Mental Skill

Chapter 15
The Easy Way

It is easy to recognize people who have developed mental skill. When they talk about what's in their mind, you can sense how vivid it is to them. When you show them something, they don't frown and squint. They really see. When you tell them something, they don't say "What?" They really hear. When you ask them something, they don't blink and mumble. They really answer. They are hard to fool, but easy to deal with.

They are people for whom life is simple.

This is so by definition. The conceptual method works by simplifying. It simplifies by reducing units. It simplifies by omitting measurements. It simplifies by sorting things out. It simplifies by telescoping many thoughts into one conclusion. It encompasses the countless complexities of the natural world in a vocabulary that fits into one book.

Skill in using concepts is skill in simplifying.

If you were incapable of ranking things hierarchically in your mind as more basic and less basic, then you would find it impossible even to balance upright on your feet, let alone deal with things around you. In learning to walk, you were learning that you don't have to worry about those muscles so much as these muscles. In walking, smell is not essential; balance is.

Skill in identifying essentials is skill in simplifying.

If the solution of every problem were unique, then each moment of every day would be as the first moment of the first day. Learning would not exist, and nothing would ever make sense. The knowledge that a cause from over there will also operate over here, lets you make principles and build up an ability to keep improving your life.

Skill in using principles is skill in simplifying. Skill in making and using a code of morality is skill in simplifying. To keep a running check on your progress in developing mental skill, ask: is life getting simpler, or more complicated?

The complicated life is one in which you try to manage other lives in addition to your own, by making demands, playing tricks, gaining power. The simpler life deals with others by using reason right out there in the open.

The complicated life is one going in several directions at once, trying to cover all the bases, embracing all ideals compatible or not. The simpler life chooses one goal, and openly heads in that direction.

The complicated life is one behind a mask, concealing mistakes, pretending to be cool, putting on shows of virtue. The simpler life looks the same in public and in private.

The complicated life is confused and disoriented, so it gets little done. The simpler life organizes and conceptualizes so it can be as busy as wanted without getting complicated. It is always a confession of incompetence to excuse confusion by saying, "My life is just so complicated!" Mental skill relishes complexity because it knows how to simplify.

Analysis separates the elements of action, but living does not. The ultimate mental skill is integration—unifying all the elements of a life. If happiness is success in living, then integration is the key to happiness. When work and play contribute toward the same purpose, then success is closer. When theory and practice are one, then success is closer. When convictions and feelings never clash, then success is closer. When thought and action are experienced as parts of a unified whole, then success is here.

There are two things that split thought from action and thus make thought pointless. One is physical force. The other is a desire to substitute thought for action. You cannot live successfully under duress, or under the delusion that thinking makes it so.

You can learn mental skill on a camping trip, on an arctic expedition, on a work project. In a classroom or from a book, you can learn theories about mental skill. To learn it, you must live it.

To understand measurement omission, you must see it as part of sorting things out by similarity, which is part of handling things in the mind, which is part of doing things. To grasp induction, you must see it as part of concept formation, which is part of grasping reality and getting things done. To master comparison by essentials, you must see it as part of finding relationships of cause and effect, so you can figure out how, and get things done. To see these things, you must do them.

If this is onerous, then living is onerous. Skilled thinkers say otherwise. For them, basic living is so easy that they seek out greater challenges. To get a job, they build a business. To go to class, they organize a school. To camp out, they climb Everest. They see no reason to limit aspirations. They analyze the elements of a situation, see the relationships involved, and master the situation. They do not just study; they participate.

From the sidelines, life looks dangerous and difficult. No amount of contemplation will change that impression, but almost any amount of participation will. When participation includes knowledge of what the mind can learn to do, then the sidelines seem not only a cop-out, but a bore.

It is not just some mind that can learn to see details in relation to all, but your mind. It is not just some mind that can discover new relationships and invent new things, but your mind. It is not just some mind that can learn to master any situation, but your mind. It is not just some mind that can live a whole life in exalted certainty, but your mind.

Certainty is not omniscience, but confidence in your skills. It becomes exalted when you know how to perfect your skills. Making concepts right can expand your awareness to encompass the entire universe all the time. Thinking in essentials can make basic facts obvious. Logic skill can make errors hard to miss. When you are aware of everything, see basic facts easily, and detect any errors, what is left to hold you back?

In a rational animal, mental skill is the means to good living.


There is only one question on this final exam. The answer will tell you exactly how useful this book has been to you. It will tell you whether to study the book further, or throw it away. It will tell you whether to do more of the same, or switch to a different approach.

The question is:

After study and practice in this book, how real to you are the actions of your mind?

To understand the question, make a fist and pound the table. Now analyze that action. The first element of the action was mental: a decision. The second element was preparation: tensing muscles. The third element was release: a pounding motion. To define the action, the essential is the motion. To energize the action, the essential is the tension. To initiate the action, the essential is the decision—a thought. Most people experience the third element, the motion, as completely real and vivid. Many people experience also the second element, the preparation, as real and vivid. But only the mentally skilled experience the first element, the thought, as completely real and vivid.

When the mental element of action is experienced as less real than the physical elements, you experience the mind and body as split apart. You assume that "mental skill" is a metaphor to indicate whatever it is that happens in the mind that is analogous to actual skill, a physical thing.

Behold an irony of the modern world: millions of people watching computer screens with full knowledge that nothing will happen unless stringent conditions are met of energy supply and procedural method—while taking for granted that their own minds will operate without method, without conditions, without the slightest attention paid to procedure. Computational processes in the computer seem real, while conceptual processes in their own minds do not.

Such a peculiar attitude had to be learned. To develop mental skill, it must be unlearned. If now, at the end of this book, you are beginning to experience the full reality of what you can do with your mind, then you are on the right track. If, on the other hand, mental skill remains to you just a fancy phrase for talent, then the point has passed you by.

Superman lives in a world where gravity makes allowances, walls become transparent, and bullets bounce off. Many people think that they live in a mental analog of that world, where thoughts float free without cause or consequence, intentions are as good as actions, and needs are obtained by making demands. When they discover that Superman is a fantasy, they turn bitter. What they forget is that by using reason, man has long since made Superman look like an amateur. No matter how complicated life gets, mental skill can handle it—by reducing units, identifying relationships, and fitting things together.

When we encounter superior thinkers, we call them "gifted," as if mental skill were bestowed from outside. We claim that geniuses are born and not made. For proof, we point to superior things done at an early age. But that falls short because one obvious way to develop superior skills is to start practicing at an early age. So we change the proof: we point to people who surprise us by doing superior things at a late age, with no early warning. Thus, while trying to prove the opposite, we show that mental skill can be learned early and fast, or late and slow. It is like any skill: you perfect it not by reading, wishing, or inheriting, but by doing the work.

Is it worth doing the work? No, if your ambition is to live as a pet, sustained and directed by others. Yes, if your ambition is to make the most of your own, unique life. Learning to sort things out by essentials and discover relationships is the only way there is to master reality. To skilled thinkers, putting things into mental classes is every bit as real as putting things into cabinets in the kitchen. They do not think of mental methods as pleasing metaphors to be admired, but as tools to be tried out and mastered. They do not choose an arid life of self-denial and academic speculation, but a prosperous life of applying methods to get things done.

If this book has failed the final exam, and mental skill remains a distant abstraction, what should you do? The only thing possible—look for a method of making things real to you. See if you can recall facts of reality that were once unreal to you, until experience made them real. Find people who think of mental skills as vividly real, and ask them how. Observe them. Analyze them. Are there ways of telling which ones are pretending and which ones really do experience thinking as vividly real?

If the final exam went the other way, and mental skill seems a real possibility, then it's time to apply it. When you get the knack of comparing things by essentials, then that can improve every moment of every day. A morning routine can be compared to other possibilities to try for improvement. The drive to work can be compared to other routes and to other means of transport. A work routine can be compared to others to get ahead faster. Decisions can be compared, to see which were best and why. Comparisons made by inessentials confuse things, but comparisons made by essentials clarify everything.

When you get the knack of defining things by essentials while keeping the hierarchy straight, then newfound confidence shows up in your look, your stance, your voice, and your accomplishments. Relationships are as vivid to you as objects, so trial and error is a thing of the past; you know beforehand how to avoid bad effects and produce good effects. Whatever you examine, you habitually take everything relevant into account, so you don't miss the obvious or forget the context.

When you get the knack of connecting everything in your mind to sensory evidence, then you join the ranks of the innovators. No longer do you ask people what is so; you look and see what is so. No longer do you live on the edge of things, looking in; you live in the thick of things. No longer do you have a mental life and a physical life; you have a life.

Suppose you want to improve your golf swing. You analyze it into elements: stance, grip, preparation, swing, follow-through. Do you now practice the follow-through without the swing? No, you practice the entire thing while paying attention to various elements that might be improved.

People who study logic all by itself, or deduction all by itself, or induction all by itself, are trying to practice the follow-through without the swing. Thinking is the action of differentiation and integration—of seeing differences and making combinations. To see the differences better, you learn about the senses, about comparison, about measurement. To make better combinations, you learn about concept formation, about induction, about hierarchy and context. To keep a check on all the elements, you learn about logic. But the actual thing you practice is thinking.

Now remind yourself that thinking is itself an element of action. If you try to practice thinking by itself, without doing anything about it, then again you are trying to practice the follow-through without the swing. As an element of action, thought is self-correcting: when things get worse instead of better, you make course corrections. As an academic exercise, thought is disconnected from reality, and begins to rot. The Ivory Tower smells of death.

You can practice the elements of mental skill, and make improvements. To practice mental skill itself, practice living. Decide what you want to accomplish, and figure out what to do about it. Do not figure out what attitude to take, or what intention to have, but what to doThen do it. Only by comparing the results to the plan can you see what corrections to make.

Life as a story you tell yourself is a fool's tale. Life as an adventure on the way to accomplishment has transformed the past, transforms the present, and can transform your future.

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