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That which is familiar, becomes invisible

November 16, 2021
By Willy Eisenschitz

As any writer, painter, designer or software developer worth their salt would tell you, detachment is necessary to be able to assess your own work. In order to create an article that doesn’t suck, it’s necessary to read it as a reader and not like someone who has written it.

(Are chefs the best food tasters and writers the best editors? Maybe, because they know what to look for when assessing the quality, since they are practitioners themselves.)

It’s common, at least here in Croatia, for people to not realize what makes their country unique, because they’ve never left it. We think the Croatian tax system is the worst, without ever being exposed to any other tax systems. We think our government is the worst, without ever living in any other country.

We don’t realize what’s so great about Zagreb, until we visit a city that’s different. I recently had this experience in Rome. Although it’s much more touristy than Zagreb, I was pretty unimpressed by it. Yes, it’s full of culture and history, but I found it to be dirty, chaotic and noisy. I couldn’t imagine living there. In comparison, Zagreb feels like a peaceful, charming little town.

A Gödelian twist of any knowledge is that there will always be unknown unknowns. Leaving the country, seeing it from the outside, and then returning to it makes some of these unknowns known, but not all. Like fish, we don’t perceive the water we swim in.

Just like how many people (including me) don’t appreciate their own home until they leave it, we often don’t perceive the ocean of beliefs we swim in. We don’t realize how our beliefs shape us just because we are part of a particular society. It’s therefore difficult for us to separate beliefs that are the result of our independent thinking from the beliefs that are inherited simply by virtue of the society we inhabit. We also don’t realize what beliefs are simply the result of consuming content from mimetic buckets that we draw beliefs and opinions from.

One example of a belief like that, which you have probably heard if you are a writer, is that you should create more than you consume. I’ve seen this advice so many times, given by so many people, that I’ve believed it myself (thanks a lot, Availability Bias). But after doing that for a while (publishing articles every week, without reading much), I’ve realized that it’s not a good advice. See, if you really create more than you consume, the quality of what you create is going to be crap, since you don’t have that many inputs. If you want to avoid creating crap (a noble goal indeed), you should probably consume vastly more than what you create. I think this is true because every writer I admire is a voracious reader.

Here’s another example. It’s easy to appear wise by quoting some sage from the past, like Confucius, without coming to his conclusions yourself. It’s easy to fall into the trap of preaching his advice to other people, without understanding anything. In other words, to put the cart before the horse and just appearing wise instead of being wise.

(Is constantly consuming “wisdom” in 280 characters making us believe that we are wise? I wonder.)

Parroting beliefs from these mimetic buckets, without thinking about them independently is the modus operandi for most of the “content creators” out there. Parroting beliefs is a type of intellectual virtue signaling that requires just a tad more effort than bragging by how many books you’ve read (I’m not innocent of either of that myself). Relax. It’s not like you’ve written them.

Thinking for yourself is hard work, in comparison. Testing your beliefs in reality takes time and effort. It’s similar to the scientific method, of making a hypothesis and then testing it. And I can’t think of anything more different to that than blindly parroting someone else’s ideas.

Without us realizing this, some beliefs inhabit our minds without being useful. The reason for this might be that as social beings, we hold on to certain beliefs to blend-in instead of holding on them for their rationale. 1

We are also engulfed with beliefs from our profession, since many of us are highly specialized workers. We view the world through a narrow set of models that are the most common in our field: in terms of systems for engineers, in terms of incentives for psychologists, and in terms of opportunity cost and risk-reward for business people. 2 Do I need to mention the problem with only having a hammer in your toolbox, that I’m sure you’ve heard a thousand times by now?

Prisig said something about this in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”:

(What makes his world so hard to see clearly is not its strangeness but its usualness). Familiarity can blind you too.

Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, but blindness. We don’t realize what makes places we live in unique or what familiar beliefs are simply inherited from other people. Most of us are in our own bubbles, and they only become visible once we step out of them and look back.

Thanks to Sara Campbell and Jordan T. Jones for editing this piece. I'm very grateful for your suggestions.

  1. Kevin Simler explores this in detail in his popular piece, Crony Beliefs . He suggests that we can detect these rent-free beliefs by detecting beliefs that come with strong emotions.

  2. Also known as “Parochialism”. Shane Parrish writes about this in more detail in “The great mental models - general thinking concepts”.

@shime_sh Hrvoje Šimić
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