Within reasonable limits, I don’t care whether my beliefs are true.
Why should I?
For one, in many situations, there are multiple, equally correct narratives to pick from. In those cases, you should choose the representation that works best:
“You judge a model by how useful it is, not by how right it is.” — Charles Chu
For example, I could tell myself and others that I deviated to Budapest because I couldn’t get the job I wanted in The Netherlands. I could also tell people that I came here because its philosophy department outshines the philosophy department of all Dutch universities and I want to become the best philosopher I can be.
Both are true. How to decide which way of thinking I ought to internalize?
Use the story that makes you into the best version of you.
Moreover, in most aspects of life, being right is not what’s most important. The only area where truth does matter intrinsically is moral philosophy (I explain why further on).
In the other areas, you have most reasons, not to try to have the thoughts that are most accurate, but to try to have the thoughts that make your life go best.
Whether these beliefs represent the world correctly strictly doesn’t matter.
Some cheesy lines that are actually true
There are consequences of our thoughts that are way more important than total accuracy.
- A person is the product of his own thoughts: those who employ the second-best attitudes are often second-best doers.
- Others see in us what we see in ourselves.
- As Wayne Dyer put it: “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Persons, things and events do not enter your consciousness unmediated. Your mindset affects your world.
These lines are cheesy. They’re also true.
If you’re not aware of the influence that your inner dialogue has on your life, and of the reversibility of this effect, you really are cheating yourself out of life’s joys.
The point of thinking
And look, it’s not as if this amounts to deluding yourself or to using your intelligence in the wrong way (whatever that means).
Because, think about it: what are thoughts for in the first place?
Human cognition never evolved for accuracy
Evolution doesn’t program us for truth, but for survival. The point of our thoughts is practical — not epistemological. They’re there to improve our lives (or our chances of survival).
“Being right” is only valuable to that end, but is not the ultimate goal.
By extension, we shouldn’t evaluative the content of our beliefs on whether they are “right”, but on how well they make our lives go.
(The reason I think that moral philosophy is different here, is this. Unlike ‘truth’, ‘good’ is a normative concept. For any descriptive truth about the world, there is always the further question of what to do in light of it. For reason-involving’ normative truths, if they exist, there would be no such further question. In normative questions, the truth is decisive. That’s why it’s so important to try to figure out whether normative truths exist.)
Focus on the consequences
We’ve seen that, by consciously influencing our thoughts, we do not downgrade from some objective perception to a ‘lie’, but simply from one way of looking at things to another.
So don’t use “realism” as an excuse to escape into a narrative that ultimately doesn’t serve you.
More importantly, our perception of the world turns out to be incredibly malleable. As Niklas Göke points out:
“Often, changing your perspective is the simplest way to change your life.”
This is a massive opportunity. We can leverage it by focusing, not on the content, but on the consequences of entertaining certain beliefs.
It’s more useful to think in ways that propel you forward, than to think things that hold you back.
Some perspectives are empowering, while others are limiting.
That’s just the way it is, so you might as well accept it and learn how to deal with it instead of wishing that reality was different.
To turn on your inner Mr. Great — this is my name for the voice in my head that does the effective self-talk — it might help to ask yourself these questions:
What will it ultimately cost me if I keep thinking this?
What would I have to believe in order become a better version of myself, or to reach my goals?
Take control, and create convictions that drive you.
Think in the way that works.
Become best friends with your Mr. Great.
There is simply no reason to settle for anything less.