Are you persisting in ignorance?

Richard Feynman. A.K.A. the Great Explainer.

He got that name for a good reason. He was considered to be a phenomenal teacher. One who could make the complex simple. He came up with the Feynmann Technique. A thinking tool that allows you to assess and improve your understanding of any topic. And amongst other memorable things, he said this:

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

​But how do you do that? How do you know when you’re fooling yourself? Are there any ways in which you can detect when you’re pulling the wool over your own eyes? In short, yes. But before we go any further, a definition of “fooling yourself” might be useful. Here’s the definition I propose:

You are fooling yourself when you persist in ignorance, despite the truth being readily available. When you consciously enforce a disconnect between reality and it’s representation in your mind.

Now, methods for un-fooling yourself.

Perhaps the easiest way is to externalise your thinking. Either in writing, with images, or in conversation. Making your implicit thought process explicit forces you to line everything up. The inconsistencies become easier to detect. Both by you and by others who see the externalisation of your thinking.

If you have a complex idea, try writing it down. From it’s beginning to it’s end. A fuzzy exposition indicates an incomplete grasp of the material. It is in those situations, where you don’t understand the full picture, that you are likely to be fooling yourself.

Another sign that you’re fooling yourself is the refusal to consider certain ideas or actions. The fear or anxiety that considering these ideas provoke indicates there’s something uncomfortable ahead. Something you don’t want to confront. Something that might illuminate how you are deceiving yourself.

You could listen to what people say. Not just anyone though. Just the people who have a vested interest in your success and happiness. If they tell you you’ve got it wrong, listen. Because they are outside observers to your situation, they will see it with more objectivity than you. When you’re hoping to eliminate illusions, cold, hard objectivity is what you need.

Yet another way is by asking yourself a question. “Am I still seeking expansion?” Are you meeting new people? Are you hunting down new ideas and fresh perspectives? Are you putting yourself in unfamiliar situations and having new experiences? If you’re not, you may be paralysed by the possibility of uncovering a self-inflicted fraud. Of stumbling upon new evidence which makes your current beliefs untenable. So to mitigate that possibility, you shrink away from life and remain where you are, as you are.

The final way is to deconstruct your beliefs and re-build them. Let’s say that you believe that success is based upon luck. That those who have accomplished a lot were blessed by fortune. There’s a lot of constituent elements to that idea.

For one, you need a definition of success. Aswell as a definition of luck. You cannot have a belief without an understanding of what the words that make up that belief represent to you. You’d also need supporting evidence. Examples from your own life where that belief is affirmed. And examples from history and other people’s lives too. You’d also need evidence that opposes the contrary position. You’d need material that refutes the idea that success is based upon hard work and skill. 

After examining the basic elements of a belief independently, you recombine them and see if the structure holds together.

Five ways to discover if you’re fooling yourself: Externalise your thinking. Look out for a refusal to examine certain ideas and actions. Listen to what people are telling you. Check that you’re still seeking expansion and growth. And finally, deconstruct and rebuild your beliefs.

Yet, you can do all those things and still, it might not be enough. Why? Because they’re useless without intellectual courage. Intellectual courage is the willingness to confront opinions, ideas and beliefs that conflict with your own. It is the ability to keep moving in the face of uncertainty.

​It doesn’t matter how much evidence piles up against you. Without intellectual courage you’ll never admit you’re wrong. Or even consider it.