at post-rationalising lizard-brain decisions - and Past Me, represented by the plan. Past Me is a little wiser, since he put more effort into thinking things through, at a distance from the battlefield. Absent decisive new information, I trust Past Me over Present Me.
Compare yourself to the median person. It’s often said we spend too much time comparing ourselves to others and that we should judge ourselves on our own terms. But that’s impossible. You can’t reflect on your own behaviours except in relation to other people. It’s useful to know where we stand in relation to our peer group, or to the national population, or however you want to define the set. Don’t compare yourself to the best or worst or most extreme of those in the group but to the person in the middle of the distribution. Do I exercise more or less than the median person? Do I give more or less to charity? Do I read more or fewer books? Do I take a shower more or less often? Is my parenting style more or less strict? It’s up to you where you want to stand in relation to the median; you probably want to be ‘extreme’ in some cases and bang average in others. Your choice. But you should at least be aware of where you stand within the group and of where that group stands in relation to its superset. Otherwise you may be an outlier without even realising it. Much of the time we live in blithe ignorance of the median person, and that’s rarely a good thing. We can think about this in terms of politics: poor political tactics often stem from ignorance of where the median voter is. Politicians and other public figures needn’t always follow the median voter (although in my view they should do so more often than not) but at a bare minimum they should make an effort to know and understand the median voter’s position.
Assume the present isn’t as important as it seems. Daniel Kahneman, the eminent Jewish psychologist, was living in Paris when it came under Nazi occupation. His family went on the run (his father died of illness in 1944) and emigrated to the new state of Israel. He moved to America but returned to Israel to play a part in the Yom Kippur war of 1973. All this is to say that Kahneman has lived through an extraordinary amount of History, often at close quarters. This experience, combined with his vast body of scientific work, gives him a certain perspective; I love listening to his interviews because in his very modest way, he’s extremely wise. Asked to name the most important single lesson from all of his research - impossible question! - Kahneman reflected for a while, then said, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.” In other words, we have an innate tendency to inflate the importance of what’s happening right now. This one comes in particularly handy when you’re feeling anxious about current events, or about something upsetting in your personal life, or when you’re trying to judge the impact of the latest news story on future events. Whatever it is, the chances are that in time it will come to seem less significant than it does right now (whether ‘now’ is this second or this month). Once I absorbed this, it became like a happy secret.
Most new ideas are bad. You should have a bias towards ideas and books and authors that have been around longer, and the longer they’ve been around, the stronger your bias towards them should be. This sounds grumpy and reactionary but it’s just the way things are. Time is the most perceptive discriminator ever invented (or perhaps the least bad and least dumb one, for it certainly makes mistakes). Most new books are bad or mediocre and as readers we should have a bias towards the classics. None of this means we should give up on innovation; quite the opposite. We need society to throw up lots and lots of new, diverse, bad ideas, so that the few good ones can happen - and, with any luck, stick around.
People don’t think about you as much as you think. Psychologists talk about the spotlight effect: the tendency to believe that you’re being noticed or ‘seen’ more than you really are. We are all, by nature, somewhat solipsistic, for the simple reason that each of us has more access to our thoughts and feelings than to anyone else’s. Since your internal data predominates, you can’t help but think others must be getting that info too. Recognising that most people are more focused on themselves than you might sound depressing, but to me it’s liberating. People can’t read my thoughts or parse my motivations! Most of the time they’re not even trying to do so! Relax. In fact, once you absorb this, you’ll have more cognitive energy left over for thinking about others.
People who know you judge you as an average and not on your outliers. This is related to the last one. We can find ourselves dwelling, anxiously, on a clumsy comment we made to a friend or a terrible mistake we made at work. But most of the time, one incident won’t change the opinion your friends or colleagues have of you, and they probably noticed it less than you anyway. People form their opinions of those they know on a pattern of behaviour over months or years, and not on the anomalies, which loom much larger in your mind than in their’s. Sure, if you keep on making the same ‘mistake’ then people will begin to judge you differently, but it’s the average that counts, not the single data point. So don’t stew on it. I often recall this quote from Tender Is The Night: “Most people think everybody feels about them much more violently than they actually do; they think other people's opinions of them swing through great arcs of approval or disapproval.” Most of your friends just don’t update on you very much.
Be sceptical of your own tribe. I wrote about this one in CONFLICTED and I honestly think the world would be better if everyone took it on board. Note, I presume you have a tribe. It’s fine and probably necessary to be aligned with a group of like-minded thinkers, however loosely you affiliate (I’m not a good joiner - Substack is perfect for me). None of us ever wholly think for ourselves: we learn from others, in big and small ways, all the time. But I do think the world divides into those who are able to critically reflect on the biases, errors and distortions of ‘people like me’ and those who don’t or can’t. It’s perfectly possible to do so without abandoning your tribe, but people have a deep fear of being outcast for deviation from group orthodoxy, and as a result this kind of critical distance is depressingly rare. Those who are ‘centrist’ or moderate in outlook have a particular challenge here, since they are most likely to fall into the trap of believing they have no tribe and that they see reality perfectly clearly, undistorted by social influence.
Choose your mistakes. Maybe this one is just a principle for living. Or maybe it’s the ur-razor. Anyway, this is how it goes: in categories of decision-making where you’re frequently confronted with the same or similar decision, you can’t eliminate errors, but you can decide on the general direction of your errors. I often think about the following remark, by the economist George Stigler: “If you never miss a plane, you’re spending too much time in airports.” As it happens, I differ with Stigler when it comes to airports: I’d much rather make the mistake of having excess waiting time than ever miss a plane (note, Stigler was speaking before smartphones and WiFi). But to me his point isn’t really about airports. It’s about understanding that most decisions are trade-offs and that consequently there’s a spread of errors - mistakes either way you leap.
For each category of decision you should decide where you’d rather make the majority of your errors. You can tell a lot about a person by the pattern of their preferred mistakes. I’d rather make some meals that taste too salty than regularly make food that’s too bland. I’d rather be gullible than cynical - that is, I’d rather get duped now and again than live my life distrusting everyone and mistaking honest people for liars. I’d rather waste time reading about things I won’t ever find useful than only ever read things that are “relevant”. (You can extend this principle to social and political stances too: for instance, I’d rather have a welfare policy that allows some grifters to take advantage than one that penalises all claimants in order to eliminate grifting.)
That’s all life is, really: choosing how to screw up. Once you start thinking like this, you’ll stop beating yourself up so much over your errors. The errors are signs that your strategy is working! So, in the spirit of New Year’s resolutions: what kinds of mistakes do you want to make more of in 2024?
Paid subscriptions are how I get to write this newsletter, so if you’ve been thinking about taking one up, now’s the time to DO THE THING. After the jump: Thoughts on the Harvard debacle, plus a feast of goodies, including data on Netflix’s most watched shows, things people are ashamed to tell their therapist, and what’s up with that scary concrete skyscraper in downtown New York. Plus a sublime recording of a mass singalong.