In The Social Animal, I came across the concept of Metis for the first time. The word has origins in greek Mythology and can most simply be equated with our modern concept of street smarts. How do we obtain metis? In the book, David Brooks weaves together a story that begins with the French and English Enlightenments and ends in our present day political climate of partisan division. He tells this story in his TED talk.
I could never do this story justice, but wanted to note some key terms because they’re so new and fresh to me, despite their importance in the quest for self-education and personal wisdom.
Our minds have two systems: often called system 1 and system 2. These can be equated with conscious vs. unconscious, reason vs. instinct, slow thought vs. fast, French vs. English Enlightenments. Brooks laments that we’ve pitted these pieces of our minds against each other and, for hundreds of years, our policies and systems have sided with system 2. We over-emphasize rational and conscious and under-emphasize everything down below. Now it’s time that we melded them together into one way of looking at our lives.
Here’s the kicker: we don’t have access to much of system 1’s magic (that’s why it’s called the unconscious) and therefore we don’t really know ourselves or understand the true workings of our own minds. Epistemological modesty is the humble awareness of this ignorance. As Brooks describes it, this modesty is a disposition for action. It’s acknowledging our weakness, but not being paralyzed by it. It’s designing habits, arrangements, and procedures to partially compensate for it. It’s a wandering curiosity that enables us to get better and better at waging this battle with ourselves without actually ever getting there – because we can’t ever really get there. And finally, it’s the patience to work through things and live with the uncertainty of not knowing everything, of not being perfect. Wisdom is born out of this humility.
Eventually, this humble patience pays off. When it does, it’s in the form of metis – when system 1 and system 2 are in tune – in full force together. Metis is wisdom, street smarts, the ability to pick out patterns and arrive at gists. When you know both the standard operating procedure and when to break the rules. When you have the skill to anticipate change.