I’ve been thinking a lot about conviction lately — or as Mills Baker (paraphrasing William James) eloquently puts it, the union of conscience and will. From my POV some people innately have more conviction than others, sure, but most people don’t even try to build any of their own because they’re so used to blindly adopting the opinions of others. Assembling yourself out of the amalgamation of inputs and environments that were thrown your way makes your locus of control external. An internal locus of control implies that your assemblage of self was purpose-built with a specific intention in mind. Conviction in oneself is not a commodity — it’s bespoke by nature.
The best example of this kind of conviction is embodied by Steve Jobs (who, fun fact, learned it from Robert Friedland) — a man so charismatic that a word was coined to describe his effect on people: “reality distortion field.” As defined, the effectiveness of a distortion field lies in the field owner’s complete and utter belief in its being synonymous with reality. How do they put it? “The best salesman doesn’t know he’s selling.”
The worst use case of such distortion leads to lies: reinventing the past to better align with one’s self-concept. This is an admittedly tricky line to tread: rescripting your past can be personally beneficial in changing the way you see the world (e.g. choosing not to see yourself as a victim), but trying to spread your revisionist history can often be a slippery slope towards twisting fiction into fact in ways that serve you but harm others. Reality distortion is at its most powerful and least fraught when focused on bleeding conviction into fact in the forward-looking direction.
This is why tech, “an industry concerned with what is to be” as Henryk Skolimowski puts it, finds conviction of this kind to be such a strong signal of future success. Belief in oneself and one’s vision for how the world could be different is what fosters a cult — or what I like to call the “atomic unit of human coordination.” Once the cult is formed and conviction is sufficiently decentralized, the process of refining the rallying cry of the group can commence. David Deutsch describes this as the oscillation between conjecture (spreading of conviction) and criticism (conviction refinement with an eye for actualization).
I think this theory of change is true at a personal growth scale too. For those of us who are our own biggest critics, it’s important to remember the sequencing of this cycle: conjecture → conviction → then criticism. Getting from conjecture to conviction is a step jump that usually requires the collective belief of others — not their (or your) critiques. This is why we tend to pick people who see us as we’d like to be seen. Do such people see us clearly? Maybe, maybe not… but does anyone? Chris Ferrie explains this best: “there is no way to define a reality that is independent of the way we choose to look at it.”
Personally, I find this acknowledgment of each and every one of our partialities freeing. It’s none of our job to be the reality police! It is, however, our job to learn and relearn what the people we love need from us on a continual basis. And for them, it’s their job to know. I think the best relationships are ones in continuous negotiation as to how each person wants to be seen. As George Bernard put it: “The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.”
So perhaps it would be wiser to simply surround ourselves with people we want to be distorted by. There’s a lot of wisdom locked up in trite truisms like “you are the average of your five closest friends” — but since they don’t explain how or why they’re true I still feel the need to find my way to the same conclusion using many more words. Maybe the underlying explanation is this: whether we like it or not, each of our realities gets bent, expanded, and/or imploded by the expectations and perspectives of the people we incorporate into our little solar systems. The best example of this? Any case of someone massively raising the ambitions of another by merely suggesting they aim higher at pivotal points in their life. While Aristotle explains this as “man differing from other animals in his greater aptitude for imitation,” I prefer framing this as the human capacity to exponentially expand each other’s scale of imagination.
Personally, I don’t need anyone to think I’m perfect. But I do want to be seen as precious in the eyes of my closest friends. I want belief in me to be decentralized enough that there are others who can think I’m good enough even when I don’t. I’ve always been sensitive to the strength of the perspectives around me and can feel mimesis corrupting my sense of self without sufficient time to write, synthesize, and sort out my thoughts. But when I do, conviction is born: concentrated and refined reality distortion — woven together with words.
Love this piece. I do wonder though if “assembling yourself out of the amalgamation of inputs and environments that were thrown your way” is a bit inescapable. As you say the best example of it - Jobs - was imitating Friedland, and being the average of your 5 closest friends is a truism. The writing, synthesizing, and sorting seems to be the only way to get at the internal sort of conviction, but even then it’s a sorting and synthesizing of external inputs. I guess I wonder if it’s fair to say the external influences aren’t escapable and can even be extremely positive, but the process of sorting and synthesizing is how we reclaim that locus of control?