I received a call from a sophomore at the University of Miami asking for a donation to their scholarship fund. She started off the conversation by claiming she is interested in going to law school and wanted advice from an alumni—A great opener to distract me from the real reason for the call. I immediately had flashbacks and nostalgia of where I was just a few short years ago. I pulled a Leon and I asked her simply, “Why do you want to go?”
“I’ve always wanted to go”
Well, my sister went and it seems interesting…
Why is it interesting?”
Her next answers were less than convincing. I then gave her my way-too-long answer on choosing the right career.
I thought about this conversation later and the “I always wanted to” comment. I’ve heard this many times before from people in various contexts. What’s going on with this platitude? Why do we say it? When you hear it and you dig a bit deeper, you’ll usually find that they don’t really believe what they’re professing. They know it has no meaning, but they just hope the questioning will stop there. In fact, they expect the questioning to stop there. “I always wanted to” is a hollow answer that results from erroneous thinking. Tim Urban explains the origins of similar faulty reasoning—which he refers to as the Dogma Trap—in The Cook And The Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce.
When parents and teachers tell a kid to do XYZ and to simply obey, it’s like installing a piece of already-designed software in the kid’s head. When kids ask Why? and then Why? and then Why?, they’re trying to deconstruct that software to see how it was built—to get down to the first principles underneath so they can weigh how much they should actually care about what the adults seem so insistent upon.
The first few times a kid plays the Why game, parents think it’s cute. But many parents, and most teachers, soon come up with a way to cut the game off:
Because I said so.
Dogma, unlike first principles reasoning, isn’t customized to the believer or her environment and isn’t meant to be critiqued and adjusted as things change. It’s not software to be coded—it’s a printed rulebook. Its rules may be originally based on reasoning by a certain kind of thinker in a certain set of circumstances, at a time far in the past or a place far away, or it may be based on no reasoning at all. But that doesn’t matter because you’re not supposed to dig too deep under the surface anyway—you’re just supposed to accept it, embrace it, and live by it. No evidence needed.
You may not like living by someone else’s dogma, but you’re left without much choice. When your childhood attempts at understanding are met with “Because I said so,” and you absorb the implicit message “Your own reasoning capability is shit, don’t even try, just follow these rules so you don’t fuck your life up,” you grow up with little confidence in your own reasoning process. When you’re never forced to build your own reasoning pathways, you’re able to skip the hard process of digging deep to discover your own values and the sometimes painful experience of testing those values in the real world and learning you want to adjust them—and so you grow up a total reasoning amateur.
So when a child is asked what she wants to be when she grows up from a young age (as parents do quite often), she just proclaims whatever is on her mind in that particular moment. She realizes that by giving an answer, she is getting her parents off her back temporarily: “Oh, a doctor!” When the time comes to choose what to do for a career, children simply just state whatever stuck before, which then becomes what they ‘always wanted to do.” They never really had decided, they simply chose what was in front of them at a point when they didn’t have the capacity to know any better. There is no real reasoning behind their answer, unfortunately.
Sorry to break it to you, but you never always wanted to do anything.