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Focused and Diffuse: Two Modes of Thinking

Our brains employ two modes of thinking to tackle any large task: focused and diffuse. Both are equally valuable but serve very different purposes. To do your best work, you need to master both.

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As she lost consciousness of outer things…her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting. — Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Professor and former Knowledge Project Podcast guest, Barbara Oakley, is credited with popularizing the concept of focused and diffuse forms of thinking. In A Mind for Numbers, Oakley explains how distinct these modes are and how we switch between the two throughout the day. We are constantly in pursuit of true periods of focus – deep work, flow states, and highly productive sessions where we see tangible results. Much of the learning process occurs during the focused mode of thinking. The diffuse mode is equally important to understand and pursue.

When our minds are free to wander, we shift into a diffuse mode of thinking. This is sometimes referred to as our natural mode of thinking, or the daydream mode; it’s when we form connections and subconsciously mull over problems. Although diffuse thinking comes in the guise of a break from focus, our minds are still working. Often, it’s only after we switch away from this mode that we realize our brains were indeed working for us. Moving into diffuse mode can be a very brief phenomenon, such as when we briefly stare into the distance before returning to work.

Oakley uses evolutionary biology to explain why we have these two distinct modes. Vertebrates need both focused and diffuse modes to survive. The focused mode is useful for vital tasks like foraging for food or caring for offspring. On the other hand, the diffuse mode is useful for scanning the area for predators and other threats. She explains: “A bird, for example, needs to focus carefully so it can pick up tiny pieces of grain as it pecks the ground for food, and at the same time, it must scan the horizon for predators such as hawks…. If you watch birds, they’ll first peck, and then pause to scan the horizon—almost as if they are alternating between focused and diffuse modes.”

Both modes of thinking are equally valuable, but it’s the harmony between them which matters. We can’t maintain the effort of the focused mode for long. At some point, we need to relax and slip into the diffuse mode. Learning a complex skill —a language, a musical instrument, chess, a mental model—requires both modes to work together. We master the details in focused mode, then comprehend how everything fits together in diffuse mode. It’s about combining creativity with execution.

Think of how your mind works when you read. As you read a particular sentence of a book, you can’t simultaneously step back to ponder the entire work. Only when you put the book down can you develop a comprehensive picture, drawing connections between concepts and making sense of it all.

In a journal article entitled “The Middle Way: Finding the Balance between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering” the authors write that “consciousness… ebbs like a breaking wave, outwardly expanding and then inwardly retreating. This perennial rhythm of the mind—extracting information from the external world, withdrawing to inner musings, and then returning to the outer realm—defines mental life.” This mental oscillation is important. If we stay in a focused mode too long, diminishing returns set in and our thinking stagnates. We stop getting new ideas and can experience cognitive tunnelling. It’s also tiring, and we become less productive. This can also set the conditions for us to fall victim to counter-productive cognitive biases and risky shortcuts, as we lose context and the bigger picture.

History is peppered with examples of serendipitous discoveries and ideas that combined diffuse and focused thinking. In many cases, the broad insight came during diffuse thinking periods, while the concrete development work was accomplished in focused mode.

Einstein figured out relativity during an argument with a friend. He then spent decades refining and clarifying his theories for publication, working until the day before his death. Many of Stephen King’s books begin as single sentences scribbled in a notebook or on a napkin after showering, driving, or walking. To turn these ideas into books, he then sticks to a focused schedule, writing 2000 words each morning. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road following seven years of travel and drawing links between his experiences. After years of planning and drafting, he wrote his masterpiece in just three weeks using a 120-foot roll of tracing paper to avoid having to change the sheets in his typewriter. Both Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali took advantage of micro-naps lasting less than a second to generate ideas. Take a look at the recorded schedule of any great mind and you will see a careful balance between activities chosen to facilitate both focused and diffuse modes of thinking.

Studies exploring creative thinking have supported the idea that we need both types of thinking. In a paper entitled “The Richness of Inner Experience: Relating Styles of Daydreaming to Creative Processes,” Zedelius and Schooler write that “Research has supported the theorized benefit of stimulus independent thought for creativity. It was found that taking a break from consciously working on a creative problem and engaging in an unrelated task improves subsequent creativity, a phenomenon termed incubation.” When asked to generate novel uses for common objects such as a brick or paperclip, a useful test of creativity, individuals who are given breaks to engage in tasks which facilitate diffuse thinking tend to come up with more ideas. So how can we better fit the two modes together?

One way is to work in intense, focused bursts. When the ideas stop flowing and diminishing returns set in, do something which is conducive to mind-wandering. Exercise, walk, read, or listen to music. We veer naturally toward this diffuse state—gazing out of windows, walking around the room or making coffee when focusing gets too hard. The problem is that activities which encourage diffuse thinking can make us feel lazy and guilty. Instead, we often opt for mediocre substitutes, like social media, which give our mind a break without really allowing for true mind-wandering.

Our minds are eventually going to beg for a diffuse mode break no matter how much focus we try to maintain. Entering the diffuse mode requires stepping away and doing something which ideally is physically absorbing and mentally freeing. It might feel like taking a break or wasting time, but it’s a necessary part of creating something valuable.

The Best of Goethe’s Aphorisms

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749–1832) Maxims and Reflections is a terrific source of philosophical wisdom. The German writer, statesman, lawyer, playwright, and polymath was brilliant at distilling complex questions and concepts into simple, reflective statements. His wisdom was derived from a life spent learning, thinking, and transmitting knowledge across a wide variety of fields. He crafted volumes of poetry, dramas, and thought pieces on botany, human anatomy, and even the science of color. From his 590 aphorisms, here are our favorites which we hope you enjoy pondering:

#2. How can a man come to know himself? Never by thinking, but by doing. Try to do your duty and you will know at once what you are worth.

#7. Tell me with whom you associate, and I will tell you who you are. If I know what your business is, I know what can be made of you.

#19. It is only men of practical ability, knowing their powers and using them with moderation and prudence, who will be successful in worldly affairs.

#20. It is a great error to take oneself for more than one is, or for less than one is worth.

#33. Everything that frees our spirit without giving us control of ourselves is ruinous.

#34. A man is really alive only when he delights in the good-will of others.

#37. When a man is old he must do more than when he was young.

#60. Wisdom lies only in truth.

#65. Generosity wins favor for every one, especially when it is accompanied by modesty.

#91. Certain minds must be allowed their peculiarities.

#102. So obstinately contradictory is man that you cannot compel him to his advantage, yet he yields before everything that forces him to his hurt.

#124. One need only grow old to become gentler in one’s judgments. I see no fault committed which I could not have committed myself.

#130. Hatred is active displeasure, envy passive. We need not wonder that envy turns so soon to hatred.

#131. There is something magical in rhythm; it even makes us believe that we possess the sublime.

#134. The most foolish of all errors is for clever young men to believe that they forfeit their originality in recognizing a truth which has already been recognized by others.

#143. No one should desire to live in irregular circumstances; but if by chance a man falls into them, they test his character and show how much determination he is capable of.

#152. Ingratitude is always a kind of weakness. I have never known men of ability to be ungrateful.

#162. There are people who make no mistakes because they never wish to do anything worth doing.

#184. We may learn to know the world as we please: it will always retain a bright and a dark side.

#211. Enthusiasm is of the greatest value, so long as we are not carried away by it.

#223. We cannot escape a contradiction in ourselves; we must try and resolve it. If the contradiction comes from others, it does not affect us: it is their affair.

#231. Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.

#239. To live in a great idea means to treat the impossible as though it were possible. It is just the same with a strong character; and when an idea and a character meet, things arise which fill the world with wonder for thousands of years.

#264. A man’s manners are the mirror in which he shows his portrait.

#270. Against the great superiority of another there is no remedy but love.

#276. Fools and wise folk are alike harmless. It is the half-wise and the half-foolish, who are the most dangerous.

#278. Difficulties increase the nearer we come to our aim.

#320. A man is not deceived by others, he deceives himself.

#324. It is not enough to know, we must also apply; it is not enough to will, we must also do.

#332. Nothing is more highly to be prized than the value of each day.

#345. A man is well equipped for all the real necessities of life if he trusts his senses, and so cultivates them that they remain worthy of being trusted.

#346. The senses do not deceive; it is the judgment that deceives.

#383. Every man hears only what he understands.

#485. There is no surer way of evading the world than by Art; and no surer way of uniting with it than by Art.

#486. Even in the moments of highest happiness and deepest misery we need the Artist.

#488. The dignity of Art appears perhaps most conspicuously in music; for in music there is no material to be deducted. It is wholly form and intrinsic value, and it raises and ennobles all that it expresses.

#529. We more readily confess to errors, mistakes and shortcomings in our conduct than in our thought.

#554. A man must cling to the belief that the incomprehensible is comprehensible; otherwise he would not try to fathom it.

#579. There are two things of which a man cannot be careful enough: of obstinacy if he confines himself to his own line of thought; of incompetency, if he goes beyond it.

#584. Every one knows how to value what he has attained in life; most of all the man who thinks and reflects in his old age. He has a comfortable feeling that it is something of which no one can rob him.

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If you enjoyed reading these you may also be interested in digesting similar lists of aphorisms we wrote about:

From Eastern Philosophy: Aphorisms for Thirsty Fish: The Lost Writings of Wu Hsin 

From the mind of Nassim Taleb: The Bed of Procrustes — 20 Aphorisms from Nassim Taleb

And an interesting discussion criticizing aphorisms: Susan Sontag: Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom

Externalities: Why We Can Never Do “One Thing”

No action exists in a vacuum. There are ripples that have consequences that we can and can’t see. Here are the three types of externalities that can help us guide our actions so they don’t come back to bite us.

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An externality affects someone without them agreeing to it. As with unintended consequences, externalities can be positive or negative. Understanding the types of externalities and the impact they have in our lives can help us improve our decision making, and how we interact with the world.

Externalities provide useful mental models for understanding complex systems. They show us that systems don’t exist in isolation from other systems. Externalities may affect uninvolved third parties which make them a form of market failure —an inefficient allocation of resources.

We both create and are subject to externalities. Most are very minor but compound over time. They can inflict numerous second-order effects. Someone reclines their seat on an airplane. They get the benefit of comfort. The person behind bears the cost of discomfort by having less space. One family member leaves their dirty dishes in the sink. They get the benefit of using the plate. Someone else bears the cost of washing it later. We can’t expect to interact with any system without repercussions. Over time, even minor externalities can cause significant strain in our lives and relationships.

The First Law of Ecology

To understand externalities it is first useful to consider second-order consequences. In Filters Against Folly, Garrett Hardin describes what he considers to be the First Law of Ecology: We can never do one thing. Whenever we interact with a system, we need to ask, “And then what? What will the wider repercussions of our actions be?” There is bound to be at least one externality.

Hardin gives the example of the Prohibition Amendment in the U.S. In 1920, lawmakers banned the production and sale of alcoholic beverages throughout the entire country. This was in response to an extended campaign by those who believed alcohol was evil. It wasn’t enough to restrict its consumption—it needed to go.

The addition of 61 words to the American Constitution changed the social and legal landscape for over a decade. Policymakers presumably thought they could make the change and people would stop drinking. But Prohibition led to numerous externalities. Alcohol is an important part of many people’s lives. Few were willing to suddenly give it up without a fight. The demand was more than strong enough to ensure a black-market supply re-emerged.

Wealthy people stockpiled alcohol in their homes before the ban went into effect. Thousands of speakeasies and gin joints flourished. Walgreens grew from 20 stores to 500, in large part due to its sales of ‘medicinal’ whiskey. Former alcohol producers simply sold the ingredients for people to make their own. Gangsters like Al Capone made their fortune smuggling, and murdered his rivals in the process. Crime gangs undermined official institutions. Tax revenues plummeted. People lost their jobs. Prisons became overcrowded and bribery commonplace. Thousands died from crime and drinking unsafe homemade alcohol.

Policymakers did not fully ask, “And then what?” before legislating. Drinking did decrease during this time, on average by about half.  But this was far from the hope of a total ban. The second-order consequences outweighed any benefits.

As economist Gregory Mankiw explains in Principles of Microeconomics,

In the presence of externalities, society’s interest in a market outcome extends beyond the well-being of buyers and sellers who participate in the market; it also includes the well-being of bystanders who are affected indirectly…. The market equilibrium is not efficient when there are externalities. That is, the equilibrium fails to maximize the total benefit to society as a whole.

Negative Externalities

Negative externalities can occur during the production or consumption of a service or good. Pollution is a useful example. If a factory pollutes nearby water supplies, it causes harm without incurring costs. The costs to society are high and are not reflected in the price of whatever the factory makes. Economists often view environmental damage as another factor in a production process. But even if pollution is taxed, the harmful effects don’t go away.

Transport and manufacturing release toxins into the environment, harming our health and altering our climate. The reality though, is these externalities are hard to see, and it is often difficult to trace them back to their root causes. There’s also the question of whether we are responsible for externalities or not.

Imagine you’re driving down the road. As you go by an apartment, the noise disturbs someone who didn’t agree to it. Your car emits air pollution, which affects everyone living nearby. Each of these small externalities will affect people you don’t see and who didn’t choose them. They won’t receive any compensation from you. Are you really responsible for the externalities you cause? If you’re not being outright careless or malicious, isn’t it just part of life? How much responsibility do we have as individuals, anyway?

Calling something a negative externality can be a convenient way of abdicating responsibility.

Positive Externalities

A positive externality imposes an unexpected benefit on a third party. The producer doesn’t agree to this, nor do they receive compensation for it.

Scientific research often leads to positive externalities. Research findings can have applications beyond their initial scope. The resulting information becomes part of our collective knowledge base. However, the researcher who makes a discovery cannot receive the full benefits. Nor do they necessarily feel entitled to them.

Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat developed probability theory to solve a gambling dispute. Their work went on to inform numerous disciplines (like the field of calculus) and transform our understanding of the world. Probabilities are now a core part of how we think. Pascal and Fermat created a positive externality.

Someone who comes up with an equation cannot expect compensation each time it gets used. As a result, the incentives to invest the time and effort to discover new equations are reduced. Algorithms, patents, and copyright laws change this by allowing creators to protect and profit from their ideas for years before other people can freely use them. We all benefit, and researchers have an incentive to continue their work.

Network effects are an example of a positive externality. Silicon Valley understands this well. Each person who joins a network, like a marketplace app, increases the value to all other users. Those who own the network have an incentive improve it to encourage new users. Everyone benefits from being able to communicate with more people. While we might not join a new network intending to improve it for other people, that is what normally happens. (On the flipside, network effects can also produce negative externalities, as too many members can decrease the value of a network.)

Positive externalities often lead to the “free rider” problem. When we enjoy something that we aren’t paying for, we tend not to value it. Not paying can remove the incentive to look after a resource and leads to a Tragedy of the Commons situation. As Aristotle put it, “For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.” A good portion of online content succumbs to the free rider problem. We enjoy it and yet we don’t pay for it. We expect it to be free and yet, if users weren’t willing to support sites like Farnam Street, they would likely fold, start publishing lower quality articles, or sell readers to advertisers who collect their data. The end result, as we see too frequently, is low-quality content funded by page-view advertising. (This is why we have a membership program. Members of our learning community create a positive externality for non-members by helping support the free content.)

Positional Externalities

Positional externalities are a form of second-order effects. They occur when our decisions alter the context of future perception or value.

For example, consider what happens when a person decides to start staying at the office an hour late. Perhaps they want a promotion and think it will endear them to managers. Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fit the time allocated to them. What this person would otherwise get done by 5pm, now takes until 6pm. Staying late becomes their norm. Their co-workers notice and start to also stay late. Before long, staying at the office until 6pm becomes the standard for everyone. Anyone who leaves at 5pm is perceived as lazy. Now that 6pm is the norm, everyone suffers. They are forced to work more without deriving any real benefits. It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone.

Someone we know once made an investment with a nearly unlimited return by gaming the system. He worked for an investment firm that valued employees according to a perception of how hard they worked and not necessarily by their results. Each Monday he brought in a series of sport coats and left them in the office. He paid the cleaning staff $20 a week to change the coat hanging on his chair and to turn on his computer. No matter what happened, it appeared he was always the first one into the office even though he often didn’t show up from a “client meeting” until 10. When it came to bonus time, he’d get an enormous return on that $20 investment.

Purchasing luxury goods can create positional externalities. Veblen goods are items we value because of their scarcity and high cost. Diamonds, Lamborghinis, tailor-made suits — owning them is a status symbol, and they lose their value if they become cheaper or if too many people have them. As Luca Lambertini puts it in The Economics of Vertically Differentiated Markets,

The utility derived from consumption is a function of the quantity purchased relative to the average of the society or the reference group to whom the consumer compares.” In other words, a shiny new car seems more valuable if all your friends are driving battered old wrecks. If they have equally (or more) fancy cars, the value of yours drops. At some point, it seems worthless and it’s time to find a new one. In this way, the purchase of a Veblen good confers a positional externality on other people who own it too.

That utility can also be a matter of comparison. A person earning $40,000 a year while their friends earn $30,000 will be happier than one earning $60,000 when their friends earn $70,000. When someone’s salary increases, it raises the bar, giving others a new point of reference.

We can confer positional externalities on ourselves by changing our attitudes. Let’s say someone enjoys wine but is not a connoisseur. A $10 bottle and a $100 bottle make them equally happy. When they decide to go on a course and learn the subtleties and technicalities of fine wines, they develop an appreciation for the $100 wine and a distaste for the $10. They may no longer be able to enjoy a cheap drink because they raised their standards.

Conclusion

Externalities are everywhere. It’s easy to ignore the impact of our decisions—to recline an airplane seat, to stay late at the office, or drop litter. Eventually though, someone always ends up paying. Like the villagers in Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, who end up with no grass for their animals, we run the risk of ruining a good thing if we don’t take care of it. Keeping the three types of externalities in mind is a useful way to make decisions that won’t come back to bite you. Whenever we interact with a system, we should remember to ask Hardin’s question: and then what?

A Wandering Mind: How Travel Can Change the Way You Think

Most people travel as an observer, and as a result, “see” a lot. When you travel as an active participant, the experience can transform the way you think, and how you see the world.

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Here’s a situation familiar to many of us: We decide to take a vacation and go somewhere exotic. We plan the trip and mark our calendars, and as the date gets closer we get increasingly excited. Before we step on the plane, the possibilities seem endless. Anything could happen! Accidental encounters and adventures could change our lives!

We go. We have a good time. We see what we wanted to and enjoy the break from work. Upon returning home, we share the pictures and recount some of our experiences with friends. We give away the souvenirs. We step back into our lives. The glow fades and we settle to planning the next round of travel in our daydreams.

In the end, it’s a little sad. That incredible experience becomes like a mirage or a dream—similar to watching a movie, but a lot more expensive.

What if it doesn’t have to be like this?

Travel without participation and reflection is entertainment. Try to notice yourself in the journey, and capture the experience and insights when you interact with all the new things you are confronted with. You can get more out of your travel by using mental models to weave yourself into the experience, and come away enriched as well as entertained and rested.

First, inspiration from the past …

Just over 200 years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft, philosopher, feminist, and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was going through an emotionally difficult period. Her lover—the father of her child—wasn’t interested in being with her anymore. She was devastated and frustrated. As a philosopher, she believed it was important to live according to the ideals she espoused. The realities facing a middle-class woman in 18th-century England made that very hard. Women had essentially no rights. Having a child out of wedlock might have supported her ideas regarding how oppressive the institution of marriage was for women, but without the support of the child’s father, she knew she would struggle financially and socially. It was one of the lowest points of her life.

Wollstonecraft went to Scandinavia, mostly to recover some money for her lover and thus try to win him back. In this she failed. But she captured her journey in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. In doing so, she revolutionized travel writing and healed herself.

The Letters offer remarkable insight into Wollstonecraft’s lively mind. As she moves through the unfamiliar surroundings of three foreign countries, she asks herself questions and explores the ideas brought to mind. Observing the agricultural development of Norway, in many ways behind that of England at the time, she asks, “And, considering the question of human happiness, where, oh where does it reside? Has it taken up its abode with unconscious ignorance or with the high-wrought mind?”

She learns why the locals are nervous about serving coffee and how different their fashions are. She comments on the different gardening practices and the beauty of the trees. In contemplating how the Norwegians organize their social hierarchy she makes comparisons to England and infers conclusions about her native country—namely that the way things are is not necessarily how they have to be.

Most importantly, she records what effect the traveling has on her. “When a warm heart has received strong impressions, they are not to be effaced. Emotions become sentiments, and the imagination renders even transient sensations permanent by fondly retracing them. I cannot, without a thrill of delight, recollect views I have seen, which are not to be forgotten, nor looks I have felt in every nerve, which I shall never more meet.”

Here are some goals we can construct from Wollstonecraft’s approach to travel:

  1. Try to actively know the place you are in. Observe the customs. Interact with the locals.
  2. Learn the whys behind the observation. Explore the history. Ask questions. Try to understand the answers in relation to what you are experiencing now, setting aside any previous assumptions.
  3. Notice how the journey is affecting you. What memories surface? What new insights do you have? Are your opinions and beliefs challenged?
  4. Don’t plan out every detail. Explore. The map is not the territory.

So how do we put those goals into practice?

Here is where mental models can amplify the travel experience.

We all have a tendency to generalize from small samples. Our own little world becomes, without the infusion of new experiences, our frame for understanding the entire world. Travel broadens your sample set. You start to really understand the universals of the human condition versus the particulars of the area you occupy.

Travel is a great way to counter confirmation bias. Chances are, people in a different country will think differently than you. Interactions won’t reinforce your feedback loop. You will be exposed to new ideas and ways of approaching life that can remind you of the options you have when you go back home.

You can apply the power of algebraic equivalence. In algebra, as we solve abstractions such as x + y = 8, we learn that values can be equal without looking exactly the same. When you explore other cultures and ways of living, you see that there are many definitions of a good life and many ways to be happy. You begin to understand that equality of experience is different from sameness of experience. Not everyone wants what you want. This diversity in how we manifest our goals and desires accounts for differences in everything from personal philosophy to product markets.

The distance from your regular life can give you perspective. Using the terms of Galilean relativity, you get to be the fish instead of the scientist. The lens of travel can help you untangle problems back at home in many ways. The distance, both physical and psychological, also gives you the opportunity to observe yourself in your regular life without the day-to-day pressures clouding your judgment.

Try these specific tips to apply this mental models approach to travel:

  1. Keep a travel journal. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Travel is full of idle moments like waiting for transportation, or museum-feet recovery at the end of the day. Reflect and capture.
  2. Encourage serendipity in your experiences. Give yourself the chance to experience the unexpected. Over-planning reinforces your current biases. You can’t possibly know the best of a place before you get there.
  3. Be deliberate in setting your goal. Go somewhere with the intent of gaining something out of that experience. Don’t try to recreate your life at home, with the same restaurants and television shows.
  4. Be open to growth. Travel is an opportunity to choose to be different. Anticipate that you might add to the construct that is “you” when you travel. Embrace the additions to your identity so that you have new resources to draw on.

Through considering mental models and staying actively engaged, travel can jolt you awake, and show you the world in a different light.

The Evolutionary Benefit of Friendship

Healthy friendships offer far more than a reliable person to share a beer with. Research shows they can make us healthier, wealthier, happier and overall more successful. Here’s how.

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Is friendship important for our survival?

At first glance, the answer isn’t obvious. Other relationships get more play: romantic partners, parents and kids, families, professional networks. It’s easy to find books on improving your marriage or your relationship with your coworkers. The ability to create and maintain friendships, though, seems a bit taken for granted. Often it appears that either we all do it with relative ease, or we just don’t care. We have a feeling that neither of these is true.

Friendships require sustained effort that can often be just as confusing to navigate as a marriage. Over time they will go through ups and downs, face challenges from time pressures or geographical constraints, and have to resolve misunderstandings. And these are the good ones. We also have to try out many friends to find the ones who stick, and weed out the ones who turn out to be bad for us. And unlike our ancestors, we have to put a lot of effort into considering what is a friend, given the seemingly infinite number of connections we can make on social media.

Our ability to form relationships with people who aren’t related to us, however, is a critical skill that helped turn us into humans. It’s a fundamental part of who we are.

Biologically, our ability to develop and maintain social connections is directly related to the size of our brain. The research of Robin Dunbar (of Dunbar’s Number, one of our mental models), has demonstrated that because we are limited by our brain capacity, the fitness advantage of larger social groups was a driver in the evolution of parts of the brain. Other scientists have corroborated this idea that our larger brains are primarily a social versus ecological adaptation. It wasn’t because we happened to have a bigger brain for say, hunting, that we pursued complex social relationships, but rather that these relationships were critical for the evolutionary development of neocortical capacity. Friends made us smarter and gave us more potential.

Looking at ourselves through a biological lens also suggests that one of the obvious advantages to friendships is the diversity they create. If you are being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, it would be nice to be able to rely on more than one individual for help. And, perhaps more importantly, your chances of thwarting the tiger are increased if you are part of a tribe that includes people with different skill sets. Someone who understands tiger behavior, someone who can kill it, and someone who can treat any resulting wounds could be helpful. Furthermore, being part of this diverse group means that when the environment changes, someone can likely adapt and lead the way for everyone else.

In a modern context, having diversity in our relationships has multiple applications. For one, it doesn’t make much sense to put all your emotional eggs in one basket. Committed romantic partners are wonderful, but if they die the last thing you want to be is alone. Your survival is quite literally dependent on having close friends who can support you through the hard times. And having friends with different specialties, interests, strengths and weaknesses can help us test out ideas and develop our character by giving us a safe space to experiment.

What about the value of friends who are smarter or better at the things we aspire to do? As in dealing with the tiger, friends with different talents can help us realize our own potential.

In her book The Friendship Cure, Kate Leaver provides a convincing argument for the value of friends. They are worth it for the benefit to cardiovascular health alone! Interestingly, she writes that “social integration and close relationships are the most important predictors of mortality, well above things like alcohol consumption, exercise and diet.” With a network of reliable friends, we live longer and in better health. And good friends make us feel good. There is a reciprocity that Leaver explores in all sorts of manifestations, demonstrating just how amazing friendships can be for the quality of our lives.

The value of friendship has been evident for a long time. Aristotle devoted a good part of the Nicomachean Ethics to contemplating friendship, but took it as self-evident that friends were important. He wrote, “for no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.” Defining what makes a good friend, fine, he could spend some time on that, but there was no doubt that friendship itself was “a necessary component of happiness.”

To really see the value of friends, think of your social ecosystem, the web of interpersonal connections that you engage with as you live your life. Leaver asks, “what do we get from friendship that we don’t get from romantic relationships, family or work?” When you answer this question, you’ll see where your friends fit.

The answers are going to be different for everyone. It could be that friends provide you with a place to go to admit your fears and frustrations without being judged, or a history of yourself that you tap into to keep you grounded, or someone to go to axe throwing with on Thursday nights. The point is, we can get profound positives from friends that we cannot get in our other relationships.

We become who we are in great part because of the friends we have. — Alexander Nehamas

Aristotle also said that “though the wish for friendship comes quickly, friendship does not.” Yes, they do take work. But the good news is that if you put some effort into learning what it means to be a good friend, the rest isn’t going to feel like work at all. Why? Alexander Nehamas writes in On Friendship that friendship “provides companionship and a safety net when we are in various kinds of trouble; it offers sympathy for our misfortunes, discretion for our secrets, encouragement for our efforts.”

So why does friendship seem to get relegated to the bottom of our relationship endeavors? Leaver argues that “we’ve built a culture of individuality without knowing how to be alone successfully or how to truly combat loneliness.” If friendship becomes another check box on your daily to-do list, you’re probably not going to feel like you actually have friends. That kind of social interaction is going to feel more stressful than beneficial, and consequently you will likely start to avoid it.

A further consideration is that friendship seems to go by the wayside as we pursue the things we believe we need to consider ourselves successful. Material goods, titles, fame, a large number of social media followers. Whatever.

But Leaver’s point is that friends are actually a key component of success. Without them we become isolated and vulnerable to loneliness, pain, and poor health. With them we live longer, with more laughter and less fear, and a higher quality of life. Doesn’t that sound like something worth some effort?

The Power of Questions

The quality of the answers we get are directly correlated with the quality of the questions we ask. Here’s how to improve your questions.

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When we run our once-a-year Re:Think Europe event, 10 participants work with us for a month before the event to hone their questions. This is the most intense event we run for a reason. Each person brings a problem or challenge to the table for others to help with. Participants research each other’s problems before the event. Before they even show up, refining and iterating the questions often helps the participants make huge leaps forward.

As a society, we tend to focus a lot on answers. Answers are solutions to problems. We tend to give less prestige to questions. Everyone has them. They’re easy. It’s the answers that take the work.

This overlooks the power of questions. Asking questions gives you a better understanding of everything: the situation you are in, the challenges you are facing. Life.

Let me share a story that took place in my second-year history class in university. We started discussing the assigned reading. I didn’t really understand it, but I figured I’d get it just sitting there. Then this guy raised his hand and said, “Hey Professor, could you explain [technical term]? It wasn’t clear to me from the article.”

Boom. I had this startling insight. Up until then, I had always been afraid to ask questions like that for fear of looking stupid [read about pluralistic ignorance here]. But this guy didn’t appear stupid. At that moment, he seemed like the smartest guy in the class.

Asking questions means you want to learn. You want to understand and know. So where do you start? Anywhere you want. But don’t feel pressure to begin with the big questions, the ones we all confront at one time or another, like the meaning of life, or what exists beyond our physical experience of earth. There is a significant amount to be learned from the seemingly mundane ones, questions that seem so basic, once we reach about age 12 we no longer bother asking them—because we either think we know the answer or are afraid of admitting we don’t.

Consider the following three questions:

  1. What is a horse?
  2. What is green?
  3. What is a point in time?

At first glance, these don’t seem difficult. They’re grade school stuff. But these are actually really hard questions that can show us how much is to be gained from asking them.

First, what is a horse? Most people will list the physical characteristics that horses have in common, saying, “A horse has four legs, and a mane, and you can ride it.” This is definitely true of some horses, but we would reasonably consider a three-legged horse still a horse. And a horse doesn’t cease to be a horse if it can’t be ridden. It doesn’t become some other animal.

There is, I think, some component of DNA that is the same for all horses, a bit of code that tells the cells to form the horse. So why don’t we reference a specific gene sequence when we are explaining what a horse is? Because it wouldn’t in any way communicate what we mean by the word horse. Horses have properties that relate to our experience of them. The problem is, they all don’t have the same properties.

So what we do is fix a vague concept in our minds of horseness. It can’t be an image, because then it would be a specific horse, and it can’t be explicitly defined because we wouldn’t encompass the whole category. So we keep it at a fuzzy level that, despite its lack of precision, is extremely useful when we have to communicate in any way about horses. The abstract concept must stay abstract to retain its utility.

So, are you being pedantic when you ask, “What is a horse?” Not at all. You’re actually doing something very important. You are assessing the understanding of the person you are talking to in reference to yours. And you discover that it’s never going to be a perfect match.

As for the second question, what is green? This one is definitely more painful. The easy answer is, a color. But that’s not a good answer, for what is a color? A quality that objects possess? Ooh cool. Where can I get some of this quality? Ah. Nowhere. Green is a quality that does not exist outside of the objects that possess it.

There is no place you can see green without seeing something being green. How unfair is this? I know green. I see it all the time. But it is not a thing I can hold. A change in the way my eyes process light and there could cease to be green [related: How do you know that you know what you know?]. But greenness would always be out there, a property of the interaction of light and molecules that can be so vivid but doesn’t actually exist on its own.

Does this make asking, “What is green?” a waste of time? No. Wanting to get a handle on the fundamentals is never a waste of time. You can learn what you can influence and what you cannot. In this case you learn that you can change the color of an object, but you have no powers when it comes to color itself.

Finally, what is a point in time? This one really hurts. First, we should ask what is a point? Conveniently, Euclid provided some definitions over 2000 years ago.

  1. A point is that which has no part.
  2. A line is length without breadth.
  3. A surface is that which has length and breadth only.

From this, we can conclude that a point has neither length nor breadth. That’s okay. It’s just this thing, and if you connect two of them with length you get a line. Euclid also said, “The extremities of lines are points.” It all works. Conceptually, it makes sense. I can wrap my head around it enough to do basic geometry. Great.

But if you actually think about it, your brain could explode. A point has neither length nor breadth? Then what does it have? It has to have something, in order to be something, doesn’t it? But anything that occupies space must have length and breadth, however infinitesimal. Since points have neither, they cannot occupy space. But then how can they form the ends of lines? How can they be?

The same thing happens when we try to conceive of a point in time. It’s something we all get. We say things like “going forward” as if there is a specific moment that we can measure all other moments against. But how exactly would you describe a moment in time? To say that implies that there are many moments, all of which could be distinguished from each other. But can they be? What fills the space between them? And if you say nothing, then how can the points be distinguished at all?

Are we unreasonable, then, when we question, ‘What is a point in time?” No. We can’t question everything every day, as it would likely put us in a state of paralysis, but asking questions like this shows that there is much to be gained from the act of trying to answer. We can learn a lot, often more, from the work involved in answering a question than from the answer itself.

There are no dumb questions. Don’t be afraid to ask them. They are the most straight forward path to learning.