Truth and Change

Holding on to a belief so tightly that you will not allow yourself to see the world from different view points can be a dangerous thing.  Marcus Aurelius recognized how damaging it can be to stand firm in our convictions without allowing our decisions and beliefs to be based on reason over our desires to be right.  In his book Meditations the Roman emperor wrote, “if any many is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured.  But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.” What Aurelius is showing is that he is open to viewpoints and ideas that are different from his own, and that he is willing to change his beliefs if there is sufficient evidence to do so.

 

The challenge we face today is how our identity is fundamentally tied to the views and beliefs that we hold. I imagine this is not a new phenomenon in human experience, but in our culture today we often tie our political, spiritual, and social views to our identity, making our opinions more salient and rigid.  When we develop a belief today, we build our lives around it and use that belief to express who we are.  The tribes we belong to and who we see as viable partners (in everything from marriage, to business, to sports) becomes in one way determined by who is like us, and who has beliefs and viewpoints that most closely match our own.  We understand that it is a negative for society if we organize our tribes based on our racial identity and in many ways we strive for diversity to eliminate the importance of our racial identity, but for things that are less visible, we often times cheer for those who are unchanging, and we denigrate those whose identity seems to change.

 

I believe the increasing salience of identity based on behavior and belief is dangerous for our society. When we lock ourselves in, and define ourselves based on our interests, views, beliefs, and inclinations, we limit our possibilities and we limit not just our own progress, but often times the progress of the societies to which we belong.

 

It is hard to recognize at first, but our society does not want us to live in the gray and seek truth. What our society wants, now that we are not able to define who we are and who is part of our group based on race, is that we wear our unwavering identity on our sleeves so that others know how to think about us, and so that we know how to think about ourselves relative to others.  Two of the most clear examples from our culture of identity becoming arbitrarily tied to beliefs and preferences in a way that serves to define us and prevent our beliefs from changing are in the worlds of politics and sports.  In both cases switching teams can be catastrophic and lead to criticism from not just the group to which you originally belonged, but also from the group to which you joined.  In politics we expect our politicians to have firm beliefs that do not change over time, and if we see a candidate switch sides or switch beliefs we call them a flip-flopper and suggest that they will do anything to get the vote.  In sports, fans who change the teams they root for are often called band-wagon fans, and rather than following the teams who perform the best and rooting for the teams who win the most, we are encouraged to pick one team to root for with loyal support regardless of whether or not they are competitive, well managed, or even entertaining.

 

In both of these areas we are better off as individuals and as a society if we allow ourselves to change and to not be defined by specific ideas.  Like Aurelius, seeking truth in politics, and understanding that we may be unconsciously seeking only information that aligns with our previously held belief, can help us overcome ignorance and logical fallacies.  In sports, we can be free to express ourselves in a more dynamic way, and we may have a lower blood pressure while watching games.  There is no reason that any field needs to be tied so strongly to our identity that we are unwilling to change or interact with others who do not see the world as we do.  Becoming dynamic in our identity is a challenge that means we must abandon our belief in dichotomies, since the majority of the world cannot be approached from a black and white perspective. If we do not allow our identities to shift and change with reason, then we will never live in the gray, which is where life truly takes place. We will never allow ourselves or our society to expand and progress in a way that accepts and welcomes everyone uniformly.

Mental Complexity

“The term mental complexity refers to our ability to perceive the subtle nuances that separate similar ideas, issues, and events in the world around us—the gray areas that replace the strictly black-and-white understandings of the world that most of us have when we’er young.” Fred Kiel uses this quote to introduce us to the ways in which he believes great leaders think about the world.  For Kiel, a strong leader needs to have well developed moral ideas, an evolving and profound sense of self-awareness, and an ability to think of others as much as they think of themselves.  By introducing the idea of mental complexity Kiel is able to show how thorough our leaders’ though processes should be. They cannot adhere to simplistic guidelines or principles and they cannot apply blanket statements to all facets of life when so much of what happens in our life takes on a new meaning when you shift your perspective.

 

Kiel quotes psychologist Robert Kegan  and his idea of the self-transforming mind to continue his thoughts on mental complexity, “According to Kegan, the self-transforming mind is continually aware of not knowing everything—of understanding that every worldview is incomplete and that we can never know everything there is to know about anything.” This quote fits with Kiel’s idea of living life in more of a gray are as opposed to living in a dichotomy.  Life in this way can be frustrating and sometimes clouded, but learning to better think through the events and ideas surrounding us will allow us to live more dynamically and open to changes.  Rather than shutting anyone or any event out of our lives we can adjust to situations and people as situations change. Understanding that we all approach the world from our own perspectives and being able to see that we will not all thrive by approaching life from the same angle will give us a better grasp on how to create real progress in not just our own lives, but in the lives of those around us as well. Kiel argues that this is a necessary quality for a strong business leader because so often our leaders are faced with decisions that have many implications and conflicting interests for various groups of people such as shareholders, employees, local communities, and global customers. By thinking dynamically a leader with a strong moral backbone can help navigate these decisions in a way that will add value to the lives of more people than just those in the boardroom.

 

In the United States I think we do a particularly poor job of approaching the world with the type of mindset that Kiel describes.  In our politics we have seen our two major parties diverge from moderate and centrist ideas to become more extreme and more polarized, and I think a big part of this shift has to do with a lack of developing mental complexity in our world views’.  For some reason our country highly values strong and unwavering view points on everything from abortion, taxes, sports teams, and music. We have begun using our preferences for seemingly minor parts of our lives as cornerstone concepts of our identities, and this has pushed us to a place where we understand the world through dichotomies. Rather than living in the black and white and doing our best to think through and understand various points of view, we have tied ourselves to specific though processes on which we lean on to create our identity.  This is dangerous because it limits our ability to see nuances in thought processes, and it creates winners and losers in areas that cannot simply reduced to good or bad. When a leader, political or in business, ties themselves to a set identity and refuses to think of the world through multiple perspectives, they risk alienating others and preventing growth by failing to truly understand the choices available to them.

Beyond Our Surface

Writer Steven Stern sent a letter to James Harmon for Harmon to include in his book, Take My Advice.  Stern ends his letter to Harmon with the following quote, “it’s been some solace to me, as I hope it may be to you, to remember that we are at least more than meets the eye.” Stern reaches this point after discussing our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who came to the united states with oftentimes very diverse and unique backgrounds.  In Stern’s words, no matter what we are now, and where we find ourselves, we are all full of backstories and histories that were handed down from our family. His main point is to remember that we are not the social projection of ourselves that society may recognize us as on the surface.

 

Stern’s idea can be very powerful, and for me, it reaches a greater strength when I turn it around and think of other people.  I think that Stern’s viewpoint is an excellent and in many ways necessary first step for us to develop a greater understanding of other people.  In my life, self awareness has helped me reflect on who I am, what parts of myself and my personality I choose to share with the world, and what parts of me are recognized by others even if I do not think the parts that others always recognize are keystone pieces of what makes me the person I am.  Understanding how I fit in these types of societal relationships has allowed me to expand that vision and apply it to other people.

 

Each day that we get out of the house we have an opportunity to see another person and practice this mindset.  It is very easy to look at people and apply general stereotypes and judge them based on their outward appearance.  Taking Stern’s perspective and understanding that we are all more than we appear, allows us to pause before accepting those judgements. Ultimately, it affords us a moment to truly think about the other person.  Seeing the world through their eyes, with the pressures that society has placed on them and how those pressures combine with the advantages or disadvantages of their upbringing can help us greater understand why others act the way they do.  I have found that the more I practice these exercises the more compassionate I become towards other people, especially those less fortunate than me.  I do not chastise myself for the judgmental thoughts that I have towards other people, and I try hard to be aware of those feelings rather than simply ignoring those feelings or pretending they do not exist.  Accepting that when I see other people my first reaction is to judge them as someone I would or would not trust allows me to understand how I am treating them.  I can then take steps to understand my negative (or positive) feelings, and act in a way that treats the other with dignity and equality.

Connections

When I read James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s letter spoke to me on many levels as it addressed many of the thoughts, questions, and ideas that I have been churning over for a long time.  One section that I highlighted reads, “The meaning of life is inherent in the connections we make to others through honor and obligation.” I love this quote and Schlessinger’s idea because it puts other people, not ourselves or money, at the center of our universe.  When we live for our connections with others then we go out of our way to develop meaningful relationships with other people.

Dr. Schlessinger’s quote reminds me of an old track coach who was always focused on relationships.  He spoke about them in the same way as Dr. Schlessinger with a message that in the end, all we have are the relationships and the impacts we have made on other people’s lives.  For me the idea “through honor and obligation” means personal sacrifices for others, and performing acts that will not just benefit you, but those around you as well.  I think that this mindset can help build a sense of community and provide something that many are missing in this day.  Our culture is very individualistic, and what has happened is that our sense of others and connection to others has become more instant with technology, yet more fractured and distant.  If we were to adopt the ideas of Schlessinger, and put others at the center of our world, we would adopt a new identity that would shape us in a way where we are confident in ourselves, and understand that we depend our community for real support.  This idea could override the individualistic attitude of our culture, and help repair our fractured view of community.

Self Reflection

Self awareness is one of my favorite topics to read and learn about in blogs, books, and podcasts. Reflecting on our emotions and actions can help us better understand why we do the things we do, and it helps us make positive change. In the book Packing Light by Allison Vesterfelt, the author writes, “ask yourself who you’re becoming,” as she is reflecting on herself and some of her personal changes during her 50 state road trip.  I think that this question is a powerful question to ask yourself. It requires that you have in mind some identity that you want to embody, and then it requires that you take steps to make sure you are headed towards the identity you want.
While I think it is a powerful first step, I believe that some inner digging is needed before one should start asking themselves who they are becoming and if it is the person or identity they want to become. If you don’t know why you want the identity of the person you want to become, you risk becoming something that will feel unsatisfying and be a mask for your insecurities (for example I want to be a runner to stay healthy versus I want to become a runner to win lots of shiny prizes and be admired).
Along your journey it is important to ask if all of your small daily habits and activities are building you into the person you want to be. If you want to be healthy, then take on daily habits to build that identity. If you want to be creative then find small avenues to pursue the creativity that you admire in others. However, along this journey, when you pause to reflect on who you are becoming, dive a little deeper to understand why you want to be that thing, and make sure your reasons are pure, and that you still enjoy and want that identity.