Extreme Influence

Shift your personal Overton Window in the direction of self-improvement. Don’t let it slip in the direction of self-harm.

Let’s say that you find the concept of killing other people and taking all of their stuff to be personally abhorrent. You would never do such a thing, never consider anything close to it, in fact. But because you’re intellectually curious about the mindset of people that advocate for such wicked behavior as a way of life, you read their manifestos. Blog posts and articles from the pro-murder-and-theft crowd. YouTube videos. You’re not looking for instructions! You’re just interested in what makes such minds tick.

So you read them… a lot. And you remain critical, and absolutely none of them convince you that murdering someone and taking all of their stuff is something you’d like to do.

But then one day, you come across an essay written by a more “moderate” member of that crowd, and it suggests that murdering and looting is extremely bad, but just beating someone up who deserved it and taking a portion of their stuff to compensate for whatever they did is acceptable, or even encouraged.

“Ah ha,” you proclaim. “Finally someone reasonable.”

But of course that’s not reasonable at all. It’s just that you’ve spent so long reading (and rejecting!) extreme claims that a less-extreme claim seems reasonable by comparison. You let your personal Overton Window shift without realizing it, even as you were firmly grounded against the extreme stance.

That’s why critical absorption of material is necessary but not sufficient. You also need context. You need broader moral philosophy, opposing claims on the other end of whatever spectrum you’re exploring, and a wider view of the influences on your influences.

Truth isn’t democratic, of course. Everyone in the world can believe that two plus two is five, and that doesn’t make it so. But you aren’t guaranteed to be the arbiter of truth, either, and the wisdom of crowds is a thing. Even if your only reason for exploring an extreme that you reject is to satisfy your intellectual curiosity (and by the way, let me say here that I think it’s very good to do that), you should be careful about who’s staring into who, you or the Abyss.

Of course, you can use this to your advantage!

When I first started trying to work out and get healthy, I read a lot of blogs, watched a lot of videos, etc. on exercise routines and mental habits to get into, etc. As is often the case, the most prominent examples were the most extreme body-transformation things advocating for wild, Gerard-Butler-in-300 level engagement. I soundly rejected all of those as being unrealistic, firmly in my position that real exercise was a scam for only people who didn’t have jobs or kids, etc.

Then one day I caught a video of a “ten-minute upper body workout” and thought “ah ha, finally something reasonable.”

The reality is that I was lazy and unmotivated. If I had found that video, I’d have made some excuse about how even that was too hard. But because I was now comparing it to all of these other much more extreme versions, it became reasonable in comparison. And so I did it, and then that ten-minute routine grew and now I’m in much better health and shape than back then.

So even if you don’t ever plan to do P90x, maybe it’s worth it to watch videos just to push some other workout just a little closer into your reach. Or maybe it’s okay to admire very wealthy people even if you don’t think you’ll attain that much wealth, because maybe it will make some other goal feel more attainable to you.

This is similar to the concept of The River, only with sources of information instead of people. If you only ever absorb information that tells you that you can only expect outcomes similar or worse to what you’re already getting, you’ll believe it. The Overton Window of your belief in yourself will shift downward. Look to the sky instead. Look for the giants whose shoulders you can stand on – or at least reach, where before you might have believed you could only reach the ankles.

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