Vincent Buscemi, Read 200 books in 2015
I promised her this was the last time. But we both knew it wasn’t, or at least she knew it wasn’t. My life depended on her answer to this question; if she didn’t answer this question I would probably consider killing myself.
So I asked her,
“ Does it look like my right calf muscle is bigger than my left calf muscle?”
Almost in tears she answers,
“No, Vince, they look the same, can I go to bed now? It is 3 o’clock in the morning.”
I was 25 years old and suffering from hypochondria. Not the kind of hypochondria, your uncle Ted has where he worries that his headache could be a brain tumor, but does nothing about it; that kind of hypochondria is for amateurs. I was a professional hypochondriac. Each week I had a new disease, I would lie to medical receptionists to schedule doctor’s appointments, I would search the internet eight to ten hours a day to see if my “symptoms” matched the symptoms of diseases I thought I had, and I would stalk medical school professors on my college campus and ask them for medical advice.
My thought process became almost entirely separate from reality. I became a self-destructive, paranoid, delusional maniac, whose only connection with reality was physical.
(The diagram above is from a summary of the trivium method written by Gene Odening and can be found in the trivium binder. http://triviumbinder.blogspot.com/)
If I wanted to live to see my 26th birthday I had to somehow learn to align my thoughts with reality. (see diagram above) .
Let’s start with a little background information before I give you the five books that will help you with critical thinking.
The essence of reality is non-contradictory, Aristotle taught us this with his three laws of thought.
1.Principle of identity: If any statement is true, then it is true.
If I don’t have Lou Gehrig’s disease, then I don’t have Lou Gehrig’s disease.
2. Principle of non-contradiction: No statement can be both true and false
If the brain scans did not show any tumors in my brain and the doctors are 100% confident that I do not have a brain tumor, then I can’t have a brain tumor.
3.Principle of excluded middle: Every statement is true or false
I can’t kind of be a professional hypochondriac, either I am chasing down medical school professors and asking them if they think I have AIDS or I am not.
I am going to tell you about my experience with hypochondria, but I am also going to tell you where and when my thinking became contradictory and how I removed theses contradictions. While it is impossible to remove all our contradictions from your thinking, if you are looking to think more critically this will be your only shot at survival.
Remember, the essence of reality is non-contradictory; a tree can’t be a tree and not a tree at the same time. The further you allow your mental model of the world to drift away from the non-contradictory nature of reality, the harder it will be to think critically.
Here is the list of five books that will help you think critically
1. Everything is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us by Duncan J. Watts.
Contradiction number 1: Incorrect diagnoses only happen to other people
Solution 1: Look for circular reasoning in your own thinking
“Commonsense explanations are often characterized by circular reasoning…what’s curious about this problem, however, is that once you see the inherent circularity of common sense explanations, it’s still not obvious what’s wrong with them.”
I haven’t spent enough money on therapy yet to find out which childhood memory I am repressing that was the sole cause of my battle with hypochondria, but I can tell you what happened to me in my early twenties, which triggered some of the darkest and worse years of my life.
I woke up on January 1, 2011 with a massive headache and uncontrollable diarrhea. The funny thing is I didn’t drink the night before so my illness wasn’t caused by a hangover. Not thinking my symptoms were of any concern I just took some over the counter pain and anti-diarrhea pills and went about my business.
A few weeks went by and my symptoms not only persisted but also worsened, I decided it was probably time to make a doctors appointment.
My doctor told me that I had idiopathic irritable bowl syndrome. Which means, you used to never sh*t your pants, but now you sh*t your pants and we don't know why, so here are some pills, good luck!
At the time I thought nothing of it because I truly believed that incorrect diagnoses only happen to other people.
And the only evidence I had to support this belief was that I was never incorrectly diagnosed before; this is a textbook example of circular reasoning.
Over the next year my symptoms worsened, it came to a point where I was waking up in my own vomit in the mornings and wearing adult diapers out in public in the evenings. Not wanting to become a local celebrity in Ann Arbor because of my inability to control my bowels I decided I should probably get a second opinion concerning the accuracy of the diagnosis of idiopathic irritable bowel syndrome.
Turns out that idiopathic is a relative term, because my irritable bowel syndrome wasn’t idiopathic to my new doctor, it was being caused by a clostridium difficile infection.
The reason why I had been getting progressively sick over the past year was due to the fact I was harboring a clostridium difficle infection in my intestines for over a year.
Most people die if they have the infection for that long.
Then a single thought entered my mind. A thought that would drive me to the edge of sanity, a thought that would cost me $15,000 in medical bills, a thought that would almost cost me my life:
“ What else is wrong with me?”
I worried that if I could carry a clostridium difficile infection in my intestines for a full year, then could it be possible that I have something else wrong with me that the doctors aren’t finding?
This single thought allowed me to further drift away from my connection with reality, leading me to conduct a series of self-fulfilling and biased experiments in an attempt to discover any other diseases I might have.
2. The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin
Contradiction 2: Emotions only affect other people’s judgments
Solution 2: Become aware of the downward spiral
After my first doctor misdiagnosed me, I started to develop a sense of mistrust for the medical community and decided that the best way to see if I was harboring any other diseases would be to run completely biased, unscientific, uncontrolled experiments that relied on a sample size of one for all of it’s statistically insignificant findings.
One of the medications I took to clear up my C.Diff infection was Metronidazole. Metronidazole is an antibiotic and like any other medication does not come without its fair share of side effects. The two major side effects I experienced from taking Metronidazole were problems with muscle coordination and burning, numbness and tingling in my hands and feet.
So like a good untrained scientist I came up with the conclusion that I either hadmultiple sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
(Pretty reasonable, if you ask me)
What I didn’t take into account was that being the experimenter and the test subject makes it impossible to remove any influence that the experimenter/subject’s emotions might have on the interpretation of raw data.
(OK, maybe not too reasonable)
One of the experiments I would run to see if I was slowly dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease was to stand on one foot and try to jump up a flight of stairs. When I was conducting my very biased and unscientific research I read somewhere that in the early stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease people start to lose the ability to stand on one foot, the article didn’t say anything about losing the ability to stand on one foot and jump up a flight of stairs, but I wanted to really make sure I didn’t have Lou Gehrig’s disease.
( OK, this is getting less reasonable)
The problem was, standing on one foot and jumping up a flight of stairs is difficult to do even if you don’t have Lou Gehrig’s disease, so the more I ran this experiment the more chances I had to trip on a step and the more times I tripped on a step the more convinced I became that I might have Lou Gehrig’s disease which caused me to trip even more which eventually just resulted in my laying in the stairwell in my apartment complex in tears thinking that I just self-diagnosed myself with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
(OK, not reasonable at all)
What I didn’t understand at the time, was that I was succumbing to what Josh Waitzkin calls “ The Downward Spiral”
“One idea I taught was the importance of regaining presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error. This is a hard lesson for all competitors and performers. The first mistake rarely proves disastrous, but the downward spiral of the second, third, and forth error creates a devastating chain reaction.”
Josh Waitzkin is speaking about the downward spiral in the context of competitive sports and how it can lead to decreased performance. I am speaking about thedownward spiral in the context of how emotions can lead to impaired critical thinking, which can lead to a decreased connection with reality.
And that is exactly what happened, the more experiments I ran the more I isolated myself from others and the more delusional I became.
Isolation was the start of a whole new level of unreasonableness.
3. The Lean Start Up by Eric Ries
Contradiction #3: Only other people need outside feedback
Solution #3: Validated Learning
As I mentioned above the more “scientific” experiments I ran on myself, the more delusional I became and the more I started to isolate myself. Isolation will do funny things to your mind. Without the rational feedback of others or even just an outside perspective on what you are doing or thinking, it will make it is very easy for you to lose your connection with reality.
My isolation prevented me from engaging in any form of validated learning.
In the book the lean start up, Eric Ries explains that validated learning is essential to every business. Eric Ries states that:
“Learning can be validated scientifically by running frequent experiments that allow entrepreneurs to test each element of their vision (with their potential customers.”)
The vital part of validating learning is that all ideas are tested in the open market. This allows your ideas to be held up to the critical eye of the outside perspective. While Eric Ries speaks about validated learning in the context of building a business, validated learning is also vital to critical thinking.
My lack of validated learning allowed me to draw all sorts of crazy conclusions from my experiments. In some experiments I would test my memory and try and think of what I ate for breakfast or try to remember who my 2nd grade teacher was; if I thought I got the answer wrong (which I had no way of checking) I was certain that my brain was succumbing to some disease.
Validating learning forces you to shine a light on some of the mental contradictions that are hindering your critical thinking skills.
4. The Self-Made Billionaire Effect: How Extreme Producers Create Massive Value.
Contradiction #4: Only other people can fall into rigid thinking
Solution #4: Develop the mental habit of thinking in dualities
The more time I spent not learning from an outside perspective the more confidence I became in my self-diagnostic skills; I graduated to a new level of delusion. Instead of having to stand on one foot and jump up the stairs to see if I was slowly dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease I would just take a subjective analysis of how my legs felt. If my legs felt weak that day, that was all the evidence I needed to self diagnosis Lou Gehrig’s disease.
( Trust me…it gets worse)
If I had a headache, what the hell, it was cancer. Blurry vision…brain tumor. Stomach ache, bowel impaction? Or maybe just the run of the mill stage four intestinal cancer.
Because of my now extreme isolation and lack of any validated learning I created a mental model of the world with a one to one ratio of symptoms to diseases. In my mind there was only one way of thinking. Every symptom I had could be traced back to a disease. I was too delusional to think any other way.
This rigid form of thinking prevented me from thinking in dualities.
In the book the Self-Made Billionaire Effect the authors’ explain that self-made billionaires have a higher tolerance for cognitive dissonance (the mental strain from holding two opposing ideas in your mind at one time) than most.
“Self-made billionaires effectively operate in a world of dualities- they seamlessly hold on to multiple ideas, multiple perspectives, and multiple scales.”
Why is a tolerance for cognitive dissonance important for critical thinking?
If you remember from the beginning of this answer, the essence of reality is non-contradictory so if we were able to perfectly align our thoughts with reality (impossible) than we would have no contradictions in our thinking. Since we can’t do this all of thecognitive dissonance we are experiencing is self-made.
In my experience, my brain could not process the idea that I could have a symptom and it not be caused from a fatal disease.
These two opposing ideas created too much mental strain, because my brain already decided that there was always a one to one ratio of symptoms to disease.
A high tolerance to cognitive dissonance is essential to critical thinking, because it is your own mental contradictions are causing this cognitive dissonance.
5. Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder by Nassim Taleb
Contradiction #5: Only other people don’t know how the world works
Solution #5: Surrender
There would be nights were I would go to bed and wish that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. I didn’t have the guts to take my own life but I wished every night that something would kill me in my sleep.
At this point, I was failing out of school, I lost my girlfriend, all of my friends and my family was a phone call away from locking me up in the loony bin.
In my brief moments of lucidity I would ask myself where rock bottom was?
I wondered how far (if it was possible to take this any further) was I going to take my hypochondria.
Then I did something so crazy that it even shocked me.
The weather was shifting from summer to fall and I started to develop a small cold, so like any reasonable hypochondriac I just assumed that this cold was caused by a weaken immune system which was caused by having AIDS.
(Sounds reasonable enough to me)
Not wanting to die from my new self-diagnosed disease of the week I decided to take action. I did some research and found that there was a professor at my university that specialized in HIV/AIDS research.
“Great, I’ll just track him down on campus and ask him if he thinks I have AIDS.”
(Again, sounds reasonable enough to me.)
So like the persistent hypochondriac I was, I figured out his teaching schedule and charted out the path he would most likely walk on campus, after a few days of surveillance I had mapped out his route step by step, and any day now I was going to ask him if he thought I had AIDS.
Again, I thought to myself, “ Man, Vince you are one reasonable thinking man.”
Then the day came…
I saw this professor on campus and decided I was just going to walk up to him and simply ask him if he thought I had AIDS. I told myself I was going to be cool, calm and collect and not give off the appearance of crazy.
That is exactly what DID NOT happen.
As soon as I saw the professor I started running towards him, I started to wave my arms in the air and I stared to scream his name. Dr. So and SO , Dr. So and So. He did not turn around at first which made me start to panic, so I picked up my speed and started to scream even louder. What I didn’t realize at the time was the kind of attention I was drawing from the crowd around me.
Once my screams reached a level of sheer panic, I finally caught the attention of the professor, but unbeknownst to me a the time I wasn’t given of the impression of cool, calm and collect that I promised myself that I would.
I finally caught up to him, and I was about to ask him if he thought I had AIDS then I noticed something.
The professor was holding up his briefcase the way police officers hold up their shields to protect themselves from crazy rioters.
Not only was the professor afraid of me, but when I looked around I noticed that there was a group of students looking at me too.
They were all looking at me with a mix of amazement and confusion. Some kids were laughing, some kids were pointing and some kids just stood there in complete shock.
I looked at the crowd around me and the look of terror on the professors face and then it hit me:
I might be crazy…
I felt like an animal in a zoo, I felt striped of all my humanity. At that point I realized that I had lost all connection with reality.
It was in the moment that I finally realized…this is rock bottom.
Well almost rock bottom…
I still asked the professor if he thought I had AIDS and his response was:
“ Probably not, but I still think you need help.”
He was right…
I didn’t find any help in therapy although I went to plenty of it.
I found help in surrendering.
I found help in surrendering to the chaos and randomness of life.
As Nassiam Teleb writes
“Life is more, a lot more, labyrinthine than shown in our memory- minds are in the business of turning history into something smooth and linear, which makes us underestimate randomness.”
What got me in this mess is that I underestimated the randomness of life. I used to think that only other people could be misdiagnosed, I used to think that only other people’s emotions affects their judgment, I used to think that only other people needed an outside perspective on their thinking, I used to think only other people could fall into rigid thinking.
I used to think that the randomness of life only happened to other people.
But now I know that the randomness of life can happen to all of us and I accept this fact with a smile.
Thank you for reading.