Lea’s Pensieve*

Everything happens for the best (no, really)

I’m sure you’ve heard of this popular saying. It’s the optimist’s mantra, “everything happens for the best”, so don’t be sad when life gives you lemons, as they will soon somehow turn into lemonade. The religious ones even have an explanation for it: It’s God making it so, because he loves us! Realists and skeptics of course dismiss this as complete tosh but in practice, they still match the same pattern.

What pattern, you might ask? Think about it: When someone is narrating their life story, they will go into detail about the hurdles, the obstacles, the failures, the mistakes and misfortunes, but will usually conclude that they were actually all for the best and if they could go back they wouldn’t change a thing. It almost seems that there is empirical evidence everywhere to support the naïve cliché of the title. What’s going on?

It turns out that science actually supports this saying, but not in the way you probably believe it. Yes, everything does happen for the best, but only because we end up thinking so. It’s a psychological immune system of sorts, where when we’re stuck with something, our brains will gradually make us think it’s for the best.

I’ve observed this phenomenon in my myself and others several years ago, and suspected it must have something to do with self-delusion. Clearly, not all our choices are optimal, yet we almost always end up thinking they were. Consider the common example of teenage pregnancy. Despite conventional wisdom that having a baby in your teens is not the smartest thing to do, those who had an unplanned pregnancy and kept the baby usually end up proclaiming it was the best thing that happened to their life, even when it leads to all kinds of adversity.

However, it was only recently when I became aware that my conjectures were actually backed up by psychology research. I was reading David McRaney’s excellent new book “You are now less dumb” which devoted an entire chapter (Chapter 8: The Illusion of External Agency) to “Subjective Optimization”, as this phenomenon is called.

The thing that sets McRaney’s books apart from other pop psychology books is the extensive list of references at the end which point to the actual research papers his knowledge is derived from. I looked them up and some were even more fascinating than the book itself. If you’re interested, here are the two most significant:

In a nutshell, our psychological immune system makes us see the bright side of all the choices we’re stuck with and over time they start seeming optimal. Basically, when life gives you lemons, the lemonade doesn’t magically appear due to some sort of divine intervention: Your brain makes it.

This only applies to choices we can’t change. For those that are not inherently permanent, we are often eternally tormented, worrying whether we made the right choice. This might explain why people are on average very happy about their kids, but not as much about their marriages: They can’t change the former, but can change the latter. Same applies to jobs and a lot of other things.

You might not like the above. Nobody likes the idea of self-delusion, yet our brains constantly delude us, to keep us sane. If you’re about to argue against it in the comments, you might want to read up on Confirmation Bias first: Yet another example of self-delusion, where we reject and even avoid information that doesn’t match our worldview, to avoid cognitive dissonance. And I would certainly recommend both of David McRaney’s books, which present tons of psychology research on self-delusion in short, simple, funny and easy to digest chapters (and no, I’m not being paid to write this, I just really love them).

Dear Native English Speaker…

Athanasius Kircher, The Tower of Babel, 1679 By most definitions, I would be considered a “cosmopolitan” (not the magazine or the drink, mind you). I travel to various countries on several different continents for about one third of my time, giving talks in English to audiences of mixed nationalities. I work and socialize in English, with people of varying backgrounds and cultural heritages. Many of my friends, ex-partners and colleagues are native English speakers. Heck, I recently even signed a book deal with a major tech publisher, for a technical book in —wait for it— English.

I’m not complaining, I bloody love this language. In fact, I like it even more than Greek, which is my own mother tongue (the grass is greener… you know the drill). By most accounts, English seems to like me back: Most people I meet are impressed by my level of fluency, although I think I still have plenty of room for improvement. Despite that, I might still make an odd mistake here and there, and to a native speaker, I certainly have an accent. Thankfully not a thick one, as is common with Greeks, and many guys even think it’s hot. However, the fact remains that except some Americans who think I’m British (lol), most native speakers can instantly tell that English is not my native language. That becomes a problem when they start trying to be accommodating and thoughtful by making assumptions, which as you should know by now, are the mother of all fuckups.

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On Women in Tech

Most people who follow me on Twitter or Facebook know what I think of most “Women in Technology” (WiT) initiatives. For those who don’t, here’s the gist: While I recognize that they mean well, I think most of them (not all!) are actually doing more harm than good to women in tech. This post is an attempt to explain my views more extensively, at the risk of getting lynched by sexists and feminists alike. Since it’s something I’ve been wanting to write for a while now, it ended up being pretty lengthy, so prepare for a long read.

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Couldn’t fit me better.

Couldn’t fit me better.

(via oldmaconthemountain-deactivated)

What is sexism?

I recently tweeted that it would be awesome if the next incarnation of The Doctor in Doctor Who was a woman. Not only it would be interesting as a plot device, but it would also provide an adventurous and brave role model for little girls, of which even modern TV has too few (especially as leads, instead of feisty sidekicks). After all, we know from the show that it’s possible for a Time Lord to regenerate into a different gender. I got many interesting replies, both on Twitter and Facebook (where all my non-reply tweets get automatically posted as well). Some thought it was a good idea, but the most interesting ones, were the ones who thought it was a bad one. Most displayed typical gender preoccupations when asked to clarify. However, the most interesting one was from someone I quite respect, who asked what is and what isn’t sexism, demonstrating an honest interest to understand. I thought it would be interesting to post my reply here as well, with a few edits and additions to make it more fit for a blog post.

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Reality is overrated

Better to be slapped with the truth than kissed with a lie. ―Russian Proverb

Are you already nodding in agreement and admiring the wisdom of the words above? Most of you just kissed yourselves with yet another lie.

When asked, we will all confidently proclaim we want to know the truth “even if it hurts”. We like to think we’re strong and brave like that. However, it’s yet another case of self-delusion.

There is no objective reality. As long as you don’t find out about a lie, it becomes your reality and to you, it’s just as real as the truth itself. We don’t really want to know the truth, especially when it hurts. We just know from experience that falling hurts more than being on the ground in the first place, so we prefer finding the ugly truth out sooner rather than later.

We watch the Truman Show and empathize with the poor fellow. We watch The Matrix and concur with Neo’s decision to go for the red pill. Who wouldn’t? Once start suspecting you’ve been lied to, the ground under your feet starts being shaky. You expect the worst, and need to know the truth otherwise you are slowly driven to insanity. However, this has little to do with truth and a lot to do with your perception of it. Even if you’re fully aware of reality, you might start suspecting you’ve been lied to and it will feel exactly the same, especially if you’re generally of distrustful nature.

But what if we never found out about the truth? What if we spent our entire lives believing a sweet convincing lie instead of an unpleasant truth, without ever suspecting we’ve been lied to? What’s the difference between such a lie and the truth, as far as we’re concerned?

I don’t care much about the truth anymore. But if someone wants to lie to me, it better be a pretty damn good lie, one that I will never suspect or find out about. If it walks like a truth and quacks like a truth, well…

Grief survival guide

I’ve generally led a fairly carefree life. “Difficult times” usually translated to either heartbreak or minor everyday life hurdles. Up until a month ago.

On December 18th I found out that my mother was admitted to the hospital. Her voice sounded pretty weak on the phone, but she told me it was nothing serious, just her hematocrit dropped at 17. She had anemia for all her life and I didn’t know much about medical stuff, so I wasn’t worried. On December 19th, she was transferred to the best hospital in Greece and I started suspecting that a hematocrit of 17 might actually be serious. I took the first flight to Athens and went straight to the hospital, where I stayed for the next two weeks. On December 21st we found out it was pretty damn serious, and it had a name too: Acute Myelogenous Leukemia.

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On last name politics

"A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers. My name is my identity and must not be lost" —Lucy Stone

Few topics ignite the same passion in me as the one about spousal and offspring last names. I was always dumbfounded by the number of people who favor tradition over equality on this one, many of which otherwise identify as feminists.

In most Western countries, the tradition is that after marriage, wives and children take the husband’s last name. This stems from the practice that last names indicated property at a time where married women could not own any and were practically considered their husband’s property. Today, the Law in most Western countries, makes this optional, but still an overwhelming number of couples (over 87% in the US) opt to go the traditional route.

I was lucky in that respect: My mother kept her own surname and I officially have both my parents’ last names in all legal documents. For the past decade, I’ve been unofficially using my mother’s last name (Verou) only since it’s shorter, easier and has more history. Therefore, I’m grateful she insisted I get both, at a time when that wasn’t easy. After my mother’s recent passing, I’ve started the process to legally keep hers as my only official last name.

What follows is my attempt to refute the most common arguments I’ve heard against gender neutral last name habits in the past 10+ years I’ve been debating the issue with several people of both genders.

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12 things that 2012 taught me

  1. I still haven’t stopped surprising myself, in both good and bad ways. I hope I never do.
  2. Of course I’ve evolved over the years, but my teenage self is still somewhere deep down inside me. Growing up is merely an illusion, albeit a very convincing one. Yes, we learn to hide our weaknesses —often from ourselves— and emphasize our strengths, but it’s a façade. A prerequisite of inner peace is learning to love our past selves, warts and all, because we’re not as different from them as we think.
  3. If you think you’ve hit rock bottom, just wait. You will soon find there’s worse.
  4. Our dreams are bound to disappoint us when we achieve them, because fantasy trumps reality hands down. Don’t let that fool you into thinking they were worthless. The journey helped you become more capable. The destination helped you understand your needs better.
  5. Reality is overrated.
  6. Nothing is universally obvious and common sense is not really common.
  7. Very few will be quick to change their views just because your arguments are solid. They’re comfortable in them. If you insist, they will try to think of reasons to discredit you, because that’s easier than giving up their convictions or refuting your arguments. However, the seed will be planted, and they may change their mind later on. Expecting immediate results is futile.
  8. Few things are worth doing without passion, and none of them is particularly important.
  9. Being cautious is wise, but being impulsive is more interesting. Sure, it will lead to more mistakes, but some mistakes are worth making. Don’t spoil them with regrets. Learn from them and move on.
  10. Not everything happens for a reason. Trying to find a deeper meaning in the setbacks life throws at us is just as human as it is fallacious.
  11. Feeling pain is not the worst thing that can happen to you. Feeling nothing is.
  12. Two things can bring maximum happiness in life: creativity and love. Since the latter is by and large outside our control, it’s wiser to focus on the former.

One year of pastries

Last September, I was approached by Alex Duloz, who invited me to take part in his ambitious new venture, The Pastry Box Project. Its goal was to gather 30 people (“bakers”) every year who are influential in their field and ask them to share twelve thoughts — one per month. For 2012, that field would be the Web. I was honored by the invitation and accepted without a second thought (no pun intended). The project was quite successful and recently we all (almost) agreed for The Pastry Box Project to become a book, whose profits will be donated to charity.

The initial goal of the project was to gather thoughts somehow related to the bakers’ work. Although many stuck to that topic, for many others it quickly drifted away from that, with them often sending thoughts that were general musings about their lives or life in general. For me …well lets just say I was never good at sticking to the topic at hand. ;) The Pastry Box showed me that I want a personal blog so this was born.

Since 2012 is now over, I decided to gather all my “pastries” and publish them in two blog posts: I will post the more techy ones in my professional blog, lea.verou.me and the more general ones below. Since most of them were somewhere in the middle, it wasn’t easy to pick which ones to publish where. I figured the best solution is to allow for some overlap and publish most of them in both blogs.

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