Mental Skill

Chapter 4
The Method

To form the concept skill, you zoom in on human abilities and pick out the ones that are perfected with practice. So a skill is a perfected ability, and mental skill is the perfected ability to do good thinking. Since Ayn Rand's discoveries, good thinking can be described as objective thinking, which identifies reality and discovers connections.

To identify an object of thought is to decide what concept contains it. This puts a word to it, and sets its relation to everything else. This can be done skillfully and readily, or awkwardly and reluctantly. It cannot be done partially. There are shades of gray, but there are no shades of identifying a particular gray shade.

The conceptual method classifies perceptions into concepts, so they can be considered in relation to all other perceptions. Trying to put something only part way into a concept is refusing to use the conceptual method. Saying that an object is "kind of" red means that the shade of color is ambiguous. It does not mean that the attribute of color is partially attached to the object.

Aristotle, the father of logic, first identified this principle—the Law of the Excluded Middle. What is excluded is a middle ground between making an identification and not making it. Trying to pretend that there is a middle ground sounds like this: "Oh, I guess it could kind of be that, but...."

Identification takes nerve. Those who lose their nerve sometimes try saying, "Well things are not black and white!" But a continuum between limits is not excluded. What the conceptual method excludes is wiggle room between putting a subject into a concept and not putting it there. It cannot be half-way put there. You can say that between limits is a continuum, but you cannot say meaningfully that it sort of half-way is and half-way is not a continuum. Such a statement merely shows that you have not decided what it is—not partial identification, but no identification.

The concept of mental skill can apply only to self-regulating consciousness, able to make units and integrate similars into concepts. There is no mental skill without the conceptual method. Refusing to confront, accept, and identify reality is refusing to use the conceptual method, so it precludes any development of mental skill.

Accepting reality does not mean understanding what you see; it means acknowledging that you see it. Accepting reality does not mean believing what you hear; it means acknowledging that you hear it. Accepting reality does not mean agreeing with any argument; it means identifying it as an argument. It means getting rid of childish impulses to close the eyes and stop up the ears and pretend that what's there is not there.

Since sanity, by definition, includes the ability to acknowledge what's there, is it right to talk of accepting reality as a skill? To decide, ask if some people do it better than others. Ask if it can be improved with practice. Ask if it is something you can refuse to do as well as decide to do.

To observe how unskilled many are in accepting reality, turn on the radio. Listen to one of the talk shows that allow people to call in for personal advice. The callers are specifically asking to be told something helpful. "Wait!" says the therapist. "You didn't hear my answer! Listen to me!"

Here's a common saying: "Let's break the bad news gently." It assumes that when facts are painful, the pain can be mitigated by gradual revelation. An old comedy routine illustrates the idea:

"I'm calling to see if things are okay while I'm gone."

"Well, the dog got sick."

"Oh dear! How did he get sick?"

"From eating burnt horse flesh."

"What? How did he get that?"

"That happened when the barn burned down."

"The barn! How did it catch fire?"

"A spark from the house."

It is as if an executioner, in order to mitigate the severity of his action, did it by slow torture.

Accepting facts gradually, or provisionally, or partially, changes the facts not in the slightest. That means that approaching facts gingerly is not a method of dealing with them, but a method of self-torture. It assumes that facts are threats, which means that reality itself is a threat.

Pop-psychology assumes that when people hear bad news, they go into "denial." Instead of checking for truth, they refuse to recognize facts. Another way of putting this is: under stress, people struggle, using their habitual ways of handling things. If skill in accepting truth is low, then under stress it may vanish altogether. If skill in acceptance is high, then the pain of bad news will not be agonizing and endless, but sharp and short.

The foundation of your skill in acceptance is your relation to reality. It can be an accepting relationship, or a defensive relationship. Many people do look at reality as something to defend themselves from. They greet each prospect by wondering what bad thing will happen this time, or what they will do wrong this time, or what horror they will discover this time. So they regard any skill in accepting and identifying things as at best an onerous duty.

That is, they regard reality as enemy, and ignorance as defense. They think dealing with reality is like dealing with an attack dog: keep away and try not to show fear.

Emotions do show the problem. The unskilled recognize facts grimly. The skilled do it eagerly. They do not confuse the messenger with the message, or epistemology with metaphysics. They think it is good to know facts, including bad facts, because facts are to be dealt with.

A threat exists whether you know about it or not. Skilled thinkers want to accept truth so they can do something about it. The motive is action. The motive behind action is survival.

Alone in the wilderness, your survival depends directly on your ability to look and draw conclusions—right now, without consulting anybody. You must identify what you see, and act accordingly. You call acceptance skill observational skill.

That means keeping your mind actively engaged. It means the ability to direct mental processes so you don't see what you want to see instead of what's there, so you don't get blinded by emotions, so you don't take partial observation as complete. In other words, observation skill consists of seeing only what is there, and all that is there.

Drivers in California fog are notorious for refusing to slow down. They think they see all the familiar freeway signs and sights—until they crash into the unseen pileup. "I didn't slow down," say survivors, "because I thought I could see okay." That is, they assumed they could see what they knew to be there, even though it was obscured by fog. They took a slight darkening at a familiar spot as the sight of a familiar sign. What they expected to see they thought they did see.

If their minds were actively engaged, those drivers would deliberately compare perceptions with expectations, and differentiate the one from the other. Then they would realize that the familiar sights were behind fog. Then they would reflect that unfamiliar sights might be lying in wait behind the fog.

What lies in wait behind mental fog is reality. Whenever the mind is not actively engaged in observing and identifying reality, survival is at risk. The death toll from mental fog is very high.

So the skill of observing facts and accepting truth is the skill of keeping the mind in motion—staying actively engaged in using the conceptual method to survive and prosper.


Ayn Rand's term for the skill of keeping the mind ready is focus. A mind actively engaged in observing and identifying is in focus. A mind drifting without self-direction, or trying to avoid observing reality, is out of focus. The advantage of this term is that is implies action. Focus is not something you feel, but something you do.

Human cognition is self-regulating. You have the capacity to be in charge of your mind. To actually take charge, you focus. To see focus directly, try not to wake up.

At some point every morning, you are sound asleep. At some other point, you are wide awake with your mind in gear. If you think that what happened between those points was out of your control, test that out. Try to prevent it. Try not to wake up. If it is possible to stay in bed and daydream, then getting up is not automatic. If it is possible to let your mind drift at random, then directing thought is not automatic. Of course, if you want to get up and brush your teeth and go to work, that will mean gearing up your mind—focusing.

What needs practice is maintaining focus. Living life in focus means being focused not just at exam time, but all the time—not just while checking the TV guide, but while watching TV—not just when fighting your way onto the freeway, but all during the long drive home. People who are unskilled at it think that this is a silly idea—until they consider how threatening things seem, how boring TV is, how many close calls they have on the freeway.

If you have carried bags along endless airport corridors, you see the difficulty of keeping a fist clenched all the time. People assume this of mental focus—that staying that way all the time would be impossible. The thing to ask is: when was the last time you stopped your heart so it could rest? The mind is luckier than the heart; it gets to rest for eight hours a night. Refusing to stay awake the rest of the time is refusing to live.

Experience in this area is encouraging. Skilled thinkers report that staying in focus becomes easier the more you do it. Being in charge is addictive. Self-regulation quickly turns into habit and works so well that the habit reinforces itself. Eventually it becomes unshakable. That is the end of panic, of chronic fear, of reality as a threat.

Forming the habit of staying in focus does not require any change in the daily schedule, but it does require a change of attitude—from spectator to participant. While watching TV, don't wait for something to happen; figure out what to expect; compare this scene to that, this actor to that, this idea to that. In a discussion, don't just wait to talk; analyze what people say, test for truth, look for methods.

Active minds are said to be inquiring minds—minds that ask why. There is an even better word for learning to focus—how.

When told facts or ideas, you could ask, "Why should I believe you?" Better questions would be: "How do you know?" "How did you arrive at that thought?" "How did you figure that out?" You want to be told as much as possible about the workings of another mind.

If this seems odd, imagine that this is your first day on a new job. Will your best question be why, or how? To learn any skill, you start by finding out how it is done. Then you practice doing it. Keeping your mind in focus means making sure it is doing something. So the thing to focus on first is methods for doing things.

Ask about a choice of word: "How do you define that?" Ask about a declaration: "How do you justify that?" Ask about ambiguity: "How do you mean that?" Any answer tells you something about the workings of another mind.

When you are alone, the question is still how. This freeway is monotonous; how can I stay alert? This routine is annoying; how did it get that way? This speech is boring; how can I pick out what's useful?

When you focus on methods, you are focused on action.

You will know that the habit of focus is beginning to take hold when routines become more interesting, when long drives seem shorter, when conversations seem more vivid and people seem more colorful. Whenever you pay attention, life tends to brighten up.

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