Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Why Some People Will Never Learn

It comes down to the question: Who do you think you are?

I'd like you to meet Andrew and Bill:

Andrew is a likable enough guy, as long as you stay on his good side. He does his work; he takes care of other people. 

You wouldn’t know it to talk to him, because he probably couldn’t put it into words, but intuitively he sees himself as a comer in that he’s got great prospects, and an arriver, in that it’s nearly inevitable that he’ll reach happily ever after. His unconscious intuitive life purpose is to land on the sweet flat plateau of success ASAP. 

The way he sees it is how lots of us see it:  Life is a game that can actually be won. It may be hard on the way to the top, but when you get there it’s easy and smooth. Once you’ve created your magnum opus—whatever it is—your reputation will always precede you and the world will become your oyster. It’ll be like living on that yacht from the a liquor ad, getting to heaven, or making so much money that your cash gets up every morning and goes to work instead of you—money enough that if you lost half you wouldn’t even feel it, a buffer that deep, a plateau that bedrocked.

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Andrew thinks rich to grow rich. He knows that he’s destined for great things and is vigilant about recognizing signs of progress toward his lofty inevitable destination. He takes compliments and criticisms to heart—not their content but their indication of altitude. If your feedback on anything he does implies that he’s further from the plateau than he thought, he dismisses it by any means possible. It’s going to take his full momentum to get to the top and he can’t be distracted by the slightest doubt. 

That’s what I mean about staying on his good side: You have to watch your language around Andrew. He’s very sensitive. Say that he’s picky and he’ll spend 10 minutes telling you why he could never be picky, because being picky is bad and he can’t be bad. Voice even the subtlest discouraging word and he'll swat at it feverishly as it flits around too close to his vulnerable head. This makes it easy to mess with his head, maybe even entertaining, but ultimately his defensiveness is tedious so you just choose you words carefully. Say he’s discerning, not picky, and he’ll be fine. Just don’t ever imply that he’s done anything wrong.

Bill is also a likeable guy, but you don’t have to pick your words as carefully with him. Like Andrew, he’s ambitious, but Bill doesn’t really believe in landing on a plateau. He sees himself not as reaching to a destination but as a lifelong climber, a permanent work in progress, forever evolving and tuning, retuning, and refining his intuitions. Although he strives for perfection, he doesn’t believe in it. To him plateaued success is just a figment of ultimate satisfaction. Compliments don’t go to his head. With every success, he says, “Nice. What’s next?”

Bill takes feedback to heart but in a different way than Andrew does, since he sees his heart differently. He's not some undiscovered gem to keep unmarred at all costs, but clay forever sculpted and re-sculpted, never kiln-hardened, never complete.  

Who Will Succeed?

For Andrew feedback is only a sign of how close he is to the plateau. His happiness depends on always feeling like he's just about there, at that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Nothing would crush his spirit as much as discovering that he is not destined for greatness but doomed to the hell of continuing education. He's like a Calvinist, someone believes that God has already decided before we were born who is going to reach the heavenly plateau and who is going to hell. Calvinists are confident that they’re destined for heaven but famously wary of any signs that they might not be. Andrew is like that.

That’s why you can never tell people like Andrew anything.  They wouldn’t know how to stand corrected, their identity intact while admitting a mistake and correcting it.

Bill stands corrected relatively easily. He's not holding out for the day when he never again needs correcting. He is to self-correction like a plumber is to pipe repair.  The plumber doesn't say "Yes! I fixed a pipe today!!! From now on maybe I hope I hope there will be no more pipes to fix." Bill assumes he's in for a lifetime of errors to correct.

The ability to stand corrected, to apologize and learn swiftly with your identity intact requires a different sense of your identity, a sense of yourself as a work forever in progress, a living and learning intuition-tuning being. Critical feedback on your behavior is never a threat to that identity; in fact, it’s the guidance upon which that identity thrives.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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