Designing the mind

Early morning sky with dark trees in the foreground.

“You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.”

Elon Musk

One of the main ideas from the book Designing the Mind by Ryan Bush is that we are not well suited to navigate the world “by default”, and that developing strategies to manage your emotions, behaviors, and thoughts is the most important work you can ever do. This idea is explored right at the outset and underlies everything else that follows.

The default human mind is almost inevitably an unpleasant place to be. The odds of being well adapted to this world by default are virtually none. The reason kids cry and scream and suffer so much more than adults is not just because their brains are less developed. It is because experience in the real world forces you to develop coping strategies over time that give you increased control over your mental state. The tantrums, agony, irrationality, and impulsiveness of childhood represent the epitome of being a slave to one’s own default software.

Notice the last line there.

one’s own default software.

The metaphor of your inner mental workings as software and your physical body as the hardware is well-trodden territory and Designing the Mind uses the metaphor extensively. It’s helpful in this context, mostly, especially for someone (like many of us these days) that work with technology daily.

It’s just that re-wiring the brain is way more difficult than writing code and updating an app.

I am not a stranger to books on self-improvement. I find the topic fascinating and feel like I have a pretty good overview of the philosophies, concepts, and methods often under this umbrella. I guess the questions are, do I need to read another book on the subject, and did this book help me learn anything new?

I would say yes and yes.

Many of the topics in Designing the Mind are not new to me, but there is enough new in terms of how they are presented and how the model of ‘Psychitecture’ is structured that I was able to see things from different perspectives.

🗒️ Side note! Although I am a fan of this book, I did chafe at the term ‘psychitecture’ and how much the author pushes on the metaphor behind it. There is a fair amount of this kind of thing for example:

Psychitecture is self-directed psychological evolution. The act of deliberately reprogramming your psychological operating system. Psychitecture is a practice aimed at designing and building a better psychological structure. We will see that psychitecture applies to everything from breaking a bad habit to rebuilding an entire worldview.

Also, the book with the consulting business/toolkit/site struck me as a bit much but… it’s all very well designed. 🤷

Ok so back to trying to summarize why I like this book. It’s breadth of concepts means you will find some (likely many) things that spark interest.

The process of psychitecture, and the structure of the following chapters, is organized into a triad: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. The cognitive will deal with beliefs and biases, introspection, and wisdom. The emotional will deal with coping mechanisms, feelings, and desires. And the behavioral will look at actions, temptations, and habits.

I mean, that is a lot of ground to cover and, as you might expect, there is a lot in this book.

There are lots of examples of practices that one can use for self-improvement, like the following around examining your beliefs:

Notice which ideas you are attached to and which ones you resist. The areas you tend to turn your curiosity away from – that make you defensive when they are called into question. Perhaps you feel highly resistant to questioning a certain belief because you are a part of a group which is based on that belief. Or maybe you feel like one belief provides you with a critical coping mechanism – one that you would be lost without. Write these observations down. You can then use the method known as Socratic questioning to identify potential holes in your beliefs.

..or this super-valuable journaling exercise:

An exercise for getting more clarity into your values entails creating a document and listing the people and qualities you admire. Group similar entries, and eventually apply labels or statements that encompass each group. When done in parallel with philosophical investigation, you can sort out which of these values represent cultural dogmas and which ones are based on your genuine value intuitions.

..or this one on using social accountability to get things done:

As I write this, I’m using an online tool called Focusmate which calls itself a virtual coworking tool. It sets up roughly hour long video sessions between strangers trying to accomplish their own goals, and asks each person to work silently, only sharing their goal at the beginning and how well they did at the end. It’s a surprisingly powerful productivity tool, and it works because it reroutes our desires to follow through on our goals and to gain social approval toward the end of efficiently achieving our personal goals.

There are also lots of philosophical approaches that one can ponder, like this one on having clear goals:

“Anyone who has not groomed his life in general towards some definite end cannot possibly arrange his individual actions properly. It is impossible to put the pieces together if you do not have in your head the idea of the whole. What is the use of providing yourself with paints if you do not know what to paint? No man sketches out a definite plan for his life; we only determine bits of it. The bowman must first know what he is aiming at: then he has to prepare hand, bow, bowstring, arrow and his drill to that end. Our projects go astray because they are not addressed to a target. No wind is right for a seaman who has no predetermined harbour.” – Michel de Montaigne

…or this one on values versus desires:

Value intuitions and desires can be easily confused. Both could be described as preferences of an affective nature, but they are different in meaningful ways. When you reflect on your values, you don’t feel a sense of craving, a motivational force pulling you toward them. They are always there, but unlike desires, they allow you to neglect them if you choose. Desires are the screams you can’t ignore, but values are the whispers it is often hard to notice.

And, last but not least, there are lots of great quotes!

“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles… This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it’s a feather bed.” –

Terence McKenna

“Emotion Regulation refers to shaping which emotions one has, when one has them, and how one experiences or expresses these emotions.”

James Gross

“You will never have a greater or lesser dominion than that over yourself. The height of a man’s success is gauged by his self-mastery.”

Leonardo da Vinci

“To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props, at most.”

Michel de Montaigne

“This painting—that which we humans call life and experience—has gradually become, is indeed still fully in the process of becoming, and should thus not be regarded as a fixed object…”

Friedrich Nietzsche

For those looking for new paths to “upgrading their software”, this is recommended! 👍

🗒️ Final note: I was provided an advanced copy of the book to read and was subsequently very, very, very late in writing about it. Sorry Kelsely!

4 responses

  1. […] Designing the mind First race in six years Keep smiling Main St in blue […]

  2. This sounds like a possible interesting choice for a nonfiction book group I belong to.

    I also find Elon Musk to be a fascinating character. Someone recommended his biography to me and I have carried it on my list of books to read since.

    Musk was the guest host on Saturday Night LIve this weekend and from what I saw did an unsurprisingly decent job. In addition to a sort of boyish charm I think he has and that was on display in what I saw, he dropped a couple of bombshells which had some repercussions. One was about his investment in virtual Dogecoin, which seemed to be something else he just plays at. The other was that, not surprisingly to me, he has Asperger’s syndrome.

    1. Yeah this book was good. Interesting note about Elon. I have read a biography on Musk as well and would also highly recomments the Wait But Why series on him:

  3. […] priorities designed to solve them, don’t require you to worry about them so much. In Designing the Mind, author Ryan Bush describes this as practicing […]

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