Posts tagged with #Mindset
Popular culture today is centered around, and even driven by the catch phrase “fomo” (fear of missing out). It is engrained in the way we think, the way we act, and the way we process and apply our values. Whole companies are built around creating more fomo and then capitalizing on that fomo to drive our behaviors. Our capitalist society is indeed founded on the basic engine of fomo -> consumer behaviors.
Take advertising. The goal of advertisers is to convince you as their target customer to believe that you’re missing out on whatever glamorous and glorious thing the more-beautiful-than-average model on your screen is doing. Always put together, fashionable, and incredibly happy, the models tell you that whatever they’re selling has just changed their lives. And not just that, it’ll change yours too! So call/click now and get your life upgrade!
Or consider social media. Whether you’re on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or whatever the latest craze is of your day, the basic premise is the same. Give people the tools to glam up their public persona (ie Insta filters etc), give them a targeted platform to share that persona (ie your social network paired with an AI-based recommendation engine), and then create a virtuous cycle of likes, re-tweets, and dopamine hits. All of that to keep you coming back for more, and to make you feel like you’re missing out and need a change.
And so we click.
We click through ads that promise us that same happiness that we see our friends enjoying. We buy things that help us glam up our own personas by adding filters, buying light rings, and learning the right selfie angle to make our pictures really pop. We engage with content that tells us our kids need to be in more camps, need to learn more skills, need to have a long list of extra-curriculars.
Annnnnd cue the fear!
Bombarded by these messages daily, even hourly, we are left defenseless to the onslaught of subtle messaging telling us that we’re missing out, that our children are missing out. Over time, we begin to live that life - you know, the one that is so busy with scheduled stuff that there is no room for rest and relaxation. We begin to internalize the rat race as the correct way to live life. We begin to let fomo ruin (ahem, run) our lives.
The down side of fomo
There are many, many down sides of fomo, and this post is not not a fomo post after all, so I won’t even attempt to cover them all. I will however share a few that I believe are particularly problematic.
- Fomo causes us to lose control of our lives. We move to a space where the driving force is social media, or what our friends share with us, or what we see on TV. Regardless of the source, fomo causes us to relinquish control over where we spend our time and how we spend our thought energies.
- Fomo doesn’t allow us to enjoy life. Le joie de vivre is not experienced by running around following our fears; rather, it is experienced by ignoring everything else and focusing on the current moment.
- Fomo does not elevate life. It is focused on the surface, on the veneer. It causes us to spend our time replicating the actions of others instead of introspecting and expanding on the grand and elevated life.
So what’s the alternative?
The joy of missing out
To figure out an alternative mindset, let’s first dive into why fomo exists in the first place.
Popular culture tells us that missing out on something is bad, and as such is something that we should be fearful of. It tells us that when we miss out on something, our life is less than it would have been if we hadn’t missed out, and as a result we ought to aim to never miss out on things.
That fundamental line of thinking has driven so much of our industry, our products, and our cultural norms. It is deemed socially acceptable for one to be out with friends but also having a full asynchronous texting conversation that requires concentrating on one’s phone for 30 seconds every several minutes. It is normal for one to receive a notification and pull out one’s phone, handle the event, and return to the conversation without any apology because there’s nothing culturally wrong with the behavior!
Not only is this rude, but it also misses out on a basic premise of human life: one cannot fully appreciate that which one is not fully immersed or present in.
This means that by having fomo, by multi-tasking, being never fully present, and by attempting to keep abreast of all the social media posts and topics that are constantly bombarding our phones, we miss the life that is being lived in front of our eyes. In other words, fomo is causing us to have a worse life.
Instead, we should realize that missing out is a good thing. In economics, we’re taught that the opportunity cost of investing in option A is the ability to invest in every other option out there. But if we invest in a way such that we want to not pay any opportunity costs, then we don’t make any investments at all and therefore remain stagnant. If we choose to hedge our bets and invest a little in everything, we completely fail to capture exceptional growth events in a particular option.
This is exactly true in our personal lives as well. To have a rich and full life, we must choose things to invest in, and by definition pay the opportunity cost of not being able to invest in everything else. In other words, missing out on one thing means that we’ve invested fully in something else. It means we’ve explicitly chosen something else to spend our time on, and in so choosing have committed ourselves to something rather than sitting around waiting for the possibility of something.
This is why we should live with the joy of missing out.
In order to fully embrace the richness of each experience, we need to ruthlessly prioritize what we spend our time on. A few notes on ruthless prioritization, as it’s slightly different than your standard prioritization.
- Ruthless prioritization requires a stack rank, with no ties. For you logic/math people out there, this means that for two goals A and B, it must be true that A > B or B > A. This also means there is no “P1 bucket”. Each discrete goal has its own priority, and it is explicitly not equal to any other.
- You cannot accomplish all your goals. There exists some maximum number of goals that are accomplishable in a given timespan, and that is almost always a smaller number than the things that you might want to have on your priorities list. This means explicitly that there are things on your list that you will not be able to accomplish. This is hard for many people to accept, and as a result many try (and fail) to do a little bit of everything. This is foolish, and will always end in either failure or in burning yourself out.
- Goal N+1 will always be the worst! This is because it was just under the line, which means that it’s something you value. As a result, it will be tempting to spend just a little bit of time on it. Don’t. You need to actively decide not to do it, as it didn’t make the list.
By actively prioritizing the things that you do, you intentionally set aside things that you would have liked to do but aren’t going to, which in turn allows you to focus on the things that are the most important! Welcome to the joy of missing out!
And so my boys, my hope for you is that you’re able to experience the deep joy that comes from a life well lived, filled with rich experiences and strong connections with loved ones. My prayer is that you never fear missing out on things but instead take joy in the knowledge that you’ve intentionally decided on the experiences you want in your life, as well as those that you don’t.
I am not a mind reader. I can’t read your minds, can’t predict what you’re going to do next, and can’t know how you’re feeling or what you’re actively concerned about. ‘But of course,’ you say, ‘no one can do that.’
And yet that’s often the unspoken expectation in many of our relationships.
Take a minute to process that. While I’m sure everyone would agree that they themselves cannot read minds, but we often expect others to read our minds. Sure, we may disguise that desire in cliches. “If she really knew me, she would know what I think about this thing”. “I’ve raised him and lived with him for his 25 years. He should know what I want”. “We’ve been married for 10 years. He should know what makes me happy”. “We grew up together. She knows me like the back of her own hand”.
This type of thinking is not the mark of a mature adult. It is unrealistic and impractical. It typically indicates that the individual has not spent the time to learn and understand the depth of relationships and the work required to attain them, and by extension that they do not and cannot experience the richest depth relationships have to offer. More on that later.
Why we expect people to read our minds
At a young age, we were taught that when we cry, mommy and daddy know what we want and give it to us. While they may not be right on the first time, they generally get it within a few tries. This is easy when you’re a newborn - all you do is eat, sleep, and poop.
However, many of us have not progressed past that. Once we mastered language, we were never taught to rewire our actions and our expectations to incorporate advanced communication. The Good Book provides some instruction here:
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” - 1 Corinthians 13:11
To certain degrees, we have all done this. We’ve grown, we’ve developed the necessary communication skills to get by in professional and many social settings. We’ve learned to give presentations, to send and respond to party invitations, and to communicate with kids’ teachers and counselors.
And yet when it comes to communicating about our feelings, our desires, or our fears, most of us still follow the ways of childhood. We expect others to extrapolate from a small statement about putting a plate in the sink that we feel uneasy without a spotless kitchen at the end of the night. We demand perfect recall from our partner of every comment we’ve made in passing about our desires. How dare they not forget? Do they not love us or care for us?
We are not mind readers.
We desire to be known
Some of this stems from our desire to be known. As people, we need connection. We were built for relationship. We thrive in community. We need diversity. We need novelty, new inputs, and different perspectives in our lives.
This need to be known is natural, and is a great thing. Human connection is strongest and the most uplifting when we are wholly known. Collaboration is at its maximum, motivation and inspiration soar, and sparks of new ideas fly when we deeply and completely connect with someone, know, and are known by them.
But we’re also lazy.
We desire to be known without wanting to do the work required to build the type of relationships that allow us to be fully known. We have some notion that the level of connection we’re looking for should happen without our need to learn about it or to apply any effort to get it. We believe that time should be sufficient. That the simple fact of being childhood friends, of being married for a decade, or of having grown up sharing a room (and some hand-me-down clothes) should be sufficient and should automatically make us known.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way relationships in reality work. That level of connection requires one very important thing that most of us are quite poor at: being vulnerable.
Being vulnerable is a skill
When we were young, vulnerability came easily. We had few desires (eat, sleep, poop) and were quite ready to communicate (cry, wail, tantrum) them to anyone that would listen. So far so good.
But then as we grew, we developed more awareness of ourselves. We began to understand and feel embarrassment. We were taught about propriety and civility. We began to see the complex social systems around us. And we began to feel fear.
So much so that by the time we grew into our teenage years, most of us retreated into the recesses of our being, determined to avoid the embarrassment that comes from having the spotlight shone on us. Our bodies were changing - our hormones and thought processes were continually evolving, adapting to the new situations we found ourselves in. Our physical discomfort was made worse by our mental and emotional discomfort, and so we employed self preservation mechanisms.
Unfortunately, most of these mechanisms created separation and isolation. We expressed apathy towards things. We retreated to our rooms behind closed doors. We resorted to hiding behind the facade of a well-curated social media persona that we carefully crafted for ourselves.
As we reached adulthood, we came horribly unequipped and ill prepared for the type of vulnerability required to build the deep relationships that we crave. To add insult to injury we even began believing that this is simply the way things are, and that this level of arms length relationship is all that is possible and feasible as adults.
Thankfully we are wrong. It is possible to enjoy a deeper closeness than many of us grew up believing. It is possible to be in an environment and relationship where one can express themselves wholly and not be judged, and in fact be accepted, celebrated, and valued. But we must work on it. We must learn, we must experiment, we must take risks. To get the attainable amount of closeness we desire, we must develop the skill of vulnerability.
Learning to communicate
Arguably the most important skill a human being can ever develop, communication is the very core of any society, modern or ancient, and is the key to creating the environment of trust and vulnerability that we need to flourish. We must learn to skillfully communicate our needs, desires, and fears in a way that invites positive reciprocation and deepens relationship. To do that, we need to realize a few things.
- Being vulnerable is a risk. By definition, it is taking the risk to put oneself out there without defenses, with nothing but the hope that we will not be attacked while our guard is down. But there is great reward as well. If we put ourselves out there, and the other party reciprocates and instead of slamming us nurtures and loves us, our lack of defenses actually multiplies and intensifies the closeness experienced, and by extension the strength of the relationship built. As such, it is important to be judicious about who you are vulnerable with, and who you bring into your inner circle to share yourself with.
- You will most likely have to take the first step. Bridges are built from both ends, but getting to mutual agreement on the bridge often requires one side to start building first to demonstrate commitment to the investment. Which side starts is of no importance; it therefore might as well be you.
- In any communication, how you communicate matters as much (if not more) than what you communicate. This means things like tone, body language, choice of words, facial expressions - all of these matter as much as the message itself.
So how do we improve here? A couple of quick thoughts.
- Read. There are tons of books that provide great perspectives on communicating and how we can learn to be more effective at it. Books like Nonviolent Communication, The Charisma Myth, and the classic How to win friends and influence people to name a few are great resources that expand our understanding of communication.
- Take a small, calculated risk. Small victories where we can expose some vulnerability, can communicate some small facet of ourselves unknown to the other will lead to larger risks and larger victories. Going big to start is a surefire way for you to go home immediately after.
- Be persistent. Know that just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, a deep and vulnerable relationship takes time to build. Because they are rare, your relation may not be immediately receptive. Stay the course.
In learning to communicate, in learning to create spaces of trust that promotes vulnerability, we remove the need for our partners, friends, and colleagues to read our minds. And so my boys, my hope for you is that you will develop the skills necessary to have relationships and partnership where not only do they not need to read your mind, but you also do not have to read theirs.
If there’s one thing in the world that I wish to be known as, it’s this; to be a lifelong learner. Over and above every other possible thing, I hope to be remembered as someone who was always learning, always looking for great inputs, always considering those inputs against his current perspective, and always willing and ready to have a mind shifting conversation. No matter what the realm we’re considering; be it relationship, engineering, management and leadership, spirituality, or even health or politics, I hope to have the attitude and mindset of one that is learning, all the days of my life.
This is because the world we live in is incredibly vast, and gets increasingly more complex with each year that passes. So much so that it is impossible for any one person to see it all, know it all, experience it all. The wealth of knowledge and wisdom that is collected, refined, and passed down through generations is awe-inspiring. There is much richness contained there that we ought to tap into in order to further accelerate our experience.
We were all born with an innate drive for progress. Whether you’re a creationist that believes that this is the breath of God in you or an evolutionist that believes that this trait is what made our forefathers fittest to survive, it is undeniable that we each have a spark; a special, mystical force within us that compels us forward.
And learning is the very core of that.
So then, if it’s so important, why do so many of us struggle with it? Not only in our formative years where we’re expected to learn, but in our later years where we have choice and as such choose not to continue? Why have we been so ill-equipped to truly be lifelong learners?
How we were trained to think about learning
When we were young, our education systems taught us that learning was for a purpose, and that purpose was the same for each of us. We were taught that learning was for the purpose of passing exams. Because ultimately, if you do well on exams, then you’d have a leg up on life, and you’d be able to succeed and have a great life.
And so everything we did at a young age revolved around this simple idea that the goal of learning was success. The process was laid out simply as learning -> acceptance to a good college -> get a good job -> have a good life.
That simple idea framed everything. It impacted what we read and how we read it. It caused us to think of writing as a means to that end. It changed how we research and expanded on our ideas. It engulfed the first 20+ years of our lives with an all-consuming requirement that most of us don’t realize is wrong until much, much later.
Allow me to restate the obvious just for completeness: the goal of learning is not to pass exams.
Why we learn
There are many intermediate goals that we may have in our lives for which learning is a required part of the journey (yes, passing exams is one of those). However, I would propose a more lofty goal.
The goal of learning is to gain wisdom, knowledge, and perspective that we can then apply to every facet of our lives.
Each of us has our own path to forge, our own destiny to follow, and our own legacy to leave. We each want to live a great life. We desire many things for ourselves; success, love, greatness, wealth, happiness, relationship. The list is long but distinguished for each of us, but at the end of it all, we each want to know that we lived a rich and full life.
At a young age, we believed that life to be about maximizing self, especially in comparison to others. We strove to be on top, to beat others. We loved (and for many, still love) being right a lot. This is because being right has a lot of beneficial side effects.
Not only do we get the pleasure of knowing that we were right and did the right thing, but we get reinforced by a number of forces both internal and external when we’re right. We may get praise when we’re right. We may be rewarded. We may gain trust and earn respect from our peers. We may be seen in high regard in our community.
Taken with the right attitude, there is nothing wrong with being right a lot. In fact, society on a whole moves forward by people striving to be right and to do the right thing. However, there are two ways to be right a lot. One is to learn a lot. The other is to never leave your niche.
It is good to leave your niche.
Disagreement as you learn
Only a fool assumes they know everything. Wise men know the limits of their own knowledge and are thirsty for more. They leave their niches in search for more wisdom and knowledge. They endeavor to learn; from experiences, and from others.
It is human nature to think about ourselves. Everyone can do that. However, it is unnatural (ie not sinister, but simply not natural) for people to think about others, to see things from their perspective, and to thoughtfully disagree in a way that encourages communication and facilitates joint learning.
As such, we must learn to appreciate (and develop!) the art of thoughtful disagreement. When you are able to find someone that can disagree with you thoughtfully and unemotionally, hold on to that - those people are rare!
Remember that it is pointless to be angry at a disagreement. Disagreements should not be seen as threats but rather as opportunities for learning and for refining one’s perspective.
How we learn
Ultimately, learning boils down to taking in new inputs, analyzing those against our current system of thought and belief, and determining how we adjust those beliefs in response to the input. These inputs can be new experiences, new ideas, or new rumination and insights gained about existing ideas.
There are three major ways to get new inputs: reading, ruminating, and living.
The traditional method of learning has us reading a text in order to strengthen a given argument. It starts with the assumption that the argument is true and then leaves us to confirm that. If you want to learn to be a better leader, read a book on how to lead. If you want to learn to cook well, read a book on how to cook.
As simple as this approach is, it’s insufficient at best and outright wrong at worst.
There is so much more to reading an article, book, or passage than the singular idea that one is trying to develop. With this top down approach, we throw out other sub themes that may be incredibly insightful for us.
A quick example that many of us have done. You’re reading a leadership book. Why would you care about the author’s anecdote about social justice? Just skip that and move on.
This type of top down learning is incredibly inefficient, and promotes echo chambers of confirmation bias.
Learning and insight must come from the bottom up. It is done by developing many ideas bottom up and seeing which ideas and arguments develop naturally, and then following those threads to their natural conclusion. It is from those naturally developed arguments that our thinking evolves and our beliefs and convictions are shaped!
As such, we should read for the sake of discovering something new. If we approach our reading as an act of discovery, we not only remove that confirmation bias, but we welcome diversity. Finding contradictory points and arguments now becomes exciting, because the our approach values and promotes diversity. This then impacts our enjoyment and subsequently our desire to read more, which impacts our opportunities for greater learning.
What do you think about when you think of the term ‘ruminating’? If you’re like me, my mind conjures up images of standing at some great height, with the camera angle pointing upwards at me as I stare reflectively off into the distance. Some pensive soundtrack is playing, like Debussy’s Clair de Lune or Bach’s Cello Suite in G Major.
Of course, life doesn’t actually happen that way.
Much of the time, ruminating can be tough. For even the most well-intentioned ruminator, this endeavor if left undisciplined and untrained can quickly devolve into an aimless wandering of the mind, much akin to a daydream.
In his book How to take smart notes Sonke Ahrens describes a wondrous system that utilizes the discipline of writing as a refining tool for our thinking. At a young age, we were trained to write for the purpose of validating learning. We wrote exams and papers to demonstrate that we indeed learned the topic at hand.
Ahrens argues that we have to change our mindset to one that views writing as a generator of learning. Writing causes us to learn, causes us to study, causes us to debate, converse, and participate in the public realm of knowledge. When we write, our brains think about what we’re attempting to write about, and formulates connections with all the other inputs that we’ve got floating around in there.
It is this act of synthesis that accelerates our learning. In order for the brain to write down a tangible and meaningful statement, it must consider our vast amounts of inputs on a topic and summarize it into something useful to be written. This is the very act of focusing our ruminations. It is directed. It is intentional. It is disciplined.
We often overemphasize this one by chalking everything up to “learning through life experience”. Yes, life experience gives us many inputs. It gives us many opportunities for which new ideas may be encountered. It provides many challenging situations for us to endeavor to overcome.
But all of these opportunities require the right framing. They require the right mindset. They require courage. They require us to lean not on the understanding of others.
We must have the courage to use our own understanding. We cannot truly learn and understand if we are always applying knowledge only in the fashion by which we are instructed! Life experience allows us to extrapolate our knowledge into real experiences, and to learn how we can continually do better.
Have an open mind
I’ll leave you with one final thought; approach life with an open mind.
Often, the most profound lessons in our lives come from the most unlikely places. Remember that there are lessons to be learned everywhere. Having an open mind allows us to learn from anything and anyone, to take the lifetime of learnings from others and to add those to our own journey.
And that ultimately allows us to be the best selves that we can be.
We live in a world of instant gratification, of content on demand, and of immediate feedback. We are constantly looking for ways to eliminate toil, to remove delays, and to get exactly what we want, when we want it. People are always looking for quick fixes.
Take a look at your reading feed. As I write this, I’m using Medium as the hosting provider, which means that I get daily emails from Medium with suggested stories for me to read. 99% of those stories have headlines like “5 things you need to do to get your life on track” or “3 easy steps to achieve your career goals”. Almost every headline is some small set of steps to get quick results, some hack to eliminate the toil and time needed.
That is not how character is made.
Character is developed slowly, over time. It is intentional. It is a painstaking process. It requires grit, determination, and will. It is the explicit declaration that it is not what we accomplish that matters most, but how we accomplish it. It is the understanding that the journey, the struggle, the road taken to get there, wherever that may be, is of primary importance.
And so we must struggle well.
We must learn to shift our aim to the struggle, the growth, and the refinement of character. Otherwise, we will never be satisfied. By achieving our goals, we are often left empty - it is not the achievement, the attainment of the prize, or the trophy rewarded to us after that satisfies and fulfills; it is the knowledge that we have struggled well.
To some extent, the outcome doesn’t even matter!
Yes, we need a great outcome to set our eyes on, to inspire, to motivate. But ultimately, whether we achieve it or not in the long run is less important. “If you shoot for the moon and miss, you’re still among the stars”. “Life’s a journey, not a destination”. So much conventional wisdom tells us that it is not the goal that matters, but the struggle.
This is why at the end of his life, the Apostle Paul is able to say that “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day”. Beautiful.
Paul knew that the struggle mattered, not the outcome. And so we too need to struggle well. We need to set ourselves up not for success but for a well-fought battle, regardless of outcome.
Nature tells us that strength is better than weakness. Whether you’re an evolutionist that believes in survival of the fittest, a capitalist that believes in the best product winning, or simply a compassionate human that believes in helping those that are in need, our world tells us that strength is something to be desired.
We also know that struggling builds strength. Physical strength is built with exercise. Mental fortitude is built with dedicated time and energy spent on development, analysis, and understanding of oneself. Emotional strength is built by experience, by reflection, and by understanding. Every facet of our lives is made stronger by struggle.
It is the very reason that we take on challenges that stretch us, and is the reason why we grow the most when we are out of our depth. It is the process by which we grow, by which we refine. It is the very act of moving life forward.
What does it mean to struggle well?
We know that life has a plethora of challenges that every human needs to deal with, and we know that not everyone handles those challenges well. So what does it mean to struggle well?
First of all, struggling well requires mental fortitude. We must be people of perseverance and determination. This requires us to have a big picture view and vision of our situation so that we can see the value of our struggling and the growth that comes at the end of it. It requires us to take things in perspective of our grander journey, and to both see and play the long game.
This is hard.
Humans are hard wired to look for quick wins, to optimize for the immediate and local, to think about self ahead of the greater collective. With that mindset, people will avoid the struggle and take the paths of least resistance that allows them to get to the greatest gain with the least effort. Resist that.
Next, struggling well requires a framework or an archetype. It is not enough to simply struggle. By struggling without thought, reason, purpose, or framing, we simply struggle without gain (and often without benefit or positive outcome). Instead, we must be thoughtful about our endeavors, and be intentional about the purpose for which we struggle.
When we struggle for the sake of learning, for the pursuit of our passions, or for the advancement of something we believe in, we struggle well. For when the going gets tough we need things to sustain us, reasons to keep us going. It is not enough for us to struggle through by sheer willpower alone; no, that won’t produce the outcomes that we desire. Rather, struggle well for a cause, for a reason, for a purpose, and presently you will discover that after your time of struggle you will have evolved and grown not just despite the struggle, but rather because of the struggle. And we know that for mankind, evolving is life’s greatest accomplishment and its greatest reward.
Lastly, struggling well requires reflection. It is not enough to simply power through the rough times in life. Rather, we must recover, pause, and take time to reflect on our experiences during the struggle so that we can reframe, digest, and evolve as humans. It is that reflection that ultimately brings about our growth.
And so my boys, I urge for you to struggle well. Do not struggle in vain, without cause, reason, or purpose, but rather for a vision grander than the mundane so that you too will be refined in your struggling, and will become better men because of it.
We live in a world filled with conflict. Whether we’re talking about global conflict between countries, national conflict between two parties, local conflict between two rival groups, or personal conflict between two spouses, our world is full of conflict that happens at every scale at every second. Much of that conflict, unfortunately, is handled poorly and causes divide.
We grow up being taught that there are two sides to every conflict, that conflict must be adversarial, and that there are winners and losers. We glorify that concept and even create such lasting impressions in movies, literature, and eventually in our minds.
Glorious scenes like the one from The Rock where Major Baxter (played by David Morse) points a gun at the head of General Hummel (played by Ed Harris) and says, “like he said General, you’re either with us or against us”. Even the Good Book highlights this in Romans 8:31 where Paul writes “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
As a result, this “us vs them” mentality is rampant everywhere from our schoolyards to our political systems. While this may be a useful psychological technique to generate polarization for furthering one’s end, I would argue that this is an unhealthy way to live. Instead, I’d challenge you to reframe your thinking and instead internalize the belief that
There is no “them”. Only “us”.
Since the days of Cain and Abel, our world has been divided. And since Cain and Abel our world has had much bloodshed, hatred, and poorly handled conflict at every scale.
Conflict isn’t bad
Now, I should start by stating clearly that conflict isn’t bad. Rather, I believe that conflict is very healthy and when handled productively is a huge benefit to humankind. But that’s a big condition, for us to handle conflict productively. There is no way to handle it productively if we believe that there are sides, if we believe that there are winners and losers. Instead, we should adopt the mindset that there is no “them”. The person sitting on the other side of the table isn’t our enemy. We shouldn’t be looking to win in our arguments with our spouses.
As a result, many of us try to avoid conflict. Because we’ve had negative experiences with conflict and don’t have great tools to resolve conflict productively, we try to avoid it. Our safety mechanism is to avoid and deflect. Even for those whose default is not to deflect, avoiding conflict tends to be a favored approach.
But there ought to be nuances there.
There should be a difference on what we’re having conflict about. There should be a difference when we can have conflict in a healthy fashion. There should be a difference when the thing we’re conflicted over is the pursuit of excellence. This type of conflict is good for us, and assuming we’re able to work through it well in a healthy, trusting, and communicative environment, we should not only not avoid conflict but should actively welcome it (and perhaps pursue it!) in this context.
We need to learn to see conflict as a healthy part of our growth, our development, and our learning. Because we know conflict is a regular part of interaction with others, we need to create an environment where vulnerability and honesty are prevalent, and we’re on the same side of the table. This is the first and foremost requirement, for without honesty and vulnerability there is no connection and real conversation. And disconnection brings about adversarial tendencies and perspectives.
Next, we need to be thoughtful about our conversation and our debates. We need to be willing to adjust, to accommodate, and to understand one another. This requires a degree of empathy, but it also requires patience. Patience to hear the other person’s point of view, as well as patience to thoughtfully consider whether or not the opposing view in front of you actually is something you can resonate with.
Lastly, we need agreed upon ways to decide if we can’t agree. This is critical for the long term health of the relationship. This agreed upon manner must be fair and equitable so that no one walks away with feelings of building resentment over time.
Being open minded
So how do we move to a place where we’re able to healthy sit next to one another at the table instead of at opposite sides?
By being open minded.
Open minded people want their ideas debated and challenged so that they can be refined. Open minded people realize that they don’t know everything, and in fact know very little and have a lot to learn. Open minded people view their lives as a journey with others; one where we’re all in this together to search for and discover the richest life possible.
Open minded people tend to:
- Seek feedback regularly and honestly
- Be vulnerable and humble in their approach and perspectives
- Ask a lot of clarifying questions with the goal of furthering their understanding
- Enjoy disagreements as an opportunity for learning
- Sit next to someone and look for ways to expand their thoughts
Closed minded people don’t want their ideas challenged because they take them as idictments. Closed minded people tend to:
- Get frustrated when they can’t get the other person to agree with them
- Are more likely to make statements than ask questions
- Focus on being understood rather than understanding others
- Ask leading questions designed to trap others to see their point of view
- Sit across from someone and look for ways to shut down their opinions
Lastly, value unity. There is so much division and derision in this world without our adding to it. In my life, I’ve had my share of unifying moments and dividing ones both as the victim of those moments and the instigator. Sadly, in my youth I’ve too often been the instigator of dividing moments, most (if not all) of which are very regrettable. Many of those dividing events were driven from principle, from hurt, from self-preservation. It took a lot of pain and work to learn that whatever satisfaction I got from those actions was always short lived and ultimately not conducive to me learning to become the man that I desired to be.
Instead, I’ve been learning to see the value of togetherness, of building unity, and of being a peacemaker. Despite it being hard, unintuitive, and often very frustrating, I’ve learned that unity and connection is far better than being right, than being justified in my righteous indignation.
Turns out a life of togetherness is much happier, much richer, and much more fulfilling than a life that is proven right often but regularly lonely. Turns out acceptance, understanding, and compassion is far more rewarding than one of validation, vindication, and judgment.
And so my boys, I urge you to learn at whatever age you can that there ought to be no “them”. No matter who you imagine sitting on the other side of the table, no matter who you think is standing in the way of your goals, no matter who you believe has it out for you, I can assure you that you will have much better conflict resolution and lead a much happier life if you think of those people as “us”.
We live in a world that is increasingly polarized and extreme, and in a time where everyone seems to have strong opinions that are strongly held (and unfortunately, usually weakly researched). Many folks with extreme thoughts are also closed off to other inputs and conversations from folks with differing perspectives. The unfortunate result of which is further divide and disconnect between people. Some of this is natural.
In the past century, our world has gotten a lot smaller. Air travel prices have drastically reduced such that the average person is able to fly and see much more of the world than ever before (in 2022 the Gallup poll stats show that the average American flies 1.4 times a year). Video conferencing technologies make it possible to talk to virtually anyone in the world in real time. The internet has made it possible to access news, research, and opinions from anywhere and everywhere in the world instantaneously.
In this environment, it is natural that those seeking to be heard and to build a platform would have to differentiate themselves. Since your local newspaper is no longer your only source for news, agencies and publications need to differentiate themselves. The media is shaped by “newsworthiness”, which is in turn shaped by what is trending on Twitter and Facebook. The easiest way to get things to trend? Toss outrageous extreme grenades at core beliefs and watch it rain.
This type of extremism, while being occasionally amusing at best and purposefully confrontational at worst, does not lead you to a great life. It does not bring people together. It does not create a better world. It does not bring the type of vulnerable closeness that we seek, and does not lead to great and long-lasting outcomes.
The pitfalls of extremism
There are many pitfalls to extremism of any sort, but that’s not our primary topic today so we’ll touch on this only briefly. In my mind there are two major downfalls of extremism as we see it playing out in our world.
The first is that it divides and does not unite. Having strong opinions is fine - great even. But those strong opinions must be weakly held, and must be fair game for honest and open conversation and debate, and must not close the door for collaboration. Remember that human life is created to move forward together. We were created for relationship.
Oliver Burkeman put it perfectly in his book Four Thousand Weeks:
“The truth is that almost everything worth doing, from marriage and parenting to business or politics, depends on cooperating with others.”
Put simply, extremism breaks cooperation.
Second, our current rendition of extremism is not open to other ideas. Rather than allowing new information from opposing opinions to change our minds and provide us perspective, these encounters tend to deepen our certainty about our own perspectives. This echo chamber is further amplified by social media’s knack for surfacing more opinions that are like ours (and slightly more extreme than ours - as we said above, grenades generate great click rates).
A balanced approach
In contrast, there is much beauty to be found outside of the extremes.
Consider a simple example. We hold in high regard the quality of courage. We make movies about men and women who demonstrate high amounts of courage. We give awards, commendations, and much recognition for courageous acts. It is a trait we believe the paragon of virtue contains.
Yet this trait taken to either extreme is bad. In extreme excess, this trait becomes rashness. In extreme deficiency, this trait becomes cowardice. We need the balanced middle; courage.
Another example. There is a fine line between neediness and vulnerability. It is perfectly fine to vulnerably express that things have been quiet of late and therefore one has been lonely. That is explicitly different than expressing that one is lonely and needs to never be left alone again.
Aristotle provides the following framework, for which we’ve filled in a few examples:
|Vice from deficiency||Balance||Vice from excess|
Our world is not characterized by balance. We all too often lean into either excess, and see examples of those all around us.
Learning through diversity
Why is it so common for people to lean into excesses? To address this, it’s useful to understand how our childhood programming around learning factors into all of this.
We were taught that when we learn, whether we are reading, discussing, or experiencing, we gather inputs in order to strengthen a given argument. We start with the assumption that our belief is true and then we seek to confirm that. We need to flip our understanding of learning so that we learn from the bottom up. We need to read, ponder, and process for the purpose of gleaning knowledge and wisdom from the text, not to reinforce an idea we’ve already held.
By adjusting thus, we not only remove that confirmation bias, but we welcome diversity. Finding contradictory points and arguments now becomes exciting because it gives us an opportunity to expand our thinking, and to gather more perspectives on a given topic.
In work as in life, perspective matters. But more than that, knowing which perspective to adopt is essential, and our ability to find the right level of zoom and the right altitude to take will be critical to our continued growth along the path that we’ve intentionally set ourselves out on.
Let me unpack that.
First, it is good to understand that there are many different perspectives to any given situation. Having a good range of perspectives that you can understand so that you can pick and choose the right one to handle a given situation will be very beneficial.
Next, figure out the right zoom level. When you zoom in as deep as you can, many details emerge that you could not see at higher altitudes; perhaps you can see the details of the seashell in your hand, and its intricate colors and contours and textures. Zooming out, you are able to see that this seashell was sitting on a beach filled with many other seashells. Further still, you are able to see that this beach is a part of a river, lake, or ocean. Even further and you are able to see that this river flows from one large body of water to another.
We need to be able to discern when it is in our best interest to zoom in and look at all the granular details and when it is best to zoom out and look at the big picture. We need to determine which perspective and zoom level gives us the best perspective to make the best decision possible.
It is said that life is a series of individual moments that make up a larger path. Each of these moments requires us to pick the right perspective so that we can best stick to the larger path that we intend for our life progression.
Balancing impact and savoring life
We’re often told that we need to go big or go home. We’re trained to think about our careers as the thing of utmost importance. We’re pushed to be productive, to have lasting impact, to have great effect on our teams, our industries, and our world.
And somewhere along the way, we accepted that this came at the expense of savoring life.
But here too, it is possible to have a balance! The key is to think through what you want and how hard you want to run after each thing. We must realize that in life, as in work, there are skills to be developed, discipline to be employed, and learning to be had to savor and enjoy life to the full.
Yes, you read that right. We need to learn and apply effort to enjoying life.
We grow up believing we need to put effort into school, into learning new skills, into getting better at sports, at music, at art. But for some reason, we think that relationships should be easy. We think that enjoying life should be easy. We think that finding someone who you can spend your life with, and who you can squeeze every ounce of enjoyment and pleasure out of life with should be easy.
It takes as much effort, learning, intention, and instruction to savor life as it does to be highly impactful in our world. We need to therefore work hard to get as much of both as possible, and in doing so find the right balance for us at every given moment.
A final word on solutions
Something I’m learning is that there are no solutions, only adjustments for a certain time. Today’s solutions become tomorrow’s problems. As such, I want to encourage you not to think of any of this as a solution for how to live a balanced life. Rather, we make adjustments for a time, for a season, for a spell. And when it is appropriate to do so, we reevaluate and make more adjustments.
My sons, life is dynamic. It is free flowing. It is full of beauty, of joy, of sadness, of sorrow. It is rich with color, abundant in love, spotted with pain, with the occasional streaks of anger. It is best experienced together, with vulnerability and trust.
My hope for you is that you live lives that are not characterized by extreme behaviors but rather of balanced, thoughtful, mindful, and measured.