I’m back at work, but mostly editing rather than writing. If you follow my posts, you may recall I completed the draft of a new book, my second, in June. Since then, I have taken time off and worked on a number of side projects – including a rewrite of the nutrition section of my HumanaNatura health program – clearing the way for several months of editing to prepare the new book for publishing.
For me, this second book feels like a more substantial journey than the first, and writing it has changed me, both as a writer and person. In the book, I explore and assess 24 human ideals, from happiness to growth, discuss a historical advocate of each ideal, and survey relevant contemporary science in each case. Some of the content I knew beforehand, but much was new, and the book involved a great deal of learning and insight for me, as I hope it will for you too.
Perhaps reflecting the book’s topic and breadth, I notice subtle but clear personal differences in my approach. One is new desire for directness or economy in my life and work – to speak and explain more plainly, to write with fewer words, to have more result with less action, or distraction, overall. Another change, related to the first, is that I more frequently question my actions, and those of others, notably asking, “Are you sure?” amid strong statements or pronouncements. It is this change, which at once involves and exposes the natural limits of thinking, or a phenomenon I will call the blindness in clarity, that I would like to explore with you today.
We Can See Only The Light, Or The Darkness It Naturally Exposes Too
In practice, about half the time I ask this question, the answer is a halting no or maybe, which was and remains a surprisingly high percentage for me. That said, I am not yet sure how often this pause in thought leads to new perspective, or to new and broader thinking. However, I have found similar results asking this question of groups – which shouldn’t be surprising, since they are comprised of people after all. However, I suspect that the added social and peer influences of defined collectives might dampen progressive change relative to individuals thinking on their own (see groupthink and its related topics). In any case, and as we will discuss, I would encourage you to question clarity or certainty – in yourself or others, and especially amid strident views or actions – to see what you will see.
Importantly, when I use the words clarity and blindness, I mean them in typical, plain, intuitive, and indeed likely clear ways. Clarity here is perspective and thinking that is organized, specific, definite, coherent, and thus relatively certain. As such, clarity also can be understood as subjective and a state of mind, and therefore, while real and tangible, also as naturally limited, representative, selective, and imperfect (as is this definition – to explore this overall idea, see mental model, inference, and satisficing). With the word blindness, I of course mean instances of being cognitively, conceptually, or informationally unaware or impaired, rather than visually so. But since all states of clarity or certainty are of their nature limited, selective, or imperfect, all must come with a certain amount of informational blindness or constraint too.
As you almost certainly (and likely innately) sense, some degrees and forms of clarity, and thus some degrees and forms of blindness, are both natural and quite helpful or adaptive in life. You also probably know that the topic of natural and optimal certainty is a vast area of modern science – spanning psychology, sociology, cognitive science, organizational behavior, political science, and information theory, to begin a list. I won’t attempt to summarize this large and growing body of work, but will use the specific example of religious or ideological conviction as a tangible, well-researched, helpful, and seemingly generalizable study of the natural benefits and limitations of clarity.
Without considering the content or merits of religious and other ideological outlooks – and whether any adaptive effects are direct (causal) or indirect (correlational) – considerable research suggests that moderate religious conviction, and therefore at least one common form of moderate clarity or certainty, is often significantly adaptive or healthy, and across a wide range of settings and outcomes (for an overview of this research area, see religion and health). By contrast, strong or fanatical religious views appear to be much less healthy, frequently leading to irrational, fatalistic, or self-defeating behaviors, and at both a personal and social level (see fanaticism and the page’s subordinate links).
For perspective, we might consider the history of nationhood, and the degree and forms of religiosity (or civic-mindedness, cultural allegiance, ideological certitude, conviction, or clarity) that were and are most associated with the formation and endurance of nations (to survey this interesting and insight-rich topic, see study of religion, history of religion, and theories of religion). Today, fanatic clarity or certitude seems not to be the norm in stable nations, or in stable lives within them, but is present to some degree and in identifiable forms.
To broaden our discussion, we might also probe the somewhat related place and role of art and philosophy in societies. Both generally begin from a relatively strong cultural sense or clarity about the world and our needed actions in it, and then often proceed to deliberately or unavoidably (owing to the natural limits of any view) undermine these views as they and their society evolve. In this movement, each may expose unjustifiable or lulling romanticism, reveal limiting prejudice, introduce new skepticism and rationality, and challenge various social and personal ideals and certainties. Once again, when measured, or fortuitous, this process may enable progressive self-awareness, clarity, learning, and adaptivity. Or it may miss this mark, potentially resulting in excessive and harmful self-consciousness, uncertainty, ambivalence, passivity, divisiveness, or other forms of maladaptation.
While interesting and thought-provoking, all of these ideas may be fairly obvious, intuitive, or again clear – especially in deliberative settings, upon reflection, and in the abstract. But of course life does not always have these qualities. When engaged in life and work, we may quickly and even chronically overlook the opportunity and benefits of measured or open-minded clarity, and instead lapse into clarity’s more strident, self-subsuming, mind-narrowing, occluding, and limiting forms.
To help you pursue optimal clarity in your life and work, here are three techniques you can explore and use right away (there are of course more, and I would welcome your ideas and suggestions in the comments section). As you will see, the ideas are arranged from ones that may be more appropriate in deliberative settings, or for exploring clarity generally, to ones likely to aid active, engaging, and pressing life, or for exploring improved clarity specifically.
> Explore areas of high clarity – perhaps initially as a learning or limbering exercise, pick three aspects of your life or work where you have high (but not trivial or tautological) certainty, and for each find three counterexamples, qualifications, or exceptions. Later, notably as a pausing aid to active life, you can then periodically or opportunistically identify specific episodes or examples of high certainty, and go through a similar process of probing, qualification, moderation, or broadening of the view.
> Leverage episodes of conflict – consider the various forms and instances of conflict in your life and work as opportunities for learning, and as potential signals of excessive or maladaptive clarity – or as cases of significant, unhelpful, and perhaps needless blindness. In these situations, work to understand the root causes of the conflict, the differing views of the adversaries involved, other potential views, and the lessons that all may hold for improved or more optimal clarity.
> Gently question strident certainty – as highlighted earlier in our discussion, whether in yourself or others, we again always can question our degree of sureness or certainty, especially when we are clearly strident or dogged in our views. For maximum effect, such questioning normally will be in a curious and seeking, rather than critical or aggressive, manner. It also should avoid proceeding to the point of debilitating self-consciousness, passivity, or animosity. And it will remember that instances of strident certainty can be highly adaptive and even may be optimal at times (as when saying no to drugs, criminality, or other reliable modes of health reduction).
With these and other steps, we can progressively cultivate more optimal or adaptive degrees and forms of natural clarity, certainty, and assertiveness in our lives and groups. Or conversely, we can steadily probe and navigate the natural blindness that comes with all life, all thought, all goals, and all actions.
In this way, we can increasingly live and work with both healthy confidence and healthy openness, or in a balance of activating and reflective qualities or ideals. By this, I mean knowing that we often naturally must be relatively clear and certain to be at our best in momentary life, but also remembering that we are at least partially blind and imperfect at all times too – and thus naturally ever on the threshold of new adaptive perspective, learning, and growth.
Health & best wishes,
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