Becoming a more Thoughtful Ape
Name me a smart person who did something revolutionary in the last 10–20 years.
To this question a few people may come to your head: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, the list goes on. These people serve as an all-star example of what can happen when solid reasoning and rational thought is combined with the ability to be decisive.
We labeled these people as “smart” and assumed that we have a solid definition for the word. However, we label people as smart for all kinds of different reasons and contexts. A common thing you may see are people defining smart somewhere along the lines of “knowing a lot of things”, or “being able to learn really quickly”.
There’s a lot of errors with this definition of smart that we can do an entire article dive into, but I want to argue that the true “smartness” doesn’t come from the ability of your brain to hold a lot of information per se.
To be smart, make smart decisions
One of my mentors made the argument that thoughtful decision making and knowing key information follows after making the right decisions to become a more knowledgable person. He roughly gave smart his own definition as follows:
Smart: The ability to make thoughtful, well-reasoned decisions given the context of your situation.
This new definition breaks down into the ability to employ reason, and then the ability to make logical decisions given the context. This new way of viewing smart wasn’t just my mentor’s idea though, his inspiration is deep-rooted in the ideas of one certain guy from ancient Greece…
Plato and human reasoning
There’s a reason why philosophers after Plato were once referred to as “footnotes to Plato”. From his youth, Plato began as the student to Socrates and is to this day the main trusted source for any written information on Socrates thoughts, ideas, and life history.
Besides the small fact that Plato to this day is the main trusted source of information on Socrates, Plato himself was an incredible writer and thinker beyond question. In his lifetime, he proposed ideas to lay down the groundwork in metaphysics, as well as writing us pieces such as The Allegory of the Cave, and ideas in government structure and decision making.
When talking about decision making and being “smart”, Plato was fixated on what he believed separated us as human beings from most other animals: reason. This is the same thing that’s working as you stop yourself from devouring a sweet and succulent jelly doughnut while on a diet- try seeing a raccoon do that.
The caveat to this is that reason is not something that everyone uses equally- as you and I both know, certain people definitely use their reasoning a lot less than others on the day-to-day. Even for you and me; if either of us publicly claimed that we have better reasoning than Steve Jobs or Elon Musk we’d need a really solid case to back ourselves up!
But why is it that some people use reason way more effective than others? How can you and I exercise better reasoning, make smarter decisions, and really take advantage of this ability that we’ve got as human beings?
Lessons from Grade 9
I was thinking back on my experience in the 9th grade, which is the first year of high school where I’m from in Canada. I’m sure many of us weren’t the brightest people at age 14, I definitely wasn’t exceptional myself…
4 years from that point on and I’m now in undergrad, and I like to think I’ve gotten smarter since then. I realized just how ingrained insecurity was on my mind; my thought processes revolve around the approval and opinion of others and there was no real reasoning or cognizance behind anything I did.
Who I spent my time with, the clothes I wore, my hair cut, were all done with a direction of no direction. I was an insecure kid yearning for the approval of insecure people, and my emotions would swing with every new thing I saw on social media. My mood was determined by what I saw, changing from one reaction to the next on a day to day basis.
You could say at this point in time, I made decisions without much (if any) reasoning on a conscious level. It was a bunch of subconscious insecurities, fear of judgment acting on what I did.
It’s crazy for me to think that some of my old friends from high school who were in the same position as me back then haven’t changed or grown-up at all in university. They live by their reactions and live a very unexamined, unaware life, just with a more mature body.
For me, this was an internalization moment where I realized that people can wander aimlessly throughout a big chunk, if not their entire life, while barely using any logical reasoning to make decisions!
Becoming the “thoughtful ape”
Knowing that reacting from one thing to the next is a common way of living that we see people live by, it begs the question as to how can we ourselves get better at using reason to make better decisions? How do we get smarter?
I’d argue that to make more thoughtful, well-reasoned decisions and become smarter people, we need to be aware of the drivers of bad decision making and living life aimlessly as a whole.
In Plato’s philosophy, he said that people’s minds can be analogized like a chariot being driven by two horses.
The charioteer (driver) is our rational being, the better voice that allows us to exercise judgment with reason.
The spirit horse is wanting for feelings of fulfillment like love, accomplishment, curiosity, etc.
The desire horse represents more animalistic wants we have like the desire for sex, glory, egotistical needs, etc.
Plato said that when we have control over our lives, we represent the rational charioteer controlling his horses and riding along with direction and stability. We can allow the spirit horse to pull us forward and have momentum, but it’s in our best interest to control the desire horse which wants to run free and swerve our self chariot off course.
Translated to normal words: our animalistic wants can pull us to live lives where we go from reaction to the next all while not being thoughtful as to how our own bad decision making impacts our quality of life.
If you become more mindful of your decisions, better decision making comes along progressively. Here are some tricks that worked for me to better my mindfulness of decision makings, and exercise reasoning while decision making:
- Having a physical reminder or mental trigger to be in the moment throughout the day, for me this was an elastic band I’d wear on my wrist to serve as a reminder to be in the moment while thinking.
- Asking yourself “what do I want?” when it comes to the outcome of your decision. Defining your intentions in front of you is so key to actually determining what you want.
- Then consider what your options are, and make a judgement call based on what you want and how other people/things are affected by your decision.
NOTE: This isn’t a holy grail answer to mindfulness and making decisions by any means, this is my approximation that is also a work in progress itself. There is a degree of personalization that I think is needed for you to execute mindfulness and better reasoning in your decisions.
Key Takeaways and Final Thoughts
There is no reason not to live with intention and reason in our day to day lives, assuming we want to become the best possible versions of ourselves in this lifetime.
Ultimately we cna strive to make better decisions by taking the right steps:
- By acknowledging what drives bad decision making and directionless living
- By then being intentional with becoming mindful in the moment in our day-to-day
- Finally by being thoughtful about what we want and does our decision will align with that, as well as how our decision affects other people or factors.
I hope you find this valuable, and that you get to drive your chariot on the path to where you want your ideal self to be. Making the right decisions and judgment is a skill, and with that, I’d argue so is being smarter.
So from one work in progress charioteer to the next, let’s be more thoughtful apes along this journey!
I hope you find this article valuable, and I’d appreciate any feedback points from you as the reader. If you’re interested in my work as a student working in the synthetic biology space, feel free to follow me on twitter for my latest updates.