Scott H Young

Living Closer to Reality


A friend told me a story about two philosophers arguing about the nature of reality. The first believed reality was objective. The second countered that it was subjective, “You can’t prove to me that this wall exists.” The first replied, “Well if it doesn’t exist, then walk through it.”

The problem with the subjective philosopher is that everyone can have theories about the world. It’s only when those theories regularly make contact with reality that we gain understanding.

My philosophy has always been to try to live as close to reality as possible. Not how I want the world to work, or even how it “should” work, but how it does.

Entrepreneurs Live Closer to Reality

I love entrepreneurship because it forces you to live closer to reality. You can have theories about what the world needs, but theories don’t pay your bills—only being correct in your model of reality does.

This is a difference between entrepreneurship and many other professions. I often hear from people struggling to find a job, or claiming that they aren’t being paid enough. Embedded in these notions is the idea of fairness, or how the world should work.

As an entrepreneur, notions of fairness quickly get replaced with reality. It doesn’t matter that you worked 60 hours per week on a project and generated $100, or that someone else did 30 minutes of work that led to $10,000. Reality doesn’t care about what you “deserve”–only the value you produced.

Because your livelihood depends on directly ascertaining reality (as opposed to appealing to the filtered reality of a singular employer), you end up living closer to that reality.

Somewhat surprisingly, the more successful you get as an entrepreneur, the further you can live from reality. New entrepreneurs must be exactingly efficient to reach success. Established ones have resources and connections that afford a certain amount of slack to reach the same goal.

Professional Advice-Givers Live Further From Reality

One of my fears since becoming a full-time writer, is that my advice will grow stale because I’ve moved away from the reality I once wrote about. Struggling for success, in the moment, is quite a different experience than looking back with the benefit of hindsight.

The majority of my business is in teaching rapid-learning skills. Now that I’m no longer a student, it’s easy to live further away from the reality of students I write for. I worry about it enough that I’m taking on a big learning project in October, in part, to bring me closer to reality.

Academia and Reality

Within their chosen field, I feel academics, scientists and researchers live closer to reality than anyone. That’s why we get them to specialize in the generation of new knowledge. Physicists must live very close to reality within the domain of physics, or they won’t keep their jobs.

But I also feel academia affords a certain distance from reality in all the areas outside their field. Salaries are fixed, tenure gives incredible job security and the institutions of research isolate individuals from many of the realities outside.

In my mind, the difference is that while entrepreneurs must be somewhat close to reality on many issues (psychology, industry, technology, economics, etc.), academics must be even closer on their chosen pursuit, but have comparatively more slack in the others.

The Luxury of Fantasy

I’ve been equating here the necessity to live in reality with actually living in it. Of course, this isn’t entirely true. You could be intelligent and evidence-seeking in all areas of your life, even if life doesn’t necessitate it.

However, I feel fantasy, or the ability to have theories which aren’t thrust into contact with reality on a regular basis, is a luxury many of us enjoy. We like our superstitions, especially when they don’t cost much.

In many ways, the career path I’ve chosen suffers from this more than any other. Being a writer with a relatively stable business allows me to generate the impractical theories of an academic, without the rigor and methodology of peer-reviewed journals.

Trying to Live Closer to Reality

A broader goal of mine is to live as close to reality as possible. I want to actively remove my false beliefs, not accumulate feel-good falsities simply because I can afford to.

The scientific approach to this would be to run experiments, or at the very least, watch other experiments and interpret those results. That’s why I try to read as many science books from different disciplines, to remove the folk intuition and stay closer to the reality that people spend their entire careers seeking to discover.

But there’s also a much more pragmatic way to live closer to reality. Doing projects, whether that’s starting a company, living in a foreign country or training a skill, all force you to live closer to reality. It’s sitting back, well within your comfort zone, that allows you the luxury of unprovable hypotheses.

Living smart means exposing your ignorance. The way to be right, in the long-term, is to be shown to be wrong every day.

Quick announcement, friend and fellow blogger, Adam Baker, just released a course to help people get out of debt. I’m not an affiliate or anything, I just like his stuff (check out his free blog too).


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13 Responses to “Living Closer to Reality”

  1. Gus Hansen says:

    ” The first believed reality was objective. The second countered that it was subjective, “You can’t prove to me that this wall exists.” The first replied, “Well if it doesn’t exist, then walk through it.””

    What a way to mangle the dialogue between Jonathan Swift and Berkeley.

    By the way, it is nonsense to characterize Berkeley’s views as reality ‘being subjective’ – whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.

    It hurts me when people who know nothing about philosophy comment about philosophy.

  2. Leila Franca says:

    Hi Scott,

    About the fairness, a lesson that each of us has to learn sooner or later is that the world isn’t fair. As you said, not always we get what we “deserve”. Some people just doesn’t accept it and get even depressed thinking about it. I guess the best thing to do is to look ahead and go behind your business.

    I disagree a little bit when you talk about academia and reality. In architecture, for example, the academic projects have ideal conditions. The best ground, no budget concerns, a lot of space to parking, etc. In the real world these conditions rarelly happen.

    Also in mathematics, when we study superior algebra, we get the idea that we are far from reality (while the real world is struggling to deal with the “numbers”: budgets, debt and everything).

    Yes, as a writer to be closer to the reality of your readers is a must, but I think that students are always “students”. They don’t change that much. If you didn’t forget, then you will be ok.

    I also like the entrepreneurship. It keeps you “alive”. However, most of the new businesses end after the first year – I guess this is because they are away of the reality.

    The professionals that should be closer to the reality are the politicians. Sometimes I think that if they come from rich families (that often happens), then they will rarely understand the people needs. There is that famous sentence from Marie Antoinette “if there is no bread, let them eat cake”, true or not, it shows very well what is to be far from reality.

  3. Aaron Fung says:

    Scott,

    It was a pleasure meeting you at your San Francisco meetup. I really enjoyed our conversation, as your your ideas always stimulate my mind to thought and reflection.

    Argument: One does not live closer to reality, so much as approaches reality

    I like this article,, and it provides one with a very pragmatic approach to life – “actionable.” I think this is a practical philosophy, and valid; I think I my disagreement is one of semantics.

    It seems to me that what you are describing is not so much living closer to reality as it is living a life by a sort of scientific method that approaches reality: beginning with the hypothesis (or fantasy) which is tested by an experiment (or project) from which conclusions are drawn and the original hypothesis is either verified or found wanting and further refined to fit the observed results.

    Please note that this scientific method of inquiry is not limited to the stereotype scientific disciplines, like physics or chemistry, but is applicable to many disciplines.

    For example, USAF Colonel John Boyd developed the OODA loop as a recursive process for military operations. It stands of Observe, Orient, Decide, Act: first a phenomena is observed, to which the observer orients this observation (enemy? friend? combat capabilities? etc), and from his orientation he decides what to do and acts on this decision. The results of the action is observed and the process repeats again.

    The important aspect of this process is that it is recursive, like the scientific method. I’m not certain if Colonel Boyd had it in mind, but the OODA loop always struck me as a way of making combat decisions by scientific method: a recursive process by which one zeroes in on a target, whether that be a bogey aircraft or a more accurate understanding of a chemical process.

    Indeed, when I took biology recently, I found it helpful to think of the scientific method as the OODA loop that repeated itself.

    On the other hand, this one could follow a more inductive route and collect empirical data and observations from which conclusions are drawn, such as Bacon suggests in his Tertium Organum. This is a valid method as well, and one that has been used in such sciences as biology.

    However, I prefer the iterative scientific method, as it allows for refinement of a hypothesis without the illusion and pressure that the conclusions drawn are the final truth, merely part of an ongoing process.

    Now to the question of an objective versus a subjective reality. This really is a fascinating discussion, and one that far more brilliant minds than mine have grappled with from Platonic forms, Buddhist beliefs that this world is an illusion, to Enlightenment materialism and Cartesian radical doubt.

    The issue here is the definition of the word “reality.” Most of these previous philosophers disagree what reality is. Is reality ideal perfection, such as Platonic forms? Is it the Tao? God? The wall I am currently trying to walk through? Are we living in the Matrix?

    Does the spoon exist?

    Based on what I have read from your blog and our recent conversation, I would guess that you fall somewhere in the Anglo-American empirical tradition; this article strikes me as a tract on pragmatism. The anecdote introducing your article sets forth the definition of reality as materialist, as opposed to anything else such as spiritual or I suppose psychological (one may or may not be able to walk through a wall in a dream).

    To such questions I can only offer the suggestion that such questions of reality are beyond the Kantian prohibition; observable phenomena are known to our reasoning faculty (consciousness) through the a priori filters of time, space and causality: we can never know reality (or as Kant and Hegel call the neumenal “the thing in itself) and are doomed to describe observable phenomena, but truth is beyond the fallible reasoning faculty.

    If you have read this far I like to thank you, and conclude by saying that one cannot live closer to reality, but can live a life approaching reality.

    I was never good at concluding my writing, so I’ll end with a quote from The Matrix.

    Spoon boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.
    Neo: What truth?
    Spoon boy: There is no spoon.
    Neo: There is no spoon?
    Spoon boy: Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

  4. Scott Young says:

    Gus,

    As I said, this was a comment related by a friend, not a discussion I read from its source. My point wasn’t to begin a treatise on the ontology of the universe, but to express a more practical truth we all use (that you can have theories which break down in contact with reality).

    I too hate it when people who know philosophy purposely obfuscate the point. :)

    -Scott

  5. Eric says:

    Good post, Scott-

    Something that seems to have been lost now is the understanding of the difference between a theory and a hypothesis, and any idea, no matter how bizarre, hare-brained and unsubstantiated, is inadvertently (or even intentionally, considering the possible motivations) given credence by calling it a “theory.” A concerted effort to remind everyone that the hypothetical is untested assumption or supposition while theory is a statement or principle repeatedly tested and found to be useful in making accurate predictions would go a long way in curbing the growing “war on science”, whatever its motivation.

  6. Yahya says:

    hey scott you should really check out the book whole brain power, i cannot speak for the book and the reviews so check the book out yourself
    http://www.amazon.com/Whole-Brain-Power-Fountain-Youth/dp/0557005140

  7. Adam Isom says:

    Wow.

  8. D says:

    “scientists and researchers live closer to reality than anyone.”

    I’m a professional scientist. And this couldn’t be farther from the truth, on more levels than you can imagine.

  9. Aaron Fung says:

    @Adam Isom

    Agreed. :-)

    @Eric

    True, technically a hypothesis is an untested assertion, though I would argue it is closer to a tentative guess based on initial observation, while a theory is a comprehensive explanation supported by abundant evidence; I agree that a theory is far from “bizarre, hare-brained and unsubstantiated.”

    The conflation of the terms “theory” and “hypothesis” is among my nerdy pet peeves.

    And don’t you dare use the term “begging the question” for anything other than the petitio principii fallacy and NOT as a synonym for “raising the question” :-)

    @Leila France

    On the Marie Antoinette quote. To bring it “closer to reality” she may or may not have said it.

    One must remember this was before modern libel laws and while it was taboo to attack the king, anyone was free to call the queen nasty names. Mudslinging and slander were common practice in 18th century Europe, so long as the king was remained unsullied.

    One explanation I have heard was that the mayor of Paris was particularly nasty and said “let them eat straw,” which later got attributed to Marie Antoinette.

    Another explanation is that Marie Antoinette was a foreigner in France whose original meaning was lost in translation, as “cake” was intended to be a practical solution that made more sense in her homeland.

    The point is that the study of history, far from merely dry facts and dates, is, like a legal case, a discourse of competing narratives that all seek to incorporate new data, new perspectives, and better arguments to come to an explanation that is “closer to reality.”

    (See what I did there? I just tied Marie Antoinette’s cake to Mr. Scott’s post) :-)

  10. Scott Young says:

    D,

    At least in theory, scientists’ job is to discover truth in a domain. The level of empiricism needed by a researcher is much higher than a business person, at least in that one area of focus.

    -Scott

  11. John says:

    Hi Scott,

    I appreciate your post pretty much. A very important point to my mind is: you just DO things when you want to be an entrepreneur, and you are not only thinking about it. I know many students who are scared about future, coz they never tried to do things, but were only creating strange theories about reality

  12. […] Living Closer to Reality « Scott H Young […]

  13. Matt says:

    Hey Scott,

    Interesting comparison between entrepreneurs and researchers.

    I would add to something you said early on about produced value. I believe what people pay for is perceived value, not exact produced value. That value varies based on how good the message is, credibility, etc.

    Cheers,

    Matt

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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