Self-knowledge. Socrates distilled the entire realm of philosophy to a single edict: “Know thyself.” Yet can we? Our brain has two minds – the conscious one that reasons and a subconscious one fueled by emotions. This is why we constantly struggle to figure out who we really are. Since there is no easy route to self-understanding, we tend to think we know others better than we know ourselves. We are cognitively flawed and scattered in our introspection and unable to accurately decode the meaning of our experiences. As children, we accepted without question what “the big people” around us said was truth, only to discover it wasn’t necessarily so.
Our reasoning self has yet to fathom nor fully constrain our emotional self. Our hard-wired biases are the tricks our brains like to play on us. The easier it is to judge, for example, the more likely we are to be biased. We impose false assumptions and antiquated patterns of logic onto emergent and unpredictable realities. Ignorance may be a more apt description of what we think we know. Self-knowledge is ever elusive. But Socrates, astute in his self-awareness, had an out for that one: “I am wise not because I know, but because I know I don’t.”
Arguing. According to Alain de Botton, a British philosopher, “An average couple has between thirty and fifty significant arguments a year.” By “significant,” he means an encounter that departs sharply from what would be deemed civilized norms of dialogue. This may involve screaming, rolling one’s eyes, histrionic accusations, slamming doors and a liberal use of derogatory or profane words. We argue regularly, and often badly, largely because we lack an understanding of how to tell others who we are and what we stand for. Beneath the surface of virtually every argument is an often forlorn attempt by two people to get the other to hear, acknowledge and understand their sense of reality or what they believe is right or wrong.
Arguments can plummet into brutish, demented depths simply because we are incapable of communicating effectively when our emotional triggers are irritated or inflamed. Some arguments are unwittingly interminable: different issues are addressed but the same counterproductive routines are repeated: a failure to listen, an urge to interrupt, a lack of respect, or a compelling need to either attack or defend fundamentally different values. When people are placed on the defensive, they stop listening. Yet arguing is vital to human progress, provided it is based on skill rather than ignorance or biased dissent. People don’t change when they’re told what’s wrong with them; they change when they feel sufficiently supported to undertake the change they know is necessary. That too is part of the human condition.
Observing. Seeing is not the same as observing. The former is done at warp speed; the latter requires us to slow down, recognize and deliberately make sense of what we’re perceiving. It’s consciously and conscientiously linking what we see to what we already know, noting the differences and similarities. An expert observer, such as an experienced fact-finder, has the ability to discern what’s relevant to the issue under examination and what’s superfluous. While we cannot observe everything as studiously as we might like, we can selectively choose to decide what’s important and what’s irrelevant.
The power of observation can be strengthened by mindfully cultivating the habit of watching people and events with an inquiring mind. Seeing is taking in data; observing is asking questions as we do so. This requires purposeful practice of the kind required for developing any skill – with repetition and assessment, what may seem hard to do eventually becomes easy, then automatic if not unconscious. Observing is labeling, reflecting, connecting and understanding. It’s overcoming our innate impulsiveness and propensity for self-deception. And it’s a critical part of the discipline required to make better life choices.
Mistakes. We frequently miss the typos we make, get familiar names wrong and inadvertently put our feet in our mouths. While behavioural perfection is the holy grail we seek, we are hard-wired to make mistakes. Why? Because our brains can be lazy, inefficient and largely useless at times. Mistakes are inevitable, learning from them is entirely optional. Even geniuses are error prone; it’s the reason they’re geniuses. Without mistakes, all growth and progress would be impossible. Some call this natural inclination “intelligent failure.” While it may seem counter-intuitive, it’s our proclivity for making mistakes that makes us superior to machines and should negate or balance the unknown consequences of the coming era of artificial intelligence.
Algorithms reduce complexity down to numbers. But the brain is innumerate – it is unable to grasp numbers emotionally. In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue computer could calculate 200 million chess moves per second. Yet, this is not why it defeated Gary Kasparov, the world’s chess champion at the time. It did so only when a flaw in its programming occurred. It made a mistake (by overloading its calculations). What separates us from computers is our ability to utilize knowledge to create. Machines are incapable of creativity – they can analyze better than humans but they cannot create. Nor can they figure out metaphors, which is a proven method of learning. We can Google data but we can’t Google wisdom. That’s essentially what the brain does when it uses information to change how it thinks. Intelligence is not the engine that powers our brains; it’s just the navigation system. And it’s fueled by mistakes.