Weekly I/O #38

Hanlon’s Razor, Flow State, Transitory Aspect of Life, Laugh at Fear, Meaning of Life

Cheng-Wei Hu | 胡程維
5 min readMar 31, 2022


Weekly I/O is a project where I share my learning Input/Output. Every Sunday, I write an email newsletter with five things I discovered and learned that week.

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The below is extracted from the email sent on March 27, 2022

Here’s a list of what I’m exploring and pondering this week.

1. Hanlon’s razor: never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Article: Hanlon’s razor

Hanlon’s razor is a heuristic suggesting that when assessing people’s actions, we should not assume their intention is malicious, as long as there’s a reasonable alternative explanation. As Napoleon Bonaparte also said: Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

While Hanlon’s razor and Napoleon suggest stupidity and incompetence can be the reason, I like to use “Charitable guess” more and find every possible (doesn’t even have to be too reasonable) explanation to make the intention neutral or even good.

Like in the example I gave in This is Water, we can always be annoyed by the inconsiderate aggressive drivers cutting our line while driving. But we can think in different ways. Those who cut us off are driven by a father whose child is severely sick and needs to be in the hospital as soon as possible. They are in a more legitimate hurry than I am, and it is actually I who is in his way.

Of course, Hanlon’s razor and Charitable guess don’t imply that their intentions are never malicious. Nonetheless, even if our assumption turns out wrong, it can still be useful by channeling us to avoid negative emotions associated with assuming bad intentions. Again, wrong but useful as Weekly I/O #32.1 and Weekly I/O #34.5.

Also by Hanlon’s razor, “don’t invoke conspiracy when ignorance and incompetence suffice, as conspiracy implies intelligence”.

2. Being in the flow state is both hyper-vigilant and totally unresponsive at the same time.

Book: The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance

Scientists describe flow as a “state of consciousness” or an “altered state of consciousness”. Though there’s no clear taxonomy of different states of consciousness, some researchers divided it by degrees of focus and alertness. The results are a spectrum of attentional categories, from a vegetative coma being “total unresponsiveness” to a fight-or-flight response being “hyper-vigilance”.

However, Steven Kotler, the Founder of the Flow Research Collective, argued that the flow states might not exactly fall on this scale. Studying science behind ultimate human performance in extreme sports and decoding the neurobiology of flow, Steven Kotler stated that flow is not like other states of consciousness.

For extreme sports athletes in the flow states, the concentration is nearly total for the task at hand. Laird Hamilton, the big wave surfer, can see every nuance of detail from the giant wave he was riding. Nevertheless, he heard nothing of the screams and cries of warning coming from all the people around. Beyond his goal, his awareness dropped off precipitously. He is both hyper-vigilant and totally unresponsive at the same time. Therefore, unlike most consciousness states that are defined by a singular type of attention, flow breaks boundaries, straddling multiple categories at once.

3. The only really transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but as soon as they are actualized, they are rendered realities at that very moment.

Book: Man’s Search for Meaning

I found these words from Viktor Frankl so beautiful.

“The only really transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but as soon as they are actualized, they are rendered realities at that very moment; they are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and preserved from transitoriness.

For, in the past, nothing is irretrievably lost but everything irrevocably stored. Thus, the transitoriness of our existence in no way makes it meaningless. But it does constitute our responsibleness; for everything hinges upon our realizing the essentially transitory possibilities.

Usually, to be sure, man considers only the stubble field of transitoriness and overlooks the full granaries of the past, wherein he had salvaged once and for all his deeds, his joys and also his sufferings. Nothing can be undone, and nothing can be done away with. I should say having been is the surest kind of being.”

4. When one learns to laugh at their neurosis, they are on the way to conquer it since a sense of humor can put them at a distance from their fear.

Book: Man’s Search for Meaning

In the book, Viktor Frankl described a case in which a physician consulted him due to his fear of perspiring. He sweated a lot, and whenever he expected an outbreak of perspiration, his anticipatory anxiety precipitated excessive sweating even more.

To solve this problem, Viktor told him to deliberately show people how much he could sweat whenever he expected an outbreak of perspiration. During the week, he told himself, “I only sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour at least ten quarts!” when he met anyone who might trigger his anticipatory anxiety. After a week, he miraculously freed himself permanently from the phobia he had suffered for more than four years.

The above process consists of a reversal of the patient’s attitude. A paradoxical wish replaces his fear. According to Viktor, the procedure must utilize the human capacity for self-detachment, which is inherent in the sense of humor. The patient who used the paradoxical intention of fear to laugh at himself was then enabled to put himself at a distance from his own neurosis. We can also find this idea in Gordon W. Allport’s book, The Individual and His Religion: “The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure.”

5. We should stop asking about the meaning of life and think of ourselves as those being questioned. We should take the responsibility to answer with action.

Book: Man’s Search for Meaning

What’s the meaning of life? Viktor Frankl argued that we should stop asking this and think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life daily and hourly. It didn’t matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected us.

Furthermore, the meaning of life differs from person to person, from moment to moment. It’s impossible to define it for everyone. To ask the meaning of life generally is like asking a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?”

Each person is questioned by life, and they can only respond by being responsible. Thus, Viktor Frankl sees responsibleness as the very essence of human existence in his psychotherapeutic method logotherapy.

Responsibleness is embedded in the categorical imperative of logotherapy: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” This principle invites us to imagine that the present is past and, the past may yet be changed and amended.

Related to this aspect of the meaning of life, Carl Jung said slightly differently: “The meaning of my existence is that life has addressed a question to me. Or, conversely, I myself am a question which is addressed to the world, and I must communicate my answer, for otherwise I am dependent upon the world’s answer.”

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Cheng-Wei Hu | 胡程維

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