For years I believed that people were slacking. I didn’t think they were doing the best they can. I held others to high standards, if I could do it then so could they.
Recently, however, I’ve been putting the pieces together about how this might be the case. Today we will explore why everyone might just be doing the best they can.
The Power of Perspective
Everyone perceives the world vastly differently. Although, because we don’t see the world through any other eyes than our own, this may not seem to be the case. The only instance of consciousness is that of our own.
You Know Only What you Pay Attention To
Big Idea: Understanding requires robust concepts to be developed via instances.
Basically: You learn by example. The more examples you come across, the better pattern matching happens.
Consider a child learning the concept of a frog. A caregiver shows the child images and videos of frogs engaging in various behaviors. Each new frog is in a different context, and each time the caregiver points and says “this is a frog”. Every frog is a new instance of the concept ‘frog’, this leads the brain to create a robust understanding of frog.
I will bring up the Principle of Initial Conditions again below. But the first instance of the frog had the greatest impact. Each new instance had a slightly less impact. The brain constantly updated its idea of ‘frog’. This is analogous to a point I’ll make below about how each novel experience compounds on top of previous experiences and all feed back in to update the filter through which you view the world.
After practice, the child can point to frogs in entirely new contexts, engaging in slightly nuanced behaviors (e.g. croak at a different pitch or rate), and understand it to be a frog. This is the result of learning.
The more intelligent an individual is, the faster this takes place, the fewer instances needed to grasp the concept of ‘frog’. Essentially, they have a strong pattern matching ability. This is a skill that is developed (i.e. not genetics).
A young child may have had an experience very early on that promoted an effective way for the brain to store information that led to a reward or less discomfort. The efficient way to observe the world (e.g. based on relevant properties, ignoring details) was rewarded.
Learning (how to learn) is a topic I LOVE. I’ll have posts dedicated to them later. For now, some of the basics include:
- High-level vs low-level thinking
- Big-picture thinking
- Abstract out relevant properties
The common theme is focusing on what is relevant and removing the irrelevant details. Intelligence is a game about where your attention goes, a game about how efficiently your mental resources are utilized.
Here’s the punchline:
- Everyone will have their own concept of ‘frog’, because of:
- How they interpret a new instance of frog depends on their unique experiences of not just frogs, animals, etc. but on everything from nutritional exposure, emotional state, and context to personal objectives, beliefs, and expectations.
- The compounding effect of each of these factors, from one experience to the next, along with the power of initial conditions.
- The result is a brain that is wired entirely differently and will continue to diverge more and more as new experiences are interpreted based on their previous, unique, experiences…. All feeding back into the filter through which they view the world.
Life is Dynamic
Big Idea: Your environment provides the possibilities for where your attention can go.
Basically: The environment dictates what deserves your attention.
The brain emphasizes survival.
But, because life is dynamic, it has no way of knowing what the environment will be like until after you’re alive. The brain can’t rely on pre-programmed, static, genetics to determine how the body should develop or brain to wire.
Poor nutrition as a child can lead to stunted growth, the brain learned that there isn’t enough energy to consume in the environment to support a larger body.
Even if you have the genes for a particular trait, that does not mean you’ll express it. Upwards of 90% of your genes go unused. Consider blue eyes, they are a recessive trait and require a blue eye gene from both parents to be expressed in the offspring. Brown eyes are dominant, just one gene from either parent will cause brown eyed offspring. If you have blue eyes, then even if a parent has brown eyes, they would have to also have the blue eye gene, or else you wouldn’t have blue eyes.
Variation can also come in to play, such as mutations, which occur as much as dozens of times for each new birth. Mutations ensure variety in a population and increase chances a new trait emerges that promotes survival (i.e. greater chance of reproduction).
There are also epigenetics (“epi”, meaning above), which govern what genes are expressed. The environment is what determines this, and it is constantly being modified throughout life. You may be more susceptible to heart disease because of having certain genes, but that susceptibility is just having the gene. What encourages its expression is environmental factors, such as lots of sugary foods. That is the body learning based on its environment what genes to express.
This system doesn’t know what genes will best suit the organism’s survival until after it gathers information via sensory organs, AFTER birth. Any assumption made before the actual life of the organism will only increase its chances for death. This is another reason why challenging your assumptions and avoiding making too many is a magnificent idea, because, as nature has learned, assumptions kill. Be open-minded and dynamic.
We are Limited By Our Perspective
Big Idea: Your own emotional experiences can serve as instances in learning other perspectives.
Basically: Each individual is encouraged to act in their own best interest.
The closest one can get to experiencing what a different instance of consciousness would be like is emotional states.
Consider when you are happy, the world seems different from when you are irritable. Being irritable, the slightest thing can blow your top. The interpretations the brain makes are vastly different.
So, everyone experiences the world differently, and they are oblivious to the ways others are thinking.
Everyone is doing the best they can because they are only operating based on the input their brain is receiving and how their filter (through which they perceive the world) processes it. Each novel experience updates the filter, much like a new instance of a frog updates our concept of frog. The brain makes predictions, which are right, or wrong (when wrong, learning occurs, hence the importance of failure).
This filter is constantly being modified and is constructed over many years of compounding experiences. The initial experiences have the greatest impact, each subsequent experience has less of an impact.
This individualized perspective is required because each physical body is its own individual system that seeks to remain alive. For that individual system to survive, it is in the software’s best interest to view the world from a perspective that prioritizes itself.
For a large system, such as a computer, to operate ideally, each component of that system must operate as if it’s the most important piece, doing all it can to ensure it’s functioning well. Constantly worrying about other components will make that component suffer, and thus the entire system. This is the basic idea of loving yourself before you can truly love others or putting the oxygen mask on yourself first before others.
But this leads to plenty of issues, ego, selfishness, anger, etc. This is only compounded by modern society and other norms. Selflessness, gratitude, presence, and stillness are things you have to work at.
Here’s the punchline:
- People are doing the best they can because what they are doing is what their brain thinks is in their best interest. It is by this means that the resulting behavior is encouraged.
- It may seem like they are not doing the best they can do because we only have a single instance of consciousness. It’s easy to think everyone thinks like us. There isn’t enough information to pattern match.
The Brain Drives Behavior
Mental states determine behavior. As mentioned earlier, the world may feel heavier when you’re in a negative emotional state, and lighter when in a more positive state.
The emotional state comes from the brain’s interpretations of the world while also taking into consideration your internal physical state (e.g. how organs are functioning and other things that nutrition and injuries affects).
There is no need to be consciously aware of this process (it would be distracting), the only need is for the system operator, you as “consciousness”, to be motivated enough to make changes to promote the health of the system, hence emotions and discomfort. These sensations are your body’s way of communicating with you. Do more of this, less of that, for the sake of survival.
Taking this point further, all your sensory organs are, in fact, the very things that construct the filter through which you view the world. The brain lives in a dark skull, it relies entirely on sensory organs to give it information about its environment, it then learns based on input and constantly updates its understanding of the world, this manifests in the form of a “filter” through which all new stimulus and information (e.g. conversation with a friend, touching a cold object) gets processed through.
Consider the feeling of fatigue, it makes cowards of us all. The brain takes over and does what it can to encourage you to rest. The power of consciousness allows us to override this and push on instead. This is the foundation of all endurance athletes.
Conditionals: If This, Then That
Life seems to be deterministic. If all conditions are held constant, then the same outcome will occur. The factors of these conditions can be very complicated, from planet position to quantum entanglement, who knows. Each factor has its own size of impact, some are more important than others.
It’s impossible to know all the factors that go into an event that occurs in the world. But, if you were to know them all, you’d be able to reproduce the same occurrence of the event, exactly. Luckily, many factors are so irrelevant that you can ignore them (recall the pattern matching skill of focusing on what’s relevant).
The ability to repeat experiments is what science is based on. Most of the research phase is about identifying the relevant factors that make a desired outcome consistent. This allows us to fly planes from point A to point B and perform precise medical operations.
The difficulty in knowing all the factors that go into an event comes down to not knowing the complete picture of the universe. Just like your world-view filter, the factors that play into an event result from compounding conditions, each influencing the next. This relates to the Principles of Initial Conditions and Compound Impact.
As an interesting connection, you can use this to promote desired behavior in others by focusing on what Chip and Dan Heath refers to as “Bright Spots” in their insightful book “Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard”.
Bright spots are just finding what is working. For example, if you want to encourage a failing student to do better in school, focus on the times when they do well. What classes are they doing the best in? Why? Does that teacher treat them better? What about their peers in that class? Their interest in the subject?
Learn the relevant factors so you can repeat the desired behavior. You can apply this anywhere from parenting to convicts.
The Final Argument
Here’s a recap of the main points:
- Perspective is a Game Change
- You only know what you pay attention to
- What deserves your attention, changes
- The brain emphasizes its own survival
- We have no other instance of consciousness to learn from
- The Brain Drives Behavior
- You behave fundamentally different based on feeling
- Actions are Based on a Lot of Factors
- People’s behaviors result from previous, compounding, conditions
All these points come in to the argument that people are doing the best they can with what they have.
Their behaviors may feel like their own choice, but they are so heavily influenced by your current emotional and physical state, the context of the situation, and your past experiences, that it might as well not be your choice.
The ego wants to create a consistent story, so it takes whatever actions you take and rationalizes it as a decision YOU made. It would be of no use to the brain if you were consciously aware of these processes. Consciousness is likely an evolutionary ability to override nature’s “suggestions” or habitual actions. For example, persevering through a long run in order to catch prey.
Humans were never the strongest nor the fastest, we could run long distances (sweating helped with this). We’d chase and stalk our prey, for days perhaps, until it collapsed from exhaustion, either that or we out smart it and trap it.
Our survival depended on our brain’s ability to remain constantly making complex calculations (e.g. the route to take to intercept prey while still avoiding predators), all while on an empty stomach. Nature up to that point had habits in place to encourage us to rest with that much overwhelm. Our survival dependent on being able to push through the discomfort over long periods of time.
Solving the problems our survival faced required a higher level of thinking that went beyond what nature had cooked up. The need to loosen the leash and give us more control arose.
So, we all are making decisions based on a myriad of factors, many of which are entirely unique to us. We are limited by our own perspective.
Even if you didn’t believe that people are doing the best they can originally, that results from your experiences. The factors at play that dictate how you view another person’s potential are also at play in governing how that individual makes their decisions. These include, as mentioned before, physical/emotional state and context (e.g. relationship with the other person, like/dislike, current goal, etc.)
You may be more lenient of someone doing the best they can if that person is your mother. If you cut someone off in traffic, you may be quick to rationalize it as being late for an important meaning because of having to take care of your kids as a single mother. But if someone else cuts you off, you are not so forgiving. You’re limited by your perspective. You are limited by your experience.
It is a natural drive of living organisms to improve their current state of being. To move away from pain and towards pleasure, the brain encourages this. So people wouldn’t be making the decisions they make if their brain wasn’t convinced (i.e. programmed) to that that is what will lead them to better chances of survival. Perhaps they’ve found their efforts towards healthy eating or exercise to not pay off. That is an instance that serves as proof when they rationalize that they should instead go back to the couch.
So what do you do with this?
Build your ability to be empathetic and view the world from other’s perspectives.
By now, you may realize the importance of empathy and viewing the world from other’s point of view. This takes practice. But being able to remove your prejudices and biases and wear the hat of another individual is a powerful way to improve relationships and any interaction with other humans.
I’ve found this skill useful in thinking from the perspective of my future self. How will a decision I make now affect how I would feel in the future? That has profound implications from being able to delaying gratification to avoiding regret and making success-promoting long-term decisions.
This is a skill in visualization, but it also includes all the senses. The more senses you can involve, the better.
Start with the Feeling
Emphasize bright spots. Look for what’s working and build on that.
Ask probing questions to others, as well as yourself. Listen and seek to understand instead of assuming you know best.
Avoid the need to feel special and remain open to the possibilities. Remember, knowing is the enemy of learning.
To influence change, encourage the other person to “trip over the truth“, instead of you trying to pour evidence on them. When someone experiences the pain or harm that they are putting themselves through, they will be far more motivated to make the change. Most people remain ignorant to the harm, perhaps out of helplessness, ambiguity, or comfort. They prefer a comforting story to make sense of their actions.
Tripping over the truth is seeing the truth in its rawness, this requires the right context and openness in an individual, it requires setting the scene appropriately. If someone isn’t receptive, they will apply their old story and rationalize away what evidence you share.
What if People are Not Doing the Best They Can?
Perhaps people are not doing the best they can with what they have.
But even if they are, the power that interpretations have on the brain, you are far better of viewing the world as such. There will be less stress, more understanding, and if nothing else, this is probably closer to the truth than otherwise.
The beauty behind all of this is that:
- Life is dynamic.
- We base our actions on past experiences.
This means that people can change when given novel experiences. You can influence the desired behavior in others, and yourself, by following these principles. Novel experiences have a larger impact than others.
This all relates back to the main theme of my writing. Exploration.
Exploration and approaching experience with a sense of curiosity has been the single most impactful change I’ve incorporated. It has added the meat and spice to my life.
From comfort to discomfort, reduce judging and labeling. Experience it as is, explore it, approach it with a sense of curiosity. It’s a new instance of experience, the result of sensory organs picking up information… Just listen, no judgement.
You can go deep down the rabbit hole with me in my following posts:
- The Ultimate Guide to Clarity
- The Ultimate Guide to Awareness
- The Ultimate Guide to Deliberate Action
- The Ultimate Guide to Intensity of Stimulus
- The Ultimate Guide to Challenge
- The Ultimate Guide to Connection
- The Ultimate Guide to Meaning
- And the whole, complementary, Effective Living series
Despite my own doubts, I am becoming convinced more and more that people are doing the best they can. I approached proving this to myself via the same procedure I approach all my thinking with, the fundamental principles that I’ve discovered about nature.
I continue to explore and discover, just like the concept of ‘frog’, my concept of life and existence is constantly being updated with each new novel experience.
Each of us are doing the best we can because nature wouldn’t allow us to do any differently.
Thank you for reading!
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