Reading The Prince

I once worked for a large organization, a company with over 10,000 employees. When new managers, people from outside the organization, were hired, they would come in and clean house. A reorganization and layoffs were almost inevitable.

I always saw this as a way of establishing that the new person, though they hadn’t come up through the ranks, was in charge. What I didn’t realize is that this practice is centuries old.

a new prince must always harm his new subjects, both with his soldiers as well as with countless other injuries involved in his new conquest

An important piece of understanding how the world works is understanding how people work. If you want to change the world you need to understand human psychology. One of the earliest books of psychology is The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli.

The Prince has had many critics over the years. In fact, Machiavelli’s name has been transformed into an adjective meant to describe a person who is self-serving, deceitful, and ruthless. And certainly parts of the book are all of those things

Some people will read The Prince as a sort of operating manual for how to live. Because of this, its real use comes from learning why people sometimes act in ways that seem immoral.

The Prince, however, is amoral, in that it is unconcerned with morality. Its only concern is how to get and maintain power. As Machiavelli writes,

A man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain himself to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge or not to use it according to necessity.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, recommends it as one of the 8 books every intelligent person should read. Read it, he says,

to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it.

But read it for yourself. Don’t take anyone else’s interpretation as the definitive one. As you read it, look for analogies to modern life. We don’t wage war in the same way as Machiavelli’s princes did, but we can certainly find bloodless examples of these maxims in business and politics.

Read it for yourself, and suspend judgment, though you may find parts of it downright repugnant. You might not act in the ways described, but other people do. If you want to understand why, read The Prince.

Challenging Your Beliefs

Once you’ve identified your personal biases, you don’t necessarily need to rid yourself of them. These personal beliefs can indeed be our pole stars, our guiding ethical lights. But, we do need to recognize when they are getting in the way of our acceptance of new ideas.

We need to challenge them. And, we need to ignore them, if only for a few minutes, and open our minds long enough to hear the other side of the argument.

In his 2007 Commencement Address to the USC Law School, Charlie Munger stated,

“I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people do who are supporting it.”

In other words, before you can be certain of anything, you need to fully understand all sides of an issue before you can hold an opinion. Munger himself admits that this is a hard standard to uphold.

And it is really difficult to do sometimes.

If you’re a political conservative, watch MSNBC for a week. If you’re a progressive, watch Fox News. If you have strong religious beliefs, read about other faiths or even atheism. If you’re an atheist, read why religious people have the faith they do and why they think atheists might be misguided.

If you start feeling angry, you’re probably doing it right. That anger is our reaction to being challenged, and it often prevents us from accepting new ideas.

But, push through the anger, and you’ll start to understand something: those who believe the opposite of what you believe, they believe it just as strongly as you do. And they are just as unwilling to change their beliefs as you might be, at first.

In order to change minds, you need to understand people. Starting with yourself is the first step.

Identifying Personal Biases

We all have personal biases. As much as we might not want to think so, these biases can often block our ability to absorb new ideas. If you want to train yourself to think critically, you must be able to identify your biases, and recognize when they might be interfering with your ability to see the world as it really is.

First, get a piece of paper and start writing out your core beliefs. (A mind map also works well for this.) You can separate them into subsections, like Politics, Religion, and Interpersonal Relationships. At each point where you write down a core belief, ask yourself “Why do I believe that?” Write down the answer next to each belief. Then, for each of those answers, ask, “How do I know that what I believe is true?”

This is where it gets tricky. Most of the answers here can be nebulous, and based around things like “That’s what someone told me.” Or, “I read it somewhere.” Or sometimes the answer is simply, “It’s how I believe the world should work.” When we reach the point where our answers are not based around empirical evidence, and are instead based around what we believe, we have arrived at personal bias.

There is nothing wrong with having these beliefs, so long as we can acknowledge that we have them. And so long as we can suspend them long enough to listen to a new idea and evaluate it on its own merits, not our personal biases.

Abandoning Old Beliefs

We can never be 100% certain about anything, but sometimes the amount of uncertainty is so small that it is not worth considering. But, how do you get to that level of uncertainty, the level where we are confident about our knowledge?

In many cases, we can take our cues from science. By science, I do not mean what many people think when they hear the word “science.” I do not mean the body of facts accumulated by scientists over the centuries. I mean the method of science.

In his article, “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” Joel Achenbach writes,

In this bewildering world we have to decide what to believe and how to act on that. In principle that’s what science is for. “Science is not a body of facts,” says geophysicist Marcia McNutt, who once headed the U.S. Geological Survey and is now editor of Science, the prestigious journal. “Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.” But that method doesn’t come naturally to most of us. And so we run into trouble, again and again.

Understanding the way the world works often requires that we abandon ideas that common sense may tell us is true, but are at odds with the laws of nature. This is extremely difficult to do. We all are prone to make up our minds, and then twist any new facts to fit what we already believe.

Even for scientists, the scientific method is a hard discipline. Like the rest of us, they’re vulnerable to what they call confirmation bias—the tendency to look for and see only evidence that confirms what they already believe.

To make matters worse, science often reveals things we once thought were true to be true no longer.

“Science will find the truth,” [Francis] Collins says. “It may get it wrong the first time and maybe the second time, but ultimately it will find the truth.” That provisional quality of science is another thing a lot of people have trouble with.

What does this mean for a non-scientist trying to change the world? Be willing to abandon old beliefs. Be willing to change your mind when you acquire new information or when humanity’s understanding of something changes.

Or you can even go so far as abandoning all of your old beliefs and acquiring new ones only through thoughtful consideration. It’s incredibly difficult to do, as it requires ego suspension as well as critical thinking. But until you can identify your own biases and flaws in the ways you think, you will never be able to see the world as it actually is.

Total Certainty

I had a teacher in high school who once tried to blow our minds by telling us we could never be 100% certain of anything. Many kids tried to confound him, by stating their certainty that the chair they were sitting in was really there, or that they knew that they were alive. Inevitably, the teacher was able to dismiss their absolute certainty by asking them how they knew, or telling them to prove it, or suggesting that perhaps it was all an illusion.

Then one kid raised his hand and said, “I am 100% certain that something exists.” Rather than asking the student to define existence, the teacher smiled and said, “But it could all be an illusion.” The student replied, “Then the illusion exists.”

The teacher was speechless. And then he changed the subject.

I am not a logician, and have no idea if the student’s argument had any merit. What I do know is that both teacher and student offered me a lesson.

The teacher taught me that we truly cannot be certain of anything. Our knowledge is always necessarily incomplete.

The student taught me that, at some point, that uncertainty is no longer worth considering.

When I talk about seeing the world as it really is, I mean it in this way. Seeing it as it is, to the best of our human abilities. There will always be uncertainty, but at some point we have to act.

Change the World

This is a blog for people who want to change the world.

If you want to change the world in a big way like ending world hunger, or in a small way like starting a new initiative at work, you need to know how the world works. You need to be able to see the world as it is.

I don’t advocate a specific type of change, be it political, religious, or otherwise. Instead, I will give you the tools to learn to see the world as it actually is, how it currently functions, so you can understand where the change needs to happen and how to effect your change.

I will help you learn to think, recognize your own biases (we all have them), and form a clear picture of your world.

If you want to change the world, join me.