Making cases to ourselves

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Making a case is a valuable skill and an important part of developing as a person as well as working as part of a team. Making a case is a great way to get a new perspective and decide what idea is best within the marketplace of ideas. Although certainly not perfect, a debate between two genuine, curious people is an important way that we make progress. Making a case for yourself is also a key skill in pursuing new opportunities. When applying to medical school you make a case for yourself, presenting why you are going to be an excellent physician and a contributing member of the community. You are decidedly not presenting truth and hoping that the admissions committee sorts it out for you. Your personal statement is not a list of good and bad things you’ve done (best to leave that time you pushed Suzi into a puddle for your diary). Rather, it is a well crafted argument about your attributes. In general, making cases should be reserved for presenting to others where opposing cases and impartial observers can challenge these cases.

One problem I have had, and seen others have as well, is that we often confuse which one of these tasks we are doing. Instead of presenting our cases to others, we begin making cases to ourselves. As we like ourselves, and fancy that we are right the vast majority of the time, we tend to accept our cases without developing opposing arguments. For example, weighing whether to get a new bike can rapidly become making a case for buying a new bike. Deciding whether to workout or relax can become an argument for why you deserve the couch. Without anyone else in your head to oppose your case, you’ll certainly win every time. For minor things, like a new bike or a workout here and there this is barely even problematic. However in more important decisions this can be a huge blindspot. For example,  in deciding what stock to invest in you don’t want to make a case for one stock as much as to get to the truth of which stock might be most profitable in your given time frame. This means weighing both the good AND the bad. In deciding what house to buy, who to date, who to marry, what career to choose, how many kids to have, we must avoid making internal cases (this more closely resembles a delusion than a search for truth), and begin to weigh both sides. At least two sides to the case must be argued in good faith.

To quote Richard Feynman,

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

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