Better than Better

There are thousands of books on self-improvement that teach us how to be better. And better is certainly better than worse. The problem is that we have accepted "better" as "best." We don't even know we are trapped by the concept of better. Forty years of mindfulness research has shown that there is a way to be better than better.

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We are quite likely the only intelligence species in the universe. Some of our fellow Earthbound species such as dolphins, octopi, and even dogs have some intelligence, but they lack our ability to generate new explanatory knowledge. As philosopher and quantum physicist David Deutsch puts it, humans are “by far the most significant phenomena in nature.” So why is it so many of us suffer?

To be sure, we experience moments of joy and delight, but we are also all too often mired in depression, jealousy, sadness, negativity, and self-doubt. We are significant but we do not feel significant.

The answer may lie with mindlessness. We often think that we are pursuing ostensibly thoughtful action, but we are unaware of changes in context, and we look for similarities to the past rather than differences, and assume that things will stay the same rather than change. In other words, we may be Gods who behave like robots; welcome to the human condition.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s nothing in our makeup that requires us to be mindless. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any useful benefit to mindlessness at all. It could simply be a relic of a bygone age, back before generating new knowledge was a daily human activity.


Deutsch is perhaps today’s strongest proponent of Karl Popper’s critical rationalism, the epistemological idea that all knowledge is fallible, and new knowledge is generated by a creative process of conjecture and criticism. Fallibilism is the understanding that you may be wrong, and it is anathema to mindlessness.

The creation of new knowledge can not be done mindlessly because it requires a creative process of guesswork and objection. That is why no matter how wonderful modern machine learning techniques are, including the latest amazing innovations that can generate human-sounding text or paintings or deep fakes, they are not ultimately creative, apart from the human programmers’ embedded creativity, and therefore they cannot be mindful.

What would mindful machine learning look like? Instead of tweaking a hierarchy of parameters to better fit existing examples, imagine a contraption that looked for differences between new examples and what it previously knew. A contraption that embraced uncertainty rather than struggle to minimize it. A contraption that was able to criticize itself and invent new possible explanations. The only such contraption we know about in the universe is a flesh and blood human Earthling. And even we are typically mindless.

But we can be mindful. And forty years of research on mindfulness without meditation has shown that it can be achieved in a straightforward way, with long-lasting effects. In this view, mindfulness is simply the process of actively noticing new things. Once we notice new things, we start to realize how much we don’t know, and how much things change. We become more creative, not to mention healthier, happier, stronger, and smarter.

Perhaps mindfulness is the key to humanity’s uniqueness, and perhaps it is a relatively recent phenomenon. For thousands of years, our ancestors lived with virtually no change in their environment, no progress. Cave paintings remained virtually identical in style and quality over millennia. It is probably hard to be mindful in such an environment when your great-grandparents and your great-grandchildren live virtually identically lives. Today, our lives change almost overnight.

To be sure, one can be successful even mindlessly. Our species did eventually prosper. And in our own lives, we often make mindless improvements. Like all mindlessness, we don’t recognize that the improvements are mindless. We think they are real improvements. We think we are better, and to a certain extent we are, but there is a way to be even better than better, and ironically, often the better-than-better way is indistinguishable from the original, pre-improvement process. Let’s look at this more closely.

Free Will

Consider free will. Naively, we think we have free will. It feels like we can make choices that affect our lives. Eventually we learn about determinism and psychological conditioning and become to a certain extent fatalists. This can be an improvement if the feelings of free will were overwhelming. It can be comforting to yield our autonomy to a higher authority.

But there’s a third level, when you recognize that you do in fact have free will after all, even if the universe is deterministic, even if it is all planned out. Philosopher Daniel Dennett is a champion of such a compatabilist view. His most persuasive analogy is to imagine a computer game with simple rules but complex behavior such as John Conway’s Game of Life. The Game of Life is a deterministic computer simulation of a very large grid of black or white cells that starts from an initial condition and then evolves step-by-step with these simple constant rules: any black cell with two or three black neighbors remains black, and any white cell with three or more black neighbors becomes black. All other cells become white. Starting from an initial condition, the evolution is always going to be the same. Total determinism.

But the game generates lots of interesting, complex phenomena, and people have studied these for decades. The structures have funny names. There are static blocks, boats, and tubs, oscillating toads, beacons, and pulsars, and moving gliders, spaceships, and lobsters. There are long-lived patterns called Methuselahs. Even with these simple, fixed rules, it turns out that anything that you could compute on the world’s faster supercomputer in any programming language can also be expressed as the evolution of the Game of Life with a particular starting condition.

Dennett then notes that, although every step in the evolution is totally deterministic, from the point of view of these structures, they do not know what is going to happen in the future. A glider doesn’t know if it is going to hit a toad. And as the structures build up in complexity, they can, from their perspective, experience free will.

The psychological equivalent would be the following. You’re choosing which subway line to take home, the A train or the D train. After some contemplation, you choose D, and make it home safe and sound. Later, you learn that the A train was shut down the whole time anyway, so you would have had to take the D train no matter what. Did you have free will? Both the level-one and level-three thinking would say yes, while level two would say no. But the level one and level three people would be saying yes for different reasons: one because they had not yet considered determinism and one because they had considered and rejected determinism.

Surprisingly, many aspects of our lives fall into this multi-level pattern. You see a child acting uninhibited. You assume they haven’t yet learned how to behave in this world. You as an adult are probably inhibited because you have learned the social norms. Then you see a senior behaving just like an adolescent. But are they? The older person knows the rules, and knows that they should be context-dependent. They are not childishly uninhibited; they are maturely disinhibited. This may reveal a more general truth: if level twos see level threes as level ones, they are not availing themselves of a ready opportunity for growth.

Better than Trying

“Trying” may be similar to being inhibited. Three students are writing a paper. The first one is not trying, just going through the motions. The second person is trying and you can see the enormous effort they’re expending. The third person is, like the first person, not sweating at all, because they’re simply doing, they’re not “trying” to do. At first glance, the first and third both look carefree, but for entirely different reasons.

To be sure, it is better to try than to give up or just go through the motions. But even better would be to just do. You wouldn’t tell a child to “try” to eat his ice cream. Our research has shown that people told to “do” some challenging problems attempt and solve more than those told to “try to do” those same problems.

Why is that? When you are told to “try,” or you tell it to yourself, failure is a real possibility. When you “just do it,” you focus on process rather than outcome. Yoda was correct when he said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Doing something effortlessly can often look like you’re doing something without sufficient exertion. In both cases, onlookers may complain that you’re not even trying because the behavior is the same but with different motivation. We may be remiss in categorizing all actions with identical judgments.

Better than Forgiveness

We could learn from dogs in this regard. If you’ve ever accidentally stepped on your dog’s foot, you might have been surprised with how quickly they try to make you feel better. There’s no hesitation, no blame, no anger, just immediate reconciliation. If you ever stepped on a human’s foot, they can hold a grudge for decades.

Now, forgiveness is better than holding a grudge. It’s a more elevated way of thinking about the situation, just as trying and determinism are more elevated. But there is a better-than-better way. After all, one cannot forgive without first blaming. And even though forgiveness is almost universally regarded as a good thing by virtually all societies and religions, and at the extreme is almost synonymous with being Christian, blame is equally universally regarded as a bad thing. Yet one cannot exist without the other. Every forgiver must also be a blamer. That may not be so good.

It gets worse. What do we blame people for, good outcomes or bad outcomes? We tend to blame only for bad outcomes. But outcomes do not come with sticky notes from the heavens specifying whether they are good or bad. It is up to us to classify and take views of events. So who ultimately forgives? People who first view the world negatively, then blame, and then forgive. Hardly divine.

Forgiveness is better than blame, but understanding is even better than better. When you understand someone’s behavior from their perspective, there is no need to blame, and there is nothing to forgive.

You invite someone for dinner at seven o’clock, but they don’t show up until eight o’clock. One option you have is to view that as a disrespectful affront to the value of your time and preparation, and spend the hour stewing and blaming. Then when they arrive you give them a haughty look and wait. You open the door a little wider than usual, like Jerry Seinfeld opening the door for his neighbor Newman: “to reveal Newman, in all his Newman.” You wait for their prostration and judge the sincerity of their apologies. After a pause, you magnanimously forgive. Was your evening well spent? Reading it sounds obviously melodramatic but living through it, you might not notice.

You have another option. When they don’t arrive at seven o’clock, they have given you a gift. You can return some phone calls you’d been putting off, or make some progress on a show or series you’ve been watching. You can paint or surf the web or read a book or take a nap. When they do arrive, you can thank them. How often do we find a stolen hour of free time? There is no negativity, no blame, and nothing to forgive.

When you take the better-than-better path of understanding instead of forgiveness, you start to appreciate that every potentially negative aspect of a person’s behavior is also a positive. Someone who is always late to appointments may be viewed as unreliable, but they may also be viewed as spontaneous. Someone who is gullible is also trusting; someone who is grim is also serious. In fact, every negative ascription has an equally potent but oppositely valanced alternative.

When you understand someone, there is nothing left to blame. On the contrary, you can appreciate and be happy for your friend’s spontaneity, and look forward to hearing what latest adventures deterred them for an hour today. In fact, whenever we are being judgmental, we are blind to a better way.

Better than Hope

Hope has a similar problem. Again, it is surely better to be hopeful rather than hopeless, but there is a better-than-better way. Hope carries with it the seed of doubt. When you wake up and walk to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, you don’t “hope” to get the cup of coffee. You just assume you can get it.

A good decision is better than a random, uninformed choice, but better than both is recognizing the inherent uncertainty of all choices and making the decision right. You’ll never be able to have all the information necessary, and deciding when to stop collecting and analyzing information is a decision in itself. There can be no general algorithm for making a good decision because that would allow a solution to the Church-Turing halting problem, one of a general class of computably undecidable problems. It would also imply an infinite calculation, since per Wolfram’s Principle of Computational Irreducibility we can in general not know with a finite calculation all the future consequences of any action. Even more, you would need to know what would have happened in every other possible alternative. And as we noted above, outcomes don’t come with a preassigned valence: for every positive, there is an equal negative, thus undermining any cost-benefit analysis.

Instead of trying to make the right decision, just do it and make your decision right. To an outside observer, it may look like your level three behavior is the same as the level one behavior, but your actual outcomes can be better over time, because nothing is better unless you make it better. What’s more, you won’t have any regret, because you will appreciate that the other alternatives could well have been worse. Thomas Schelling, Nobel Laureate in Economics, pointed out as an example that there is no way to make a rational choice about what type of microwave to buy. There’s just a bewildering array of options and if you’ve never had a microwave before, you won’t even know what features you want or need. The best solution is to just buy one and come to see what options work for you. Do you ever use the popcorn button?

Better than Work/Life Balance

One of the silver linings of lockdowns and quarantines may have been that many people independently discovered the level three way of being alone. Pre-Covid, a level one person is alone and lonely. A level two person is socializing and mingling with people. But a level three person is alone and content. Many activities such as writing, painting, or playing single-player video games are better alone. We may think we need people to cure loneliness but what we really need is any engaging activity.

Perhaps an even greater benefit from the pandemic has been an unexpected integration of work and home life for many people. Firms used to pride themselves on work/life balance, and indeed that is better than work/life imbalance, but integration is a better-than-better way. You shouldn’t be a different person at work than you are at home. Don’t you love video conferences when a colleague’s child enters the room? It’s sweet. It brings a smile to everyone’s faces. People drop their serious work facades and reveal the true, unfragmented humans that we all are. Your level three integration may actually look like severe work/life imbalance if some weeks you spend too much time working and other weeks too little. But by now we know that in fact we are operating at a higher level. Balance is an issue because work is stressful, but once you have integrated work and life, then you are just living.

The final benefit that comes from an appreciation of the third level of doing things is that you become less judgmental. That itself is a third level: level one you don’t know enough to judge, level two you judge, and level three you don’t judge anymore.

Better than Better

What if someone actually was at a level one but we viewed them as a level three? First, we’d be able to teach ourselves a better way of being by imagining a more elevated alternative. Second, it can improve our relationship with this person. And third, we would then be likely to treat them differently, which may actually elevate their behavior. When your dog “reconciles” with you after you step on his paw, is he being naïve and unable to understand the concept of blame and forgiveness? Or is he expressing a deep understanding? If he knows it was an accident, there’s nothing to forgive. If we can elevate our thinking about our dogs, surely we can do the same for our fellow “most significant phenomena in the universe.”

One consistent way to be more mindful is to appreciate that what doesn’t tell us why: level ones and level threes may look alike to level twos. Level ones don’t want to climb a mountain, level twos want to but don’t do it, and level threes no longer need to. Level ones are unaware of uncertainty, level twos fear uncertainty, and level threes embrace uncertainty, a process benefiting from disorder and chaos that Nassim Taleb calls antifragility. Level ones make mistakes, level twos learn from their mistakes, and level threes don’t view them as mistakes at all: almost counts.  Level ones don’t know anything about the market so they don’t trade stocks, level twos think they know and trade a lot, and level threes don’t trade anymore.

Is better than better the best it can be? No. There can always be a level four, and so on. The larger point is that any behavior can be understood in multiple ways and mindlessly thinking you understand it limits you.

So what can we do as Gods of the universe to feel like Gods of the universe? By now we know that it is not merely to pursue happiness mindlessly. It is to be mindful. Notice new things. Appreciate uncertainty. Be confident not that we already know something, but that there is always something new to know about it. Because finding solutions is our heavenly birthright. And if we don’t do it, nobody else in the universe will. Not even our dogs.

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