13 Steps to Cognitive “Perfection”

By Bryan Johnson | 25 April 2018

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Hi, my name is Bryan Johnson, and I have a problem. My brain is critically flawed. I see other people’s cognitive errors but can’t see my own. Just like you. Just like everyone else.

Having these cognitive defects compromises my ability to do and become what I want. So, I’m going to try and eliminate them.

Inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s plan for moral “perfection”. I’m going to try and become cognitively “perfect” in 13 weeks!

In 1726, at the age of 20, Benjamin Franklin conceived of a plan to become morally “perfect”. He was obsessed with the virtue of the individual and thought a society could be optimal only when its members were as well. He identified 13 virtues and created a plan to master each one over the duration of a week. I used Franklin’s framework as a template and mapped it to cognition instead of morality.

Like Franklin, I think our society, our future, is only as “perfect” as we all are.

If we look at the state of the world, it’s clear that upstream of all of our big problems — climate change, ineffective political systems, unemployment, inequality, war, our very future as a species — is an even bigger problem: our susceptibility to cognitive biases, our inability to recognize their existence, and the extreme difficulty of trying to overcome them. It’s urgent that we level up our cognition, or we will fail as a species.

Understanding our cognitive flaws and overcoming them is the lowest-hanging option to leveling up. No additional technology is needed. (Though, I’m working on some neural technologies, too, just in case).

If we could see when, where and how our brains are flawed, we’d have a better chance of tackling the myriad of complex problems that are going to increasingly make life on this planet a challenge for all of us. The quicker we can make radically improving our brains the single highest priority of the human race, the more effective we will be to work on everything else we care about. (Quantifying our brain activity via Attebytes would help kickstart this.)

Skeptical? You’re not alone. 85% of us believe we’re less susceptible to biases as our fellow cognitively suboptimal humans :) That’s the Bias Blind Spot.

For those of you who might wonder if this exercise is just a theoretical or academic contemplation, the New York Times wrote a piece today about how Trump voters feared losing social status more than losing money. Guess what? That’s an aspect of Social Identity Bias: “Social identities are a valued aspect of the self, and people will sacrifice their pecuniary self-interest to maintain the self-perception that they belong to a given social group.”

On the other side of our cognitive biases is elite-level success. Ray Dalio’s financial firm, Bridgewater, has methodically and systematically worked to remove their cognitive shortcomings and their performance speaks for itself. Ray open sourced Bridgewater’s methods in Principles and the results were good evidence that collectives can operate at higher levels when they are open and honest about and can see past their cognitive flaws.

For each of us and all of us, this won’t be easy.

But the problem is bigger than each of us individually.

Going through the Ben Franklin-inspired exercise, I’ve even noticed a few biases that haven’t been written about before but seem so glaringly obvious. Because of the Existence Bias, for example, we don’t have a plan for the future of the human race. That’s odd, because our existence is built upon obsessive planning. It helps us get what we want. Accordingly, we plan for everything: social events, marriage, education, vacations, careers, health, war and even death.

So why don’t we have a plan for the human race? Whether we like it or not, nearly 8 billion of us are interconnected, comprising a vast orchestra, each contributing to a collective fate.

One final note before sharing my plan. Putting this together made a few things apparent:

  1. My brain is even more flawed than I realized, and I’ve been thinking about this for years. Yikes!
  2. I don’t possess the proper tools to radically improve my cognition the way I’d like to.
  3. Striving towards cognitive perfection is infinitely more complicated than striving towards moral perfection.
  4. We have plenty of myths around what moral perfection looks like (i.e. Franklin identified Socrates and Jesus), but who are the mythical heroes of cognitive perfection? Perhaps that’s another cognitive bias.

After his gallant effort, Franklin learned he can’t attain moral perfection yet concludes he’s better off for having tried.

I hope that’s true for me and any of you who try along with me.

Here are my scratch notes, scaffolded off of Franklin’s moral virtues and combined with categorizations from this great poster which lays out all of our biases and sits on the wall of my office and my home.

The 13-Step Path to Cognitive “Perfection”

1. TEMPERANCE (“Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.” -Ben Franklin)

My Goal: Carefully categorize thoughts; be neither too specific nor too general in assumptions or conclusions; consider specifics and notice wholeness.


2. SILENCE (“Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.” -BF)

My Goal: Delight in not knowing; resist making assumptions from narrow or incomplete information.


3. ORDER (“Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.” -BF)

My Goal: Do not be swayed by the ordering of events or memories; identify context and do not be seduced by novelty.


4. RESOLUTION (“Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.” -BF)

My Goal: Hold truth lightly for it will soon be replaced; beware overconfidence, defensiveness, and projection of my beliefs and assumptions into others’ thoughts.


5. FRUGALITY (“Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.” -BF)

My Goal: Do not overvalue the present or that which is immediately before me; embrace ideas that are unfamiliar to me in space (i.e. across the world) and time (i.e. the past or the future).


6. INDUSTRY (“Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.” -BF)

My Goal: Do not be afraid to abandon ideas or actions; embrace change.

7. SINCERITY (“Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.” -BF)

My Goal: Acknowledge the independence of other minds; embrace the unknown future and the forgotten past.


8. JUSTICE (“Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.” -BF)

My Goal: Embrace the unfamiliar; do not attach to groups, people, places, or thoughts any attributes based on their pleasantness or unpleasantness nor on their familiar or unfamiliar relation to you.


9. MODERATION (“Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.” -BF)

My Goal: Buck the trend; be less conservative; identify and contemplate the merit of any actions based solely on preservation of status quo or the fear of social loss.


10. CLEANLINESS (“Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.” -BF)

My Goal: The world is not clean and ordered; do not be seduced by simplicity or argument, manner, or contemplation; find harmony in complexity, ambiguity, and contradiction.


11. TRANQUILLITY (“Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.” -BF)

My Goal: Resist the lure of certainty; overcome fast or error-prone intuitions about probability through rigor, clarity, and honesty.


12. CHASTITY (“Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.” -BF)

My Goal: Memories are faulty; make no certain assumptions, judgments, or opinions that do not on some level reflect this uncertainty.


13. HUMILITY (“Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” -BF)

My Goal: Consider all opinions and options independent of your agreement of them; recognize that all biases apply equally to yourself as to others.


Reprinted with permission from the author.

Bryan JohnsonBryan Johnson is founder of Kernel, OS Fund and Braintree. In 2016, he founded Kernel, investing $100M to build advanced neural interfaces to treat disease and dysfunction, illuminate the mechanisms of intelligence, and extend cognition. Kernel is on a mission to dramatically increase our quality of life as healthy lifespans extend. He believes that the future of humanity will be defined by the combination of human and artificial intelligence (HI+AI). In 2014, Johnson invested $100M to start OS Fund which invests in entrepreneurs commercializing breakthrough discoveries in genomics, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, precision automation, and new materials development. In 2007, he founded Braintree (acquired Venmo) which he sold to PayPal in 2013 for $800M. He is an outdoor-adventure enthusiast, pilot, and author of a children’s book, Code 7. You can follow his work at bryanjohnson.co, on his Future Literacy publication on Medium, and on Twitter.

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