The Monkey Trap of the Mind

Photo by  Go Sourav  on  Unsplash

Photo by Go Sourav on Unsplash

I am currently reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It is a fascinating book with many concepts that could be the inspirations for future blog posts. One such concept is the idea of Monkey Traps.

In colonial times, monkeys were trapped using a hollowed coconut connected to a stake in the ground. A hole was carved in the coconut that was just barely large enough for a monkey’s hand to fit into. Inside the coconut would be food for the monkey such as a banana or rice.

A monkey would come along, smell the food, and reach his hand into the coconut to grab it. Unwilling to let go of the food and unable to escape, the monkey would be trapped.

Too often we are trapped in monkey traps of our own making.

Our thoughts, actions, and opinions are held on to with a vice grip, no matter the consequences or existence of contradictory evidence. What’s worse, our culture shames those who change their mind as “flip-floppers.” We live in such a constantly changing world that I’d argue that questions should instead be asked of those whose views and opinions never change.

This adherence to our own cognitive biases is damaging and dangerous in all walks of life, but it can be especially fatal in venture capital.

Venture capital is concerned with the cutting edge of what is next. When you operate in this world, things change. Fast. To hold on to your preexisting beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence is a surefire way to make mistakes like investing in the wrong company, or even worse, passing on investing in the right one. That’s why I so respect VCs who show a willingness to change their mind. A16z and their famous “strong opinions, loosely held” mantra comes to mind.

This is something I struggle with myself. I have blind spots due to my internal biases. I sometimes fall into the trap of minimizing others’ achievements to make myself feel better. I think if we are honest with ourselves, we all have moments when we fall into these monkey traps.

But that does not have to be our destiny.

The first step is to admit that we do these things. The second is to actively fight against them.

Cultivate a curious mind and embrace information that causes you to question your pre-existing beliefs. When the goal becomes learning and moving ever closer to the truth, then evidence that violates your held beliefs becomes something to be celebrated instead of shunned.

Maintain relationships with people who hold you accountable. The most important relationships in your life are the people who are able to call you our on your own bullshit (I know that I need a regular and steady dose of that).

I say all this as someone who often sucks at walking the walk. But I am working on it.

And I try to grow a little bit better every day.