Why You Should Always Do What You’re Afraid To Do

Ralph Waldo Emerson said: ‘Always do what you are afraid to do.’ And this rule seems a reasonably good guide for self-improvement. Because it turns out that people are often afraid to do the things they are least familiar with. Whether is approaching a girl in a club, giving a speech to 50 people, or setting up a business: things make us feel anxious because we have little experience doing it. In such cases the anxiety often pushes you away from doing the thing, hence still leaving you clueless about what you will experience, or even further increasing your anxiety.

But there is something odd here: because the things that you are least familiar with provide you with the biggest opportunities to learn. After all: if you are not familiar with something, it means that you have little knowledge of it. It means that you are still at the start of the learning curve; that the ‘marginal utility per unit of experience’ is very high. Therefore, being afraid of something might be a damn good indicator that there is a lot of potential for you to learn about the thing. Hence it might be wise to always do what you are afraid to do.

This reasoning seems cogent, doesn’t it? But there is one problem with Emerson’s rule…it is not always true. There are cases in which fear should actually push you away from doing something – not pull you into doing something. Think about the fear of jumping of a building, or the fear of approaching a tiger. Given that you want to improve yourself, it seems unwise to jump of a building, or to be ripped to pieces by an angry tiger.

So the best we can do is to say that the rule is a heuristic: a guide in life, that points you – in most cases – to the areas in life where you can learn a lot. But how do you know in what cases you should act upon the rule, and in what cases you should realize that doing so might actually put you in danger? I think we have to distinguish between two kinds of fear here: socially conditioned fears and innate fears. The first are things such as being afraid to start a business or to make a move on a girl*: we have been told, or we have experienced at first hand, that such endeavours might cause emotional pain – even though they are not inherently dangerous. Innate fears, on the other hand, are things such as being afraid of tigers, which seems like a reasonable fear. Tigers are dangerous; despite your experiences with one. In other words: it seems that innate fears try to protect us from real threats, while socially conditioned fears don’t always do so.

Taking this into account, ‘Always do what you are afraid of’ is likely to make you learn a lot.

But what do you think?

*it might be true that socially conditioned fears are grounded in biology, hence being innate. If we take evolutionary psychology seriously, for example, it might be true that the fear to approach women is in fact innate. Hence there seems to be a continuum from innate to socially conditioned fears; not a categorical difference.

What Is the Value of a Human Life?

People are getting older and older and demand better and better (medical) care. Also, advancements in technology and medical knowledge allow what once seemed to be incurable illnesses to be cured – or at least treated. These trends result in an ever increasing rise in the medical expenditures of countries. This begs the question: how far should we go in saving a patient’s life? What is the value of a human life? Should we be prepared to save someone at all costs? Or should we think about the financial consequences of our decisions? And if so, what is the (financial) limit?

There are several ways in which this question can be answered. One response would be that we should go as far as possible in trying to save a person’s life. That is, as far as possible given the boundaries set by our medical and technological knowledge. And although this might cost us (as a society) a lot of money, the money spent on saving a person’s life is nothing compared to the value gained by prolonging their stay on our planet; the emotional gain experienced by the person – and not to forget his family – is of an extraordinary value: a value that can impossibly be expressed in terms of money. Therefore any means available should be employed in order to let people experience (an extension of) life.

However, given that the value of a human life would be ‘impossible to express in terms of money’, why then should we come to the conclusion that – because of that – we should be prepared to save a person’s life at all costs? Wouldn’t that be a rather arbitrary decision? After all, given that (human) life is of a such value that it is inexpressible in terms of money, why then even bother to make the transition to talk about costs? If a human life would truly be invaluable, it would be just as nonsensical to talk about trying to save a person’s life at all cost as it would be to say that we shouldn’t be prepared to pay any money in order to do so, right? The value of life is after all of an entirely different dimension; irreducible to monetary terms in any sense – no matter whether this value is in millions or pennies.

Well, that seems a little radical, doesn’t it? Another option would be to say that we should go as far as could be considered economically reasonable. In welfare countries where civilians have to pay relatively high taxes, that for a huge part are gobbled by the nation’s medical expenses, it seems fair to not only think in the interests of the patient and his family but to also consider the economic prospects of the relevant patient. After all: would it be reasonable for society to pay a huge sum of money to save someone’s life, while the person being saved might be unable to ‘repay’ (in terms of making an economic contribution to society) the medical expenses in any sense? From a purely utilitarian viewpoint, this seems to be an unwise (and even a wrong) decision. Surely, it might be ‘fair’ to save the person’s life, in the sense that the person probably has paid taxes all his life (taxes that were used for paying the medical treatments of others). But that doesn’t change the fact that, at this point in time, it would be unprofitable/utility-degrading to pay for the patient’s treatment.

A solution to cover this seemingly unfair attitude – although it might sound counter-intuitive – would be to make people decide for themselves how much they are prepared to pay for saving a patient’s life. Subsequently, it would be this amount of money that the person would contribute (in the form of taxes) for covering the country’s medical expenses. However, the other side of this plan would be that, whenever the tax payer himself would have to be treated in hospital, this person’s treatment costs will be compared with the amount of money he contributed to society for covering its medical expenditures/saving a person’s life. Based upon this comparison will be decided whether or not the person should be treated. When the contribution-fee is decided upfront – before the person ‘officially’ enters society (let’s say at the age of 18) – no conflict of interests can occur, and everyone’s wishes are taken into account.

A totally different option would be to shove the full responsibility for covering one’s medical expenditures down to someone’s own wallet: to make people pay for their own medical costs. After all: who would mind a person spending thousands of dollars coming from his own pocket? No-one I suppose. Unless, of course, this person is you. Because what to do if you don’t have the money required to cover your medical expenses? It doesn’t seem fair to let you die just because you haven’t earned as much money as the richest ten percent of the population, right? However, even if you would be the person becoming sick and having to pay for your own medical costs, you might still consider this libertarian attitude towards ‘paying my own costs’ to be the true righteous manner to live your life.

It is in no way an easy question. It is about much more than medical costs/finance: it’s about values/ethics, which implies that there is likely to be no definite answer to this question.

But what do you think?

What Are You Besides Your Body?

Let’s ask the question: What am I? Not ‘Who am I?,’ because asking ‘Who am I?’ would already presume the presence of some entity whose nature is being questioned. Just what am I. Am I my body? No, that’s my body…again the presence of an entity is presumed to which my body would be assigned. Because what is this ‘my’ in my body? What makes my body ‘my’ body and your body ‘your’ body? What makes ‘you’ you and ‘me’ me? Are there even such things as ‘you’ and ‘me’? Or all we all part of a bigger whole; a continuum of nature in which no discrete entities exist?

When I’m referring to ‘me’, I’m not referring to what I have. And that includes my body. I think I am referring to my consciousness. But then again: what is this ‘my’ in ‘my consciousness’? What makes my consciousness mine and your consciousness yours? Assuming that you have a consciousness of course…I don’t know. There has to be something ‘my’ consciousness would have to be ascribed to in order to make it different from ‘your’ consciousness. My body maybe…and now we’re back at where we started.

It appears like we are just too stupid to come to understand what the ‘I’ in ‘What am I?’ is. Our tiny little brains just cannot handle the question. But, instead of a big read ‘ERROR’ appearing in the middle of our minds, the mind desperately tries to come up with an answer. Anything. It doesn’t manner how unverifiable or implausible it is. Desperately it tries to find something that makes ‘me’ me and ‘you’ you. But over and over again it returns home disappointed…not even knowing where or what this home is.

How does the ‘who’ in ‘who am I?’ differ from the ‘what’ in ‘what am I?’ Do they even differ? Because if it not, determinism might be unavoidable. If there is nothing in us that contributes at least a little value to the collective of cells making up our bodies, then we have to conclude that we are the collective of cells making up our bodies. But then free will would be nothing more than an illusion. Or it must be something that is formed in some inconceivable manner by the gigantically complex network of cells we call our bodies.

But let me ask you: what if free will would merely be an illusion? Would you care? Would your life become any different from what it is now? You could still do anything you want to do. The only difference is that what you ‘want’ to do would be programmed into your genetic structure. ‘You’ would merely be a witness overlooking the execution of this protocol.

Do you believe in consciousness? And if so, what do you believe it is? And would you mind if your consciousness would be like a fart; nothing but a by-product of your body?

Interest Cannot be Created: It Can Only be Discovered

‘Are you interested in the stock market?’ I asked a colleague of mine, who works as a economics editor at a newspaper, and hence has to write about stocks, markets etc. ‘I have to’, he said, ‘It is part of my job’. ‘You cannot have to be interested in something. You either are or you are not interested. Period.’ I replied. ‘You can get used to something, but you cannot become interested in something.’ He smiled at me, and walked away; I think he agreed.

There is a huge difference between interests and skills: while you can develop the latter, you cannot develop the former. Interests are an intrinsic part of your nature; they define, to a large extent, who you are. If you are, for whatever reason, interested in history, you will tend to become ‘better at’ history. Maybe even choose a history related job. But you are good at it, because you find it interesting. It is not because you are good at something, that you are interested in it. That is impossible.

And that brings us to the difficulty of interests. If someone tells you: ‘Just do whatever you find interesting. Find a job you like, and then do just do it,’ it seems like reasonable advice. And if you know what you’re interested in, it might even be helpful advice. But the problem starts if you don’t know what you are interested in. Because, interests being an intrinsic part of your identity, you cannot create an interest in something. You can become better, or worse, at doing something; you can even get used to it. But you cannot become interested in it.

Do something
But what then should you do if don’t know what you are interested in? If it all starts with knowing what you find interesting, and then just doing that, then it seems like you are on a dead end if you don’t know what you find interesting.

Well, if you don’t know your interests, and given that you cannot create interest in something, you have to choose a different approach: you have to find your interests. And the only way to find them, is by engaging in all sorts of activities, so that by doing these activities you can find out what you do (and what you don’t) find interesting. You cannot sit down on a chair, thinking deeply (‘soul-searching’) about what you like to do. This only works if you already know what you find interesting; not if you still have to discover that.

Hence, to those of you that are sitting at home, not knowing what to do with their lives; not knowing what kind of job to pursue, I would say the following: get out there, and find what you are interested in. For interest cannot be created. It can only be discovered.

But what do you think?

Read The Life of a Twenty-Something to see why so many people in their twenties don’t know what to do with their lives

‘Moral Logic’: a Guide for Political Decision Making?

Modal logic is – as far as I am concerned – all about what might possibly be the case (alethic logic) or about what we know (epistemic logic), but not about what we should or should not do. That is: ethics seems not to be grounded in modal logic – or any logic for that matter. And that’s a pity, for I believe that logic can play a valuable role in moral decision making, especially in politics. Let me illustrate this with an example:

Let’s say that a politician proposes a policy A (‘Taxes are increased’). Let’s suppose that it is common knowledge that A leads to B (‘A –> B’), with B being ‘The disposable income of the poor is decreased’. Now, let’s say the politician doesn’t want B, (we write ‘–B’). Then, you could reasonably say that, by letting ‘–’ follow the rules of negation, and by applying modus tollens, we get –A. That is: the politician does not want A.

This last step requires clarification. Suppose that we know that by increasing taxes (A), the disposable income of the poor will be decreased (B). Then knowing that the politician doesn’t want the income of the poor to be decreased, the politician should not increase taxes. Then, assuming that no-one wants to do something he should not do (we are dealing with very rational agents here), it follows that the politician does not want A (‘–A’).

This ‘logic’ is consequentialist in nature. That is, you decide whether to perform a certain action (A), by looking at its consequences (B). In case you want B, you are good. In case you don’t want B (–B), then – by modus tollens – it follows that you should not do A. Hence you don’t want A, giving –A. This logic is of of course very strict; it follows absolute rules, axioms or principles. Hence it might be suited best to model a moral system that is equally strict. Think about Kantian ethics. On the other hand, a system like utilitarian ethics might be better modelled by a different mathematical model.

Let’s dive a little deeper into the working of this moral logic. One way this logic might work is as follows.

(1) You start with a set of axioms; propositions you absolutely want, or absolutely don’t want to be the case:


(2) Next you look at the actions available, and the consequences these actions entail:

D –> A
D –> B
E –> C.

(3) Then you choose an action (in this case either D or E), which does not have any consequences you absolutely don’t want. In this case you should not choose D, for D –> B, and you have –B, hence –D. That is, according to the rules laid down, we don’t want D; hence the only option that remains is E.

Of course, this ‘logic’ does not obey all the regular rules of logic; for instance, it does not obey the rule of modal logic that the two modal operators can be expressed in terms of each other – we don’t even have two modal operators. But still, by applying the very simple rules laid down above, applying this logic can be helpful. I find this logic particularly valuable in analysing arguments used in political decision making, for politics is a prime example of the interplay between actions (the antecedent of our material conditional) and normative consequences (the consequences).

The above logic can be extended to take into account degrees of preferences. You could make a hierarchy of consequences, with consequences higher at the hierarchy being morally superior to those below, so that – in case you have more than one action to choose from – you should choose the one having the consequences highest in the hierarchy. This would also suit Artificial Intelligence very well.

What do you guys think of the moral logic?

Feelings of Shame: Biologically or Socially determined?

We’ve all had it. That feeling of being deeply disappointed in yourself. That feeling of knowing that you’ve done something wrong, even though you might not know exactly what. I’m talking of course about the feeling of shame. But what is shame? Is it nothing but a chemical response our bodies tend to have towards “embarrassing” situations? And if so, how do our bodies decide between embarrassing and non-embarrassing situations? And what role does our social context play in determining our feelings of shame?

Like any feeling, shame has developed to increase our procreation chances. If we wouldn’t feel any shame, we might have never become the social creatures that we are. Imagine that you would be a caveman hunting with your fellow cavemen. While you’re sitting in the bush, you decide to attack a very angry looking bear, even though the leader of the group explicitly told you not to do so. If you wouldn’t feel bad – feel “ashamed” – about this situation afterwards, there would be nothing to prevent you from doing this “stupid” behavior again. In other words: there would be nothing withholding you from endangering you and your group members again. Sooner or later you would end up being banned from the tribe or dead.

This example might be a oversimplification of the actual workings of our “shame mechanism”, but it should do the job in explaining how our tendency to feel shame has come about. Millions and millions of years of evolution have weeded out those not feeling shame; ending up with a population in which (almost) anyone has the ability to feel shame.

However, while our ability to feel shame is biologically determined, the content of our feelings of shame – that is where we feel ashamed about – is for the biggest part socially determined. And the reason for that is simple: if the content of our feelings of shame wouldn’t be socially determined, they would always lack “environmental relevancy”. What do I mean that? Well – to return to the example of the cavemen – if we would be biologically “tuned” to experience shame whenever we let our fellow hunters down while chasing an angry looking bear, this would imply the requirement a great deal of likewise shame mechanisms to prevent us from doing anything shameful/harmful in life. And because our society is ever-changing – at least a faster pace than our biological makeup – we would always remain tuned to a historical environment; an environment not relevant in sifting the fit from the weak in today’s world. That’s why the ability to feel shame is biologically determined, but the instances that trigger our feelings of shame come about (mainly) through our social context.

There are, however, some aspects of life more important in determining one’s procreation chances than others. The most prominent of course being our sexual capabilities. This could explain why sex seems to take such a prominent position in the whole realm of of areas we could be ashamed about; sex related events simply tend to have a more profound physical effect on us than non-sex related events. This might be why people have the tendency to feel ashamed about their weight, looks, sexual experience, sexual orientation etc.: all of these have – or have had in the past – a significant effect in determining one’s procreation chances.

These are my thoughts on the issue; what are yours?

Why People with OCD Give Into their ‘Irrationalities’

I have got OCD. That is to say: I have intrusive thoughts flying into my head, which create anxiety, sparking in me the urge to perform certain actions (‘compulsions’), that relieve me of the anxiety. What kind of thoughts am I talking about? Well, it’s hard to explain. Fore example: whenever I touch something, let’s say a book, I have to have a certain ‘image’ in mind – usually of someone I look up to. Also, I have to do the ‘touch-don’t touch’ ritual a certain number of times. Not any number of course! No, only the numbers that ‘are right’. This is not an exact science, but the numbers are always even (unless it’s one, which is always good!), but not any even number will do…Makes sense right?

Is this weird? Absolutely. Would I die if I wouldn’t give into the urges? Absolutely not. Why then do I do it? Am I stupid? Or to put it differently: is it irrational to give into these urges?

My first response would be: ‘Yes, this is very irrational.’ I perform certain actions which don’t add any value to my life. It is not like baking a cake, washing your car or taking a shower: activities that actually provide you with some sort of tangible effect. But it is even worse that: because besides the fact that my compulsions don’t add any value, they actually take (an awful long) time and energy. So actually it is very stupid to give into the urges. So why then do I do it? Am I stupid?

Well, it is actually very easy to explain…to those who smoke. If you are a smoker, you, after let’s say two hours of not-smoking, feel the urge to smoke. If you don’t give into that urge, you will get nervous, irritable, you cannot focus, and more. You know that smoking doesn’t add any value to your life; hell no, it’s even bad for you! Yet, even though you know this, you give into your urge to smoke, and take a cigarette. Why? Because in the short term, it’s the best thing to do. One more cigarette won’t harm you that much, while not taking the cigarette does harm you significantly – you get nervous, irritable, and you cannot put your mind to those issues you want to focus on, etc.

It’s the same with OCD. Let’s say I touch a book and put it away. Then I feel the urge to do this with a ‘good image’ in mind. Not giving into the urge makes me feel like there is a lock on my brain, like my cognitive capacities are severely limited, like I cannot think clearly (sounds familiar smokers?). This feeling is so unpleasant, that – even though I know it won’t add any value in the long term (if will even detract value due to the time and energy it takes) – I do the compulsion to get rid of the unpleasantness.

Furthermore, just like smoking, OCD is addictive. You either don’t do it, or you do it big time. For if you give into the urge, the urge will become stronger, and it will be harder to resist. But in case you don’t give in, the urge will get less and less. But in order not to give in, you have to resist the unpleasantness of the moment, and – as I explained above – that always seems the sup-optimal option.

But back to the question I asked at the start: is it irrational to give into the urges? Especially given that I know it won’t add any value to my  life? I say – and I have been ridiculed for this by my psychiatrist – it is not irrational. Because at each point in time, not giving into the urge leaves me with a bad feeling: an unpleasant feeling, a restriction on my thinking, that I don’t want. This feeling can literally last for hours, or even an entire day. Giving into the urge clears me of this bad feeling. And – even though the activity takes time and effort – that takes much less time and energy than that the negative feeling makes me feel bad. The only problem is that I know that, within now and a couple of seconds after having given into the urge, the next urge will be there, to which I will have to give in again…

Welcome inside of the mind of someone with OCD.

What do you think: is it utterly irrational to give in to the urges? Or would you say that – given the short term relief of the negative feeling – it is actually a rational thing to do?

Depression: Thinking Too Much and Doing Too Little

Why do dogs never appear to be depressed? Why do they always seem to be happy, no matter what it is they are doing? Well, the answer might be very simple: because they are always doing.

Dogs are always involved in one activity or another. They always got their little heads occupied with all kinds of biologically induced juices – whether they (consciously) know it or not. And it is because they’re always ‘busy’, doing whatever seemingly irrelevant activity it is they’re doing, that they are happy. It’s because they’re always busy, that they feel the effects of that constant stream of dopamine, rewarding them for their evolutionary beneficial action: the act of acting itself.

Not acting frees the mind from the duty to allocate resources to the execution of actions. However, the mind cannot simply do nothing. In fact, doing nothing – as in thinking about nothing – might be one of the hardest things to do for the brain. And that’s what you expect, right? After all, not thinking about anything can hardly be beneficial to our – and therefore our brain’s – survival. While we’ve got our brain, it’s better to use it, than to let it be idle, like an empty fridge waiting to be filled with postponed protein-intakes. That’s why the brain will do anything in order to try to be busy, even if there are no actions it has to be focused at. It is at those moments that the brain ‘thinks’ it is good idea to use this ‘break’ to think about your worries, your goals in life, your purpose and other fundamental questions. And it is at these moments that your mind explores the deepest purposeless of life, and triggers the feelings of depression that haunt us.

So – in case we want to get rid of the seemingly unproductive (and surely depressing) reflections on life – we must keep the mind, and therefore the brain, busy. We have to make sure that there’s no time – or no capacity – for it to become filled with soul-searching thoughts. Because although a little soul-searching might be good, and might point us to what it is that we should do with our lives, too much of it inevitably results in feelings of purposeless and depression. Hence it is only by being busy, by avoiding boredom and by don’t risking to become drowned in the most existential questions of our being, that we can live a  ‘happy’ life. It is only then that we can unleash the dopamine flows triggering those feelings of happiness we’re longing for. Or, to return to the fridge, it’s only by filling the fridge to the maximum, that we feel it is a worthwhile investment.

But what do you think?

Note: this article has been published at Rod Peek’s “Finding Personal Peace“.

Getting Addicted to Cigarettes…on Purpose

This might be one the stupidest articles you’ve ever read. My apologies for that.

Four months ago, I decided to start smoking. Why? I don’t know. Probably a combination of factors: I was fascinated by the series Californication, in which the main character (Hank Moody) smokes. Although it is sad to admit, it might be that watching him smoke sparked my curiosity about why it is people grab to cigarettes. Also, I have always been wondering whether smoking is primarily a physiological addiction (an addiction of the body) or a psychological one (an addiction of the mind). I could never understand why less than 25 percent of those who want to quit smoking, actually manage to do so. I always thought: if you want to stop, then you can stop. I mean: if you want to stop travelling by car, you can just stop taking the car, right? So given these ‘rational’ considerations, I decided to take up the cigarette, and start my journey of addiction.

Now, four months later, I have decided to stop. My little ‘experiment’ has provided me with the information I was looking for. I experienced what it is that makes you want to light up a cigarette. And, what I can say, it is more of a psychological addiction than a physiological addiction. It is the feeling of allowing yourself a break from what it is that you are doing. Also, the habit of smoking a cigarette every morning during your ‘morning walk’ gives you a clear signal that the day took off; a feeling as if the referee blew his whistle and the match has started.

However, I must admit that there are also physiological factors that make you want to grab a cigarette. In case you drink coffee (which is more likely than that you smoke), you can compare it to that longing for a cup of coffee to give your the energy you need to get through the day. And, as with drinking coffee, the first cigarette/cup of coffee gives the relative biggest ‘boost’; the relative biggest satisfaction in calming down your longing for nicotine/caffeine.

I’m not sure whether I have become truly addicted to cigarettes. I can only tell how I feel, and that’s what I’ve described above. And – since I’ve been drinking (much) coffee for the last couple of years, and I can fairly say that I’m addicted to caffeine – I think my smoking adventure will have likewise effects. Probably, even though I ‘quitted’, I’ll keep (at least for a while) on having that same longing for cigarettes as I have for coffee. I wonder which impulses will be tougher to handle: the psychological or the physiological. I am curious, and a little anxious, to find out.

What do you think?

The Life of a Twenty-something

Most of the people that are in their early twenties seem to have no clue what profession to choose. They appear to be lost in the vast range of opportunities that they have to choose from. But why is that these ‘twenty-somethings’ feel this way? And how might they solve this issue?

From Stability to Instability back to Stability
Let’s start by taking a general perspective on the life of a twenty-something (being: a person who is in his twenties). The issue of what occupation to choose is by no means the only issue the twenty-something has to deal with. In general the following statement holds: as a twenty-something you are part of a transition-phase in life; a transition from stability, through instability, back to stability.

For the first part of her (I will say ‘her’ instead of ‘him/her’) life, the twenty-something-to-be did not have the freedom to choose whatever she believed was best. Or at least not concerning ‘big’ matters. It were the parents that took the decisions for her. They were the ones deciding what kindergarten, primary school, high school and – in some cases even – university she would attend. Also, within each of these institutions, the space to manoeuvre was limited. There were fixed programmes she had to attend. Resistance would have been futile, since her opinion was considered mostly irrelevant. The twenty-something-to-be was aware of her limited capacity to change the status quo, which made her suppress the need to reflect on the situation.

But it was not only regarding education that this (apparent) lack of control over her life had arisen. Decisions of where to live, what sports or musical instruments to play, and of course financial issues, were mostly if not exclusively handled by her parents. It was only when the twenty-something-to-be began attending university that freedom rose its head. And it is here that the trouble starts. Because even though freedom in itself is not what troubles the twenty-something-to-be, its counterpart – called ‘responsibility’ – is what makes her tremble. It is the responsibility for the consequences of her own actions that leaves her in a state of apathy. Now she has to take the decisions that up till that point in her life were made by everyone but her.

This phase of by times close to existential doubt ends when the twenty-something has gained long-term stability in her life again. Like being child, becoming a member of the working class implies the familiar presence of fixed rules and the limited need for self-reflection. Having made a choice of what occupation to pursue, and the act of actually pursuing this occupation, makes the twenty-something become immersed into a new institutional structure, making her rest in the faith of having found certainty after a very uncertain period in her life.

From Farmer to Professor
Back to the main issue. Many twenty-somethings appear to feel lost in the sense that they totally don’t know what profession to choose after finishing their studies. What more can we say about this feeling of ‘being lost’? The first thing we could notice is that this feeling appears to be a defining characteristic of what it means to be a twenty-something: it is a property that, by default, is present in any twenty-something’s set of basic characteristics. Given that it is a defining characteristic, it seems reasonable to assume that this feeling has been around forever. But this is not the case…

When I asked people in their fifties whether they knew what profession to choose when they were in their early twenties, they mostly replied negatively. However, when I asked the same question to my grandparents, they said the following: ‘Well, we didn’t really have a choice about what kind of job to do.’ My grandfather told to me that he grew up in a farmer’s family, and that from a very early age it was more or less ‘obvious’ that he would become a farmer himself. My grandmother, the eldest girl of thirteen children, was at the age of fourteen forced to quit her studies so that she could assist her mum in managing the ever-growing household. ‘But’, I asked my grandmother, ‘was there no-one in your family who attended university? ‘Yes, one of us did,’ she said, ‘He had the talent to do so.’ My grandmother assured me that this scarcity of university-attending students was very common among families in those days (70 years ago).

So it seems that the feeling of don’t knowing what profession to choose, as experienced by so many twenty-somethings today, is in fact a relatively new phenomenon. That is: until two generations ago this feeling wasn’t widely shared among twenty-somethings. And the reason for this is, as my grandparents explained, quite obvious: people didn’t effectively have a choice about what to do with their lives. I say ‘lives’ instead of ‘professional lives’, since also regarding other matters in life (religion and to a lesser extent marriage) the autonomy of twenty-somethings appeared to be limited. One could say that, in principle, my grandparents still had the option to deviate from what was expected of them. Assuming that they would have had the financial means to do so (which they didn’t), they could in principle indeed have done so. But in practice, given the social norms and values, they were either explicitly or implicitly discouraged from pursuing higher education or choosing a non-farming/housemaid job.

Nowadays the societies we grow up in are organized in a manner that is fundamentally different from the society of (let’s say) 70 years ago. Today, in contrast to two generations ago, the financial resources required for attending university are available to almost anyone who has the capacity and desire to attend university. Scholarships, government-funded studies, cheap loans and financially affluent parents are among the prime factors that have drastically reduced the chance of being unable to fund one’s higher education.

Next to a shift in the financing of studies, a society-wide ‘mental’ shift seems to have taken place. This is easily seen by taking a look at an arbitrary high school: a child who receives a certificate that allows him to pursue higher education is nowadays frowned upon if he decides not to do so. Whereas two generations ago a farmer-son would by default become a farm unless he had very good reasons not to do so, nowadays a farmer-son by default attends university unless he has very good reasons not to do so. This mental shift might be due to changes in our educational system. Today we have a system in which any child goes through a university-preparing teaching scheme, thereby maximizing their chance to attend university.

Note also that the financial- and mental shift might be interdependent: a shift in outlook towards children’s education might cause a change in educational funding, and vice versa.

Opportunities, opportunities, opportunities
But attending university is in itself no reason to become clueless about what kind of job to pursue. So explaining why it is that many more children today attend university than two generations ago does not explain why these people feel lost when reaching their twenties.

Although not a direct cause of ‘apathy’ among many twenty-somethings, one thing is for sure: pursuing higher education provides anyone with the potential to have more choices regarding what job to pursue. By attending university, the twenty-something knows that – without even looking at the labour market – she will be eligible for more occupations than she was before entering her studies. This fact implies that, when the twenty-something finally settles on a job, there will be more occupations (compared to her not having done her studies) she could have chosen but didn’t. It is the possibility that later on she might reflect upon her life and think ‘I could have chosen better’ that could be part of the explanation of the apathy among twenty-somethings. And since this possibility has increased over the last decades, so has the apathy among twenty-somethings.

Another consequence of higher education that isn’t necessary obvious is that over the course of her education the twenty-something’s interests might change; that is, the occupations/sciences the twenty-something found interesting before embarking on her studies, she might not find interesting anymore when she has finished her educational process. For example: she might finish her first year of university wanting to become a business-consultant, only realizing after finishing her second year (which included courses in philosophy) that she is much more passionate about philosophy. It is not the change in what she finds interesting that makes the twenty-something doubt about what kind of profession to pursue, as much as having experienced that whatever it is that she finds interesting can in fact change. And the idea that – as in education – she could choose a job that she likes now but possibly not anymore in the future increases her uncertainty regarding what job the choose.

Education is merely one of the factors making a twenty-something doubt her occupational choice; it is the part that transforms her from ‘the inside out’. Now, let’s take a look at how the outside world (i.e., the world external to the twenty-something’s mind and body) contributes to the doubts held by the 21st century twenty-something. There are a number of reasons due to the outside world because of which twenty-somethings nowadays have such a hard time choosing an occupation. First of all, because of the ever-increasing specialization, there are simply many more occupations she has to choose from than there were two generations ago. Whereas in the past there might not have been (many) alternatives next to becoming a farmer, nowadays there are literally thousands and thousands of occupations she has to (not only can) choose from, and each of these occupations is partitioned into many areas of specialization.

Also, because of globalization and the prominence of the internet, many barriers have been taken away that could have prevented the twenty-something from 20 years ago from doing whatever it was that she wanted to do. In other words: there is no excuse anymore for not starting a business or for not working at a big firm on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. There is nothing but her own courage to withhold her from pursuing her aspirations; a scary thought. To exemplify this, let’s return to the case of my grandmother. It was clear to her that, after assisting her mum, she would marry a farmer and take care of his household. She might not have liked having few – if any – options about what ‘job’ to pursue, but that was simply the way it was. A positive side effect from her having limited options was that she was ripped of the responsibility to decide what her future would (not) come to look like. It is in this sense that she might have been lucky, for she was saved from the daunting soul-searching journey so many twenty-somethings today are forced to go through.

I have mentioned the word ‘options’ more than once. I dare to say that most people believe that having options is a good thing. Certain philosophers even claim that autonomy (as in having the freedom to decide what one’s life goals are, how to pursue them and whether or not to actually pursue them) is intrinsically valuable. This is a conviction I do not necessarily share.

Like anything, having options becomes a problem if one faces too many options. And I believe this is the issue today’s twenty-somethings are facing. Specialization, the internet et cetera have drastically increased the number of career-options a twenty-something could fulfill; they have increased them to such an extent that she, being a rationally bounded creature (as any human being is), is both unable to overview all of them, let alone compare each option to each other option. Although impossible, the latter is required in order to make an optimal decision. After all, how can the twenty-something ever come to know whether she has made the best choice if she hasn’t considered/compared all options?

Next to there being too many options, there might be options that are incomparable. Why? Because the values they allow one to achieve are not ‘convertible to the same currency’. Think about the choice between becoming a charity worker or an investment banker. The first job might be better in terms of helping those who need help; the second might be better in terms of utilizing one’s intellectual capabilities. But which one of these criteria is most important, and why? And how much more important? These are questions that do not have an obvious (if any) answer.

Back to the claim that having options is not necessarily a good thing. Let’s return to the case of the farmer’s son. Given that the farmer’s son knows that he has no choice but to become a farmer, he is likely to never experience the regret (or the apathy caused by the prospect of regret) that today’s twenty-something faces. Nevertheless, when we analyse the farmer’s son situation, and come to see that his only ‘option’ is to become a farmer, we tend to feel sorry for him. It seems like having only one option is really not having an option at all, making his ‘choice’ to become a farmer look more like an act of coercion than an act of free will, contradicting the autonomy many of us find so valuable. However, due to this same lack of options, the farmer’s son will have no choice but to rest in his faith. He simply cannot do anything to alter his situation: he can only accept or resist his situation. He will accept his situation, because not doing so would decrease his happiness.

For today’s twenty-something it is (almost) impossible to rest in her faith, since, due to the autonomy has but the farmer’s son didn’t, she is faced with a never-ending string of opportunities. This makes it very difficult for her to be satisfied with any particular option. After all, it is very likely that, among all the opportunities out there, there is one that would be preferred to this one, if only she would find – or would have found – it. It is this observation that leaves her in a perpetual state of downgrading the options that are effectively available to her, and thereby her happiness. So even though the twenty-something of today has more autonomy than the farmer’s son of two generations ago, it does not follow that the twenty-something will be happier than the farmer’s son. In other words: more choices don’t necessarily imply more happiness.

In the last section we stumbled upon a non-trivial observation. Namely: because of the vastness of opportunities the twenty-something faces and her limited rational capacities to oversee all of them, rationality alone is not sufficient for the twenty-something to choose the ‘best’ option. It is after all impossible to compare all options, hence to know if – and when – she found the best option.

But even though it appears impossible to choose the best option, one thing is for sure: she has to make a decision. Even the decision not to pursue a career is a choice, and should therefore be compared against other options. Since it is impossible to compare all occupations in terms of how well they score on all relevant criteria (loan, chance to develop yourself etc.), the twenty-something has to make use of some sort of ‘selection device’, that pre-selects a subset of the set of all occupations. This is required to allow her to compare each member of this smaller set to each other (based on how well they fare with regard to the relevant criteria). By doing this, she might be able to find a ‘local maximum’: that is, the best occupation given this limited set of occupations. That is all she can hope for given the rationally limited creature that she is.

Assuming that she doesn’t want to randomly pre-select some occupations, the twenty-something has to determine the criteria she finds most relevant for composing this pre-selection. However, this course of action might prove to be unsuccessful, due to the incomparability of criteria (money versus altruism, for example). But this problem might be circumvented.

The answer to picking the criteria must come from something ‘non-rational’ or ‘irrational’ – although I find the latter term misleading, as I will explain later. The non-rational element, on the basis of which the twenty-something might be able to execute her rational machinery, should make clear on a very basic whatever she finds valuable and what not: that is, it should provide her with her most basic wants. These basic wants must come from a place within the twenty-something that holds the instantiating power to all her actions. Let’s call this place the ‘unconscious mind’.

But the unconscious mind’s instantiating power comes at a cost: it is inaccessible to the conscious mind. And since rationality resides within the conscious mind, neither is it accessible to rational deliberation. Now, although the unconscious mind is not accessible, its ‘output’ is. Its output is what we call ‘intuition’, and manifests itself through those inexplicable feelings of something just ‘feeling right’ or ‘feeling wrong’. Although our intuition doesn’t come with any reason for why it is that something feels good or bad, it does something that is at least as important: it provides us with the values we need to choose what we want. 

Intuition in practice
Since intuition is non-rational, it cannot communicate through thoughts: it communicates solely through feelings. But how should the twenty-something go about interpreting these feelings? How does she know what feelings will lead her in the right direction, whatever this might be, and which in the wrong direction? The answer is simple: through trial and error.

There are various reasons why trial and error seems to be the best, if not the only, way for the twenty-something to go about finding the (locally) best occupation. As I explained before, the twenty-something isn’t born with a fixed set of desires; nor with a fixed set of capabilities. Throughout her life, she, for whatever reason, might decide on developing certain skills (e.g., playing piano or mathematics), and, parallel to these developments, she will develop a corresponding level of affinity with practicing these skills.

Next to developing affinity, or ‘preferences’, for practicing certain skills, the act of practicing skills also shows the twenty-something her relative ability in practicing these skills. For example: someone who, after comparing her skills, finds herself to be relatively good in a certain subject area (e.g., mathematics). Then, after having looked at her own capabilities, the twenty-something can decide to look at how her abilities compare to those of others. Based on this observation, she can find out in what field she could potentially make the greatest contribution to society. This is obviously beneficial to society, but just as much to the twenty-something herself, for it is because of the fact that she knows that she does what she is best at – either in terms of her own skills or compared to others – that any negative feelings, that might result from questioning the usage of her capacities, will be minimized.

Furthermore, a nice feature of the twenty-something looking for her relatively best skill is that she is guaranteed to find one. Even those who are negatively minded are at least sure to have a least bad capability.

This observation naturally leads us to the following conclusion: the twenty-something has to engage in all sorts of activities or occupations in order to obtain her preferences for them. Because she lacks any absolute sense of what she likes most, she cannot a priori (that is, before undertaking any action) know what skill, and hence what occupation, suits her best. Given this conceptual background, it might be that her feeling of don’t-knowing-what-to-do is in fact an indicator of the fact that the twenty-something has spent too much time looking for this non-existent absolute preference ranking (‘soul-searching’, as one might call it), and too little time actually developing such preferences.This also leads us to what might be a solution to the twenty-something’s apathy. Namely: by engaging in different activities or subject areas, and developing various skills, the twenty-something creates as well as experiences her preferences towards the respective subject areas or skills. Hence this is the first step away from apathy.

‘But’, the twenty-something might ask, ‘how do I know when to stop the trial-and-error process?’ One can look at this process from an economical point of view: the act of finding a satisfying occupation is nothing but a cost-benefit analysis. Given the inevitable diminishing marginal utility of any effort put into the trial-and-error process, surely a point will be reached at which the twenty-something’s hope of finding the best occupation and her satisfaction with her currently preferred option cancel out. It is at that point that the truly best occupation, in terms of maximizing utility, has been found.

The rationality of being non-rational
We have established that rationality alone is not sufficient for the twenty-something to choose a satisfying occupation. In order to find such an occupation, a ‘non-rational’ component must be introduced: the unconscious mind. But somehow we seem to have difficulties with our choices being (at least partially) determined by a non-rational element.

It might very well be that, in this 21th world we’re living in, rationality is put on a pedestal, and everything non-rational is considered a source of errors, leading us astray from our objectives. We are taught to ignore our intuitions wherever possible; at least when there are ‘rational’ arguments at hand. This might be due to the fact that non-rational factors are beyond our control, thereby making us to some extent a slave to our feelings, thus decreasing our perceived autonomy. But you could ask yourself the question: what is the value of being in control if your ‘controlled’ life doesn’t cohere with your intuitions? What if letting go of control is required in order to explore the full range of opportunities, thereby unlocking the door behind which the realm of unexplored potential resides?

If any, the message of this article is that value cannot be rationally constructed. The ways through which we might achieve what we value can be rationally constructed, but the value itself comes from a domain that is distinct from any rational – or even conscious – part of ourselves. Although this might be difficult to accept for any person taught to think carefully about any choice in life, it is a prerequisite for embarking on the rational process: first you have to accept what you value in order to try and set out a path to reach that which you value.

So one could say that being non-rational, to a certain extent at least, is a prerequisite for being rational. If you don’t allow yourself to act on non-rational impulses, you have no basis on which to cast the rational power, thereby excluding the possibility of doing that which you might value. And isn’t that what we all want to do? To do what we value? If so, we might as well embrace the non-rational, or even stronger: claim that it is rational to be irrational. 

In this last section I want to focus at another potential source of uncertainty for any twenty-something: love. Being in-between the period of life in which love was yet unable to be experienced, and the part in life in which love is deemed to be a relic of the past (or ‘has changed into mutual compassion’), there is this period in which the twenty-something is likely to feel the need to find a future life partner.

But what is love? What characteristics does the twenty-something’s future partner need to have? Are the negative aspects of the relationship she is currently in likely to fade away over time? Or are they are structural component of the chemistry she is (not) having with her current partner? And how to distinguish between the two? If she would end the relationship now, would it leave her forever with a feeling of deep regret for having let this opportunity pass by? Or will it – in retrospect – proof to be a milestone on her way to finding that perfect partner with whom she will spend the rest of her life?

These are questions that any twenty-something is likely to ask herself at a certain point in time. It seems to be the case that most people get married around the age of 30, often being the culmination of a relationship that has been underway for at least a couple of years. A quick calculation shows that, assuming the latter to be true, the twenty-something should meet her life partner not much later than the age of 25. And the more this age approaches, the stronger becomes the twenty-something’s doubt about the status of her current relationship, or, if she doesn’t currently have a partner, the stronger gets the urge to find a potential life partner.

However, the great problem with any romantic relationship is that only in retrospect can be determined whether it has been a good decision to continue the relationship. It might be the case that, at this point in time, the twenty-something and her partner experience struggles that will grow larger and larger as time goes by. But the question of whether these struggles are merely obstacles to overcome on the road to living happily ever after, or that they are symptoms of a profound mismatch between the two, is impossible to answer up front. Here too it seems that only intuition can guide the way, since the experiences that could provide the twenty-something with the relevant information lie in the future, and are thus (for now; the moment we’re always living in) beyond her experience.

The Ego and The Id: Beauty and The Beast

There it is again: that feeling of purposelessness. What to do about it? I might go on with whatever it is that I’m doing right now, hoping that the feeling will eventually fade away. But I know that that won’t help: it never does. Or I might try to grab some sleep and possibly feel fresh and productive again when I’ll wake up. But I don’t want to waste my precious little time on this planet sleeping just to get through the day. I might go read something, and possibly become inspired by some great stories. But there’s not that much interesting stuff around to read, at least not much that really gets down to the core of where it’s all about. So, what choices do I have left? Not many. So I guess I just have to face the feeling head on. Get my head straight, figure out why it is that I have this feeling, and possibly – as in a therapeutic Freudian manner – calm down my unconscious drives by ‘channeling’ them through my Ego. The drives won’t leave by themselves, so it’s better to find a way to use them in a constructive fashion, than to suppress them and let them linger on in my life. So that’s what I’m trying to do by writing this article.

In a sense my entire blog is a quest to do just that: channel my uncontrollable and inexplicable drives by promising to give them what they want: answers. And even though my Ego knows that there are no answers, or at least no definite ones, my unconscious Id doesn’t know. My Id is retarded in the sense that I can’t think properly, given that it would be able to think at all. The Id is an iPhone you carry around all day and that starts beeping when a new message is received. And although you don’t want to listen to it, because you just want to go on with your life, you just can’t ignore whatever it might have to say. Because, although it might be smart, the Ego can’t set any goals. The Ego is like a calculator, calculating the most efficient route to whatever goal you might have. And this ‘whatever goal you might have’ is determined by the Id, the part of you that bases its decisions on evolutionary induced impulses, pushing you to the refrigerator and to the internet (if you know what I mean).

But what if they could work together? What if they could live happily ever after in harmony, dividing the mental labor as if Adam Smith was there to delegate it? That would be great: Beauty and The Beast working together. Beauty being so consciously aware of its environment, and the Beast just taking her wherever he wants to. Great, let’s do that!

What do you think?

We’ve Got You God!

Life is a joke. And a damn good one. If you were a God, and you would want to have a laugh, and you could create anything you’d want to, what would you do? What would you create? I know what I would do: I would create a world with little ‘things’ on it, give these things a limited capacity to think, and then just see what happens, just see what they will come up with. Just watch them running around. Each morning and evening I would take a look at them, look at how they deal with the situation I’d put them in. Watching them form alliances, working their asses off, fighting each other and thinking: thinking about why it actually is that they are there.

Think about it: if you would have to create an absolute absurd situation, and you would have unlimited powers to do so, what would you come up with? Probably not a series like Family Guy, right? No, you would strive for the best: for the most absurd thing you could come up with. After all, why would you create Family Guy, if you could create a world, put creatures on it, program these creatures so that they think they are able to discover the world’s secrets but – without most of them realising it – make them incapable of doing so. Maybe you would put a few ‘natural laws’ in order: the law of gravity, electromagnetism etc., or come up with a few ‘elements’ (protons, neutrons, electrons etc.) that make up everything in the creatures’ world, including themselves.

But you would never reveal everything: you would never explain the purpose behind all of it, because you don’t want the creatures to unravel the mystery you have created. There has to be a point at which their limited abilities fail. Them knowing about electrons and other irrelevant entities is okay, but having them know anything of real value would just spoil the fun. They shouldn’t get the feeling that they get it. Just enough for them to believe that they’re the most intelligent things that have ever walked ‘their’ earth. And just enough for them not to kill themselves in total despair.

But what if the creator has underestimated the little creatures? What if the creatures would be able to see through the facade? What if they would come to see that they’re part of one big joke? And what if they would even enjoy the the fact that they are part of a joke? That would spoil the fun for the omnipotent and ever joy-seeking creator, wouldn’t i? So he must make sure that they don’t come to believe that their lives are nothing but a joke: he must create enough misery in their lives to remind them that their pain is real. He must make sure that the minds of the creatures are occupied with impulses to stay alive, impulses telling the creatures what to do with their lives and how to run their societies. Everything to keep their thoughts away from the joke.

But we have got you God. You can quit playing now. Just take some rest and come back to us when you’ve a better one, okay?

But what do you think?