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Rationality is a Hammer

But not everything is a nail

There is a lot of advice about how to make progress towards a specific goal. Most of it involves some aspect of planning out a series of logical steps.

But what about when we are faced with the unknown, when we are not sure what goal we want to work towards?

For example, when we are looking for what we want to do as a career, it can often be hard to strike out in a particular direction because we are not sure what exactly we want to do.

In this kind of situation we often end up getting stuck. We spin in circles because we are looking for “THE RIGHT ANSWER” when by definition if we were sure about the criteria for determining what is right, then it wouldn’t be an unknown.

The reason this happens is because when faced with the unknown, with a blank sheet of paper so to speak, our default instinct is to use our rational minds. To “figure things out”.

While seemingly reasonable on the face of it, this doesn’t work for one big reason: Rationality is a problem solving tool and the unknown is not an actual problem.

What is the problem?

We use rationality when have a specific problem to solve and need to come up with the steps 1 through 47 as to how to solve that problem.

We need $1000, how do we earn some money? We are hungry, how do we get some food?

Rationality starts with a problem, comes up with a proposed solution that we think will resolve that problem, then tries to figure out the logical series of steps needed to get to that solution.

We could be wrong about the solution we come up with, about the steps we think are involved to get there, or even about the parameters of the problem itself but we still can envision a positive end state that resolves the negativity of the problem.

However by definition when we are faced with the unknown we do not have that specific end state, that definite goal.

So what happens when we apply our rationality in this situation?

The problem is there is no problem

The first thing to recognize is that starting with rationality implies that a problem exists, in the same way that pulling out a hammer implies there is a nail.

But take a step back, what exactly have we done here? We started with the unknown, a situation which may cause us unease but is not necessarily negative and we start assuming that it is, that there is a problem to be solved.

We activate our problem solving circuits. Which, at our emotional caveman core, really are our threat management circuits, our fear instincts.

But these fear instincts are not just designed for actual threats, for the tiger leaping out of the bush. That’s usually too late.

They are also designed to use our imaginations to come up with potential threats, to alert us to the rustle in the bush that could mean we need to prepare for the tiger that is about to pounce.

Analysis unconstrained by reality leads to fear

So when we can’t articulate the problem, we shift to threat prediction mode. After all, we are experienced, smart people. There is a problem out there, we just need to “figure out” its parameters so we can define the end state that solves it.

So we begin to model what the possible problem could be, we begin to imagine what we may need to deal with.

But the issue is that in reality there isn’t actually a problem, so there is nothing to help us determine if the proposed model we have imagined matches what is actually happening.

We begin to feel anxious. We are designed for survival and anxiety is very motivational. So we instinctively assume the worst since over-preparing for a minor threat is much safer than under-preparing for a major threat.

But there is no end to this cycle. Since we are relying on our imaginations that anxiety feeds upon itself.

When we come up with a solution that we think may work to solve the problem we think we have found, our fear reflex begins to ask the “what if we are wrong” question.

We begin to imagine something a little worse than our current plan is designed to handle. So we come up with a plan for that worse problem, and then imagine something worse, get a better plan, think maybe there’s an even worse problem, an even better plan and so on and so forth, again and again.

Soon we find ourselves in spiral of anxiety, unconstrained by reality, literally imagining problems that don’t exist and thus cannot be solved.

We started with a little uneasiness over the unknown future and end up in a panic, simply because we use the wrong tool for the job.

Our rationality, supposedly objective and above emotion, has actually pushed us into a subjective, emotional state.

Rational, Intuitive, Experimental

So what to do? When presented with the unknown, we must work to avoid defaulting to rationality.

Rationality is a planning/problem solving tool and what we need is an ideas/visioning/dreaming tool. A tool that doesn’t assume the unknown is a threat.

So what approach is more appropriate? Let’s define the situation (not the problem!).

We are not satisfied, content, happy with where we are.We don’t know what will alleviate those feelings of (unease?) but fundamentally we want to do something.We want to make some kind of decision and start moving in some direction. But what direction do we go?

There are actually three ways we can approach making a decision in this case. Rational, Intuitive, and Experimental.

As described, rationality is a tool for solving concrete problems.

The second, intuitive, is not quite as fluffy as it sounds. It is not “feeling your passion” in a hippy kind of way, it is making a decision based on a holistic appraisal of the situation that you just cannot put into words.

The last, experimental, is just trying stuff out and seeing what happens. The idea is to minimize your preconceptions so you can be open to data that you don’t have already.

Let’s start with intuition.

Intuition is not intuitive

Relying on your intuition may seem a little fuzzy but that is likely because you are mistaking a “gut feeling” for intuition.

Feelings are not decision making tools, they are decision driving tools. They are why you make a decision not how you make a decision.

Neither is intuition the same thing as doing something that is intuitively obvious. That’s using the word to be dramatic, not accurate.

Intuition is a emergent idea that bubbles out from your unconscious when it’s fertilized by a lot of data coming from experience, thinking, and research. It is a brain thing, just not necessarily a conscious brain thing.

It is very effective but it actually takes the most time. The good thing is that you can feed your subconscious at the same time you are doing other things.

You soak in data and ideas and information but don’t spend time with that constantly in the forefront of your consciousness. Once you’ve soaked in it, you turn your couscous focus to other things and let your subconscious work through it.

The danger with this approach is that often we mistake being reactive for being intuitive. In that case we are unconsciously fearing something, could be failure, embarrassment, hard work, and unconsciously drives us.

They key to really being intuitive is self-awareness so that you can correct for these unconscious biases that would otherwise result in ineffective behavior. You are still using your conscious mind but as a monitor to ensure you are not being emotional not as a analytic tool.

It requires making a mindful decision to apply continuous steady pressure to avoid the pathways your fears would normally lead you down. It takes a letting go and a calmness.

Experimentation is courageous

The last approach, experimental, is really the most reliable and the best for those truly unknown situations. The goal in this case is to simply try things out, the more different than your norm the better.

It’s not only a good way to discover something you may like, it’s an outstanding way to figure out what you don’t like. Which is almost as important and much more clear.

The experimental approach also requires a mindful decision and steady pressure but in this case it is more about keeping what you have already done in the forefront of your thinking so you can try other things.

When you are unsure of what to do next, part of the reason why is because you are sure that what you already know is not sufficient.

So going outside of the familiar is crucial.

To do this, unlike with intuition where your feelings are a distraction, with this approach your feelings are important, one specific feeling in particular: courage.

While intuition is passive and actually works best when you are in your comfort zone since it is about connecting dots that you already have, truly being experimental requires forcing yourself out of your comfort zone to gather novel new dots.

Progress is really made when you open yourself up to new things.

At the core of the experimental approach is an optimism that the rustle in the bush is a cool new experience. It will still be scary but if you are not afraid you cannot be brave.

Trust yourself

All three of these are not necessarily independent. They are different aspects of the same approach and you dip in and out of each phase as you move.

You use the experimental approach to gather data that your intuition “pre-processes” into a high level set of problems that your rational mind then creates a plan to execute against. You cycle in and out of each approach.

The key is to recognize when your feelings are leading you astray and instead encouraging yourself.

Literally by putting yourself “in courage”, you engage your feelings to drive your engagement and perseverance instead of letting them run amok and drive you down the pathways that already have not worked before.

Good luck!