On Rethinking and Challenging Convictions

Life Tools + Systems + Mental Models

Convictions are the steel I-beams of our identities. The operating system for how we perceive the world and make decisions. I don’t know enough about cars to give a vehicular example – convictions are the Johnson rods1 for people? They’re incredibly important is what I’m driving at – convictions, not cars. 

From developing an authoritarian view on what qualifies as ‘real coffee’ to the way you interact with members of the hospitality industry, convictions are omnipresent in our lives, often operating quietly in the background.

For decades of our lives, they form passively. Our upbringing, experiences at school and work, and the general content and events we’re exposed to, by pure chance, all leave little imprints on the people we become.

Eventually, we start making decisions for ourselves more consciously (hopefully). We get older, work more, get into Apple store confrontations, develop more intimate relationships, and realize our takeout dipping sauce is missing – and through these experiences we choose how to respond, and subsequently what matters.

When we hit our stride and start finding confidence in the person we are (and are becoming), we settle into our convictions. Into how we think. Across the landscape of hobbies, ambitions, creature comforts, and relationships we have, we form an identity, with faults, which makes sense to us. Which keeps us going. Which keeps us alive.

As we balance the clumsy concoction of ambitions and convictions, of beliefs and an ever-changing world around us, the familiarity we ease into calcifies in our mind. The wisdom we gained to form our convictions, our mental OS, becomes less malleable. Without even realizing it, our convictions and wisdom crystalize. We become more susceptible to confirmation bias and stagnate our own psychological growth. We freeze construction on the worksite and stop adding and adjusting I-beams.

What’s so risky about this crystallization is it can quietly wall us off from new information and obscure our ability to glean insights from conflicting opinions. Everything starts to sound like a platitude or something that’s “easy for them to say”. It robs us of new data to improve our perspective, let alone change it.

 

Echoes from the summit  

The value behind convictions runs deeper than informing how we choose to respond in situations. They help us understand and inform what matters in life. The underlying virtues and concepts paint a clearer picture of how to live and what’s worth getting upset about. On what fits into our world and doesn’t. On how to think.

Stasis in our identity is well captured in the moments where we reject advice from those ‘at the top’ – people who have done very well for themselves and now seem to command an abundance of several or all of the following: wealth, intelligence, experience, and perspective on society and life. It can get murky, there are plenty of bad actors out there looking only to sell another book or capture another sound bite. But generally speaking, we have to fairly judge if someone is being authentic, well-intended, and if we are using common sense. 

Phrases like “easy for them to say” or “yeah ok, how am I supposed to do that” highlight this point effectively. In The Algebra of Happiness, Scott Galloway2 shares dozens of stories and insights on how, through his personal experiences and recent social and economic statistics, we can pursue living a good life. Scott Galloway is also a successful entrepreneur (millionaire), a three-time best-selling author, and a professor at NYU. It’s easy to roll your eyes and think “fuck that guy” or “how could I possibly do that”.

But that’s the point. Assumedly, we’re all trying to be the best versions of ourselves, of whoever we think we could be. Further, foolishly or not3, there is something we are all trying to pursue – some mountain to climb, some summit to reach. And maybe you haven’t found that mountain yet, or you realized you’re on the wrong one (likely a mix of both); you’re still moving and doing work. You’re still climbing4. And while you’re climbing, it’s going to be a struggle, so take all the advice (inputs) you can get. Particularly from people that have come before you.

I give this very specific example because all of us have some collection of ideas which make us roll our eyes. The dichotomy of where we are vs where someone else is and the advice that gets lost in the friction filled middle. Ideas which conflict with the way we view the world (or how we believe we view the world) or even our mood in any specific moment. Sometimes, even if it’s good (even great) advice, we just don’t like the way it sounds. We don’t want good advice because good advice is often simple in presentation and incredibly challenging in execution. So we wince when we hear it and shut the book when we read it. We don’t need to be told that, we think.

And in these moments, we silently and compulsively embody a dismissive mindset. Losing out on picking up another data point to broaden our perspective and improve our lives.5


We don’t just hesitate to rethink our answers. We hesitate at the very idea of rethinking.”
6


Letting our view of the world (our convictions and perspective) become a firewall against new (and more importantly differing) information, automatically lowers our odds of being right over a longer period of time7, and of becoming a wiser person. Instead, rethink. Entertain that you could be wrong. Or that it might be good to take in new inputs consistently to act as sign posts along your journey.
Stand on the shoulders of giants before you so that you can improve your odds and (re)calibrate your perspective. At the very least, it can act as a simple sanity check. Be open to perspectives and information that feel shitty. Information from the summit or other mountains can improve your journey. It may be the only way to improve your journey. What else is there? We can all learn something from everybody, even if it’s what not to do.

It’s not about changing your mind, it’s about being open to changing your mind. It’s about rethinking. Adam Grant covers this concept with depth and rigor in Think Again. For example, when reviewing the test performance of students, psychologists reviewing 33 studies on exam performance and answer revision activity found that in each of those 33 studies, the majority of answer revisions were from wrong to right. And in a separate study of eraser markings across the exams of 1,500 students, 50% of the changes were from wrong to right, while only 25% were from right to wrong.

It would seem that simply challenging the idea that they were right the first time proved to be a reliable indicator toward higher test scores8.

Doubting ourselves, or more effectively named rethinking, is seen exclusively as a weakness. The very idea of doubting your convictions into your adulthood is an indicator you “don’t have you your shit together”. Steadfastness and immovability are great design templates for statues, not people.

 

So what can we do?

Embrace doubt and humility. Be wrong more often.

Shrug off the burdensome weight of needing to relentlessly defend convictions and perspective. Become more curiously open to the ideas you come across and the questions you look to answer and worry less about putting on a strong front and embodying your ‘identity’. Focus on adding and improving I-beams, not just roping off the ones that are already there. Worry less about saying “no” and worry more about saying “why?” or “what’s the most important thing here?”.

The best part is your convictions don’t have to change. If your perspective and convictions are serving you well, keep them. Rarely is there a better fuel for greatness than a strong belief formed through experience which runs through you to your bones. But when we start to believe in our beliefs for the sake of maintaining them and catch ourselves in that psychological stasis – not taking in and seeking other perspectives – we stop growing and improving. We limit our own potential. We risk building toward an ideological compound fracture.

Seek new perspectives from anywhere and everywhere (remember, well-intended and authentic), and use them to improve your viewpoint. Use them to keep that OS up to date and running smooth.

Simply maintaining the belief that you could be wrong can be enough to open up your mind to let in exactly what you need. Additional pieces of knowledge from an expansive world of perspectives could inject the knowledge and wisdom you need at this very moment. All from taking a moment to think “well what’s important here? Maybe I’m wrong or missing something.”

With love/paranoia,
Nick

 

 

Notes

1. A la George Costanza on admitting what you know and Johnson Rods
2. The Algebra of Happiness by Scott Galloway | Great book for some biting insights, advice from the summit, and to shed some tears
3. As Buddhism would say, any desire = suffering, but unless you’re going to sit quietly atop a literal mountain, make sure your suffering to reach the summit of the right mountain
4. We’re all just looking for a mountain we can climb – Machu Pichu by The Strokes
5. Remember – well-intended, authentic, and ideally well-researched when making bold/significant claims. And don’t sit there and say “oh so I should just listen to everyone”. No of course not, don’t be such a cynic.
6. Quote by Adam Grant
7. Concept discussed within the broader concept of ‘rethinking’ in Think Again by Adam Grant. Intriguing depth, stories, and scientific support for the importance thoughtfully doubting what we know.
8. Adam Grant again – from the Prologue to Think Again: “About three quarters of students are convinced that revising their answer will hurt their score…when a trio of psychologists conducted a comprehensive review of thirty-three studies, they found that in every one, the majority of answer revisions were from wrong to right. This phenomenon is known as the first-instinct fallacy. In one demonstration, psychologists counted eraser marks on the exams of more than 1,500 students in Illinois. Only a quarter of the changes were from right to wrong, while half were from wrong to right.”

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