Core Beliefs

I’ve spent a few years analyzing and dissecting my thoughts, opinions, and observations in order to distill them down to what I call Core Beliefs: mental models for how I believe the universe works.

It is important here to make the distinction between core beliefs and core values. Beliefs, which provide a model for how things function, are upstream of values, which describe how one might with the knowledge of how things function. Thus, these beliefs do not describe my personal ethical code, but rather merely provide a description of how I think the world turns.

The beliefs that follow are, of course, my truth, and my truth alone, but I hope that putting them to the page may provide context for my other writings and opinions, and perhaps inspire others to develop their own set of Core Beliefs.

The further you zoom out, the less things matter

This one started more than five years ago with a mantra I often cited: “nothing matters“. It was undoubtedly my most infamous belief and was maligned by many friends. The utterance was — on its face — a farce; purposefully absolute as to be almost ridiculous.
 
I acknowledged this, of course. Nothing matters was never meant to be taken literally — it existed as a humility counter to most people’s persistent belief that their current causes/worries/problems/goals/dreams were world-changingly important.
 
Slowly, I developed an idea of how these words could carry their weight without the absolutism. I started to realize that importance followed a simple scale: for any given person, the things affecting their current field of vision and thoughtspace mattered most, diminishing relatively linearly with distance.
 
Therefore, by choosing our zoom level, we can focus on what really matters in any given situation. By zooming in, we can see that the issues near to us are most important — friends, family, local community… one could even argue that consciousness itself, the experience most proximal to us, is the only thing that actually matters.
 
The man wracked by irrational fear when reading news about terrorist attacks overseas would do well to zoom in and look at the actual amount of danger he experiences in his community.
 
The woman paralyzed by anxiety about how much others care about her stumbling over a word in a presentation, or showing up to a party with a stain on her shirt, would do well to zoom in and focus on what matters to her and her alone.
 
Of course, there are other situations in which it is more important to zoom out. Most complaints could be resolved if the person would see the wider perspective that their problem concerns more than just them:
 
The man who complains about potholes in his neighborhood, but never stops to consider that his city might have limited resources and neighborhoods across town with potholes that are much worse, is guilty of not zooming out.
 
The woman who complains that the developers of her favorite piece of software won’t add a feature that solves her pressing need, while not considering that there are thousands of users just like her, all with their own pressing needs, is guilty of not zooming out.
 
Overall, the further you zoom out, the less things matter is a reminder that the Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. While we concern ourselves with affairs of state, these daily quibbles pale before the impending heat-death of the universe. If we are so small in the grand scheme of things, why worry at all?

Everything is cyclical

The unchanging nature of the human psyche means that we constantly re-enact the same patterns throughout history. Everything that is happening now has happened before, just with different names and a different face.

History generally repeats itself, and humans rarely learn from their mistakes. If you want to predict the likely outcome of a current event, look at its closest historical corollary.

Despite many deep teenagers moaning that they were born in le wrong generation, every decade has seen the same cycles repeated over and over: Before Justin Bieber, there was Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Before Selena Gomez, there was Britney Spears.

The older generations will always complain about those that come after, discounting the fact that their grandparents complained about them. Old-timers complained about young people reading newspapers just like they complained about young people using cell phones.

Throughout history, people were not innately better, worse, or really any different than they are now. Teenagers rebelled and old people complained about it. The groups on top of the status hierarchy exploited those on the bottom.

You attract who you are

If you want to know who someone really is, look at the people that surround them.
 
Human beings are programmed into adulthood to “cast a play” with their childhood traumas, seeking out friends, romantic partners, even business partners, to validate the various unmet needs of their psyche. The person that can’t stop attracting partners with personality disorders likely needs to look inwardly for the source, not outwardly for a solution. This type of attraction, of course, isn’t always 1:1. Certain personality types attract to form unequal relationships: the gullible attract the exploitative, the codependent attract the addicted.
 
In romance, the laws of karmic attraction are rarely broken. Those who want to attract better-looking partners need not to look for that one weird trick, but rather work on their own attractiveness. And if you see a couple with a large gap in attractiveness in the wild, there’s likely something going on that you’re not seeing. As much as we like to believe we’re above high school cliques, this axiom extends even to adult relationships: The hipsters attract the hipsters, the fuckgirls attract the fuckboys, and the freaks attract the freaks.
 
In many situations, this belief should also be framed as a positive. If it didn’t work out with someone you were pursuing, be it a potential romantic partner, business partner, friend, or other type of relationship, you should be grateful for the time saved, as it likely wasn’t meant to be. 

There are no solutions, only tradeoffs

 
Many seem to make decisions under the misconception that there are no negative consequences: a single decision leads to a single result, and that is that.
 
In reality, every decision comes with a tradeoff:  when one thing increases, another thing usually decreases. And even those with a basic understanding of decision theory often discount the most complex version of this tradeoff: opportunity cost, or what decision we could have otherwise made with the resources we used to make our actual decision. If I spend five hours fixing something I could have paid three hours worth of wages to fix for me, that’s a negative opportunity cost tradeoff.
 
Hyperbolic discounting leads us to make decisions based on immediate wins, and ignore potential negative tradeoffs that these could have in the future. Governments, corporations, and people that neglect the environment in favor of immediate profits and gratification are a perfect example of this.
 
Drugs operate under tradeoffs: we often think of only the positive effects of a certain drug, while ignoring the fact that drugs almost always downregulate certain receptors at the cost of the upregulation of others. There is no free lunch: the human body always returns to stasis.
 
The biggest offenders with respect to tradeoffs are politicians and their supporters, who rally around a policy touting only its positive effects, while failing to consider the opportunity costs or downstream effects of implementation: Raising the minimum wage sounds like a great policy until employers slash available jobs to cut costs. Rent control sounds like a great policy until landlords raise prices on new rooms to make up the difference. 
 
All in all, while there are certainly many decisions that are a net positive, there’s no free lunch: every decision should be evaluated as much by its potential negative consequences as by its positive ones.

Nothing is absolute

Nothing is absolute*.

On contentious political or social issues, those on either side tend to take a black-or-white stance, a psychological phenomenon is known as splitting. Yet this doesn’t match reality, which is filled with nuance (a saying I often utter is “Reality is painted with shades of grey”).

Almost nothing in life is absolute, yet absolute statements, and even absolute beliefs, are very common. Thus, my default value when evaluating anything is to look at both the black and the white equally, picking out the parts I agree and disagree with, my views almost always ending up somewhere in the middle.

*except for the statement “Nothing is absolute”.

Everything is signaling

 
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy
 
We are powerless before the sheer magnitude of our evolutionary biology. Previously, our hunter-gatherer ancestors showed off their prowess at hunting large game in order to attract potential mates — and thus spread their genes to the next generation.
 

The complex hierarchy of modern society has not changed this innate tendency: every action human beings take within a context of a social group is a subconscious attempt to ascend in the status hierarchy of their tribe. Every conversation, every opinion, every facial expression, every purchase of goods: it’s status signaling, all the way down.

Whenever I think about a generally-accepted social structure or phenomenon, I prefer to restate it under signaling theory:

Charity is more about signaling virtue and climbing social ladders than about helping.
Church is more about creating community connection than about God.
Art is more about displaying one’s health, access to resources, and dedication to a task than about insight.
Medicine is more about displaying one’s altruism and expertise than about health.
Consulting is more about paying a third-party to tell you something you already know than about good advice.
School is more about showing off intelligence, work ethic, and conformity, than about learning.
Research is more about maintaining status in the scientific community than about progress.
Politics is more about tribal warfare than about actual policy.

(Of course, one need only read “nothing is absolute” belief above to realize I don’t believe this in totality. The realization that signaling plays a large part in these human behaviors, however, shapes my thinking on a daily basis.)