Axiom of Choice: The One Second Challenge
“I find it’s a good habit to put pressure on all your beliefs, social, political, scientific, and philosophical. Believe whatever you believe by day; but at night, argue against the propositions you hold most dear. Don’t cheat! To the greatest extent possible you have to think as though you believe what you don’t believe. And if you can’t talk yourself out of your existing beliefs, you’ll know a lot more about why you believe what you believe. You’ll have come a little closer to a proof.” — Jordan Ellenberg. How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.
“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” — Nelson Mandela.
Question every decision you’ve ever made in your life. Because, by definition, you did not have access to as much information and context as you do right now. If you come to the table completely unbiased and review the situation with fresh eyes knowing everything that has transpired, you may well realize, with a proverbial slap to the forehead, that you’ve been doing “it” (whatever it is) wrong your entire life. All things being equal, you would have chosen a different path if you had to make that particular decision again.
But, too often, inertia gets in the way. Most of us rarely, if ever, allow ourselves to come to the table unbiased. We come with so much baggage, so much history, so much anger, so much frustration, so much inertia, so much investment in the status quo that we convince ourselves the decision is not worth revisiting even if we know deep down in our hearts that we made the wrong choice the first time around.
And so nothing ever changes — in our lives, in our belief systems, in our worldviews, in our interpretations of events past, in our expectations of things to come. It’s the rare individual who stops cold in his tracks and allows himself to be impartial, regardless of the outcome, collateral damage be damned.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would choose differently. Therefore, I should change course.” How often do you allow yourself to utter those words?
There are many scenarios in which we’d say the opposite: “I’d do exactly the same thing again.” Great. Love those decisions. Stick with ’em. Good on ya. But what about the bad ones? Are you willing and able to step away from them? Most of us aren’t most of the time.
“Strong convictions do not necessarily signal a powerful sense of self: very often quite the opposite. Intensely held beliefs may be no more than a person’s unconscious effort to build a sense of self to fill what, underneath, is experienced as a vacuum.” ― Gabor Maté. When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress.
Most of us hurt so much inside that we consciously and unconsciously limit our choices, our actions, our thoughts, our beliefs. We numb ourselves. We calcify. We shrink into automatons. And then we wonder why our lives are so dull, so empty, so sad, so lonely. The answer is right in front of us and we insist on not seeing it.
This is true of our bodies as well as our minds and perhaps less controversial to discuss so I’ll start there.
My shoulder hurts so much I’m going to avoid that particular position with my arm. I do it for a week, a month, a year, and pretty soon I forget that that particular position was even in the realm of possibility. I walk around hunched over all the time not even realizing I’m crooked until people start commenting on it.
My left hip hurts so I unconsciously pronate my right leg in a futile and ill-conceived attempt to compensate. I run like that for a few years and, pretty soon, my left hip is screaming bloody murder and I have to take an Advil just to go for a walk around the block.
My body doesn’t even realize that it’s tilted sideways, that my hip is so far out of its socket that it needs realignment by a professional. But I keep running… because… that’s what I’ve always done! And, of course, western medicine being what it is, we rarely stop and try to address the root cause, choosing instead to concentrate on the symptoms and immediate relief from pain so we can go back to doing what it was we were doing.
My hip still hurts like a mofo. I have to use a lumbar cushion to sit, I have to get cortisone shots, I have to go through physical therapy, I have to get orthotic inserts for my shoes. None of these help because I’m still pronating unconsciously every time I take a step. And yet I keep running.
It’s not until I say “Enough is enough!” that I bother to spend enough time to analyze the root cause and figure out a long term solution: yoga, deep stretches, less pounding on the joints, finding a different sport, and perhaps most importantly something none of the doctors and physical therapists ever bothered to ask: Why are you running so many marathons anyway? Could it be a response to the stress in your life? Maybe you should try reducing the stress instead of continuing to pound your body into oblivion.
“The salient stressors in the lives of most human beings today — at least in the industrialized world — are emotional. Just like laboratory animals unable to escape, people find themselves trapped in lifestyles and emotional patterns inimical to their health. The higher the level of economic development, it seems, the more anaesthetized we have become to our emotional realities. We no longer sense what is happening in our bodies and cannot therefore act in self-preserving ways. The physiology of stress eats away at our bodies not because it has outlived its usefulness but because we may no longer have the competence to recognize its signals.” ― Gabor Maté. When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress.
So, here’s the challenge I’m asking you to take: Question everything! Question every single decision you’ve ever made in your life and revisit the matter with fresh unbiased eyes, as if it was the first time you were making the decision. To the extent you’re capable of doing so. If I were to make this decision again, based on everything I now know, and if I didn’t have so much invested in it, would I make the same decision? If the answer is yes, rock on! Keep at it! Good for you! If the answer is no, however, we need to have a longer conversation.
Note that this is not an invitation to navel gazing or hours of protracted analysis and self-induced stress. The decision should be made instantly. Not analytically. Not linearly. It should not be made so much as intuited.
“Stop thinking and talking about it and there is nothing you will not be able to know.” — Seng Ts’an.
You already know everything you know on this particular topic. You don’t need to talk through the logic and the reasons behind your past decision in order to revisit it. Your mind always makes a choice instantly and intuitively and then your ego spends minutes, hours, days, weeks, years, decades, entire lifetimes rationalizing that decision. This is proven neurological science. I’d be glad to point you to several books and scholarly articles on the topic. Start with Sam Harris’ Free Will, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, The Brain that Changes Itself, anything and everything by Oliver Sacks, Whole Brain Living, and a dozen others.
The key word in the last paragraph was “ego,” by the way. It’s the rational, linear, language-centric, rule-following, time-obsessed, left half of our brain that takes over a few milliseconds after the rest of our brain has already decided what it thinks of this particular question. Our brain instantly comes to an answer. Then we spend the rest of our lives building a narrative, a story line, a set of morals and ethics, a complex web of feelings and emotions — shame, guilt, remorse, envy — and a whole life philosophy around that decision.
And guess what. The ego is not a real thing. It’s just a figment of your imagination. It exists nowhere in the universe but in your head, in your brain, in that three pound mass of gray jello you’ve been carrying around attached to your spine.
If you don’t get an answer formed in your head within, say, one second, stop and move on. You’re not ready. You’re too confused. Or your ego has walked in the room. Kick him out! Stop listening to him! He’s not your friend! And he’s definitely not you!
This will only take a minute. Put that guy (or gal), your ego, outside the room for a minute. Close the door behind him so he can’t whisper in your ear. This is very hard to do, and the focus of years of meditation. Stop listening to the guy in your head for a damn minute! Come to the table unbiased, with no one but yourself as the judge and jury.
Now. Calm down. Quiet your mind. Take a minute, take five minutes, take whatever it takes. This is an important decision. Quiet your mind. As Ram Dass would say, Be Here Now!
Now. Ask the question. Knowing everything I know now, would I … fill in the blank. One second. That’s all the time you get to answer. The answers you need, the only two answers allowed are: Yes and No. It’s a binary decision. Yeah, I would make the same decision again. No, I would not do it. It’s that simple. Now go plan the rest of your life.
And, you know what, ask that same question again next week. And next month. And next year. Commit to compassionate self-inquiry and brutally honest self-feedback. In return, you’ll be amazed how simple and joyful your life becomes as you shed decades of inertia and habit and addiction.
If you make the “wrong” decision again, I can guarantee you’ll spend days or weeks agonizing over it, milling it over in your head, repeating the rationalizations of the past in an attempt to justify the bad decision. If you make the “right” decision, however, it’s amazing how light you feel, how a new door opens in front of you, how life suddenly seems a little nicer, the universe a little more serendipitous.
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.” — Seneca.
Try it with a few questions and you’ll see what I mean. I’ll get you started with a few simple “one second challenges,” some of which are based on personal experience:
- Knowing everything I know right now, should I keep running marathons? One second. You know the pros and cons, you know your own addictive personality better than anyone, you know your history of physical trauma and your current hip diagnosis, not only that — you have felt the pain for the past two decades and insisted on continuing to run. No need to rehash that verbally or mentally. Trust your intuition. Knowing everything I know… marathons. One second. Go.
- Knowing everything I know right now, should I keep drinking alcohol? One second. No arguments for or against, no rationalizations about social lubrication, no soliloquy about the taste of Cabernet on your tongue, no scientific studies about the benefits of moderate drinking, no statistics about drunk driving. You know all that. This is not the time to rehash it all. One second. Go.
- Would I continue to eat red meat, pizza, and burritos or should I adopt a healthier diet? One second. In case it’s not obvious, the answer should never be “Because that’s what I did yesterday, last week, last month, etc.” Therein lies inertia and rationalization. Don’t be fooled by it. Do what’s right, not what’s easy or habitual or lazy.
- Would I surf social media on my phone for three hours a day? Or TikTok. Or Facetime. Or Twitter. Or… take your poison. Or should I delete all social media apps from my phone, realizing that they still exist on my iPad and laptop and every browser on the planet. And that once or twice a day is more than adequate for the “world breaking news” pumped to us across such platforms 24x7, 365. Something 100% of humanity did not experience since the dawn of time and yet somehow managed to survive and thrive. One second. Go.
- Would I stay at this soul-sucking job another day or should I walk away and take a leap of faith? One second. Go.
- Would I yell at my teenage kid because he’s been playing video games for five hours straight, like I’ve done every day for the past year and a half to no effect, or should I go sit down and talk to him, trying to understand why he needs to hide in a fantasy world. One second.
As you can see, phrasing the question properly is key. I had a bit of fun exposing my biases in the section above but, after all, we all come to the table with our pre-existing beliefs. That’s what makes us human. And able to make a life changing decision in one second flat — if we only allow ourselves. Like the best neural network ever devised is capable of delivering to us. In real time. Try it. You’ll like it.
While we’re talking about health, let’s get one thing straight. The old dictum “Such and such is 50% genetic and 50% influenced by environment” is the biggest “scientific” blunder to come along since Einstein’s cosmological constant. Basically, it amounts to a shoulder shrug: We have no idea. You’re as likely to get a correct answer to a health related question as you are to predict heads or tails on your next coin toss.
The problem is that such a stance opens the door for people to give up too easily. Ah, it’s in my genes. I’m likely to get… cancer, diabetes, MS, alcoholism, whatever. Shoulder shrug. Not much I can do about it. I give up. Might as well enjoy life. Bring on that shot of whiskey, the T-bone steak, the chips and salsa, the Tiramisu, name your poison.
In reality, what these studies should say — what is more accurate — is that we all inherit the same genes, more or less. It’s the environment that we live in that turns those genes on or off.
So… yes, absolutely! You may have the cancer gene but if you exercise and eat a healthy diet, you may be able to suppress it. You may have the gene for diabetes. That doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to an insulin injection and therefore, Tiramisu and chocolate ice cream every night while binge watching Netflix. If I do that, I’m criminally liable in the eventual outcome. It’s 100% my choice, it has very little to do with the genes I inherited. Exercise vs. Smoke. Eat salad or eat junk. Sit in front of the TV or go for a walk. Make a decision.
This, to me, is a much more freeing and positive statement than the defeatist current model that puts blame on the genes and frees us of our half of the obligation. I’d much rather man up and hold up my half of the bargain. At least live a healthy lifestyle, eat a good diet, exercise, yoga, meditate, reduce stress, stop alcohol consumption, etc. Give yourself a fighting chance. Do the right thing! It’s never too late to right a wrong.
If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll see that the answer to all these questions — and many more — is brain dead simple. It may be different for you than it is for me. And that’s okay. It may result in a different decision today vs. tomorrow. And that’s okay, too.
After a while, it becomes obvious to even a casual observer that making the “right” decision always unties a knot, unravels an obsession, increases the flow of energy, quiets the mind, all the opposite of things brought on by the “wrong” decision: Hunched shoulders, upset stomach, depressed mood, hip pain, temper tantrums and burst of unnecessary anger, guilt and shame, etc.
Yet, day after day, by our inaction and inertia, we end up making the wrong decision by default, by accepting the status quo.
“What we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions.” — John Archibald Wheeler. Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links.
I’ve been talking mostly about physical ailments and health related issues. But you can see where this is headed. You can apply this criteria, this one second challenge, to every decision in your life. Things can get hot and heavy quickly. So let me stop right there before I’m accused of ruining lives by promoting snap decisions.
Only a crazy man would suggest such a thing, you might say. Trusting your intuition would result in rash decisions and mistakes. I beg to differ. It’s the long drawn-out arguments and rationalizations from your ego that often lead to the wrong answer.
Perhaps this is where we propose the obvious corollary to the one second challenge. Make intuitive decisions but don’t immediately act on them. If it’s the right answer today, chances are it will still be the right answer next week. This is not to promote inertia but rather a period of reflection before action. Obviously, the bigger the life question in front of you, the more reflection needed.
Try it. You’ll love it. I promise. Take the one second challenge. Stop talking to yourself. Trust your intuition. It’ll change your life.
Author’s note: I’ve deleted all my social media accounts (except for Medium) and now depend exclusively on the kindness of strangers to pass the word around about my blog posts. Please share this post on social media if you liked it. Thank you.