As self-help workshops go, Applied Rationality’s is not especially accessible. The center’s three founders — Julia Galef, Anna Salamon and Smith — all have backgrounds in science or math or both, and their curriculum draws heavily from behavioral economics. Over the course of the weekend, I heard instructors invoke both hyperbolic discounting (a mathematical model of how people undervalue long-term rewards) and prospect theory (developed by the behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky to capture how people inaccurately weigh risky probabilities). But the premise of the workshop is simple: Our minds, cobbled together over millenniums by that lazy craftsman, evolution, are riddled with bad mental habits. ... Some of these problems are byproducts of our brain’s reward system. ... logical errors may be easy to spot in others, the group says, they’re often harder to see in ourselves. The workshop promised to give participants the tools to address these flaws, which, it hinted, are almost certainly worse than we realize. ... Most self-help appeals to us because it promises real change without much real effort, a sort of fad diet for the psyche. ... CFAR’s focus on science and on tiresome levels of practice can seem almost radical. It has also generated a rare level of interest among data-driven tech people and entrepreneurs who see personal development as just another optimization problem, if a uniquely central one. Yet, while CFAR’s methods are unusual, its aspirational promise — that a better version of ourselves is within reach — is distinctly familiar. The center may emphasize the benefits that will come to those who master the techniques of rational thought, like improved motivation and a more organized inbox, but it also suggests that the real reward will be far greater, enabling users to be more intellectually dynamic and nimble. ... CFAR’s original mandate was to give researchers the mental tools to overcome their unconscious assumptions. ... What makes CFAR novel is its effort to use those same principles to fix personal problems: to break frustrating habits, recognize self-defeating cycles and relentlessly interrogate our own wishful inclinations and avoidant instincts.
Meditation and mindfulness are the new rage in Silicon Valley. And it’s not just about inner peace—it’s about getting ahead. … Across the Valley, quiet contemplation is seen as the new caffeine, the fuel that allegedly unlocks productivity and creative bursts. Classes in meditation and mindfulness—paying close, nonjudgmental attention—have become staples at many of the region’s most prominent companies. There’s a Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute now teaching the Google meditation method to whoever wants it. The cofounders of Twitter and Facebook have made contemplative practices key features of their new enterprises, holding regular in-office meditation sessions and arranging for work routines that maximize mindfulness. Some 1,700 people showed up at a Wisdom 2.0 conference held in San Francisco this winter, with top executives from LinkedIn, Cisco, and Ford featured among the headliners. … These companies are doing more than simply seizing on Buddhist practices. Entrepreneurs and engineers are taking millennia-old traditions and reshaping them to fit the Valley’s goal-oriented, data-driven, largely atheistic culture. Forget past lives; never mind nirvana. The technology community of Northern California wants return on its investment in meditation. … It can be tempting to dismiss the interest in these ancient practices as just another neo-spiritual fad from a part of the country that’s cycled through one New Age after another. But it’s worth noting that the prophets of this new gospel are in the tech companies that already underpin so much of our lives.
Indulging in undirected positive flights of fancy isn’t always in our interest. Positive thinking can make us feel better in the short term, but over the long term it saps our motivation, preventing us from achieving our wishes and goals, and leaving us feeling frustrated, stymied and stuck. If we really want to move ahead in our lives, engage with the world and feel energised, we need to go beyond positive thinking and connect as well with the obstacles that stand in our way. By bringing our dreams into contact with reality, we can unleash our greatest energies and make the most progress in our lives. ... Now, you might wonder if positive thinking is really as harmful as I’m suggesting. In fact, it is. In a number of studies over two decades, my colleagues and I have discovered a powerful link between positive thinking and poor performance. ... Positive thinking impedes performance because it relaxes us and drains the energy we need to take action. After having participants in one study positively fantasise about the future for as little as a few minutes, we observed declines in systolic blood pressure, a standard measure of a person’s energy level. These declines were significant: whereas smoking a cigarette will typically raise a person’s blood pressure by five or 10 points, engaging in positive fantasies lowers it by about half as much. ... Such relaxation occurs because positive fantasies fool our minds into thinking that we’ve already achieved our goals – what psychologists call ‘mental attainment’. ... WOOP – Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. Defining the Wish and identifying and visualising the desired Outcome and Obstacle are the mental contrasting part; forming implementation intentions represent the final step: the Plan.
Napoleon Hill is the most famous conman you’ve probably never heard of. Born into poverty in rural Virginia at the end of the 19th century, Hill went on to write one of the most successful self-help books of the 20th century: Think and Grow Rich. In fact, he helped invent the genre. But it’s the untold story of Hill’s fraudulent business practices, tawdry sex life, and membership in a New York cult that makes him so fascinating. ... The past few decades have been a profitable era for all sorts of self-help and business success books. Napoleon Hill blazed a trail for an entire industry. But Napoleon’s early work is seen as “the source” when people get deep into self-help and business success literature. Hill’s Think and Grow Rich is passed around in certain business and real estate circles like some kind of ancient text. ... The legend of Napoleon Hill has grown and morphed over the years. He really did live an extraordinary life, just not the life that his thousands of disciples over the years have claimed. ... Hill was a product of the late 19th century New Thought movement and the magic that came along with believing that mere thoughts could move mountains, or at the very least cure cancer. ... Hill was involved in countless scams over the years. One of his earliest involved buying lumber on credit, never paying his suppliers, and selling the lumber to others for cash at rates well below market value. ... There are only so many times that a man can be arrested for the sale of unlicensed stock, altering checks, and outright theft, before you have to question the official history.