Unhelpful

There’s a concept that I talk about fairly frequently, and I was certain I’d written about it before. But I couldn’t find exactly the essay on the subject; it turns out I have indeed written about it more than once, but I haven’t actually defined it in its own essay, so here we are.

The subject is the difference between information that is True/Untrue versus information that is Helpful/Unhelpful, and the intersection of the two.

Plenty of information can be true or untrue, though for these purposes we’re even considering matters of opinion as “true” or “untrue” within your personal frame of reference. So for instance, if you believe that people should just naturally not commit crime, then that belief is “true” to you.

Information that gets you closer to what you want is “helpful.” Information that doesn’t, or that pushes you away from what you want, or that hinders your ability to get it – all of that information is unhelpful.

Consider those two axes intersecting to form a grid, consisting of 4 squares. So we have four categories – “True & Helpful,” “True & Unhelpful,” “Untrue & Helpful,” and “Untrue & Unhelpful.”

What I want to address here is a huge, important obstacle that most people just can’t seem to get around when they’re trying to solve a particular problem: they focus on what’s true, rather than what’s helpful.

Let’s say you’re about to walk through a rough neighborhood at night, on your way to an evening out. You have valuable-looking clothes and jewelry on because you’re dressed up. You have on good-looking but not-very-practical shoes. A friend suggests that you may be an inviting target for mugging, and perhaps you should take precautions.

Okay, we’ve identified a goal: you want to have a pleasant night out. For the purposes of defining information as “helpful” or “unhelpful,” this is what we’re trying to get to.

And we’ve identified a problem: you may be vulnerable to crime in an above-average way.

What follows now are common conversational threads that fall into the four categories we identified, above.

I’m not going to do anything different! People just shouldn’t mug or rob other people.” I agree! They shouldn’t! So this information is true, but is it helpful? Does this belief and the actions it creates further our goal of an unmolested night out? Probably not – so it’s true, but not helpful.

“Oh gee, so if I go out I’m definitely going to get robbed. I won’t go out at all, I guess.” Not helpful, obviously – you won’t even attempt to go out with that attitude, so it isn’t getting you closer to your goal. Of course, it’s also not true! You’re certainly not guaranteed to be robbed, it’s just a danger that needs to be addressed. So this is both untrue, and unhelpful.

“Well, if I take a cab instead of walking, I’m definitely safe!” This actually isn’t true, but it is helpful! There are plenty of dangers getting into a vehicle, period. But they’re minimal to begin with and you shouldn’t let that stop you from living your life, so in this case the belief gets you closer to your goal of a fun night out. Even though you’ve actually underestimated your risk some, that underestimated risk is closer in alignment to what your risk preferences should be anyway.

“If I stay with a group and stick to well-lit areas, I’m much safer than walking alone, and I can still go out and have fun. Want to come with me?” True and helpful! This belief gets you closer to your goal and happens to be based in reality.

Clearly, “True & Helpful” is the best category of thought regarding a problem. But here’s the takeaway: “Untrue & Helpful” is a WAY better category than “True & Unhelpful!”

Don’t get hung up on the way things should be in an ideal world. This isn’t an ideal world – it’s the one we have. Recognizing that and acting accordingly is the most helpful advice I can give.

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