A False Sense

January 13, 2011 — 34 Comments

There is a bunch of data that shows that the more we talk about things, the less we tend to actually accomplish them. This is because—and I’m sure you can think of a person in your life who does this a lot—the act of articulating the goal entails visualizing the achievement of it, and thus partially gives us credit for it in our own minds and reduces the motivation to actually do it. So doing this diminishes the payoff. There are many people smarter than I who have written about this, but there is a word for such a process that I think its very important. It’s called reification.

To reify means turn something abstract into something concrete.

It was something Walter Lippman talked about when it came to the news. The news, he said, is just a journalist’s limited and simplified version of the world—a pseudo-environment. For many of us, this version of reality is inserted between us and the complicated and infinite reality of the actual situation which we were not able to personally experience. But our responses to this pseudo-environment don’t operate in that pseudo-environment because they are behavior. They happen in the real world. This is the danger of reification. Though what we’re acting on is not real (or only partial real), the act is. And worse, we’re only aware that this has happened when our behavior creates a “noticeable break in the texture of the fictitious world.” What about when our response is just a thought? Or an opinion? That is, most of our response to a pseudo-environment are not overt, they are beliefs, emotions, and senses—things we carry around for a long time before acting on, unaware of the false foundation they were built on.

It something we do to ourselves all the time. Now, there’s nothing wrong with thinking about what you want to do and what you’d like to achieve. Problems arise when this process of dreaming and imagining becomes its own end. You reflect and internalize the emotions and feelings that you’ve evoked, which after a while come to ossify and be the foundations for new images and you get further and further from reality. Think about it this way: You’ve got a picture of your dream house in your head that you may one day be able to own. Totally fine. Then after a period of time of meditating on this, it starts to take on a sort of mental firmness—you know its ins-and-outs because you’ve imagined it so many times. Then you think how much it might be worth if you were to ever sell it, perhaps $2.5M dollars. Then you’ve got the picture of $2.5 million dollars in your head. What could one do with all that money? And so you begin to think of what you could buy or have or the respect that would come with it.

In other words, one illusion becomes the foundation for another illusion which in turn has its own illusions. Each time you whip through this cycle the first illusion starts to feel a little more real—have a little more substance—since it’s was the impetus for the ones that came after it. You’ve tread it more often, which has the affect of substance but is still just air.

A famous academic paper in the 70′s coined a term for the costs of too much information: narcotizing dysfunction. The authors described a world where people are bombarded with more than they can possibly consume, or possibly comprehend as a result of the mass media. In the face of the overwhelming deluge, we spend more and more time reading and listening, leaving less and less space for action. Knowing about problems comes to replace doing something about them. And beneath our superficial understanding of our surroundings is a growing apathy. Information becomes a substitute for action because it is a manageable and achievable end, action is replaced because to chase it is to accept futility.

The problem of reification is that, by definition, it blurs the line between what is real and what is not. In the complexity of a hypothetical, we can become so lost as to forget that we’re debating a conditional. That nothing has actually happened, and that what goes on in our head stays there. It’s easier this way because by confusing time spent with things done we basically eliminate any critical benchmark we might be judged against. Things might be illusionary, but they are pleasant illusions. Our minds function in a kind of iterative loop and as we mix our interpretation of events with the events themselves, one amalgam is mistakenly amalgamated into another—our sense of the world, an amalgam of amalgams.

Advice: be the quiet one in the corner, working away. Avoid information you’re unlikely to actually make use of, and avoid extrapolations as much as you can—because “this means that which means this which could become” is just a chain of illusions based on something you’ll probably never have to deal with. Don’t tell people what you do, if you can get away with it. Just lie, or downplay it. Plan as little as possible, set your life up so there’s less you need to plan about anyway (rent, have less stuff, keep commitments loose). Refuse to accept conflation—this is not the same as that, no matter how similar they might seem. Insist on critical evaluations, even negative ones. Finally, accept that you have this impulse to reify. It is natural to feel drawn towards making the abstract into the concrete (we’re not good with things that turn out to be for naught). Just recognize when you’re doing it. The point is that it’s better to know when you’ve submitted to something rather than be blindly enslaved to it.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

34 responses to A False Sense

  1. Good post. Some interesting data supporting this point towards the end.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/derek_sivers_keep_your_goals_to_yourself.html

  2. does this whole thing not undermine the point of social networking and blogs for that matter?

      • i tweet and anticipate a response, it makes me feel important right? am i really important because joe from burger king and kelly the bartender thinks what im doing is awesome?
        it’s almost like a derivative of reification, but instead of imagining it in my head, i let others justify the importance of my existence through their responses. but in reality bob doesnt really give a rat’s tail about what you did, he just wanted to say something cuz it makes him feel important too.

        • Right. Its like, if I talk about being a social media expert a lot to other people on Twitter who call themselves social media experts, I basically am one.

  3. I’m so glad you linked to me, otherwise I would’ve never discovered this awesome post.

    I forget where I first heard it (it may have been at Lateral Action), but someone said we are transforming from the “information age” to the “innovation age.”

    The internet has provided so much knowledge to everyone who has access to it. And it is WAY too easy to get caught up in all that information, to crave more of it, but never put any of that knowledge into action. Of course, knowledge is pointless if we never do anything creative or productive with it.

    The problem is some of us want to be able to picture the whole world in our head before we ever take our first step. It’s a crippling mind-set to have. We can’t forget that a lot of knowledge comes from experience, not just books or websites. Sometimes the “doing” precedes the “knowing.” It’s like conducting a study or starting a business, you need to start experimenting before you can learn from your misconceptions.

    You can read about wine-tasting all you want, but until you actually start drinking it you won’t have the slightest idea what it’s like.

  4. I also think that when we visualize our goals too concretely or share them too openly, the burden of taking the action is somehow dispersed among those you share with. This might not be entirely conscious, but I’ve noticed the more you work and keep goals to yourself, the more likely you are to do them. The reason could be that the responsibility of action lies solely on you, and if you don’t come through the action is picking away at you until its completed. This causes a lot of anxiety so you either do the project or convince yourself its not worth it

  5. Interesting….
    How does this relate to the type of visualization that many top athletes do before performing? E.g., downhill skiers visualize the perfect run, golfers visualize the perfect shot, etc. Are you suggesting that this is counter productive? Don’t you have to be able to “create” something in your mind before you can physically create it?

    • Take your analogy a bit further. They have this perfect run in their head, then they tell their coach about this epiphany they had, then they tell their friends to be prepared because they have something special up their sleeve and so on. Each time this is done, it takes it out of their head and makes it a little bit more “real.” And the realer it is, the more likely you are to take it for granted. It becomes less about something you need to do and more like something that is already set to happen. You could argue that putting yourself out there makes you more accountable, but I disagree. The reality is you gave yourself some credit that can never be taken away. That’s a bad thing and it’s a risky position to put yourself in.

      But like I was say, there is nothing wrong with visualization. It’s just it can easily become an end by itself.

  6. I really like this post. I was winding down my last day at work a couple weeks ago and reading through some of your archives from 2008. You were doing good stuff then, but the jump in quality of your posts in both writing and content is striking.

    Asskissing aside, this made me think of Aurelius. From Book 8 Section 49, “Stick with first impressions. Don’t extrapolate. And nothing can happen to you. Or extrapolate. Form a knowledge of all that can happen in the world.”

  7. To reinforce what Nick said, you’ve been on fire these past few months. Keep it up.

  8. Ryan, really enjoy your post and also your reading list.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “Plan as little as possible.” Unless we meditate always in the moment of here and now, to do anything we need to plan and visualize. To write a book, we need to plan the thesis and structure. To run a race as an athlete, we need to be able to visualize what is a good performance in order to work towards it.

    So you haven’t answered the question, what distinguishes between the kind of visualization that motivates us and the kind that turn us off from taking the action. My own hypothesis is that it’s ok to make grand plans, as long as we are always grounded in our current state. Accurately perceiving where we currently are is the difference between the two kinds of visualizations.

    • Eugene, what I’ve said here and what the research shows, is that the act of visualization inherently un-grounds us. Or rather, it creates a false ground that we build upon mentally as though it were solid. The necessity of doing it or the fact that successful athletes do it does not change the fact that it is an illusion – a dangerous, indulgent and misleading one.

      By plan as little as possible I mean to point out that it is the only way to limit this process of reification. Of course you cannot completely refrain from planning or envisioning the future. However, you can eliminate needless instances of it which is what I was suggesting.

  9. I’ve been onto your blog for a few months now, it’s so insightful. Just wanted to say your running & failing post is probably the most inspirational thing I’ve read in a while. (Didn’t want to say it there cause the post’s too old.) I need to get out of the “If I really wanted to I could” mentality… Thanks for writing.

  10. Awesome post! I agree that most of the time, keeping goals to oneself (or sharing only with close friends) is a good way to go.

    But what if you wish to share insights throughout the process of attempting a feat? Of course, even the sharing of the process (pre-achievement) reifies public achievement of the goal. But if people always kept their goals and thought-processes to themselves, then what material would exist to inspire others?

    Also interesting how this post elaborates your other post on Stoicism:

    “Marcus Aurelius wrote Meditations for his own personal study, never intending it for publication; Seneca’s letters were a private exchange with a friend; Epictetus didn’t write a single thing down (handwritten notes from a student made their way to a young Marcus Aurelius). This puts their writing in a spirit that’s almost unheard of in the “self-help” category. When you’re writing for an audience, there is such a massive incentive to puff yourself up or present the best side of yourself that it becomes inherently fake.

    The Stoics wrote personal exhortations so they lack the puffing and rationalization that comes from presenting yourself to an audience”

    They weren’t reifying themselves as “stoics” through their exclusively private writings and closed-circle teachings.

    Wondering if your “misses the point” remark about my recent blog post is due at all to the fact that I’m conducting and recording the philosophical experiment publicly. Regardless, I hope further readings and application can get me closer to understanding what Stoicism’s really about. Thanks for the feedback :)

    • Ted it has to do with the fact that stoicism is not an experiment. Just as you cannot try “friendship” for 30 days, you can’t conduct philosophy. I think your intentions are great, you’re just missing the point. The exhortations–say, remembering that you will die and can die at any moment and thus shouldn’t be overly considered with the past or the future–are not ideas that we fool around with and see if they work for us. They are facts about the world. Twists on our perspective that make life easier, make being a good person easier, that put us more in tune with our natural disposition (the one that modern life inherently pulls us from). That’s either attractive to you or it isn’t. And as a result, it becomes a part of who you are and how you think about thing.

      Let me appropriate something Viktor Frankl said but twist it to fit this situation. Philosophy isn’t something that can be pursued, it is something that must ensue. In other words, it (and stoicism and all the others) is a result, not an action. This is what I mean by the analogy friendship. It’s a bond shared by two people who care for each other, know each other well and share beliefs or interests. It would be impossible to arrange hypothetical tests of this. It is something that naturally occurs through certain conditions. Does it make sense now why you can’t do an experiment of stoicism?

      • Everything you’re saying makes sense. But I’m not entirely convinced of your point that because stoicism is a result rather than an action, it cannot be pursued or built into character. I believe that one can actively sculpt character and get closer to “natural disposition” through thoughtful control of thoughts–>actions–>habits, and I’m pretty sure that at some level, you agree. The reason I’m doing this whole “30 days of stoicism” thing is precisely because it appeals to me as a philosophy and because I am, in fact, trying to make stoicism a part of me.

        You might say “you shouldn’t have to try.” But here’s the thing: I don’t have to TRY to agree with stoicism as a philosophy of life. I already do. It’s a natural match. But agreement in thought doesn’t mean alignment in action. I’ve formed a number of habits over the years which run counter to stoic thinking. I think that 30 days of FOCUSING (reading, being aware, and engaging in certain practices) on applying stoicism (maybe “experiment” gives the wrong impression) to my life will inevitably take me deeper into stoic understanding, which is something I wish to see “ensue” – so the “pursuit” is only a short term project.

        And you’re right…giving up coffee is not stoicism. I don’t mean to trivialize such “exhortations [as] remembering that you will die and can die at any moment and thus shouldn’t be overly considered with the past or the future” by describing my stoic journey in terms of only material sacrifices. But I do think one must start somewhere if one wishes to change for the better, and so far, giving up coffee and sleeping on the floor have helped me become more aware of why I’m increasing my absorption of stoic literature and my focus on stoic thought. Yes, I might be seeing them as means to an end (that end being stoicism) and I concede that such thinking is probably misguided. But again, one must start somewhere; stoicism ought to be the means, but if the true means (stoicism as a way of life) is dependent on constant awareness, then it makes sense to take actions which increase awareness and remind/affirm one’s reasoning behind the aspiration for more constant stoic-mindedness.

        To answer your question, it does make sense why an “experiment in stoicism” can’t be conducted. So maybe the experiment is not in stoicism. Maybe the experiment is in focus, or dedication, or documentation, or awareness. Or maybe, since the hypothesis is changing every day, it’s not an experiment at all. And maybe by the end of these thirty days, I’ll come to understand more about whether stoicism is something to pursue or ensue, focus on or keep in the background, and achieve or practice.

        Anyhow, thanks again for the share and the feedback. I appreciate your guidance.

  11. I just like the valuable info you supply on your articles. I’ll bookmark your blog and check again here regularly. I’m reasonably sure I will learn many new stuff proper here! Good luck for the following!

  12. Wow Ryan, another great post. I can totally see how this may be sabotaging some of my own goals. I get so amped up over my proposed plan of action that by the end of the whole thing I kind of feel exhausted and all that daydreaming in itself feels like positive action. Of course, that’s completely untrue.

    I think it’s good to keep positive thoughts but it’s also important to stay grounded and set materialistic, physical or tangible goals and treat them more as a measurement than our own runaway mind victories.

  13. Reading this again, I find it fascinating that these words rather accurately describe the creation of something out of nothing–the concretizing of an abstraction–that produces art. It lines up rather well with comments you’ve made elsewhere about the misapplication of creative resources. According to the principles of deliberate practice, the imagination wasted on the color of your future Lambo might be an even more precious resource (and its squandering a larger sin) than the time wasted to waste the imagination, though comparing them is useless relativism. All this really to say, reify the right things. Like the color palette the cinematographer should use when he shoots the script you’re writing (in five years… if you’re lucky).

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