Practical Philosophy

Never Assume You Know Their Reason

One of the most valuable lessons I learned in my life was to stop assuming that I understood a person’s motivations for doing something. I used to think that the obvious (and usually malicious) motivation that I first came up with to explain another person’s behavior was probably theirs. That is, if someone was driving in a manner that frustrated me, it was because they were specifically trying to be a jerk to me. They wanted to make my life hard.

But I’m increasingly sure that that category of explanation is not just wrong, but never right. There are uncountable explanations for most behaviors we see people demonstrating. The frustrating driver may be distracted by their child in the back seat, or on the other end of the phone. Maybe they’re in a panicked mind state for one of more than a dozen reasons we could speculate about. Maybe they’re uncomfortable behind the wheel of their vehicle, or don’t really know all the relevant traffic laws and customs. Maybe they’re struggling mightily just to keep their vehicle operating in the manner it should and are unable to focus on their actual driving behaviors. Maybe they’re just really preoccupied with an appointment they’re driving from or to. And there are certainly more stories we could come up with.

The point isn’t that any of those specific stories are true, but that any of them are at least as likely as the story that they’re intentionally trying to sit in my blindspot, block me from passing, or swerving in a way I find disconcerting. In fact, most of the latter stories seem to be more likely than the one that they’ve intentionally chosen to make a special effort to ruin my day.

Assuming you completely understand the behaviors of another person is almost always stupid. People are complicated. They live rich, complete, independent lives totally divorced from the small fractions of time that their world collides with ours. How frequently do you intentionally act to thwart someone’s goals, to make their life harder or less pleasant? Do you think others do that more or less than you do? Why?

I’ve learned in the years since I first noticed this strange impulse to misunderstand, that most of the times that I came up with an explanation of why someone was doing something and checked my understanding with them, their reason was never the malice I’d assumed. Even allowing for the fact that people might hide actual malice in retrospect (either for the reason of further malice or self-delusion), people’s reasons for their actions aren’t usually malicious.

On the other hand, a gap in understanding is a common explanation of places where I mistakenly saw malice. It’s common that someone’s behavior was different than I wanted because they had knowledge I didn’t. To come back to our driver example, that she urgently needed to stop her child from putting something in his mouth that he shouldn’t might be the reason she changed lanes without as much care as she should have. Another possibility is that she was ignorant of something I knew that was relevant and true. In many states the law or custom is that you drive in the right lane on the highway, except to pass. Not all drivers know this.

The benefits of not assuming you understand someone’s motivations are many. The primary one is this: you see and understand the world with more accuracy and clarity when you don’t make up and treat as true things that aren’t verified. Ignorance papered over by a thin film of plausible explanations isn’t knowledge. It’s a delusion you’ve constructed.

Another big benefit to refraining from seeing malice you don’t know to be there is that it makes you a more patient, friendly, and kind person. How’s that? When you assume you understand someone’s reasons, and especially if you think them malicious, you’re short with them, and prone to lashing out at (what you perceive as) their malicious behavior toward you. When you assume nothing, you’re able to come to them with a patient, questioning curiosity. You’re also more likely to greet them as a friend, rather than an enemy. And to state the blindingly obvious, we’re nicer to our friends than our enemies.

It’s not easy to really internalize and operationalize this new way of relating to people. If you’re experienced with the art of finding a motivation to explain every action you see, you’ll need to allow yourself a lot of time and space to retrain in patience and allowing for the possibility that you don’t understand why someone is doing something. But you can learn to do it. I did.

When you know the value of assuming that you don’t understand someone’s reasons, it’s just a matter of time until you’re able to relate in a new way. Be patient; allow for possibilities you’ve never even considered. Slowly, you’ll see a shift. And your life will be better, and the world friendlier, as a result.

Practical Philosophy

The Difference Between Optimism and Delusion

Optimism has a bit of a rap against it. Too many people, my former self included, cast aside optimism as a sane perspective on life because they’re making a simple and obvious mistake: conflating optimistic delusion with optimism itself.

I raise this not to make the pedantic linguistic point — I assure you I refer to no dictionaries. Nor an impotent philosophical one — I hate those. But I think there’s an important thing that past-me and far too many people I know and have known in the past make regularly.

What is optimism?

Before we clarify why this error is hard and problematic, lets get on the same page about what optimism is and what value it has. Optimism isn’t seeing someone’s life ruined before you and telling them that it’s all part of God’s plan. That’s fatalism. Optimism isn’t seeing something bad happen to a friend and telling them it’ll surely work out for the best. That’s optimistic delusion.

Optimism is seeing a great building fall and being willing to envision and hope that a better one may eventually rise in its place. And optimism can include the willingness to help that brighter better building rise because you believe in its possibility.

The value of optimism is that you’re cultivating hope. Hope is great and powerful and so long as delusional certainty is kept in check, one of the primary drivers of every good thing that happens in the world. Without optimism, one typically reverts to either pessimism — the belief that things will most likely get worse — or a sort of fatalistic impotence — a belief that things can turn out good or bad but that it’s unlikely that anything you possibly do will have the least influence over it.

I hope you can understand without explanation why I think neither a constant fear for the worst or a cultivated sense of your personal impotence in the world is all that useful. But I’ve defended something like them before. The logic was that if I envisioned the worst, any improvement would pleasantly surprise (rather than inevitably disappoint) me. And this is what I’m driving at: what argument that was for pessimism was actually an argument against delusional optimism, not mere optimism.

And what of this “delusional optimism”?

Delusional optimism feels certain that things will improve. It feels certain that things can never go from bad to worse. Delusional optimism does not honor the crazy and terrible unpredictability of the world. Delusional optimism says that you’ll never have to visit the hospital to see your dying wife. Pure optimism just has hope that it won’t happen soon.

Delusional optimism makes your water heater breaking the day after you had a plumber in to fix your leaking kitchen faucet into a catastrophic rebuff of all that you believe. Optimism just sees that you’ll end up with a new kitchen faucet which is better than the old, and a new water heater that’s a bit more efficient and under a new warranty.

The answer: Optimism without the delusion

It’s not that optimism without delusion is easy. But it is the case that optimism is worth the effort, and delusion is a problem when it’s combined with anything, not just optimism. Understanding the difference between the two is important. Hoping for a bright future and feeling certain you will get one are not the same thing. But hoping for a bright future, and seeing that you do have some power to shape it is hugely valuable.

I wish you the ability to be optimistic. I wish that your optimism be free of delusion.


The Gap between the World We Want and the World We Have

Almost no one arises in the morning with a desire to wreak havoc in the world. (Psychopaths, not my enemies, are the reason I say “almost”.) And yet the world is very regularly judged “a mess”, even in places that no psychopath has been.

Most people believe in “the Golden Rule”. Many would testify to even higher intentions: not just setting out to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us”, but perhaps to help, to teach, to build, to encourage, to improve. So why is the world such a mess? Why do so many people feel, accurately, that they’ve been mistreated in some area of their life?

There is a gap — a profound, unmistakable gap — between what people, on reflection, profess to want to do in the world and what they typically do. What we do and what we wish that we would do are rarely the same thing.

Part of the issue is our myopia. We genuinely struggle to see that the world extends infinitely away from us, and our actions propagate throughout that infinity. We mistake the fact that we feel good about a situation for the fact that everyone feels good about it. Obviously when it’s a raucous party you’re throwing or a physical fight you won, there’s likely to be someone who validly feels exactly the opposite way as you about the exact same situation that has given you a high. And even in less obvious situations, it remain the case that every action can give rise to a huge array of opinion.

This myopia gives rise to a much more insidious problem: we can easily misunderstand what we’ve done; confusing ourselves into thinking we’re helping when we’re not. We venture into the world to make it better. On that path we find someone we perceive as making it worse. So we scold them bitterly in our strongest possible language and then feel righteous and certain that we really are making the world a better place, without the least regard for the ones we scold. In short, we become deluded about the real effects of our actions, missing the very real tumult they cause. We think ourselves correct and upstanding and blameless as we survey the discord we sow in our life.

Even if we avoid these pitfalls of myopia and delusion, we’re still not safe. The next peril is the hardest one to surmount. It’s the fact that the things we want to do and things we do are frequently at odds. Reconciling that difference is a life-long process.

Our patterns of behavior are deeply furrowed. You may know that your daily two-liter of soda is the cause of your large and embarrassing paunch. But then you order a pizza, break out the soda, and forget about the plan to cut back.

The only medicine that works against these patterns is awareness. You can’t start to correct the problem until you’re aware of it. And when you’re aware of it, you have to stop yourself from surrendering to a feeling of powerlessness as you see the gap between how you’d like to act and how you do.

The gap between the world we have and the world we want is large. The first, most important, step is realizing that the gap exists. From there, we travel with our awareness down the path of slow and continuous recognition that the gap will not narrow without us making a daily and small effort to change it.