Among my fellow business leaders and the people in the business world I hang out with, there are basically three major groups: those who are enthusiastic about my project and follow me regularly, those who are rather neutral and vaguely curious and who follow from a distance, and those who think that time spent reading books is a useless waste of time and that I would be better off doing something else. Among these people, some even say that this project is mental masturbation. This article on mental masturbation is dedicated to them 🙂.
In short, mental masturbation can be defined as thinking about unimportant things that lead nowhere. OK, then how do we determine, when we begin to think, that it’s not going to get us anywhere? Do we avoid it in the first place by concentrating on the concrete objects of our daily life, on issues where a rapid response will bring us immediate benefits? This will keep us from using brain time on abstract problems that will never come to reality.
But in that case, isn’t there precisely a danger of mental masturbation to be immersed in your work, without taking a step back, without going to a higher level of abstraction which would allow you to see things from a another point of view and to highlight certain shortcomings which are invisible if you were to remain on solid ground?
Isn’t it also mental masturbation to let your brain run empty on all the problems around us, to constantly put out fires, solve problems, run around without taking the time to stop and look at the big picture from time to time, grasping for breath and wondering: did I choose the right path?
It seems to me that some people like to bring up mental masturbation because they don’t have enough confidence in themselves to start thinking about subjects that could challenge their way of seeing things and their life. They feel, deep down inside, a fear of seeing their ego attacked and some of their convictions shaken, even though we form most of our convictions casually and nonchalantly, without having thought much about them, and yet these convictions determine the possibilities we glimpse – our horizon – and the choices we make.
We can devote our lives to absolutely useless and irrelevant things, if convinced otherwise and proud of our contribution to the world. If I am an Aztec priest and I am convinced that it is necessary to sacrifice humans so that the Sun grants us its light and its heat, I will learn a whole lot of complicated rituals and could devote my life to serve the Sun God Huitzilopochtli by following these rituals. I will have become an expert of the Sun God and will be able to interpret the negative signs that he sends us and determine the number of young virgins and warriors to be sacrificed for the crops to be good. I could dedicate my life to something useful, receive recognition from my peers, and die in peace, satisfied with the work accomplished.
However, from our point of view, was the life of this Aztec priest useful? Did he devote himself to the truth or to a fantasy?
Thus, it’s possible and easy to retreat behind closed doors, with a conception of the world that is largely false, and which we consider largely true. So yes, if we were born in the 15th century Aztec Empire, we would probably have had a lot of trouble thinking otherwise. Not everyone who wants to be a genius – a man capable of breaking down the barriers of a misguided worldview – can be one. However, even if our knowledge of reality is still very imperfect, many geniuses have already paved the way for us, and we are fortunate to live in a century and in a society where the majority of us can read and write, and where knowledge, information and education are readily available and at very little cost.
It was maybe a century ago that most people in France were still illiterate, and it was barely 10 years ago since the information revolution (made possible by the Internet). Computers have made humanity’s knowledge accessible to everyone. Books have never been so readily available and affordable thanks to Amazon and other online bookstores allowing us to find the vast majority of works, in all languages, in just a few clicks, and to buy them new or used.
Hundreds of very high-level courses in all possible subjects are also available free of charge, for example on the Collège de France website, Canal U, OpenCourseWare or iTunes University. All these resources allow us to gain access to knowledge that help us to reflect and to question our vision of the world at all levels. Some books and courses even give us concrete knowledge that we can use to be more effective and have a greater contribution to the world 😉.
Therefore, it seems obvious to me that it would be a crime to lock ourselves in the humdrum of the daily grind without trying to educate ourselves and improve our knowledge, without trying to learn and better understand the world around us, even if it doesn’t bring any immediate, concrete benefit to our daily life. Maybe in two thousand years, the men of the future – or the intelligent robots who will have replaced us 😉 – we will consider ourselves as we consider the ancient Greeks today: as having flashes of genius at times, but on the whole as not understanding much of the reality of the world.
That said, in ancient Greece, there were curious men who sought to understand, to figure things out, and who were often wrong in their attempt to get closer to the truth, but who used their minds to try to unravel the mysteries of the inner workings surrounding us, in an approach that seems all at once beautiful, tragic, and full of the humanity that defines man. Yet even today, many – too many – people believe in astrology, numerology, fortune-telling, graphology, voodoo magic and a whole bunch of other fantasies, which, often, a bit of scientific knowledge would be enough to critically examine, and therefore to discredit.
Then again, one can be perfectly happy without asking questions and without seeking to attain a certain form of truth. This search for truth can even be the source of a form of unhappiness. In The Matrix, would you have taken the red pill or the blue pill?
In short, I think that it’s often very useful to leave aside everyday life to think about a level of abstraction that rises more than usual. The line between useful and useless thinking, between a deep thought process and mental masturbation is sometimes thin and difficult to define. However, refraining from thinking in order to avoid mental masturbation is like not daring to approach a woman in order to avoid getting rejected. Those who succeed the most are those who have failed the greatest number of times.
Furthermore, I think that even full-on mental masturbation can do good sometimes, in moderate doses and provided that you get out of your house. It’s better than watching Let’s Make a Deal or doing a crossword 🙂.
And I will finish with a few words from Voltaire, Story of the Good Brahmin, written in 1761 and speaking wonderfully of the dilemma of the red pill and the blue pill:
On my travels I met an old Brahmin, a very wise man, of marked intellect and great learning. Furthermore, he was rich and consequently, all the wiser, because, lacking nothing, he needed to deceive nobody. His household was very well managed by three handsome women who set themselves out to please him. When he was not amusing himself with his women, he passed the time in philosophizing.
Near his house, which was beautifully decorated and had charming gardens attached, there lived a narrow-minded old Indian woman; she was a simpleton, and rather poor.
Said the Brahmin to me one day: “I wish I had never been born.” I asked him why. He replied: “I have been studying forty years, and that is forty years wasted. I teach others and myself am ignorant of everything. Such a state of affairs fills my soul with so much humiliation and disgust that my life is intolerable. As I was born in time, I live in time, and I do not know what time is. I am at a point between two eternities, as our wise men say, and I have no conception of eternity.
And I am composed of matter: I think, but I have never been able to learn what produces my thought. I do not know whether my understanding is a simple faculty inside me, such as those of walking and digesting, and whether I think with my head as I grip with my hands.
Not only is the cause of my thought unknown to me: the cause of my actions is equally a mystery. I do not know why I exist. However, every day people ask me questions on all these points. I have to reply, and as I have nothing really worth saying, I talk a great deal, and am ashamed of myself afterward for having spoken.
“It is worse still when I am asked if Brahma was born of Vishnu or if they are both eternal. God is my witness that I have not the remotest idea, and my ignorance shows itself in my replies. “Ah! Holy One”, people say to me, “tell us why evil pervades the earth.” I am in as great a difficulty as those who ask me this question. Sometimes I tell them that everything is as well as can be, but those who have been ruined and broken in the wars do not believe a word of it — and no more do I. I retire to my home stricken at my own curiosity and ignorance.
I read our ancient books, and they double my darkness. And, I talk to my companions: some answer me that we must make the most of life and laugh at the world; others think they know a lot and lose themselves in a maze of wild ideas. Everything increases my anguish. I am ready sometimes to despair when I think that after all my seeking, I do not know whence I came, whither I go, what I am nor what I shall become.”
The condition in which I saw this good man gave me real concern. No one could be more rational, no one more open and honest. It appeared to me that the force of his understanding and the sensibility of his heart were the causes of his misery.
The same day I saw the old woman who lived near him. I asked her if she had ever been troubled by the thought that she was ignorant of the nature of her soul. She did not even understand my question. Never in all her life had she reflected for one single moment on one single point of all those which tormented the Brahmin. She believed with all her heart in the metamorphoses of Vishnu and, provided she could obtain a little Ganges water wherewith to wash herself, she thought herself the happiest of women.
Struck with this poor creature’s happiness, I returned to my wretched philosopher. “Are you not ashamed to be unhappy when at your very door there lives an old automaton who thinks about nothing, and yet lives contentedly?” “You are right,” he replied. “I have told myself a hundred times that I should be happy if I were as brainless as my neighbor, and yet I do not desire such happiness.”
My Brahmin’s answer impressed me more than all the rest. I set to examining myself, and I saw that in truth I would not care to be happy at the price of being a simpleton.
I put the matter before some philosophers, and they were of my opinion. “Nevertheless,” said I, “there is a tremendous contradiction in this mode of thought, for, after all, the problem is — how to be happy? What does it matter whether one has brains or not? Further, those who are contented with their lot are certain of their contentment, whereas those who reason are not certain that they reason correctly. It is quite clear, therefore,” I continued, “that we ought rather to choose not to have common sense, if that common sense contributes to our being miserable.” Everyone agreed with me, but I found nobody, notwithstanding, who was willing to accept the bargain of becoming a simpleton in order to become contented. From which I conclude that if we consider the question of happiness, we must consider even more the question of reason.
But on reflection it seems that to prefer reason to felicity is to be very senseless. How can this contradiction be explained? Like all the other contradictions. It is a matter for much talk.
So, in The Matrix, what would you have taken? The red pill, that of pure reality with all the pain it can cause, or the blue pill, happiness at the cost of blindness? Let us know in the comments 😉.