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On Being An Unreliable Source of Information For Yourself
The other day, Silicon Valley Bank ran into some problems of the bank-run sort; Peter Thiel told all of the people who listen to him about things to pull their money out, and the way banks work is if even a surprisingly small amount of people do that, they run out of money to honor deposits with. Once Theil’s people pulled out, other people panicked and pulled out, and it got to be an entire thing.
I guess it’s all resolved now, but it wasn’t when I initially ran into the story while on a trip to see a bunch of people I know from online stuff. I sat in a hotel room in the short time frame between a quick shower and going back out to be social, going through a thought process that looked a little like this:
There’s a good chance the company I work for (which is a startup, in the very broad sense “start-up” is used these days) banks there
If this goes poorly, they might lose access to the VC money they use to operate
I’m probably sort of a luxury employee
1-3 should be best defined at the direst end of their probability scale - i.e. I feel like the worst-case scenario on each is absolutely true
I’m definitely getting fired when I get into work on Monday, my life will fall apart, and I will die alone, remembered only as history’s greatest monster
If that point-to-point sweep seems a little extreme, I agree; I’ve even written about it before. To save you time on reading that article, incidents like the SVB bank run are basically running over an all-the-time mental framework that follows the same basic pattern:
I have a job that pays well
This is unusual
I’m not sure my skills are good enough and diverse enough to maintain that
It is thus completely sure that any day now someone is going to start a Slack huddle to explain that they have realized I suck and am getting fired
I will not get severance or be able to replace my income, my life will fall apart, and I will die alone hiding from the allies in Argentina.
If the extreme negativity and the fact that I’m still employed don’t tip you off, this isn’t exactly a process that’s taking place in the most academic, well-reasoned part of my brain. We don’t say “crazy” anymore, but essentially I’m a little bit crazy about things that revolve around feeling secure - I’m afraid of things like cars breaking down, job loss, and subsequent under-performance when finding a new gig in maximally dark ways that don’t track reality.
But, crucially, I know this. I’m aware I’m like this - so why not fix it?
During the trip, multiple people asked me how my job stuff was going, and I carefully explained that I’m probably the worst person on Earth to ask about it - since I interpret everything negatively, that means I want to say “I’m getting fired tomorrow for taking a day off”. But at the same time, it’s not like understanding that I’ve interpreted something wrong automatically feeds me the right interpretation, either.
So I ended up telling them something like “I would not be surprised if a year or so from now I was at the same company, and I would be equally unsurprised to find I didn’t have a job Monday.” I think they mostly recognized this for what it was (an unsatisfying and uninformative hedge), but it’s sort of the first step in managing the madness; I have to acknowledge that I’m not a good source of information. I lie to myself.
There’s a pop psychologist named Dr. Drew who works with Adam Carolla a lot, and who used to run a show called Loveline. I’m not sure how legit he is, but I once heard him talking to a woman who had frequently fallen in with mildly-to-moderately abusive men and overall had bad luck in relationships. She asked what she could do to find men who weren’t the absolute worst, and he said something that I remember like this:
Giving you advice on “how to find the right man” is hard, but it’s easy to tell you how to not find a really bad man: don’t trust your instincts at all. Your history means that you are a perfectly calibrated instrument, but that you are perfectly calibrated to get excited about guys that are going to treat you poorly and make you unhappy.
So when you meet a guy and find yourself thrilled with him, the first step is to realize that means he’s bad and do anything else besides get involved with him.
My signals are not as clear as that woman’s, in that any of my impressions of doom might be true, but the actions I want to take based on them are broadly counterproductive - they fall into the “just quit, it’s not like it’s going to last anyway” realm of things. And while I can’t rule out that “quit and find something different” might end up being a great choice, I know that I’d be making it semi-randomly and avoid it until better evidence I should do that emerges.
What I end up doing is something like an iterative chain of bet-hedging. I try to perform as well as I can at my job while sort of keeping half an eye on the market for skilled writing, but not so much that I’m actively looking for jobs in a way that would upset my current one. I show up for work and do the best I can, I write “don’t freak out” in big letters on top of everything my brain is trying to do, and I plow through.
In general, I basically acknowledge that in a purely me-communicating-with-me sense, I have a long history of being a horrifically unreliable liar, and I treat me-to-me messaging accordingly.
One of the things that happens when you are very visibly weird is that people who suspect they have unusual or unacceptable problems seek you out to talk about them, hoping you might give them advice that doesn’t boil down to “you are a monster for being sad in a particular way”. This is particularly true for things you write about a lot, and I write about marriage a lot and end up giving a lot of marriage advice.
Because men generally have a smaller set of marriage problems that are considered “OK to have”, this is generally-but-not-always a conversation I have with dudes.
A typical way this goes is a guy explains that his wife is very important to him and that he loves her a great deal. These are usually credible claims to the extent claims on the internet tend can be, and you can tell by how upset they are; something has gone wrong in their relationship, and it’s wrecking them.
An example of this I’ve run into repeatedly is something like “My wife had suddenly stopped having sex with me”, or some other kind of sudden perceived emotional abandonment. This is often a really big deal to the husband and just as often something they don’t have a good person to discuss it with1.
The first step in this process is always, always to get permission from that person to talk about this from an outside point of view - to sort of ask them questions about why they think their wife might be doing this and what the causes are. Usually, the husband (who loves his wife, and who is more reasonable/honest about things he tells others than what he tells himself) will actually be pretty good at telling you the very reasonable reasons his wife might have for feeling less sexual (or supportive, or whatever) lately.
This often (but not always) gets you most of the way to the person feeling better, because the process of actually talking about what’s going on sometimes makes them notice that there are in fact a lot of reasons this is happening that don’t necessarily have to do with their wife stopping loving them all the sudden, and while they still have a pretty good-sized problem, it’s not usually as dire; they just needed someone they trusted more than themselves at that moment to give them perspective on some less-dark possibilities.
To the extent I’m writing at you,2 I’m trying to shake your belief in yourself as a reliable source of information about yourself and your direct situations.
There’s some reasons I shouldn’t be doing this. For one, you might not be crazy in the same way I am - I suspect there are people out there who really are good sources of information and who give themselves a much more factual/reasonable picture of their own predicaments and situations. And when that’s true, they are the only people with the advantage of really knowing the entirety of their own context - of what’s going on, what they want, and what they’ve experienced.
But I’ve also seen people who move from big city to big city while clearly hating big cities because the only narrative they will let themselves believe is that moving to a small city is some kind of clear failure that they’d hate. Or I’ve seen people talk themselves out of good relationships and regret it later because they convinced themselves of a false narrative surrounding that relationship.
Or, hell, I’ve seen people go the exact opposite of the poor-self-confidence route I’ve described here and treat people poorly because they can’t imagine a situation in which they are wrong3. Or who sit down and figure they can rewrite some centuries-old cultural tradition in a way that will work better, and can't imagine they aren't the right person for that and that there's a chance they will fail.
You may take a closer look at what you tell yourself as a result of all this and find out it’s bad advice for you - that things really are terrible, and need action to fix. Or that other people really don’t have a valid complaint, and that you move forward as before. Or that you really do like living in cramped cities “because of the culture” or whatever. I’m not saying that I know how you might be telling yourself things that aren’t true.
But I am saying that’s a thing that happens. Whether or not you find you’ve been telling yourself lies, you deserve better than taking yourself at your word.
As a person who is this “type of crazy” in a lot of ways, including my marriage, I actually am a decent person to talk about this with. I am, as they say, familiar with the patterns.
I’m mostly writing at myself here, honestly.
This is interesting to me because the person who can’t imagine they are wrong sometimes ends up feeling very wronged in this situation at some point. They’ve been doing some negative thing to the other person and fully writing off complaints the other person has as unreasonable, and eventually the other person moves from a calm “hey, please stop doing this thing that bothers me” to some much more fed-up-with-this-shit reaction, like an explosive argument or a (somehow worse) freeze-the-other-guy-out distancing.
Since the person has never up to this point considered they might be wrong, this comes out of left field from their perspective in a “why is this suddenly a big deal” sort of way.
And even more oddly, there’s a version of this where “oh, they are really upset about this” does make an impact and correct the bad behavior even if they go on not believing the other person makes valid complaints, because the consequences themselves are undeniable and seem worthwhile to avoid.