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On defeatism and mental fortitude

The following is an excerpt of a private exchange. I am sharing it with permission while obfuscating any potentially personally identifying information.


I want to follow up on our conversation about too much jargon in the literature. I like your suggestion of conveying ideas in a multidisciplinary setting. In fact, I’ve been using this method recently: To effectively communicate with scientists outside of my niche, I’ve been employing storytelling techniques, focusing on the big-picture ideas, and using simple English. This effort has made me a better speaker and grant writer.

Sounds good. Have you received any feedback from your colleagues about it? Do they appreciate it, find it helpful, etc.?

By the way, Greek Mythology has demonstrated to me the power of interesting, memorable stories, and I admire their creators.

As we noted before, the key is not to take everything at face value and, generally, to be eclectic. We want to learn from myths (and tradition overall) but also view them with a critical eye or an open mind: to keep what we consider pertinent and dismiss the rest.

Recently, I saw a quote from Socrates: “The mind is everything: what you think, you become.” This reminded me of your essay where you elaborated on the interconnectedness between the mind and the body. I agree with your viewpoint, and I pay close attention to my mental state.

There is an ancient Greek saying: “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. It basically remarks on the interdependence between the two. As I explain in my writings, I don’t think the mind and the body are distinct magnitudes: they are part of the same system (interconnectedness is also why I have written that I consider it misguided to think that we can/must be purely rational/emotional/mystical or whatever—as humans we are a bit of everything that our nature renders possible or necessary).

To my dismay, I often slip down into defeatism, which has been a recurrent problem.

The way you phrase this tells me that you have already given it a negative value. I do not know the specifics, so maybe your assessment is correct. What follows is a general commentary on defeatism. Sorry if I am running off on a tangent.

Defeatism typically takes the form of extreme pessimism. Though in my experience it can be either of two other main feelings: (i) a misrepresentation of one’s abilities, (ii) a misunderstood pragmatism.

Consider an example of extreme pessimism: there is a pandemic going on and you—the general “you”, not you in particular—fear that it will last forever to the point where you no longer try to adapt to the prevailing conditions and live those moments. While a degree of fear or caution is justifiable, it is wrong to claim that things will remain as they are indefinitely—that cannot be known with certainty. In this sense, defeatism is a type of dogmatism, where you do not really know the probabilities or the most likely outcomes, yet insist on the specific view that you have as if it is the absolute truth.

Then we have defeatism as a misrepresentation of one’s own abilities. We often are our own worst enemies. We don’t believe in our strengths. And here I may add that introverts like me are more prone to that bias, as we are introspective (almost to a fault) and can thus be misled into thinking that everyone sees what we do in our mental mirror—they don’t. At any rate, here is an example of not having faith in ourselves: you go walking in nature and as you stand at the foot of a hill you get the impression that it is impossible to climb to its top, even though you have been walking for long enough to know deep inside that the task should not be impossible. If you internalise that impression, if you tell yourself “I can’t make the climb, therefore I won’t”, you create a self-fulfilling prophecy where you do not try and thus do not get what you could have gotten. The self-fulfilling prophecy becomes a vicious cycle that feeds into the defeatist mood: you don’t try, you don’t get results, you rationalise those as proof that you are not good enough, so you don’t try, don’t get results, and so on. In other words, defeatism of this sort may be more of a mental block. The specifics will determine how best to circumvent it. It may require an incrementalist approach of taking measures to ease your way into facing the challenge or it might be much easier than you think (i.e. you are overthinking it). To continue with the example, the incrementalist solution is to try longer walks for some days/weeks until you have the stamina to walk up the hill, while the case of overthinking, of making a mountain out of a hillock, is addressed by simply trying and finding for yourself how you measure up to the task. If you still fail, that should not be interpreted as failure, but as a sign that an incremental approach is needed and that you have to try again at a later point.

Lastly, there is defeatism as misunderstood pragmatism. We rationally assess a state of affairs and conclude that the outcome will not be the desirable one. However, we are faced with pressure not to admit our findings and instead explain them as extreme pessimism. For example, if you have a dog with a high prey drive you know that there is no amount of training that can be done to take the predator out of the canine. The dog will always chase after whatever it sees as pray (rodents, cats, birds, …). To admit the fact that you cannot train the dog not to be predatory is not defeatism. You have not given up. You have not made an estimate about the future based on random emotions or biased impressions. You simply recognise the truth. So instead of apologising to your neighbour that your training is not good enough (the defeatism), you explain what the nature of things is, that a dog is a domesticated predator, and that it must be treated with the requisite respect/responsibility as well as firmness and kindness, instead of being seen as a toy or accessory. Put simply, do not yield to social pressure to explain your pragmatism as you being wrong in your assessment. Maybe those who pressure you need to change their views.

The above are analytical constructs. In practice we can have combinations of them or permutations between them, depending on the specifics of the case. Whatever the particularities, we often find ourselves in difficult situations. Because we do not really know the magnitude of the challenge and/or the maximum potential of our abilities we think that the odds are against us. In those moments, it is easy to conclude that we suffer from some frailty of character or a defect of sorts. It will help if we can take a deep breath, drink some water, and think things through. The solution may be simpler than we think: the hillock is not a mountain, the cat is not a tiger. Even when we cannot do something, that is not a reason to beat ourselves for it. Every person is different and comes with their own talents and inclinations. We must learn to live with what we have.

[ Again, this is not a comment on your statement as I do not have information about the specifics of your situation. Just a general remark. ]

Did Socrates teach how to maintain a healthy mind? (Lao Tze and Confucius did not, as far as I know.) If so, could you please direct me to the relevant references? Thank you.

I don’t think Socrates elaborated on that matter. At least not in explicit terms. Implicitly though, he (and others) have a lot to teach us. Socrates lived as a philosopher, meaning that his life was committed to the approximation of the truth. As a scientist, you understand what that means and, I believe, you can apply what you already know to other aspects of your life, including your own thoughts.

Consider, for example, what I mentioned above about dogmatism, misunderstood pragmatism, internalising/rationalising false beliefs, and the like. How do we overcome those? Do we simply stop thinking about them and they go away? No. We must face up to them in order to understand their extent. We have to conduct research, if you will. We learn to overcome them by studying how things stand, by examining the constitution of the case: what the factors are, what is the interplay between them, what states of affairs they engender, and so on. That happens by committing to the approximation of the truth: maintain an attitude of non-commitment to ideas, projects, desires, etc., by remaining dubitative and inquisitive.

By “non-commitment” I basically mean that you do not assign a definitive value to things because that would be an implicit claim of firm certainty. Arbitrary certitude will eventually be exposed, so if you are deeply invested in it you will be left shocked.

Put differently, what Socrates teaches us modern people (not just Socrates, but since you mentioned the name…) is that we must be consistent and put to practice what we know. Take your role as a scientist for example: you should not be a scientist only when you enter the lab.


I’ve reassessed my situation, and below is my response to your last message.

I. My defeatism

Like you, I’m an introvert. I’ve been trying to obtain a faculty position in a university (I’m still waiting to hear back from most of the schools I’ve applied to). As a matter of fact, this is a big challenge with a low success rate. I don’t know (1) whether I’m good enough to achieve this goal; (2) what criteria each university uses to evaluate its job candidates; and (3) how good my competitors are. I don’t have enough data to make an approximation of the truth, and there is a lot of uncertainty.

During this long job-hunting process, I’ve repeatedly had the thought that I’m not good enough to get a faculty position. Now, I see that I’ve jumped into a conclusion that isn’t supported by strong data, and I shouldn’t be so pessimistic. Thank you for helping me identify the cause of my problem.

I think this is the right conclusion: you simply cannot prove that you are not good enough based on the available information. However, I would add that even if you don’t get positive answers that still does not amount to conclusive evidence. As you stated, each university has its own criteria and particular requirements, so it may all come down to a matter of which person’s skillset better matches the skills requested. Supply and demand, if you will.

On another note, I know how it is to be emotionally invested in something you enjoy doing. You already told me about your passion for science and I know exactly how that feels. It is normal to really care about it and to want the best for it. In my experience, this emotional investment comes with the potential of major disappointment. Sometimes things are not meant to be for a wide variety of reasons beyond our control. Just like the fact that there may be a mismatch between your skills and those demanded by the university. What matters then is to distinguish between what is within your control and what lies outside of it. Always try your best for what you can control and simply stop worrying about the rest: you cannot control them and worrying about them makes no difference.

What I learnt through the hard way is that you should try not to identify yourself with the thing you do, especially not in terms of social validation. Tell yourself that you do it for its inherent subjective value, regardless of whether others appreciate what you do. To offer an example that may seem trivial though I think is governed by the same mechanics: nearly ten years ago I used to maintain a social media presence where I would publish something on my website and then share it in the hope of receiving feedback. Oftentimes I would not get as many “likes” as I would want, which made me think that I was doing something wrong and that people did not approve of it. Eventually I realised that I was not writing for the purpose of accumulating “social points”. I was writing because I liked it regardless of what others thought. So I quit social media and continued writing without sharing my work on any platform. That made me happier, more calm, and more grounded in the reality of my experience: the reality that my subjective evaluation mattered to me and other peoples’ thoughts were irrelevant in that regard.

I think the key is to decouple what you like from what that may be bring you. In your case this means to continue with science for its own sake regardless of whether you get a faculty position. I understand this sounds a bit nihilist, as in saying that “there is no value in anything”, though I believe it is more subtle: there is value in what you do because it is within your control and you make the valuation, but there is no point in trying to assign value to variables that do not change based on how you see/treat/evaluate them. Again, there is no point in worrying about factors outside our control (what our nature renders possible, what others think, what kind of situation we are in, and so on).

I did not understand those insights and only learnt them through terrible experiences. This essay I published recently, titled “Why you should not worry”, makes references to depression and nihilism: https://protesilaos.com/books/2021-12-23-why-not-worry/.

[ These dialogues are based on real conversations. They seem to be more approachable than an essay format or some condensed aphoristic notes. ]

II. Remedy

I like the incrementalist approach you described. As Lao Tze said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. This focus on a well-defined, small step and on the present moment has been useful to me. So, I’ll keep applying this approach.

This is a profound insight! The example I have used in publications and private exchanges is that of the turtle: one slow and steady step at a time as it ventures on its destination.

I’ll also check my negative thoughts with the question: What are the data supporting this conclusion? This will make me see things objectively and rationally.

As for uncertainty, I’ll simply accept it as it is. Once I have more information, I’ll reevaluate the situation.

Very well!

I appreciate your suggestions. Maintaining a healthy mind is a daily challenge and requires efforts and vigilance.

It is a challenge and it will be difficult at first (it is the same with everything we do, where we initially struggle with it until we get better). As with all matters, the best way to cope with mental health is to apply the right techniques, like the decoupling I mentioned above. In general though, health should come about organically as the end result of a cumulative process that is characterised by harmony. Simply put, you just go about doing your own thing without stress or pressure because you like it and you do not worry about what lies outside your control: that makes you happy and keeps you calm. Eventually you learn to be more aloof, more detached from your hobbies or passions, more distanced from yourself (hopefully that does not sound crazy, but if it does I can elaborate), and are able to keep a tranquil mind.

Again though, we should remember that the body is equally important. We should not disregard it and try to become purely rational, spiritual, intellectual, mystical… If such beings exist they are not human—and we are only human, so we must do what our nature entails. The health of the body matters. If, for example, you only eat junk food that will inevitably affect your mind as well. So “the right techniques” extend to basic knowledge like eating natural foods in moderation and doing some amount of exercise (I think 30 minutes of walking per day is a good target to have, though it can be complemented with other types of exercise (nothing excessive though as that has adverse effects)). It all is about finding a balance based on your subjectivity.

III. Jargon, storytelling etc.

My mentor, an experienced, successful scientist, has given me positive feedback on my new style of oral presentation (e.g., using diagrams and simple language, instead of text and jargon). Actually, he’s been employing storytelling techniques in his seminars and writings–for many years!

Good to know! Maybe you could ask your mentor for practical advice on how to improve those methods? Otherwise you can observe his techniques more closely now that you know what to look for and learn from them.

I haven’t got feedback from other audiences, because they were my interviewers. :)

Haha, that’s okay! Interviewers tend to be more distant and “less human” because their role demands as much.