My Themes for 2014

I’m on a three year roll of January goal setting and reflecting that has truly made a difference in how I live my life. This year one of my goals was to read 100 books, which I did (113). By the end of the year I started wondering if 2014 should be a year where I focus my reading more in a specific area in order to develop deeper understanding and thinking on certain topics, rather than the wide range of non-fiction I read in 2013.
After pondering this for awhile, I came upon some anchoring ideas that I want to focus on:

1. Banish Confirmation Bias
2. Explore Meta-Cognition

1. Banish Confirmation Bias. My goal here is to prove myself wrong as often as possible. Last year I read a lot about how we make decisions, how we process information, and the mistakes we make in thinking. I want to try to put that to work for me in some tangible way, and I figured the most bang for the buck would be in the area of confirmation bias (only seeing and seeking out information that supports your current beliefs). Just yesterday I cam across this awesome blog post that put my thoughts into words and included these quotes from Richard Feynman:

  • “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
  • “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”
  • “I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong.”

Yes! That is my year in three quotes. Guess I should start by reading some more Feynman. Another quick little blog post I followed from the first briefly details some further thoughts in being wrong by Jeff Bezos:

“He’s observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a well formed point of view, but it means you should consider your point of view as temporary.

In practice, proving myself wrong will mean, well, I don’t really know. But hopefully having it on my mind more will allow it to become a thought that I can be conscious of in the moments I need it rather than in hindsight.

2. Meta-cognition, which is most simply defined as “thinking about thinking”. I really, really enjoy reading about how the brain works, how we think, how we decide, how we process information, and different philosophies of living the good life. Of the last 120 or so books I have read, I’ve only paid money for two of them, and they were both bought after I read a library copy and knew I had to have my own as a reference for living. They both address meta-cognition but in different ways:

Thinking: Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I’ve also learned this year that it really does pay to read about ideas straight from the scientists who do the research. I guess I had a bias toward academics and considered science writers more likely to write enjoyable books, but I have found that to be untrue (proved myself wrong!). While I do enjoy books by science writers a great deal (a recent favorite was How Children Succeed by Paul Tough), I have yet to be disappointed by going to the source after reading about it in a more general science book. You will read about Kahneman a LOT if you read books on thinking and decision making. Just go and read his book instead. It’s amazing.

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb. Oh, this book is so darn good. It was so good that it inspired me to start keeping a writing journal so I could easily reference the best parts of the book over and over. My #1 take-away from that book was that the path to happiness comes from subtraction, not addition. You can do more for your health, your relationships, your work, your home, and everything else by removing iatrogenics (things added that frequently end up causing harm, like medicine) rather than by adding things you think are good. Subtraction is more potent than addition. 

Of course, my two themes are totally inter-related. Part of meta-cognition is understanding confirmation bias. Thinking about thinking is the broader view, while battling confirmation bias gives me one area to play with putting meta-cognition to work in a tangible way to make my life better.