What Motivates You Defines You…or is it Who?

Hidden Motives.  We all have them.  We all experience them, yet often, it is far easier to see them in others, rather than in ourselves.  I recently listened to the following podcast about the so-called “Elephant in the Brain” , that we all carry around with us, but try to ignore.  If you have the time to listen, the podcast embedded below will take you deep sea diving into the depths of brain science, selfishness, hypocrisy, norms/meta-norms, cheating, deception/self-deception, education, the evolutionary logic of conversation, social status, signaling/counter-signaling and common knowledge.  As with all learning, like you, I try to discern how to best apply these things to my everyday life and to my relationships.  After listening to this, I came away with a strong conviction to be more aware of my hidden motives and to be conscious of not just what motivates me, but Who. Here is how I got there…

At this point, where I have alluded to God with the capital W in Who, you might find it odd that I am a Jesus Follower who listens to a podcast hosted by a devout atheist, Sam Harris.  If you get to know me or read my blog, you’ll probably learn that I firmly believe that true knowledge and dare I say, true faith, is found only when we are open to listening to all the viewpoints and the vast diversity God has created.  I go out of my way not to live and learn “in a bubble” and I believe we are Better Together. That means interacting, and even loving the people, outside our respective “bubbles.”

Note this is an audio recording on YouTube.  In this episode of the Waking Up Podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Robin Hanson about our hidden motives in everyday life. They discuss selfishness, hypocrisy, norms and meta-norms, cheating, deception, self-deception, education, the evolutionary logic of conversation, social status, signaling and counter-signaling, common knowledge, AI, and many other topics.

For any of you who either don’t love science or don’t have the time to listen to a podcast, just hang in there with me for a second while I attempt to set the stage. I promise we will get to the “fun stuff” soon.  In this podcast, Sam Harris and Robin Hanson discuss how our brains are wired for self-deception and the deception of others.  They share how our brain’s wiring creates the unconscious motives that “infect our venerated social institutions such as Art, School, Charity, Medicine, Politics, and Religion.” They allege that these institutions are in many ways designed to accommodate our hidden motives, to serve covert agendas alongside their “official” ones. By extension, they describe the same for our personal relationships.

Harris and Hanson share examples of how our behavior as individuals and our expectations of society are often in conlflict, such as our wanting speed limits and wanting those to apply to everyone, in contrast to our unabashed individual want to/need for speed.  Harris asks us this very pointed question: “Why do we, who say we want speed limits, because we know it keeps us all safer, also fail to want our society to make or buy cars that cannot exceed the speed limit?” This is the elephant in our brain: the contradiction between the norms and rules we want society to have and enforce, while we simultaneously look for any opportunity and/or excuse to break them.

I’d ask anyone, reading this from a faith-based point of view, to consider just how similar this is to the concept that, while we know what God wants for us, we “all find ourselves broken and living in a broken world.” In some ways, it is truly similar and other very fundamental ways, quite different; as from their point of view, there is no God to save us from our broken selves.  In their view, only through the awareness of our “tricky biological dispositions” can we make good moral and societal decisions. You may agree with them, either way,  I think we all have something to learn from this.

Hanson and his co-author, Kevin Simler, describe our brains as having two halves.  The half that acts and the half that justifies those actions. They use the analogy of the conscious self as a sort of press secretary, continually making up good excuses for our behavior.  In this way, our press secretary creates and tells the story of our lives, trying to portray us in the best possible light for success in society.

As a further illustration of this dynamic at work, Sam Harris describes a long standing neurological finding best exemplified in patients with a split-brain procedure.  In this procedure, some of those who experience severe gran mal seizures have their corpus collasum cut.  According to scientists, in most people, the left (linguistic) side of our brain confabulates reasons for doing things, while our right brain does them, in an otherwise mindless, autonomic fashion.  In a famous experiment, they tell these patients’ right brains to get up and walk to the door, only to observe the left brain confabulate a reason for it, such as: “I wanted a Coke.”  In these experiments, the left brain keeps completing the picture based on nothing or next to no information.  The press secretary covers our actions with a made-up story. Usually, that story is one that casts us as having a reasonable motive for the action, or at least a neutral one, like any good press secratary would do.

The podcasters reassure us that we should not be dismayed, they say many motives are relevant and sometimes truly noble, but that we are easily deceived about which ones are and which ones aren’t.  They conclude better awareness of this tendency can help us make better decisions. Which brings me to my learning about the Who over the What.  Just for fun, let’s start by asking ourselves, How.  Based on all this evidence, how can we be sure the motives we think are good and pure, are truly so?  How can we be sure that, even when we are trying to serve others, what we are doing is in those others’ best interest, or at least, not slavishly always in our own? What if, we can’t discern a difference?

At one point in the podcast, there is an interesting exchange between, Harris, the devout atheist, albeit with the strong contemplative and moralistic bent, and Hanson, the incredibly, indelibly neutral scientist.  Hanson shares during one of Harris’ atheistic assertions, that he finds it interesting that all the scientific evidence suggests those with some sort of faith, which Harris may feel is the ultimate self-deception, tend to live, longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives.  He insinuates (or maybe my press secretary just heard it this way?) that these people understand and gain something that those who are straining to rely only on their own understanding of the world, on a purely fact-based level, may not.

For instance, I was brought to tears by a story yesterday.  It seems that someone in our community lost their child abruptly.  That young man was working on a project before he passed with a neighbor of his.  He was nearly done and ready to share it. The day after the tragedy, not only did that neighbor show up to complete the project, he was surprised to find that young man’s friends arrived at the project site with the very same idea in mind.  Together, they will complete his unfinished work and share it with neighborhood children as the young man intended.  What were the hidden motives in that scenario? What were the neighbor and friends respective press secretaries telling them and the world?  Does any of that even matter to a mother who no longer has her child?

Which brings us to the Who.  Whether you are a believer in something or Someone greater than yourself, I submit to you that the more we learn about ourselves, the less we know whether it is all “hardware” or if there is something more. There will be disagreements on this, to be sure. From either point of view, one thing is clear, we have a choice to make.  We can choose to figure this all out on our own, focusing exclusively on the mysterious What and the perplexing How, or we can choose to be in this together with some whos.  True, I have put my faith in the big Who, and I would love for everyone to have what I have found.  Until that day, if you are not there, I implore you to choose to find some whos to work through this crazy life with.  If we are in this together, our hidden motives need not define us, nor will our press secretaries.  If we play this right, in the end, our whos and our relationship to the whos, and for some of us, The Big Who, will be the one to tell our story.


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You don’t know what I’m feeling

I recently listened to this incredible TED Radio Hour titled Decoding Our Emotions.  Like every TED Radio Hour, this one was packed with multiple views of the topic, but one really impacted me deeply.  It was the section entitled: Can we really tell how other people are feeling? and it was based on a TED talk by Lisa Feldman Barrett.  In this segment, the show’s host, Guy Raz, asks Lisa, “do emotions apply to all people universally across the board?” to which she replies, “no, they don’t.”” Here’s just one snippet of their exchange.

BARRETT: Here’s what we know. We know that there is no single objective fingerprint, single objective measure, for any emotion that holds across instances, across people, across cultures. My husband, for example, makes a full-on scowling face when he is thinking very deeply. People often will say to him, are you angry? And he’ll say, no, I’m not angry. I’m thinking. And it’s really tempting, you know, to believe that your confidence that you’re right means that you can read people beautifully. But the fact is when you perceive emotion in someone else, you’re just guessing. Is it ever possible to guess correctly? I would say of course it’s possible to guess correctly. We do it all the time.
RAZ: Except you’re guessing.

“Guessing.”  “Tempting to believe your confidence that you’re right means you can read people beautifully.”  That section left an impact on me.  I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I tend to have a pretty high opinion of my ability to read people and relate to their situations.  Those who know me would likely tell you that I am an incredibly empathetic person by nature, often too a fault.  However, it is sobering to recognize that I am merely guessing when I read and relate to people and, moreover, I am likely to be wrong much of the time!  This is incredibly humbling.  It builds awareness to learn this about myself and I would encourage you to listen, watch or read the material I have linked in this post to see if this applies to you in some way.  I would encourage you to practice being mindful of your overconfidence, as I plan to be.

After reading this or learning more, the temptation and reaction you might have could be to pull back from other people or at least shy away from trying to meet them where they are, with your newfound fear of guessing wrong.  I know that is what I thought about immediately after listening to this.  I thought about all the times I misread or misunderstood or couldn’t relate to someone, even though I thought I “nailed it.”  I thought about all the fails versus the wins and good (or close) guesses. If you are thinking of pulling back, I say that is the exact opposite of what you should do.

Please don’t forget that in the same way that we are all wired differently and have this beautiful diversity among us, we have a shared humanity as well.  We are all part of the same creation and we are intended to do life together.  We have been given these incredible brains, complicated emotions and an individual makeup that expresses all of that for a reason.  That reason is to take part and participate in the greater whole of creation.  We are not called to be a bystander, not asked to be a mere observer, we are challenged to play our part as as full and engaged partner with the other flawed, complex people we find in our community and our environment.

So, please, listen to Guy and listen to Lisa and the other incredibly brilliant people on this podcast, but do me a favor…  Don’t shy away from interacting with people and trying to relate to them.  Make your guesses, reach out in a loving, unselfish way toward those around you, knowing that you may not always get the guess right, or share the same experience, or even ever be able to share the same experience. It is worth some wrong guesses to grow together and be better together with others.  We need each other.  One last thing, when people reach out to you, and I am guilty of this all the time, try to avoid pointing out just how bad their guesses are.  Try your best to accept that they are making a bid for connection with you and find a way to share your unique experience without pushing them away.  You’ll be glad you did. (At least I’m guessing you’ll be glad.)

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The MACRO impact of micro (?)

Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash

We live in a world where there are stark examples in the news of people hurting others both physically and emotionally.  This happens in our day to day lives as well, where people hurt each other both overtly, through violence or emotional abuse, or in other, less obvious ways.  Have you ever taken time to think that, perhaps, the cumulative effect of the small hurts may be just as impactful as the ones that make the news or that fill our personal stories of pain? If that is the case, what if there was an antidote for these micro-hurts, an ointment for these tiny little cuts? What if it did not involve merely raising awareness or becoming more politically correct, but instead prescribed that the answer to our cumulative “micro-pain” is as simple as micro-healing though tiny acts of love?  Is it possible that the solution to our cumulative “micro-hurts” is “micro-love”? More boldly, what if the answer to the more obvious and blatant hurt and pain we see in the news and in our personal lives, does not require some grand governmental intervention or super savvy technocratic plan, but that same “micro-love” solution applied in a macro way?  Continue reading “The MACRO impact of micro (?)”

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We get to…

I’ve been reflecting on the words of one of my CEOs a great deal in recent weeks: “We get to change.” I’d credit him by name, but I do my best not to call out the details of my “day job” in this blog. That job and my other paid and unpaid occupations, like this blog, are, sadly, required to be distinctly separate endeavors. That said, let me just share that the man is incredibly inspiring and engaging. In fact, he is ushering us through a monumental period of change with an admirable cocktail of guts and skill.

The brevity of that mantra and the substitution of the words “get to” for “have to” or “must” evokes anticipation, engagement and action. That is what he intends and that, coincidentally(?), is also what we are called to do with our own lives. We “get to” engage. We “get to” be excited. We “get to” be who we were born to be. If you are a believer, like me, you believe you “get to” be who you were created to be.

I had a great weekend of reminders about this. I attended the celebration of life of a 91 year old veteran who understood what it was like to “get to” be alive and to “get to” be him. I laughed and cried as I heard stories of how he fully lived out his life, relishing it, caring for those around him and squeezing the juice out of every spontaneous moment. My, more than equally inspirational and engaging, pastor reminded us of this as well, this past Sunday, when she spoke of how we are each just as much a miraculous and unique creation as the heavenly and natural objects that we stand in awe of each and every day.

So yes we “get to” change AND we “get to” be who we were created to be. Those two things are not mutually exclusive by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, if you or your organization are going to embrace change or even ride the waves of change – you must bring your entire self to the table to do it. That means you need to step back, in the midst of change, and take stock of yourself. Are you being true to your calling? Are you fully realizing all your gifts and talents? Are you bringing your whole self to every endeavor, every project, every conversation and every relationship? Are you languishing in who you “have to” be or are you truly maximizing who you are? I challenge you, today, to stop wasting time being who you have to be and instead realize who you were created to be…get out there and be who you “get to” be.

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