What Does Falsifiability Mean for Me?

What Does Falsifiability Mean for Me?

Have you ever heard of the term “falsifiability”? It’s an idea from philosophy of science, but like a lot of philosophical concepts it isn’t only useful for obscure, academic conversations. It also has real-world applications, and it can help you make better decisions.

So what is falsifiability? The classic example of falsifiability asks us to consider the statement “all swans are white.” All you have to do is find one non-white swan and you’ve shown it isn’t necessarily true. The statement is therefore falsifiable because it’s possible to find evidence that contradicts it.

That’s a great example and all, but what does falsifiability mean for us in our daily lives?

I always thought it was stupid to tell people to stand up for what they believe in. What if they believe in something that’s objectively wrong? It doesn’t do anyone any good to believe the sun is pink and defend that to their dying day. A much better way to live is to focus on believing in what is real and true.

This is what falsifiability can do for us in our everyday interactions: it helps us form better, more accurate beliefs, make better decisions, and live a better life.

Falsifying a Volcano

What does falsifiability mean to me, personally? For one, it helped me make an informed decision about whether or not I should flee from an erupting volcano.

A few years ago, I lived in a small town near the mountains. Out of the blue, a friend texted to say there was unusual seismic activity in the area. His conclusion was that a supervolcano was about to erupt. If I wanted to live, I had to get out by the end of the week.

I trust my friend, and if the reports of earthquakes were true, I had to accept the possibility of an eruption. I couldn’t just accept his word for it, though. There were facts about the world I needed to consider before making a decision.

I looked online and found a monitoring station near the supervolcano. Scientists there confirmed that yes, there was strange seismic activity going on, but no, there was no indication an eruption was about to occur. Not today, not this weekend, and not for the next thousand years.

I didn’t want to form a belief based on incorrect information. I realized this statement was falsifiable through real-world data, which I uncovered, digested, and used to make an informed decision.

Falsifiability Helps Us Make Better Decisions

Falsifiability doesn’t have to stay confined to volcanoes or raw scientific data. We can put it into action in our daily lives.

What’s a decision you’re wrestling with right now? One of mine is the question of how many hours I should work during the week. Conventional wisdom says a minimum of 40. That “feels right” to me, and it might feel right to you, as well.

Falsifiability - making decisions

That belief doesn’t have a lot of grounding in the real world, though. Psychology studies show that humans are poorly suited to focusing on tasks for this long, and doing it week after week for months on end leads to burnout.

I know this from my own experience as well:

  1. Personal experience tells me that putting in 40, 50, or 60 hours of work per week takes a toll on my mental wellbeing.
  2. Multiple large-scale studies show that people are happier, healthier, and more creative when they work fewer than 40 hours per week.

The idea that “40 hours per week is how much everyone should work” is easily falsifiable. Is this belief 100% infallibly correct? I’m sure it isn’t. But I have no reason to rely on conventional wisdom and every reason to seek information from the real world to help me live a better life.

What Does Falsifiability Mean to You?

Even these basics of falsifiability can help you get unstuck from negative situations. It could help you to challenge the mistaken idea that you’re “better off” staying with an abusive partner, or that your parents always know what’s best for you, even if you don’t agree with their opinions.

You can make better decisions by comparing your beliefs with the real world. The hardest part is having the courage to examine your life and accept the fact that some of your beliefs may be mistaken. By doing this, though, you can lead a better life, one decision at a time.

Try following these steps to integrate falsifiability into your life:

  1. Think about a decision you’re about to make. Maybe it’s about what to cook for dinner, or whether or not it’s worth it to go to university.
  2. What beliefs are you relying on to make that decision? Is it that getting a degree will help you make more money?
  3. Ask yourself the hard question: Is it possible that this belief could be false?
  4. Research your belief. Look past “common sense” and “conventional wisdom.” See what real-world observations have to say.
  5. Read, read some more, and reflect the new information. Don’t just accept it as-is, really think about it and internalize it.
  6. If you realize your belief was mistaken; revise it. If it seems correct, make sure you’re basing that decision on information, not a fear of change.
  7. Re-evaluate your decision from a fresh perspective.

You can do this with everyday things, or you can challenge long-held beliefs that seem so self-evident that they couldn’t be anything but true. You can even ask yourself big questions like “Is there such a thing as universal right and wrong?”

This method of practical beliefs and decision making isn’t about discovering absolute rights or wrongs. It’s about improving your internal frameworks and bettering your life one decision at a time. It’s incremental, but incremental improvements build to gigantic changes.

Self-Reflection is Key

Engaging in self-reflection is probably the hardest part of the steps above. It’s also the most important.

Self-reflection gives us a chance to analyze and verify our beliefs. Without it, we would never understand the content of our beliefs. We don’t have to adopt a position of extreme skepticism where we doubt everything, of course. But when we bring a belief to our attention, we can look at it from as neutral of a perspective as we can.

For me, what makes this a challenge is that I don’t want to be wrong. Nobody wants to be wrong, really, especially not when it comes to beliefs we’ve held onto for a long time.

But there’s something liberating about spearing obsolete beliefs. It’s like spring cleaning for your mind. Out with the crusty old beliefs that, while comforting, probably aren’t serving much of a purpose. In with the new beliefs that are (hopefully) more stable, reliable, and better connected to reality.

New beliefs aren’t meant to be carved in stone. They’re there so you can make incrementally better decisions. If you make them permanent and unchanging, you lose the ability to refine them as you learn, grow, and experience new things.

You can start this process of self-reflection right now by asking a simple question: “Could my belief be wrong?” or “Could this idea be falsified?” I can’t think of a situation where the answer would be “no, of course not.” If a belief can be wrong, it’s worth investigating to see if you can adjust it to be more right.

Remember that the real world is messy and unpredictable. Each of us makes good decisions and bad decisions; there’s no reason to hold ourselves to a standard of unattainable perfection. If you keep your beliefs system nimble and grounded in reality, though, you’ll always be prepared to take that next step towards a better self.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.

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The Psychology of Excuses: How I Broke Free From A Victim Mindset

The Psychology of Excuses: How I Broke Free From A Victim Mindset

For most of my adult life I lived in a city I hated. I created a range of psychological excuses as to why I had to stay there, the most prominent of which was, “I don’t have enough money to move.”

One day I spent a few hours catching up with an old friend. I told her my situation, and her immediate response was to shout at me: “What on Earth are you doing there?!” A friendly lecture ensued, in which she informed me that I was wasting away and there was no real reason I had to stay. 

She was right. I realized later that I was stuck in a victim mindset. Things outside of my control “forced” me to stay in that town, whether it was money or relationships or minor health issues.

In reality, all of these things were totally within my realm of influence. I was simply afraid to take responsibility for my own life. It was much easier to say the rest of the world was the cause of my problems and I was the hapless victim.

The Victimhood Trap

There are certain social advantages to thinking of yourself as a victim. You can get addicted to getting sympathy from other people, for example. They won’t be so hard on you if you screw something up. After all, what kind of teacher would fail a student whose dog ate every piece of homework the entire semester? (Not a very competent one.)

This victim mindset doesn’t get you anything useful or lasting, though. It makes you dependent on other people for even the small victories in life. Over time this erodes your ability to accomplish things on your own, so you double down on the excuses just to get by. 

Instead of taking responsibility or trying to improve your life, you take the easy way out. You dive deeper into your own psychology of excuses and rely on emotional manipulation to make it in the world. This is similar to passive-aggressive behavior, and both are harmful to ourselves and others.

A particular risk of the victim mindset is falling into the drama triangle. If you’re stuck in the drama triangle, you likely see yourself as either a victim, a rescuer or a persecutor. Perhaps you even move between these roles interchangeably. This pattern is as damaging as it is drama-filled. Check out the following video to see what I mean:

Excuses and Responsibility

A psychology dominated by excuse-making is one way the victim mindset can manifest in our lives. Another is the avoiding of responsibility. Both are linked to a way of thinking that says that life happens to us, we have no control over it, and the only way we can stay safe is to adopt a self-protective, defensive attitude.

Here are some examples of how the victim mindset might manifest in your life:

  • I need to lose some weight. Too bad I can’t because of terrible genetics.
  • There’s this business I would love to start, but I just don’t have the money.
  • I keep getting sick because nobody washes their hands anymore.

You might see some of these and think, “Hey, can’t those be real reasons, too?” And yes, they certainly can. There’s a point where valid reasons turn into excuses, though, and this point is what defines the victim mindset.

You may actually have the genetic makeup that makes it harder to lose weight. That’s not a reason why you can’t shed a few pounds, though; it just means you have to try something different or maybe work harder at it than other people. Just because there’s an original cause of something doesn’t mean that cause extends indefinitely or to every area of life. And just because something might be harder for you than for others, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Trapped by excuses

The original reason I stayed in that city I hated was because I genuinely had no money. I had recently finished college and was just getting established in the job market — starting from scratch, as it were. I certainly couldn’t have moved then, but I really didn’t want to, either.

Fast forward nine years. Moving would have required that I examine my reasons for living there in the first place. I might have learned I had made a mistake, and I might have realized I was making excuses, which would make me feel sad. I didn’t want to feel sad, so instead, I made up another excuse.

The easy way out was to cling to my original reason instead of looking at the situation and deciding to take action. I needed to ditch the excuses, get rid of the external blame, and finally take responsibility for my life and my happiness.

Destroying the Psychology of Excuses

Remember that the victim mindset is just that: a mindset. It’s not a single moment of victimhood; it’s a state of mind that affects most of your decisions. 

Making a single excuse doesn’t mean you’ve fallen into this mindset, but relying on those excuses as you move into the future does.

It can be difficult to recognize a victim mindset in yourself. We all fall into it from time to time. The key to breaking free isn’t necessarily just recognizing it, though; it’s about preventing it and dissolving it through responsible action.

If you suspect you’re clinging to excuses out of a victim mindset, ask yourself this question:

  • Is it possible for me to change this situation?

Don’t ask if you’re capable of doing it, as that might trigger the victim mindset to generate an excuse. Instead, ask if it’s logically possible for you to change your situation. Only in a few rare circumstances will you be able to answer in the negative.

Is it logically possible for you to lose weight? Of course it is. It may not be easy or fun, but it’s possible. How about starting up that business? Yes, you can raise the money; just find a way. How about me moving from that city? Despite all of the excuses I made over the years, yes, it was always possible to leave.

Now take this and apply it to your own life. Are you refusing to take action because you think you’re a perennial victim? Are you backing away from a life well-lived because the world is out to get you? No matter what, I’m sure there’s a way out. And that way is entirely within your power.

Don’t confuse what’s easy with what’s possible. If you really want to do something you can make it happen. Obstacles will appear and failures will stand in the way, but they don’t control you, you’re not the victim. No, you’re the active, responsible, heroic person you’ve always imagined yourself to be.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.

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Taking Responsibility For Your Life, One Apple Box at a Time

Taking Responsibility For Your Life, One Apple Box at a Time

Do you have a right to be happy? A right to be satisfied at your job? A right to friendship? 

Stop and really think about it for a moment. Think about what it takes to get those things in your life. Are you entitled to them simply because you exist?

Your first instinct is probably to say yes, of course you have a right to happiness and friendship. On some level you might be right, but I’m here to make the opposite case.

You’re not entitled to happiness, friendship, or anything like that. Furthermore, if you genuinely think you are, you have the same mindset as a kid in the toy store who stamps their feet until mom buys them everything they want.

Wrestling with Responsibility

Young children aren’t responsible for anything. They don’t have to work, do dishes, or buy snow tires. If they need something, then theoretically their parents provide it. This happens with such regularity that some children throw a fit when they don’t get what they want. They expect their desires to be automatically met, almost as if they have a right to that bag of candy from the store.

As we mature, we learn that fulfilling our wants and needs isn’t as simple as waiting for someone else to take care of them. If we want something, we have to put in the effort and exchange something for it, such as time or money. Meals don’t just magically appear on our table; they have to be purchased and prepared. Growing up is the slow process of realizing we have to shoulder these burdens ourselves.

This makes perfect sense to most adults, especially when it comes to tangible things like finding a home. We don’t expect to live rent-free in the apartment of our choosing.

Strangely, though, this doesn’t translate to some other concepts, like happiness or friendship which we mentioned above. There are many things people think they are owed even though they refuse to put in the effort to obtain them.

Health is a good example of this. We all know that eating fast food and candy bars every day is a bad idea. When we gain a bunch of weight, though, we want to say it’s genetics or society or some kind of stealth calories companies hide in our meals.

We think we’re entitled to a thin and healthy body, but it’s being denied to us by forces outside of our control. The reality is we simply need to accept responsibility for our situation and eat a salad once in a while.

Teaching Obedience instead of Responsibility

The modern educational system is guilty of perpetuating this concept of entitlement. Instead of teaching young adults to take action and be responsible, they encourage us to be passive and wait for life to be delivered on a plate.

One of the biggest benefits of getting a degree, we’re told, is that it proves to the world how responsible we are. Anyone who turns in their homework on time, does every assignment from the syllabus, and aces all of their tests must be responsible, right?

Following a list of instructions doesn’t prove responsibility, though. It really just proves obedience, which you could argue is the opposite of responsibility.

Think about it this way: if you train a dog to sit on command, who is responsible for the trick? The dog is the one that actually carries out the action, but it’s you who made the choices and put in the effort to teach it. The dog wouldn’t have done all of this itself.

In the case of universities, you pay mountains of money to get a list of chores handed to you at the beginning of each semester. If you complete those chores, you prove you can follow instructions. The university trained you to do a trick and you get a degree as a reward.

When you graduate you retain that same mindset: “I got a job, now society has to bend over backwards to make me happy.” Life doesn’t owe you that, though, and you shouldn’t sit and wait for it to deliver. It’s your responsibility to actively ensure your own happiness, not everyone else’s.

After graduation, you suddenly have to write your own chores list. The university didn’t prepare you for that, and neither did being a kid. Now’s the time to get rid of that childish mindset and take control of your own life.

Taking Responsibility Changed My Life

For most of our young lives we’re shuffled from group activity to group activity. Playdates as toddlers, birthday parties with neighborhood kids, 13 or more years sitting in classrooms with our peers. That has value when we’re still figuring out how life works, but what about when we’re older and more capable? Should we still expect friendships to drop in our lap?

I certainly did. After graduation I moved out on my own, far from the town I grew up in. Months passed and I had yet to make any new friends. Something was clearly wrong, and I knew it had nothing to do with me. The people here were obviously flawed.

In the past, friendships always sort of happened. I was in a class with a few decent people, we hung out a few times, and that’s it, BFFs. But how was I supposed to connect with people when we aren’t trapped in a room together day after day?

It took some time, but I eventually figured out that the problem really was me. I thought the way to make friends was to wait for it to happen. Friendship and happiness are just supposed to be there. When friends didn’t show up, I simply waited more.

When we feel like we’re entitled to or have a right to something, what we’re actually saying is we want someone else to do the work for us. By maintaining my thinking pattern of “other people will befriend me,” I was no different from the child waiting for his parents to put dinner on the table.

By the time I arrived at this conclusion, I had already made a few casual friends. (Or, more accurately, they made friends with me.)  But I realized they were completely wrong for me. They were friends of proximity and convenience, not of shared interests or compatibility. I took what was given to me and thought that was the best I could hope for.

One ordinary summer day, I did a full 180 on that passive attitude. I ditched my friends, every single one of them. I went from friendful to friendless in a matter of seconds, all by conscious choice.

And you know what? It felt great. I took control, I became responsible, I stopped waiting for other people to give me the things I needed. That act filled me with energy, confidence, and courage, and all it took was me making that single decision.

ABCs of Responsibility

We’re not entitled to have happiness, friendship, or a satisfying career, but we are entitled to pursue those things. There’s a world of difference between these mindsets, and it all comes down to responsibility.

Refusing responsibility is to embrace inertia. When you look at your life with an attitude of “I have a right to something,” you’re really saying you don’t want to put in the work to get that thing, you just want to have it, and you want someone else to get it for you.

At the other extreme we have an excess of responsibility. Just because you can influence something in your life doesn’t mean you’re required to. This would lead to a level of self-policing that makes a domineering parent seem mild by comparison.

If you overdo it with responsibility you risk shifting attention from yourself to the things you’re trying to be responsible for. After that it’s just a few quick steps to becoming a tyrant. I’ve fallen into this trap many times in my own life. It leads to anxiety, anger, and many other unsavory emotions.

There is a healthy balance somewhere between micromanaging our responsibilities and being completely apathetic. We all have to find that on our own, but it always starts with an honest examination of your life and a careful noting of the things you are actually capable of influencing.

Biting off Bits of Responsibility

My journey started with the rather large gesture of ditching unhealthy friends. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that everyone begin there, as it’s a bit of a wild leap. A better starting point would be the changes I made shortly afterwards.

I could talk about the usual stuff people do when they make a positive shift in their life. I bought less junk food, for example, which led to healthier eating patterns. But instead, I want to talk about something far less obvious: cleaning out my closet.

At the back of my home office was a small closet filled with eight identical apple boxes. Inside of those boxes were knicknacks from childhood, old clothes, miscellaneous memorabilia, you name it. I don’t know why I had been holding onto these things, but I knew I hated how full that closet was, and that I could take responsibility for that mess.

Cleaning out the closet isn’t a single action; it’s a series of tiny actions that fit into a larger whole. It starts by pulling out one box. I open that box and I pick through individual items inside. Do I need this 20-year-old toy? How about those empty Nintendo 64 game boxes or the purple shirt I literally never want to wear again?

Each item I examined was a small bite of responsibility. Those bites quickly added up to a full meal. I wasn’t a slave to that cluttered closet, just like I wasn’t a slave to other people’s desire to befriend me. Moving from passive entitlement to active responsibility is as easy as taking those steps. In fact, you can start right now.

Look at your surroundings, think about a conversation you had yesterday, examine your desk, check out the dust on top of your laptop. Is there anything you can do at this moment to improve these things? 

Of course there is. It’s easy to dust your PC or tidy your desk. It’s even easy to bring up an argument you had with your parents the other day and start a genuine conversation about it. You don’t have to drag every single apple box out of the closet right now and create another huge mess. Just take one, look at a few things inside, and make a decision. That’s progress, and it’s surprisingly energizing.

You are in charge of the things in your life; they are not in charge of you. Don’t just understand that passively: put it into action by taking that first step.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.

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Why Young People Should Reject Moral Relativism To Lead a Better Life

Why Young People Should Reject Moral Relativism To Lead a Better Life

What makes something good or bad? How do we determine right from wrong when there are so many different opinions on the topic? Philosophers, religious leaders, and everyone in between have been trying to figure this out for thousands of years. 

One attempt at answering this question is moral relativism. The theory goes a bit like this:

“There is no such thing as universal right or wrong. People and cultures are free to form their own moral truths, and those truths are always correct, as there are no objective truths to compare them to.”

A lot of people today subscribe to moral relativism, but I believe it’s a dangerous concept that encourages individuals and entire societies to abandon the quest for betterment. Let me explain.

Adding Relativism to Morality

The concept of relativism stretches back thousands of years. 

A classic example of moral relativism comes to us from the ancient historian Herodotus. He describes an encounter between the Callatians, a tribe who ate their dead, and the ancient Greeks, who practised cremation. Each group thought their own practice was “right” and the other’s was “wrong.”

A moral relativist would say that both the ancient Greeks and the Callatians were in the right. There is no universally correct way to dispose of the dead, no rules dealt out by the universe that dictate what we’re supposed to do. And besides, who are we to judge what another culture does?

This sounds like a harmonious outlook towards life, especially in our modern society with its emphasis on tolerating others. The reality is that it’s a fundamentally broken theory. 

Moral Relativism is Logically Inconsistent

Consider the core statement of moral relativism, that all truths are relative. 

The problem is this: “all truths are relative” is itself a universal claim about moral truths. You can’t simultaneously claim there’s no such thing as universal truth AND then make a universal statement like that about all truths

This is logically self-contradictory and serves as the first sign that the theory is broken.

Moral Relativism Ignores Reality

There is a real world out there and we can use that to inform many of the moral decisions we make. Consider this nice picture of the Eiffel Tower:

Let’s say that Sally believes the Eiffel Tower is made of cheese. Roger believes it’s made of soap. Should we conclude that because these two disagree there is no universally correct answer to the question? Of course not. There are ways to objectively determine what the Eiffel Tower is composed of (it’s iron, by the way). This remains true no matter what Sally or Roger believe.

Morals are less tangible than towers, but there are still cases when they can be informed by objective data. To return to the ancient Greek example from earlier, we now know there are health hazards associated with cannibalism. Practising cannibalism carries those risks, no matter what our beliefs are.

By studying the real world, we can find information about what our morals point to and make well-reasoned decisions that are good for both ourselves and for society.

Moral Relativism as an Excuse for Evil

Still think moral relativism is okay? Sure, it’s logically inconsistent, but who cares? Let me challenge you a bit further.

Here’s a sobering fact: moral relativism requires us to accept the worst parts of human nature as morally permissible

  • Thomas enjoys raping babies in his spare time. But who are we to judge whether this is good or bad?
  • David keeps a slave who he forces to work for 20 hours a day without stopping. If the slave wants a break, David beats him with a stick. Oh well, David is entitled to his own beliefs.
  • Elizabeth burns her husband with a lighter whenever she is angry. After all, it’s what her mum did to her, so it’s fine. To each their own, right?

It doesn’t take much empathy to realise that the behaviour in these examples is morally unacceptable. Regardless of the moral standards of the time, behaviour like this has been objectively wrong across all cultures for all of human history, and will continue to be so in the future. 

But here’s the problem: if you believe in moral relativism, you have no logical basis for calling out behaviour like this. Morality is relative, so everything is fine. It’s just a matter of opinion.

Frankly, this is lazy reasoning that is used to justify cowardly behaviour — like not calling examples like these evil.

Moral Relativism Leads to Individual and Cultural Stagnation

To be clear, I don’t think that most of the people who believe in moral relativism would support the sort of sociopathic behaviour described above. 

Rather, my main reason for speaking out against moral relativism is that it discourages reflection and self-improvement. If everything is relative, there is nothing to strive for. 

If a moral relativist were to live consistently with their theory, they would do nothing but sit around in bed all day watching Netflix. After all, what’s the point in taking action to live a better life if everything is relative anyway? 

Starting an exercise routine, going to therapy, or founding a business are all a waste of time, because someone who’s doing those things is neither better nor worse off than someone who is not. 

Even science itself and the pursuit of objective knowledge would become pointless. It’s just a matter of opinion, say the relativists. Who are we to judge? Why bother forging our own path if everything we believe is already correct? 

This is a cowardly way to live and a terrible way to set up a society. 

My Journey From Moral Relativism to Self-Improvement

Over the last 10 years, I have observed a number of dysfunctional behaviours in myself and the people around me. Here are just a few examples:

  • I was given to manipulating people to get approval from them, especially women. I previously wrote about this here.
  • I used to eat poorly and had energy issues as a result. Now I meal prep once a week and have a great diet. 
  • I have been to therapy multiple times and identified a lot of dysfunction in my family environment.
  • I used to feel a lot of anxiety about spending money on anything that was non-essential. I needed to learn about financial abundance and rethink my mindset.

If I had no objective moral standard to compare my own behaviour against, none of this growth would have been possible. Yes, seeing my own flaws has been painful, but that pain has been so worthwhile. 

My intention for Universal Owl is to help young people embark on their own journey of self-betterment. It is my belief that this is how we improve society: by encouraging each individual to accept responsibility for their own inadequacies from a young age and work through their own issues. 

There are objectively healthy behaviours in the realms of relationships, communication, diet, sleep, finances and more. It is the mission of Universal Owl to uncover these behaviours and teach them to as many young people as possible.

Becoming a Better Person

The path to self-betterment begins with comparing ourselves against an objective moral standard and realising that we can improve ourselves. 

There are ways to objectively measure what is good, especially in the areas of life that come into direct contact with the real world. It’s a gradual process of analysing your inner world, comparing it to the external world, searching for an action you can take that would bring about change for good, then finding the best way to implement that change.

Sometimes this change is as simple as removing harmful habits or starting up new ones, like creating an exercise routine. That might sound like an insignificant move, but it’s objectively better than not exercising, and can lead to improvements across your entire life.

Other times, change for the better means learning a new skill, something that’s useful no matter where you live or what you do. Writing and speaking skills can help you better articulate your ideas to the world. That holds true no matter what you do for a living, making it an incredibly useful meta-skill to work on, one that is universally good.

But self-betterment can’t happen if we ignore objective facts. Not every idea, opinion, or moral outlook is correct, let alone good for individuals or good for the world. And that is why we must dispense with moral relativism. 

By looking at objective reality as often as possible, and by considering our actions in terms of their broader implication, we can take huge strides in the direction of living healthier, more functional, and more conscious lives.

Geoff Walters is a six-time entrepreneur and founder of Universal Owl. He has been fascinated by the subject of personal development for ten years, and enjoys passing lessons from his own life experience to younger people.

Areas of interest include wealth creation, nutrition, chess, classical music, psychology, communication and languages.

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Living Like a Hero in a World of Conformity

Living Like a Hero in a World of Conformity

Mythological stories from every culture are brimming with larger-than-life heroes: The hydra-slaying Hercules, the heroic Beowulf, the mighty Monkey King Sun Wukong, even the flawed Karna from ancient Hindu tales.

We look to fictional and real-world heroes as ideals to emulate in our own lives. They conquer their personal demons, stand tall in the face of adversity, and adhere to their personal ethics no matter what the world throws at them. We admire these traits, and as a society we think everyone should strive for them.

Today, few people see even a sliver of heroism in themselves. We look to heroes modern and ancient, fictional and real, and we wish we could have that life. When it becomes apparent that we aren’t as clever as Odysseus or as strong as Hercules, our first instinct might be to give up and stay in bed.

We want to feel heroic, but the only way to experience that might be to grab a video game and slay a virtual hydra.

The education system blocks people’s heroic impulses

It can be difficult to walk the path of heroism when there are institutions that actively discourage self-reflection. Sitting in a classroom every day for a dozen years before hiding in an office for a few dozen more is about the furthest thing from the heroic ideal I can imagine.

The modern educational system herds people into classrooms and systematically teaches them conformity and agreeableness. Follow the rules or be punished. Do not pursue your own interests and do not attempt to acquire self-knowledge. Just memorize names and dates so you can get an A on your homework.

Can you imagine Hercules in a classroom raising his hand for permission to use the restroom? Or Beowulf getting upset over a bad grade? The absurdity isn’t that Hercules would look ridiculous in a school uniform, it’s the idea that our educational system is even remotely capable of producing heroes at all.

How the education system blocks people's heroic impulses

How heroes can inspire us

Most ancient Greeks understood their stories of heroes and gods as symbolic tales. There were truths at the center of Theseus’s victory over the Minotaur, but those truths were about human nature, not about real events which literally happened.

The value of heroic tales is in the lessons they convey. We aren’t meant to look at heroes as figures whose greatness we can never approach. Rather, when we see their cleverness and perseverance, we should look within ourselves for similar qualities. This allows us to meet challenges in our lives with knowledge and purpose.

Internalization is key. This is where the real value of heroism lies: using them as inspiration for self-reflection, goal setting, and internal change.

My baby steps towards heroism

Heroism is built in pieces, not captured in dramatic moments. We tend to focus on the most impressive part of any hero’s journey, like when Hercules felled the hydra. But the more valuable part of that story was when Hercules rolled out of bed that morning and decided to start on his journey instead of watching the Olympics.

A few years ago I suffered a severe injury to my leg. It was enough to leave me bedridden for weeks, confined to crutches for months, and hobbling on unbalanced and atrophied muscles for years. I was an active hiker and weight lifter before the injury, yet now I could barely carry myself to the front door. 

Steps towards heroism

My injury presented both a long-term goal and a clear obstacle: I wanted to walk up those snowy mountains I could see outside of my window. I couldn’t just wait a year then scamper up the slopes, though. I had to get up and walk across the room first. Then walk to the grocery store. Then train my legs to carry me up stairs again.

Even as a bedridden invalid I was able to make an impact on my life. It was slow, filled with small setbacks, and not nearly as dramatic as a Greek myth, but the change was very real, very tangible, and it opened the way to far greater accomplishments later on.

Taking action

The first step any hero must take is to battle the demons within. They may not be as obvious as a busted leg or as dramatic as defeating a dragon, but that doesn’t mean the struggle is any less meaningful or real.

Starting the hero’s journey requires only the ability to self-reflect. That’s something you can do right this second. Examine your life to see what you want, to see what is holding you back. What negative patterns do you see in your life that prevent you from getting what you want? Maybe you tend towards destructive or self-defeating thoughts, the kind that keep you from taking chances on new ventures. Maybe it’s an issue with unhealthy eating, poor exercise habits, or inadequate sleep.

These demons may seem insignificant, but they have a tremendous impact on your life. You’ll see just how powerful they were as soon as you start slaying them.

Once you have conquered the inner demons you will then be able to bring your heroism to the outside world. It’s more difficult to affect positive change on your friends, family, and beyond, but now that you know how to deal with internal problems and have bettered yourself as a result, you can have a real impact on others. Just the inspiration of seeing someone strong in themselves is often enough to inspire change.

Heroism is built from within, not bestowed from without. Work on finding and conquering those inner demons and you’ll see just how powerful you can be.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.

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The Pointlessness of Prestige: Why Attending Cambridge Was a Poor Decision

The Pointlessness of Prestige: Why Attending Cambridge Was a Poor Decision

When I tell people I went to Cambridge, the reaction normally goes something like this:

“Wow, you must be like a super genius or something!”

Comments like these, while a boost to the ego, always make me wince inwardly. I don’t think very highly of Cambridge, nor of any decision that is predicated on prestige. I would much rather people compliment me on my courage and resilience than on a fading piece of yellowish paper from a fading institution.

Living the middle-class dream

I enrolled in Cambridge because that’s what I was supposed to do. “Go to the most prestigious university possible,” my parents said. “Associate with the right crowd, impress the right people, then surf through life on a wave of success.”

What I didn’t realise at the time was how this encouraged me to look for validation outside of myself. It didn’t matter what I learned or how I improved as a person, only that I followed the tried and tested path from educational achievement to career prosperity. I needed the right degree certificate and the right connections. That, apparently, would lead to happiness and fulfilment.

I was actually a total misfit during my first year at Cambridge. Most of my peers engaged in a mix of studying and socialising (read: drinking). I ignored the latter and focused on doing everything my professors asked of me. I joined clubs and filled my out-of-class hours with extra-curricular activities. It was a brutal schedule, and the strain of keeping it led to more than a few sleepless nights. But because my attendance and grades earned praise, I continued thinking I was doing the right thing for my future.

My Cambridge college
My Cambridge college

The wake-up call

It wasn’t until my second year that I started to see the trap I had fallen into. Cambridge puts students on a treadmill of achievement which leads precisely nowhere. I wasn’t supposed to gain knowledge or improve myself, not really. My job was to please professors and pass exams – no matter the cost to my well-being.

I soon discovered that there were easier ways to achieve those ends without suffering the drawbacks that come with sitting in the library for 10 hours a day. It was a simple matter to read articles about assigned materials instead of crawling through dense source texts. The outcome was basically the same — good enough marks to get by and to gain the approval I craved. The only difference was that I gained very little in terms of knowledge. Nobody cared about that fact, however. Not my teachers, not my family, and certainly not Cambridge.

As I was questioning the purpose and value of my education, a wake-up call came in the most cliché way possible: I met a girl. She was captivating and pretty. There was no question I wanted to pursue her. Rejection seemed likely, as I wasn’t very experienced with relationships, but I went for it all the same. To my surprise, my efforts were successful.

Personal growth from an unlikely source

The relationship itself, such that it was, wasn’t my wake-up call. It was a single conversation we had about the manner in which I pursued her. She described me as… suave. My immediate internal reaction was complete disbelief. Suave? I wasn’t suave, I was new to all of this. How could I, the studious bookworm with excellent grades and no social life, be suave?

Like anyone my age, I turned to the internet for answers. Obviously I had done something right. I wanted to know exactly what that was, whether it was part of my personality, and what I could do to nurture it. I stumbled upon pick-up artistry (PUA) and read all about seduction systems I could use to intentionally become more successful with women.

Me as a PUA

Of course, looking back on this now, I consider it a dysfunctional way of thinking. But at the time, it gave me a framework for how I could behave in order to manipulate women into liking me. Through learning this consciously, I was later able to see in therapy how I had been unconsciously using similar techniques for years to win the approval of my professors, parents, and other authority figures. I realised that I had been searching for validation from others for all this time. In reality, trying to control what someone else thinks of you is inevitably a losing game.

It wasn’t the pick up artistry itself that inspired change. It was the act of striking out on my own and being willing to think for myself, even at the risk of failing. This was in sharp contrast to Cambridge telling me to ignore self-knowledge and work to gain the approval of others. Good grades please professors. It didn’t matter what I learned in the process, if anything at all. My strange pursuit of pick-up artistry offered insight into myself as well as tangible value to my life.

The worthlessness of prestige in real life

I continued this shift away from achievement-hunting as I finished my studies at Cambridge. I turned my attention inward, sought intrinsic validation for my pursuits and ideas and became more confident as a result.

I also faced the cold reality of the limitations of my education. Having a prestigious university’s name stamped on my degree didn’t mean I was more capable than other people. I still faced challenges and failures just like my peers, and I couldn’t overcome them by simply name-dropping my alma mater. I’ll be blunt: this was one of the hardest things I have ever had to realise. That statement alone shows you how entitled I felt at the time to a good job.

In the cases where mentioning Cambridge did open doors for me, I quickly learned that those doors were not worth stepping through. Someone who values a name over ability is not someone with an intelligent values system, nor are they someone you want to work with.

My takeaway from Cambridge is simple: prestige is a worthless currency. It’s little more than an illusion. Enabled by the youthful naivety of its students and the economic ignorance of their school teachers, the university is guilty of milking this illusion for its own financial benefit. It banks on former successes to create this bizarre name-worship situation, sacrificing the personal growth of its students in the process.

Yes, Newton developed his three laws of motion while at Trinity College, Cambridge. Watson and Crick also defined the double-helix structure of DNA at Cambridge. Such achievements cannot be imparted onto other Cambridge students, however. Those people worked and fought and failed before earning their place in history, and we must do the same.

The value of acquiring real-life knowledge

If you take nothing else away from this article, let it be the value of self-directed learning. There is real and lasting value in learning for practical purposes, and in ditching the impulse to earn praise from people around you. Instead, look for ideas that are right for your unique character. Expand your horizons until you find your interests, then hone in and specialise. Get to know your own temperament through self-analysis and you will discover the true value of learning.

I don’t regret my time at Cambridge. If I had known then what I know now, I would have probably started a business at age 18 instead of going to university; there’s no faster way to learn and grow. However, my time in mainstream education is what gave me the inspiration to start this business and the confidence to speak frankly about the constraints of a life built around prestige and the approval of others. Prestige may be desirable, but you don’t need to rely on institutions for validation. As Y-Combinator’s Paul Graham said: “Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious.”

Geoff Walters is a six-time entrepreneur and founder of Universal Owl. He has been fascinated by the subject of personal development for ten years, and enjoys passing lessons from his own life experience to younger people.

Areas of interest include wealth creation, nutrition, chess, classical music, psychology, communication and languages.

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