Conventional Wisdom and a Stack of Blocks

I write and think a lot about thinking.  One of my goals for this year is to challenge my own conventional thinking. What is conventional thinking?  It is “the generally accepted belief, opinion, judgment, or prediction about a particular matter”.  We use it all the time to get through life.  It is a wonderful tool for making decisions and keeping us healthy and happy.  But sometimes, especially when we don’t know what we don’t know, or accept the convention without some skepticism, we can go wrong.

Rose and I just got back from 10 days in Ireland.  There were two small instances that came up that really struck me about how we go about misusing conventional thinking.  And the mistakes, or at least misconceptions, that can occur.  Neither item caused a problem, but both are illustrative.

The first instance dealt with stories and with historical remembrance.  In a museum, we were reading about an 11th Century battle that was very important to Irish history.  As I read more about the story, it was clearly stated that there is no written record of the events.  In fact, no artifacts are to be found from the time.  The exact location of the story, the names of the characters involved and the decisions of many are laid out as the history as we can surmise it.  Many brilliant scholars have contributed their (learned) thinking to create our collective knowledge of what might have happened on those crucial days.

I started to contrast this “story” or interpretation of history with some myths (as told by storytellers) that Rose had read about the exact same 11th Century event.  Because the myth includes things we believe are wrong, such as “fairies” causing things to happen or animals taking on human-like qualities, we judge them to be “made-up”.  But could it be that the myth teller was simply using a metaphor, or passing down the conventional wisdom that had been interpreted over the millennia?  Might there be more “truth” in the storyteller’s version?

Must we simply accept the story that is told?  Or is it okay sometimes to say to ourselves, “this is what we know and can extrapolate from what we know.  But this other interpretation might be okay to consider also”?

It was conventional wisdom once that the world was flat

The second instance deals with assumptions we make – and how they lead to being in the wrong place. Assumptions are a huge part of conventional wisdom.  Rose and my story about assumptions is a fun one. It begins with the fact that greater than 70% of Ireland’s people self-identify as Catholic.  We wanted to go to Catholic mass Sunday morning somewhere cool in Dublin.  Why not pick St. Patrick’s Cathedral?  It is one of the largest churches in Dublin.  It is named for the saint we all think of when we think of Ireland, Patrick.  And a Cathedral is usually the biggest and best place.  So we checked out the mass schedule the day before and scheduled our morning.  We got to church on time the next day and sat in a pew.  As the church service was getting ready to start, I quickly realized this was not a Catholic Mass.  St. Patrick’s is a Church of England, Episcopalian church!

We still sat through the service, but in the end were disappointed.  Think about how we used our conventional wisdom to get to a reasonable- but VERY WRONG – conclusion.  In addition, neither of us EVER thought to question the other.  Predominantly Catholic country, biggest name, cathedral? Check, check and check.  Our decision must be right.  Let’s not spend any time verifying the decision.  Unconsciously, we both know we are right.  Great group think.  But it was inaccurate group think!

We laughed about our situation later.  It did not end up in disaster.  Not a big mistake.  But how many times do all of us make similar assumptions about the “facts” and have it really come back to haunt us?  Maybe that house we bought. Or that person we decided to have a relationship with who seemed to “check” all the right boxes? How about the job we are in right now?

Often, it is what we don’t know we don’t know that can get us into trouble

That leads me back to my personal challenge.  When faced with something that might have long-term implications, take a moment.  If I KNOW I am right, it never hurts to reconsider the facts and make sure my “checks” are sound.  Sometimes when we are most sure we are right, it emerges from a series of stacked assumptions. Much like a stack of blocks, pulling out one of the assumptions may cause the whole thing to tumble down.  Perhaps that saves us.

stack-of-blocks

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Two Sides of Doubt

Writer, speaker and business leader Casey Gerald ends his TED talk with a moving statement about the hope that he believes comes from questioning the institutions that claim to offer an easy salvation:

This doubt, it fuels me, it gives me hope that when our troubles overwhelm us, when the paths laid out for us seem to lead to our demise, when our healers bring no comfort to our wounds, it will not be our blind faith — no, it will be our humble doubt that shines a little light into the darkness of our lives and of our world and lets us raise our voice to whisper or to shout or to say simply, very simply,“There must be another way.”

Gerald’s realizations have pushed him to advocate for what he terms a “Gospel of Doubt”. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the Gospel of Doubt hinges on a deeply-held belief that things can be better.  When we are overwhelmed and “know” that things cannot get better or cannot change, that is when doubt can be the path to progress.

His words got me reflecting on the word “doubt” – but, as usual, in my own way.  In my reflection, there are two very distinct sides to the word “doubt” – one coming from a position of weakness and the other from a position of strength.  I call the first one “self-doubt”.  I call the second one “healthy doubt” or “skepticism”.

Self – Doubt, The Weak Kind of Doubt

Self doubt is a lack of confidence in oneself and one’s abilities. It comes from a position of weakness and uncertainty. You question the staying power of your own motives, personality, thoughts, etc. Because you lack confidence, you are very unsure of yourself. You are vulnerable and in a weak stage.  “I do not know for sure”.  “I don’t think I can do that”.  “Maybe I am not capable of being that.” It tends to paralyze us. Inaction is the default position.  Moving forward is really hard to contemplate because of the fear of the unknown.

Skepticism – The Strong Kind of Doubt

On the other hand, there is a doubt that comes from a strong place.  This doubt can mean “skepticism” or “being uncertain”.  It can mean you are curious about understanding more.  You need some proof or more knowledge.   Just because you are in a certain place, you don’t have to believe that is where you are stuck.  “Just because someone is telling me this, I do not have to believe it.”  “They say it can’t be done, but they don’t know me.” “Who says I must follow the path of some other?” This is Gerald’s “humble doubt that shines a little light”.

Doubt in Life

Think about Doubting Thomas from the Bible.  One view is to say Thomas did not have strength of beliefs.  He was not able to simply believe what all of his friends and colleagues told him had happened. It’s a simple answer – he was the weakest of the believers.  But what if you (skeptically) look at the story from a different viewpoint?  Maybe Thomas was a metaphor to us that it is okay to question the common belief.  Perhaps his doubting was a sign to us that blind acceptance is not always the answer.  Question, seek out the answer, make a decision based on the new facts and move on.  Is that such a bad thing?

I think we could all apply a little more doubt in our lives these days.  We are bombarded with messages from all kinds of sources.  We are all subjected to biases and shortcuts in our thinking processes.  It is comforting to use the “confirmation bias” which is a tendency to notice things that confirm our beliefs and don’t notice or ignore ones that contradict our beliefs.  It is much more comfortable to write off opposing viewpoints than to think about them (anyone get uncomfortable with my second potential interpretation of the Doubting Thomas story above?).

What I think is most important, is when you “know” you have it right, it may be time to bring in some doubt.  That kind of doubting is coming from a position of strength, not weakness or self doubt.  Everyone was certain Goliath would beat David. In the 1970’s Japan was going to dominate the world of commerce.   Microsoft was going to dominate technology forever.  “Everyone” “knew” the outcome, until that known outcome proved not to be true.

Same thing happens to people with their job or life.  I don’t have the skills to pursue that job I really want.  My boss is to blame for my job being so lousy.  I could never find a new job that pays as well as my current one in a fast enough time.  I would like to get in better shape, but I’ve tried a bunch of times and that is not me.

Isn’t it easy to have self-doubt and accept these “truths”?  How hard is it to be skeptical of these “self-evident” truths? Doesn’t growth require us to work a little harder?  Challenging ourselves may be one of the hardest things we have to do.  Why not try on a little bit of doubt, but from a position of strength?

A Duty to be Grateful?

I am starting with a long quote because I found it so profound and so meaningful.

Finally there is the question of whether we have a duty to feel grateful. Hundreds of generations who came before us lived dire, short lives, in deprivation or hunger, in ignorance or under oppression or during war, and did so partly motivated by the dream that someday there would be men and women who lived long lives in liberty with plenty to eat and without fear of an approaching storm. Suffering through privation, those who came before us accumulated the knowledge that make sour lives favored; fought the battles that made our lives free; physically built much of what we rely on for our prosperity; and, most important, shaped the ideals of liberty. For all the myriad problems of modern society, we now live in the world our forebears would have wished for us—in many ways, a better place than they dared imagine. For us not to feel grateful is treacherous selfishness. Failing to feel grateful to those who came before is such a corrosive notion, it must account at some level for part of our bad feelings about the present. The solution—a rebirth of thankfulness—is in our self-interest. – Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox.

Easterbrook hits on an important point – almost all aspects of Western life have vastly improved in the past century–and yet today, most men and women feel less happy than in previous generations.  In addition, is our lack of gratefulness to those who came before us a part of our unhappiness? We need to think about that, deeply and seriously.

As for me, I am a happy person.  I am very lucky in all aspects of my life.  Any time spent on self reflection makes me realize I have a nearly infinite amount of things to be thankful for.  Yet I find myself concerned about the future of America and for my children.  One needs to look only at a few key statistics to become concerned:

  • Trust in the federal government has fallen from 77 percent in 1964 to about 20 percent today.
  • A November Gallop poll found 11 percent of people in the United States approve of Congress
  • The 20% of Americans who are confident in newspapers as a U.S. institution hit an all-time low this year, according to Gallup
  • After ratings as high as 80 percent in the mid-1990s, the Supreme Court today has the support of only 44 percent of Americans according to a New York Times-CBS News poll

Need I even mention the levels of distrust for the two current major party Presidential candidates?

But there is another story.  If one looks at most major crime statistics (according to the FBI, down almost half in 20 years) or social problems like out-of-wedlock teenage births (down 42% in the last 7 years), the story is a bright one. Looking at opportunities for women and minorities, we have advanced tremendously.  Educational opportunities for all, no matter what background or age, are much better than they ever have been.  We are much wealthier and live much longer lives (average life span has increased 50% in the past century). There is a great deal of reason for thankfulness and gratitude.

“Failing to feel grateful” for all that has come before and all that is ahead is a problem I think we all face.  The sacrifices behind us are vast.  The progress made as a world and society are huge.  That does not mean we should settle for what we have now.  Progress needs to continue.  We need to continue to demand and create change.  But the key point is GRATITUDE, as Easterbrook points out.

If you were to chart the time you spend, or the energy you put into thinking about, gratitude and compare that to complaints you have about the present or worries about the future, what would the scales look like?  Probably like this . .

Gratitude Balance

That unbalanced scale is a choice we make.  Fine, you are allowed to do that.  But as Easterbrook points out, “Failing to feel grateful to those who came before is such a corrosive notion”.  Am I not thankful to my mom and dad, my grandparents, my fore-bearers who came to this country?  Am I not grateful to the many I don’t know who built roads and bridges, carved out the running paths I enjoy or set aside the National Park System that is so beautiful? What of the researchers who made the medical miracles that extend my life?

Think about this: at my current age, I  have already lived 10 more years than the typical white male born 100 years ago. So is the present so much worse than the past?  We think if we were living in the past we would be like George Washington or Clara Barton or Alvin York.  But the reality is, the odds would be if we lived in the past we would be Willie Lincoln, Sullivan Ballou or Julia Aberstein.

Do you choose to consciously feel grateful to those from the past?  Or do you choose to focus on perceived problems of the present? Is the future so much less brighter than the past? If you are feeling that you are “suffering through privation”, remember that there are millions who came before you who did so with the knowledge they were making a better world for someone in the future.  So thank you for your sacrifice for the next generation.

I know that I might be much more fortunate than many others, so it sounds easy to write what I have written.  But I am confessing to be as guilty as everyone else.  My scale looks like the one above.  In my year of transparency and honesty, I need to face the contradictions of my actions.  So I am calling myself out.  And I am pledging to try to be more grateful to those who came before.  When I see people choosing to be like the unbalanced picture above, I need to remind myself – and probably them in a gentle way – how lucky we are.  And how fortunate we are to have those who came before.

Make a choice.