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Live better by embracing contradictions


Idea Journal Weekly 3

August 28 · Issue #258 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Contradictions are frustrating. But embracing them can mean seeing yourself and others more clearly, being right more often, and ultimately living a better life. This issue offers a few ideas on how to do that.
(~5 min read)

#1. Life isn’t good or bad—it’s good *and* bad
Author Byron Tully writes that, “acknowledging and accepting contradictions in life and in the world is the first big step to gaining a broader perspective, a deeper understanding, and a richer experience in this life.”
Here are five examples of contradictions:
1. A psychotic dictator who enslaves, imprisons, and slaughters his people can also be a teddy bear of a dad to his daughters.
2. A dedicated and sincere spiritual leader can be a sex addict.
3. Charity can sometimes help people, and at other times cripple them by making them dependent.
4. War can be an enemy of peace and a horrible loss of life. It can also be a justifiable means of saving lives and restoring peace.
5. A ruthless businessman can be a generous philanthropist.
When we see and experience such contradictions, we often react with shock and horror.
But as Tully notes, we shouldn’t react with disbelief: “People are complex as individuals and can be downright terrifying in groups. Still, goodness often prevails.”
It’s important to understand that a contradiction doesn’t automatically negate the truth about one aspect of a given person or situation.
On the contrary: “It often offers us a more complete picture, if we are willing to accept it without judgment. It may also require that we not try to ‘understand’ it in terms of logical or linear terms.”
#2. Seek out dissent
In an interview with author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss, professional poker player Annie Duke says that when you’re trying to find out what’s true about some issue, it helps to seek out dissenting ideas and opinions.
People who can honestly and productively disagree with you are allies in your search for the truth.
For Duke, this is especially true with strongly held views: “The fact is that when two extreme opinions meet, the truth lies generally somewhere in the middle.” 
Without exposure to the other side, you will naturally drift toward one extreme and away from the truth.
What holds many people back from this approach is the fear of being wrong.  But as Duke puts it, instead of being fearful, you should feel good about truly hearing those who disagree with you.
After all: “Being wrong is just an opportunity to find more of the truth.”
#3. Stand up to your bias
Researcher Josh Kaufman writes: “Paradoxically, one of the best ways to figure out whether or not you’re right is to actively look for information that proves you’re wrong.”
But many of us instead fall under the spell of confirmation bias: the tendency to pay attention to information that supports our conclusions, and ignore information that doesn’t.
Nobody likes to make a bad decision, so we tend to filter the information we pay attention to. And the more strongly we hold a given belief or opinion, the more we ignore information that challenges it.
For Kaufman, a quote from Mark Twain  captures it best: 
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
So, how do you counteract confirmation bias?
Actively seek out sources of information that challenge your beliefs. 
Kaufman tells the story of how he and his wife learned the value of this approach when they changed  their diet.
“When Kelsey and I adopted a vegan diet for a number of years, it was easy to also adopt the mind-set that we were clearly making the optimal choice—for our health, for our animal friends, and for the planet. This worldview naturally made it difficult to pay attention to any source of information that argued the contrary. 
Ultimately, we changed our minds as a result of finding disconfirming evidence. After reading ‘The Vegetarian Myth’ by Lierre Keith, we discovered that vegetarianism isn’t as healthy or environmentally friendly as we had originally believed. ‘Protein Power’ by Michael R. and Mary Dan Eades taught us more about how our bodies biochemically process the food we eat, and about how the feedback loops that exist in our metabolism actually function. As a result, we learned that a few persistent health issues (low energy, slow digestion, etc.) we were experiencing were actually a consequence of our diet.
Both books provided evidence that contradicted our original position—and they changed our minds. We learned a great deal from the experience—both about diet and about the importance of paying Attention to disconfirming evidence. Paying Attention to disconfirming evidence is naturally difficult—it means intentionally looking for reasons you might be wrong, and we usually hate to be wrong.”
Paying attention to disconfirming evidence is naturally difficult because it means looking for reasons that you might be wrong—and we hate being wrong.
But as Kaufman points out: “Seeking disconfirming evidence will either show you the error of your ways or provide additional evidence for why your position is actually correct—as long as you suspend judgment long enough to learn from the experience.”
If you can stomach the initial discomfort, it’s useful whatever you ultimately decide.
Quote of the week
“The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.”
- Writer Marcel Proust in his book Remembrance of Things Past
Idea Journal
Idea Journal
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