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21 Useful Ideas. 1 Big One.

At a time when it seems like everything is in flux, it’s especially valuable to discover those recurrent patterns that don’t change. If you find the same ideas across evolution, business, investing, philosophy, myth, or physics, there’s likely something useful in them.

Here are a few core insights that seem to recur repeatedly. You’ll quickly notice they are all closely interrelated, and each bullet refers back to an article or podcast that explores the concept in more detail. Wherever possible, they're linked to a practical action.

All of the ideas revolve around a central concept that I find truly amazing. I think it could help define the next generation of business, investing, and culture.

21 Interesting Ideas. 1 Big One.

Source: Getty images.

1. The Reality Filter. Our conscious awareness filters a lot out. We didn’t evolve to experience everything, just what’s most important. We therefore experience something like a millionth to a trillionth of what’s really “out there.” As a result, we always live in the map not the territory. Balancing that disconnect and the accuracy of your filter goes a long way to determining our flourishing in life. Full disconnection is equivalent to massive depression. Full engagement is impossibly overwhelming. The key is to get just the right amount of input that allows us to react rapidly and appropriately. Optimal human cognition is a balance between top-down expectations and incoming sensory signals…

2. ….Territory beats Map. If there’s incomprehensibly more external stimulus than we can be aware of, the possibility of hidden forces influencing us moves from mystical to probable. Dr. Iain’s McGilchrist’s masterpiece The Matter with Things is a foundational resource for understanding this interplay (insights here). It has reinforced, confirmed, and massively enhanced my own confidence in these insights. He reflects arguably this most important core idea with the view that the brain's holistic right hemisphere exists in a duty of care to the more limited, competitive left. The right is less verbal but connected to the body and world in a more meaningful way. The left categorizes, the right sees entire flows. It has access to infinitely more data directly from the territory. The crux of his argument is that the left has usurped the right, and redressing that balance is of urgent importance.

The left sees categories, the right sees the whole picture. Source: Duncan Austin.

3. Action: Follow your bliss.” If external input is generally superior, our exploratory attention, what we are unconsciously drawn to, is the best indicator of where to direct our future growth. This is a fundamentally right-hemispheric trait. Our unconscious has access to vastly more information than our conscious attention (although conscious/unconscious is a crude distinction). Thus we should pursue what attracts and holds our attention. Navigate toward things that give us energy, and leave us feeling better afterwards. This requires an attitude of conscious surrender. This paradox is exemplified in Tao Te Ching verses like “the sage does nothing, but leaves nothing undone.” Just enough agency to act, but not too much to overwhelm beneficial external influences. Coincidences are a good sign you’re going the right way: responses from the outside world.

4. “Love” as a fundamental force. This is not a sentimental idea. The felt-sense that defines our “bliss” connects us with an emergent force driving toward greater complexity. We physically experience this “hidden force” through our bodies, specifically our hearts. This seems like a far less outlandish idea when we consider that our hearts are far more than just oxygenating pumps. They are also exquisitely sensitive transmitters and receivers of electromagnetic signals. A large number of recent studies have confirmed that “invisible forces” of the electromagnetic spectrum profoundly impact every facet of biological regulation. A meta-analysis shows that the right hemisphere predominates in receiving and interpreting information from the heart. It’s where unconscious forces meet conscious awareness.

5. Vulnerability is required for vitality. If we are mentally or ideologically closed to the idea of emergent intelligence, or even external input, we risk stagnation. Or worse. Courage is defined by our voluntary capacity for vulnerability. Being "open-hearted." Safety and vitality are inversely related. If you seek control, prepare to sacrifice life. If you seek life, prepare to sacrifice control. The trick, as always, is getting the balance of control, with a permanent tilt toward life.

6. Action: Compile resonant quotes. If you consciously arrange what you’ve found unconsciously attractive (what you “love”), it will give you an indication of what you find meaningful, and thus help guide your attention in the right direction in life. Assemble the ingredients, then reflect on the thread that unifies them. The act of synthesis pulls your psyche together.

7. Simplicity => Separation => Synthesis McGilchrist talks about the need for real world experience to originate in the right hemisphere, to be moved to the left for dissection and analysis, but then returned to the right for synthesis into its global context. The musician hears a piece of beautiful music, deconstructs it into notes and learns it painstakingly, then eventually performs it intuitively. This cadence is consistent at multiple scales of reality. This is the path of the hero’s journey, the trajectory of a human life and also optimal human cognition. Modern society and science often tend to stop at the reductionist stage; breaking things down without a return to co-creative synthesis..

8. Metaphor is a sign of genius. Synthesis of different ideas is the ultimate creative act. Combining different ideas reveals patterns, produces new breakthroughs, and gives you a clearer view of reality. If you can construct an effective metaphor, it’s a signal you’ve successfully found the right connections between ideas.

9. Action: Cultivate Embodiment. If we are sometimes lost in cerebral abstractions, moving our center of consciousness down into to our bodies can resolve anxiety and ground our sense of truth. If the unconscious is trying to deliver signals and sensations from the outside world, this facilitates that communication. It helps unify our conscious and unconscious.

10. Action: Develop Emotional Granularity. The effectiveness and number of words with which we can interpret our own internal state seems to be strongly correlated with both mental and physical health. You are effectively consciously learning the language of your unconscious. As it's less verbal, it's experienced through sensation and emotion. Your body doesn’t need to scream at you if you can interpret its signals early. It’s the one skill I’m working to teach my kids above all others.

A Visual Guide to Human Emotion. Source: The Junto Institute.

11. You can be the butterfly. We all understand that we live in an infinitely complex environment that’s inherently unpredictable. However it is possible to become so aligned with external stimulus that you not only flourish, but have a cascading positive impact on the system itself. This is a function of attunement, action, and surrender. This is the definition of a “Taoist Sage.”

12. Know your legends. The same story structures recur over and over throughout human history because they provide guidance for balanced evolution. The most popular stories not only unconsciously reflect our psyches, but they can indicate what direction society is heading. The Hero’s Journey is the most dominant human story because it reflects precise operating instructions for individual and cultural evolution. It also describes the transfer of control from left to right hemisphere.

13. Embrace creative destruction. It’s hard to rebuild a new model of reality with destroying your old one. Conscious models are replaced with new unconscious solutions. Look for ways to do it quickly and safely (games, simulations, and “strategic rehearsals”).

14. Rapid repetition builds expert intuition. The broader the field, the greater the reliance on expert intuition. This is defined as “the synthesis of experience with unconscious reasoning on the basis of that experience.” But “experience” isn’t necessarily the length of time you’ve been doing something, it’s the number of repetitions that build up that database of patterns. It’s building an unconscious database of relevant signals for your conscious to access.

15. Action: Find your flow. The flow state accelerates the acquisition of expert intuition. The three conditions for flow are clear information, tightly coupled feedback, and that errors matter. Not only are flow states optimal human experiences; but they produce an environment for generating new insights and frameworks for your life. A solid aim is to find challenging pursuits that feel like a game to you, but work to others. Then match what only you can do with what the world needs.

16. Action: Cultivate boundary periods. For me personally, they are the period between sleeping and wakefulness, medium-paced runs, embodiment, massage, and cold showers. Boundary periods allow for transfer between conscious and unconscious. The critical final step is to integrate and respond to signals received in this state.

17. Action: Learn to sit in dissonance. The ability to tolerate paradox and sit in creative tension is a hallmark of genius. Paradoxes are often a sign that left and right hemisphere perceptions have clashed. Einstein himself said: “It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer.” Breakthroughs seem to be a result of consciously assembling the right ingredients then waiting for a synthesis and resolution from the unconscious.

18. Pursue living things not dead things. The moment you optimize for a single, abstract variable you risk making your entire life fragile and vulnerable. The ideal is to focus on balanced creativity, or quality, ideally for its own sake. Superstar businesspeople tend to have an intuitive sense for balance and where to put slack in their systems.

19. Action: Tell the Truth. Our left hemisphere lies when it doesn’t know the answers, our right doesn’t. One of the leading researchers in cognitive neuroscience, Michael Gazzaniga, has called it the most stunning finding from split-brain research. The implication being that lying creates detectable internal dissonance and distances us from direct engagement with the world. It produces a disconnect between consciousness and the external flow of the world we receive unconsciously.

20. Dramatic evolutions can look irrational. Fitness landscapes are an incredible visual metaphor for evolution. The goal of any species is to get to the highest possible “fitness” peak. Left hemispheric ego and action takes you up the hill, exploratory attention takes you back down it. If rationality, or the same behaviors, have taken you to a stale peak, the only thing left is supra-rational exploration. And usually nobody else either initially believes these kind of ideas or is looking for them, especially in business (see insights from Rory Sutherland’s book Alchemy). Experimentation requires sacrificing fitness to descend into valleys and try new paths. When you’re stuck, working out what “fitness” you’re willing to sacrifice in order to move forward is a very helpful question.

A Fitness Landscape. Source: Max Olson.

21. Action: When you’re lost, focus on immediate binary choices. The further out your timeframe goes, the less control you have, so the more anxiety you create. Once again, external inputs are more important than your abstract goals. Jungian analyst Robert Johnson talks about the “slender threads.” These are subtle environmental signals with “greater intelligence and wisdom than our scrambling egos can ever attain.” Consistent with the fitness landscape example, he suggests giving our limited egos responsibility for small things like habits. But for the big choices, trust the slender threads. Habits for climbing the hills, emergence for exploring of the valleys.

Conclusion: Balance, Boundaries, and Tao all the way down

What does all this have to do with business and investing? Well, the recurrent theme of balancing unconscious and conscious was echoed in a recent interview with William Green and investor Arnold Van Den Berg. Green opened with a noteworthy claim:

“If I had to choose just one role model from all of the remarkable investors I’ve interviewed over the last quarter of a century, it would be him.”

Holocaust survivor and value investor Van Den Berg has spent the last 50 years examining the nature of the subconscious. Is it a coincidence that one of the most widely-admired investors is also the one who talks repeatedly about harmonizing your conscious and unconscious?

The ideal balance seems to be our “conscious” left-hemispheric ego acting in service of the “unconscious” right. We then gain the sensitivity to act spontaneously and accurately to the correct stimulus at the correct time.

But McGilchrist’s thesis is that society has come to reflect the disconnected left hemisphere. Our culture is dominated by a separation from nature, digital simulations, grid-like cities, and an overreliance on reductive analysis. He thinks we need to redress that imbalance. The left returns to necessary competitive tension, but under the supervision of the right. That transition is what many of the actions above aim to achieve.

This constant, flowing balance, you can call it the Tao if you want, is the overarching theme that always ends up being at the core of each of these ideas. Sadly the nature of this balance can never be fully articulated, encapsulated, or attained, because that would make it static; something it cannot be by definition. I find it’s best described as the flow of life; the closer you get to it, and the more you can align with it, the better your own life tends to go.

Here are a few of the necessary tensions I think define this balance. The right-hand elements tend toward the fundamentally unknowable.

Source: My elite Figma design skills.

If McGilchrist’s argument is that our world has come to reflect an imbalance toward the left hemisphere, this presents an optimistic and existentially important opportunity. What does a pivot back to the right look like in the real world? Here are few relationships I’m pondering for what I’ve been calling a “phase change.”

Source: My elite Figma design skills. Again.

Reconciliation of these tensions and paradoxes will determine how the rest of our lives play out. The stakes are high! McGilchrist thinks the left-hand imbalance risks the very destruction of our entire environment. In contrast, the Taoists felt that the pursuit of middle-way balance was the cornerstone of human flourishing in harmony with the entire world. As Ed Slingerland writes in his excellent guide to Taoism, Trying Not to Try:

“All of these thinkers tell us that, if we can just get into a state of complete spontaneity and unselfconsciousness, everything else will work out. We will be in harmony with Heaven. We will possess de, a charismatic power that brings social and political success, and we’ll move through the physical world with supernatural ease.”

Some Foundational Books.

  • The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. An enjoyable dialogue that’s synthesis of Campbell’s life’s work understanding myth.

  • The Matter with Things by Dr. Iain McGilchrist (insights here). The best book I’ve read [so far] in my life.

  • Radical Wholeness by Philip Shepherd. A logical progression from McGilchrist’s work: how to implement embodiment in our own lives as an antidote to mental abstraction.

  • The User Illusion by Tor Nørretranders (insights here). This book explains the disconnect between map and territory from a consciousness perspective.

  • The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. The older I get, the more I understand it. But it was also very helpful to read a clear explainer of Taoism, Ed Slingerlands’ book Trying Not to Try.

Excited to hear your thoughts.

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