Mental Skill

Chapter 11
Wish Lists

What's holding you back? You started thinking almost at birth. If it is not skillful yet, something went wrong. Most who lack mental skill deny this obvious fact, and consider themselves stuck. The joke is on them. Mental skill can be perfected now as well as then. You can identify what went wrong, and correct it.

Is there a mental equivalent of the color-blind painter or the tone-deaf musician—a lack of some basic ability needed for mental skill? Let's look at the possibilities.

If you were incapable of seeing similarity, or of making units, then your thinking would not be unskilled, because it would not exist. If you can talk, you are making concepts. If you can make them at all, then you could make them right. If you get bawled up by making them wrong, the problem is not bad aptitude, but bad habit.

To make concepts right, you classify things by essentials, and regard the class as a unit. To make concepts wrong, you classify by nonessentials. The thinker habitually using nonessentials seems as crippled as the tone-deaf singer. To find out what went wrong, find out how such a habit got started.

Not at the beginning. In order to sort things into concepts, you must find a conceptual common denominator—a measurable commonality. Then different ranges of measurement can be grouped into mental units. As Ayn Rand points out, a child might logically start with shape, since things seen all have a shape. One kind of shape is a chair, one kind of shape is a table, and so on. The essentials used are derived from the CCD. At this level, it has to be done right or not at all.

As you learn more and more, you find that things can be classified in many different ways, using many different common denominators, making it possible to interrelate everything. Now it becomes necessary to use the right essence for your purpose. Now you sort furniture into tables and chairs and beds and cabinets. If you want something to sit on or lie on, your essential is use. If you are decorating a room, your essential is style.

Since essentials depend on context, you can get them wrong. Then your thoughts don't fit together. If you try to rank the comfort of chairs by considering style, the result will not fit with your purpose. When things don't fit, you spot a mistake So it seems hard to explain a habit of getting essentials wrong.

But suppose I link style and comfort with that all-purpose demand, should. I declare that the more stylish a chair is, the more comfortable it should be. Asked to point out the most comfortable chair, I point to the chair that looks most stylish to me. "There! That one should be the most comfortable."

If challenged, I might justify this by saying that designers who make stylish chairs know more about comfort that you and I. But I am not linking style and comfort by finding a similarity; I am declaring an arbitrary link. Why are style and comfort the same? Because I say so.

If I make a habit of this, then that is a habit of getting essentials wrong. If I want tomorrow to be a nice day, I say, "Tomorrow should be nice," and treat that guess as a forecast. Am I raising guess to the status of forecast, or am I lowering forecast to the status of guess? Either way, it's a blunder.

The name for this habitual blunder is subjectivism. In theory, it says that what I think about things is more important than what they are—that consciousness comes before existence. In practice, it means that my thought process is foreshortened. Identification is hasty and integration is skipped so that I can get to the all-important comparison between the way things are and the way I want them to be. Instead of fitting things in with all my knowledge, I fit them in only with my wishes. My mind asks a single anxious question about everything: is it the way it should be?

When my wants are above truth, I choose essentials not by looking for what's fundamental, but by looking for what's important to me. When things don't fit together, I say, "Well they should!" Since what I want is more important than what is, I get used to things not fitting together. I decide that life is imperfect—that doubt is the human condition.

The problem is that since I know what everything should be, I know that I should be mentally skilled instead of mentally inept. But my habit of choosing essentials by the wrong method makes skill impossible.

To see the wrong method, think of dangerous and scary. To pick out dangerous things, the essential is potential harm. To pick out scary things, the essential is potential fear. Knowing this, you can see that scary things like spiders are not necessarily dangerous, and dangerous things like poisons are not necessarily scary.

The subjectivist does not see this. His essential is potential panic, which picks out dangerous things, scary things, risky things, and other things that he wants to avoid. His concept of danger has no clear boundaries; it blends into his concepts of risk and fright. If he is afraid of airplanes, then he will feel safer in a car, even if accident records do show that planes are safer than cars.

"Please!" says the subjectivist. "Don't try to pin me down on everything. I'm just looking at the big picture here. I can't be expected to handle the details." This is a confession of incompetence in using the conceptual method, which handles details and context at the same time. When concepts are defined by nonessentials, the big picture is as fuzzy as the details.

To see how serious it is to get the essentials wrong, listen to a lifeguard. "We always tell swimmers not to struggle. If you're underwater and you don't struggle, you float to the surface. If you struggle, that keeps you under. But when swimmers panic, I've seen them swim straight down. I've had them grab me and pull me under. The essential thing to them is not getting air, but staying in motion." Scuba instructors regularly get students who cannot bear to go under the surface even while breathing from a tank. The essence of the danger is taken not as drowning, but as sinking.

Because sorting things out by essentials is the way humans survive, the fate of a consistent subjectivist would be to live in panic and die young. So the subjectivist learns that, though everything should be as he wants, not everything can be. Unfortunately, by the time he learns this, he has formed the mental habit of sorting things out by nonessentials. He concludes he has a faulty mind, and arranges his life accordingly. What he really has is bad habits.

Do subjectivists decide on intellectual positions and then defend them in a logical way? They certainly seem to. They sometimes try to. But essentials have to be based on measurable commonality; they cannot be chosen at random. If I choose essentials by personal preference, then every word I say will mean something else to others. Not only will my thoughts be confused, others will be confused about what they are.

Discussions among subjectivists thus do not consist of exploring the nature of things, but of comparing wish lists. Any subjective argument boils down to, "Here's what I want and why I should get it." When it is expressed as, "Here's what you should do for me and why," that shows how widespread subjectivism is. An objective argument says, "Here's what I know, and here's how I found out." It allows the listening mind to decide what to do.

If intellectual argument does not respect free will, then it is not aimed at human beings. If it does respect free will, then it centers on the nature of the subject, and leaves individual minds free to draw conclusions. It does not revolve around wish lists; it revolves around facts.

In subjectivist analysis, the first question is not, "What is the nature of the problem?" It is, "How should this come out?" The second question is not, "What are the elements and how are they related?" It is, "What would make it come out right?" Elements are picked out and classified not according to a basic measurable common characteristic, but according to a characteristic that will make a foregone conclusion sound plausible.

As an example, poverty. To form the concept poverty, you consider income, and separate those who earn little from those who earn at or above a norm. That is, you use income as a CCD and earnings as an essential to find ranges, then omit the measurements within each range. The elements of earning power are ability and opportunity. They are related in that greater ability results in more opportunity, though misfortune can delay this effect. So the essence of making poverty go down is making ability go up.

Now listen to the politician's analysis of poverty. "The essence of being poor is misfortune—not having enough money. To make poverty go down, we must pass out more money." A glance at the politician's wish list makes this argument clear. Right at the top: more votes.

Intellectual subjectivism is easy to spot, because it avoids basing argument on observations personally made in the real world. It argues from propositions. It does not say, "If we look at reality, we can start from there." It says, "If we agree on this proposition, we can start from there." The proposition is chosen because it leads toward the wish list.

Thus the politician interviews actual poor people on TV. Neither ability nor misfortune are shown. They are talked about. Propositions are asserted. Demands are made. What is really on display? The wish lists of poor people.

"We all agree," say politicians, "that poverty is intolerable and therefore poor people must be given money; so we can start the discussion there." Translation: "Give me your money, and we'll talk."

A favorite argument of political economists is about "market failure," which necessitates government action to correct conditions in the marketplace that fail to match the wish lists of subjectivists. Big companies, or small companies, or old companies, or new companies are said to have an unfair advantage. A favored entrepreneur needs to have the "playing field" leveled, or a disfavored businessman needs to be penalized for "exploitation."

As a problem, market failure is analogous to "cloudburst failure." A farmer on one side of a hill and a farmer on the other side of a hill both look at the same black cloud in the sky. One farmer has had too much rain; the other has had too little. The cloud will obey natural laws, but whatever it does will be seen by one farmer or the other as a failure. The market also obeys natural laws, and whatever it does can be seen by somebody as a failure. If one expects a rainstorm which fails to develop, one does not blame it and demand correction. That would be complete subjectivism. So is "market failure."

It is quite common to see subjectivists arguing on both sides of the same issue. For example, private ownership of roads and parks and public service providers. Subjectivists opposed to the idea point to the "free rider problem." A private fire fighting service would have to put out fires even for people who refused to pay, lest the fire spread. Even if the providers still made a profit, this would not be fair. It would not match the wish list.

An analogy to the free rider problem is the "negative ion problem." Sun, sand, and sea produce pleasure for many. They also result in lots of electrically charged particles called negative ions, which some call good and others call bad. People who spend their time at the beach worrying about negative ions are not called subjectivists. They are called party poopers. But the error is the subjective one of centering on non-essentials. Incidental effects need not ruin a day at the beach, and passive participants need not invalidate the solution to a social problem. They provide a further element which some would call bad and others would call good. Every mall owner sees free riders everywhere. Subjectivists drive his private roads as if they were public, and then say, "We can't have private roads! What about the free rider problem?"

Meanwhile, others point to "the tragedy of the Commons" as showing that private ownership is necessary. They postulate, say, a grazing ground held not in joint ownership, but "in common." That means not owned. It gets overgrazed. That is, it is not managed, so it does not match the wish list. If it were owned, then the owner might be persuaded or forced to keep it matching the wish list. This is taken as a deep revelation that private ownership benefits a "common good."

Find an unmanaged patch of land that people use as a park, and compare that to a park managed by an owner. Many prefer the latter, and pay money to use it. Others prefer the former, until random events make it unusable. No tragedy is involved. No commonality is involved. The principle implied is that people often prefer order to disorder. One is free to decide how the unowned land should be treated, and bewail that it is not. A tragedy of the Commons? No, a strategy of subjectivism.

Consider the "tragedy of spelling." You are forced to spend your own money on dictionaries because others refuse to tidy up their spelling so it conforms to yours. There is nothing for it but to allow Webster to own correct spelling and charge you. That's how "the tragedy of the Commons" treats ownership: as a necessary evil.

Subjectivists are outraged when criticized, because they think they are being told that they have no right to prevail. What they are really being told is that fantasy has no effect on reality. Only if your wants conform to reality can you hope to get them. To make them conform to reality, you have to choose them by an objective process: examining details in relation to principles. It cannot be finessed; every step must fit the nature of human cognition. Injecting an arbitrary element, no matter how trivial, invalidates the whole process.

To see this, imagine that your dentist is very good at his job. He has your teeth gleaming white and perfectly straight. He does have one little quirk. He carves his initials in each tooth he works on. Probably, this will not help you appreciate his ability.

Subjectivists have their little quirk: instead of ending a thought process with an evaluation, they try to start the process that way. To make an identification, they consult the wish list. To define a concept, they locate it in the wish list. To see how a fact fits in, they compare it to the wish list. Reality is a grinding disappointment to them, because it never quite matches the wish list.

Since you cannot in fact reverse cause and effect, evaluation never in fact begins a thought process. Even if it could, choosing essentials by whim would lead to a dead end. To find the actual thought process of the subjectivist, the thing to ask is: "Where did you get the wish list?"

The embarrassing answer to that is, everywhere and nowhere. This item came from something Mom said once. This item is what a teacher said everyone is entitled to. This item is because of what my little sister did once. This item is from a lecture my father gave me. This one I read in a book.

One of the main tasks of childhood is forming standards of conduct—decisions about how you should act. I am protective of baby sister one time, competitive another time, hateful another time. Were those all okay, or should I behave differently? Should I care how I act? Should I have rigid rules or flexible rules, and what should they be?

Later, you can apply standards of conduct to others, but the first task is to set standards for yourself—to make a "should list" which can become habitual and automatic. That will free your mind to handle the problems of adulthood.

The subjectivist does this backwards. The should list applies to others first. The standards are what others should do. That's why subjectivists are often obsessed with things being fair. It's fair for me to do my part only if others have done their part first. Others are watched closely to see that they behave as they should.

When the subjectivist learns that others pay little attention to his standards, the should list becomes a wish list, including not only what others should do, but how things should be. No matter how often he tells himself to stop fretting about the endless unfairness of life, the habit of consulting that wish list persists. It seems so basic, so obvious, so inescapable. In fact, it is arbitrary.

The subjectivist knows he is making errors that need correction, because things keep going wrong. But he uses ill-defined concepts and fails to fit things together, so he does not know where the errors actually are. That is why subjectivists are busy-bodies. They are making adjustments. They have a compulsion to make adjustments. They are like the mechanic who continually tightens nuts on his machine, in the hopes that one of them will be the one that really needs tightening.

The humiliating secret of the subjectivist is that his sacred wishes are the result of childhood errors, and his relation to reality is as a relationship to the store window behind which wondrous treasure could be found—except that the glass stubbornly shows him only his own reflection.


If practice so far has not helped, the reason could be subjective habits learned by mistake. Perhaps instead of should, you say if only. You don't say, "People should help me out." But you do say, "If only people were more willing to help me out." The wish list doesn't get consulted as a moral absolute, but it does get consulted.

Do skilled thinkers make any use of wish lists? No; they don't have time. Arbitrary standards are of no use to them. What they do use is a to-do list. As a subject is identified and analyzed, they ask, "Can this be of any use in doing what I want to do?"

Thought is an element of action. You think about things as part of doing something about things. You make plans. When you learn something, you compare it to a plan. To do otherwise is to live at random. The items on a to-do list might be reasonable or unreasonable, but the list itself is part of any reasonable life.

By their nature, arbitrary plans cannot be carried out. No matter how clever your plan to fly by flapping your ears, you will not get off the ground. The subjectivist would say, "Well it should work!" The honestly mistaken thinker would remove it from a to-do list. That is the difference: the to-do list is self-correcting, while the wish list is self-perpetuating.

The good news is that the wish list can be converted into the to-do list by asking how. "People should help me," converts into, "How can I get people to help me?" The item stops being a demand on reality, and becomes the beginning of a plan. If it is a bad plan – one based on force, for example – then it will prove unworkable, and get discarded. Once you form the habit of making this conversion, you become too busy with the to-do list to pay attention to what remains of the wish list. Making plans is better than making demands.

To make plans, you must identify causes by looking for essentials. To get the causes right, you must get the essentials right. So converting the wish list into the to-do list will cause you to redefine your concepts using essentials. You will become impatient with all those vague mental groupings. "Dammit!" you will say, "riding in a car is not safer than riding in an airplane—especially the way you drive!"

A life driven by the wish list is a life without direction, in which every stop sign is an emergency, and the road is covered with skid marks. To stop wasting all that time, start making plans.

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