“It is a waste of time to listen to people speculate over things that might happen.” – Friends and loved ones
The recent midterm election results got me thinking deeper about something that I often think about when I listen to political commentary. As human beings, we bullshit ourselves, a lot.
During occasional moments of clarity, people may spread wisdom that sounds profound to those within earshot. However, the ‘ah-ha’ moment is absorbed, then reliably ignored.
Wisdom tells us to avoid speculation over things that we cannot control. Objectively speaking, this is almost certainly correct. In the rational part of my brain, I have admitted that I agree. I have even said so out loud when people close to me make this very wise and important point.
Despite my verbal agreement from the rational part of my brain, I continue to spend my time speculating and will likely continue to do so, even if I try to do it less. But this is not a problem unique to me. It impacts all of us.
All human beings form narratives that may or may not be true. We then use this dynamic to align ourselves with similar tribes of thought, form a sense of righteousness, and to jockey for position in power hierarchies. Humans need to cope with the unknown, at least to some extent, to form a worldview.
No matter who you are, your worldview cannot be perfect. We all have biases, limited exposure to reliable information, and waning attention spans.
There may be no better example of the folly associated with our fallible attempts at truth-seeking than the political narratives that form around elections.
The Midterm Elections Results
As someone who spent well over 10 hours each week absorbing content that speculates on political predictions, I could not help but wonder, was I wasting my time? If I had spent my time thinking about something else, would I not be better off for it?
On the morning of November 9th, 2022, the day after the election results began rolling in, I had my moment of cognitive dissonance. I conquered it in the moment by acknowledging to myself that much of the information I had absorbed was distracting and somewhat irrelevant to my actual life.
Will I remember this in the next election cycle? That remains to be seen.
One thing was abundantly clear. EVERY political prognosticator on both the right and left, that I had listened to was wrong.
Going into the 2022 midterm elections, a popular narrative formed based on conventional wisdom. This narrative spread across the political, ideological spectrum, and went almost entirely unchallenged. Perhaps a major reason for this was that it all made perfect sense.
Historical trends suggest that the out-of-power political party typically makes sizable gains in Congress during non-Presidential election years. In this case, Democrats had control of the Presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, albeit by slim margins. Theoretically, this would set the stage for a wave election that would fire many incumbent Democrats, and elect large numbers of Republicans.
There were several viable reasons to believe that this outcome was nearly certain.
- Polling in key swing states showed a historically low approval rating for the President.
- Other polling suggested that the Republicans were doing a better job connecting with voters on the issues that were most important to them.
- If the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 was any indication, Republicans appeared poised to win a dramatic majority in both chambers.
Despite these historically relevant and logically-sound indicators, things turned out very differently.
Republicans did gain enough seats in the US House of Representatives for a thin majority and the Democrat Senate majority remained, although also by slim margins.
There was no ‘red wave.’ EVERYONE was wrong.
The Cycle of Uncertainty and Certainty
The number of people who make a living talking about what might happen in the world of politics is staggering. This sort of behavior is not confined to just politics. Instead, it is uniquely human. There are commentators who do the same thing in the fields of investing, stock markets, weather prediction, and much more.
Why do we do this as human beings?
Humans Avoid Uncertainty
We have an innate desire to make sense of the unknown. Uncertainty raises anxiety. By forming our own narratives about the world, we convert some of that uncertainty into certainty. As a result, we are relieved of some anxiety.
However, as the election results example shows, when the certainty that we accepted proves to be wrong, we form a new narrative. Serious introspection is rare. We typically move onto the next line of reasoning to avoid the discomfort of the unknown. Plus, we can always justify the excuse that we are too busy to really analyze things in detail.
It’s a cycle. Uncertainty becomes ‘certain’ with the formation of narratives. If the narrative is confirmed, we assume we were smart, even if it was just dumb luck. If the narrative is shown to be wrong, we craft a new narrative to again convert the uncertainty into certainty.
The process then repeats, over and over, and over again.
The Power Dynamics Within Us
As humans, we do not respond to reality. Instead, we can only respond to our perceptions of reality. But someone’s perception is never reality, even if we do our best to be objective. Each of our perceptions is influenced by many internal and external factors.
To be successful, politicians must capitalize on this human imperfection. If they do not, they will lose elections for failing to appeal to enough voters. A politician must make it easy to vote for them and difficult to vote for their opponent. To do this, they must craft a simple narrative about their opponents and themselves.
As these midterm election results showed, the story that Republicans told was not convincing enough to land a major victory against the Democrats.
Labels, a Weapon of Power
One crafty way that politicians remove uncertainty is by assigning labels to people and events that we don’t fully understand. This quenches an insatiable thirst among voters to make sense of things. Once the thirst is relieved, we move on with our lives with our own uniquely warped senses of reality. This is all done in the name of relieving uncertainty.
To someone who seeks to gain political power, labels are an essential weapon that simplifies the complex into a strategically packaged message that appeals to people who share a similar perception of reality. The politician who is able to appeal to the most unique human beings, with the most impact tends to win.
Beyond politics, labels exert a great deal of influence over how we see ourselves. Sometimes we even behave like politicians when we want something. People can beat each other up with labels.
We can even beat ourselves up by accepting the malicious labels that others use against us.
How to Improve
Most people are taught to refrain from judging others harshly, but fewer learn how to do the same for themselves. Have you ever observed a common reaction when someone hits a golf ball wrong, misses a wide open 3 pointer, gets a bad grade on a test, or does something similar?
“Damn it. Why do I always mess that up. Ugh. I can’t do anything right.” – We often say.
Would we say this about another person? Likely not. Yet, we are often quick to harshly berate ourselves. Often, we are our own worst enemy.
How can we control this natural human tendency toward negativity? Here are 5 ways to do just that.
- Build the right narratives
Narratives should be formed carefully, if they are formed at all. This takes practice and attention, but fortunately perfection is not required. Even if perfection were sought, it would never be attainable.
- Practice humility
A humble person realizes that a narrative is nothing more than a hypothesis that can be dis proven at any time. We must learn how to live peacefully within the discomfort of the unknown.
- Focus to avoid distraction
Endless distractions exist, including the speculation of commentators who often know no more than the rest of us. If we don’t stand for something, we’ll fall for anything. Focus on what you care about, do it well, and much of the rest will take care of itself.
- Acknowledge the positive
Typically, a negative comment has longer staying power within our minds than a positive comment. Avoiding negative thinking is an exercise in futility. Lean into the positive instead.
- Develop and maintain confidence
We need to learn to be honest with ourselves about our strengths and limitations. By understanding the things that we can do well to serve others, we can be sure of ourselves. Confidence cannot be faked.
The only way to conquer uncertainty is to learn how to live with it.
When you relieve yourself from the burden of making the uncertain, certain, there is less of a reason to use labels against ourselves or others. We should empower ourselves and uplift others, rather than disempower ourselves and bring down others out of insecurity.
What you choose to think about, believe, and act upon are crucial. These choices are the first formative part of your destiny and your responsibility. But they are more than that. They directly shape your future and the impact you will have on friends, family, and the world.
By building responsible narratives about ourselves, remaining humble, developing confidence, focusing on what is important, and accentuating the positive, uncertainty can be left where it belongs—in the background.
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