I have a student who is totally unimpressed. He says, “Jeremy, I’m still waiting for you to give us your guidance about how to read minds. I think you’re stalling.”

And then every once in a while a reader comments, “Jeremy, I don’t see how you come up with a new idea for Mind Readers Dictionary every week.”

I’m not stalling. Nor am I coming up with a new idea each week. I’m into this project for the astuteness it generates, but it’s actually a fairly formulaic way to produce stabs at astuteness. So this time I’ll say a little about how I generate this stuff, and a little more about why it leaves some people—like that student—unimpressed.

Last week I made a distinction between three kinds of guidance, the first being unconditional, the second being conditional without specifying what it’s conditional upon, and the third being conditional with particulars about the conditions.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


“Always maintain a positive attitude” is first-order guidance. “Strike a balance between hard-headedness and soft-heartedness” is second-order guidance. Third-order guidance can be as simple as “Compete when you’re playing tennis but not when you’re dating.” It can also get quite complex. “If you’re a much stronger player, cooperate a little (not too much) with your tennis opponent. If your date is the kind who likes competing, then compete a little (not too much).”

In practice, we’re all skilled at juggling conditional responses. How could we not be, given the complexities of modern life? Think of how many conditions a doctor, lawyer, accountant, or auto mechanic must keep track of. Despite this, the human interaction guidance we hear most is first order. An awful lot of “always” and “never” advice fills the literature of business management, psychology, religion, and spiritual matters.

I can think of several reasons why that’s the kind of advice that gets produced and consumed. The more sweeping the advice, the more powerful it seems, and besides, most people won’t follow it unconditionally anyway. If the diet guides say eat zero carbs to lose weight—advice that would be dangerous to follow—people end up eating enough carbs anyway. When the guides say always be open-minded, people will fudge with a healthy dose of closed-mindedness just the same.

I also suspect that most people are averse to third-order guidance because it’s a bottomless pit. It’s easy to say “no matter what.” It’s easy to say “it depends,” without specifying on what. But once you say “it depends on such and such,” the list of such and suches is infinite. Little things can end up making a huge difference.

When we seek guidance we want two things. We want to make better decisions. But the way we know if we’re finding good guidance is by the increase in confidence we feel as we take it in. Taking stock of all sorts of conditions may help us make better decisions, but it doesn’t tend to increase our confidence.

The more dire the uncertainty in life, the more intense the yearning for confidence. That’s one reason why first-order guidance tends to appeal to people in hard times. They may not really act on their “always” or “never” rules, but they’ll chant them over and over for the confidence it gives them.

I had a conversation yesterday with someone who espoused a lot of first-order guidance. After a few hours listening to her list of absolutes, I asked whether she had any interesting questions on her mind, any remaining unresolved inquiries about how things work, any areas of remaining investigation? She said, “No, I mostly just follow my intuition.” Perhaps she meant her intuitions developed and informed by the guidance she follows, but equally plausible is that the guidance is for confidence and the intuition is more of an ad hoc, willy-nilly response.

If your intuitions steer you wrong often enough, or if you have the latitude, appetite, or aptitude for thinking, then you get more skeptical about first- and second-order guidance, and third-order guidance becomes more appealing.

Among the aptitudes that make it possible to manage vast numbers of considerations is a penchant for systematizing them. It’s hard to remember a bunch of separate conditions. At some point you abandon that approach and form mental models of how the considerations relate to each other. It’s like the difference between car drivers and mechanics. The drivers know a few basic if-then conditions for using a car. The mechanics have to deal with so many more car-related conditions that instead of memorizing long lists of unrelated if-thens, they think more systematically about cars, learning how they work, how the parts relate to each other to make the whole system.

Before running Mind Reader’s Dictionary, I wrote long books aimed at interlinking all the considerations I could think of. I couldn’t stand to isolate one and write it up as an article because that meant I had to cut it off from everything it was connected to. But those vast tangles of interconnected ideas were too much. Hard to get published, more than most minds wanted to think about. So I learned to write about one pattern at a time independent of all its connections.

Still, for simplicity’s sake, in my mind they all get connected, and the connections make them easy to manage. The connections are actually very pretty, a total delight to find. I think the art of finding and building up mental models from these patterns consists of three basic traits:

Pattern sensuality (aka metaphoria): Pleasure in the beauty of finding patterns of connection. We love to find parallels in the way things work across different arenas of life, from office politics to global politics, from love to war, parenting to sport, from play to art and everywhere in between.

Pattern discernment: We love finding parallels so much that we have to watch out for gratuitous ones. It’s easy to draw flawed parallels. For example, the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know” basically argues that quantum mechanics is mysterious, the mind is mysterious, therefore the mind runs on quantum mechanics, which is, to my mind, a grossly oversimplified parallel. To counterbalance the sensuality of finding patterns, we need critical thinking skills to distinguish between accurate and merely pleasurable parallels.

Pattern fluency: To avoid clinging to inaccurate parallels you need an easy-come-easy-go attitude toward the patterns you generate. You have to watch out for “only-brainchild syndrome,” where you get so few ideas that you spoil each one with undeserved attention. To be prolific you need fluency at drawing parallels, which means fluency with the modeling pieces. Like an expert bird watcher, you need to be quick at identifying patterns in the experiences that fly by.

To illustrate the application of this stuff, next week, I’ll draw a parallel between the three orders of guidance and the three stages information theorists tell us are the basis of all information exchanges.