Over toothbrushing tonight, my boyfriend and I analyzed the song ‘Colors of the Wind’, from Pocahontas, which we had just listened to in curiosity over Roger Ebert’s claim that The Hunchback of Notre Dame has a better message than Pocahontas.

A pair of lines that caught my attention were:

‘Come roll in all the riches all around you And for once, never wonder what they’re worth’

This suggests that wondering what everything is worth negates what is valuable about it, which is to say, makes it worth less to you. Is it true that looking out for value like this is self-undermining? It sounds plausible to me, but why?

A first idea we had is that some goals are self-reinforcing. For instance, if you consume things a lot, then you want to consume even more next time, and when that’s hard then you get even more desperate to consume, and so just increasingly focused on consuming, and therefore maybe inattentive to other potentially good things. Similarly for some other goals, such as making money.

Another thought is that ‘what they’re worth’ means ‘what you can sell them for’, and what you can sell them for is often a subset of the values on the table. So if you look out for what things are worth and then sell them for that, you will lose a lot of other value.

My favorite explanation is that the world is very complicated, so in order to interact with it at all, you have to make much simpler summary versions for use in your head. For instance, you might think of there being a drawer in the kitchen with flour and sugar in it, rather than thinking of there being a whole conglomeration of specks of wheat and splinters of wood and screws and glues and plastics, or of a massive cloud of atoms.

There are lots of different ways of simplifying the same scene, and for different purposes, you probably want different ones. If you are drawing a picture of the kitchen, you might simplify the same part of it to a grainy brown rectangle cupboard front. If you are showing your parents around your apartment, it might just be one of several ‘safe to open’ cupboards, that isn’t holding anything rapidly hidden and alarming.

The world is like a gameboard on which you can play a multitude of different games, but for each one you only pay attention to the few aspects of the board that are relevant to that game. Sometimes you use the chess squares and ignore the snakes and ladders between them, sometimes you just put Go stones on the corners.

Supposing that your brain automatically adjusts the salience of parts of the gameboard for the game you are playing, this means that what game you are playing affects what you see. For instance, if at a party you are playing the game, ‘come up with good insights and say them’, you are less likely to see your friend Fred glance momentarily at your friend Serena than you are if you are playing the game, ‘observe everything about Fred’, or the game, ‘check how people are doing at the party’. In none of these cases will you see the beautiful walnut chair, but you might if you were playing ‘locate beautiful things’ or ‘figure out how rich the hosts are now’.

So the basic issue is that if you play games like, ‘how much can I sell this for?’, or even ‘what can this do for me?’, you end up living in a simplified world that emphasizes financial and pragmatic possibilities but lacks a lot of richness that would bring value not via either being sold or doing something tangible. Which is arguably a lot of the richness.

Then a sad thing is that from this vantage, you don’t appear to be missing anything. So indeed it seems the best you can do is collect up that which can be sold or tangibly leveraged, since that is all the world has to offer. Similarly, if you are so hungry for potato chips that all you can see is whether a thing is potato chips, you might conclude that this is a reasonable way to be, what with everything either being potato chips or not, and potato chips being better than not.