Josh Haas's Web Log

Learning to be Rational

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Back in 2006 I was diagnosed with depression. I was in college, and I had run into a simple, common life frustration that probably afflicts 1 in 3 college students, namely unrequited love. But it totally broke me. I didn’t have the coping mechanisms or skills to deal with it and move on. Instead, I retreated from social situations, threw temper tantrums, sat around crying, and scared the hell out of my roommates and friends. At the low point, one evening I walked off campus and headed out in a random direction; I walked for hours and hours in the cold, trying to somehow physically escape from my own mind. Eventually I was freezing and really had to pee, so I stopped in a McDonald’s, turned around, and went home. Afterwards I sat in my dorm room for a couple hours cradling a knife and thinking about killing myself. My roommate came in and I glared at him for a while: he thought I was totally insane. I kind of was.

Eventually one of my good friends force-marched me to Harvard’s mental health center. I started taking antidepressants and seeing a psychologist. I started meditating regularly (also thanks to my friend and her boyfriend). I bought some books on Amazon: I remember reading Lord Chesterfield’s Letters and Mrs. Dalloway. And I wrote stuff: I kept a kind of journal, I poured a lot of heart into my school papers, I wrote long philosophical rants. My previous paradigm for understanding life had failed me, and I needed to figure things out.

I’m not sure if I can really articulate how I thought about things back then. I think I basically believed that a) I was smarter than everyone around me and therefore more worthy, b) therefore I was going to be wildly successful and famous and have all the women, money, power I wanted (in a benevolent, contributing-back-to-humanity kind of way), c) I wasn’t totally sure how I’d get from where I was (socially-awkward nerd with a lot of academic potential but who hadn’t accomplished anything of note in the real world) to where I wanted to be, but I was given to understand it involved a time-based “growing up” process that would kick in eventually. I think the reason I fell apart is that for the first time in my life, I really, really wanted something, and I couldn’t have it, nor did I have the slightest clue how I could get it. The fact that I was book-smart didn’t help me at all. I began to suspect that growing up wasn’t a passive process that would inevitably happen to me, but rather something that I needed to actively take part in, and I had no idea how to do that.

I think the two ingredients for happiness — for not being depressed — are acceptance and empowerment. It’s okay that things aren’t perfect. It’s okay that I hurt, that my friends hurt, that my apartment is too small and I have razor burn on my neck and my shirts don’t fit right and I had what I thought was a brilliant idea and realized later I was being idiot. It’s okay if things stay like that forever, if I never solve my problems. It’s okay because there’s no platonic ideal out there of how things should be; there’s no judge, no scoring system; just each moment, one by one until we die. That’s acceptance. Empowerment is feeling like, okay, so things are okay as they are, but I’d like them to be different, and I can actually do something about it. I can learn, I can get smarter. I’ll probably fail, repeatedly, but if I care enough and work at it long enough I’ll eventually be able to achieve anything I want.

One of the the things that pulled me out of my depression was a sense of purpose. The system had failed me. I was supposed to be the 1% of the 1%, with the best education that money can buy, ready to take over the world, and instead I was crying on the floor of my dorm room. As I piece-by-piece learned how to manage my emotions, work towards goals, see the world from a broader perspective, I became increasingly outraged that I had to figure this all out for myself. How many other people out there were suffering because they hadn’t gotten the memo? Looking around at my fellow students, a lot of them were pretty miserable. How is that possible? Most of these kids had lived incredibly privileged lives, received loads of attention and care, and were now attending what was allegedly the top educational institution in the world. And they were unhappy? Something had to be done! Viva la revolution, baby!

As the years have passed I’ve grown increasingly less confident that I know how to solve the happiness problem for anyone else. (In 2006-07, I thought it was really simple. Mandatory meditation classes for everyone!) I still feel though like there’s something broken in paradise. I think a lot of my life for the past five years has been a reaction to my experience with depression, my anger at myself for being so slow to learn, my anger at the system for not helping me more.

I’m still piecing things together for myself. Since I started looking, I’ve found a lot of exceptional people who’ve found their own paths towards sanity and rationality. I think the best articulation of what I believe right now comes from one of my former bosses:

…treat your life like a game or a martial art. Your mission is to figure out how to get around your challenges to get to your goals. In the process of playing the game or practicing this martial art, you will become more skilled. As you get better, you will progress to ever-higher levels of the game that will require—and teach you—greater skills. …

This particular game—i.e., your life—will challenge you in ways that will be uncomfortable at times. But if you work through this discomfort and reflect on it in order to learn, you will significantly improve your chances of getting what you want out of life. By and large, life will give you what you deserve and it doesn’t give a damn what you “like.” So it is up to you to take full responsibility to connect what you want with what you need to do to get it, and then to do those things—which often are difficult but produce good results—so that you’ll then deserve to get what you want.

That’s just the way it is, so you might as well accept it. Once you accept that playing the game will be uncomfortable, and you do it for a while, it will become much easier (like it does when getting fit). When you excel at it, you will find your ability to get what you want thrilling. You’ll see that excuses like “That’s not easy” are of no value and that it pays to “push through it” at a pace you can handle. …

With practice, you will eventually play this game like a ninja, with skill and a calm centeredness in the face of adversity that will let you handle most of your numerous challenges well. However, you will never handle them all well: mistakes are inevitable, and it’s important to recognize and accept this fact of life. The good news, as I have mentioned, is that most learning comes through making mistakes—so there is no end to learning how to play the game better. You will have an enormous number of decisions to make, so no matter how many mistakes you make, there will be plenty of opportunities to build a track record of success.

The person who wrote the above founded the world’s biggest hedge fund, which basically printed money straight through all the financial crises of the last decade, so I know he must be doing something right. But I’ve also run into a lot of other people with similar ideas (most of whom are also highly successful).

People in general are terrible at the above. Most people do not act rationally at all, if you define rationality as doing what you yourself would say is what you want. As one small example, I’ve seen statistics that on average, Americans watch 4 hours of TV a day (I dunno how accurate that is but I’ve never heard a statistic that puts it below 4). The scary thing is that that’s an average so there’s a lot of people who watch much more than 4. Do you think anyone on their death beds would honestly say they’re happy they spent a sixth of their life (a quarter of their waking life) watching television? People dream of a life that’s more than 40 years at a job followed by retirement and death, but most of them don’t take the (relatively straightforward) actions that could change things for them. And now everyone is freaking out because the default life path doesn’t even work any more, because we’ve run out of money to pay for the medical bills of all the retired people who spent their lives in front of a desk during the day and a television during the evenings.

I think rationality is a combination of a skill and a world view. You have to see it as important to you to be rational, to act as a human being and contribute to the world vs let yourself get blown around by your own mind, or else it’s not even a possibility. But even if you have the world view, you still have to get good at it.

I think it’s criminally stupid that we don’t have cultural mechanisms to teach this. Our formal education system is actually counterproductive: the world view it instills consists of “sit still and raise your hand”, “there’s a right and a wrong answer to this question”, “the important thing is scoring well and getting the A.”

So people figure it out on their own. For instance, a serial entrepreneur whose blog I like wrote a great post about his personal daily practice for staying mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy. There’s a lot of good stuff floating around out there, but most people don’t even know it exists, don’t even know they have a need for it.

I was excited back in college by the Positive Psychology movement, which is trying to mainstream ideas about building character, resiliance, real mental health into the practice of psychology (which today treats unhappiness as a disease, a paradigm that I think is appropriate for certain neurological conditions but inappropriate for the vast majority of people who seek some kind of help or counseling). But I think they may be too hopelessly stuck in the paradigm of applying for grants, doing double-blind trials on twenty undergraduates, and publishing in academic journals, to make any substantial progress in the next 100 years. That’s why I’m more interested in entrepreneurship; it’s not as rigorous, but things move much much faster because the only thing that matters is impactful real world results. For instance, these guys might solve the physical health problem for nerds. We’ll see.

One thing that hasn’t changed for me since college is that my love life is still a disaster. Last night I went out with friends, hoping to end up with a girl at the end of the night, and I screwed things up. This morning, as soon as consciousness returned, I was on my feet, hangover and all, listing the lessons I learned, listing the questions I had for my friends about what I did wrong, and preparing for my morning run. I couldn’t have done that two years ago. Building skills takes time… I’m still not very good at transforming humiliation into learning, anger into determination. I’m still pretty irrational. But that’s okay.

Written by jphaas

December 4th, 2011 at 12:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized