Understanding the mind: 9 design flaws
When I was six years old, my Dad asked me two questions that would change my life. He asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said, “A professional magician!” He followed with, “Why do you have to wait until you’re an adult to do that?”
At six, I was blessed with naiveté and optimism and couldn’t come up with a good answer to his question, so I put together a little magic show and performed at my neighbor’s birthday party.
By the time I was 18, I had done over 300 paid magic shows around the US.
When my Dad asked that question, he short-circuited one of the design flaws of the human mind, the tendency to obsess over limitation at the expense of possibility, and in so doing enabled me to create my own reality.
An important truth: we don’t know the nature of “reality.” Our minds aren’t powerful enough to comprehend it. At the moment, neither is our technology or our collective consciousness.
What we do know is that our minds are riddled with design flaws, which put artificial constraints on our individual and collective lives.
By understanding these flaws, we can take better control of our lives and environments.
Below are nine design flaws of the human mind. Just becoming aware of them will help you overcome them. After each flaw, you’ll learn strategies to defeat, redirect, or short-circuit the flaw. As you overcome each, you’ll amass more power over reality.
1) We are horrible judges of what is and is not possible
Imagine for a second that you’ve traveled back in time to the early 90’s and that you’re describing a smartphone to someone.
You tell them that it’s a camera, a supercomputer, a camcorder, a video conferencing tool, a phone, a music player, a video game system, and a device you can use to send short text based messages. It’s constantly connected to high speed internet, it fits in your pocket, and it only costs a few hundred bucks.
And then you ask them, “Hey, do you think that’s possible?” 99.9999% of your 90’s audience would claim that smartphones are impossible.
They wouldn’t be able to imagine such a device – especially one with technology that didn’t exist at the moment – and would incorrectly deem it impossible.
We 2014 crowd are just as quick to assume impossibility in ourselves, when in reality complete and total possibility is attainable.
Fix the flaw: Understand that you are poorly equipped to judge what is and is not possible. Your job is to test the limits of reality for yourself, instead of merely assuming that the limits exist.
History is filled with people who have achieved the “impossible” simply because they kept trying until they succeeded.
2) We believe that happiness comes from external sources
What do you need right now to make yourself happy? A better job? More money? A great relationship? The admiration of your friends? A bigger apartment?
The answer, actually, is you don’t need any of those things. Happiness isn’t derived from externalities. We’ve all had the experience of getting something we lusted after, only to feel the excitement fade away moments later (the Christmas effect – the anticipation is more fun than the fulfillment).
When you rely on the external world of material goods and others’ opinions to bring you happiness, you give all your power away. Suddenly, everything and everyone has power over your mood and your emotions. Not only is this dangerous, it just doesn’t work.
Fix the flaw: Happiness is something you work for within yourself. It’s the result of how you live your life. The quickest route I’ve found is to sleep 8 hours a night, exercise 3-5 times a week, be honest about who you are in word and action (which can be quite daunting) and express gratitude for the things you have.
To exercise this gratitude, I make a list of three things that I appreciate shortly after I wake up, and then three things that were awesome about the day before I go to bed.
Funnily enough, when you take the time to control the elements you can control, a lot of the things that you desire from the external world (success, friends, adventure, money, stability, whatever) will start to come to you on their own.
Note: there is a small percent of people for whom believing that happiness will come from an external source is not a design flaw. If you live in a community where you simply don’t fit, or if you’re surrounded by toxic people, there is a good chance that external changes will increase your happiness.
3) We obsess over criticism and fail to process compliments
Imagine that ten journalists have written stories about you. Nine of those stories are glowing, calling you one of the best humans ever. One story, however, is scathing, alleging that you suck and are a waste of space.
Which story will stay on your mind? As a human, there is a good chance that the one negative story will be the one you obsess over, and the nine positive ones will be largely ignored. That’s what would happen to me.
We virtually ignore all the positive feedback about ourselves and our work and instead obsess over the criticism, even if the positive outweighs the negative.
Fix the flaw:
- Learn to let compliments wash over you. When someone says something nice, pause, connect to the feeling, and let it expand across your body. I know that sounds abstract, but try it. For a moment or two, the emotion will wash over you, and you’ll feel great. It’s important to do this with compliments, because whether you realize it or not, you’re already connecting this profoundly with insults.
- Make a list of ten things that are awesome about you. I give this advice frequently because it helped get me out of a huge slump a few years back.
Now write ten more. And, if you can, write ten more. Go to the mirror, stare yourself in the eye, and read your list out loud with energy. Try it in the morning when you wake up; it will set your day in a great direction and over time, it will focus you in on what’s great about you instead of what’s wrong.
4) We feel like success is a scarce resource
Each time one of my peers jumps to the next level of success, my first feelings are a mixture of jealousy and inadequacy.
I think, “Shit, Steve just published a book. I haven’t written a book yet. How was he able to do this before me? I’m falling behind. There must be something wrong with me if he’s this far ahead. This might be Game Over for Jason.”
When someone we know or admire succeeds in the same way that we want to succeed, we often feel weird about it. This is because we picture success as a scarce resource, reasoning that the more success other people experience, the less there is left over for us.
In reality, the exact opposite is true. Success is an abundant resource. The more the people around you are succeeding, the more likely you are to succeed too. Others can help motivate you, share strategies, and make connections to get you to the top more quickly.
Fix the flaw: The quickest way to become successful and to uncover the truth that success (and money, and love) is an abundant resource is to begin proactively providing value to others. If you think you can help someone without too much effort, do it. Improve one or two people’s lives each day. Good things will come to you.
5) We believe in and accept “failure”
A lot of people are afraid to chase their dreams. It’s sad. Their fear is that if they try and fail, then they’ll forever have to live in a world where their dreams didn’t come true. Instead, they play it safe and let their dreams rest quietly in the private and unexplored world of their hearts and heads, without ever taking action.
I shouldn’t need to point out that this logic is entirely self-defeating.
What people who fear failure are missing is this: failure is a decision we make when we decide to stop pursuing that dream. Failure is not an external reality that exists on its own; it’s a construct we create.
When you try something, anything, really, you get results. If you like the results, you call your efforts “successful,” and if you don’t like the results, you call your efforts “failed,” but those are just labels. They possess no essential reality.
Fix the flaw: Realize that failure isn’t permanent in any way. The next time you attempt something and don’t get the results you want, tweak a variable and try again. Continue tweaking and trying until you get what you want.
There is always a way in. Refuse failure and success becomes inevitable.
6) We are victims of the instant gratification curse
Modernity is wired for instant gratification. We can listen to albums the moment they are released (and often a week or two before), shoot a text to a friend and expect a response momentarily, and access all the knowledge in the world with just a few keystrokes.
Instant gratification and instant results aren’t just an expectation, they are an addiction, which can stall a lot of people out. The truly exceptional things in life rarely take minutes, seconds or hours, but require days, weeks, months, and years. Few of us, however, can endure the wait for long enough to produce those exceptional results because we’ve become addicted to instant gratification.
Fix the flaw: Satisfy your need for instant gratification by finding small quick victories within the larger battles and use those to fire you forward. Celebrate often.
If you’re building a business (which can take 3-5 years), break the process down into smaller achievable goals that come quickly. Make a big deal of finishing your prototype, of your first customer, of your first $1,000.
Harness the energy of these quick victories to motivate you down the longer path.
7) We have more faith in tomorrow than we do today
How often have you thought to yourself, “I really want to (quit my job/travel the world/move to Chicago/start crossfit) but today just isn’t the day. I’ll start (tomorrow/after my next paycheck/when I get a raise).”
Guess what? That promised tomorrow where you are somehow better equipped than you are today… that day never comes.
I know because I’ve fallen victim to this “illusion of tomorrow” many times in my life. I’ve waited for days and months and years to start living, only to look back and resent the Jason of the past for not starting already.
The truth: unless you are in the habit of improving yourself a little bit each day, tomorrow is going to be exactly like today. This will continue until you die.
Now is always the time to start.
Fix the flaw: You already have everything you need to achieve your truest desires. The trick is to take action.
Start by figuring out what you really want. Let’s say it’s to travel the world. You don’t have to hop on the jet right this instant (though that would be cool).
All you really have to do is make slow incremental changes. Open an airline credit card to stock up on frequent flyer miles. Stay in one night a week and put aside the money you saved for travelling. Start planning your trip. Set a departure date. You get the picture.
My dream is that someone reading this right now will close their laptop, cancel their plans for the day, and start living because they’ve realized that now is the time to start. It always is. If that’s you, please send pictures.
8) We feel like the people around us are judging us
It feels as though the people around us are constantly judging us. A stranger averts eye contact, someone at a party excuses herself to get a drink and then never comes back, the sales call goes poorly, and we conclude that the people we’ve been interacting with don’t like us.
But that’s rarely how human dynamics work. Think about it for a second. When you meet someone, are you really judging them? No! You’re busy worrying that they are judging you. You think, “I hope this person likes me! I did wear deodorant today, right? Does my hair look ok? Oh I just said the stupidest thing…”
Fix the flaw: The best way to get rid of the illusion of being negatively judged is to actively and positively judge others. The next time you start to worry that the person with whom you’re interacting is judging you, short-circuit the system by finding something about them that you like and complimenting them on it, thus alleviating everyone’s anxiety.
An even easier approach is to let the person know that you like them. A quick and sincere smile, eye contact, and a “Hey I’m really glad we met. You’re a cool guy. I like you” makes them feel good, and they will associate those feelings with you.
Combining the knowledge that people aren’t constantly judging you with a few quick tricks to win them over will you allow you to relax and be present without anxiety.
9) We focus on limitations instead of possibility
In any situation, there is an entire universe of possibilities accessible to us. And yet, instead of focusing on the possibilities, we often obsess over the limitations.
Say you want to start a charity, but you’re only 25. You focus on the fact that you’re young, you don’t have a lot of money or experience, and that people won’t take you seriously. Distracted by the limitations, you tell yourself you’ll start the charity ten years from now when you’re rich and established (see Design Flaw 7).
But what if you focused on the possibility? At 25, your cost of living is far lower than average, meaning you can operate your charity with less money. At 25, you haven’t been in the “real world” for very long, so your thinking hasn’t become tainted by the system. At 25, you have boundless energy to drive into the cause. At 25, you have fewer responsibilities and can spend more time focusing on driving that charity. In fact, I would argue it makes more sense to build an organization at 25 than it does at 45.
The truth is, most limitations you encounter are totally artificial. They are figments of your imagination that have been created by a society obsessed with coloring inside the lines.
Fix the flaw: When you find yourself focusing on limitations, on something you’ve lost, or why you can’t do something, you need to change your focus. Four ways to do this:
- Make a list of ten ideas on how this limitation benefits you or how you can achieve your dream anyway. The list doesn’t have to be filled with brilliant ideas, they just have to be ideas. By writing down ten ideas, you’ll force your mind to look at possibility instead of limitation.
- Talk to the most successful person you know. Successful people rarely get hung up on limitations. Ask them what they suggest you do, and then take their advice.
- Spend twenty minutes a night visualizing exactly what you want. If you’re unemployed and looking for your dream job, lie down on your couch, and visualize having that dream job. Connect to the feeling that this practice creates in you and follow that feeling when you sense it in real life.
To be clear: I don’t believe that visualizing something will magically draw it into reality. I’ve tried to imagine a signed Larry Bird basketball in my living room plenty of times, and it still hasn’t appeared.
What visualization will do is help shift your mind to the “possibility” section of reality so that you can find paths for achieving what you want to achieve instead of obsessing over the limitations.
- Just do what you want to do. Often times, it’s as simple as this. At six, I didn’t know any better about becoming a professional magician. My mind hadn’t been so beaten into submission that I could come up with good reasons as to why this wasn’t possible for me.
So instead of falling victim to a design flaw, I just did what I genuinely wanted to do, and I achieved the dream. You can use the same technique. Once you find a dream that is real to you, ignore the limitations – even if they seem daunting – and press forward into the reality of your desires.
Society has conditioned us to dream small, to accept the status quo, and to play it safe. We’ve been taught that mediocrity is acceptable and normal.
What a shame. Dreaming as big as you can, changing the world, and taking the risk of coming fully alive is what life is all about.
The best way to overcome the artificial limitations is to take control of your mind. Cast away the design flaws that plague most people and revel as you begin to shape reality to your desires.
Drain Brain Spider by darkday
Magic is true! by Xava du
Fail by Ricky Romero
Calendar by Andreanna Moya Photography
Courtroom One Gavel by Joe Gratz