Category Archives: Philosophy

Don’t mistake possibilities for probabilities

Anything is possible — that’s inspiring and in a way assuring phrase. Indeed, anything can become possible with the right targeted effort and… with the right conditions. Now, this is a tricky one. The right conditions can be just there or they can be created. How probable is that both the effort and conditions will materialize is a completely different question.

To give some examples, it is perfectly possible for me to learn Chinese. If someone else has ever succeeded in doing so, why wouldn’t I? Well, what is the probability that I will learn Chinese? Pretty low. It is not one of my goals nor even dreams. Therefore, despite the theoretical possibility, it will remain impossible for me, or better — it is improbable.

It is theoretically possible for me to become an athlete. Even now in my thirties, if I put all my efforts into reaching this goal, I am convinced I will get myself there. At the expense of what? Pretty much everything I guess, so the probability of this event is likewise pretty low.

If I would put percentages, practically everything where there is at least a tiny chance of occurrence is possible. There are examples of successes that defy all odds. Like a million to one, and still… a possibility is a possibility. However, the probability is a likelihood of occurrence, which can easily be close to zero for this or that reason.

This difference sounds pretty obvious, yet the problem arises when a person mistakes a possibility for probability. If someone says: “It is impossible!”, what is meant on many counts is not that it is impossible, but rather that: “It is improbable!”. Slight nuance, but a huge difference in meaning.

In his book “Principles” Ray Dalio explicitly stressed: “anything is possible. It’s probabilities that matter.” and I cannot agree more.

The price of getting what you want…

There is a phrase which is literally haunting me recently.

I was following a course on writing and, when studying about Neil Gaiman, I came across a quote from one of his books:

But he did not understand the price. Mortals never do. They only see the prize, their heart’s desire, their dream… But the price of getting what you want is getting what you once wanted.”

Reminiscent of the classic “be careful what you wish for”, Gaiman’s version makes the idea sound much more powerful. Imagine that your dreams of, say, ten years ago suddenly realized? It could very well be that some of your wishes you still cherish and long for, but in ten years people tend to change. At least I did. Ten years ago I had a different life, different wishes, different dreams, and desires. Lots of things changed since then and by “lots of things” I mean — everything!

It could be that you cannot relate to the ten-year span. Take 20. Or 15. Maybe 30. You see, the number does not really matter. The truth is, that we tend to change, so do our dreams. Sometimes we realize that we have misunderstood ourselves; sometimes we better understand the price we need to pay, the opportunity costs if you will.

Be careful what you wish for.

I try. I have always tried. However, having heard that phrase of Gaiman I suddenly felt a cold shiver down my spine. There are things I wanted, which by no means would I want now. They would cost me too much. I would even accept never to have things that I do want at this moment if the price for them is… having those old dreams realize.

“The price of getting what you want is getting what you once wanted.” — a scary thought.

On the other hand, would that mean that we should not dream at all out of the fear of dreaming “wrong”? I don’t think so either. I believe in the power of dreams, and in the power of dreaming. I wouldn’t want to forgo it. However, some of our dreams take hold of us and we give them all our energy. Those dreams can become our obsessions and that is where the trouble might be lurking. Even though it is impossible to predict what kind of people we will become in the future, what would our situations be, and what new dreams will arise in us, we are able to learn to understand ourselves now, in this very moment. We are able to understand what is it we are actually dreaming of. Moreover, with some reflection, we are also perfectly capable of understanding the opportunity costs.

In my work as a mediator and as a personal buddy (“wise friend for rent”) I have seen many situations when a person thinks s/he wants something, but s/he actually hasn’t reflected on that wish good enough. By “good enough” I mean understanding (1) why? and (2) what is s/he willing to pay?

You might have heard of the psychological exercise the “five why’s”. In essence for any dream or ardent wish, you have to ask yourself “why?” five times (or at least as many as needed to get to the core).

Let’s take the following hypothetical example: I want to travel around the world.

  • because I like exploring new cultures and new places;
  • because it enriches my life with experiences;
  • because I see differences and reflect on them, and that makes me question things I am accustomed to;
  • because in that way I can improve my life;
  • because I believe in progress and making progress makes me happy.

Note that for every subsequent answer there are also options other than traveling around the world. Basically every “because” comes with a set of assumptions. You assume that traveling around the world would allow you to explore new cultures for example. Maybe it will, but that largely depends on the way you intend to travel and things you are planning to do while traveling. However, maybe your underlying wish of exploring new cultures could be realized by being active in the local expat community. It might very well be that traveling around the world still is the right way for you. Nevertheless, it is good to understand that there are also other ways to cater to your underlying needs. Be it as it may, every dream comes with a price; and before vesting too much energy in that dream, it is best to understand its price.

Unconscious habits passed through generations

One of my habits which my husband finds annoying is that I never finish my tea. Usually, I would leave a teabag in to get my tea strong enough, yet by the moment I reach the very bottom of the cup, those last drops are already way too strong and no longer tasty. So I leave them. It actually never occurred to me that it was something weird. Moreover, before recently I had no idea why do I actually do it like I do. It dawned on me, when my mother was visiting us recently and I made her a cup of tea. The puzzle pieces fell in place… 

There is a story I heard in several iterations, where a kid is asking her mother why does she always cut off the ends of the sausage before baking. The mother couldn’t answer anything else, but that her own mother was doing it like that as well. So the kid goes to her granny, who is likewise ignorant of the reasons and encourages to ask the great-granny. The old lady three generations up replies with the question: ”Oh, you are not still frying on that small pan, do you?”.

That story and revelation about my tea drinking habit origins made me think about habits in general, or better about unconscious habits passed through generations. The way we do laundry, brush our teeth, fold clothes, or boil eggs (I had a separate post on the last one – check it out here: Understanding people and what hard-boiled eggs have to do with it ) is something we probably do without much thinking. We learned it by mimicking our parents, who probably learned it from theirs and so on. Nevertheless, the “pan” we use might already be significantly different. I wonder how many other habits have we acquired unconsciously? What if we ask a question of whether they are still relevant? What if we ask the proverbial “why”? What if the underlying assumptions no longer hold? 

Another facet is, of course, to which extent should we go in our questioning spree? The beauty of a habit is that it saves us, let’s call it, brain battery. If we would do absolutely all things consciously by the end of the day we would probably just be depleted. Nevertheless, some degree (and I am still convinced that higher is better than lower) of consciousness and inquisitiveness is good to have. At least then we would be able to spot the “changed pan” situations and make timely changes.

What do you think? Do you have habits it is time to question?

Spotting an illusion of choice

I like the philosophy of choice the school of our kids lives by. Kids are working around projects. From as early as 2,5-3 years they are encouraged to pick the theme which interests them and then explore it, learning a whole bunch of things along the way. That all sounds nice in theory, however then the reality strikes: I am hearing the same songs about exactly the same themes for the second round already. It is surely possible that the interests of the group where our daughter was perfectly coincide with those of our son’s group two years later, but let’s be realistic — what’s the chance of such a coincidence?

Continue reading Spotting an illusion of choice

When do we learn to give up?

Our 8 months old is now learning to climb onto stuff.

No, let’s start differently — she just learned how to stand up. In the beginning it meant falling 9 out of 10. After a week of diligent practice (and by diligent I mean DILIGENT), she successfully gets up 99 times out of 100. It was truly fascinating to observe her: when it didn’t work she was angry, she was groaning and crying and complaining, but never — NEVER! — did she stop. She didn’t stop her attempts of getting up, saying: “I tried, it didn’t work out, so it’s probably not for me.” She didn’t care about how many attempts she will need, she just had a goal — to stand up and grab a toy dinosaur of her brother. Some 20 attempts later the creature was bitten to “death”; she got him.

Observing our daughter made me wonder: when do we learn to give up? Continue reading When do we learn to give up?