Around this time last year, I wrote a post about how rationalisation is used to protect your ego while you deviate from a path of right action.
Broadly, the idea was to identify when your mind was operating at a superficial level (making largely irrelevant excuses) instead of a genuine one (addressing your actual priorities). This puts you in a much stronger position to essentially either overcome your mental barriers to pursue your goals, or acknowledge your real motivations and live with a little more honesty. Depending on how you prioritise self-respect against escapism, eliminating your rationalisations can even be the more comfortable path; even when you intellectually agree with your rationalisations, you’ll often still feel slightly uneasy – some part of you knows that it’s bullshit and steals your confidence from you.
I doubt anyone ever fully escapes backwards rationalisation. The path to becoming your ideal version of yourself will probably always be uncomfortable at points (isn’t that what makes it worthwhile?), and active thinkers will naturally generate reasons to avoid that path, some of which are almost bound to be tangential and largely irrelevant. Living 100% honestly with yourself is an admirable goal, but probably impossible. Maybe I’m just not there yet, and making excuses… about how I’ll always make excuses. Isn’t the mind gorgeous?
Moving on, this post is going to discuss a particularly intense series of rationalisations I encountered the other day, and draw out some lessons and observations from it.
I spent virtually all Saturday in my university’s library, writing a policy platform for a student club. Fortunately for my productivity, I ended up with complete “tunnel vision” for a while, and focused purely on my work. Unfortunately, by the time I remember that I’d planned to go grocery shopping that night, the supermarkets had closed and I was stuck without food. Accordingly, I decided to walk to a nearby pizza place for a cheap feed, before heading back to the library. This seemed like a perfectly ordinary and sensible decision, so I pulled out my phone to order through the store’s app.
Here’s the interesting part – as soon as I discovered my phone’s battery had died, getting pizza no longer seemed like a smart decision.
Before I discuss the actual rationale behind this change of mind (as best as I can discern, anyway), I want to discuss a massive list of rationalisations that ran through my mind to support it. The sheer speed of the change of mind set off a mental alarm that suggested I was rationalising, which allowed me to overcome those excuses, and proceed with my initial plan to go grab pizza anyway. Accordingly, I’m also going to contrast those excuses against reality, or at least the logical objections I raised to them at the time.
So without further ado, here are a whole stack of reasons not to go grab pizza without a working phone:
|It's a cold walk and I have no jacket||It's not actually that cold outside and I'll warm up while I'm walking|
|I read books on my phone for personal development||I only get through a few pages while I'm waiting – It's not a huge loss|
|I need to listen to music while I walk||I can have fun anyway and enjoy walking|
|Pizza is too expensive for my budget||I'm well under my food budget this week – I ate less since I was out of gym|
|I can't save time by ordering on the phone app||It would take even more time to go home and charge the phone first|
|I'll miss out on specials through the app||I can just ask at the counter|
|I can't chat to my friends on Facebook||There is absolutely no urgent need to do so|
|I should have a phone in case of emergency||There is a 0.1% chance of an emergency|
|People will think I'm odd if I just sit there looking around||Absolutely no-one will care|
|I've had too much junk food lately||I generally eat pretty healthy food – it will be fine|
Notice how most of these have absolutely nothing to do with the phone itself – they’re just general reasons not to go grab pizza. The fact that they only popped up when I discovered my phone was dead, however, was a giveaway that they weren’t particularly crucial objections. Also note that some of the objections are even legitimate (e.g. pizza genuinely isn’t particularly healthy)… it’s the fact that they’re still not in line with my personal desires and goals that makes them a rationalisation, albeit a particularly tricky one to spot. Perhaps unfortunately for my health, I did spot the rationalisation, and ended up smashing a full meatlovers pizza before returning to the library.
Now, what can we learn and observe from this experience?
- I clearly have an addiction to technological stimuli, obviously including my phone but probably my computer as well. I’m so used to relying on them for my general entertainment and even my personal development, that I instinctively feel a little lost without them and avoid a path that deprives me of them (unless I’ve already planned for a break, or am distracted by some other stimuli). Interestingly, I’ve also just tried to rationalise this as well – wasn’t I primarily concerned that I couldn’t use my phone for personal development, which is an admirable aim…? (This one’s bullshit too – I’m perfectly capable of pursuing personal development without a smartphone around.) I need to work on this, and have started doing so in the past few days.*
- I was able to very easily beat the rationalisations with no actual hit to my confidence at all simply by becoming aware that I was making rationalisations, which then naturally suggested the approach of finding objections to those rationalisations or even just ignoring them. Self-awareness allows you to take a step back from your surface layer mental operations and get a more holistic view of those operations, which allows you to optimise them in unforeseen ways. Imagine you’re stuck in a maze, trying to find your way to an exit that represents your personal goals. Level 1 thinking (most of your thoughts and emotions, including your rationalisations) basically indicates decision making within a particular maze-solving strategy (“if I just keep my hand on the left wall and keep following it, I’ll reach the exit). Metacognition takes you to Level 2 thinking, which evaluates your actual decision making process and allows you to alter it (“If I started with my hand on an inner section of the maze not connected to the exit, I will get nowhere. Let’s make a random turn then try again.”)
- An interesting metacognitive exercise is to compare your thought process while extremely confident or happy, to your thought process when in a more “default” mood. When you’re in a particularly jubilant mood, you’ll usually find yourself naturally finding benefits of an unexpected or intuitively negative situation. Had I been fully confident at the time, I probably would have naturally thought “awesome, some time to be an introvert” without having ever raised the objection that I wouldn’t get to chat to my friends through Facebook. Alternatively, you can sometimes get so addicted to your confidence that you actually seek out rationalisations, just to crush them – “Other people would think it’s too cold… Not me! I’m awesome!”.
- I felt fantastic after realising I was rationalising, and confronting that obstacle. Simply facing your discomfort and attempting to overcome your barriers gives you a great deal of self-respect that helps your confidence. (Obviously, I felt even better after I successfully defeated it, but the point is that even trying unsuccessfully gives you a justification for pride.)
- I was actually more productive without having my phone available for personal development. While waiting for pizza and left alone with my thoughts, I realised that my earlier process of defeating rationalisation could be turned into a substantial post for this site, and sketched it out on a napkin. I’d gotten tunnel vision again, this time for a specific mode of self-improvement, and hadn’t seen the opportunity cost of failing to use that time to improve my project (Concepts of Confidence), which I’d get far more utility from. Keep up that metacognition and constant questioning! (Obviously not to the extent that doubt cripples your confidence, however). Similarly, since I couldn’t listen to music while walking to the pizza store, I ended up daydreaming about some personal goals of mine instead, which proved to be far more satisfying.
- Note that I was able to logically overturn all my rationalisations. This isn’t always the case! Sometimes you’ll know that something is just an excuse, but still find it compelling and legitimate. In those cases, it’s probably worth questioning if your gut instinct is wrong (maybe you really should avoid that path!)… but if you’re still absolutely sure that it doesn’t align with your personal goals, you may need to temporarily disengage the “logical” section of your mental faculties and just dive in to the instinctively better path of action anyway. A clear demonstration of this principle is learning to approach and talk to strangers (at a party, on the bus, looking for a date, etc.). You’ll always have compelling logical reasons not to do it (“it’s weird to approach a random girl on the street”), and learning to just ignore those can be easier than trying to refute them.
Finally, I want to end with some words of encouragement.
Do you recall that before going to grab pizza, I’d been in the library writing a policy platform for a student club? Well, the previous night, I’d attended that club’s Annual General Meeting (AGM), where we elected the student executive for the next year. Each candidate was given a minute to support their nomination, then an additional minute and thirty seconds to answer questions from the floor. I ran for Model United Nations Officer against two other extremely strong candidates, and was fortunate enough to be elected in that position.
If you’d been there, you probably would have thought I had all the confidence and self-control in the world. I gave a solid speech and responses, joked around with the other candidates and members, and generally came across as a pretty happy guy. Yet here I am the next day, seriously doubting some of my decisions just because my phone ran out of battery and I didn’t quite feel “complete” without my smartphone.
Everyone has their own struggles and personal obstacles, even those you look up to for seemingly having impeccable self-esteem. Maybe they hide those obstacles, or maybe you just don’t see them because you’re not privy to all their thoughts and actions. Either way, try not to fall into the trap of thinking “everyone else is more confident than me”. Don’t constantly question why everyone seems to have it figured out except you, because odds are, they don’t have it figured out either and feel the exact same way. Here I am, running a website helping other people gain confidence, and I’m still dealing with something as simple as putting down my damn phone!
It’s fine to look up to others and try to emulate their virtues, but they’re ultimately just people too, with an equally intimidating and frustrating set of personal foibles. Relax, and have fun with it. Besides, it’s much easier to build human connections with others when you’re constantly aware that they’re just like you, and we’re all in the same boat together. If you have insecurities or difficulties, by all means try to solve them, but remember to laugh them off.
They’re probably not as a big a deal as you imagine.
* If you’re looking to clean up a technological addiction as well, the paths I took included 1) Completely blocking all distracting sites using my hosts file, 2) Adding a Google Chrome extension that blocks my Facebook news feed, 3) Uninstalling Steam (a games platform) from my computer, 4) Further committing to getting all my technological work done in the university library where I tend to get less distracted, 5) Putting some reminders up in my room that technology is just a tool to be used, and I must be its master rather than a junkie. All these methods have proved pretty successful so far – we’ll see how they go in the long run.