The Active Mind

The Active Mind

There are three kinds of actions that mark a person as having an active mind.

1. You look beyond the obvious options and the obvious explanations to make sure you’ve got the full picture.

2. You do the introspective work to make your own values explicit, especially when you experience internal conflict.

3. You find another way to gain and keep your values when the first attempt or the nth attempt doesn’t work out.

Why not settle for the obvious?

Going with the obvious options or obvious explanations is the simplest, easiest thing to do. The obvious choices are often the best choices. So why not save yourself a lot of bother and just accept the obvious?

The answer lies in the meaning of “obvious.”

Obvious is a psychological term. Something is obvious when it is easily seen or understood. But whether it is easily seen or understood depends entirely on your psychological state, specifically, the knowledge and value context that has been activated at this moment.

For example, suppose you are out of work and have gotten a reasonable job offer, it might seem obvious to take it rather than keep looking. There will be many immediate, obvious advantages.

But the top-of-mind issues are likely your shrinking bank balance and bills coming due. Those have a way of screaming for attention when you are out of work. It makes sense that you feel fear. But that fear is designed to focus you on threats, not values. There may be other important values that need to be factored into the decision, which are out of awareness because you are so focused on the threats.

This came up for real in a recent Launch. A Launcher was unhappy with his job. He realized that he had settled for the first one that came along even though it didn’t support his long-term goals. He wanted to quit (the obvious solution to being unhappy with the job), but he was afraid the next job wouldn’t be any better. During Launch, he got some coaching to help him identify his non-obvious values and figure out a plan that would achieve his financial and career goals. And then he took the scary, uncomfortable, non-obvious steps to implement it. I’m happy to say he found several terrific opportunities and made a smooth transition to his dream job.

To be clear, you don’t challenge the obvious because of some vague possibility that there might be a better option or a different explanation. You challenge it because you know, with certainty, that you have not yet taken an extra step to make sure you don’t have any relevant knowledge that would contradict the “obvious” conclusion. You proactively take that extra step to check the obvious. This can be done relatively quickly.

How can you not know your values when you are in conflict?

Often when you check the obvious, what you’re checking for is value information that was not top of mind. You introspect to make sure you understand why a choice seems right. This is particularly important if you are in any kind of conflict. In that case, it is not necessarily obvious which of your values are relevant.

By conflict, I mean internal conflict — a state in which you are motivated in two different directions. It might be toward or away from the same object, such as when you resist doing something that in theory you want to do, or you are tempted to do something that in theory you don’t want to do. Or it might be you are being pulled in two different directions. You want to go out and socialize but you also want to stay home and rest.

All emotions are caused by awareness of a value at stake, i.e., a value that will be gained or lost, protected or harmed, depending on the action you take right now. It is the awareness of the value and the path to pursue it that causes the impulse to act. If you are in conflict, it is a conflict between your values.

But it doesn’t usually appear that way. The values are frequently in the fringes of awareness, not the center of attention. Specifically, if you are experiencing threat-oriented emotions like aversion or guilt, they will draw your attention to the threats, not to the values threatened. A threat-orientation often puts you into conflict, because you see yourself in a lose-lose situation.

For example, if you are tempted to eat cake when you’re on a diet, it’s lose-lose. If you eat the cake, you suborned your integrity, and will feel guilt. If you don’t eat it, you don’t get the pleasure of the cake, and you’ll feel deprived. This part is obvious. What’s not obvious is why this is coming up at all. Why are you tempted to eat the cake in the first place? Why do you want that comfort?

If you’ve learned anything about introspecting emotions, you know you need to rewind the tape to a few minutes earlier when you first started craving cake. What was going on then? Typically, you were in some very difficult situation completely unrelated to integrity or comfort.

The last time this happened to me, I had been in internal conflict over meeting a deadline. In hindsight, I was discouraged that I would be late. It was so painful that ways to avoid that pain spontaneously started occurring to me. Since I am partial to cake, that grabbed my attention and successfully distracted me from the pain I was feeling over potentially missing a deadline. But the conflict was not really about the cake and the diet. It was about the deadline, and my values concerning that.

Conflict often involves a bait-and-switch like this. Eating cake could bring me some temporary comfort, but it would not address the real issue. It would hurt, not help, with the deadline. To know what the real issue is, and therefore what step is in your rational self-interest, you need to introspect all of the values at stake.

Clarifying your values does not mean second-guessing yourself. It means proactively ensuring that all of your emotional pushes and pulls have been explained sufficiently, especially in their intensity, so you know exactly what is motivating you to act as you do. That doesn’t happen by default.

What if it is literally impossible to gain and keep a value?

You need to know the values at stake because the rationally selfish thing to do is to act to gain and keep them. If you run into an obstacle, you will need to find a way to course correct so that you can still gain and keep them.

This often takes creativity because an obstacle seems insurmountable. For example, suppose you want a raise, you asked your boss, and he said “No.” Isn’t that the end of the story? No, that is just a plot twist.

The three things to remember are:

1. There are no necessary conflicts between your values — if they are rational.

2. If you determine that a concrete is literally impossible to gain and keep, it is no longer rational to value that concrete.

3. A deep rational value can always be gained by an alternate path if one concrete path is impossible or impractical.

This is a big topic, but the short version is: people often get concrete-bound in thinking about their values. They see only one way to make more money (get a raise) when there are thousands of ways they could make more money. Or they see only one way to resolve an interpersonal conflict (to have the other person change) when there are many possibilities for resolving the conflict. When the one way gets blocked, they think there are no other options.

It’s more complex when you lose someone you love because a person can be an irreplaceable value. But one way you honor that person is by celebrating the relationship you had, while continuing to seek out and and gain the kinds of values you lost when they died.

All of this takes a special pro-activeness to look beyond the loss and the pain of loss. It takes extra work to process those emotions and remind yourself that all is not lost. You can always gain your top values, because there are always other ways to gain any rational value if it’s important enough to you.

What it means to have an active mind

You can see by these three cases what it means to have an active mind. You do not just take as a given the ideas that occur to you, or the motivation that gets triggered, or the obstacles that block forward action. You always look further. You use your whole mind to make sure you’ve held the full context so that you know your motivation is based on your conscious convictions. You take advantage of everything you’ve got to find alternatives for forward progress when you have a setback. You do not just accept what happens; you accept the facts, but you then create the opportunities to go after your values, whatever the facts.

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