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#92: What Is Wisdom?

#92: What Is Wisdom?

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1. When most people think of evolution, they assume that it’s an all-or-nothing affair. Ducks with a big beak are able to eat more than birds with little beaks, therefore big-beaked ducks survive and reproduce and the little-beaked Spoonbill Ducks die off. This is how evolution is generally taught in high school.

But most of the time, evolution is not this simple. For example, imagine a species that could be either violent or non-violent. What usually happens is that instead of it being optimal for every member of a species to be either 100% violent or 100% non-violent, it’s optimal for like 40% of a population to be violent and 60% to be non-violent. This is because the balance and interplay between the violent and non-violent members of the same species actually produces better outcomes than if the species was all one way or the other. 

In biology, this is known as evolutionary stable strategies and you see them everywhere. Having too many violent organisms creates chaos. Having too many non-violent organisms invites predators. But a nice mixture of both ends up making everybody better off. It’s by having a diversity of traits within the population that the whole species survives and thrives. 

This happens with humans as well. If every human was extremely extraverted, that would probably be bad (nobody would ever shut the fuck up). But if every human was highly introverted, that would also be bad. By generating a population of a nice spectrum of introverted/extraverted people, we end up with a more functional, well-rounded society. You can make this same case for tons of human traits. We need people who are both uptight/relaxed, both logical/creative, both compassionate/dispassionate, etc. As Temple Grandin says, “The world needs all kinds of minds.” 


2. This, in a nutshell, is the genius of democracy: it’s built to accentuate rather than suppress diversity. And not just diversity of race, gender, or religion, but diversity of personality, interests, philosophies, and worldly pursuits. Democratic systems let the wisdom of evolutionary processes play out in the social realm. This is why democratic societies tend to be more economically innovative, culturally dynamic, and physically safer than the alternatives.

Tyranny fails because it attempts to crush diversity—it removes the opportunity for evolutionary stable strategies. The same way every organism in a species being non-violent is evolutionarily suboptimal, forcing every person in a society to adopt a specific ideology, religion, or goal is socially suboptimal. It makes a society rigid and fragile. Tyranny’s desire for harmony and uniformity ultimately leads to its downfall. 


3. Paradoxically, the price for diversity is constant stress and anxiety. Diversity means differences and differences mean conflict. Highly extraverted people annoy highly introverted people and vice versa. Highly religious people offend highly non-religious people and vice versa. People from rural and urban areas have different life experiences and different values. People with differing beliefs yell at each other, fight, and complain about how awful everyone else is. 

Yet this perception that everyone else is awful is evidence that everything is alright. The fact that we’re exposed to enough diversity of thought and lifestyle to be so annoyed by everyone demonstrates that the system is working. In a sense, democracy requires constant dissatisfaction. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. 

But these first three points are merely a preamble to what I really want to talk about: wisdom. 


4. The same way having a diversity of traits within a population is optimal (yet uncomfortable) in nature, and having a diversity of personalities/beliefs/backgrounds is optimal (yet uncomfortable) in society, I would argue that possessing a diversity of values, perspectives, and inclinations as an individual is optimal (yet uncomfortable) for our psychology. 

For example, let’s say you’re walking down the street and you see a homeless guy acting erratically. On the one hand, you value compassion to some extent. You want to help people who are suffering. Yet, you also kind of value personal accountability—i.e., you have some sense that people ought to be responsible for their own problems. On top of that, you also value your personal safety—i.e., you don’t want to get attacked by a homeless man in the midst of a psychotic episode. You also have various thoughts and impulses like the fact that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, that you’re a bad/selfish person for ignoring this man’s plight, that you’re busy and late to something important and don’t have time for this, that your mayor is a piece of shit for letting this happen in the first place, etc. 

As you pass the homeless man, these values and thoughts tug at each other within your mind. You feel bad and want to stop and help but you’re also scared. You pity the man but you’re also a bit angry and indignant that such a prosperous society could let this sort of thing happen. You simultaneously feel that acknowledging this man’s struggle is both something worth doing and something not worth doing. As you walk on, that discord within you continues to bother you for much of the afternoon. No matter which perspective you take, none feel completely right. 


5. Now, there are two ways to resolve this internal tension. The first way is a sort of fanaticism: you pick one perspective and double down on it to the expense of all others. 

The second way is to acknowledge the contradictory nature of your own thoughts and feelings, and to choose a course of action in full awareness of that tension—to make your choices not based on zealotry or faith, but by merely understanding trade-offs.

And this is what wisdom is: it’s the ability to allow a diversity of values and thoughts to emerge within your own mind, yet still be able to act despite them. 


6. In this way, a wise person’s mind is like a democracy. You have political parties going on within your own mind—you have the “help everyone in need” party, and they’re constantly arguing with the “it’s not my problem” party. And, of course, there’s the always-present “but what about our safety?” and the “it’s not my problem” interest groups that must be placated. These various factions within the government of our psyche argue and bargain and act as checks and balances against one another until a course of action is eventually chosen. 

People email me all the time to complain that they want to make a major life decision but they don’t have complete unerring confidence in their choices. 

Good. This is wisdom. This is understanding trade-offs and consequences and accountability. This is allowing the various aspects of yourself to vote on the outcomes of your identity. 

The opposite is fanaticism. Fanaticism may produce confidence and relieve anxiety. But fanaticism is a tyranny of our internal mental order. It is when one belief or value pushes all other competing factions out of our consciousness. 

But by quieting our internal discord, fanaticism makes ourselves more fragile and vulnerable to external discord. The same way democracy works because—not in spite—of its conflict, a wise person is wise because—not in spite—of their internal discord. 


7. Therefore, the goal isn’t to quieten or relieve yourself of your internal discord, it’s to learn to live with it. It’s not to rid yourself of anxiety or second-guessing, but to become comfortable with it. It’s not to develop full confidence in everything you do, but to become confident in the fact that you probably don’t know what you’re doing. 

This is an internal democracy, the allowance of evolutionary stable strategies of the mind. 

This is wisdom. 

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Stuff Worth Reading 

1. A few months ago, I wrote a long piece explaining why social media is not as evil as everyone seems to think it is. Basically no one read it, probably because it didn’t support their prior assumptions (which kinda just supports my argument that social media isn’t the problem, we are).

Well, maybe I wasn’t the right person to make the argument. Maybe someone else can do it better. Here’s another article written around the same time, making similar arguments, many of them better. Check out: You and the Algorithm: It Takes Two to Tango.

2. The best and most realistic COVID-related article I read this month was this one: Why COVID-19 Is Here to Stay and Why You Shouldn’t Worry About It. I highly recommend it.

If I may make one teensy comment about the pandemic: People’s entrenched views about such a controversial topic have not surprised me the past 18 months. What has surprised me is most people’s inability to update their beliefs given new evidence. It’s shocking how many people (and governments) are still operating on assumptions from, like, May 2020.

(Bonus pandemic thingy: Evidence has surfaced that the “Russian Flu” pandemic of 1889 was actually likely a Coronavirus. So, I guess we’re partying like it’s 1889.)

3. I found this article detailing the life of a professional surrogate mother to be fascinating (and somewhat moving). I spend a lot of my time writing about purpose, relationships, and technology, and this story awkwardly lies at the intersection of all three. 

Until next month,

Mark Manson

#1 NYTimes bestselling author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope

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