Mental Skill

Chapter 10
Guts and Glory

Does having mental skill mean that you make fewer mistakes? No, it may mean that you make more mistakes. It may even mean that your mistakes are more obvious and embarrassing.

Imagine a basketball team. There is a cautious player who never tries a shot at the basket unless he knows he can make it. Then there is a bold player who tries shooting from all over the court. The bold player will certainly miss more shots. But if he is skillful, he may also make more shots, and win the game.

People who lack mental skill are often cautious players in life. They read about the entrepreneur making and losing a third fortune, and vow to take no chances, which is what they mistakenly think is being done. They try not to lose big. They never try to win big.

When the skilled basketball player aims a long shot at the basket, he does not think he is gambling. He thinks he is scoring. If the shot misses, he does not think about a lost gamble; he thinks about changes to make so the next one will score. When the entrepreneur stakes his fortune on a new venture, he is not gambling. He is creating wealth. If the venture fails, he does not think about gambling losses, but about lessons learned so he can create more wealth.

There is an idea that striving for accomplishment consists of taking a chance and hoping for the best. The idea is an example of unskilled thinking, taking risk as the essence instead of efficacy. Mental skill is neither timid nor reckless. It knows what it is doing, and has confidence in the methods its uses. It knows that mistakes are possible, but it does not expect to make a mistake in any particular process. It regards success as the norm, and failure as the exception—not the other way around.

Both the skilled and the unskilled may have generally the same experiences of success and failure. They both may succeed in getting up in the morning, getting to work, keeping jobs, sending kids to college, saving for retirement. But they may draw opposite conclusions. One decides that big success takes luck and is not possible for most people. The other decides that big success takes hard work and will come in time.

Both made inductions from similar data. The skilled thinker looked for causes of observed success, and accurately identified an essential one. The same cause appeared in a number of cases covering a representative sampling of the whole class. Conclusion: when you work hard, success is normal.

The unskilled thinker looked for causes of observed success, and was unable or unwilling to pin down a manageable number of essential causes. The word "luck" kept coming to mind, perhaps as a way to justify a feeling of envy. There was that rumor that the new manager was chosen because he happened to be as short as his boss. Conclusion: luck must be the main thing, and success is not normal.

A well known characteristic of human cognition is fallibility. If we had omniscience, we would not need mental skill. If success depended on avoiding mistakes, then among fallible humans there would be no such thing as success. What success does depend on is correcting mistakes. We do not live life on the edge of a cliff, where the slightest misstep proves fatal. The right metaphor to put mistakes in perspective is not walking a cliff edge, but riding a bicycle.

Why does a two-wheeled vehicle stay upright? If you climb on a bike and pay attention, you can see what happens. As you move forward, you start to fall over, so the mass of the bike is no longer over the wheels. In reaction to that, you turn the wheel to steer it back under the mass of the bike. You overdo it a bit, so the bike starts to fall over the other way, so you turn the wheel that way to bring it back upright. The bike stays upright because you actively keep it upright by making corrections. Learning to ride the bike consists of forming the habit of making corrections.

The same is true for the course of a coffee cup toward your mouth, and of a space ship toward Mars. The course is accurate because it gets corrected on the way. You watch what you are doing, and make corrections. That is the entire consequence for mental skill of the Great Horror of human fallibility: you must watch what you do, and make corrections.

Does a bicycle go in a straight line? Of course it does—by means of tiny zigzags. Can human cognition gets things right reliably? Of course it can—by means of correcting errors as it goes. There is nothing to be timid about. The only thing to fear about errors is the idea that you must avoid them at all costs. The cost of error phobia is your thinking ability.

Mental skill often goes unappreciated because it operates without makeup. A skilled thinker does not conceal course corrections. Mistakes are made in the open; errors are fearlessly displayed. There seem to be more mistakes rather than fewer.

One reason is the boldness of the inductive leap. Another reason is the advantage of the division of labor. I know a lot about one thing; you know a lot about another. Together we bring a wider sum of knowledge to bear in detecting and correcting errors—as long as we don't conceal them. The idea is not to get everything right in the beginning, but to get everything right at the end.

The crux of mental courage is to understand that a method is a course of action, beginning at one point and working its way to another. No thought appears in the mind by magic, fully formed and error free. An induction, for example, starts with observation of a particular case. A cause and effect is identified. Will it operate in a range of cases? How big a range? How similar must the cases be? What is the essential that could bind the cases together into a class? Each of these questions might be answered wrong the first time, causing confusion. So you work on clearing up the confusion, and correcting the wrong answers, until at the end you have a principle that makes reality easier to handle. You make sure you can trace it back to the sensory evidence, and that you can fit it in with all your knowledge. No matter how many errors you made along the way, the final induction is valid, and you can prove it.

Of course, if what you concentrated on was concealing the errors instead of correcting them, then your final conclusion will be what you began with: a guess. Or, if you were too afraid of making mistakes to be decisive, you will never arrive at a final conclusion.

If you are studying mental skill because you think you make too many mistakes, then the first course correction to make is to stop demanding omniscience of yourself. Instead, demand thoroughness, so all mistakes get corrected. Mental skill deals with mistakes not so much by avoiding them as by correcting them.

In the context of thinking, a mistake is a thought that does not fit—as the idea of omniscience does not fit with the nature of human cognition. Since the conceptual method examines each thing in relation to all things, it is very effective in detecting mistakes. When you form the habit of making sure things fit together, you are forming the habit of adjusting the fit, of making course corrections as you go. Correcting mistakes before they get big becomes automatic. You are like the bicyclist riding in a straight line without noticing those tiny zigzags. Of course, if the wheel were to jam so it could not make those adjustments, the bike would fall over.

That's what the demand for omniscience does to your thinking: it makes course corrections impossible, and a fall inevitable. When you must begin with everything right, you have nowhere to go. You assume that thought is not a progression, but a flash of revelation.

Mental skill can afford to be fearless, because it is self-perfecting. It can start anywhere, and by a process of constant checking and correcting, make its way to truth. The glory of your mind is not merely that it can have ideas, but that it can compare those ideas with sensory evidence and prior knowledge to check them out. In your mind, you can be as bold and adventurous as you like. There is no penalty for starting in the wrong place as long as you end up in the right place. Fantasies and flights of fancy are not alien to mental skill; they are part of the process of examining things from every angle to discover every relationship. They are part of the triumph of human self-regulating cognition.

When you know what mental skill really is and how it works, the safety lines are in place. No matter how high your ambition or how steep the climb, no misstep can be fatal. Even recklessness will not kill your thinking, though it may waste your time. If a bold leap of thought holds promise, then go for the glory. It will sometimes be an error, but it will always be an advance.


To change mental timidity into mental courage, the thing to practice is error correction. When you convince yourself that the conceptual method is capable of correcting all errors, then you may still want to be careful, but you will see no point in being timid.

First identify the starting point. The concept of error will not apply to the starting point, but to deviation from a norm established by the starting point. The philosopher Plato identified the starting point as a mystical "world of forms" which your mind in some way knows as ideas of perfection. But this does not fit with any kind of mental skill. It ignores the relationships among things you see and figure out, in favor of relationships to what you do not see and do not figure out. Mastery is replaced with magic, and truth with intuition. Mental skill must find a better starting point.

To say that the purpose of mental skill is to master reality is to say that the starting point is reality. If reality is what you want to master, then reality must be the standard of truth and error. So the starting point is your direct connection to reality, the data from your senses. The concept of error will not apply to sense data, but only to your interpretation of sense data.

A man with poor eyesight might argue, "Without my glasses my eyes see everything wrong." But then if he meets a blind man, he should say, "Your eyes get things even more wrong than mine do." Instead, he could realize that the blind man's eyes give no data and that his own eyes give less data than he wants rather than wrong data. The same is true of all the senses. You use them together to gather as much data as you can, and that's what you have to go on.

Once you have the starting point, then you can apply Ayn Rand's theory of concept formation to understand how you sort out the data and combine it into knowledge of reality. This knowledge grows in an interconnected matrix of relationships. Every item can be checked and double-checked and cross-checked against every other item. If an error persists, there are only two possibilities: either you have not yet got around to looking at that part of the matrix, or else you do not want to look.

Error detection uses logic to find contradictions, and comparison by essentials to make sure things that are supposed to fit together really do. For example, if you want to get your employees to work harder, you might decide to threaten a pay cut if they don't. Would that be an error? No, not an error, if it fits the nature of the employees; yes, an error, if it does not fit the nature of the employees.

The context involves choice, so the essential of your employees to consider is their free will. You must consider your goals and your methods in relation to their free will. "Getting" them to act must be compared, working "harder" must be compared, and "threatening" must be compared. If the essence of getting people to act is forcing them, then that does not fit with their free will. If the essence is persuading them, then it does. If the essence of working harder is a subjective evaluation, then that does not fit with their free will. If it is an objective quantification, then it does. If the essence of the threat is intimidation, then that does not fit with free will. If it is not intimidation but face-saving, then that may fit with their free will.

Notice the zoom action in the example. Your comparisons are to the particular volition of each of these particular people, in the context of your knowledge of free will in general. You consider the essentials of your plan without forgetting to take into account the practical details.

A boss who threatens to cut salaries because people are standing around the water cooler is probably not making a plan or comparing essentials to detect error. He is expressing anger. If the workers prefer not to anger a boss they like, then there is a fit and no error. If the workers want to exert independence, then the boss made a mistake.

The better your identification of the essentials, the quicker you can detect and correct errors. Getting the essentials wrong makes things worse, which can prompt you to try again. For example, if you insist that "getting" people to listen to your point of view means interesting them, when it actually means forcing them, then you will complain that people just pretend to listen. The frustration will be a motive for rethinking your method.

To check essentials for error, try to think of a more basic fact underneath your essential in the context you are considering. For example, humans in the context of choosing. Suppose you take the essential as "ability to change their minds." That would depend on the ability to use their minds, or to think. So by drilling down you end up at the choice to think, or free will. Again, you might take the essential as fallibility. Wrong thinking would depend on thinking, which leads back to free will. Is there something more fundamental that free will depends on? If one were known, it would have to be in the context of biology rather than choice.

For endless examples of right and wrong essence, just turn on the TV. One commentator says: "The railroads got in trouble because they thought they were in the railroad business instead of the transportation business." That is, by ignoring fundamentals, managers got the essence of their business wrong. While they competed among themselves, customers switched to trucks.

Another TV commentator quotes the mayor of Washington, D.C.: "If you don't count the murders, our crime rate is not so bad."

A Patrolman says to the camera: "Right now what I believe is, there are two kinds of people: victims and suspects."

A historian quotes George Washington: "Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force! Like fire, it is a troublesome servant and a fearful master."

When you form the habit of looking for the essence of assertions, you form the skill of seeing errors not only in your own arguments, but in those of others. Concept formation depends on combining by essentials, and error detection depends on comparing by essentials.

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