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Education Lifestyle Productivity

First Principles Thinking

“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.”

Elon Musk (1971 – )

First Principles Thinking is a powerful mental model for creating non-linear outcomes.

Big thanks to @SahilBloom for sharing these ideas on Twitter.

First Principles Thinking is how people like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates make good, long-term decisions without needing to know everything about a complex situation.

It requires a willingness to ask hard questions.

It also requires a willingness to answer hard questions.

First Principles Questions

If you’ve read my post on The Importance of Questions, then you’ll know that I believe questions are the keys to unlocking the knowledge to get whatever we want. Access to everything we want is locked up in someone else’s head, and questions are our keys.

If we can ask the right questions, we can get anything we want.

That being said there are some questions that we can ask to get us primed for First Principles Thinking.

Here are a few of those questions:

What is the problem I am trying to solve?

We waste a lot of time and energy trying to solve the “wrong” problem. If we can identify exactly what it is we need to do, then we can eliminate a lot of that waste.

Focus is powerful when applied correctly.

Identify the right problem, before trying to solve it.

What do I know to be true about this problem?

Write down everything you know to be true about the problem. (Don’t just run through them in your head.) Writing them down allows us the judge the ideas accurately.

It wouldn’t help to include things about previously attempted solutions too.

Why do I believe these “truths” to be true? How do I know they are true?

Clearly identifying the source of our beliefs is key to understanding the beliefs. It also allows us to analyze our thought habits on a deeper level.

It’s crucial to be ruthless in their validity and integrity. If we lie to ourselves here, we won’t be able to make sound decisions later on.

How can I support these beliefs? Is there real evidence to support them?

Find hard, tangible evidence that proves these beliefs to be true. If you can’t find it, or the sources aren’t reliable, then you’ve learned something about those beliefs – they’re shoddy.

Are my emotions clouding my judgement and reasoning?

Emotional decisions typically produce bad (and expensive) outcomes. Remove the emotions from the process. Emotions have a place, but not when making long-term, complex, and important choices. Intentional and planned decisions are what’s needed to push things beyond what they currently are.

What alternative beliefs or view points might exist?

Acknowledging and understanding other viewpoints is a skill that cannot be cultivated enough.

So much lies beyond what we understand. Everything has something to teach us.

Seek out other beliefs. Embrace them. Let them enrich you.

But also, evaluate them on their merits. Ask the same fundamental questions about them.

What are the consequences of being wrong in my original beliefs?

There’s risk in everything, even what we already know. It’s important to understand the stakes and manage risk. Otherwise, the downsides can wipe us out unexpectedly.

We have to know what will happen if we’re wrong.

First Principles 101

First principles starts with questioning our beliefs.

Asking the above questions will us help drill down to the fundamental truths of a problem and ultimately identify a better solution. (Assuming there is one.)

If this starts to seem like we’re thinking like insatiably curious children, then we’re on the right track.

Let’s start with some definitions:

First Principle – a foundational assumption or proposition. It’s foundational in that it cannot be deduced from other assumptions or prepositions.

First principles are like elements. They can’t be broken down any further.

First Principles Thinking – a problem-solving technique that requires breaking down complex problems into their most basic, foundational elements.

The main idea is to take a bottom-up approach; ground ourselves in foundational truths and build up from there.

Typically, when we encounter difficult problems, our inclination is to rely on base-level assumptions that we’ve been told are true, or believe to be true.

We do this because it’s quick and easy, but also because those ideas have probably been true in the past.

This leads to unimaginative, linear solutions that just mimic what has been done before.

This is known as “Reasoning by Analogy“. It leads to solutions that are the same as something else. It has its place, but it’s not great for solving complex problems in need of imaginative solutions.

“Reasoning by Analogy” is a great rule for dealing with problems in which speed is paramount and novel solutions aren’t the goal.

Solutions are to problems like foundations are to houses.

If the foundation is unstable, the house will collapse. If the foundation is sturdy, the house will stay up.

First principles help create a sturdy foundation.

Elon Musk & Space X

Let’s check out the case of Elon Musk and Space X to see First Principles Thinking in action.

Complex problem: how to send a rocket to Mars.

First logical step: obtain rocket.

Musk, as rich as he is, discovered that buying rockets wasn’t a feasible plan. He found that they go for a whopping $65 million each.

Now now the complex problem is getting more complex and we’re further from the solution.

It’s time to apply First Principles thinking – let’s start with asking why do rockets cost $65 million?

The answer to this question is pretty much – because that’s how they’ve always been built and how much they need to cost. Tradition essentially.

Not exactly an iron clad answer.

But now we know that we can think of rockets in an entirely different way.

Time to ask even more basic and fundamental questions – What is a rocket made of? What are the value of these materials on the open market?

Musk finds out that rockets are made of Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. All of which cost about 2% of a typical rocket.

Musk decides that he can build his own rockets, for much less than $65 million.

Rather than accept the truths that he’s been told about rockets, Musk grounded his problem-solving efforts in First Principles.

Today, Space X has rockets that are safely delivering humans to and from space and the dreams of colonizing Mars are closer to being realized.

Methods of First Principles

There is no set way to establish First Principles.

However, there are a few methods that work pretty well. One is known as Socratic Questioning. It’s a technique where we use systemic questioning to drill down to fundamental truths.

Some questions that can be used for Socratic Questioning are as follows:

Why do I believe this to be true?

How do I know this is true?

How can I support this belief?

What alternative viewpoints might exist?

Question everything. Never stop asking why. Become an endlessly curious child.

The world is already full of unimaginative, copycat solutions and this only leads us to predictable linear outcomes.

Using First Principles Thinking is difficult and time consuming, but it’s also a solid path to conjuring creative solutions that lead to non-linear outcomes.

Aristotle defined First Principles as “the first basis from which a thing is known.”

The world’s greatest thinkers and problem solvers use the same methods when solving complex problems: grounding themselves in first principles and building a solution from there.

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Lifestyle Productivity

The Ocho System

“That which is not good for the swarm, neither is it good for the bee.”

Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)

I got this wonderful idea from American athlete and writer, Joe Holder. The Ocho System is a powerful framework based on the principle:

One helps others. Others help one.

Improving one area will prove all of the areas. Holder presents these areas in the context of wellness and fitness, but I can see this being a broader life philosophy.

Part of what makes this so powerful is taking on the possibility that:

None of them are well, until all of them are well.

Like I said earlier, this can apply broadly across life. So this can apply to our families, communities, and different parts of ourselves.

I had a few experiences in college and shortly afterward that helped me see the world in a different light. I personally discovered the interconnectedness of everything and it’s had a profound impact on me. If my actions affect everything around me, then my actions matter. Suddenly, everything became meaningful and important. As opposed to my semi-nihilistic worldview before — everything isn’t connected and some things don’t matter at all.

Holder has integrated the fact that everything is interconnected with The Ocho System.

There is no one, there is just all.

It is impossible to ignore the effects of one thing on another.

Holder said that The Ocho System is about taking control of physical health and allowing that to bleed into other areas of our lives.

Personally, I think this goes much deeper than our physical health, but the physical is a nontrivial aspect.

It plays off the number 8 and is designed to create an infinite feedback loop of wellness and gratitude. Working on The 8 makes us well, which makes gratitude easier, which makes being well easier. It’s a great way of creating a success spiral.

8 Core Components

Physical Health

Emotional Health

Intellectual Health

Environmental Health

Spiritual Health

Occupational Health

These are developed in the context of our bigger life purpose. Simply working on these parts of our lives isn’t enough, they have to be developed in service to something bigger.

How do we know what the context is?

Just ask why.

Why develop physical health?

Why develop emotional health?

Why develop intellectual health? And so on, and so on…

Answering why will help us when we’re not feeling as motivated to keep up the work.

Developing each of these areas takes time, effort, commitment, discipline, and drive. However, it gets easier the longer we work on them. Like I said earlier, working on these areas creates an infinite feedback loop of wellness and gratitude which makes upkeep much easier too.

I recommend writing down the goals that improve each component. People who write their goals down tend to accomplish their goals more often than people who don’t. Writing down our goals provides a smaller scale clearly articulated purpose.

For me personally, I try to do something every day that benefits each of these areas. I have daily goals that, if met, would improve or maintain my current levels.

A few of these goals are as follows:

Running and Kettlebell Swings for Physical Health

Journaling and Creating Music for Emotional Health

Reading and Writing for Intellectual Health

Cleaning and Responsible Networking for Environmental Health

Meditation, Reading, and Writing for Spiritual Health

Working on my Businesses for Occupational Health

These are just the things I try to do every day. I also try to keep these areas in mind when I’m doing most things. I want the actions I take in the day to benefit me in the best way possible and I can do that by ensuring my actions benefit one of the 8 areas.

I also want to include another way of looking at the “one helps others, others help one” principle. The Ocho System can be applied broadly and works well for health, but if you really want to zero in on improving your physical health check our the Five Core Biomotor Skills.

5 Core Biomotor Skills

Coordination

Strength

Endurance

Agility

Balance

Improving one of these will improve the other 4. This is a great framework for starting to take control of your physical health. Just focus on improving one of these things a day and in time you will transform yourself.

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Education Lifestyle Productivity

Our Reward Value System

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910)

My recent days of research and reading have led me to unpack the unexpectedly dense world of rewards and reward systems. I’ve been trying to understand how our brains decide what’s rewarding and what isn’t. This has lead to me ask questions like –

Why do we prefer donuts to spinach?

Why are some things more rewarding than others?

My last post was about the importance of understanding rewards and how rewards can trigger consummatory behaviors within us. This post is going to focus more on why we like some things more than others. Hopefully, with this understanding, we can hack our brains into actually enjoying things that are good for us and reduce the friction to creating a life by design.

A big thanks to Dr. Jud for helping me understand this.

In order to understand how our brain’s reward system works, we have to first look at habits. I’ve written a few posts on habits, I recommend checking them out. They are Types of Habits and Designing Our Lives and Understanding Habits and The 1% Rule. Habits are fundamental to our lives and understanding how they work gives us the ability to design our lives.

Basically, we need habits to get through our everyday life. We use habits as a way of saving energy. Let me put it like this, if we had to learn every single thing we did every day, then we’d be exhausted by noon! It takes a lot of energy to do or learn something we haven’t done before and it takes little energy to do things that we’re familiar with. This is why it isn’t too exhausting for most people to get up and get ready for the day. It’s a habit and habits don’t take much energy to do.

But not everything we do is turned into a habit, only some are.

So how we do know which actions to turn into habits and which ones to not?

It all depends on how ~rewarding~ it is.

Our brains have a way of rank-ordering rewards as more valuable and less valuable. This is known as reward-based learning and it has 3 parts.

Trigger

Behavior

Reward

Let me give a few examples of this: Let’s say our alarm clock goes off and we hit the snooze button to stop it. The trigger was the alarm sound. It’s annoying so we want to do whatever we can to stop it. The behavior is hitting the snooze button to stop the alarm as fast as we can. The reward is the alarm stops. This is known as a negative reward – we got our payoff when something is removed from the situation, in this case, the alarm. Now that we got our reward, we are more likely to use this method again in the future to deal with the same situation. This is why hitting the snooze button is so addictive. Every time we hit it, we get our negative reward which reinforces the behaviors to get it.

Let’s look at this from another angle: Let’s say I study really hard for my exam and I get a higher score than I was expecting. The trigger is the awareness of the exam. The behavior is studying for the exam. The reward is a high grade. This is known as a positive reward – we get the payoff when something is given to us or when something is added to the situation that we wanted. In this case, the high grade is something that we got as a reward for our studying. Now in the future, we are more likely to study when an exam comes up.

I want to emphasize that the reward reinforces the behavior that led up to it regardless of what it was. If we cheated and got the grade we wanted, we are going to be more inclined to cheat again. Rewards will reinforce anything, it doesn’t matter what it is.

These rewards can also be intrinsic or extrinsic. I talked a little about that in Consummatory Behavior and Rewards. Intrinsic rewards are rewards that relate to improving the self or other internal gains. These are extremely motivating and rewarding in the long term, but we have to want the intrinsic reward by our own volition. Extrinsic rewards related to anything that is externally given as a result of an accomplishment. These are great for motivating people who aren’t interested in the intrinsic gains from a given activity.

Bottom line: extrinsic rewards are great for the short game. Intrinsic rewards are great for the long game.

Additionally, the more rewarding the behavior, the stronger the habit. I touch on this slightly in my last post as well.

This plays off a system in our brains that we used for survival as cavemen. Back when food was scarce, our brains would prioritize eating sugars and fats so we can get the highest calories possible. This means that when we’re presented with choosing between donuts and spinach, we’re wired to want the donuts every time.

But it doesn’t just stop there.

We also assign reward values to all the people, places, and things around us. Our brain can combine good feelings of donuts, the fun of celebrations, and the friends around us all into one composite reward value which we also give to the donuts. So to us, donuts are much more than delicious balls of fat and sugar, they are also everything great about eating a donut.

In addition to the caloric bias, most of the associations we make with donuts are more rewarding than spinach. There are subliminal factors that play into our love for donuts, and they come from everything around us. Not to mention, we form positive associations with donuts more frequently than we do with spinach, and reward value increases with repetition.

Over time, these associations can become habits as well. We can mindlessly associate eating donuts with a good time and equate eating donuts as feeling good. This leads to mindless consummatory behavior, which can spiral out of control.

Consummatory behavior on its own is natural, but when it becomes mindless it starts to become dangerous.

So how do we stop automatically consuming things?

Some people say “just use willpower” but that doesn’t work in the long term. I’m sure most of us know this from experience. Every time I try to change a behavior purely off willpower, I end up going back to my old ways in about two weeks.

To change a behavior, we can’t just focus on the behavior itself. We have to pay attention to how it makes us feel, specifically how rewarding it is. If we could just focus on the behavior, then we could just tell ourselves to stop doing any of our bad habits and we could live happily ever after.

Updating our Reward Value System

We can update our system by adding one simple thing to the situation – our awareness and attention. I talk a fair bit about the importance of attention and awareness in my post The Heroes of Hero’s: The Osiris Myth & Attention. Attention is like our superpower! It gives us the ability to cast out will into the future, but more importantly, we can use it to change what we find rewarding.

The only way we can update our brain systems is if our brain determines that what it already knows is outdated and doesn’t work.

This requires giving it new information.

This new information will come in the form of mindful consumption, as opposed to mindless consumption.

According to Dr. Jud, “paying attention to the results of the behavior in the present, we can accurately determine how reward a behavior actually is rather than just run our old automated reward values.”

Let me give the example of smoking a cigarette. I’m using this example because I used these methods to quit my fairly heavy cigarette habit back in the day.

To the habitual smoker, smoking is the behavior that fixes everything. The smoker’s reward value system places cigarettes at the top, smoking is the ultimate reward. But if that smoker were to practice mindful consumption – paying attention to all of the sensations and feelings we get when smoking – the smoker will find that the cigarette isn’t actually very rewarding at all. The smoker will rediscover that smoking makes it difficult to breathe, the chemicals are strong, there’s tightness in our chest, the smell lingers, it costs money, and so many other new things.

Our brains can now take this new information and use it to update its reward value system and place the cigarette in a more accurate position, probably (and hopefully) somewhere near the bottom.

When we practice mindful consumption, we give our brains a chance to rediscover how rewarding (or unrewarding) something is for us now.

No longer do we have to be chained to our past experiences. Through mindfulness we can create new associations.

When I practiced mindful consumption with cigarette smoking, I was able to see that I had so many other associations with smoking. For example, the satisfaction of my oral fixation, the feelings of acceptance I felt from my peers, and the opportunity to be someone who was cool and rebellious. Maybe smoking was rewarding to me when I was younger, maybe even necessary, but today it’s not so much. Once I internalized this realization, I stopped smoking naturally. I remember the moment when I took a drag and immediately felt this disgusted feeling. I thought “what the hell is this doing for me?” I noticed that it really just smelled like stinky cheese and it made it hard to breathe. I was able to put it down cold turkey with a little craving for it later.

Awareness can reset our reward value system.

We can change bad habits by paying attention.

There have been studies that demonstrate that cravings and habitual consumption lowered by as much as 40% just after practicing mindful consumption as little as 10 times. This means we can change our habits without resorting to using serious willpower and it’s all using the already built-in systems that our brain has.

Understanding our built-in systems and how they work gives us an edge in creating our lives by design. We don’t have to work uphill. Our bodies, our brains, our minds are beautiful inventions that have stood the test of time.

Let’s use its miraculous engineering to supercharge our intentions.

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Education Lifestyle Productivity

Consummatory Behavior and Rewards

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.”

John Ruskin (1819 – 1900)

Our brain has entire systems dedicated to reward and motivation. If we can understand how it works, then we can “hack” our brains to actually like doing challenging things. Understanding how to reward ourselves in an intentional, informed, and natural way will give us an edge in staying motivated while designing systems for ourselves. Whether it’s business, academics, athletics, or anything else, understanding how to properly reward ourselves is critical and will change how we approach situations.

In my other posts, I talk in-depth about designing our own systems to fit our specific needs, and rewarding ourselves is a huge part of that. If the reward system we create is compatible with the one that we have in our brains, then we can run our systems indefinitely and use them to reach our goals.

So what are rewards and how do they fit into our lives?

A reward is the attractive and motivation quality of something that can induce consummatory behavior.

Rewards are the reason why we do anything we do. This reason can vary depending on who we are and what we want, but everyone wants the reward.

Consummatory Behavior

In order to understanding how rewards work, we have take a look at why we love them so much in the first place. Consummatory behavior is extremely motivating. This is what is responsible for making rewards seem so appealing to us in the first place.

Anything that we take in can fall under the category of consummatory, the most common being food or drugs. But we consume much more than just food and drugs.

A consummatory behavior can take the form of buying material items, going on social media, or watching tv. Consummatory behavior can pretty much apply to everything that we love in the short term.

A few different things happen when we participate in consummatory behavior. Consuming a reward shuts off the motivation systems and reinforces the behaviors and neural patterns associated with and leading up to that moment of consumption. In order words, once we get our reward we stop searching and feel like everything we did to get it was good, even if it wasn’t.

This is partly why some people have issues with addiction. It isn’t just the rewarding hit of the drug that’s driving them, it’s also the reinforcement of everything leading up to taking the drug that’s working against them too.

For example, let’s say we’re about to take a hit of some cocaine. When we take that hit, we’ll feel really good and our brain will remember what made it feel so good so it can come back and do it again. It keeps a record of where we were, what made us feel good, what we did to get there, the time it happened, and so many other things. As a result, anything and everything we were doing up until we took the cocaine will be reinforced because it was rewarded. This makes it more likely that we’ll do those actions again and less likely that we won’t. This is how addiction can spiral out of control. Let’s say we lie or cheat or steal to get our consummatory reward, next time we’ll be more motivated to do those things again. Being rewarded for terrible behavior get our lives off track in a serious way.

Paying attention to when we are rewarded is crucial for maintaining natural and genuine motivation.

Additionally, our motivation systems will shut off. Our motivation systems were specifically designed for food and survival, so it makes sense that once we found the consummatory reward we don’t need to keep searching.

If we’re hungry and we haven’t eaten yet, it’s almost impossible to not think about food. But once we’ve eaten and we’re full, food is the last thing on our minds. We simply don’t need it at the moment so our brain isn’t going to spend energy trying to look for it. This is why consummatory behavior shut off the motivation systems.

Now that we undersand why rewards are so attractive, let’s take a look at two different types of rewards.

Intrinsic Reward vs. Extrinsic Reward

Extrinsic rewards refer to a tangible or visible reward given to someone for an accomplishment. These types of rewards can take the form of money, food, awards, bonus, etc.

Intrinsic rewards, on the other hand, refer to psychological or personal reward obtained from an accomplishing meaningful work. These types of rewards can take the form of personal growth, pride in your work, feelings of respect, trust, knowledge, satisfaction, etc.

Time & Place

Extrinsic rewards are a great tool to use, if we use them at the right times. They are great for getting momentum started. Sometimes people need a little incentive to get started and extrinsic rewards will get that done. They can even be used to enforce certain cultures or behaviors. However, it’s important to keep in mind that extrinsic motivators have a limited power and will not work in the long run.

Keep in mind that extrinsic rewards can trigger consummatory behavior, which consequently shuts off our motivation systems.

Intrinsic rewards are the tools we need to maintain sustained changes in behavior. They work well in the long term and motivate people more powerfully because they carry with them inherent meaning. The positive emotion received from intrinsic rewards is much stronger that extrinsic rewards.

I would say the best use of each of these rewards is to use extrinsic rewards to get the ball rolling in the short term, but use intrinsic rewards to keep the ball rolling in the long term.

There are a few ways we can facilitate intrinsic rewards:

  • Prioritize autonomy – telling ourselves what to do is the only way the motivation from within. Taking orders from someone else automatically makes a task extrinsic.
  • Focus on being self fulfilled and purpose driven – this is what will give us the positive emotion. No purpose, no goals. No goals, no happiness.
  • Paying attention and taking opportunities for advancement – We have to keep an eye out for the things that will take us where we want to go. We can use the same systems that we use to seek food and use them to see opportunities.
  • Prioritizing our own well being, leaning, and development – this makes everything else in service to our own personal development. Growing ourselves, working on ourselves, is a never ending job and it’s progress brings immense reward. Aiming to make ourselves better, by our own definition, is a game we can always play. There’s never a definitive end and we can always improve, which means we can always be intrinsically rewarded.
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Education Lifestyle Productivity

Opponent Processing

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (German Philosopher)

This is an idea I’ve had a hard time researching. Despite my best efforts, I can’t find any “official” research on this phenomenon, but I find it to be worth sharing. After all, just because something hasn’t been peer-reviewed and studied by a university doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but that also depends on who you ask.

I’m convinced opponent processing is real in a similar way that Jung was convinced that archetypes are real. There is no scientific evidence that says it is so, but there are many correlations. There is some science that points to opponent processing, but the correlation is not causation.

I say all this just to say verification isn’t always needed.

Sometimes things are what we see.

Take this post, as all my others, with a grain of salt. I am just a man bounded by my myopia, limited experience, and perceptions. But I do believe this is something worth paying attention to.

Essentially, opponent processing is the idea that things become more precise when working against an opposing force.

We can see this pattern in many different places; literature, television, drama, economics, business, medicine, sports, and so many other places.

I believe that this is true partly because we are dynamic creatures that exist in relation to everything around us. Being able to relate to something helps us regulate ourselves and keeps us sane. It’s no surprise that struggling up against what we relate to makes us stronger.

Signs & Correlations

I like the idea of opponent processing because it gives inherent low-level meaning to all forms of struggle and struggle is all around us.

Everything is a struggle and everything is struggling.

But why?

That’s a big question and I’ll never know the answer but I can speculate. Perhaps it’s because they’re better for it in the end; it makes them better.

Sometimes I think that’s my naive optimism, and other times I think not.

We can see signs of opponent processing through examining different parts of life and observing what becomes more precise as a result of the opposing forces.

Humanities

Drama. Literature. Myths. Religious stories. Built into all of them is opponent processing. A struggle, tension, is born and we have to see it through. We see the hero become a better version of themselves after triumphing over their antagonist. This is almost always because they learned some kind of lesson about how to be or act in the face of danger or temptation.


“Life is, in fact, a battle. Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting, but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands is no narrow illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of the night; we wake up to it, forever and ever; and we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.”

Henry James (Theory of Fiction: Hendry James)

We see it in every story we hear. Stories grip us because there’s tension and we have to stick around until we get a release. That’s drama, a series of tension and release. And after those exchanges, the characters learn and grow.

I’ve been taking some screenwriting classes and I was so shocked to discover that characters are simply just their methods of dealing with the obstacles to their intentions. Characters are developed from how they deal with their obstacles.

Character is developed from how we deal with opposition.

We can see the same kind of drama played out in less dramatic ways too. In normal everyday life, people are working up against opposing forces. Sometimes we admire these people, and sometimes we don’t. I assert that the people we admire earn our admiration through becoming better as a result of opponent processing. In other words, we admire people who struggled up against something and came out the other side better and stronger.

Yerkes-Dodson Law

I talk about this idea in my post How to Conquer Test and Performance Anxiety. The Yerkes-Dodson law of arousal points to the idea of opponent processing but doesn’t explicitly prove it’s existence.

Yerkes–Dodson, in a nutshell, asserts that we need a certain amount of stress to work at our best. Too little and we aren’t aroused enough. Too much and we breakdown. But if we get just the right amount, then we’re off to the races.

This fits well with opponent processing, if more precise is considered favorable then a little bit of stress will make things better.

Economically

We can even see opponent processing play out economically. In a free market, competition between businesses keeps prices regulated and enhances quality. Each business forces the other to become better and more refined for the consumer and the community.

One could argue that the competition is doing harm to the businesses, but I would say that they’re just put in a position to grow in a way that they didn’t expect. The business, when dealing with competitors, has to create and innovate ways to deal with the opposing force.

Romantically

We can see this play out in romantic relationships too. In a romantic relationship, each person makes the other better through a struggle of wills. If the relationship is healthy, it resembles a wrestling match where one is constantly contending with the other.

But why would we want to be dealing with our partner like this?

The same reason for everything else, it makes us better people. Providing small amounts of adversarial energy in a relationship helps both people grow.

Let me put it like this, the average person has a fair amount of flaws. Their ways of looking at the world and their methods of decision making can only take them so far and will reach eventual limits. But let’s say this person pairs up with someone else who is also flawed, but they are flawed in different areas. Let’s say they’re even flawed in complementary areas! The man is impatient and the woman is too agreeable. The woman teaches the man to be patient and the man teaches the woman to be assertive.

A healthy romantic relationship is two imperfect people coming together to make each other a little more functional so when they have to raise a child, the child doesn’t have to deal with just the flaws of one parent. The parents act as a proxy for the child to interact with the world and when two people come together the child gets access to a more refined, more precise, version of that proxy.

This is all because of opponent processing. Our relationships need to be a struggle, but like all other forms of opponent processing, too much struggle will break. I think I heard somewhere that the optimal number of positive experiences to have in a relationship is 7/10, where the other 3/10 are negative experiences. That 30% of the time our partner is not going to let us get away with our nonsense and it is up to us to grow.

People love to think the perfect relationship is all rainbows and candy, but the best ones have a little bit of conflict.

Personal Experience

Personally, I find this to be true in my own life. I perform better, my nervous system feels more activated, when I’m working up against something. The most frequent observation I made that supports the idea of opponent processing, is when I’m exercising. I literally feel weaker before I start a workout, but once I introduce a little struggle, I immediately get stronger. It’s like part of me activates once the stress some on.

Additionally, I think opponent processing can go deeper than just physically moving with more precision. It can provide access to more precise ways of acting and thinking. The struggles in my life have made me better. Everything I encounter shapes and molds me in a small way that’s up to my discretion. My studies, work, relationships, responsibilities, duties, hobbies, and passions have all imposed a sort of force that I’ve had to struggle with. And in the struggle, I came out better.

My struggle as a Black man in America has shaped me in a similar way. It’s a significant reason why I was such a high performer in school and why I work so well as a tutor now. The added struggle of having to work harder to get the same reward made things more challenging, but that made me a stronger person. Today, I’m a better problem solver, thinker, and learner than I would be if I wasn’t Black.

We are Anti-Fragile

If I was in charge of the fortunes and misfortunes of my life, I would not have given me what I’ve been through. I would have thought it was too big of a burden and it would break me. The stress would be too much, the unfairness would weigh me down, and I would crumble underneath it all.

But I didn’t. And many other people overcome much more than they believe every day. What people are able to accomplish and endure never ceases to amaze me. Actually, I believe it’s part of the human condition to rise above seemingly impossible conditions.

Why didn’t I break? Why haven’t I broke? How are people overcoming the impossible every day?

American social psychologist and professor, Dr. Jonathan Haidt, talks a bit about this in his book, The Coddling of the American Mind. He points out that American’s are seeing record levels of hospitalizations due to poor mental health and that is, in part, due to the idea that we treat children like they’re made of glass and the world will break them.

He suggests that if we want to build stronger children, then we need to approach child-rearing from the position that they are anti-fragile.

Dr. Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote an entire book on anti-fragility and defines it as “Things That Gain from Disorder.” We can think of stress as a representation of disorder in our lives. In fact, we get stressed because we find ourselves in the presence of disorder, what is unknown. Haidt asserts that children are antifragile up to a point.

Things that are fragile get weaker when they’re exposed to stress.

Things that are anti-fragile get stronger when they’re exposed to stress.

This falls in line with what Yerkes and Dodson were saying too. When we’re stressed, we can lean into it.

When we want to improve, we just need an opponent.

Words of Warning

We get better through struggle, but the struggle has to match our abilities or we shut down. There was a study done that proved our brains have a limited capacity to deal with opponents and if we push them too far, then the nervous system will shut down and may experience damage.

I’ve said this a few times, but it’s worth emphasizing. Putting on too much stress will not make us better. We aren’t completely invincible. There is a difference between stress that helps us grow and stress that hurts us and it can be tough to tell the difference, especially at first. When I’m dealing with this, I try to ask myself:

“What can I actually do to make this better?”

“What is in my control?”

If I come up with an answer, I focus on that. If I can’t, then the stress is too much and I’ll try to get rid of it ASAP.

A Sweeter Victory

There is something to struggling that reaps a greater reward. Earning something is so much better than just getting it.

Someone told me once that working for something is so much better than buying it. I didn’t understand that for a long time, but I get it now, and as backward as that sounds, it’s true.

Our beds feel so much better when we go out and have a long day. Also, staying in bed all day actually feels pretty shitty. It’s much better to strain ourselves, then allow time for recovery.

When we do difficult things and overcome them, we see ourselves as stronger than we thought and that is a great feeling. Those are some of the feelings we live for.

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow.”

Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809)

There are many ways we can use this knowledge to make ourselves better. We can lean into the stress a little because it will make us stronger. We can use this knowledge to elevate our positions in society, make us more effective and a positive influence. Providing a healthy amount of oppositional force will grow every one.

It could be as a tutor! The tutor plays the role of the opponent during the tutoring session in order to create more precision with their student, but responsibly. That’s what I do with my students constantly. I like to just ask questions that force them to think a little deeper, especially when they come to overly simplistic conclusions.

We can also do it as a boyfriend, or husband, or friend, or business partner, whoever. We can make ourselves, our loved ones, and our associates better by allowing each other to make each other better, by playing the role of the adversary, the opponent.