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#40: Knowledge will only take you so far

#40: Knowledge will only take you so far

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Welcome to another Mindf*ck Monday, the only weekly newsletter whose dad can beat up your dad. Each week, I send you three potentially life-changing ideas to help you be a slightly less awful human being. This week, we’re talking about how: 1) studying ethics doesn’t make people more ethical, 2) knowing about your trauma isn’t the same as healing it, and 3) a special favor… and a dad joke. 

Let’s get into it. 

1. Studying ethics doesn’t necessarily make you more ethical – For thousands of years, philosophers have spilled gallons of ink and murdered millions of trees in a pursuit of a more ethical, righteous life. There are dozens of 1,000-page tracts spanning the whole of human history, all arguing through some combination of intuition and reason, what is the right way to live.

But does studying this work make a person more ethical? To put it another way, does reading and understanding what it is to be an ethical person actually alter a person’s behavior to make them more magnanimous, selfless, and respectful towards others? 

That’s the question at the core of this fun paper, where two researchers basically stalked a group of ethical philosophy professors for several years, tracking everything from how much trash they left behind in a conference room, how much they talk over people giving a presentation, how many books they fail to return to the library, how much they donate to charity, how often they vote, and how regularly they call their mothers.

Hilariously, this group of people who have literally spent their entire careers studying and arguing about ethical behavior, do not appear to behave any more or less ethically than anybody else. On average, they talk over just as many people, leave behind just as much trash, and fail to call their mother just as often as you and I do. 

In Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, I discussed at length about how infuriatingly impossible it is to think ourselves into new behaviors. Intellectually understanding that eating a bucket of ice cream in one sitting is apocalyptic for our health doesn’t seem to prevent us from doing it. Nor does understanding the teleological merits of altruism going all the way back to Aristotelian ethics cause one to throw their trash away any more often after eating. 

In my book, I argue that values only exist if they are lived. You may think you value your health. But until you live healthily, you don’t. You may think you value honest communication and open discourse. But until you’ve weathered the unpleasant and difficult conversations that you hate hearing, you don’t. You may think you value being selfless and charitable. But until you’ve pulled out that checkbook and volunteered your time to others, you kinda don’t. 

Ethics, like all values, belongs to the realm of the Feeling Brain. And like anything motivated by feeling, they cannot be solved by reason alone. Emotional problems are just that… emotional. And as useful as it may seem to sit and dissect thousands of pages that are as old as human civilization… until you go out and behave differently, your personal values haven’t really changed.

2. Learning about your trauma doesn’t necessarily heal it – Coming across that paper reminded me of something I’ve seen throughout the years in the personal development space as well.

There’s a lot of value in gaining an intellectual understanding of one’s pain and prior traumas. Understanding how mom and dad maybe screwed you up a little bit is important. It helps you identify a lot of the harmful emotional and behavioral patterns that continue in the present — and more importantly, it helps you come to terms with mom and dad and it helps you better accept yourself. 

But intellectually untangling one’s past doesn’t necessarily solve anything in the present. Understanding that your anxiety is because you moved around to four different schools as a child — even if true — doesn’t really cause anything to change today. It simply gives a name and a story to what you’ve been feeling your whole life. Until you actually live differently in the present, those feelings and that pattern won’t change. Therefore, this intellectual understanding of one’s emotional patterns is a “nice to have” in personal growth, not a “need to have.” 

The problem is that the intellectual understanding of one’s trauma feels really big and important when you discover it. It gives you a sense of progress and change… without having to actually progress or change. I’ve found that many people get hooked on endlessly intellectualizing their emotional patterns as a way to avoid actually doing anything about them

Sadly, there are many therapists and coaches in the world who are happy to jump in and participate in this circle jerk as well. Because just as it makes the patient feel as though they’re discovering something profound (even though they’re not), it can make the therapist or coach feel as though they are inciting something powerful and profound (even though they’re not). 

Much like the ethics professors spending years of their life intellectualizing various metaphysical value systems while producing no tangible result, when digging into our identities it’s easy to spend years intellectualizing the values of our minds while producing no tangible result. Because until you actually get out there and do something different… nothing will change.

3. I need your opinion on something – A lot has changed in my career the past few years. I’ve gotten older. My audience has gotten much larger and more diverse. The world has changed quite a bit.

It’s been a while since I’ve actually asked for feedback from you all in any sort of organized way. So, if you have a few minutes to spare this week, I would love it if you took the time to answer a few questions for me. Surveys like this help me a lot. They also give me more clarity on what you enjoy and want to see from me in the future. 

Take the Readership Survey

And just to spice things up, if you take the survey, I promise a really dumb joke about a fish at the end. No, seriously, it’s hilarious… kind of. 

Okay, not really. But please, take the survey anyway, it will make me love you forever… 

Okay, not really that either. I mean, nobody will love you forever. They’ll be dead way before that happens. But the point is that if you help me out and answer just a few questions, I’ll like, really, really appreciate it. 

…and I’ll tell you a stupid joke about a fish. 

Until next week,

Mark