The most important things to read this year

When we’re young, we search and search for who we really are. This is often most apparent in our teen years as many of us run far from the beliefs our parents tried to instill in us throughout our years under their care.

In my house my brother went the route of tattoos and ‘punk’ style clothing, knowing full well it would anger my father to no end. There were many loud discussions about his choices as my father’s opinions were challenged and my brother pushed to find his authentic self.

of dirty hair

I was in my late teens and early 20s when I really strove to find the person I am now. I went through a phase with dreadlocks and what I call my ‘mountain man’ phase where I didn’t wash my hair for six months.

One thing I didn’t dive into, though, was opinions contrary to those I was brought up with. Challenging established beliefs is something many of us avoid. We fear that challenge because we wonder deep down inside if the things we hold dear can actually weather the storm of challenge. What if all our beliefs prove to be hollow? Under examination, will we be proven to be hollow, straw people with no substance?

of hard work

But here’s the thing:  By not really challenging our beliefs with differing opinions we run the risk that our beliefs will get blown over by some bigger storm later. Like muscles that get exercised to the point of breaking down and then build themselves back stronger, so too our beliefs can only truly become strong when we put them under pressure. Inside this pressure cooker is where they get refined. When they get broken down and we are forced to rebuild them, we almost invariably rebuild new beliefs that can withstand the force that crumbled the old ones.

So many people around you are lazy when it comes to self-examination. They sit back and read list posts online that confirm their beliefs and offers three new facts to spout when they get challenged. While they may feel they’re currently comfortable in their own skin, the sad truth is that they haven’t even started the quest to find that skin in which they fit.

Let’s agree to not be those people. If you’re religious like I am, dive into books that say religion is silly — and reason out why, in the face of evidence, that your beliefs may not be true. Then reconcile within yourself why you still sit firmly in your faith.

your reading

When I was working on my book on proposals I didn’t just read one book on writing good proposals. I read every single one I could get my hands on, including books on agile methodology that said proposals up front were a ridiculous waste of time. In fact the most important reading I did was books that I didn’t agree with. On those I made the most notes as I came up with arguments around why I didn’t believe them.

I had, also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favorable ones – Charles Darwin

Even in the midst of that I think I missed something. I didn’t effectively dive into the shoes of the writers of those books and try to understand their perspective. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it’s simply not something I thought of. This diving into the opinions of other so deeply that you understand why they hold them is the only way to really challenge your own beliefs. If you stop before that then you’ve stopped your work short of the best it could be.

of searching

In his book, The Shallows, author Nicholas Carr says this about Google:

…no matter how long the company is able to maintain its dominance over the flow of digital information, its intellectual ethic will remain the general ethic of the Internet as a medium – The Shallows

We spend much of our days searching for solutions to the problems we’re having. For most of us this portal to the Internet is Google. While there are many amazing things about this search engine and its ability to produce results relevant to what we want, there is also a secret, insidious side that warps our view of any field we investigate online.

Using its fancy algorithms, Google shows us relevant search results. If you’re looking for a local sushi place then this is great since Google will filter out all the sushi restaurants that you can’t get to for lunch today. If you’re looking into your deeply-held beliefs, this is damaging. By continuing to display only results similar to those we’ve clicked on before, Google is helping our confirmation bias grow ever stronger. We’re merely greasing the pathways of the beliefs we already hold. Since everyone is already deeply entrenched in confirmation bias as a way of life, we trend towards polarizing views, believing the ‘other side’ is some grand villain who does nothing but evil.

By continuing to feed our confirmation bias we risk turning into brittle beings, holding onto shallow beliefs with an iron fist. When the smallest challenge comes up we know deep down that the things we hold dear won’t stand up to the stress. So we go on defense — we lash out with name-calling and vitriol, hoping that by yelling loud enough we will prevent the dissenting voices from putting us to the test. Our vanity in this tells us to assume that the other side is dumb and worth our contempt.

If you don’t want to be that person, then be prepared to do the work required to have an opinion.

of the work

It really only takes one thing to develop a strong belief that can weather the storm of challenge with grace and eloquence. In the words of Charlie Munger:

I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.

We too must strive for this ideal, this quest to be able to master the opinion we don’t agree with. Not just understand the opinion, but become an expert on it. Doing so gives us credibility in the eyes of those with whom we disagree. Once they see us as an expert on their opinion they’ll have to concede that if we still don’t agree, we must at least have something valid to say.

That means that we need to learn to read a book properly. We need to move past just letting our eyes skim the page as we focus on the 77 other things currently vying for our attention. We need to focus deeply on that which is in front of us and realize that we’re saying no to many other valid opportunities which simply aren’t for us.

We must be willing to invest the time needed over years to really dive into both sides of an idea and reserve judgement until we have the required understanding.

When we slow down like that we can be the person that others look to as an expert. Our beliefs will be strong and reasoned and calm. We won’t feel the need to retort with vitriol and minor challenges to our beliefs because we know that we have put in the time needed to build our beliefs on a solid foundation.

Then we’ll be that quiet, strong person we seek to become. It won’t be tomorrow, or the day after, or next week or next year. But you’ll look back and realize that slow growth has produced something solid that you’re proud of.

photo credit: pahudson cc

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