Reading back through some of my articles, I realise that they could often be interpreted as preachy. My intention for this blog is to write down my ideas, and that, hopefully, some of them will be useful to other people – but it’s important for me to point out that I’m just as vulnerable to the stuff I talk about in these articles as anyone, and that I don’t necessarily follow my own advice regularly. In other words, I’m human and I fuck up a lot of the time.
So I thought that today, I’d write about how humans, myself included, regularly screw things up; not because they’re trying to, but simply because they’re human. I’ll revisit why we make mistakes, why mistakes are potentially good for us, and how to learn from them. Most importantly, I want to talk about how developing self-awareness, while not being the be-all and end-all, is a great place to start.
So, mea culpa – this is how I fuck up as a human and how I struggle on a daily basis with my programming.
I’ve already spent a fair bit of time talking about the various issues that get in the way of being a nice human being (i.e., not one who operates as a smart monkey). I’ve discussed how we’re often victim to our limbic systems, how our consciousness is a limited GUI, how our sense of self is illusory, how we’re tricked into thinking things are useful by neurological rewards from outmoded parts of the brain, how we’re out of touch with our values and the problems that entail, and how we’re often victim to our own programming, especially deep-seated schemas that limit our ability to adapt to new situations by refusing to process information that threatens their limited parameters. I’ve also spent a fair bit of time talking about what we can do to overcome these things. But lo and behold, despite the fact that I know a lot about this stuff, that I counsel clients (and even help them improve) about it, and even though I really try and walk the walk, I still screw up regularly.
I get angry, in a completely irrational way. I’m often grumpy for no good reason. I behave inappropriately, or in a self-centred way. I say or do stupid things that hurt others. I expect other people to read my mind and get pissed off when they don’t. My mind comes up with all sorts of ridiculous crap and presents it to me as fact and, half the time, I believe it. I skip meditating even though I know I’ll feel massively better for having done it. I binge on chocolate. I swear at the dog. The list goes on…
And all of these things are written in the present tense because, as much as I’d like to think I’m better than that, I still do all of these things – perhaps less than I used to (I hope), and certainly not intentionally, or with malice of forethought – but I still do them…
So, surely I should be able to stop screwing up? Right? Surely, knowing about this stuff, and having a pretty clear idea of my programming errors, as well as understanding my values and attempting to act on them on a daily basis should fix it? What about regular mediation and exercise, and getting enough sleep, and healthy human interaction, and meaningful work, and challenging activities, and being mindful? I do all of that. I still screw up. A lot.
Here’s what I think. Despite the fact that I’ve been banging on about being Human 2.0, about learning to be more than we’ve been, we’re still going to fuck it all up over and over again: because of all of the design flaws and redundant systems, and the simple difficulty we have in paying attention. Is this a bad thing? No… The point is that we try, that we keep working at being better humans (and here’s the important part) because of the fact that we are massively error-prone.
In fact, I’m going to take this one step further. What if we work on the assumption that we’re dealing with an error-prone system. If I were a programmer and I had to develop in an operating system that I knew was buggy and unpredictable, I’d probably try to develop around the limitations of the system, with lots of error checking, and the presumption that things are going to go wrong. With those issues in mind, I’d work hard to develop ways for my software to continue to function despite the errors. In fact, I’d probably want to catalogue as many potential ways things could go wrong and build in appropriate compensation. Going further, I’d want to be able to anticipate that unknown or unpredicted errors will occur, and build in ways for the program to cope when these happen. In other words, I’d spend a lot of time building a system that can keep operating effectively predicated on the notion that things will go wrong often and, sometimes, catastrophically.
This is what we want to be doing as human beings. First and foremost it’s really important to recognise that things will go wrong, a lot. We need to be aware that we’re working with a buggy system (for all the reasons I’ve written about and will continue to write about). Once we know the system is faulty, we can catalogue the ways that it fails and build in workarounds (like learning how to deal with a rampant limbic system, or dealing with self-imposed system limitations). We can also build in some useful “catch-alls” for dealing with problems that we haven’t anticipated or experienced – like making sure we’ve got the basics in place (see my list above), and by monitoring the system for extreme reactions.
Just as important as expecting that things will go wrong, is understanding that being human means that things will go wrong, and that that’s normal. I spend a lot of time working with my clients to help them understand that what they’re going through is a completely normal human experience – that most humans placed in similar circumstances with similar resources (or lack thereof) would react in a similar way. That what they’re experiencing is something that nearly everyone who’s ever lived has probably experienced in some way. Once we understand that we’re dealing with a normal process (that we’re not, in fact, sick, or broken, or mentally ill), it makes it a lot easier to work on coming up with functional fixes. It’s human to think that we’re unique and special but, even though we all think that our experiences and feelings are distinctive, we are disturbingly similar to one another. I’ve got a lot more to say on this topic (especially why I think that nearly all “mental illnesses” are symptom clusters and not illnesses at all) – I’ll make this the topic of my next post.
The third and, probably, most important aspect of working with our buggy systems, is actually learning from our screw-ups. It’s one thing to recognise that you’re making mistakes, it’s another to work at not making the same mistakes over and over again or, at the very least, to make the same mistake with fewer negative outcomes. This is what I meant with my list of screw-ups (above); it’s not that I don’t make these mistakes (often), it’s that I’m really trying to learn from them. I try to reduce their frequency, to do less harm, to recognise the mistakes quicker and to modify my behaviour faster, to be more empathic and compassionate, to think about how my behaviour affects others, etc.
Put all together, this process is probably best described as the development of self-awareness. It’s about recognising that we are a series of flawed systems, that humans will make mistakes, and that we can learn from these mistakes and modify our behaviour (effectively) through trial and error. It’s about choosing to pay attention to these errors and recognising that they are inevitable parts of a system, but that they can be predicted and compensated for or, when they’re unpredictable, recognised post-hoc and adjusted. Above all, it’s understanding that we can never be perfect (hubris gets humans in a lot of trouble), and that we’re more like our fellow human beings than we think.
I expect that I’ll keep screwing up until I die, but I hope that I’ll do it in a less and less stupid way. I think that’s all we can really ask of ourselves. After all, we are only human…