Level 3 Thinking: A Unified Theory of Self-Improvement

By Nat Eliason in Psychology

I spent the last month revisiting my notes from 200-some books. As I moved through topics spanning health, entrepreneurship, philosophy, learning, and everything else I’ve been interested in, I couldn’t help noticing some trends, some categories of thought the books could be organized into.

When I started reading more energetically, I focused on practical, how-to style self-improvement books. The Power of HabitI Will Teach You To Be RichThe $100 Startup. Popular books that promised to teach me a “hack.”

Eventually, I grew bored of books that could be condensed to a blog post and pursued higher level books. PeakSeeking WisdomThe Monk and the Riddle. Books that provided a broader understanding, a richer context for their ideas.

Later I started exploring the category above that: books that take the leap to philosophy. AntifragileFinite and Infinite GamesGodel Escher Bach. Books that do not promise to teach you how to do anything, but rather change how your mind works by the time you’re done with them.

These categories could be thought of as a hierarchy, a way of evaluating what you’re reading for its potential value. At the bottom, you have the life hacky books. In the middle, you have the informative, educational books, and at the top, you have the philosophical mind-bending books.

But I soon realized this wasn’t just about books. It was about thoughts. The way we think can be broken down into similar tiers, and all meaningful self-improvement, attainments of knowledge, advances in maturity, skill development, and independent thought require graduating through these successive levels.

Applied, it gives us a way to understand obesity, tech bros, neo-nazis, depressed college students, vegans, entrepreneurs, angry atheists, SJWs, lifestyle designers, crypto fanatics, Trump voters, and consumerism. It shows us why we get embarrassed by our past thoughts and actions, and why other people can seem stupid and irrational. It gives us a new lens to interpret our disagreements, as well as a framework for how we might push others we care about to improve themselves.

And most importantly: it gives us a model for how to improve our own thinking. For how to be a little less dumb, naive, or mistaken. How to broaden our perspectives, learn more effectively, and accelerate our personal development.

It starts at Level 1.

Level 1: Blind Ideology

“Whoever plays a finite game plays freely, but it is often the case that finite players will be unaware of this freedom and will think that whatever they do they must do.” – James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

Each of us was born to level 1. Some move past it, many don’t. It’s characterized by the wholesale adoption of the beliefs, attitudes, and lifestyles that were thrust onto you by your upbringing and environment.

It’s tempting to hear that definition and assume people at Level 1 are “dumb,” but that’s not necessarily the case. The lower-middle-class middle American with paltry academic interests who forgoes college to work at his father’s mechanic shop is likely at Level 1. But so is the New England, upper class, tiger mommed, straight-a-student who “wins” and makes it on the Stuyvesant-Harvard-Investment Banking Analyst track (we’ll call this person SHIBA for short).

What characterizes both of them is that they do “what they’re supposed to do.” Working in a profession because that’s what your parents do, or what your environment pushed you to do, is operating on Level 1. It’s a comfortable “going with the flow,” accepting that this is what “people like you do” and not challenging it too much. Maybe you picked Wall Street over becoming a lawyer, but you were still operating in the artificial idea-space of your local ideology.

Religion is the best analogy here. There is little difference in depth of thought between the SHIBA and a rural Pakistani boy who prays five times a day in pursuit of Harvard paradise. Both have taken in the beliefs of their culture and ran with them, happily playing the game that they were born into.

Someone in Level 1 would read this and be a mixture of offended and confused. To the rural Muslim, questioning Islam wouldn’t just be heresy it wouldn’t make sense. It’s completely foreign to them that someone wouldn’t believe in Allah, just as it’s foreign to the SHIBA that someone wouldn’t want to work at Goldman Sachs/McKinsey/Google.

Level 1 thinkers see someone operating differently and their first thought is “that person must be irrational / confused / stupid / evil.” People who voted for Trump must be stupid. Anyone who eats meat must be evil. People who want tax cuts must be selfish. Students who don’t care about grades must be lazy.

Level 1 thinkers have an ideology they’re fixed to, and their blindness to it makes them throw out contrary opinions as heresy.

Health is one area where, unfortunately, most people are at Level 1 and it’s killing them. It will seem strange to anyone who reads this blog, but there are many people in the world who legitimately believe they cannot lose weight. That they’re stuck being overweight, that it’s in their genetics, that they’re “made that way.” When presented with information to the contrary, they react in the typical Level 1 fashion: “oh, that doesn’t apply to me” or “I don’t think that’s true” or “oh, I tried dieting and it didn’t work.” They don’t consciously respond to it. It gets filtered out because it doesn’t fit with their ideology.

And to be clear, this blindness and naivety apply to every ideology. No pre-packaged set of beliefs can be entirely true, there is always some part of it that is broken. If you’re reading this thinking “well yeah that’s definitely true for Democrats / Republicans / Jews / Christians / SHIBAs / Rural Americans / Vegans / Crossfitters but not for my beliefs” then you’re stuck on Level 1. Blindness to the imperfections of an ideology that you’ve adopted is the defining factor of Level 1 thinking.

We all start at Level 1 though. It’s a necessary consequence of our tribal heritage. There’s no way to be born more enlightened, and there’s no way for someone else to get you past Level 1 (beyond a bit of nudging). The only way you get past Level 1 is to have a Moment of Clarity: a spark when you realize that you’ve been driving with blinders on, that you don’t know as much as you think you know.

If you don’t immediately know what your Moments are then you haven’t had one yet. These are those moments where we come across some idea, person, or experience that crushes through the wall of our ingrained ideology with such force that we become disoriented, confused, and painfully aware of our naivety in a way totally foreign to us before.

The first time I got paid for freelance writing work was one of these moments for me. It completely changed how I thought about work and money, reframing a job as a thing you do rather than something you have. Reading Atlas Shrugged in high school was another one of these moments: making me realize how narrow-minded of a political and economic ideology I’d grown up with. Taking a few months in high school to try to get in shape was another, making me realize how foolish I’d been to think that we were stuck with the bodies we were in.

But these initial moments of clarity are only the beginning. It would be wonderful if we simply broke out of our love for ideologies, but typically, we just adopt another one and move from Level 1 to Level 2.

Level 2: Chosen Ideology

“Modern education often does more damage when young students are taught dubious political notions and then enthusiastically push these notions on the rest of us. The pushing seldom convinces others. But as students pound into their mental habits what they are pushing out, the students are often permanently damaged. Educational institutions that create a climate where much of this goes on are, I think, irresponsible. It is important not to thus put one’s brain in chains before one has come anywhere near his full potential as a rational person.” – Charlie Munger, Poor Charlie’s Almanack

The problem with Moments of Clarity, with the sudden “Aha!” moments, is that we usually jump headfirst into whatever new belief we’ve found. Instead of stepping back and saying “maybe I shouldn’t just adopt one ideology wholesale,” we say “now I’ve found it!” and commit ourselves to the new ideology with as much vim and vigor as the old one.

Realizing how wrong you were in your previous narrow beliefs is terrifying. You feel naked, vulnerable, and like you’ve been blind for your whole life up until that point. No one wants to spend any more time in that pit of uncertainty than they have to, so they latch on to something else. This is completely natural, and it may be a necessary step to getting past ideological adherence.

Parts of the Atheist community provide a perfect example. These are the members who grow up in Christian households, have a Moment of Clarity, and then commit themselves to preaching Atheism with as much energy (perhaps more) as they had for Christianity. They trade their bible in for a Dawkins collection, and hang out on Reddit instead of in church, but they’re just as religious as before. They just have a different doctrine.

I should mention too that Moments of Clarity are not necessarily “true.” Just because the devout Christian had a moment of clarity doesn’t mean that Christianity is necessarily “wrong,” just that they realize there may be some truth beyond it they had been previously blind to. We can all have completely wrong Moments of Clarity, many of ours are, but they are still necessary.

If you know someone who believes in something and is annoying about it, they’re most likely at Level 2. The friend who just discovered Crossfit. The aunt who watched “What the Health” and went vegan. The coworker who read The 4-Hour Workweek and is moving to Bali to start a lifestyle business. They all feel like they’re “woke” now, like they’ve discovered the truth, like this is the answer, and they’re eager to tell you about it.

But Level 2 understanding is just as shallow as Level 1 understanding. It may be a more accurate interpretation of the world, but you’re still not thinking for yourself. You just found a different tribe to be a member of. A new religion to follow.

The big problem is that while your understanding hasn’t really progressed, you’re much more confident in your beliefs. The lifestyle entrepreneur living on the beach Instagramming how cool their job is thirsts for the same social validation as the Wall Street banker who buys a flashy car, but the banker doesn’t think they’re “woke” and that they’ve conquered the desires of the rat race.

The Bali Lifestyle Entrepreneur believes they’ve beaten the unhealthy obsessions with work… but they’re completely obsessed with work.

The vegan is likely doing themselves as much harm as someone mindlessly eating a standard American diet, but the vegan thinks they’re woke and informed and healthy and a good person.

The pickup artist is just as starved for validation from women as the virgin living in his parents’ basement, but the pickup artist thinks he’s conquered his obsession.

It’s similar to what happens when we get lost in the wilderness. Borrowing a passage from Emergency by Neil Strauss:

“When lost, individuals usually circle in the direction of their dominant hand. And though they might think they’re traveling in a straight line, they’re usually circling within the same square-mile area.”

It’s easy to fool yourself into believing you’re getting smarter while only going in circles, hopping from one chosen ideology to the next.

How do we get beyond this? How do we move past Level 2? It would seem the same way we got to Level 2 in the first place: further Moments of Clarity. We need to continually illuminate how what we thought was the truth isn’t really the whole truth, but without immediately latching onto yet another pre-packaged belief system.

Level 3: Ideology Transcendence

“I am better off than he is, for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.” – Socrates, Apologia

Eventually, through sufficient Moments of Clarity, we can start to reach a degree of ideological transcendence: sampling pre-packaged belief systems to pick and choose for ourselves what makes the most sense.

To transcend ideology, we need to recognize that no pre-packaged set of beliefs is going to fit perfectly into our mental landscape. Instead, we learn to sift through what’s in each ideological package to see what we might use and throw out whatever is left over.

Diet is a good way to show the differences in levels. Level 1 is eating what you were raised on, what everyone around you eats, the Standard American Diet. Level 2 is discovering Keto, Paleo, Slow Carb, Vegan, Carnivore, and saying “this is the answer” and possibly getting really obnoxious about it on Facebook. Level 3 is recognizing that different people respond differently to different diets, especially based on their genetics, and everyone should experiment to see what works best for them.

Or for work, Level 1 is “I’m going to do what my parents/environment want me to do.” Level 2 could be “screw the normal path, I’m going to be a lifestyle entrepreneur and work from the beach.” And then Level 3 is: “someone else’s definition of a good work-life won’t make me happy, I have to explore and figure it out for myself.”

Thinking beyond any pre-packaged belief system has some uncomfortable consequences. The Level 3 version of religion would be blending the valuable parts of the mythologies of all popular religions, blind faith to one is Level 1 thinking. Someone saying they’re a “Democrat,” “Republican,” “Feminist,” “Atheist,” or part of any group demonstrates a failure of Level 3 thinking. If they can happily say that they fit in an ideological box designed by someone else then they haven’t really thought much for themselves. They’re fitting their beliefs to the box.

That source of belief is the key differentiator between Levels 1-2 and Level 3. In Levels 1 and 2, you look to your ideology, chosen or not, for your values. This is good because Mom/God/Harvard/Friends/Tim Ferriss/Society/Oprah say so. In Level 3, you have to look inwards. What do you think makes sense? What other ideas that you’ve come across could help? It’s about what works best for you, not what can you best fit yourself into.

You don’t have to discard packaged beliefs entirely, that would be insane. Packaged beliefs are extremely useful ways to transmit and store information. You only have to get out of the habit of thinking there must be one answer. You have to be able to see the problems with different ideologies and pick and choose among them to develop a personal worldview that makes sense to you.

Pursuing and Refining Level 3 Thinking

You must convince yourself of the following: people get the mind and quality of brain that they deserve through their actions in life.” – Robert Greene, Mastery

Now we’re left with the real challenge: how do we break ourselves out of our blind ideologies, and refine our Level 3 thinking?

I said before that we cannot induce a Moment of Clarity. It has to come from something external forcing us through the barriers of our naivety. But by looking at what tends to create these Moments, we may be able to reverse engineer them. Not so that we can deliberately create them, but so we have a greater chance of stumbling over them.

There are three ways to do this: Exposure, Leveling Up, and Brake Lights.

Exposure

The only way to break through a blind ideology is to be confronted by a compellingly argued contrary belief. Most of our moments of clarity will come from a great book, from an in-depth article, from a conversation with a friend more educated on an issue.

As a recent example, I’ve been experimenting with a ketogenic diet. Someone on my email list who wasn’t the biggest fan of the idea sent me this article about how extremely low fat, high carb diets might also be healthy. It’s a fantastic article, and it helped push me through some of my own limiting ideology that said “carbs = bad.”

But here’s the problem: if someone hadn’t sent me that article in the first place, I never would have found it. It goes against everything in my prior diet ideology, and if I hadn’t given it the benefit of the doubt and pushed through it, I would have missed out on an interesting new piece of knowledge.

We need exposure to contrary ideas to break down our ideologies, but getting that exposure is difficult. We all want to read, watch, and listen to things we like, not what we might disagree with. But it’s the sources we might disagree with that have the highest potential to break down our narrow beliefs.

Exposure is a good solution, but it’s imperfect. What can help more is thinking of “Leveling Up” in the information we consume.

Leveling Up

Instead of spending some time watching the news network of the political party you disagree with, stop watching news from either side and read some political philosophy instead. The news shows are Level 1 media: catering to existing blind ideologies. Political philosophy is Level 3 media: meant to change how you think and see the world.

You might say “but I don’t want to read political philosophy.” That’s fine, but then don’t pretend that you’re interested in politics. If you want to watch the news but you don’t want to read some John Rawls, then you don’t actually care about politics: you just like feeling outraged and talking to your friends about how stupid/brilliant Trump is.

For health, leveling up is quitting the blogs, newsletters, and magazines, and trying to get as close to the actual literature as possible. That could mean reading research articles on PubMed, or it could mean following people who are closer to the research themselves like Rhonda Patrick.

Whatever area you’re trying to get a better understanding of, you want to move up to the “Tier 3” sources as quickly as possible. The longer you stay at Tier 1, reading Lifehacker, Huffington Post, Health Magazine, James Altucher, BuzzFeed, and other junk, the longer you’ll stay stuck at the blind or chosen ideology level. “Garbage in, garbage out,” as the adage goes. Level 3 thinking requires stepping up the information you consume so that you get a more complex, less narrow understanding.

Sadly, you might have to kill off or reduce some of your favorite sources. The simplest way to assess whether a source is helping you reach a broader understanding, or just reinforcing an ideology, is how often you disagree with it. If you find yourself nodding along happily with everything you read from a source, then it’s not doing much for your mental development.

But when you can find books, blogs, or other resources that occasionally make you feel uncomfortable and force you to rethink a belief you had, that’s when you’ve found something worth digesting.

To do that, we have to overcome all of the little cognitive biases that prevent us from considering the information we disagree with. And the best way to do that is through the use of “brake lights.”

Brake Lights

Seeing a brake light when you’re driving is a sign you need to slow down. A mental brake light does the same thing: it’s a sign that you need to slow down before you jump to conclusions. It’s a sign that you’ve run up against your own ideologies.

Kevin Simler created a good term for some of the beliefs from the Level 1 and 2 camps: crony beliefs. And as he explains, the easiest way to detect a crony belief is when you catch yourself reacting emotionally to information:

“Crony beliefs actually need to be protected from criticism. It’s not that they’re necessarily false, just that they’re more likely to be false — but either way, they’re unlikely to withstand serious criticism. Thus we should expect our brains to take an overall protective or defensive stance toward our crony beliefs.” (emphasis mine)

Emotional reactions to an idea indicate that you have a Level 1 or Level 2 ideology around that idea. If you feel any emotional pull to defend Democrats / Republicans / College / Christianity / Bitcoin / Crossfit / New Gender Pronouns / Income Inequality in the face of new information, that’s a sign that you’re at Level 1 or Level 2 thinking.

At Level 3, you don’t interpret information emotionally because you see all information as potentially useful. Even when faced with someone totally against their beliefs, a Level 3 thinker will react with curiosity. And when faced with a Level 1 or 2 thinker being obnoxious about their beliefs, a Level 3 thinker doesn’t get angry or annoyed, they get amused. They can laugh about it and ignore them instead of getting sucked into the fray.

Level 3 thinking requires blending together ideas from multiple disciplines, which means you can critique and discuss the subcategories of the area unemotionally. A Level 3 Thinker about health sees the good and bad in Crossfit. A Level 3 Thinker in economics sees the good and bad in Income Inequality. A Level 3 Thinker in Cryptocurrency sees the good and bad in Bitcoin, and a Level 3 Thinker in Technology sees the good and bad in Cryptocurrency.

This is the simplest brake light: When you react emotionally to information, any information, that’s a sign of Level 1 or Level 2 thinking. If you truly had a well-rounded stance on a topic and cared about enhancing your understanding of it, you would not react emotionally to anyone else’s opinion.

That brake light is when you know it’s time to think a little deeper. To seek out more exposure to the reasoning behind what you disagree with, instead of dispensing with it as lunacy. To try to “level up” what sources you’re reading about the topic so you get a more holistic, less one-sided take on the issues. And to try to develop a more cohesive Level 3 perspective on the issue.

There’s one last piece. What does this mean more generally for our self-improvement efforts?

A Unified Theory of Self-Improvement

“Truth is not to be found in a book. Furthermore, such a book merely presents a barrier to progress in your search for truth. Independent inquiry is needed in your search for truth, not dependence on anyone else’s view or a mere book.” – Bruce Lee, Striking Thoughts

In my guide to becoming an expert, I covered the five tiers of expertise as laid out by Stewart and Hubert Dreyfus.

  1. Novice
  2. Advanced Beginner
  3. Competent
  4. Proficient
  5. Expert

What they highlighted in the paper, and I highlighted in the article, was that most people never move beyond the Advanced Beginner stage. They learn a few tricks and how to apply them, but they never make the big leap from using other people’s recipes to trusting their own intuition.

It seems there’s a similar barrier here. Most people get stuck at Level 1 and Level 2, rarely making the jump to Level 3. It’s much more comfortable to get your ideas about life from someone else than to blend from all of your sources into a new understanding.

Making that jump to Level 3, in any area, requires taking that leap and saying “this ideology isn’t perfect, but there are good parts, and I can blend it with other ideas into my own worldview.”

All forms of self-improvement require a deliberate effort to get to Level 3, and to deepen our understanding within Level 3. This is necessary within specific areas of knowledge, but also generally, in the need to keep finding areas where we’re stuck at Level 1. No one is a perfect Level 3 thinker. We’ll always be stuck in ideology for some part of our mental landscape, so we have to keep seeking out places to improve our understanding.

There is no end to our ideologies, and so there can be no end to our needs to try to weed them out. It’s a never-ending process of self-improvement.

As we go, we’ll continually find that each ideology is packaged within other ideologies. If there were a Level 4, it would be to step outside of ideological categories entirely and have a belief-set that stood on its own. But as soon as you did, the whole Level 4 would collapse on itself and you’d be back at Level 3, since you just created a belief set to reach Level 4!

Your beliefs make up what Douglas Hofstadter calls a “Strange Loop.”

“The “Strange Loop” phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through levels of some hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started.” – Godel, Escher, Bach

There is no “ultimate category” to reach Level 3 on, you can only keep pushing, trying to get a broader understanding, and constantly discovering that you have only walked yourself into another ideology that you must get out of.

But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost, or that you should give up on mental improvement. Instead, we need to approach our mental improvement zen-like, realizing that the job will never be done, and any momentary sense of satori will quickly pass as we realize a new intellectual summit must be climbed.

Zen has no goal, it is traveling without point, with nowhere to go. To travel is to be alive, but to arrive is to be dead. A world which focuses on destinations, which only cares about getting somewhere as fast as possible, becomes a world without substance. – The Way of Zen, Alan Watts

Level 3 is never ending exploration. There is an infinite depth to how we can understand one area and infinite depth to how it ties into all other areas. We’ll never be completely free of our ideologies, of our Level 1 and Level 2 thinking.

But with brake lights, exposure to ideas that make us uncomfortable, and a continual effort to level-up where we’re learning from, we might make a little progress.

Footnotes

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