You Are Imaginary

November 02, 2018

People say “just be yourself,” but I have a problem with that. Here’s the problem:

You are imaginary.

I anticipate that there are two kinds of people who will read this article: the ones that will nod their heads, roll their eyes, and say “That’s obvious. Why are you writing about something so basic?” Then there’s the people that will roll their eyes and say “What are you on, dude?”

To the former group I will say this: it’s something that I’ve only recently discovered, and it’s already changed my life a lot — I’m sharing it again in the hopes that it will reach somebody else who needs it as much as I did.

To the latter group: bear with me here. I’m not making this up, although I do remember how skeptical I was at first myself. But the more I read about it and thought about it, the more it made sense.

Even if what I’m saying is false, acting as if it’s true has been hugely beneficial to me, and I hope the same will be true for you.

Man standing on cliff

So, disclaimers aside, let me clarify what I mean by “you are imaginary,” and explain why it’s impossible to truly be yourself.

Let’s start with a basic question:

What makes the human brain so incredibly powerful?

Your brain is very efficient. To be efficient, it operates as a pattern-recognition machine. It learns and uses patterns to predict the world around it, which is why it doesn’t need to reprocess everything you see from scratch every time you see it.

This is highly useful if, for example, Caveman Ugh needs to quickly determine whether the large, four-legged object moving rapidly in his direction is dinner or looking for dinner, and so is a feature branch that has been fast-tracked by Project Manager Evolution.

I’m going to borrow an analogy from a famous salesman, the “Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort. Say you see a door, with a doorknob. You know it’s a door, and you know that if you turn the round object attached to it you’ll probably be able to open that door and get somewhere behind it.

Your brain immediately knows this just from a quick glance at the composite shapes of the door. It doesn’t have to analyze what the tall thin rectangle is and what the round object protruding from it might possibly be; the information is just “there,” almost immediately.

It’s recognizing a pattern.

From the time you are a very small infant, your brain starts to recognize patterns, patterns of patterns, and so on, ad infinitum.

This recursive pattern recognition is what makes humans so smart and why we’re able to quickly process vast quantities of data that baffle even the most hyperintelligent supercomputers we’ve been able to invent to date.

It’s why humor is funny (breaking patterns unexpectedly) and why music is beautiful (fulfilling patterns in a satisfying way).

It’s also our greatest weakness.

You see, your brain relies on pattern recognition and prediction to optimize its thinking processes. It decides what to give extra attention, and what to ignore, based on heuristics that it develops over time (and which are themselves patterns).

Those heuristics can be wrong, though. Some of them are remarkably sophisticated, and some are very simple, but they are all flawed in some way simply by virtue of the fact that they are shortcuts.

If you see a door enough times, your brain — to grossly oversimplify the process — creates a ‘door pattern’ in your mind for future reference. So if somebody creates a fake door with a door handle that doesn’t really turn and actually no hinges, you might think it’s a real door right up until the point that you try to open it and nothing happens.

Then your brain takes a closer look at the sensory information available to it and realizes that the hinges were fake and the doorknob doesn’t turn, at which point it decides that the door is in fact a trick door.

But your brain wasn’t about to analyze the door that closely upon first encountering it, simply because the door-pattern was fulfilled enough times that it judged the trick door to be real, even though it could have seen upon closer inspection that it was fake.

How does flawed pattern recognition relate to self-perception?

“What does that have to do with me being imaginary?” you might ask. To which I would say: hold on, please, I’m getting there.

Your brain decided to create a “door pattern” based on a number of experiences it had with doors in the past. Experiences being the operative word there; patterns are created from experiences your brain has processed and grouped together.

Now let’s say that somebody tells you that you have very bad breath. If one or two people you don’t know very well say that, you might not believe them initially. But if multiple people and maybe somebody you trust very much tell you you have bad breath, you’d be more inclined to believe them.

Over time, based on the experiences you have with people telling you you have bad breath, your brain will start to recognize a pattern: every time I breath in somebody’s face, they tell me I have bad breath. Breathing in somebody’s face equals being told you have bad breath.

“Got it,” your brain says, extracting information from this pattern via a heuristic it’s developed over time, “I have bad breath.”

In this case, the issue might be that you really do need to brush your teeth, because people don’t usually tell you things that aren’t true. This is an example of your brain extrapolating useful data from a pattern derived from experiences over time.

Now let’s say instead of other people telling you something, it’s you telling yourself that thing. A common one is to say “I’m bad at math”.

If you tell yourself that you’re bad at math enough times, your brain will start to extrapolate from that pattern that you aren’t good at math. And if you start believing that you’re bad at math, you probably aren’t going to try as hard to be good at math than you would otherwise. Because what’s the point, right? You’re naturally lacking, so you might as well focus on your strengths, right?

It’s not a hard logical jump to reach the conclusion that if you tell yourself you’re bad at math repeatedly you eventually will become bad at math. Your brain notices a pattern and extracts information from it. Just like with the door, or with your bad breath. The only difference is, this information is factually incorrect.

But why would you repeatedly tell yourself that you’re bad at math if it wasn’t true? How would that statement worm itself into your head?

Well, imagine you tell yourself that once or twice, and then actually start to perform worse in math class — because you’re not trying as hard as you usually do, “since it won’t make a difference anyway”.

What’s going to happen is your brain will, using pattern recognition, falsely link cause to effect, causing you to more believe that you’re at math. Which will cause you to try even less, and perform even worse. Which will cause you to believe even more strongly that you’re bad at math.

This is what’s called a negative feedback loop, or a self-perpetuating belief. It’s when your brain links cause to effect, and the effect actually loops back around and causes the cause thanks to pattern recognition operating on an efficient but inaccurate heuristic.

We are defined by repeated experiences and feedback loops.

So let’s take this out of the context of being bad at math and look at what’s going on here from ten thousand feet up: if your brain repeatedly experiences something, it will form a prediction that may or may not be accurate, depending on whether or not that experience is true.

The danger is that if that experience can cause something to become true (as in the case of feeling bad at math causing you to try less and genuinely beginning to underperform), it doesn’t even matter whether or not it was originally true, because the new truth will take root and become real.

And that’s what I mean when I say you are imaginary: many of the personality traits you identify with are actually your brain predicting things as being true based on patterns formed from experiences you’ve encountered which may or may not be true in and of themselves.

So what does this mean, in practice?

Realizing that much of who you are is simply made up of potentially false conclusions drawn from experiences that you’ve had is a very liberating experience.

Success requires constant self-transformation — if it didn’t, we would all have everything we wanted, and we don’t — so understanding that you are not limited by what you have become so far is the first step on the path to success.

(The second step is designing the person you need to become to succeed, and engineering experiences that will become positive feedback loops to transform you into that person. But that’s a blog post for another time.)

At the core of nearly every popular saying is a nugget of truth. The problem is, you mostly won’t understand that core without the correct context.

If we assume the context is that you can design who you need to become, and who you “are” is up to you, then what this saying really means is this: you should design the person who can be who you want to be, and then build beliefs based on experiences that can bring that person into being.

So, stop thinking of yourself as “not a math person” or “not a coder” or “not a runner” or “a videogamer that just can’t quit” and start thinking of yourself in terms of the person you want to become.

Act “as if,” and with time, it will become true. Act as if you are bad at math, and you will become bad at math. Act as if you are successful, and with time you will become successful.

You are imaginary. So imagine the ideal you, and become that person.