Are you smarter than your trashcan?

This may seem like a really inane ques­tion, but think about it for a sec­ond. We are think­ing breath­ing beings, how can we pos­si­ble not be as smart as our trashcan?

First, let’s estab­lish how we would mea­sure this. We like to pre­tend that how smart some­one is goes from noth­ing to absolute, but it doesn’t. Hav­ing no knowl­edge and doing noth­ing is far bet­ter than using bad knowl­edge, or think­ing you have answered some­thing cor­rectly when you haven’t, or over react­ing. We are fal­li­ble, and as such, we make bad deci­sions from time to time. Poor judg­ment, biases, and mis­in­for­ma­tion actu­ally detract from an out­come, where zero knowl­edge does not have an impact. The scale for how smart you are is not one of 0 to 10, but one of –10 to 10, with 0 being the mid­dle or neu­tral point in the absolute scale.

Your trash­can does not offer any knowl­edge, it does not react, and it does not have biases. It does not push its agenda, nor is it influ­enced sub­con­sciously by the agenda of oth­ers. It is not wired to want to ratio­nal­ize its own actions or to want to prove the value of its actions to itself or oth­ers. It is not impacted by Maslow’s hier­ar­chy any more than it is by fear, or greed, or lust, or any of the other ways that we are wired to be influ­enced. Any­thing that goes into it, it can dump out just as eas­ily. It doesn’t reject knowl­edge, nor does it change to fit the mood of the room. It does not pro­vide any value and it has no knowl­edge, so it will always be stuck at 0 on that scale.

Now human beings are capa­ble of amaz­ing things, we have built great mon­u­ments, civ­i­liza­tions, his­tory, art, cars, we have done it all. We have also had war, greed, geno­cide, hate, big­otry, and believe many crazy things. Those are the end points of all we are capa­ble of, but I am not refer­ring to the the­o­ret­i­cal but this moment. You can be any­where from the great­est level (10) to the low­est delu­sion (-10). We all con­stantly move up and down that con­tin­uum with each action we take, but do you know where you are at any given time?

How do we process infor­ma­tion and how does it impact the deci­sions we make? How does it impact our view of our­selves and the world?

Peo­ple like Philip Zim­bardo and Robert Levine have shown that we are wired to look either at the future, or the present, or the past, but we fail to look at mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives. We get too caught up in react­ing today, or plan­ning for the future. We are full of biases and self-delusions, and even worse, know­ing this in no way stops them from chang­ing how we view our world around us. We know that in the past, we have made mis­takes, and in the future, we will make them, but how do you know that right now you are mak­ing a mis­take? We lose per­spec­tive, and because of this the mean­ing of data we use to make deci­sions changes con­stantly. We fail to bal­ance what we are doing with where we go. To make up for this, we make assump­tions, we ratio­nal­ize, we ignore data, and we find things to con­firm what we want. We are so wired to only con­firm what we do that we ignore a major­ity of the infor­ma­tion from the world around us.

This impacts everyone.

So I ask you, right now, not tomor­row or 20 min­utes from now, are you smarter than your trashcan?

You can’t answer with what you are capa­ble of, nor can you answer with what you have done in the past. In the here and now, how do you know that the answer is a pos­i­tive? How do you know if you are cur­rently adding value, or remov­ing it. Are you really doing the right thing? Or are you just using mis­in­for­ma­tion, biases, and self-delusion to con­vince your­self that you are above 0, while all those other peo­ple are below it? Are you let­ting those biases rule what you view and let­ting you think you are smarter than the trash­can? Or are you really mak­ing an impact? Is your impact real, or is it hubris?

The only way to really make sure that you are improv­ing your chances to be above zero is to put in place a sys­tem that lim­its the impact of those biases and gives you insight into your own deci­sions. You have to be hum­ble enough to put a sys­tem in place to mea­sure your deci­sions in con­text, away from any in the moment manip­u­la­tions, and that allows you to know the effi­ciency of your choices. You’re never going to be per­fect, but it’s up to you to make sure that you aren’t just call­ing trash gold.