A False Sense

There is a bunch of data that shows that the more we talk about things, the less we tend to actually accomplish them. This is because—and I’m sure you can think of a person in your life who does this a lot—the act of articulating the goal entails visualizing the achievement of it, and thus partially gives us credit for it in our own minds and reduces the motivation to actually do it. So doing this diminishes the payoff. There are many people smarter than I who have written about this, but there is a word for such a process that I think its very important. It’s called reification.

To reify means turn something abstract into something concrete.

It was something Walter Lippman talked about when it came to the news. The news, he said, is just a journalist’s limited and simplified version of the world—a pseudo-environment. For many of us, this version of reality is inserted between us and the complicated and infinite reality of the actual situation which we were not able to personally experience. But our responses to this pseudo-environment don’t operate in that pseudo-environment because they are behavior. They happen in the real world. This is the danger of reification. Though what we’re acting on is not real (or only partial real), the act is. And worse, we’re only aware that this has happened when our behavior creates a “noticeable break in the texture of the fictitious world.” What about when our response is just a thought? Or an opinion? That is, most of our response to a pseudo-environment are not overt, they are beliefs, emotions, and senses—things we carry around for a long time before acting on, unaware of the false foundation they were built on.

It something we do to ourselves all the time. Now, there’s nothing wrong with thinking about what you want to do and what you’d like to achieve. Problems arise when this process of dreaming and imagining becomes its own end. You reflect and internalize the emotions and feelings that you’ve evoked, which after a while come to ossify and be the foundations for new images and you get further and further from reality. Think about it this way: You’ve got a picture of your dream house in your head that you may one day be able to own. Totally fine. Then after a period of time of meditating on this, it starts to take on a sort of mental firmness—you know its ins-and-outs because you’ve imagined it so many times. Then you think how much it might be worth if you were to ever sell it, perhaps $2.5M dollars. Then you’ve got the picture of $2.5 million dollars in your head. What could one do with all that money? And so you begin to think of what you could buy or have or the respect that would come with it.

In other words, one illusion becomes the foundation for another illusion which in turn has its own illusions. Each time you whip through this cycle the first illusion starts to feel a little more real—have a little more substance—since it’s was the impetus for the ones that came after it. You’ve tread it more often, which has the affect of substance but is still just air.

A famous academic paper in the 70’s coined a term for the costs of too much information: narcotizing dysfunction. The authors described a world where people are bombarded with more than they can possibly consume, or possibly comprehend as a result of the mass media. In the face of the overwhelming deluge, we spend more and more time reading and listening, leaving less and less space for action. Knowing about problems comes to replace doing something about them. And beneath our superficial understanding of our surroundings is a growing apathy. Information becomes a substitute for action because it is a manageable and achievable end, action is replaced because to chase it is to accept futility.

The problem of reification is that, by definition, it blurs the line between what is real and what is not. In the complexity of a hypothetical, we can become so lost as to forget that we’re debating a conditional. That nothing has actually happened, and that what goes on in our head stays there. It’s easier this way because by confusing time spent with things done we basically eliminate any critical benchmark we might be judged against. Things might be illusionary, but they are pleasant illusions. Our minds function in a kind of iterative loop and as we mix our interpretation of events with the events themselves, one amalgam is mistakenly amalgamated into another—our sense of the world, an amalgam of amalgams.

Advice: be the quiet one in the corner, working away. Avoid information you’re unlikely to actually make use of, and avoid extrapolations as much as you can—because “this means that which means this which could become” is just a chain of illusions based on something you’ll probably never have to deal with. Don’t tell people what you do, if you can get away with it. Just lie, or downplay it. Plan as little as possible, set your life up so there’s less you need to plan about anyway (rent, have less stuff, keep commitments loose). Refuse to accept conflation—this is not the same as that, no matter how similar they might seem. Insist on critical evaluations, even negative ones. Finally, accept that you have this impulse to reify. It is natural to feel drawn towards making the abstract into the concrete (we’re not good with things that turn out to be for naught). Just recognize when you’re doing it. The point is that it’s better to know when you’ve submitted to something rather than be blindly enslaved to it.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.