Mental Skill

Chapter 1
The Threat

Here comes terror. You feel this looming, overpowering menace. It is coming at you. It is growing bigger, gaining power over you. You can't fight it, because you can't identify it. It's just the threat.

When you look at tax cheaters and deadbeat dads and stingy bosses, then there it is—the threat. But when you look at government's ham-fisted remedies, then there it is again—the threat. When you see cute animals becoming extinct or cut open for science, you feel the threat. But when you see concern for those animals destroying entire industries and killing humans, you also feel the threat. When people turn freedom into license, they become the threat. But when others ask you to vote against the license and also against the freedom, then they become the threat.

Some years ago, global cooling was the threat. Now it's global warming. First, global inflation was the threat. Then, global deflation. Once, too much ozone in the atmosphere was the threat. Now, too little ozone above the atmosphere.

It used to be that we worried about too many people dying in childhood. Underpopulation was the threat. Now we worry about too many surviving into adulthood. Overpopulation is the threat. In drought years, a shortage of storms is the threat. In flood years, a surplus of storms is the threat.

In short, it is reality itself that threatens. Though we know better, we experience random natural events as malevolent design. Even when we know others are trying to do good for themselves, we experience their actions as trying to do evil for us. Intellect says that things are what they are, but emotion says that things are out to get us.

The emotion is dread. You have that dread when you need to face something that seems beyond your capacity. A rising river tries to engulf your home, but what can you do? An irrational boss tries to kill your promotion, but what can you do? You feel that you should know what to do. You imagine others whispering behind your back that you ought to have a plan. That's what humans do: they cope, they plan, they handle things. But when reality itself is a threat, you don't feel capable of handling things.

The true source of threat is in the relationship between yourself and reality. For a moment, imagine yourself as a superhero. Now, by definition, far fewer things are threats to you, because of your superhuman abilities. What is a menacing river or a mean boss to a superhero? Such difficulties are there so you can show your efficacy. Your relationship to reality is that existence exists so you can master it.

As it is, your abilities are not so super, just the abilities of an individual human being. But wait! Humans have mastered the Earth and are venturing into the stars. Compare your capabilities to those of any other animal, and you are as far above them as the superhero is above you. Why is your relationship to reality different from that of the superhero? True, you cannot fly, or catch bullets, or see through walls, or—wait! Machines do all those things. Come to think of it, you do have the capabilities of the superhero. The difference is that you cannot will yourself to do anything you like. You have to learn methods and design tools. What the superhero does is apply an ability. What you do is learn a skill.

Reality is itself. Handling it is not a matter of dread, wish, or augury. It is a matter of skill.

Many people grow up skilled—in fixing cars, playing basketball, winning friends, even landing jobs. They do not grow up skilled in using their reason to handle life. They are not as smart as they want to be and need to be and could be.

Don't the schools teach kids to be as smart as possible? Well, they once did. In his book, "The Graves of Academe," educator Richard Mitchell says that this began to change in 1913, with the establishment of the National Education Association's Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education. In 1918, this commission issued a report: Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. The principles were: health, command of fundamental processes, worthy home-membership, vocation, civics education, worthy use of leisure, and ethical character. Becoming as smart as possible was explicitly excluded as elitist. Education, said the report, "has so exclusively sought intellectual discipline that it has seldom treated literature, art, and music so as to evoke right emotional responses and produce positive enjoyment."

In other words, being as smart as possible was no longer the goal. The goal was having right emotional responses. Don't teach kids to be smart; teach them to be nice. (The Graves of Academe was published in 1981 by Little, Brown & Co. Softcover edition published in 1987 by Simon & Schuster.)

Now skip halfway to the present. Here is part of an item from The San Francisco Chronicle, May 23, 1969 (cited in The Objectivist, vol.9, no.6):

"A University of California professor...addressing a Fairmont Hotel meeting of the San Francisco Association for Mental Health, said it is 'unrealistic and illusionary' to assume the primary function of the schools 'is to teach the learner to be intellectually competent.' "

Recently I asked a mother how her son was doing in school. She was worried. Low grades in math? Oh no, a low grade in "Socialization."

It is wrong to assume that schools teach kids to be as smart as possible. They do not. They teach kids to have good intentions. To be good, they teach, is to have good intentions. To be bad is to have bad intentions. After all, they say, the best you can expect from fallible humans is to intend goodness.

The starting point of improving mental skill is reception of a message. That message is:

Intention is not a method.

It is customary to intend good rather than evil. But that intention will never by itself produce good, and often does produce evil. That is because intention is not a method. To desire good while ignoring the issue of how to bring it about is to demand an effect without enacting a cause. It is irrational, and the result of irrationality is usually evil.

Students take tests while ordering themselves to pay attention and get it right. Then they call their low grades unjust, because they tried. Politicians get elected by convincing us that they intend good things. "I don't know what more you expect," says everybody. "All they can do is try."

Pretending that intention is a method is as dishonest as it is futile. If you never turn on the stove, you don't really intend to cook dinner. Honest intention is a desire to enact a cause leading to an effect. If one is not actively looking for a method, one has no actual intent. Without method, intention is a sham.

Thinking is claimed as an exception to this rule. Focusing your mind is an act of will. Your free will choice is whether to think or not. Intending to think is choosing to think. If you order yourself to do it, then supposedly, you're doing it.

In fact, thinking is claimed as an exception to every rule. Authors say that characters "take over," and stories "write themselves." Artists create things in a "flash of inspiration." When you think in a crisis, "time slows down." Thinking skill is an "inborn talent," which is exercised "effortlessly."

Thinking would be an exception on one condition only: that it has no particular nature, no identity, no rules of operation—that it is not real. In fact, it is something you do in order to stay alive. It is real, so it must be done this way rather than that way—a particular way rather than any random way. That is, it consists of employing methods to achieve results.

If you say, "I ordered myself to pay attention," you are using a figure of speech. "I" and "myself" are not separate. The act of free will is the act of actually paying attention, not the urge to do that. And the act of thinking is the act of focusing on an object of thought, not the urge to do that.

Ordering yourself to think is an instance of what pop-psychology writers call the "other self"—that little voice in your head that narrates your life to you. Gurus have made millions from people trying to get rid of it. It is thought to stand in the way of true perception and true contact with reality.

In fact, there is nothing harmful or even psychological about your other self. It is an obvious by-product of your method of cognition.

Thinking humans do not live exclusively in the moment; they plan. They anticipate the next moment, the next year, the new plan. When the next moment comes, they compare it with the plan. Did things happen as I anticipated? Did I do right? Did I say the right thing?

In other words, because of your method of cognition, you live what sometimes seems like two concurrent lives: the life of experience and the life of evaluation. Much of your daily thought consists of comparing your actions to a standard so you can spot and correct mistakes. What the "other self" shows is that you are watching what you do. What the "other self" proves is that your mind is easily capable of doing several things at once. As you plan the next moment, you live this moment, and evaluate it. Part of living in the present is awareness of the future and of the past.

Thinking, says philosopher Ayn Rand, consists of differentiation and integration—of separating and combining. Getting smart consists of improving the skills of differentiation, and the skills of integration—learning to tell the difference better, and to fit things together better. Better means faster, more accurately, and more creatively. Thomas Edison invented much of our modern world by separating things more precisely, and putting them together more creatively. Ayn Rand revolutionized epistemology by defining mental actions with unheard-of precision, and integrating them into orderly principles.

If you decide to improve your mental skills, the first thing to go will be the threat. As soon as you begin to take mental skill seriously, what you see all around you is not threat, but opportunity.


Each chapter in this book will include suggestions for improving skills by practicing them. The way to start is to do deliberately what you do habitually: make comparisons. Since the starting point of perception is seeing difference, the starting point of mental skill is seeing difference on purpose—making comparisons.

Notice that a comparison is a measurement. This is better than that, worse than that, more than that, less than that. Of these things, this one is the best, the worst, the longest, the shortest.

Comparison allows you to see very small differences. Peas in a pod, for example. Look at one, throw it away, and look at another. You see no difference. Next, put two peas side by side and compare them. Now you see many differences. The same is true in your mind. You compare ideas by holding them in mind together, so you can see the smallest difference.

Failing to see the difference shows lack of skill in making comparisons. For example, the careless reader.

Anticipation is a universal habit. When you read, you compare what is written with what you expect it might be. If you fail to focus clearly on this comparison, you may not notice the differences between what you expect to read and what is actually on the page. You may think the author said what you expected him to say instead of what he actually said.

To see this point, identify the following quote:

"Fore square and several yarns ago, our failures brought fourth on this continence a nude notion decided to the proportion that all men are crested equal…."

It is gibberish, but still recognizable. A sufficiently careless reader could glance at the quote, say, "Oh yeah, the Gettysburg Address," and go on. Such a reader would often mistake what a sentence ought to say for what it does say. To avoid that, practice deliberately comparing what you expect with what you see. If you try correcting the quote so that it really is the Gettysburg Address, even then it may take more than one try to catch all the corrections.

For more exercise in comparison, compare the careless reader with the careless listener. Then note that the similarity extends to the person who has difficulty expressing thoughts by writing them down, and to the person who has difficulty expressing thoughts at all. In order to express thoughts, you must be able to tell the difference between what you wanted to say and what you did in fact say. You must consciously compare the output with the input, so you can correct any differences between them.

Do you want to clinch your understanding of a new idea? Use comparison as a method of mental integration. Write down the new idea. Then write down an idea you already know that seems similar. Now list a number of differences, and a number of similarities. You are using comparison to establish the relationship of the new idea to what you already know. You are learning it.

Do you find yourself recoiling from a new idea, as if unwilling to learn it? Use comparison as a method of introspection. Write down the distasteful new idea. Now write down what you wish it were. List all the similarities between the two. Then list all the differences. Now you can make a conscious choice.

You can use comparison to understand how you see similarity. Compare three things. They are all different, but these two are noticeably less different than that other. Compared to the third thing, the first two seem not all that different—quite similar, really. That quantification of difference is in fact the basis for calling things similar. To see similarity, you look at commensurable characteristics shared by things. You see measurements that could be made.

Look, for example, at some chairs in the room. To be called chairs, they must all provide a seat with a back. In comparing them, you see they are all different in this respect, but not so different from one another as from the TV. You don't need to record all those differences; you can omit them and focus on the conclusion that these are chairs and not television sets. Omitting measurements does not mean ignoring their existence; it means telescoping them into a conclusion. Ayn Rand's phrase measurement omission is a good way to remember what you do in order to see similarity.

Comparison is basic to seeing similarity, which is basic to making classifications, which is basic to having thoughts. So there is nothing trivial about practicing comparisons.

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