The Royal "We”

@midjourneybot: /imagine: narcissism

In this story, we explore our “System 2” neural network using more than 30 books from psychology and behavioral economics. System 2 is our psyche—often translated into English as “soul”.


TLDR: I’ll summarize this story for you.


In this chapter, we are exploring two neural network agents from Behavioral Economics called System 1 and System 2. They are the best scientific descriptions we have to explain the ways that our subconscious and conscious minds cooperate and compete with each other.

In the previous essay, “The Mystery Below the Surface”, we learned about our System 1 neural network agent. It is the “generator” of a Generative Adversarial Network that manufactures our first person experience—over 99% of the “pixels” we see all day every day are made up. Our memories are made up, the sounds we hear are made up, even what we didn’t make up, was made up. So, in general:

  • Don’t trust everything you think.

  • Don’t trust everything you feel.

  • Don’t trust everything you remember.

You live in the world your subconscious builds for you.

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It’s the job of our System 2 neural network agent to decide which of those thoughts, feelings, and memories we should trust. That’s why it is the “discriminator” of our Generative Adversarial Network.

System 2 is what we commonly think of as “I” and includes the “inner chatbot” where we get to talk to ourselves. It creates our Human Attention, the most valuable commodity in the known universe according to Wall Street and Quantum Mechanics. 😆

System 2 represents our highest order of thinking, quite literally. In a previous story, “Braces For Your Brain”, we learned how attention is processed on the “highest” neural network layers in our brains. The highest layers are naturally the slowest, which is why our arms pull away from a hot stove before “we” have time to notice. Our attention is processed between 4 hertz (super chill) and 100 hertz (meltdown panic), which is millions of times slower per second than System 1, our subconscious minds.

I think of System 2 as The Royal “We”. Here’s how grammarist.com describes it,

The royal “we” is simply the use of the plural pronoun we in place of the singular pronoun “I”. This quirk of English grammar is rarely heard today, except in historical context or as a jibe at someone who is too assured of his own power.

The British monarch Henry II is credited with using the royal “we” first, referring to his connection with God, and the fact that he and God were acting in concert. Richard I often used the royal “we” to assert his rule by divine right, which is the belief that the king answered to no one but God. Others have been known to use the royal “we”, including politicians, popes, and academics.

The use of the pronoun we in place of the pronoun I or you is sometimes still seen in a few circumstances. For instance, it may be used in a condescending way or to a child. For example, “No Timmy, we do not throw blocks at the dog.” The editorial we is employed by editors who write opinion pieces that reflect the stand that the publication takes. Note that when writing about the royal “we”, the pronoun is properly rendered in quotation marks, as per the Oxford English Dictionary. Perhaps the most commonly seen phrase employing the royal “we” is: “We are not amused.””

The usage of the royal “we” reveals all the fun parts of our own megalomania:

  • Too assured of our own power? ✔️

  • Talks condescendingly to people weaker than us? ✔️

  • Uses God to assert our own divine rights? ✔️

  • Pushes our agenda on others? ✔️

My favorite book that explores the megalomania of our System 2 is called, “The Elephant in the Brain” by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler. They describe one function of our System 2 as the Press Secretary, sort of like the one that works for the US President. The Press Secretary is responsible for communicating news to the public. The problem is, if the Press Secretary actually knew as much as the President knew about the scary Top-Secret decisions made behind closed doors…the Press Secretary wouldn’t be very good at their job. Plausible deniability really matters in creating a story with the most coherence. The less the Press Secretary in our head knows, the easier our narrative is to manufacture.

I encourage everyone to listen to “The Elephant in the Brain”. Here are a few of my favorites quotes from the book:

  • Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people.

  • The less we know of our own ugly motives, the easier they are to hide from others.

  • Often the best way to convince others that we believe something is to actually believe it.

  • Actions speak louder than words, and expensive actions speak the loudest.

  • When our beliefs are of non-pragmatic functions, emotions tend to be useful to protect them from criticism.

  • Our minds aren't as private as we like to imagine. Other people have partial visibility into what we're thinking. Faced with the translucency of our own minds, then, self-deception is often the most robust way to mislead others. It's not technically a lie (because it's not conscious or deliberate), but it has a similar effect. "We hide reality from our conscious minds," says Trivers, "the better to hide it from onlookers.”

When we recall big conflicts from our past, big emotions get conjured with them. These emotions guard important beliefs about the situation that enable our favorite version of the narrative. Remember, “we” always want to be the hero of our own story. The problem is that our “gut” can tell when we’re lying because System 1 has access to our senses before “we” do. System 1 sometimes keeps us awake at night with unreconciled guilt and shame by replaying decisions that don’t match our narratives over and over again.

We are our own fictitious heroes. 100% of high school students self-identify as “above average” compared to their peers. 100%. That’s not that surprising. Researchers went even further by asking adults to recall their grades from high school. 89% of the grades in memory were ‘A’. 64% of grades were ‘B’. 51% were ‘C’ and 29% were ‘D’. We never outgrow it. When researchers polled college professors to see how they compared to their professional peers, 94% of them felt they were above average.

System 2’s self-obsession is at the heart of the folktale from Hans Christian Andersen called, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. In the story, there is an emperor who spends lavishly on his clothing at the expense of his people. Two swindlers offer to weave the emperor very special clothes that are completely invisible to anyone who is stupid or incompetent. So the emperor gets dressed in these new clothes and marches through town, naked as a jaybird. The entire crowd is silent because no one wants to appear dumb, but eventually a child blurts out that the emperor is naked and everyone else realizes it’s true. Undeterred, the emperor continues on naked, walking more proudly than ever because the laughter from the crowd only confirms how stupid they are.

Our self-blindness is our enemy in every area of our lives. What really would have helped the emperor would have been the Ugly Truth from his family, friends, or advisors. We have to learn to “hug the cactus”, which is a phrase I learned from an award speech by Robert Downey Jr, who learned it from Mel Gibson. It’s critical that we build friendships and relationships with people who have opinions we believe more than our own.

I not only have great friends to give me the Ugly Truth, but I pay really smart people to do that as well. For example, in 2022, I had video calls with fourteen different patent attorneys at five different law firms. The final versions of the patents we produced were all arguments that I lost. If I didn’t like the first draft of a claim, we debated it. If I didn’t buy their argument, they went back to update the draft with a new version. Crucially, if I agreed with their counter arguments, those sentences remained. With each new draft we improved, the less and less we touched, until finally I had nothing left to protest. The more my System 2 loses to trained experts who I have selected for my life and work, the higher the total quality of my life and work.

Get an executive coach.

Get a health coach.

Get a financial coach.

Get a coach for everything you want to improve about your life.

Don’t trust you to change you.

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The extent that we exercise this ability defines something called our Mindset. Another Stanford Professor, Carol Dweck, spent a lifetime studying motivation and wrote the book on it in 2006. It’s called, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”.

From her Wiki,

According to Dweck, individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where ability comes from. Some believe their success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a "fixed" theory of intelligence (Fixed Mindset). Others, who believe their success is based on hard work, learning, training, and doggedness are said to have a "growth" or an "incremental" theory of intelligence (Growth Mindset). Individuals may not necessarily be aware of their own mindset, but their mindset can still be discerned based on their behavior. It is especially evident in their reaction to failure. Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it is a negative statement on their basic abilities, while growth mindset individuals don't mind or fear failure as much because they realize their performance can be improved and learning comes from failure. These two mindsets play an important role in all aspects of a person's life. Dweck argues that the growth mindset will allow a person to live a less stressful and more successful life.

Switching from a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset will transform your life.

There are so many other great books that provide insights into our System 1 and System 2, that we can’t cover them all. So here’s a list of my favorites, I dare you to read them all.

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win” by Jocko Willink. Jocko looks like he was chiseled out of stone and is exactly who you would envision as the commander of Navy Seals. He eats bullets for breakfast and will teach you how to get more out of yourself and your team.

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder” by Nassim Taleb. I love all his books and this is probably my favorite. Antifragile is practically a manifesto for the growth mindset, and not just for individuals. Taleb discusses antifragility in governments and corporations too.

I also highly recommend his other book, “Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life”. I’m secretly jealous of how smart these books are, I wish I wrote them.

Emotional Equations: Simple Truths for Creating Happiness + Success” by Chip Conley. The math Conley uses to mix and match our various emotions is so nerdy and insightful. I love it. His storytelling is so good that you will forget that you are reading equations.

The Road to Character” by David Brooks. Character is who we are when no one is watching. Character is the price we pay to be who we are. Brooks does a great job using stories and anecdotes to explain how character must be manufactured.

The Laws of Human Nature” by Robert Greene. Reading this book may feel like you are actually reading a dictionary of human nature. Greene is insightful and thorough in his assessment of human nature.

Also, if you have 23 hours to spare, listen to Greene’s “48 Laws of Power”.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World - and Why Things Are Better Than You Think” by Hans Rosling. Okay this is more of an anthropology book, but it still provides good perspective on the ways our world views are antiquated from the moment they are established. It’s also useful for imagining how other people live on Earth, past and present.

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” by Dan Ariely. This guy has an amazing story. He was third-degree burned over 70% of his body. During his long hospitalization, he decided he would become a research scientist for how to deliver painful but unavoidable treatments to patients. He’s now James B Duke professor of Psychology at Duke University. 💙

Reading Ariely’s books is kinda like your “fun uncle” coming over to tell you awesome stories about his science experiments he performs on strangers. You should also read his follow-ups: “The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home

I also recommend Ariely’s book, “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves”.

SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance” by Levitt and Dubner. Okay, these guys are superfreaks. One of the authors is a University of Chicago economist and the other is a journalist. For their field research, they befriended a Chicago drug gang so they could analyze the accounting and “franchisee” arrangements all the way down to the kids selling drugs on the corners of each neighborhood. And they didn’t get murdered.

Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance” by Stephen Kotler. I recommend this book to young startup founders more than any other. It has plenty of great stories of courage and struggle. This book demonstrates how people taking great risks enter flow states of near perfect decision making.

See also “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” by Simon Sinek. I blame Simon Sinek for millennials asking “why?” at work constantly, but we should have been doing that for the past 10,000 years.

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't” by Jim Collins. If you lead teams of people at work, this will help you focus on manufacturing the culture. Building the team is always more difficult than building the product.

The follow up is also great, “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies”.

The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done” by Peter Drucker (the man, the myth, and the legend). If you want to get more out of yourself, Peter Drucker invented that whole genre of books. His examples are antiquated, but that’s part of what makes this book so timeless.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers” by Ben Horowitz. Bravo to Horowitz, who wrote candidly and honestly about what it takes to build an organization. You may not build organizations as big as Andreesen Horowitz, but you might have to steal an employee from a good friend, or fire one. There’s a lot to learn about being human in this book.

His follow up is good too, “What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture”.

Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs” by John Doerr. This guy is a legend in Silicon Valley for good reason. These days, I hire and fire people by their OKRs.

I didn’t want this to turn into a business book list, but each of these books are critical for training our System 2 to handle big challenges within organizations. We all have to deal with big organizations in life, even if they are charities or governments.

Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies” by Reid Hoffman. Also check out his podcast by the same name.

Venture Deals, 4th Edition: Be Smarter than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist” by Brad Feld. If you are a founder, this is required reading. When new economic value gets created in our economy, it’s from your cap tables. This will protect you from all the sharks lurking in the shadows waiting to take a big bite out of whatever you create.

Influence, New and Expanded: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini. This book matters even if you aren’t into business books. We all need to know how to sell our ideas because we have to use this skill every single day.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change” by Stephen Covey. I like all the Covey books and this one will be helpful to everyone.

Principles: Life and Work” by Ray Dalio. This guy is a genius and a billionaire and the way he manages his firm, Bridgewater Associates, is legendary. You will be a better, smarter person if you listen to this book.

The Intelligent Investor” by Benjamin Graham. This is the guy that taught Warren Buffet how to invest. My dad always gives me great books for Christmas and this was one of them. If you have managed to save more than $50,000 in life, you need to listen to this one.

The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America's Rich” by Cotter Smith. Most of the millionaires in America drive old cars, wear old clothes, and hunt for bargains and discounts. This is a fun and easy read.

Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money - That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!” by Robert T. Kiyosaki. If you didn’t grow up in a rich household, you actually have to be taught to think like a rich person before you can become rich. It’s tragic really, but it’s true.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel Pink. In general, we think people are motivated by money and some are. But those people are all miserable and hollow inside. We are actually motivated by either the pursuit of mastery, autonomy, or purpose. For example, I spent the first third of my career chasing computer science mastery, the second chasing autonomy, and now I’m chasing purpose. This book will help you clarify your own drive for fulfillment.

My purpose is to get you to read all the books I’ve read, instead of playing "bubble popper" games on your iPhone. 🤣

Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl. His name means “winner of freedom” and he earned it. Frankl was trained as a psychiatrist before being sent to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. He argues that none of us can avoid suffering, only how we respond to it and he’s right. Everyone should read this story, it’s not very long.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” by Brené Brown.

I want Brené Brown to be America’s mom. We should all listen to her. Her books are great. Her TED talks are great. As parents, we tell our kids what Brené Brown says as much as anyone. Also read her, “Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience”.

Also read her, “The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage”.

Also watch her “Power of Vulnerability” TED Talk on YouTube. It only takes 20 minutes.

Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius. This guy was emperor of Rome during the peak of its power and this is basically his diary. Aurelius was a genius and his notes have so much humanity considering he was the most powerful person on Earth. All of the modern stoics revere him for good reason.

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions” by Brian Christian. Okay, I absolutely love this book. If you don’t mind learning the difference between BubbleSort and MergeSort, then you will be fascinated by it too. I just really love computer science, obviously, and this book is incredibly insightful into the ways that regular ol’ human folks use advanced computer science algorithms to make decisions all throughout our day.


Side Story

I have an extra fond memory of this last book because I listened to it during our family’s one year trip around the world. We spent the last few months slow crawling our way across Britain, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. I had to visit Glasgow, Liverpool, and London with my kids since they cradled the birth of the Industrial Revolution.

A few of those summer nights in Scotland we stayed in the small town of Oban so I could photograph the Isle of Mull, Fingal’s cave, and puffins. So I woke all the kids up early one day to ride a ferry to an island, to take a bus across the island to a charter boat, to take us to another island in the middle of nowhere. It was a beautiful day—partly cloudy skies, less than 1m seas, barely any wind, and a high of 20c. There were plenty of puffins to photograph during our hikes.

At the end of the day, when everyone was half asleep on the final ferry ride back into Oban my wife, Sarah, walks up to me and says, “I’m pretty sure I just saw the back of Rick Steves’ head.” Our kids exploded out of their chairs. 🏃‍♀️

@peopleoutsideamerica: Rick Steves invented the job “travel host” on public television in America. He also owns a travel company and writes very popular European guidebooks.

At the time, our family had been away from home for 10 months in a row. A whole week was a long time to live in one city and sometimes one country. When you don’t have cable TV and you live on the road constantly with a pouch full of sim cards, there’s just not a lot of time to watch TV. So at nights we would only have time as a family to watch travel shows because they helped us decide the next places to visit on our adventure. So for six months, about 50% of my kids’ total television time was either “Rick Steves’ Europe” or movies set in the city we were currently living in. Like the only thing better than watching The Italian Job, is watching it after a long day exploring Venice.

We could watch Rick Steves PBS episodes, in English, over the internet from 30 different countries, so we watched all of the episodes. So when Sarah said she saw Rick Steves, my kids jumped out of their chairs as if she said Taylor Swift. They were gone.

Rick Steves was on the top deck of our ferry. I told you that day was perfect for the camera. His whole production team was up there shooting video for his travel show during our sunset. By the time I got up the steps, my kids were climbing over the chairs to get to him. They had heard Rick say “Keep on traveling” so many times that they just kept saying it back to him over and over again on repeat. I finally was like, “Guys, he says other words too. Ask him some questions, like, what are his favorite places?”

We met the team and took some of our favorite photos of the day as the sun faded. In the queue to exit the ferry, I mentioned to Rick that we hadn’t been home in 10 months and he couldn’t believe it. He was like, “I have never done a trip that long, how are you handling school?”. That’s one of the first questions people always ask about that trip around the world. I will tell you what I told Rick…one day in a parenting book.


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