with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 080: To be successful, should you focus on your strengths or your weaknesses? (with Anna Paley)

Enjoying the episode? Want to listen later? Subscribe on any of these apps or stores to be notified when we release new episodes:

November 18, 2021

To increase our chances of success (in whatever domain and using definition of success), should we focus on boosting our strengths or shoring up our weaknesses? Are we harsher in our critiques of ourselves than in our critiques of others? What should an ideal inner monologue be like? What are some useful taxonomies of pain? Are there times when irrational, magical, emotionally-driven, and/or delusional types of thinking are useful?

Anna Paley is insatiably curious about how best to live our lives. She is a behavioral scientist and marketing professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. She received her PhD from New York University, Stern School of Business in 2017. You can reach her at

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Anna Paley about leveraging one's strengths for success, internal monologue and pain, emotional growth, and magic.

SPENCER: Hello, welcome. I'm so excited to have you here.

ANNA: Spencer, thanks for having me. It's great to be here.

SPENCER: So the first topic I want to talk to you about is the question of should we work on our strengths or weaknesses, because so often, you know, people talk about, you know, fix your weaknesses, you know, focus on what you're bad at. But it's an interesting question of whether we should really be doing that, or we should really be trying to enhance the things we're best at. So I'd love to have a conversation with you about that and hear your perspective.

ANNA: You know, I think so often that feedback is geared towards making you into some idealized human that is perfect in every dimension. And I'm not sure I sort of agree with your sentiment here that spending so much time focusing on our weaknesses really allows for optimal human flourishing. Let me give you a quick story. I have a friend who's a bit of an introvert. He's really quiet, not assertive at all. And he's been told his whole life that he really needs to build up his leadership abilities. And on one hand, it does make sense, but on the other hand, at what cost, that he's not devoting all of this effort to being the best critical thinker, the best sounding board, and instead, having to do this really painful thing for a pretty uncertain outcome, just to be sort of mediocre at it.

SPENCER: Yeah, I think that's a really good example. And I can really see both sides of the argument here. On the one hand, in order to achieve the things we want in life, inevitably, we're gonna have weaknesses, and whatever we're doing, right, when whether our goals are to build a successful company, or create research that helps people's lives, or just find someone you love and spend your life with them, you know, whatever these things are, there are always things we get stuck on that we're not that good at. And we're gonna have to think about having a better at those things. On the other hand, it seems like when you look at people who have really achieved what they set out to in life, a lot of times they are leveraging one of their strengths really strongly, and they're not good at everything. So you know, you think about someone like Steve Jobs, who's heralded as an incredible entrepreneur. He had some things that he was exceptionally good at, like an eye towards design and thinking about the quality and a product. That doesn't mean that he was good at every aspect of building a business. But he was able to leverage his strengths to this incredible degree that created, you know, these phenomenal products. And I think that you see that very often, that in entrepreneurship in science, even just in life, when someone seems to just be thriving that they found something that they're exceptional at, and they figured out how to make the most of that thing. So yeah, I'm curious to hear your kind of unpacking of that.

ANNA: Yeah, I really agree that extraordinary people really find a way to capitalize on the main strengths and sort of find other ways around their weaknesses rather than having to tackle them directly. And I see so much benefit to this. And yet, this contradicts so much of the advice that we get, maybe from our managers or our partners around, you know, you have to do better in this area. And I wonder why that comes up, right? Like, why are managers constantly telling us all you need more leadership abilities, or you need this, that other thing to be average in those levels.

SPENCER: And maybe part of it is that they're trying to mold you into their idea of what success is. It's like, oh, what success is getting into my position where you have to have the ability to XY and Z. But the reality is, there are many, many ways to succeed in life. Like what it takes to be, you know, a superstar basketball player versus what it takes to be an amazing husband or wife versus what it takes to be external, academic, there are such different things. And actually, I think school is relevant here too, because, in school, we're generally taught that it's very bad to be bad at anything, right? Like, oh, you might have a bunch of A's, but if you have an F, you know, that's really bad. And you might even be at risk of getting punished for that. Whereas in real life, you could just be like, you know what, that's the subject I got F in, I just hate that thing. I'm never gonna do it again. Why do I need to learn to speak French? Or why do I need to, you know, learn chemistry or whatever, whatever you really don't like and don't thrive at? Curious if you think there's something that maybe we're taught at a much earlier age.

ANNA: Yeah, absolutely. And I wonder how much of it comes down to this negativity bias where negative information just speaks stronger to us. It's more emotional; it's more memorable. It's just louder inside our heads. And so, I wonder if part of what causes this advice to focus on our weaknesses just arises from this fundamental bias in our psychology.

SPENCER: Right. Like, with the thing that you messed up, you might feel much worse about than the thing you did equally well, in terms of how good it makes you feel. So there might be a disproportionate impact there. I have a little model of success that I've been working on in my mind. And the way that I think about it is that success is very, very loosely speaking, kind of a product of factors. And here, when I'm talking about success, I mean it really broadly like define in terms of whatever your you care about achieving, because I think people reasonably are aiming at different goals. There's nothing wrong with that. But however, you are defining success, and I think you can break it into these productive factors. And so one of the factors is something like how hard you work, right? Like, almost no matter what you're doing, if you just put in zero effort, you're gonna get zero output. So like zero times, anything is always zero, right? Another one of these factors might be your inherent aptitude a thing, right, like maybe you know, when you're a three-year-old, some three-year-olds are better at some things, and some are better than others, right, there's some kind of like, a starting point that we start at, that's different from each other. And that is another factor; it's multiplicative. If you buy this kind of multiplicative model, where it's like a bunch of things multiplied together, where a zero on any of them sort of get creates zero output. Like, if you have zero aptitude, you actually have no ability to do it's something, you're gonna get zero output. If you have zero effort, you're gonna get zero output and so on. What it suggests is that there's kind of two things you need to focus on to achieve your goals. The first is making sure that you don't have a zero in any of the important factors, because zero basically leads to no output. That would be like the fixing your mistakes model, right? It's like, whatever you're really, really bad at, you've got to make sure it's not at a zero. And then the second thing is about taking whatever it is, sort of an unbounded variable that could potentially get really, really high, and trying to maximize the size of it. So it's kind of this duality between making sure anything that's close to zero, you push up a little bit, and then anything that's a really, really strong strength, try to get it, you know, really, really, really high to, you know, 10 or 100, or whatever. So that at the end, when these things are multiplied together, you get some really strong output in the final result. And just to add kind of one more thing to that, getting these kinds of things you're weak at to a higher point, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're the one to go and work on developing that thicker skill. It could be that you partner with someone else who's good at that thing. And then you don't need to worry about that, like startup founders, where one of them is the product person, and the other is the business person or whatever, you know, you can have that divide. Or it could be that it's not through partnership; it's just through like your choice of a life path is one where you just avoid having to deal with that weakness. So you just kind of carve your way around. So anyway, I've said a lot, but I'd love to hear your kind of reaction to that model of success.

ANNA: What strikes me most about what you say is this, the importance of collaboration, that I think this sort of focus on your weaknesses, advice really makes sense. If you're on your own, doing your own thing, and you kind of want to plug these holes, and you want to fix that zero in the equation. But in the world we live in, that's so collaborative, it seems like if you're working in partnership in a team in some sort of community, it makes so much more sense to find out what those strengths are and build those up with the idea that people have all sorts of values and strengths that they bring to the equation. Right? If you have a team of five people, and everyone's an excellent leader, that's not going to make a cohesive team; you're not going to build a great product, you're not going to design something cool and make something great happen. And so, I think this advice that we get to focus on our weaknesses is really geared towards a more individualistic approach. Whereas the advice to focus on your strengths really make sense in a community or in collaboration.

SPENCER: Yeah, this is a good point. Maybe this suggests that it's critical to understand your weaknesses because in some way or another, you're going to have to find a way around your weaknesses. And that, you know, that could be collaboration, it could be like your choice of life path where you avoid it. Or it could be working on building it up and making it, so it's no longer a weakness. But it seems like regardless, you have to have a sense of what your weaknesses are so that you can craft the right team or you can craft the path or even just you can create your development program to work on the weakness if that's what you want to do. But I think that point about almost nothing we do are gonna really do solo anyway if it's a big project. I mean, there are some exceptions, right? Like some musicians will always like, write their music alone. But most things in life really are done on a team.

ANNA: Yeah, I think people have a much clearer sense of their weaknesses than their strengths, you know, partially because of this feedback that we get from others, partially because of this negativity bias that we briefly touched upon. But I think our weaknesses are much more apparent to us. And so I agree that it's important to know them, and in order to find adaptive mechanisms to address them, but at the same time, it's almost as if, because the socialists focus, generally speaking, on building up those shifts, it's hard to even identify what that thing is.

SPENCER: Right. And maybe there's not nearly enough emphasis on like, really understanding your strengths and how to enhance them. So actually, there's a kind of more local viewpoint on improving weaknesses; local meaning, like you zoom in on something, and then you say, how do I improve it – that can be applied even to a strength, right? So you know, let's say your greatest strength is on a certain type of research. Well, then you can ask the question if I zoom in on that credit strength, what are the key parts I'm not doing as well on that allow me to push my strength to an even higher level. So that's kind of a different spin on working on your weaknesses. Like, yes, you're working on your weaknesses, but you're within the realm of very high strength already. And you're just trying to hone to get to an even higher level.

ANNA: Yeah, I love that. And I think you bring up a really interesting point that we can look at this domain of our strengths and say, within this thing that I'm really good at, where can I hone? Where are the kind of weak points within the string? I wonder if a way to tackle our weaknesses when they do arise is to kind of apply a similar mentality where we say, okay, generally, I am not very good at, let's say proofreading my documents. But within that something that I am good at is listening well, and so maybe I can kind of have my computer read back my writing to me, because that way, it's easier to figure out what their strengths are. But it relies on the fact that I'm very happy listening to something rather than reading it.

SPENCER: Right. So you're leveraging your strengths, even in the process of working on your weaknesses, I think that's really cool. One thing I want to ask you about is this idea of strengths and weaknesses, when it comes to typical biases we see. And you have a lot of this literature saying that people overestimate their ability at many tasks. I guess the formal term is overplacement, where if you ask people, out of a room of 100 people, how many of them do you think you're a better driver, then? You know, they often will say, Oh, yeah, I'm better than, you know, 70 out of 100. But, you know, on average, you can't have ever, you know, you can't have 70 people being better than 70 out of 100. Because some people have to be worse to balance it out. So, do you see that as being connected to this idea of like focusing on strengths or weaknesses?

ANNA: So when we talk about seeing our strengths and seeing our weaknesses, I think the psychology literature is a bit conflicted about this in much the same way we are. On one hand, there's a whole lot of research about self enhancement biases, or all of the ways that we think of ourselves really highly and often a little too highly.

SPENCER: So like the classic example of, 70 out of 100, people say that they're better than average driver. And if you take the idea that you know, only 50% can be better than median if 70% think they're better than median. Well, that's kind of seems to suggest some kind of exaggerated ability.

ANNA: Right. And we do this all the time, right? Well likely to ascribe positive traits to ourselves than to others. All the students think they're gonna do better on an exam than average. We all think were less likely to get sick than other people. Of course, not everyone does this right. People who are depressed or have low self esteem might be less likely to subscribe to these bias. But nonetheless, generally, we think of ourselves really highly. At the same time. I don't think this captures the whole picture. I've done some research that looks at how people respond to themselves versus other people after they make a small mistake. So let's say someone spills a glass of wine or locks themselves out of the house, so gets in a small fender bender with no damage. I find that when we experience that event, right, when we make some sort of small mistake is a catastrophe. The way in which we talk to ourselves is very dark and depressing. We think it's a huge deal. We think we don't deserve sympathy, we think we should be disappointed in ourselves. Whereas if someone else spilled a glass of wine or lock themselves out of the house, I've got into a fender bender. Even if I'm suffering the same consequences, I still think they deserve much more compassion and sympathy. They shouldn't be disappointed. In themselves, actually, it's not a big deal that they did this compared to the magnitude of that outcome for myself. And so my question to you is what gives? How can we see ourselves in such a positive light, and constantly push blame away from ourselves? But at the same time, we absolutely terrible to ourselves when things actually do go wrong?

SPENCER: It's such a good question. Because so often you see people say things to themselves, that they would never say to a friend, they're so much meaner to themselves, though telling themselves that they're an idiot, or a failure, or, you know, loser. And it's like, you would not say that your friend, you're too nice of a person. And yet, the realm of being nice, doesn't seem to apply to yourself in some way. Right? It's like, Well, you wouldn't say that to someone else, because you'd be a total jerk. But it's like you say to yourself, and you're not a jerk, right? It's somehow it's like, you think of it as just a different realm. I wonder if part of what's going on here is this kind of false model of motivation, where people might think, if I'm really nasty myself, I'm gonna make a mistake, that's going to help me make fewer mistakes, that's gonna motivate me and like, teach me the lesson I need to learn is a little bit like the theory that the best way to train children is like, be really punishing if they make a mistake, which I don't actually think is the best model. And I also don't think it's the best model of controlling your own future behavior. Do you think that might be part of the story?

ANNA: I absolutely think that might be happening. I think it's particularly likely that's the language that was used with us as we were growing up, if that's the messaging that we heard, but at the same time, if we love our friends and family, and want them to do good, right, I don't want my loved one to lock themselves out of the house or get into a fender bender. Why am I likeliest to apply that model of motivation to myself, but less likely to apply that same model to someone else.

SPENCER: But I tie into this idea of that you mentioned me previously, or being stuck with yourself, right? It's like, maybe if you're a jerk to your friend, you're worried that they're gonna no longer wanna hang out with you, but you're stuck with yourself, you can be as abusive as you want, and you're never gonna leave yourself, right?

ANNA: Right, the relationship we have with ourselves is definitely the longest and often the most tumultuous relationship with our lives. And I think that should be more reason for us to think about how to optimize that. And think about some of these biases that might arise, given that we wake up and we're stuck with our thoughts, and we go to bed and we're stuck with our own thoughts. Seeing that we treat ourselves so much worse than we treat other people should be a sign that something has to shift.

SPENCER: Absolutely. I'm curious to hear what do you think the sort of ideal inner monologue might be like? Obviously, it's gonna be different for different people. But what to you is a good model to strive for?

ANNA: That's a fascinating question. I really believe in the self-compassion literature, and the work that's done by Kristin Neff, and Tara Brock, and some of these other sort of speakers and researchers who talk about self-compassion as an approach. And what this really looks like is challenging yourself to respond to your own needs, as if you were responding to the needs of someone you love. And this is really the exact question that we're grappling with here, of, if there's a difference between how you respond to your own needs, or someone else's needs, if that difference isn't serving you, maybe that inner monologue should be a little bit closer to how you respond to the needs of someone else.

SPENCER: That's a great first approach, like thinking about how would you talk to someone you love who had the same experience. But do you think that is a right attitude towards yourself? Like, I think I view it as the right attitude to love yourself is like, I think the ideal, but I think some people might say, well, is that kind of narcissistic. Is there something weird about loving yourself?

ANNA: It's not narcissistic, because you're not giving yourself any special treatment. You're not saying oh, I deserve something that's much better than what I'm giving to other people. It's actually the opposite. It's almost narcissistic to say, I'm such an idiot that spilled this glass of wine, because that's a little more egoic in a sense, right? You're putting yourself at a higher level than you consider other people if it's okay for your friend or a loved one to spill a glass of wine but it's not okay for you to do it. That feels more narcissistic to me.

SPENCER: That's an interesting point. So if you if you really have an attitude of love towards yourself, it's not saying that you think you should get more than other people. Whether you're more deserving or something like that, it's just saying that you deserve the same as as others and if you would give a puppy a second chance for knocking over the lamb dish, you should give yourself a second chance. And if you tell your best friend that it's no big deal that they were late, then you should be willing to tell yourself, that's no big deal that you're late, and so on.

ANNA: Yeah, absolutely. Another misconception that comes up a lot around self-compassion is that it makes you less motivated to fix your mistakes, kind of going back to this idea that, Oh, if I'm hard on myself, it's going to make me less likely to make this mistake in the future. The research actually says quite the opposite, that when we forgive ourselves for past transgressions, we're likely to experience some behavior change. So if I forgive myself, for procrastinating, or for breaking my diet, it's easier for me to stay in line with these quotes.

SPENCER: One thing that reminds me of is something I've been finding more and more value out of lately, which is this idea of assuming that every part of my mind has some valid perspective, it doesn't mean that that perspective is right, in its entirety. In fact, it might be like, significantly off base, but that there's something there that's worth considering and taking seriously. So it's like, let's say, a part of my mind just wants to, you know, I don't know, watch TV and play video games all the time. It's like, there might be an easy path to saying, oh, you know, that's just like the slacker inside me. And there's something wrong with me. But that other perspective says, you know, what, there is some value, there's some part of you that like, actually wants that for some reason. And it's like, useful to think about, like, why are you having that desire to do that? Like, is it because you feel like you don't have enough time to relax, maybe you need to unplug more, maybe you're you feel like you're have too much stress, and you're looking for some way to like, avoid that stress. And so just taking that more seriously as like, oh, the fact that part of my mind is desiring this is telling me something,

ANNA: There's information value in that. Absolutely.

SPECNER: Exactly.

ANNA: I really love this, because so often, that voice inside our head, all at once is to be heard all at once is to be given some space to breathe. And so if we're constantly suppressing it, it's much harder for us to function because we're devoting so much about effort to trying to suppress that part of ourselves that wants to be hurt. So if you're trying to do deep work, or write an email, and all you want to do is play video games, it's going to be much harder for you to write that email or do that work because you're going to be trying to suppress the part of yourself that really just wants to play video games. Whereas if we take a moment to sit with that part of ourselves to say, oh, there's a part of me that really wants to play video games, I see that, I hear that, there's value in that. And at the same time, maybe that's not what is optimal for me in this moment.

SPENCER: Right. It's sort of trying to create less internal struggle and more internal recognition, respect and compromise. It's like there is a part of me that's exhausted and just wants to shut my mind off and watch TV for three hours, let's say, but maybe you can, respect that request from your mind and say, “You know what, at 10pm tonight, I'm going to do exactly that. But like, right now, I gotta get this paper done.” And then suddenly, it eases some of the pressure. And also, it doesn't have that negative self-talk, there's “Oh, why don't you know, why don't I want to work? You know, what's wrong with me that I want to slack off, right? But also, I think there's sometimes other ways to make that compromise. Like, you know what, I've got to do this thing right now. But what if I just like turn the TV on in the background? And I can I go and sit occasionally, maybe that like, easy set? Maybe that's a good, nice compromise, it balances the tear, you know?

ANNA: Yeah, I think perfectionism actually operates in a really similar way, where we really just get in our own way about something, there's a part of ourselves that really wants to be heard, really wants to be perfect and do a good job and is terrified of failure. And trying to suppress that all the time, makes it so much more challenging to actually get anything done. Whereas if we can just lay it out on the table and see it as a valuable part of ourselves, but not the whole story, actually, I really value getting this work done even if it's imperfect, we can kind of have this conversation of parts and come to maybe some sort of reconciliation there.

SPENCER: Yeah, and maybe there's a fear people sometimes have - if they take those parts of themselves seriously, then they're gonna go off the rails or something, then they're just gonna play video games all the time, or, you know, slack off all the time or whatever. But I think it's sort of the opposite, where it's like when you take it seriously, it can use things like procrastination or perfectionism or whatever. Because oftentimes, these behaviors that you don't like, are actually because of kind of repeating patterns that you're ignoring or you're not allowing into your mind or the moment that they start to happen, you like try to suppress them or what have you.

ANNA: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I agree with that.


SPENCER: So switching topics, let's talk about pain for a moment, because I'm really interested in how you think about pain that benefits us versus pain that doesn't benefit us, and just generally what your thoughts are on it.

ANNA: Yeah, so first of all, I want to make it clear that I'm talking about lowercase p pain, you know, maybe a two or three on a 10 point scale, locking yourself out of your house, forcing yourself to eat something that tastes pretty bad to you stubbing your toe. And personally, I'm a bit of an epicurean in that I really value friendship, and tranquility and seeking pleasure. And with that, avoiding pain and avoiding fear. At the same time, I realized that this perspective is a bit limiting and a little naive, because we do have all these painful experiences. And so I want to explore with you some of the benefits of these mildly inconvenient painful experiences. And so the first question that I have to about this is, we're often told that pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin. And so my question is, do you believe that a more pleasant experience is better after it follows a painful one?

SPENCER: Hmm. I mean, I do, in the sense that I think many things have that kind of contrast effect in the human mind. Like the simplest example would be, if you put your hand in cold water, then slightly warm water will feel warmer, than if you had your hand in lukewarm water first. There just because the brain just tends to compare everything to with just experience, you know, or another example is like, if you've been sick for days, you're really, really ill. And then suddenly you have a day where you feel better. You're like, oh, my gosh, life is amazing. I just feel normal. So I do believe that, do you think it's true?

ANNA: The research evidence on it is a bit mixed. Some of it shows that we do compare in just the way that you're talking about that if we eat an appetizer that isn't so good and main cause is more delicious, more flavorful, we like it much better. But there's also some research showing that this prediction areas about this where we think is going to be something that we do, but we actually don't do it as much as we think we will.

SPENCER: That's really interesting. And just to add some nuance to what I said before, I do think there's a context dependence. So for example, I'm very confident that there's an immediate contrast effect, right? If you're in a dark room, and then you go into a somewhat light room, it feels lighter than if you were in a little bit of light a room and go into a moderate light room, and so on that many, many things, the human brain works on a very immediate timeframe, in terms of contrasts. That being said, I also believe that people adapt really quickly. So it might be that you have a bad experience, and then right after you feel better because your experience is only normal. But you might adapt to that so quickly that you actually don't get that much benefit from it in the long term.

ANNA: But with that, I think our experiences are so engulfing we find ourselves so absorbed in whatever we're doing in the moment, that we may not have the cognitive capacity to consider what came before. If I'm enjoying a sunny day, yes, I'm really enjoying it. Maybe for a moment. I'm thinking, “Oh, this is better because it rained yesterday. But how much of my day am I really thinking about that?”

SPENCER: I agree. And I also think this is where gratitude comes in because a lot of times when we're being grateful, what we're really doing is contrasting the current state of things with a possible other states that they could be in, like, oh, well, what if I didn't have this person I love in my life, or what if I didn't have enough food to eat, like many people around the world don't have enough food to eat, right. And that that kind of bootstraps that contrast effect. But in practice, we only usually get that contrast effect, like immediately when we experienced that contrast initially, and then it just goes away right away. But with gratitude, we can actually like bring it back again and again.

ANNA: Right, so maybe a more pleasant experience isn't viscerally more pleasant after a painful one, you know, given these tendencies towards adaptation, but at the same time, maybe having these painful experiences, it gives us more depth of gratitude, right? If Starvation is more intimate to us, then, on one hand, we can think about some starving kids somewhere else in the world. And that helps us be grateful for our food. But if that experience of hunger is a little more intimate to ourselves, in our lives, for example, we just got back from a long camping trip, let's keep it a little lighter. In that case, gratitude is a little easier to come by.

SPENCER: Right. But unfortunately, we often don't take that lesson of gratitude out of those experiences, right. So, even if you had a really hard experience, when you're younger, it may be very easy to just never think about that or never think about it in the right way that produces that contrast effect in real time. So I feel like it's maybe helpful for some people to have had that negative experience because it lets them be more grateful. But it's not by any means guarantee that that's actually going to lead to gratitude.

ANNA: Yeah, I gratitude is definitely a practice, right, it's definitely something that we have to work for, that we are capable of cultivating in ourselves. And something that is probably very worthwhile to cultivate in ourselves. But also something that doesn't naturally just appear, maybe partially because these contrast effects are not so robust and not so long lasting.

SPENCER: Right. And it seems to me, so much of happiness is actually about the moment to moment content of our thoughts and experience. Like, if you think about the positive psychology movement that focuses on you're trying to take people who are you know, doing okay, and like, make them happier. A lot of the interventions are things you do like, occasionally, like, “Oh, at the end of the day, I'm gonna make a list of a couple things I'm grateful for, or I'm going to write a gratitude letter so I'm gonna change my life, and I'm gonna go deliver it to them.” And those are wonderful practices. But if you actually think about what is the difference between someone who's like, not that happy, and someone who's really happy when they both have the same life experiences roughly, a lot of time is actually about the moment to moment mental content. You know, one of them is focused on the thing that they're excited about that's happening next week. And the other one is harping on how they're such a failure for having messed up something small, or worrying about the thing that could go wrong, but probably won't, etc.

ANNA: Yeah. The more that I learn about psychology, the more I realized how flexible that perspective-taking is, right? Maybe control isn't the right word, but how much malleability, maybe even just around the edges, maybe very slowly, maybe, you know, one chip of the block at a time. But we do have incredible flexibility in how we construe these events, right, whether we draw our attention to ruminating over something that's happening in the past or being excited about something that's happening in the future, or actually even better for our wellbeing is being absorbed in what's happening in the current moment.

SPENCER: Right. So it feels to me that there's a bunch of different mental states that make us feel really good and in a positive and non-self delusionary way. One of them is like presence, as you pointed out, whatever you're doing – you're eating a piece of fruit, you're like just eating that piece of fruit, you're really aware of that experience of the taste, of everything around you. And that's one way to have a really pleasant experience. Another is to live a little bit more in the future. And let's say you have something fun coming up next week, to really think about it often and get excited about it and imagine it. Yet another way is to live in the past but in a positive way, where you often are recalling positive experiences that were fun or funny or that make you feel good. So I feel like there's a lot of different forms of mental content that can actually be a really positive experience and different people kind of find different ways, but I would predict that one of the largest differences between people who are really happy and people who are not is controlling for life experiences because obviously, bad life experiences can make anyone miserable. But controlling for life experiences would be sort of the nature of the mental content, not just about whether it's the future, present, or the past, but like, what sort of content about the future, present, or past? Is it?

ANNA: Yeah, I like that a lot. When pain is really at this sort of very mild level of inconvenience, I think one benefit of it is it really does draw you back very intensely into the present moment, I find that stubbing my toe is a great example. When I stub my toe, or maybe I drop something, there's no avoiding the fact that here I am, in this moment, having these consequences. And I find that there's great humility in that – I am just one person subject to the whims of the physical universe and the laws that surround me. And this law of motion of gravity kind of led me here. And it really sort of takes me back to the present moment in an interesting way. It's not a joyful present moment, it's the content of my thoughts that isn't necessarily positive, but it is very present-focused.

SPENCER: That's interesting. It reminds me of the kind of dichotomy where on the one hand, were these like beings capable of rational thought and abstraction. On the other hand, we're attached to these extremely physical, biological machines. And that dichotomy, I think, is part of what's so strange about being a human. And it's like, you stub your toe and suddenly, you're very much attached to the fact that you're like a biological machine that's governed by physical laws and rules, and you've nothing you can do about that.

ANNA: Yeah. And kind of going back to something you said earlier, I think, if we can get to a point in our thinking, where we can kind of choose or be a little more mindful or deliberate about, let's say, whether we're focused on the past or the present, or the future, we can choose a perspective that helps us in that moment, or is adaptive in that moment, right? Is it beneficial for me to see myself as this really powerful being that has all of this agency right now? Or is it better for me to see myself as this bag of flesh and bones that will ultimately end up in the ground somewhere?

SPENCER: Hmm, that's interesting. And when do you view it as more beneficial to take the latter view?

ANNA: in times when things feel very chaotic, or we come face to face with the fact that we don't have any control? I think those moments are really helpful for us to find the humility that comes with viewing ourselves as actually not that powerful in the grand scheme of things.

SPENCER: I think, for me, it's more useful as a reminder, really treat things as precious. It's like, oh, you know, this is weird, since we have that, we're always gonna be alive or that, you know, always feel to make choices. And it's like, oh, no, we're just a bag of flesh and bones like, this is really special, the fact that, like, we're alive right now. And we can have experiences and we can make choices. This is like the exception. You know, most of everything is just like swirling particles and the laws of physics.

ANNA: Yeah, that's interesting. So for most people, when they're reminded of their mortality, it leads them to get quite anxious. And what you're relaying is kind of the opposite experience where you're thinking about your own mortality, but it almost brings you more gratitude or more appreciation for what is currently in front of you.

SPENCER: I think it's just leveraging scarcity. It's like, oh, man, this is like a special scarce quantity, like experiences I have in my life. Like, oh, my gosh, I've got to make the best of them.

ANNA: Right. Yeah, I like that.

SPENCER: So one thing I want to mention about pain and get your reaction to it, I've been trying to think about, like how to organize recurring pain. And I have a little, a little scheme that I've been developing, where I break it down into four types. The first type is what you might call a normal paIn, where it's like, ah, you know, you have like a minor toothache or something. And let's say in this case, you know, it's not indicative of any like, actual substantial problem, but just something that happens to everyone from time to time. And that kind of pain, it's really just about distracting yourself from it or somehow finding a way to ignore it, because there's really nothing to do about and there's a lesson to be learned. The second type is what you might call protective pain, where, let's say you actually, like broke your arm. And whenever you move in a certain way, you get like a sharp pain. And that really might be your body, essentially saying to you, don't do that, stop doing that. And that pain, and it's not so much that there's like a lesson to be learned as it is that it's like telling you information about what you should do and what you shouldn't do. And so there you know, it's very important that you pay attention to it. Unlike the first example of a normal pan where it's like you actually kind of don't want to pay attention to it. The third category is what you might call self-destructive pan, which is basically when you inflict pain on yourself needlessly, and I think our whole conversation about negative self-talk is really about that. It's like you're braiding yourself, you're causing yourself suffering. But it's not actually producing the outcome that you hope you're not actually leading to yourself being the person that you wish you were or whatever. And then the final category of pain that I think about is what you might call chosen pain, which is pain that you're like, undergoing willingly, because you have some goal you're trying to get to get an example might be like running a marathon like that might be extremely painful. And you're like pushing yourself into that pain on purpose. But also, there's a lot of examples like you might decide to do something that makes you really anxious, which is a form of pain. Because you know, it's like valuable and good to do, like maybe, you know, give a talk even though it's so stressful to think about. So there's kind of four types ignorable, protective, self-destructive, and chosen. That's how I've been thinking about the pain that's ongoing more recently. I'm curious to see if you have a reaction to that.

ANNA: Yeah, I love this categorization. I think it's really neat. I wonder if self-destructive pain is maybe in a different category, because it can be overlaid in all of these different forms, right? I can have ignorable pain, I can have a bruise and I can be hard on myself about how I'm so clumsy that I fell, I can have this chosen pain of running a marathon or doing a podcast I'm spending all of this time caught up in the question of what it means and am I going to succeed? And am I going to fail? And how is it gonna go? I think there are all of these layers of self-destructive pain that can color all of the other ones, all of these other categories – ignorable, protective and chosen pain, sort of physical experiences, whereas self-destructive pain is more of just like an arrow that we shoot ourselves with the pain that we inflict on ourselves that may or may not have a physical component, but it seems a little more fundamental to me.

SPENCER: Which reminds me of this idea of second-order emotions, which are emotions about your emotions. And you know, a classic example would be you feel anxious about an upcoming project, and then you notice you're anxious and you're like, why am I feeling anxious? You know, I want to be a calm person. And you feel bad about the fact that you feel anxious. Or another example is like, maybe you feel angry about something. And then you've been taught, you're not supposed to feel angry. And then so you feel guilty about feeling angry. Yeah. So this kind of like the second arrow is, I think, relevant to that.

ANNA: Yeah, absolutely. I think the on a contract level, basically identical. Another way to think about this is around the differences between pain and suffering, where the pain is the actual physiological experience, a physical experience of it, and suffering is the layers of meaning that we placed over it, and then including the additional pain of how we're thinking about a particular experience.

SPENCER: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the most intense experience of this I've had is in meditation, where I've done things like cold meditation, where you're in some really cold environment, where normally you'd be suffering just from the cold, and then you try to pay such close attention to the experience that the pain and suffering start to separate. And so you can actually be very acutely aware of this intense cold feeling and have glimmering moments of not actually suffering during it. I guess the way that I think about that experience is that you're essentially noticing whenever your brain is starting to label that experience as bad. Like, it could be a verbal label like ours, or this sucks, or I want to go inside or whatever. Or it could be just noticing that your brain is having this aversive reaction to that intense, cold experience. And then as soon as you notice that's happening, just letting that go and letting the that go or letting that affective feeling about experience go. And then you can have these periods where you're in just as much pain in some sense, but you're not suffering. Personally, you know, I'm not super advanced, and I'm able to get that experience for like fleeting seconds. You know, sometimes all fleeting seconds were like, “Oh, yeah, I'm actually not suffering right now,” which is really cool experience. But I can't do anything, like sustain it for a long time.

ANNA: Yeah. And so when we think about the benefits of these painful situations, maybe a lot of the benefit actually comes from how we address the suffering, right. A lot of the growth from pain, a lot of the benefits that emerged from these painful situations, actually sort of personal growth that stems from your ability to conceptualize the suffering that emerges and maybe grapple with it or deal with it in these expansive ways.

SPENCER: Hmm, could you elaborate on that a bit?

ANNA: So you're taking a cold boss, and you're having this really painful experience, and you're also kind of physically challenging yourself and mentally dealing with separating pain from suffering and trying to sort of get these glimpses of clarity, when you reflect on this experience and reflect on your growth from that experience, maybe there's more growth emotionally, psychologically from having to go through the mental process of suffering and address that, and maybe a little less growth in actually being in the cold water.

SPENCER: Hmm. Interesting. Is the idea that by experiencing the suffering in a very, like self-aware way, you learn something about yourself, or about like, okay, I can actually cope with the suffering or is it something else?

ANNA: That's what I had in mind.

SPENCER: Yes, I think that's really interesting point, because so much of achieving what we're trying to achieve in life, is making sure that we like to pay the costs in the appropriate way, which I mean, anything we're trying to achieve in life, there's going to be like some elements of suffering, or some bad parts of that thing. And it's like, you don't want to have more of that than you need to. But at the same time, if you're not willing to go through the suffering part, then you probably just can't get there at all. So it seems to me like there's this useful meta lesson, which is, I can deal with suffering. Even though the road has suffering on it, I don't have to avoid the road. Like, it doesn't mean I should take it just, you know, I'm not going to suffer needlessly. But like, if the optimal path that takes me the direction that I think I want to go, my life has a bunch of suffering on it like, well, I can deal with that fact, right. And overall, it could still be worth it.

ANNA: For sure, I think that's where the growth from pain comes. It doesn't come directly from having the painful experience, but it comes from the mental states that surround it, that explain it. They give meaning to it – the different ways in which you help yourself navigate that situation. That's where the growth is.

SPENCER: it seems to me that people differ and how averse they are to suffering. So even if you know Anne and Bob, let's say both, were gonna experience the same suffering, Anne might be less averse to the fact that suffering was gonna occur before it occurs, and Bob might be more averse. And so you might get in a situation where Anne is more willing to do this difficult thing. And Bob's less willing, even though they would experience exact same suffering doing it. And, you know, I've just noticed this difference between people where some people just seem to be locked in a box, in their willingness to do things because they're not willing to pay a certain amount of suffering cost to do things that matter to them.

ANNA: I think it's almost this anticipatory fear of pain and suffering, right? Maybe the difference that you're talking about isn't about Anne's and Bob's distress tolerance, right? Maybe they would actually both be fine in that situation, or they would both emerge out of that situation with similar insights, but one of them maybe have more of this anticipatory fear of pain or fear of suffering, that holds them back.

SPENCER: That feels like just a really important variable in the mind that is not discussed much, right? At one extreme, where someone has a great deal of fear about each unit of suffering, they're going to be really restricted in the actions that they can take. At the other extreme, where that they have no fear of the suffering, you could get it almost like a pathological response, the other side where they're like doing things that cause them tons of suffering that they really don't need to do and that they really should find a route around that. So maybe there's some kind of balance to be struck there.

ANNA: Instead, what I think is so tricky is that these traits that we have these approaches to pain and suffering are so consistent that even when we have information that disproves it, let's say, I really hate competing as a swimmer. And I'm on the swim team, and every weekend, I have to compete. Even if I do it every weekend, it still doesn't make me any less afraid of the pain of that experience.

SPENCER: Hmm, right. Yeah, at the same time, though, there's, you know, exposure therapy techniques, where you'll take something you fear, and you'll subject yourself to it, and kind of stay in that experience, to kind of prove to your brain that like, it's not as bad as you thought it was going to be. And over time, that can last for less than people's anxiety. So I think it's interesting to contrast that because, on the one hand, you can have a situation where like, You're terrified of spiders, but the spiders are actually harmless, the ones you're afraid of, and you could put yourself in the experience of being around the spiders and eventually, your brain learns like, nothing bad happens, right? And the other hand, suffering actually is bad for us, right? Like every time you experience suffering, it actually will be bad. And so maybe you'll never acclimate to the suffering You'll never stop fearing it because it actually is as bad as you predict, unlike the spiders. Yeah. What do you think about that distinction?

ANNA: That's a fascinating distinction. I know the research really supports exposure therapy. And I really think this great insight of how bad is the actual thing. I mean, even in cases where the experience is bad, I think the important trait is, is it as bad as we thought it was? Or is it slightly better? Right? Like, what is the differential between our expectations of that experience and the experience itself?

SPENCER: Right, so maybe for exposure therapy to work, you need a big enough differential between how bad you think it is and how bad it actually is because if it's almost as bad as you thought, or worse than you thought, your brain is not going to learn that rule that like, oh, actually, this thing's okay. If you'd go do it a bunch, you're not going to have your anxiety dissipate. Your anxiety might even increase because you're just like, actually, no, it is really bad. So it is really bad whenever I do it. And that suffering is interesting, because suffering is sort of like bad by definition, right? Each unit of suffering is that much bad. Now, we can lessen the kind of second-order suffering, the suffering about the suffering, or the fear of the suffering and all these kinds of things. But the suffering will never be better by definition.

ANNA: Yeah, it will. And actually, some of the research on it shows that we remember our expectations much better than we've ever met that actual experience. So if I'm afraid of something happening, and it's not that bad, afterward, what I remember much more clearly is my field experience, rather than it being not so bad.

SPENCER: Oh, that's really interesting. So then you might not make the proper update to realize it like, okay, actually, it wasn't as bad as I thought it was gonna be if you just remember your fear in advance.

ANNA: And maybe that's why exposure therapy, you can't do it just once, right? If we were perfect at updating, all it would take was a single experience with a daddy long legs hanging up in front of me – this homeless spider – and then I would say, “Oh, actually, it's not that bad. So here we go.” But that's not the case for us.

SPENCER: Right, exactly. And also the brain can make weird rules that wiggle out of it like, “Well, okay, maybe that spider was okay or maybe it was fine because it didn't touch me. If it had touched me, I would have died.” Or you know, your system one, your subconscious prediction engine doesn't necessarily have the full causal model by which you can generalize that one daddy long legs is not hurting you, in this case, means that they're actually safe, you know?

ANNA: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.


SPENCER: So Anna, for the last topic, before we wrap up, I want to talk to you about magic.

ANNA: So I'm gonna put forward an argument for magic. And Spencer, I know you're an extremely rational person. So I want to have a rational perspective against being rational.

SPENCER: You don't want to have a magical perspective in favor of being irrational?

ANNA: We'll see. So my first question is, you know, would you agree with the idea that our minds aren't necessarily wired for rationality?

SPENCER: Oh, yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think that our minds use a lot of different heuristics that work pretty well, a lot of the time. But we're not kind of computing everything based on all the evidence at all times, certainly. And furthermore, we don't have time; there are limits on how much computational power our minds have, how much time we have to act, how much information we can process and so on.

ANNA: And so given these constraints on processing power, and these limits on our time, I wonder if those cases where it's maybe not worth fighting against this inner machinery that's working against our rationality, to put it in other times, maybe those benefits of, around the edges, letting rationality slide a little bit.

SPENCER: I totally agree with that. I think you kind of have to pick your battles, right? Like if something's working well for you, and you're getting the outcomes you want, you don't necessarily need to dissect that thing and tear it apart and reconstruct it with a causal model that you can understand explicitly. On the other hand, if things are going badly for you in an area, or you just see a really large up to improve something, then I think that's where rational thinking is more likely to be helpful.

ANNA: And of course, rational thinking is incredibly helpful for risky decisions, for big decisions, for things that really do require us to sit and process information and kind of reached this optimal outcome. But I think there's also this competing motivation of making life joyful, and more fun – reducing stress and anxiety, where actually deviating a bit from rationality, letting it slip a bit, can have a more positive impact. And so for optimizing on that, then stepping away from rationality is actually helpful sometimes.

SPENCER: Well, you know, I think one aspect of my personality is I'm very averse to what feels to me like self-delusion, not to say that I never engage in self-delusion, I'm certain that I do at times, but I am very averse to it. And so whenever I noticed it, I'm like, “Ah, I'm like, trying to trick myself.” And actually, I noticed it quite a bit – catch my mind trying to do things. So one example of this is I find that when I do something like silly that causes a minor problem, my brain will often try to generate a reason why I wasn't actually good. Example, this for me, would be like, I knock over the salt shaker and like, “Oh, salt spills out,” and my brain's like, “Oh, that's all, that's oh, maybe it wasn't bad, anyway,” I'm like, “Oh, that is totally fine.” But it's like, my mind wants to protect me from that negative outcome and issues like catch it, like, I'm very averse to that. And I want to remove that self-delusionary aspect to it. So that might be partly a personality trait I have, and I have a feeling that that's gonna stay on someone in contrast to the thing you're about to pitch.

ANNA: I don't think that's just you. I think that's really a fundamental aspect of human psychology. I see it coming through in a lot of superstitions that people hold. I've heard superstitions that if you step in dog poop, it means that it's good luck.

SPENCER: How convenient.

ANNA: Right? If it rains on your wedding day, it's good luck. If God poops on you, it's good luck.

SPENCER: So funny. I never thought about it, such an obvious way to make yourself feel better, right?

ANNA: And on the other side, there's a ton of superstitions that kind of keep you in line of it and keep you avoiding things that a little less say, it's probably less safe to open an umbrella inside than it is outside, you're probably a little less safe walking under a ladder than walking around. Hmm. This is not necessarily about magic. But this interesting curiosity. I don't think there's anything unsafe about the black cats, though. So I don't know, generalizable it is but I do see some of these trends.

SPENCER: These are super interesting, because it's like, it's suggesting that these cultural rituals, like actually baking in some kind of psychological benefit or even physical benefit in terms of danger.

ANNA: Yeah. And I think even more so than that, these aspects of our personality that really do seek maybe a silver lining, or do try and kind of justify these decisions that we've made in the past, is it so bad to tell yourself that the result was bad? What is the cost?

SPENCER: Here's what I think fundamentally worries me. If I have a habit of self-delusion, like, I'm willing to accept thoughts that on some level, I know are not true, but make me feel good. I worry that that habit is hard to break, like when it actually matters. I think it's similar the way I think about being virtuous as a person, like the reason to not lie, when it doesn't really matter is so that you don't lie when it does matter. If that makes sense. It's like, you know, yeah, there are lots of times where you could tell like a little white lie, and it really is no big deal. But then it's like, well, if you're gonna have a habit of lying over nothing, are you really not gonna lie when actually you have a significant gain that he had from lying? And so I think of it similarly, it's like, I want to train myself to avoid self-delusion on things that don't matter as practice for when it really does matter.

ANNA: Yeah, it's sort of this slippery slope argument, right, of I don't trust the outcome of this in the way that we're talking about.

SPENCER: But so like a practice argument, right? Like, actually, it's a hard thing to do well, and so the more reps you get a practice of like catching yourself like deluding yourself, the better you'll be, especially when you get to higher stakes situations.

ANNA: Yeah, I see these as maybe competing motivations, where, on one hand, we have this motivation to be rational and kind of make the most calculated judgment that we can. But on the other hand, I think there's also this motivation to live a joyful, happy life. And I think on the edges, right – again, when it comes to these big decisions, of course, rationality wins – but on the edges, the incremental benefit of having this one piece of practice for rationality kind of kills a lot of joy, y'know?

SPENCER: You can certainly cook up that experiments where like, trying to understand the world as it really is, actually is really detrimental. It's just going to cause you pain, and you get no benefit out of it. So I certainly accept the fact that those trade-offs do sometimes exist in the real world. But that being said, for most things in the real world, I think that there is a third path where you're like both getting joyful things and not deluding yourself. In other words, that usually, if you're a little smarter about it, or you like, think about other strategies, you can get the benefits of thinking in a positive way, without the cost of self-delusion. Let me unpack that a little bit because a friend of mine had this thing that she would say to herself that made her feel good, which was, whatever happens to you is exactly what needs to happen to you, right? And I had an aversive reaction to that because that seems to me clearly not true. Like, there's all kinds of random things like if you stub your toe, did you really need to have that happen to you, this saying would make her feel better. But I would propose that there's probably a bunch of other sayings, that would also make her feel better that she could use that don't have the self-delusion aspect. So I would much rather, she have a saying like, “This bad thing happening to you has some value, you can learn from it.” So you know, like, “Look for the silver lining,” or “This bad thing happening to you can remind you that you have all these good things happening to you too, and you're going to start a situation now, which is gonna make you more grateful later” or whatever. You know, I'm not saying that those two particular would work. But the point is that there are so many different ways of framing that situation. And they're not all delusional in the same aspect. What do you think about that?

ANNA: I think whichever one helps the most. If we think about these options, in terms of their functional benefits for this friend, my instinct is that she should choose whichever saying makes her feel the best, whichever one resonates with her.

SPENCER: I'm worried about the second-order consequences of that. I'm worried about optimizing for just the first-order benefit, like, “Oh, I feel better right at this moment, but not the long-term cost of I'm seeing reality a little bit less clearly.” So when there is a high-stakes situation, I might be a little bit less good at actually deciding what to do.

ANNA: At the same time. I think if we suspend our disbelief in some contexts, for example, if we're watching a movie or reading a book, we can pretend that it's real for a second, but it doesn't necessarily spill over into the rest of our lives. And I see the potential for these sort of self-soothing statements like, “Everything happens for a reason,” kind of taking on a similar flavor, where I can accept that the universe is operating chaos and randomness. When I really sit with it. When I really think about it, I kind of know that to be true. But at the same time, the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason” is comforting and soothing. There's a lot of half truths that we believe there's a lot of these irrationality on the edges, where someone's watching a football game, and they're really rooting for their team. And so they wear the this one pair of socks and the team wins. And the next time they watch the game, they really want to wear the same pair of socks again. And if you ask them, you know, rationally, is your team more likely to win? They'll say no, of course not. This team has no idea that I'm wearing these socks, right? This there's no reason there's no causal reason for this. But nonetheless, this person is gonna, you know, put on their lucky socks and sit down to watch the game. And I don't necessarily see that as problematic, because it's just adding a little bit of joy, right? Maybe there's a cost of if those socks are dirty and they have to do laundry an extra time, but let's take that out of the equation.

SPENCER: Yeah, so first of all, I agree with a lot of what you said, and I am totally cool with the suspension of disbelief. Like if you're reading a fiction book or watching a movie. I think where I get worried about it is where it feels like you're no longer playing pretend. It feels like you're actually in that moment. You're not clarifying that like this is a game. And I think going back to this issue of framing, I generally think there's so many framings for any given situation, that from my perspective, it's like there are 100 different ways to frame that. Why not pick one that both makes you feel good and is in line with the way reality works, rather than pick one that makes you feel good and is not in line. And I do accept that there's some time to trade off, like maybe you can't think of other framings. Maybe the very best framing is actually one that's a little bit, not in line with the way reality works. But that's my general strategy to try to get the best of both worlds. I use framing very aggressively. The way I think about it is any given situation, there are many ways to look at it that are completely true, right? Let's say you lose your job, right? Well, one way to look at that is like, wow, that really sucks. Like you had a job and you didn't choose to leave it and now you lost it and you feel really bummed. Another way to look at it is like, wow, this is an opportunity to think about what do I really want to do next. And like, it's also an opportunity to think about, can I find a job I like even more than my previous job, and so on. So those are both completely valid framings. And I think there's nothing delusional about either of those perspectives, obviously, one of them is gonna make you feel bad, and another is more likely to make you feel good. And so for me, it's about using truth as a constraint. So trying to always stay within truth, and then optimize for the other benefits within the truth constraint, rather than relaxing the truth constraint and just trying to optimize for the benefits.

ANNA: Okay, so since holistic tarot cards for example, I happen to love tarot cards. And I think one of the great benefits of it is you sit down with this deck of cards, and you ask a question about something and you pull up a random card, and it has some sort of message feel. I really like this, not because it's necessarily true, but because it sometimes forces me to have a different perspective on an issue, right? Am I living and dying by my tarot deck? Absolutely not. Am I making big decisions based on it? Absolutely not. But is there merit in stunning my disbelief briefly, in order to see if there's any value that, to me? That's a clear yes, to you, maybe not so much?

SPENCER: Well, no. And I think that there is value there. Like, there are a number of decks of kind of like creativity cards, where you kind of pull cards out at random, and they just kind of stoke your creativity, maybe they combine ideas at random. And to me, that idea is similar the idea of tarot, where you're basically saying, like, you're sloshing stuff around at random, which is gonna give you new thoughts and new ideas. And I do really see value in that. And I'm also not worried about you making an important life decision based on your tarot deck. But I do think there are lots of people that make important decisions based on tarot decks. And that's where I started getting really concerned. And it's like, I'm not worried about you, and doing that. But yet, I think we have to accept the fact that people do that. So for example, a friend of mine went to a psychic and asked about her relationship. And the psychic told her that her boyfriend's cheating on her. And I think that the psychic was completely full of shit. I think that was actually an extremely dangerous thing to do. And you might say, well, you know, she should know not to trust the psychic on that kind of topic. But the reality is a lot of people don't have such a clear distinction between where the game ends and reality begins.

ANNA: Yeah, I agree with that. I think a brain is actually working against us to where the same areas of the brain light up when we're experiencing something or when we're thinking about that experience. So visualizing, right? So our brains in general, have a tough time kind of differentiating between reality and imagination. So I think that absolutely plays a role.

SPENCER: Yeah, but you know, just to just steelman your side of the argument for a moment, I do think that there can be something like delightful and fun about temporarily inhabiting a magical world, right, where, like, everything that happens is there to help you or there's some meaning to all events. And like, there's no such thing as a coincidence, I see the appeal of that, I see that as fun. And in fact, I've done little games like that, where I walk on the street, and I assume that everything I see is really good, right? And then it's like, that's just the game. It's like everything I look at, I have to think about how it's really good. And you know, even if it's not good, right, but it's just like, it's just the kind of thing that I can wear as I walk on the street, and it totally changed my perception. And to me, just the distinction is like, “Do you realize you're playing a game or not?” And when you stop realizing you're playing a game, or when you start forgetting your play again, that's where I start to become concerned.

ANNA: I absolutely see that. As you say, there are many different stories about something that can be true. So why are you so quick to say that the version where you're walking down the street trying to find a little good in any in everything is actually less true?

SPENCER: And it's not necessarily. I think it depends on exactly how you play it. If you play it as like, find something good to say about everything and that actually you can probably do in a completely like in-line-with-reality way because there is at least a little bit of good and almost everything, right? If you're trying to play the game of like, let me tell myself a story about why everything I see is the best thing, you know, maybe it's hard to do that and still be in the bounds of reality. But if you realize you're playing a game, I also think there's nothing wrong with that. You just have to have a little bit of meta-awareness of the game is being played. That's probably not literally the best Starbucks on Earth, you know, that you just walked by?

ANNA: Yeah, you point out this difference between something being a game and something being reality and worth being rational about. I think that's kind of what I'm saying, Spence, I think we figured it out. I think this is the key for us.

SPENCER: Oh, nice.

ANNA: You bring up this tension between, oh, he has me playing this game and stepping outside of the realm of rationality in order to play this game. And here's me, kind of operating in my serious tone. I think that's really what I'm getting at here, where there are some decisions that do require one to be rational and serious. And there are some decisions that are a little more playful, that don't require that as much. And I think what it comes down to is I have this much wider understanding of what constitutes the domain of play.

SPENCER: Ah, yes, I love that. And I think that's a really nice way to synthesize this that I can get behind, which is that we should probably be playing a lot more, that we should be serious a lot less. But when we need to be serious, we should be really serious, you know?

ANNA: Absolutely. When we need to be serious, we absolutely should be able to, and it's definitely worth practicing that. But I would argue that you spilling your salt shaker is in the domain of play and not in the domain of serious.

SPENCER: I love that. I think that's a perfect place to leave it. And thanks so much for coming on the light.

ANNA: Thank you, Spencer. It's always great to chat.





Click here to return to the list of all episodes.


Sign up to receive one helpful idea and one brand-new podcast episode each week!

Contact Us

We'd love to hear from you! To give us your feedback on the podcast, or to tell us about how the ideas from the podcast have impacted you, send us an email at:

Or connect with us on social media: