While reading something on Wikipedia’s app the other day, I noticed a little box in the top right corner with the number 173 in it. Curious, I clicked on it, and was presented with 173 Wikipedia pages that I’d viewed since installing the app.
I casually flicked through them—Jake LaMotta, the Regency Era, Troy Newman, Somebody Feed Phil—and wondered how much information I could remember from them. I chose the Regency Era and tried to recall its defining characteristic—nope. I tried to remember why Troy Newman was famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page—no chance. As I went through the pages and tried to recall information about them, I realised just how absent my online brain had been while reading the pages, and how little effort I make to remember information on the internet.
Having been an internet user for a quarter of a century, my online brain is no longer just a squelching orb of jello in my head, but also a million miles of copper cable, connecting billions of computers with trillions of ideas. My knowledge has transformed from the physical to the technological, where I no longer need to slip and strain to learn something, but just need to conjure the right keywords. The internet has become an informational crutch, which if swatted away, would send me plummeting into a confused fog with only my paltry knowledge to guide me.
But what’s wrong with using the internet as a transactive extension of my brain? Why bother going through the arduous process of learning something when it can be instantly accessed online? There’s a few good reasons.
First, we need knowledge to think critically. For example, we cannot watch a single documentary on nutrition and expect to be experts. As with most subjects, nutrition has incredible nuance and depth that can only be accessed through sustained focus and a motivation to learn. Unless you put in the hours to learn about the core ideas of nutrition, you can’t confidently claim that saturated fat is the main reason for your jiggly arse. When the internet replaces your brain as the go-to storage method, you no longer have the knowledge to think critically, or the ability to make fruitful judgments. On the critical thinking scale, you’re less Socrates and more Flat Earther.
“Having information stored in your memory is what enables you to think critically.”
Second, we need knowledge to think analytically—to solve problems. This involves identifying the problems themselves, extracting key information from our memories, and developing creative solutions. You can’t identify problems if you can’t recognise them, you can’t extract key information you don’t remember, and you certainly can’t develop a solution to something you have no clue about. You can use the internet for this process, but it’s like wallowing in a puddle instead of plunging into the ocean. Without knowledge, you don’t have the neurological depth to solve problems effectively. The more we rely on the internet for information, the more stupid we become.
Third, we need knowledge to accelerate learning. Learning something new requires the use of your working memory, which can quickly become overwhelmed. But if you already have knowledge of similar subjects, you can pull this information from your long-term memory, reducing the cognitive load on your working memory, and making learning the new thing easier. Someone who has a basic foundation of psychology will be able to learn the ideas of criminology much more quickly, because despite being different fields, the two concepts deal with how people think, feel, and behave. By understanding the core ideas of psychology, the burden on your working memory is lightened, allowing you to absorb and analyse the new information more easily. If you make the internet a permanent informational crutch, you damage your ability to learn.
For me, online reading has become a way to satisfy my idle curiosity, nothing more. When I read a book, I delve into thousands of words that cover a single coherent topic, some of which consolidates in my brain. When I read online, I skim a few articles and cherry-pick the information that seems the most interesting, most of which instantly leaves me.
The internet has allowed anyone with a computer to publish their ideas online, many lacking the expertise, research skills, or objectivity to produce quality information. The result is a deluge of blogs, “news,” social posts, videos, and podcasts, impeccably designed and posted on authoritative-looking websites, tricking us into believing that the ideas are credible.
Knowing how to validate the reliability and accuracy of information has never been so important. The rise of dangerous ideas such as climate change denial, anti-vaxxing, and the authenticity of COVID-19 are a result of people believing misinformation, and as it becomes harder to separate the wheat from the chaff, it also becomes harder to make decisions that save lives. As an anti-vaxxer tries to protect her son against autism, he dies of measles. As people gather to protest against the conspiracy of COVID-19, they indirectly kill. As narcissistic world leaders dismantle fossil fuel regulation,1 the temperature moves closer to the tipping point that drastically alters the earth’s climate,2 putting millions of people at risk.
Good information gives us a more accurate understanding of reality, allowing us to navigate the world effectively. We can make decisions that allow us, the people around us, and the rest of our species to flourish. Quality of information is critical for the wellbeing of humanity, and being able to identify whether a news article, blog, or video is credible can help you to make good decisions.
We can’t see through the fog of information pollution unless we know how to identify it, and in this article, we’ll explain how.
Why is there so much misinformation?
The web isn’t regulated
Content posted on the web isn’t regulated. This gives people the freedom to post whatever they want, but lacks the principles and rules to ensure that the content is accurate.
While the web itself isn’t regulated, some reputable media companies have validation processes to ensure their information is as accurate as possible, for example The New York Times, the BBC, or the Wall Street Journal.
The more people who view a piece of content, the more money the creator will be able to make from advertising, paid reviews, paid subscriptions, public speaking, and other business opportunities. It’s in a content creator’s best interests to generate popular content, which isn’t necessarily the most accurate content. When faced with a choice between accuracy and profitability, it can be difficult to do the right thing.
Insufficient research, and no expert review
The world is a complex place, and many ideas are determined and affected by a large number of factors. For a piece of content to be credible, it must be rigorously researched, and if necessary, reviewed by experts. Many content creators don’t know this, and regardless of their good intentions, they end up publishing misinformation that can warp a person’s understanding of reality, leading them to harmful beliefs, and bad decisions.
Disclaimer: this article has been rigorously researched, but hasn’t been reviewed by experts.
With so much content and such little time, we’ve become skimming experts. We want the specific information that we’re seeking, and we want it ASAP. So when we’re faced with a 5,000 word monster of an article that provides an excellent overview of a topic, we’ll probably close it down and find something shorter, even though the shorter article lacks the depth needed for deep understanding.
Content creators understand this, and the length of their work is shortened to suit. This can narrow the subject’s scope at the expense of explaining it effectively.
To use an example from boxing, a video editor can put together a 10-minute compilation of David Tua’s most powerful left hooks, under the title “David Tua—the best left hook in boxing.” Unless you’ve seen every one of that boxer’s fights, and watched enough boxing to get an understanding of the frequency and power of a typical left hook, you’ll be inclined to believe that David Tua has the best left hook in the sport. This is a trivial example, and it won’t affect your ability to make good decisions, but it’s something that content creators do constantly to grab your attention and get you to click on their content. It doesn’t matter if the video is accurate. What matters is that you click.
The information that we consume shapes our beliefs and behaviours. We can be fed information from nefarious governments, companies, groups, and individuals, who bombard us with disinformation as a way to influence our beliefs and encourage action. One of the most damaging examples of this is Russia’s supposed interference in the 2016 US election, where they bombarded American citizens with emotive social media memes, helping Trump to win the presidency.4
Companies and individuals whose income is based on content are under pressure to create. In theory, the less content they create, the less money they make. This creates incentive to produce as much content as possible as quickly as possible, at the expense of thorough research and peer reviews.
As social animals, being accepted by others is important for our mental health. An effective way to be accepted and respected by others is to create content that seems smart, well-informed, and useful. To the content creator seeking social approval, it doesn’t matter that their information is dumb, shallow, and harmful. They still get the kudos.
Information quality attributes | How to spot information pollution
Information quality is a term usually associated with the quality of information in a system (typically a computer), but we can use some of its metrics to determine if a piece of content is credible. We can also use elements from academia’s CRAAP test5 (currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, purpose). The guidelines below are a mix of these methods, with some additional checks thrown in.
When a content creator has the expertise and experience to explain a subject accurately, they’re an authority. This is one of the most important indicators for information quality.
Authority can be assessed for a piece of content in two ways: the individual who created it, and the organisation who published it.
Authority of the person
A person’s authority can be determined by their credentials and experience, usually outlined in their profile. Do they match the topic they have covered? An electrical engineer shouldn’t be telling people how to manage their diabetes.
If a content creator hasn’t listed their credentials, or if they’ve listed credentials from an unrecognised educational institution, they may not have the skills or experience needed to explain a topic accurately. People can still educate themselves and draw on their life experiences, and there’s plenty of subjects that the average Joe can elucidate, but if something complex is being explained—medicine, physics, economics, psychology, etc.—you’ll probably get more accurate information from somebody who has studied and practised it.
Of course, it’s easy for a content creator to lie about their credentials. Other information quality attributes should be checked before choosing to believe their content.
Authority of the organisation
Organisations create content for one reason: to attract an audience. Whether a newspaper, blogger, YouTube channel, or business, they’re all creating content as a way to attract or keep “customers,” and make money. Unfortunately, when money is the main reason for doing something, morals are often abandoned, and quality of information neglected. It no longer matters that content is accurate and well-researched; all that matters is that people view and share it.
The organisations with the best standards are established newspapers and media companies, whose purpose is to produce content. They usually adhere to the five principles of ethical journalism—truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity, and accountability6—which allow them to create accurate, relevant, and authoritative content. There are plenty of exceptions—most content produced by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is trash, including Fox News, Sky News, The Sun, and The New York Post.7 Every media company is also politically biased to some degree,8 which must be recognised when viewing their content. Finally, there’s the troubling theory of every media company acting as a propaganda tool for their corporate overlords, as outlined by Edward S.Herman and Noam Chomksy in their meticulous book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. But this book doesn’t question the accuracy of the media’s reporting, just the political purpose of the stories they cover, and how they might influence you in ways that benefit the powerful. You can still get facts from a reputable paper like the New York Times, but you should ask yourself why they’re choosing to report those particular facts.
Reputation is the best indicator of an organisation’s authority. Some have built their businesses on accuracy—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Al Jazeera—but others are more difficult to identify. There’s websites such as Media Bias Fact Check,9 but their analysis has been called unscientific,10 so should be viewed with skepticism. Some organisations such as Nestle, Amazon, Coca Cola, and Disney are infamous for their sins, and their lack of integrity often leads to a lack of standards, extending to any “informative” content they produce. If you’re unsure whether a company has a reputation for producing accurate information, try Googling their reputation and credibility, and reading what others have to say.
Another way to determine authority is by comparing the subject of the content with the organisation’s purpose. If you’re reading a climate change article from Scientific American, it’s clear that the topic matches their area of knowledge, and there’s a greater chance that the article will be accurate. Authority is boosted further if the organisation has been producing this kind of content for a long time (although there are exceptions to this rule).
Content is usually created for a purpose, and identifying this purpose can help to determine whether the information is trustworthy. What is the content creator trying to achieve with their content? Are they trying to entertain you, educate you, influence you, or mislead you? Are they trying to sell you a product or service?
Fox News promotes itself as a serious news organisation, and has the trust of roughly one in four Americans.11 But the purpose of its stories are entertainment first, and information second—a more accurate name for the corporation would be “Fox Infotainment.” There’s nothing wrong with watching Fox for amusement, but watching it for educational purposes is like asking a Nazi to teach you about Jewish history. You’ll end up with a warped sense of reality.
Content that is created primarily to educate is the most trustworthy, especially when created by somebody with authority. Discerning the purpose of a piece of content can help you to decide whether it should be believed.
Data analysis and the scientific method allow us to understand the world more accurately than ever before. If somebody makes an unfamiliar assertion that cannot be known without data, scientific analysis, or another type of real-world evidence, they need to provide a credible reference to back up their claim. This includes climate change denial, proof of conspiracy theories, political scandals, character assassinations, or anything else requiring hard evidence to be correct.
If a content creator can’t provide you with credible evidence for their claim (which is often the case), their content shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Scope, comprehensiveness, and completeness
“The world is too complex for simple answers, and we don’t want to be the ones giving them.”
Kurzgesagt, Can You Trust Kurzgesagt Videos? 3
Even the most seemingly simple of subjects are complex, with an intricate web of relationships. Few topics can be properly explored in a few thousand words, let alone a few hundred. To explore an idea, a content creator must understand the level of scope needed to portray it effectively. If important details are missed, the viewer may end up with biased or incomplete knowledge.
For example, to understand the dictatorial motives of Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s useful to know about his allegations of political corruption. Even if the scope of the article is small, it’s important to include further reading on the topic to offer the reader supporting background knowledge. The BBC are forerunners for this, providing supporting links throughout most of their news articles, allowing you to better understand the story by broadening your scope of knowledge.
Many content creators are unable to determine scope and comprehensiveness because they lack the knowledge and experience to write about a topic, which is why authority is such an important measure of quality.
As humans with values and opinions, we naturally introduce bias into content that we create. It can’t be eliminated, but it can be controlled by giving equal voice to different sides of an argument, encouraging the viewer to choose their preferred position. With people becoming more politically polarized over the last few years, content creators are moving further down the political spectrum, and as their ideas become more extreme, so does their content. This makes balance more important than ever. The more polarized we become, the harder it is to empathise with each other, and the less chance we have of cooperating. We become enemies, not friends.
If a piece of content requires both sides to be heard—for example political issues, social commentary, education—and the creator provides a one-sided argument, you may want to find something more balanced. Otherwise, you could come away with a biased opinion.
For content to be objective, the creator must provide you with the facts, and let you interpret them on your own. Much of the web’s content is based on opinion, which is fine when the topic is trivial, but when it’s something important that requires hard facts, the creator should try to be as objective as possible, and allow you to make up your own mind. Objectivity is a core principle for journalists.
Timeliness (also known as currency or relevancy)
Research that was considered credible in its heyday can still be found, despite it being long disproven. Francis Galton’s eugenics, aspects of B.F. Skinner’s radical behaviourism, and many of Sigmund Freud’s ideas gained a great deal of academic support at the time, but have since been obliterated or replaced by better ideas.
Progress is fast in the modern world, so keeping an eye on the publication date for a piece of content is important, to avoid consuming out of date information. Many older ideas still hold their ground, but it’s usually worth checking for something fresher.
Composition and organisation
As a content creator, presenting an idea in a coherent, logical way is one of the hardest things to do, but it’s critical to getting the message across. It often requires diligent editing and re-editing, ensuring that each sentence, scene, or section follows logically from its predecessor, providing the viewer with the best chance of understanding the argument.
If a piece of content seems scattered and fuzzy, and you’re struggling to follow the argument, the creator may not have the skill to explain it effectively.
Who is the target audience?
Some content creators are trying to achieve a specific goal for a specific audience. Conservative tabloids such as the New York Post write stories with an anti immigration sentiment, which increases sales, and helps to push their conversative agenda. At the opposite end of the political scale, CNN is extremely liberal, and never has a good word to say about Trump (something that is difficult, admittedly).
Identifying the target audience for a piece of content allows you to uncover potential motives, and better understand why certain facts are being reported, and certain language is being used.
Few ideas are original. The ideas that run through most of the web’s content come from another source, and are being expressed in a new way. Even journalists rely on news agencies for much of their information (Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Reuters, and Agencia EFE), which they expand on and add their perspective to.
A piece of content doesn’t have to be unique for it to be valuable, but if the idea comes from another source, it can be worthwhile checking out what was originally said.
In scientific studies, if a method is reproducible, it produces the same result when applied to different data of the same type. The scientific community recently went through a reproducibility crisis (or replication crisis),12 when they found that many scientific studies were difficult or impossible to reproduce, making their claims much less convincing.
If you’re reading a scientific study that hasn’t been reproduced, you can’t be sure that the conclusions of the study are accurate.
Spelling and grammar
If a piece of content is filled with spelling and grammar errors, as harsh as it sounds, the creator may not have the knowledge, skill, or intelligence to explain the topic effectively.
A man is wrongfully imprisoned for murder, and as he descends into his cot for the first time, with the clang of steel echoing in his ears, he hopes.
He hopes that his lawyer will be able to get a retrial. He hopes that his wife will remain faithful to him, and that his daughter will forgive him for leaving. He hopes that he won’t get shanked in the prison yard. Closed in by walls on every side, hope becomes his guiding light—his escape from the horror of a new and unjust reality. But does it do him good?
Camus, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer didn’t think so. For them, hope is a pair of rose-tinted glasses that warp reality into something pleasant, robbing us of the chance to confront our situation honestly. It’s choosing comfortable delusion over agonising truth, with no valuable lessons unearthed; no wisdom gained. It’s a rejection of the present, and because the present is inescapable, with the past and future nothing but concepts in our heads, it’s nothing less than the rejection of life itself.
For Camus, hope is an evasion of the present moment—a powerful desire for a life that we don’t have, but feel entitled to.
“The typical act of eluding, the fatal evasion…is hope. Hope of another life one must ‘deserve’ or trickery of those who live not for life itself but for some great idea that will transcend it, refine it, give it a meaning, and betray it.”
Albert Camus, The Myth Of Sisyphus
Living in hope is living in illusion. We’re choosing far-fetched fantasy over reality, crippling our ability to appreciate the beauty of the present moment, infinite in richness. Even an innocent man lurking in prison can appreciate the beauty of his experience, choosing not to dampen his senses in favour of a better reality, but accepting his situation with courage. Abandoning hope makes it redundant, replaced by a recognition and appreciation of the only thing that can ever exist—this moment, right now.
For Schopenhauer, hope is not only a rejection of life, but also a failure of prediction. We hope for something grander and finer, but like pitiful dopamine-chasing gamblers, fail to grasp the likelihood of it arriving. We roll the dice again and again, chips diminishing, frown lines forming, and optimism vanished.
“Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing with its probability.”
Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms
As a former life-term prisoner, Erwin James also saw the futility of hope. In the midst of his prison sentence in the UK, when his minimum term was increased to 25 years, his sense of hope was annihilated. But eventually, he saw it with open eyes.
“The truth is that hope for a lifer is exhausting. It stops you sleeping and can drive you insane—much safer to expect nothing and never to be disappointed. You know your crimes, the grief you have caused, the shame and the guilt you live with—and the amends you can never make.”1
That’s where hope often leads: disappointment, followed by disenchantment, bitterness, and a feeling of rancorous injustice, where we’ve been hard done by and want to stamp our feet and scream about how unfair it is. It’s the inevitable downfall of a perspective based on delusion. Like a needle of Afghanistan’s finest brown sugar, it’s lovely at first, but horrible later.
When Zeus took vengeance on Epimetheus by presenting him with Pandora, and she promptly opened the box that unleashed torrents of evil upon the world, one thing remained inside—hope. For this reason, hope was treasured and considered man’s greatest good. But for Nietzsche, this was Zeus’s most abhorrent act, because no matter how much the other evils would torture us, hope is the thing that “prolongs man’s torment,” as we continue hoping for a better future that will never arrive; for an ultimate reward that doesn’t exist. Nietzsche described hope as a “rainbow over the cascading stream of life,” which we’ll ascend happily until the moment it disappears beneath our feet, like an illusory bridge whose passage was never secured.
Nietzsche was a life-affirming pessimist—he had a hopeless world view, but despite this, he urged us to say “yes” to our lives. Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis also encourages us to forsake hope, and practice this kind of pessimism:
“We ought, therefore, to choose the most hopeless of world views, and if by chance we are deceiving ourselves and hope does exist, so much the better…in this way man’s soul will not be humiliated, and neither God nor the devil will ever be able to ridicule it by saying that it became intoxicated like a hashish-smoker and fashioned an imaginary paradise out of naiveté and cowardice—in order to cover the abyss. The faith most devoid of hope seemed to me not the truest, perhaps, but surely the most valorous. I considered the metaphysical hope an alluring bait which true men do not condescend to nibble.”
Maybe Red was right all along—hope is a dangerous thing; a precarious rose-tinted path liable to vanish from beneath our feet, leaving us plummeting back to reality. With hope forsaken, our fallacious notions can be swapped for something authentic, which exists not only of peaches and cream and fluffy animals and rainbows, but also sexual rejection, stepping barefoot on lego, and a bank account usually in the red.
When we muster the courage to leave hope at the door, we step into the role of the hero, and can embrace our immediate experience in all its glory.
With the Black Lives Matter movement expanding across the world, its opponents have found a convincing and clever-sounding way to discredit them, by drawing our attention to the real reason for their activism: virtue signalling.
Virtue signalling is the suggestion that someone is doing or saying something to elevate themselves, ascending to a delightful moral pedestal, where they’re better than the foul creatures below. But when opponents of political movements tarnish their targets with the “virtue signalling” brush, it can be cynical and misguided, because as social animals, the perceptions of others will always influence human behaviour.
While the phrase is new, there is nothing new about virtue signalling itself. It may have been amplified in the age of social media, but it’s an ancient instinct, born from evolution. In the early 70s, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers created the idea of reciprocal altruism,1 which states that selfless behaviour can improve the evolutionary success of an animal, if the animal who benefits from the behaviour returns the favour. In game theory, the idea is known as “tit-for-tat,” and is an optimal strategy until one of the parties refuses to reciprocate. But where would the trust come from in the first place, if not from virtue signalling? Why would we cooperate with somebody who doesn’t reliably signal their virtues, and risk being cheated?
This is not to say that people should pedantically tally up the good and bad deeds of everyone they meet, and ostracise any poor sod who puts a foot wrong. Instead, it’s keeping a rough mental idea of what every person is like, to better understand whether they can be trusted. When people signal their virtues to others, they’re saying “I’m a good person who won’t swindle you.” What’s wrong with that? Reciprocity has been a fundamental motivation for animal behaviour, and it’s even helped to develop our sense of morality. It can be found in courtship, where people advertise traits such as agreeableness, fidelity, and commitment to potential mates,2 through to friendship, where people exhibit kindness and trustworthiness to win friends.
Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre proposed that certain virtues are social in nature. Imagine you’re the only survivor of an apocalypse, hunkering in a soggy bunker all by yourself. How can you be a kind person? Is it possible to be a kind person with no-one else around? Sartre doesn’t think so, because kindness is a virtue that is other-directed. Fellow French philosophers Albert Camus and François de La Rochefoucauld had similar musings about the social motivation behind our behaviour. Society is a voyeur to our action; even when we do something in secret, we may unconsciously feel shame because we compare our actions with society’s morals. The woman of the 1960s who strives for a career at the expense of her “duties” in the home may feel shame even though she’s acting in her own interests. She feels shame because she judges her acts to the standard of her society, whether right or wrong. Virtue-signalling is a natural behaviour born from our species sociability.
A modern Aristotle, sporting flare jeans and a man bun, would agree. One of his virtues includes “righteous indignation in the face of injury,”3 which matches some of the sentiment we’ve seen during the Black Lives Matter protests. His model of ethical behaviour (virtue ethics) also includes the idea of phronesis, which is using practical wisdom and prudence to act well. Phronesis is built on experience—a person can understand virtues intimately, but without having experienced situations that require their use, won’t know the appropriate time to use them. This was demonstrated by some supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, who in a show of solidarity on social media, added the hashtag #blacklivesmatter or #BLM to their Blackout Tuesday squares, not realising that the hashtags were created to provide vital information about missing people, helplines, donation sites, and protest movements. The good intention was there, but they ended up muddying the purpose of the hashtags, and weakening their value. They wanted to support the movement, but were missing the experience needed for phronesis.
What about when good intention is absent? Aristotle would deride virtue-signalling if it lacked the intention to back up the virtue. The problem isn’t virtue signalling, it’s acting like a virtuous person merely for the sake of appearances—being high and mighty and then vanishing when real work needs to be done. These are the people who posted their black squares on social media, and then refused to hire someone because of their ethnicity. These are the women who publicly support sexual assault victims, and then privately slut shame them for their choice of clothing. These virtue signallers are moral charlatans, and they damage the reputation of admirable people who say they’re virtuous and then back it up.
Virtue signalling is an important prosocial adaptation—a tool that we use to gauge each other’s trust, friendship, and love. But we must be cautious of airing our morality if we don’t intend to follow through, and if we don’t have the experience to make a difference. Such a moral pedestal has shaky foundations, and when somebody gives it an inevitable bump, everything will come crashing down.
In 2012, a skinny boy joined the software company that I was working for, ten years my junior, but twenty years smarter. Within a few hours he was suggesting fixes for my lousy code. I felt immediately threatened, resentful but too proud to show it. He probably noticed anyway.
He’s a close friend today. And thank god, such natural forces are better as allies. But I can’t be chums with every clever bastard, and in a meritocracy, where people are rewarded on their intelligence and achievements, the rest of them are my enemies. The office is a carpeted battleground where my disadvantage is apparent. I lose limbs from the skillful feats of my opponents, and my own dismal failures. I’m chopped away bit by bit, reduced to a disabled and bloody stump, little worse than before.
A meritocracy takes the brutal competitiveness of nature and turns the dial up. Perform, or be outperformed. Be smart, or be outsmarted. Was it created by some clever demon who wanted to torment those of average intelligence? I seem destined to struggle in a system that illuminates my mediocrity; abandoned at the foot of a ladder too slippery to climb.
“They are tested again and again … If they have been labelled ‘dunce’ repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend; their image of themselves is more nearly a true, unflattering reflection.”
I’ve worked with some blockheads over the years, their actions a sharp reminder of my own shortcomings. Once, a guy from our sales team received the contact info for a lead, and dialled 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9, believing it to be their real phone number. I can still feel my cheeks burning on his behalf. He’d learned to gloss over his repeated stupidity with roars of laughter, but his eyes brimmed with sorrow. Floundering was his default mode, like he’d been born into an ill-fitting world, where confidence is as durable as a fart in a hurricane.
In a meritocracy, self-esteem is a precious reserve controlled by our leaders, who like gods, release it at their leisure. It might be granted as a smile, a touch on the shoulder, or an awkward thumbs up, at which point we’re thrust skyward, breaching the altitude of the high-achievers, who are visibly aggrieved, but satisfied as we plummet back to inadequacy—our rightful place. Inadequacy is the destiny of the unexceptional. Gold stars aplenty, just not for us. And as we witness the effortless confidence of our glorious colleagues, every accolade received, every favourable look, every round of applause intensifies our jealousy.
Meritocracy is meant to eliminate the luck of feudalism—success purely on merit. But luck wasn’t removed, just altered. With feudalism, luck is status at birth—kings, nobles, nights, and peasants. In a meritocracy, luck is intelligence at birth. Today’s kings are determined by their brain power, not their castle-shuffling parents. Also, the luck of status remains in a meritocracy: being born into a wealthy family leads to better education, and greater intelligence. Though a meritocracy teaches us that we’re entirely responsible for our own success, it’s still highly influenced by luck.
The system makes my head spin. Every fibre of me protests. I want to clothe myself in black and storm Parliament; seize the scheming pollies by the scruff and demand something better. How can the average Joe be confident in a society that rewards intelligence, and scorns the ordinary? We’re commanded to be exceptional, yet unequipped for the job. Like American Beauty’s Angela Hayes, we realise that there’s nothing worse than being ordinary. It’s failure. Ordinary is the rule, not the exception. Most of us have to live with that.
Social media makes things worse, with its curated streams of colourful perfection, stark against the humdrum grey of our own lives. Every post reinforces our pathetic, flawed existence, until our eyes are flooded green, and heads horned. Here’s a video of a Japanese man with eight perfectly obedient Welsh Corgis, and all I have is a wily cockroach with an appetite for bin scraps. The washboard abs plastered across my news feed are cutting reminders of my own burgeoning paunch. Everyone is exceptional except me.
The solution? Break the rules. A meritocracy is just a game invented by a society that values intelligence, with victory counted in cash. There’s other values to live by: kindness, courage, humour, wisdom, fortitude, temperance, compassion, loyalty, and a ton more. Some degree of intelligence is required to earn a living, but it doesn’t have to be priority number one. If the rat race is exhausting, and you’re too fat and slow to win, there’s other races.
Our worth isn’t defined by our IQ, economic rank, or position in a company. It’s defined by whatever we merit. The beauty of Western freedom is that we don’t have to play by society’s rules. We can write our own, creating a place where status anxiety is quieted to a murmur; where the average Joes and Janes of the world can flourish in a game of their choosing, and realise that there’s nothing shameful in having an unexceptional brain.
Boredom is a state of mind that makes most people horribly uncomfortable. When all occupations temporarily leave us, and we’re left floundering alone with our thoughts, we might bear witness to a creeping sense of lethargy that seems to enclose our very souls, spawning an instinctive desire to liberate ourselves from the grievous tedium of nothingness, away from the intense feelings of apathy, depression, weariness and languor. Escape seems the logical solution to such apparent ghastliness.
Some writers would even have us believe that boredom is the consequence of a flawed character, claiming listlessness to be wholly unacceptable in such a fascinating world as ours:
“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”
I’m assuming that Mr. Chesterton was never forced to attend Sunday church as a child, or to spend the day watching Test cricket. Despite existing in a universe comprised of a magnitude of wonder, the shine of its splendour is still easily dulled by the bored human mind, and to classify this as a flaw seems a grave injustice.
For German philosopher Martin Heidegger, to face raw, unadulterated boredom is to stare deep into the foggy abyss, all sense of meaning obliterated, with nothing left but dreaded existential anxiety:
“Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference”
Boredom has a terrible rap, it seems. But despite being universally maligned, boredom has a multitude of latent benefits, like precious jewels waiting to be unearthed. As with every other emotion that we experience, boredom was developed for an evolutionary benefit: to discover what interests us, and then to motivate us towards it. It serves as a mechanism for seeking new, beneficial experiences. As one sits in a bored funk, mind devoid of focus, appealing ideas may start to emerge from the darkness, and given that doing something seems better than doing nothing, we find ourselves on the receiving end of little zaps of energy, lighting us up with intention. Many significant human advancements may have been the result of bored geniuses.
“Something’s got to happen—that’s the explanation for most human undertakings.”
Jean-Claude Baptiste (Albert Camus—The Fall)
The self-reflection and daydreaming that occurs during periods of boredom are teachers of our own desires, educating us on what we want, and then motivating us to get them. Our instinctive and immediate desire to escape from boredom—whether with social media, television, video games, or whatever else in your escapism arsenal—drowns out these valuable, insightful teachings, in favour of something entertaining, but bereft of meaning. Boredom can force us to start on the difficult and valuable thing that we’ve been putting off for years. It’s an opportunity to tend to our own requirements; to be temporarily introspective, rather than mindless content consumers.
“Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.”
Wijnand van Tilburg
The more we employ the numbing tactics of escapism, the greater our alienation from our true selves; those soft whispers that echo in the chambers of our minds.
“Like the trap of quicksand, such thrashing only serves to strengthen the grip of boredom by further alienating us from our desire and passion, which provide compass points for satisfying engagement with life”
John Eastwood, boredom researcher
Few people like to be alone with their thoughts, particularly the difficult ones. But running away only exacerbates them; they grow in your mind like a rapacious virus, goading you into inevitable combat. The beasts that we bury deep within are but temporary prisoners. Every attempt at distraction swells their strength, until they burst forth with a violence that cannot be ignored. Embracing boredom can help you to identify the things that truly bother you, so that you can face them head on, and with a bit of luck, defeat them.
The busyness and distraction habits that we’ve built for ourselves can have a tendency to make our brains feel as though they’re brimming with worthless clutter, and travelling with such speed as to put Speedy Gonzalez to shame. Consuming hundreds of memes, photos and videos with frantic flicks of the thumb might leave you feeling even more stressed than before. By allowing yourself to be bored on occasion, you may find that you’re less tired at the end of the day. Submitting to the odd bout of boredom is like drinking a cup of coffee without the elevated heart-rate.
Having mustered the fortitude to withstand a little boredom, the valuable thing that you decide to do may be suffused with more creativity¹. Innovation often comes from daydreaming, when your mind is in a directionless, wandering state. Only by doing nothing is there room for something to emerge. When we’re in such a state, our brain’s Default Mode Network is activated, a core component of creativity. Incidentally, this network is also activated when taking psychedelics. The empty space of boredom makes room for wondrous creativity.
“So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going to someplace in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place. It’s really awesome.”
On the surface, being bored seems a waste of our precious time; a devilish rascal to be avoided at all cost. But digging a little deeper reveals the truth: it’s a driving force of creative thinking, allows golden moments of self-reflection, and compels us towards what we value. Escaping into the glow of a screen while sucking our thumbs for comfort isn’t necessarily the best option. By relenting to our boredom, we may just stumble onto something important.
“When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendour.
Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.”
In the summer of 1996, when I was about 13 years old, my buddy Neil got himself a handheld video camera. For a group of impoverished teenagers, it was a thing of wonder, and the first thing that our group of friends wanted to do was to fake an embarrassing fall, so that we could post the video to entertainment show You’ve Been Framed. For those unfamiliar with the program, it features a string of home-video gaffes such as people falling off tables at weddings, dogs running headfirst into bushes, and children using footballs to splatter ice creams over their dads’ faces. If we were able to stage a convincing fall, where one of us trips at just the right time and bundles into the unforgiving concrete, we might become television stars!
The stage was our usual spot for playing football—a vacant, semi-detached house with a large windowless side, which we could blast the ball at without complaint. Most of the game was played in the road itself, with only the goalkeeper on the footpath, slightly raised up on a kerb. The plan was for Lee—the oafish, bravest lump of our friendship group—to line up a shot on goal, trip on the kerb, and crash into the pavement. It was full-proof.
With the camera rolling, the ball was passed towards Lee, and the confusion caused by the charade made him trip on his own feet, and his great mass of flesh was sent flailing into the air, followed by a spectacular clattering onto the footpath. We watched the clip again and again, until our cheeks and sides ached from laughter. The clip never did get featured on You’ve Been Framed, but it didn’t matter—that little moment of joy was what we really needed. I loved my group of friends, and wouldn’t have changed anything for the world.
Having close friends and spending time with them is arguably one of the best aspects of human existence, but despite being awash with technologies that allow us batter our chums with messages, photographs, and video clips, people around the world are feeling lonelier than ever. Nearly half of Americans claim to feel regularly lonely¹. A third of Britons say the same¹. In Japan, there’s half a million people under 40 who haven’t interacted with anyone for at least 6 months¹. A study from the General Social Survey showed that between 1985 and 2004, the people with whom the average American could discuss important matters dropped from three to two, and the number of Americans who had nobody to discuss important matters with tripled⁵. Since the 1970’s, American teenagers have been meeting with their friends significantly less—roughly half as much as they used to⁶.
The problem is so urgent that scientists have declared a “loneliness epidemic”, with great concern for the public’s health. Lonely people are 30% more prone to stroke, or to develop coronary artery disease². People who are blessed with supportive relationships have lower blood pressure, and reduced anxiety². Shockingly, loneliness carries a bigger risk for premature death than smoking or obesity³. The people sitting in their homes pining for human connection are 32% more likely to die than those who have friends⁴.
“A robust body of scientific evidence has indicated that being embedded in high-quality close relationships and feeling socially connected to the people in one’s life is associated with decreased risk for all-cause mortality as well as a range of disease morbidities.”
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Theodore F. Robles, David A. Sbarra³
As a teenager in the 90’s, if I wasn’t in the mood for galavanting the streets with my friends, I stayed inside and entertained myself with reading, television, or Super Mario Bros. Eventually, I’d get bored and go out anyway. Today, we’re faced with an onslaught of solo entertainment, of anything we could possibly imagine. We can spend eight hours absorbing the spectacular neon storytelling of Stranger Things, or committing virtual murder on Call of Duty. We can listen to a fascinating Joe Rogan podcast, as he quizzes a guest about the spiritual benefits of ingesting magic mushrooms. We can shift into zombie mode and scroll through our Instagram feed, with an endless number of adorable puppies to light up our cute receptors. We can fire up a virtual music studio and compose a thundering techno track. Or we can strap on a VR headset, leave this cruel world behind, and forge virtual friendships instead. There’s a form of entertainment suited for everybody, and it’s becoming more and more accessible.
With so much guaranteed entertainment at our fingertips, why bother with the effort of interacting with real people, with its risks of mediocrity? Human interaction is a roll of the dice—you might win and end up with closer friendships, or you might lose and lumber home dejectedly, after having bored your companions to sleep with stories of your dog’s anarchistic bowel movements. Being a conversation conjurer is a tough job, particularly if you have a problem with being vulnerable, or a burning desire to be always right. Even the most confident socialites fail from time-to-time, temporarily blighting the group with awkwardness, until someone in better form steps in to relieve the tension. Moments such as these can drive us away from our companions into the soothing arms of the latest Netflix sensation, pleasure all-but guaranteed, and not a social faux pas in sight. But despite its many excellent benefits, Netflix isn’t going to keep you warm at night, or lend a sympathetic ear for your creeping sense of sadness. It can’t offer concerned advice about your burgeoning drinking problem, or innocently tease you about the additional weight that has found its way onto your face. It can only entertain you, and while it’s a champion in its field, it doubles up as a devil that steals away the time needed to fortify friendships, and stave off loneliness.
Measuring up to modern entertainment is tough. My conversation doesn’t have the depth of an episode of The Wire. It doesn’t transport you to an entirely new world, weaving a beautifully-constructed narrative that portrays the precariousness of being a resident of Baltimore. It isn’t as thrilling as gunning down outlaws on Red Dead Redemption 2, nor does it offer the same sense of achievement. Reddit’s most popular posts are all funnier than me. Why settle for something subpar, when you can have something sublime? But as we hide ourselves away in our homes, distracting ourselves with all-singing all-dancing entertainment, our sense of loneliness swells. The descent into social isolation isn’t accompanied by a melancholy solo violin, but the optimistic chimes of candy being crushed, amusing you into solitude, one lemon drop at a time. In the small window of downtime when YouTube counts down to the next autoplay, you might receive a whispered internal reminder of your social isolation, followed by cravings of human connection, difficult to alleviate after years of rejecting invitations in favour of sofa-bound inertia. Can we be blamed? Social interaction can be a messy business—entertainment is anything but, and can even be addictive. One only has to witness the madness of a teenager having his World of Warcraft account deleted to get an idea of how important entertainment is for some people.
The advance of technology provides new opportunities to gratify us, with artificial intelligence being used to create even more potent forms of entertainment. As we happily sign up for brand new apps in exchange for unbridled access to our personal information, artificially intelligent systems are able to gorge themselves on our data, producing models that accurately predict the most effective way to entertain us. Data gurus PricewaterhouseCoopers predict 2019 to be the year of media personalisation⁷, with refinement and filtering of our entertainment becoming more popular, allowing us to curate endless hours of tailor-made fun. This is like injecting steroids into an AI system. As we endow it with unbridled access to our preferences, it can use that information to offer up even more enthralling forms of entertainment. Eventually, and oh-so-gradually, we might find ourselves transformed into the chair-bound blobs from WALL-E, thoroughly entertained, but lonely beyond belief.
Back when the world was black and white, our grandparents would huddle around the radio as a family. Since then we’ve gained access to the television, VCR, game console, online news, Compact Discs, MTV, the world wide wide, talk radio, DVDs, blogs, the iPod, social media, smartphones, and more. The plethora of entertainment now available to us has quashed the possibility of boredom, but makes the forging and maintenance of solid relationships a secondary thought, as though it’s more important to be entertained than loved. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we become exposed to even more forms of entertainment, bigger and better than before, we may find ourselves slipping further into isolation, delighted by rainbows of colour and sound, but estranged from the only thing that can offer us a treasured sense of belonging: our fellow humans.
If somebody screwed with a bicycle so that the handlebars worked in the opposite way to usual (left goes right, and right goes left), do you think you could ride it? Many people do, according to Smarter Every Day’s Destin Sandlin. Until they get on the bike.
In his video, Destin illuminates a valuable insight: knowledge doesn’t equal understanding. He had the knowledge that he needed to ride the backwards bike—turn the handlebars in the opposite way to usual—but he didn’t have the understanding (or the deep understanding) of how to do it.
The difference between the two concepts is key. Knowledge can be considered as an acquaintance with facts or principles, a familiarity or awareness of something. Understanding goes to the very heart of a concept, requiring a thorough and comprehensive grasp. Often, we can’t explain why we understand something, as it requires an aspect of intelligence that is separate from language. Riding a bike is an example of this—the most articulate person on the planet couldn’t teach a child to ride a bike using just words, as it requires spatial and bodily-kinesthetic skill. Only by getting on the bike itself can the kid begin the journey to BMX-champion stardom.
There’s nothing wrong with being a dabbling dilettante; engaging in multiple things can help you to discover what you’re passionate about. Curiosity can lead you to great places. If we want a true and deep understanding though, it requires a lot more than skimming the surface. You can’t read a Nietzsche book and expect to be an expert on existentialism, or to see an immediate positive impact in your own life. You’ll need to read similar books, analyse and evaluate the content thoroughly, and actively try to apply the concepts in your day-to-day. Passive reading just isn’t enough, even with a photographic memory. Deep understanding takes engagement, hard work and commitment.
Being actively engaged in something is one of the few ways to promote higher-order thinking, and this can only happen if you’re either genuinely interested in the topic, or are being pushed forward by a strong external motivation. Active learning is an effective educational process being used by universities the world over.
Ways to promote deep understanding
Do the thing
Want to learn how to surf? Get some surfing lessons, and then go surfing. Want to become a mathlete? Take some online courses, and then do math. Want to relate to people more deeply? Ask questions, and try to put yourself in their shoes. None of these things can be understood by just passively learning about them. Nobody taught you how to speak—as a child you instinctively knew that by making noises, you’d get what you wanted. You’re using the same method years later, just in a more articulate fashion (hopefully), and you learned it by doing.
You might be able to the list the amazing benefits of mindfulness meditation, but unless you actively engage in the practice itself, you’re never going to reap any of them. This is the simplest but most effective method for gaining deep understanding.
Apply it to problems in your life
Everybody has problems, and it can be difficult knowing how to fix them. Progress can only be made by giving something a try, and observing the results. By trying something, and evaluating the attempt afterwards, you’re gaining a deeper understanding of your chosen solution, regardless of whether it was a complete failure. Even abstract concepts of philosophy require a degree of practical action in order for us to properly understand them. Take utilitarianism (the idea that the end justifies the means) as an example. You might believe that chastising a rude shop assistant is the morally right thing to do, because they might adjust their behaviour towards people in future. But until you give it a try, observe the results, and then evaluate its effectiveness, you’ll never fully understand whether utilitarianism is the right approach in this example.
“I believe that the school must represent present life – life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.”
“Theory without practice leads to an empty idealism, and action without philosophical reflection leads to mindless activism.”
John L. Elias and Sharan B. Merriam
Discuss and debate
Chatting with your spouse, friends and colleagues about a topic helps to cement the ideas in your brain, in addition to securing some much needed human intimacy. The associative nature of our brains allows discussion that adapts and diverts from the original point, strengthening the neural pathways surrounding the central topic, and advancing understanding in the process. We can learn a shitload from our friends, if we’re willing to listen and engage. Have the courage to be vulnerable and say what you really want to say; what you’re genuinely interested in. You can only get through so much weather small-talk because you find yourself going insane. Deep, meaningful conversation is a major factor for successful relationships, while at the same time promoting thorough understanding of the examined topics.
Analyse and evaluate
Pulling something apart into its core components—whether an engine, or a philosophical concept—helps to understand how the parts make up the whole. Some things are multi-faceted and incredibly complex—breaking them down into smaller chunks is an effective way to understand them better. We must critically analyse the details of a thing if we want to really know it, and compare and contrast it to things of a similar nature.
Evaluation is just as important. Only by reflecting on the value of what you’ve done can you determine whether it’s worth doing again.
There’s a million cliches that espouse this message, and for good reason. Only by repeating something can you build the neural brain connections required for memory, and networks to similar concepts in your brain.
All of your senses can be used for repetition learning—by reading, watching videos, or listening to podcasts about the same concept, you’re forging valuable pathways that will promote understanding, while helping to keep things interesting through the use of different mediums.
“Neurons that fire together wire together.”
Donald Hebb, Canadian neuropsychologist
Write it down
Writing your ideas about a subject will help you to remember it, and formulate different notions surrounding it. Producing emotional writing—how you actually feel about the topic—also makes it more memorable. Dry, purely rational writing should be left to university assignments; these are your personal thoughts and feelings about a topic.
It’s easy to skim the surface of a subject without truly understanding it. You could be the pub-quiz champion of your town but actually know very little about your memorised facts. If you’re willing to dive deeper, with dedication and hard work you can turn simple knowledge into deep, fulfilling understanding.
In a few short weeks, I’m about to re-enter the world of unemployment, with the intention of moving to a writing-based career. At this point, what bothers me most isn’t the sudden lack of income, or the fear of measuring up in an unfamiliar endeavour, but the fakery that tends to accompany job interviews. These rare and awkward encounters seem to me like a game of poker, in which I’m trying to convince my opponents that I have a full house, when in honesty I have little more than a pair of two’s. The deception required to bluff through a job interview, persuading your potential employers that you have all of the necessary tools to bring value to their company, is something that I’ve always loathed. What I’d really like to do is put all of my cards on the table and say “this is what I have, and I’m a nice guy who gets along with most people. Can I have a job please?” Nothing contrived or rehearsed—just pure, unadulterated honesty.
Given our species’ penchant for putting on appearances, such a situation seems foolishly utopian. Certain scenarios require us to dance the dance that has been chosen for us, or withdraw from society completely to live on our own terms, like Viggo Mortensen’s character in the wonderful Captain Fantastic. But in my experience, the varied situations that I’ve undergone during my time as a regular, city-dwelling homosapien have proven to be best tackled by being honest, as often as possible. People just seem to like you more when you’re straight with them, and those who mutter offended scoffs can go and boil their heads. This isn’t giving yourself license to act like an arse—politeness and social niceties are essential for emotional creatures such as ourselves, with the capacity for horrific violence. It’d be impossible to make friends or get along with anyone if you’re staring them down with a chimpish grin.
“Masks beneath masks until suddenly the bare bloodless skull.”
With honesty, all manner of playacting is made redundant, and with it, all of the exhausting responsibilities required to convince the world of your brilliance. It’s the relief a theatre actor might feel when stepping away from their persona for the evening, unshackled from the obligation of remembering lines, striking poses, and fabricating emotions. Instead, every emotion is allowed to rise naturally from the depths of their soul, rather than their intraparietal sulcus—a part of the brain used when acting a role¹. New-found legitimacy engenders a wonderful lightness, as though we’ve been wearing heavy work boots for most of our lives, and have just swapped them for obscenely fluffy, Merino-wool slippers. Given the stress required to live a life of pretense, the buoyancy of honesty might even extend beyond the metaphorical, as stress makes you gain weight. As every little morsel of chicanery dissipates into the ether, our relaxation increases, until we feel able to navigate the world as unapologetically ourselves, in full defective glory. As if by magic, the words that we were previously too frightened to mutter come bursting forth, with little worry about whether it splits our audience in two, or whether we’ll upset the sourpuss in the accounts department. Honesty can have the same effect on our inhibitions as a glass of the Hunter Valley’s finest Shiraz, and feels comparably soothing. In fact, as I’ve gotten older and become gradually more honest, I find that alcohol has much less of an effect on my inhibitions, because they no longer have such a ferocious hold to begin with.
I can’t begin to imagine how much energy I’ve wasted in my life trying to paint the “perfect” picture of myself. 300 hash browns worth, at least. The kicker is, regardless of how perfect you assume your behaviour to be, there’s always a select group of people who’ll continue to dislike you. With honesty, those people are lit up like the Star of Bethlehem, which you can quickly turn your back on in pursuit of something a little more your style. Most people seem well-equipped to detect pretentious behaviour anyway—trying to hide your faults can have the unfortunate effect of bringing them into the limelight. Why not just cut the bullshit and be yourself? No longer will there be any requirement to paint yourself cool, admirable, smart, capable, attractive, or anything else that society deems important. Think of the brainpower that you’ll save for something that’s actually worthwhile, like watching season three of Stranger Things.
“To conceal anything from those to whom I am attached, is not in my nature. I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart.”
The universe can be a pretty cruel place to exist, especially during those uncomfortable moments when we reflect on our own mortality, and what the hell it all means. Slipping into a role for which society would give a boring and predictable thumbs-up is dangerously easy, putting us on a cookie-cutter path that might destroy our uniqueness. The more honest that we are with ourselves, the likelier we are to discover off-roads that could lead us places that feel wholly authentic. We’re born into a greyscale world, devoid of any intrinsic meaning. Honesty is a paintbrush that allows us to colour the world with meaningful vibrancy—we know which colours make us wide-eyed, and we can use that knowledge to paint our masterpiece, with no instruction needed from a higher authority. Only when we muster the courage to be honest can we carve out a meaningful path for ourselves.
“Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.”
At times, reality can be a tough cookie to crack. Our existence as unique, separate beings makes us prisoners of our own subjectivity; we understand reality in terms of our senses, and from what others say about it. If everyone went about their day lying through their teeth, it’d be a lot harder for us to determine what reality actually is. Our brain’s interpretation of our senses would become king—a mediocre choice for a mass of tissue that has a ton of biases, uses mental shortcuts to make decisions, and can hallucinate the most fabulous nonsense imaginable. The level of honesty within our species plays a large role in determining our understanding of the world. If Google decided one day that its maps should only be 50% honest, you might find yourself in the middle of the desert, wondering where all of this sand came from. We owe it to our fellow humans to give them an accurate reflection of the world, whether it’s an external, shared truth such as the weather, or an internal emotional truth, like the grouchiness you’re feeling after last night’s tequila competition with a rustic hidalgo from Guadalajara. With truth comes clarity of vision for all.
“Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking…”
Bending the truth only seems necessary in times of peril, when the stakes are extremely high. You probably wouldn’t want to tell a suicide-risk friend that their new haircut makes them look like a deranged poodle, lest they make a beeline for the nearest precipice. The loveable robot TARS from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is programmed with a 90% honesty setting, claiming absolute honesty to be an unwise approach for dealing with emotional human beings. I’d argue that 99% is the preferred setting, with the 1% reserved for those rare moments that dishonesty seems to be the correct moral choice. Anything greater seems to be unnecessary, exhausting pretense—strapping on a straitjacket and a plastered smile. In an era infected with all manner of falsity—Donald Trump; tampered elections; fake news; climate change denial; the efficacy of Capitalism; Flat Earth theory; anti-vaxxers, and much more—honesty isn’t just chicken soup for our souls, but a moral necessity, to give us the strength to claw our way out of this filthy bog of crock into which we’ve fallen.
My local Aldi, despite being a regular old budget supermarket nestled amongst the modern apartment blocks of West End, Brisbane, is a hotbed of exhibitionism. It isn’t uncommon to witness a female wrapped so tightly in clothing, with flesh spilling over so generously, that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the bananas to start peeling themselves. Hoards of beady-eyed men are tracking her, their attempts to be surreptitious hopelessly botched, with every look repeatedly captured, collected, and deposited as self-esteem — a reserve most precious, and frequently in danger of being exhausted. One of the primary oglers is a perfectly-clipped gentleman in a Hugo Boss suit, who appears embarrassed to be shopping at such an establishment, but compensates for it by twirling his BMW keys around his fingers as he steals longing glances at the girl’s shapely buttocks. His perversion is disrupted by repeated doubts about his own intelligence, which assault him like the thundering cannons of an 18th-century French revolutionary force, day-in and day-out, never in danger of being defeated by an expensive German sports car. In the freezer department, a chap with an alarming fake tan and arms like over-inflated balloons is reaching for some hash browns, after apparently having spent the last two hours taking a nap nestled among the satsumas. As he locks eyes with the girl and reveals his gleaming veneers, she returns the compliment with a coy smile, and they slowing gravitate towards each other — two like-minded souls, finding lust in unexpected places.
Within this collection of marginally-altered apes that we call humanity, the need to impress appears loud, mighty, and determined, like Hulk Hogan in the 80s. For those whose self-esteem is teetering on empty, admiration can taste like a doughnut sprinkled with crack, containing nothing nutritious, and forming a nasty, skin-scratching addiction. Repeated consumption may result in years of punishing gym time, body ravaged in the quest for the perfect physique; endless twilight hours at the office, striving frantically for a brag-worthy job; or decades worth of social media posts, cooking up grams of claps on a rusty spoon, sucking them into a syringe, and spiking a collapsing vein. Admiration is a rotten, subpar source of confidence, yet one that we reach for time and time again, with desperate hope of being permanently raised from the depths.
My own fierce desire to measure up comes in the form of being intelligent, something I’ve never been fully convinced of. As a kid my dad would matter-of-factly tell me that I was smart, but without any common sense, pointing to my academic success and embarrassing ineptitude at anything practical. Having grown into the maturity of adulthood, and having had the time and wisdom to understand him more thoroughly, I suspect that much of this can be attributed to psychological projection: pointing out other people’s insufficiencies in order to suppress his own. While on holiday with the old rascal a couple of months back, as we were checking into a hotel, he somehow managed to walk completely the wrong way, and when he finally found us, the embarrassment from his foolish moment created a spew of self-righteous rage at having been left behind, directed primarily at my darling mother, who has more patience than all the saints in Heaven. Though he probably knew it was his fault rather than ours, he’d rather appear smart and angry, than stupid and humble. Such is the power of insecurity to warp our behaviours into something toxic. Every nagging doubt can create a collection of pretentious behaviours which, rather than alleviating the concern, pump it full of protein until it’s a bloated, gesticulating mess, impossible to ignore, and glaringly obvious to the rest of the world. All the lipstick in the world can’t hide the fact that there’s a pig underneath.
Nurture can’t be blamed entirely for our insecurities. Doubt may be born from a selection of naive comments, but its basis in reality gives it strength to endure. Sometimes I marvel at the retarded things that I do — for example, earlier in the week I missed my appointment to become an Australian citizen, because I misjudged the dates. I was able to easily reschedule, but the stinging embarrassment that I felt as I relayed the mistake to my friends and colleagues could only be numbed with bouts of humour, and pretending not to care about the fact that I’d been hopelessly inept — a languid smokescreen that disappears all-too-quickly. Attempting to quash our insecurities with approval is like trying to fight a Balrog with a rusty coat hanger.
Long-lasting confidence and self-esteem can be gained not from the admiration of the whimsical crowd, but from standing upright to the bounteous personal challenges that appear, lion-hearted. As a frightened, skinny 20 year-old kid I went to Ibiza to try my hand at DJ’ing, returning with a head full of confidence after spending a debauched summer spinning vinyl in the Balearic sunshine. Every drunken cheer from the swarming crowd, every hand grasping at the neon green lasers, and every smile from my cocaine-ravaged Spanish boss was proof of my capability — a challenge initially terrifying, but triumphed over spectacularly, with a burning sensation in the groin area to prove it. 15 years later, mustering the courage to hit the publish button on Medium yielded similar results. Who knows what challenges lay in the future, and the treasured confidence they’ll bestow? The social approval that tends to accompany an action is nowhere near as valuable as the personal achievement one feels when trying something difficult, and succeeding. Self-esteem obtained from the masses seems precarious, liable to dissipate at any moment. Hard-won achievement, on the other hand, is often entirely within our control, proving to be a reliable, tenacious source of confidence. The exhibitionists of Aldi are putting their money on a three-legged horse, when they could be entering the race themselves. They might crash spectacularly, faces in the dirt and moonish buttocks akimbo, or they might go for broke, straining every muscle in their bodies, and coming away with the win of their lives.