You’re reading my newsletter, Normielisation, on progress, politics and society, written from a British perspective. You can subscribe here:
Last year I introduced you all to the phrase “cheems mindset”. To recap, I defined cheems mindset as:
“the reflexive belief that barriers to policy outcomes are natural laws that we should not waste our time considering how to overcome.”
In inventing this concept, I seem to have hit on something. Since publication, the term has been used in think tank blogs, Youtube videos and articles, including one criticising New Zealand’s border policy. It even has its own entry in Urban Dictionary.
Yet since unleashing it into the world, I’ve had the creeping feeling that I got my initial definition of cheems mindset wrong. There is, in fact, a kaleidoscope of different versions of cheems mindset.
While cheems mindset in Government and policy is one of its most egregious forms, encouraging sclerosis and acting as a drag on our ability to make things better, it’s by no means the only form of cheems mindset. The one I’d like to explore today is personal cheems mindset.
Given it’s near impossible for most individuals to move the dial on Government and policy making, personal cheems mindset is much more consequential for the average person than policy cheems mindset.
Broadly, personal cheems mindset is the reflexive decision for an individual to choose inaction over action, in particular finding reasons not to do things which have either high expected value, or a huge upside with very little downside risk.
A great example of this is people’s approach to jobs. Cheems mindset is what leads you to agonise for days over whether or not to apply for “that job that looks interesting”. Instead of just biting the bullet and applying, cheems mindset makes you hold off, fretting:
“What if I don’t get it?”
“Do I really want to leave my current job?”
“What if the package isn’t good enough?”
Crucially, while some of these may be good reasons not to accept a job, they’re poor reasons not to take a punt on an application. It is cheems mindset that leads you to spend hours deliberating over something, when it would be much less costly, be far quicker, and have a greater upside if you just went ahead and did it. It is better to do, then think.
This is not to deny that there is a cost to doing a job application, or getting a rejection, just that it is greatly outweighed by the potential benefits. Cheems mindset is the little voice that whispers “better the devil you know”.
Personal cheems mindset is much more tragic than policy cheems mindset. In many cases, people who make cheems mindset objections to policy ideas are actually just trying to stop something from happening. As I said in my last piece, this is a completely rational response- for those at the sharp end of policy delivery, as there is often less risk in doing nothing than implementing tough policy that might go wrong.
In contrast, personal cheems mindset exists entirely as a form of self-sabotage, making people go against their interests and fail to act, even when there’s a clear upside to doing so. Defeating personal cheems mindset and finding the will to act is paramount.
As I outlined in my original piece on cheems mindset, it is not cheems to not do things that are objectively bad. Someone is not cheems for deciding they would rather not jump off a bridge without a bungee cord. Bad ideas, after-all, are always bad ideas.
More subtly, risk aversion is also not necessarily cheems. To further stretch the job-seeking analogy, imagine you’re the parent of two small children, with a sizable mortgage, who is offered a job at an exciting start-up. While the job is interesting and a step-up in terms of seniority, it’s also insecure- the start-up only has funding available for a year- and the salary, though offset by a decent equity offer, is lower than your current salary.
In this case, someone who refused this offer after serious consideration would not be cheems. They may reasonably think that the drop in living standards caused by a lower salary, and risk the venture fails, is not outweighed by the upside of a share of equity. People at different stages of their lives naturally have different risk appetites. It is not cheems to not do something because it surpasses your risk appetite (provided your risk appetite is well-calibrated).
Instead, personal cheems mindset is specifically when you find reasons not to do things that have very small costs that are heavily outweighed by their upside. Cheems mindset is the act of choosing inaction over action.
Defeating cheems mindset is really difficult. For a species that has been so successful and innovative over the past few centuries, many of us find it hard to develop and implement a consistent improving mentality. It is, somewhat counterintuitively, often easier to do nothing.
Finding ways to increase personal agency should be a core aim of those of us that want to improve the world.
One of the reasons that this has taken me so long to write is because I too am- secretly, shamefully- cheems. I have an interesting job that I like, but if I’m being honest, I have taken few risks in my career. I’m certain there have been opportunities that I’ve failed to grasp because of cheems mindset. Physician, heal thyself and all that.
This very newsletter is a case in point. I first wrote about cheems mindset last year. It is by far my most popular post, and I now often see people who have no idea who I am use it in conversation. Most recently, it was even used as a qualifying guideline for a 6 figure blogging competition. There is clearly a market for more thinking on cheems… and yet…
It’s taken me months to find the will to act and write some of my further ideas on cheems mindset up. This is despite the fact that the only downside of someone finding this an uninsightful, useless piece is… a disparaging tweet or two.
Even worse, while writing this, I’ve thought on at least 3 occasions “My God, what if people think this is rubbish?”
Again, so what?
Yet the upsides are clear. Posting newsletters gives me a buzz. As does getting new subscribers. It is thrilling to find that you have influenced the way people think about the world. A few mis-hit newsletters won’t change this.
This is one of the most pernicious problems with personal cheems mindset. It sets in like Japanese knotweed of the mind. It takes real effort to vanquish and, unlike Japanese knotweed, you can’t just pay a bloke a few hundred quid to get rid of it illegally.
I don’t have any answers yet on how to defeat cheems mindset. However, I do think there is real value in successfully identifying it in yourself.
I hope to explore this further in later posts- if I can stop myself being cheems. In the meantime, my only advice to you reader is this: when you make a decision about something, ask yourself: “Am I being cheems?”