Start anew, two kinds of decision making, and collectivist culture
Happy Fourth of July! I’ll share three things with you in this edition.
I was intending to publish one letter every week, alternating between this one you’re reading, and another one in Chinese, but I missed it last time.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming or even shaming myself. Or glorify it with an excuse to make me feel better.
There is no need to do any of that. Simply begin again.
As Sam Harris says,
Everything you’ve done or not done is now just a memory, and everything you’re telling yourself about the future is a half truths at best. This present moment is your opportunity—your only opportunity—to connect with your life, and that will always be the case.
So beginning again is the essence of the path of the practice. It’s the step by which we surmount every embarrassment, indignity, and disappointment in life. Rather than dragging around the corpse of the past, we are free to live this next moment, as though it were new. Because it is.
The Art of Decision Making
When I met old friends in China, I found it challenging to fully explain why I left my job.
“So you just want to have time to rest? Why not take an extended leave?”
“But you don’t know what you’ll be doing next. Why not explore what you want to do while maintaining your job which already gives you plenty of free time?”
“Does writing cover your living costs? Would it earn as much as your software engineering job?”
I came to realize that the decision could not be logically argued, let alone convincing others.
It should have been obvious. Last year I took a course by Shane Parrish called Decision By Design. The course is great — I learned so much about rational thinking and putting decision theory into practice. But it was awkward to apply to my life choices.
There might be two kinds of decisions, as I learned from a New Yorker article The Art of Decision Making.
Decision theory, or what pros refer to as “decision“, is more about maximizing existing values. This makes sense — for corporate leaders, the goals are clear, and they need a set of tools and lenses to tackle complex problems. For them it’s crucial to obtain the right information, identify the most important problem, and employ tactics such as “working backwards“ and assessing the worst-case scenario. It’s the process that matters.
But life choices are less about maximizing known values, and more about aspiring for the values we hope one day to process. It’s less about what we want to do, and more about who we want to be.
An example would make it clear.
Suppose that you sign up for a classical-music-appreciation class, in which your first assignment is to listen to a symphony. You put on headphones, press Play—and fall asleep. The problem is that you don’t actually want to listen to classical music; you just want to want to.
The idea of aspiring explained why I struggled to give convincing explanations for my decision, only superficial ones like needing time for myself and reorienting my life. I cannot attest to my reasonings because I haven’t attained the outcomes or values. I simply aspire to live a different life.
This idea comes from Agnes Callard, a philosopher at the University of Chicago. She has written a book called Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming.
Collectivist vs Individualist Culture
Part of my reverse culture shock in China is that almost everything is about groups — family, community, or other people around. It’s a cultural undercurrent.
How do people persuade a kid to have more vegetables? “Look, your best friend is enjoying the broccoli.”
Want to stop people from violating traffic laws? Display the license plate numbers of offending vehicles on a big screen.
When asked to share their personal feelings after a concert, people tend to talk about us. (e.g. “As inspired by the music, let us not forget the little moments in life.“)
I happen to be reading a brilliant (but difficult) book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky which touches upon this topic.
Mothers in collectivist cultures spend more time than individualist mothers soothing their child, maintaining contact, and facilitating contact with other adults….
If playing with her child with, say, a toy car, the point is not exploring what a car does (i.e., being automobile), but the process of sharing (“Thank you for giving me your car; now I’ll give it back to you”)…
Show the cartoon of the school of fish, and the fish out front must have done something wrong, because no one will play with him [rather than perceiving the fish as the leader as for individualist].
I tend to underestimate the difficulty to change one’s behavior — “If the social norms don’t serve you, ignore them and prioritize your own needs”. But studies showed these cultural influences run deep to an automatic level.
For example, show a picture of a person standing in the middle of a complex scene. East Asians will be more accurate at remembering the overall scene, the context, while Westerners remember the person in the middle.
What’s more striking is the behavior can be observed on the level of eye tracking — their eyes automatically focus on different things. And when force Westerners to focus on the whole scene or East Asians to the central object, the frontal cortex works harder.
Wow, even changing small behavior like this takes effort.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, I’d really appreciate it if you share it with a friend or two.
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Have a great week,
p.s. what I’m doing now.