Changing your mind, selling out

When I was in high school, I once told a friend, in a fit of idealistic follow-your-dreams zeal, that if I ever ended up going to business school, he should punch me in the face. Of course, I had no idea what business school was really about, and as I’ve learned more about how things work, I’ve come to think that it would actually be quite interesting. I haven’t gone yet, nor do I have plans to do so, but this is more due to being happily employed and needing to pay a mortgage, rather than a lack of interest or existential dread.

When I was (a lot) younger, I used to think that advertisers were basically evil, guilty until proven innocent. There are bad actors, of course, but growing up means throwing away this kind of simpleminded claptrap. Every news source is funded by ads. Most of the internet is made possible by ads (of the top sites, almost all are free or freemium services paid for by ads). Hell, I now work at a company which makes a lot of money through advertisements, and am responsible for the engineering team that implements them. In the end, ads are like most other useful things – tools which can be used as easily for good as evil.

Every time I’ve intentionally avoided learning something, I soon discovered that understanding it was critical to my success. I avoided Lisp for a while (C is cool!), then went to work for a company which had built most of its flagship product on it. I avoided network programming because latency and non-deterministic behavior seemed like a pain, then got a job in the video game industry where I was put to work developing an online chat/matchmaking system. This, um… approach… has been so routinely and consistently proven stupid that I’ve now actively embraced its inverse – every time I find myself avoiding something, I accept that it’s probably going to be critically important and study the hell out of it. (speaking of which, time to start working through that statistics textbook…)

A sign of strong character, when once the resolution has been taken, to shut the ear even to the best counter-arguments. Occasionally, therefore, a will to stupidity.
– Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

It’s hard to admit we’re wrong. We have a strong need to be consistent, which can be a great tool for forcing ourselves to do something that requires will power – i.e., making a statement that you’re going to do something will dramatically improve the likelihood that you will. A couple of years ago I decided to boycott unethically produced chocolate – and though I frequently feel tempted toward the chocolate that’s constantly available (seriously, once it’s off limits, you start noticing it everywhere), this public statement has kept me from “falling off the wagon.” I don’t want to appear to be hypocritical, even to myself.

On the other hand, our need for consistency can also lock us into bad ideas, bad approaches, bad philosophies. We become emotionally attached to our precious ideas, and can’t let go even when they’ve clearly been proven wrong. Even more bizarrely, this need for externally visible consistency can force us to change our minds in order to bring our beliefs in line with our actions. This is what cognitive dissonance is all about – you believe X, but for some reason do !X, and over time you justify to yourself why !X was not only OK, but actually preferable.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!
– Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked

The problem is that it’s frequently impossible to get to the root cause of your motivations. Are you selling out because it’s convenient? Simply understanding a home truth that a younger, callower self didn’t recognize? Discarding the naive idealism of youth for a more practical outlook? Selling out to get ahead? Going along to get along?

The best test I know is to imagine that you had to describe your actions or beliefs to your parents, or to someone else whose respect you craved. Would you feel proud? Embarrassed? Ashamed? If your actions can’t stand the light of day, then you’re likely doing something very, very wrong.1


[1] It’s sometimes helpful to follow a similar rule at work. Whenever a controversial issue comes up, imagine how you’d feel if there were a front page article about it on the Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, HackerNews, etc. If this would be embarrassing, don’t do it.

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