A mind is unique in the world for its infinity of ideas, for it can be used to think about almost anything in a million different ways. Any act that deliberately confines a mind to a singular way of seeing the world can not be acting for good. — Scott Berkun, How To Be A Free Thinker
How do people change their minds? What inspires you to abandon what you believed before, then believe something different?
Lawyers and scientists really like proof. Folks from Missouri say: Show me!
But what if the question is not what happened or how does it work?
What if it’s something you just believe? Religion is a good example. Discrimination is another.
Discrimination is what got me thinking hard about how we change our minds. Lately, we’ve been talking about discrimination against women and gays.
Sheryl Sandberg has taken a lot of flack for saying that women often hold themselves back. She’s trying to help with her book Lean In. Others like Lindy West and Penelope Trunk point out that even if women hold themselves back, 50-year-old White Guys still run the world, and women still have the babies.
So changing your attitude is not enough.
(For more great posts on women and work, see Susan Strayer LaMotte’s, What if Women Don’t Want it All? and Kelly Long’s, Having it All: The Motherhood Lie. I weigh in with Personal Questions: Women and Work.)
For gays, the Supreme Court is going to do its best to avoid deciding whether lawmakers can prevent some people from getting married based on who they want to have sex with. (Here’s how I think that will turn out– a great piece by Jeb Golinkin )
Pew Research noticed many people have changed their minds in the last 10 years about whether or not gay marriage should be legal. Of the people who changed their opinion, most believed it was because they know people who are gay or they just have become more tolerant. I’m sure that gay people coming out, and not being so scary after all, has made a difference.
But that doesn’t explain the continued bias against women. Everyone knows one. Most have even lived with one.
Are women that much scarier than gay people? Well, sure. Especially to men in power. There’s more women, and they want men’s jobs– the really good ones too.
Discrimination is really about fear. And it’s bigger than not having enough education, experience, or understanding. Discrimination comes from our fear that someone is going to take something away from us that we want– relationships, jobs, money, stuff. So we wrap belief and certainty around our fears to make things more comfortable, less scary.
Then there’s not wanting to be wrong. A couple things are going on with that one. First, our brains are wired to find the shortcuts to pretty much everything. This is extremely efficient or lazy, depending on whether you are near a hungry lion, need to pick new carpet, or are contemplating the meaning of life. At least part of the reason why we discriminate is hardwired. If you stopped to think about everything, you would be paralyzed, or lion snacks.
The rest of our biases are either learned or chosen. They come from lots of influences: how we grew up, what our families and communities believe, our spiritual practices, and our experiences.
In How to Be A Free Thinker, Scott Berkun suggests some ways to go past some of your built-in and acquired filters — maybe even the No Trespassing zones. Berkun suggests:
Ready? You are wrong. You are wrong much of the time. I’m wrong too and some of what I write in this essay will be wrong (except for this sentence). Even if you are brilliant, successful, happy and loved, you are wrong and ignorant more than you realize. This is not your fault. None of our theories about the world are entirely true and this is good. If we had perfect answers for things progress would be impossible, as to believe in the idea of progress requires belief in the many ignorances of the present.
Question Your Own and Others’ Beliefs
There are no required college courses called “undoing the damage of the last 18 years of your life” or “how to escape the evil tyranny of your corrupted youth”. We are, perhaps as it always has been or always should be, on our own to figure out what freedom means.
How can you know how much of what you think you want, and think you need is really coming from you? It may be that our truest, freest voice, the voice we call our heart of hearts, is always talking, but it’s quiet and timid and can’t be heard over the chatter of everyday life. Unless we make quiet time to learn how to hear it.
I love these suggestions. Here are some of mine.
Make Friends With Fear and Uncertainty (from Good at Terrified)
Fear is not something to fight, overcome, ignore, hide from, or defeat. It’s not a weakness. Fear is good stuff. It protects us, gives us important information, motivates us.
The trouble starts when we believe that it’s too hard, other people will think we’re stupid, or the million versions of I’m not good enough. When everything is too scary, we shut down and make our world small so we can control it. We close our minds and our hearts to anything new or different.
So I’ve learned to just invite fear along for the ride. I give it a little attention, tell it some jokes, and ask it, very nicely, to stay in the backseat. When the fear is insistent, I listen to what it’s trying to tell me. But I don’t believe everything I feel or think when I’m scared. And I try not to make big decisions out of fear (or anger).
Usually, it’s just that I’m worried about the outcome. I’m anxious about uncertainty.
Yet, most things are uncertain, almost all the time. And that is neither a good nor a bad thing. It’s just how it is.
So instead of getting caught in the crisis, or drama, or insecurity, now I notice it. And then remember that I’m really good at terrified.
Be Curious and Wrong Some More (from The Value of Wrong)
Being wrong is good.
Curiosity is the gateway to wrong. Most people feel uncomfortable being wrong. I do. I guess I’d rather be wrong than eat brussels sprouts. But I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, I wonder what I can get completely wrong today?
Instead, I try to be curious. I just put down the whole wrong/right dichotomy and try to see clearly. One of my favorite quotes is by the scientist Isaac Asimov. “The most exciting phrase . . . the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny….’”
So when I don’t have the nerve to fail or be wrong, I try to see things in a new way. I start asking questions, like:
What if being wrong is the right approach?
You cannot make people change their beliefs. Not with laws, or arguments, or proof, or even blog posts. And other people probably won’t change your beliefs either.
Change does not come from telling everyone they’re doing it wrong, no matter how earnest, heartfelt or righteous. Especially not righteous.
Change comes from acceptance, compassion, doing it differently, and teaching our kids to do it differently.
And it takes time. Sometimes decades, or even centuries. It’s only been about 100 years since women were property. And any minority can tell you the work of the civil rights movement 50 years ago is far from done.
“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.” Susan B Anthony
Be yourself. In other words, be vulnerable.
Thank you to John Sumser, Maren Hogan, and Scott Berkun for talking about this with me, and for pushing my thinking. For more of Scott’s writing, read his blog at www.scottberkun.com and get his book Mindfire.