Living under an illusion

Sure, I’d like to change the world. Expecting that I will is plain wrong though!

All my life I have had different things that motivated me to do what I have done. But for the past few years, a constant driving force for the choices I make and the work I do has been the impact that those choices and work have on the world. Unfortunately, I have been self-deceiving myself into believing that what I am doing has or is going to have a measurable impact on the world.

For past three years I have been working on synthesising a large chunk of an even larger molecule. The way I put it to ninth graders, recently, was that I am attempting to stitch  atoms together in a very restricted manner. I am using the technology that chemists have developed over the past two hundred years to produce something in the lab that nature took millions of years to do. Sounds cool and it is.

And yet, when I finish writing my thesis I am not sure if it will be read by more than a handful chemists in its lifetime. The paper that will eventually be published in a reputed journal may be read by a few hundred chemists around the world and a small percentage of them may even cite my work.

A total of ten man-years of work, including three years of my work, and ~£1 million of tax-payers money will have what impact on the world of chemistry or on the world in general? Maybe nothing and maybe a lot, I don’t know.

This blog is very shortly going to reach the 100,000-hits mark since it was brought back to life in June 2009. What impact my writing has had on the world? I don’t know.

Some people will bring a small stone to the building called science and some people will bring a big one, but nevertheless no one can take that stone away from you.” These words by the Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Lehn’s, may soothe my scientist soul and may be I can find such words to do the same for my writing soul. But I cannot deny that walking into something thinking it will make a measurable impact on the world is a little foolish.

Looking back at one’s activities one may be able to understand what is the ‘impact’ those activities have had, but looking forward it is incredibly hard to do be able to predict that impact. But such is human nature that, as someone venturing in to a new area of work, I find it hard to be able to convince and motivate myself to keep working hard if I can’t see the impact of that work.

I posed this as a question to someone who has been working in sustainability for the past 10 years after having switched from a successful career as an accountant. The answer I got was an obvious one, but I think I needed to be told. He said, “The world is incredibly complex. One may never really be able to understand the impact of one’s work and, in this case, the only piece of advice I can give to you is something that won’t be satisfying. Learn to let go off the expectations and you will find it simpler to deal with the world and keeping doing the incredible work that you are doing.”

Knowing this is one thing, applying it to my life is another.

Related: It should be about choices not goals

Becoming a Strategic Self-Deceiver

A few weeks ago David Brooks of the New York Times asked his many readers for a gift, “If you are over 70,  I’d like you to write a brief report on your life so far, an evaluation of what you did well, of what you did not so well and what you learned along the way.”

His reason to make such a request was clear, “These essays will be useful to the young. Young people are educated in many ways, but they are given relatively little help in understanding how a life develops, how careers and families evolve, what are the common mistakes and the common blessings of modern adulthood.” From the many essays that he received, he tried to extract a few general life lessons. One of those many fantastic lessons took me somewhat by surprise.

Beware rumination. There were many long, detailed essays by people who are experts at self-examination. They could finely calibrate each passing emotion. But these people often did not lead the happiest or most fulfilling lives. It’s not only that they were driven to introspection by bad events. Through self-obsession, they seemed to reinforce the very emotions, thoughts and habits they were trying to escape.

Many of the most impressive people, on the other hand, were strategic self-deceivers. When something bad was done to them, they forgot it, forgave it or were grateful for it. When it comes to self-narratives, honesty may not be the best policy.

Self-development is something I am passionate about and self-examination enables me to pursue that passion. Even though I won’t call myself a self-examination expert by any length, reading the above made me question what is it that I exactly do when I work  on self-development. I don’t want an obsession to improve myself to lead to an unhappy life!

But, while re-reading the paragraph, I realised that the more impressive people were ‘strategic self-deceivers’. So they selectively chose to lie to themselves about certain mistakes they made or about certain faults they had and moved on with life, eventually living an impressive life.

So was the route that I took for self-development through self-examination wrong? Not entirely. To be able to successfully deceive oneself would require one to know themselves well enough. Self-examination is then a necessary tool.

What I seem to be able to gather from this reflection is that self-examination can be a double-edged sword. It can lead to giving us the exact information we need about ourselves to enable us to build our confidence or, if over done, it can lead to reinforcing the very thoughts and habits that one wants to overcome.

But now let’s come to the more interesting part of the lesson – strategic self-deception.

Philosophers argue that one cannot, in principle, be successful at self-deception. The reason being that one can not try to convince oneself of something being false when they know that it is true. But leaving the philosophers aside, there are practical ways in which we employ self-deception, I would argue, everyday. I am ready to bet that any of you reading this is probably deceiving yourself of multiple truths right now (of course, if you are able to recognise what exactly it is that you are deceiving yourself about then you will have failed at self-deception!).

An example of self-deception is when we try to forget the pain associated with a certain event. It could be a break-up or the passing away of a loved one. We may be capable of accepting what happened and moving on but the shorter, faster route is to lie to oneself. It may also be an intermediate step in acceptance (when unsuccessful at pulling off this self-deception, we are supposed to be in denial).

Forgetting events, overcoming fears, facing danger and taking risks, all to a certain extent involve self-deception. We know, at some level, that we are very bad at analysing risks and to be able to do something risky (like bungee jumping) we have to convince ourselves that it is not as risky as it seems. In that self-deception enables the person to take risks that he would not normally.

A strategic self-deceiver is one who is able to trick themselves about the right things. Of course, knowing the right things is the more difficult part.