How to Question the World

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats describes his mother’s approach to his childhood misbehavior in school. When Coats would get in trouble his mother would not just take away his privileges, she would make him reflect on why he got in trouble by making him write about his behavior, his thoughts, and his decisions. Describing his childhood he wrote,

 

“When I was in trouble at school (which was quite often) she would make me write about it. The writing had to answer a series of questions: Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teacher? Why did I not believe that my teacher was entitled to respect? How would I want someone to behave while I was talking? What would I do the next time I felt the urge to talk to my friends during a lesson?” The questions Coats was writing about at a young age were self reflective questions. Rather than letting him brood and be in trouble, his mother forced him to organize his thoughts and put them down on paper. The act of reflecting is important, but without organizing thoughts and creating a coherent idea behind our thoughts, they simply whip around our head in a slightly chaotic manner. In his book 59 Seconds Richard Wiseman writes the following about the benefits of writing versus thinking or speaking,

 

“Thinking can often be somewhat unstructured, disorganized, and even chaotic.  In contrast, writing encourages the creation of a story line and structure that help people make sense of what has happened and work toward a solution.  In short, talking can add to a sense of confusion, but writing provides a more systematic solution-based approach.”

 

I have found that I often underestimate how intelligent young children are. I am constantly surprised by what toddlers remember and by the connections they are able to make. I would not have thought that a reflective exercise could be so impactful for a young child in elementary school, but Coats describes how these questions and how writing in particular shaped who he grew up to be. He continued in his book,

 

“Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing—myself.”

 

Writing and reflecting helped Coats organize his thoughts, but it also built a habit where he thought about his actions and his thoughts, and learned to question himself. Coats explains that he now gives his son the same writing tasks when he is in trouble. He says that he does not expect these exercise to change his son’s behavior as they did not necessarily change his behavior as a boy, but that he hopes these writing exercises will build a habit of reflection and self-awareness into his son’s life.

 

Coats grew up in a household where he was forced to question himself, his behavior, and his thoughts and beliefs. He was not raised in a household that told him that he was already special or great, and throughout his book he reflects on how he felt, why he felt certain ways at certain times, and how his thoughts and emotions drove him to act one way or another. He questioned how society was organized after making strong observations and recognizing that the systems in existence today are the results of real decisions made by real people. Often we go through our lives unaware of our impulses and beliefs, believing that things are the way they are out of some sort of divine providence or simply because they could never be a different way. Coats was raised to recognize that there was no way things should be, and from a young age developed a habit of asking why.

 

What is important to recognize from the his quote is that he is asking why and asking deep questions not just about society or about others, but about himself. When we ask why others error and make poor decisions, we are in a way placing ourselves above them. We assume that we are correct and on the right side of the moral divide, and then cast judgement on others and point out how flawed they are. Coats encourages us not to sympathize with our own self and not to spend too much time rationalizing our own beliefs, but to truly study and be aware of our thoughts, so that we can be more honest with ourselves about why we believe what we believe.
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Deliberate Growth

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday discusses the ways in which we often look at our selves, our abilities, and the situations in which we find ourselves.  We tend to think that who we are is set in stone and shaped by forces beyond our control: I am naturally good at writing, I was not born with a good singing voice, I like to go to the gym, I don’t know how to do computer programming. In some way with all the examples above, we are looking at the things we do and do not do as if they are given parts of life, and not conscious choices that we make. When we look at who we are, what we excel at, where we struggle, what we like to do, and what things are not part of who we are, we begin to narrow our lives and place ourselves in a box. We define ourselves not by our ability to grow and change, but rather by who or what we perceive ourselves to be during a point in time. Holiday challenges this thinking, “We craft our spiritual strength through physical exercise, and our physical hardiness through mental practice (mens sana in corpore sano — sound mind in a strong body).”

 

His quote on its own speaks to the importance of mental and physical fortitude, but the section in which he includes the quote speaks to more than just the idea of mental and physical strength. The focus of Holiday in the quote above is on the word craft. We do not simply have mental strength by chance, and we do not simply have physical strength without working out. As Holiday explains, we must put in the effort, work, and focus to build our lives to match the quote above, to have a sound mind in a sound body.

 

Deliberate action and focus are the only things that will lead us to the growth we wish to see. We will have to put in real effort and work to develop the person we want to be, and if we do not strive to improve ourselves, we will only atrophy, and wither away as a result of the limitations we accept. Holiday continues, “Nobody is born with a steel backbone. We have to forge that ourselves.” Looking at the qualities we want to develop, and preparing ourselves for the challenging road to acquire those qualities is a must if we want to find growth. From Holiday’s perspective, self-reflection and awareness are key, as a greater understanding of self and vision for growth will build and shape who we are and the actions we take, opening opportunity and improving experiences.

 

Holiday’s advice in forging ahead on our path is similar to the advice of Richard Wiseman, who wrote in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, encouraged journaling and reflection on the challenges we expect to face along our journey. By explaining how we will plan for obstacles in life, we can develop our sound mind, propelling us beyond our challenges. Thinking ahead and reflecting on not just our success but our failures and difficulties can help us build the strength necessary to develop our steel backbone.

Persist and Resist

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday writes about the ways in which our mindset can shape the goals we set for ourselves and the daily actions we take to reach those goals. Holiday encourages us to set our mind on the long-term future and to avoid being pulled about by our short-term successes and failures. Following the advice of great Stoic thinkers of the past, he looks at our challenges and encourages us to apply our skills in accomplishing what we need, and to continually work on our patience so that we do not burn out in the short run. He quotes Epictetus in the following passage,

 

“Remember and remind yourself of a phrase favored by Epictetus: “Persist and resist.” Persist in your efforts. Resist giving in to distraction, discouragement, or disorder.”

 

By continually pressing agains the negative and preparing ourselves so that we can always overcome our challenges, we can reach the success, milestones, and goals we desire. Part of the key, as discussed by Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds is not to just visualize the success we will achieve, but to be honest about our future journey and visualize the challenges we will face. We should not let a wall of negativity overwhelm us in our thinking, but we should also not be blind to the challenges we will face and wander in a mist of naivety. By planning for our challenges and visualize how we will overcome obstacles we will be far more likely to act according to our goals and mission.

 

If we can work on visualizing how we will succeed, then it can become easier to persist and resist. Understanding the challenges that will be faced will help drive us forward and keep us moving when we hit difficult times. Learning to keep our minds free from distractions will help us be more successful along our path, and help us focus on what is important over the long run rather.

Fear of Consequences

“It doesn’t actually matter where our fear of consequences originates.  What’s important is acknowledging that it’s there,” Colin Wright states in his book Considerations. What Wright is addressing in his chapter about consequences is the way we tend to think about the repercussions of our actions. He lays out the idea that very few of the negative consequences we fear are permanent. Throughout the chapter he dives into our fear of consequences, where that fear originates, and ways to bypass that fear.

 

For Wright, pretending that we do not have any fears does not help us move forward. He believes it is important for us to open up about our fears and identify them through processes of self awareness. When we begin to look at what we are afraid of and what keeps us from acting, we begin to see ways to overcome the obstacles that scare us.  When we let go of the consequences of our actions and examine ways in which we can overcome negative reactions we are preparing ourselves to have courage and handle the negative in a respectable manner.  This idea is similar to those of Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds, where he identified studies which suggested that journaling about the obstacles we will face and how we will overcome those obstacles can better prepare us for our journey and help us feel better about our journey.

 

Wright also explains the ways in which we take small consequences and magnify them beyond their true scope. When we imagine that small consequences carry more weight than what they actually do, we begin making decisions as if they precede life or death consequences. This puts an unreasonable amount of stress on our lives, and complicates our decision making process.  When we begin to understand our fear and thoroughly think through the consequences of our actions, we can begin to enjoy more freedom in our life without being paralyzed by the ‘what if’ mindset of life.

The Base of Mob Mentality

In his book 59 Seconds I found Richard Wiseman’s section about group think versus individual think to be incredibly interesting.  Wiseman discussed the ways in which groups shift an individuals behavior and thoughts by moving an individual away from the center or moderate behavior towards actions that are more polarized or extreme.  I have also written about discussions in groups, and how strong-willed people will dominate and drive group discussion, encouraging those who do not agree with them to at least appear to align with their thoughts.  Wiseman adds another element of interest to the group versus individual dynamic with the following quote, “compared to individuals groups tend to be more dogmatic, better able to justify irrational actions, more likely to see their actions as highly moral, and more apt to form stereotypical views of outsiders.”  The quote paints a fairly negative image of groups that I think we can easily imagine playing out in politics, extreme religious organizations, and even smaller groups that we may belong to.  When I review Wiseman’s observations regarding group and individual behaviors and actions I see the importance of self awareness and reflection and also the importance of having a strong moral leader or guide for groups.

 

Mob mentality is something that came up in many of my classes throughout college, although I never studied it directly.  When we act in a mob we have a sense of autonomy and anonymity that empowers us to make extreme decisions.  When we look at the actions of mobs in America over the last few years and consider Wiseman’s evaluation of group behavior and group think, we are able to see how easily individuals can give up their personal moral stance and adopt the characteristics of an angry and amoral mob.  The feeling of unanimity generated from stereotypical views allows individuals to feel as though they are in complete control of themselves and the situation by being part of a greater group of individuals. The sense of unanimity also lends itself to the mob believing that they are on the moral side, and that their irrational actions can be justified by the injustices that set them into a frenzy.  Exaggerated behavior is encouraged in the group, and adherence to a particular viewpoint helps build a mindset of “us versus them” throughout the mob.  From the outside we can all see how negative this mob mentality is, but I think that Wiseman shows that these behaviors have the potential to occur not just on a large scale, but also on a very small scale (in a less violent manner) regardless of what group we are in. Comparing Wiseman’s observations of small group actions to mob mentality helps me see the importance of guiding groups in a positive and creative way.

 

I also think that individual identity and decision making are important to consider when we are examining the individual versus the group.  One of my favorite bloggers, Paul Jun, recently posted on his blog about our decision making.  He explained that one of the ways we make decisions is by considering our identity, and how a choice fits in with the particular identity we are trying to build.  If we want to identify or see ourselves as part of a particular group, we will envision the decisions and actions of members of that group, and apply that to our own lives. Instead of making decisions based on what we want, we consider what someone with the identity we want to project would do, and make a decision that aligns with those actions.  Depending on the group we are in, and the identity of the group we want to associate with, our actions and behaviors in the group will be drastically different.

The Trouble With Group Brainstorming

Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds continues to explain the results of experiments on group behavior by explaining ways in which group discussions can lead to individuals dominating group discussions and stifle others.  “When strong-willed people lead group discussions they can pressure others into conforming, can encourage self-censorship, and can create an illusion of unanimity.” This quote very accurately explains many of the groups that I was a part of for school projects in high school and college.  A single individual can drive the group in the direction they see best while shutting out the ideas of others in the group.  This can make the group feel hostile, and can actually reduce creativity.

 

Being in a group with a strong-willed individual can be uncomfortable for everyone involved.  If the group does not lead in the exact direction desired by the strong-willed person, then they will feel betrayed and angry, and the quality of their work and participation will dwindle.  I have been part of groups where one person pushes the group in a certain direction, only to have the rest of the group eventually go in another direction and leave them as an outcast.

 

In terms of creativity, group brainstorming can be one of the least effective ways to come up with creative ideas, and Wiseman’s quote shows why.  Self censorship during brainstorming is the opposite of what is desired, but it is often what occurs when a group of individuals get to gather.  The strong-willed individual may push people to think in ways that are more aligned with their ideas, and not necessarily the most creative.  Those who are more shy may be reluctant to share good ideas in a group because they know that the leaders or their colleagues may not be open to the ideas that they have.  Strong-willed individuals can shut them down with as little as a shake of the head or a brief smirk at the mention of an idea that does not align with their thoughts.

Groups & Individuals

In American politics we often complain about the polarization of ideas amongst politicians and their lack of ability to accomplish anything.  Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds examines the behavior of individuals relative to the behavior of groups, and what he presents is an explanation for our government’s fractured state.  In regards to decision making Wiseman writes, “being in a group exaggerates people’s opinions, causing them to make more a extreme decision than they would on their own.”  He explains an experiment by James Stoner in which an individual was asked to consult a mildly successful author about whether or not they should stop writing cheap thrillers and take a risk by writing a larger novel that is outside of the typical genre in which she publishes. Individuals were less likely to recommend that she strive towards the risky novel than groups were.
Wiseman’s conclusion is that the groups we belong to push us further in whatever direction we already lean. In the example from Wiseman’s book, if we tend to be slightly more risky, then in a group we become much more risky.  This explanation of our behavior translates nicely to our political system. I studied political science in college and I remember discussing the impact of party leadership on Congress. What studies had shown is that the longer a politician serves in Congress and the more they become part of party leadership, the less likely they are to vote along the lines of what their constituents actually want.  Part of the explanation for this behavior could be related to Wiseman’s findings of group behavior pushing an individual to more extreme ideas.  The more control party leaders have over the other members of congress, the more they are likely to shape their decisions, and the longer an individual is in Congress, the more likely their decisions will become polarized. I think that Wiseman’s understanding of group decisions versus individual decisions does an excellent job breaking down part of our government’s breakdown.
On a personal scale I think it is important to be aware of the impact that groups will have on us.  Building our ideas in a group, as opposed to individual study and idea formation, may mean that we adopt more extreme ideas on a given topic.  In addition, when trying to brainstorm ideas, Stoner’s research shows us that groups will push us towards decisions and ideas that are more extreme than those we would find on our own.  I think this also translates into the ways we act and think about everyday topics.  Groups may be much more likely to push us towards having more extreme opinions about other people, act in more polarized ways toward others, and make us think in a different way about social issues and occurrences.  If you are building your self awareness, recognizing the impact of groups on your thoughts and opinions is crucial.