Part of the conversation I had with Lee Weems last week on his podcast made me think about how context and experience are such strong factors in shaping our perceptions. Where we come from naturally has a lot of influence on how we see the world. Our background is what makes us who we are, and shapes how we think. However, the lens our past lives create can blind us to other points of view and bias us against accepting counterpoints that fall outside what we’ve personally seen or what our favored sources told us. That can lock us into thought patterns and beliefs that don’t serve us as well as they might in our current or future lives. They’re not necessarily stories we tell ourselves about us, like we talked about earlier this week, but more of stories we tell ourselves about how the world works. Those, too, can be destructive to our ability to defend ourselves in the best ways possible, when they mean we continue with outdated or out-of-context beliefs instead of adjusting to better tools and strategies.
For example, pepper spray. Lee’s not a fan because of the problems he’s seen with it during his law enforcement career, particularly when an officer gets a dose of it in the middle of a scramble with a bad guy. I’m a fan of it partially because of one big difference between me and the cops: I am not required to physically go hands-on to subdue or apprehend someone being violent. It might happen, but it doesn’t have to, so I don’t consider it a major risk when I recommend it….though now I’ll keep it in mind when I evaluate situations where I might otherwise think pepper spray would be appropriate. I’m not going to speak for Lee, but these are the strategies I use – and that I think will help you – when we’re in similar shoes with someone arguing against something we’re for or vice versa:
Be curious about ‘the other side.’ You should know the counterarguments against what you believe in. When learning them, don’t listen with the attitude of trying to figure out where they’re wrong. Instead, listen as if you’re learning about something you know nothing about. Let yourself be swayed before you step back and stack up what you’ve learned against what you knew. No matter what you conclude, you will come out ahead because your understanding about the entire subject area will be more complete. “They” may be wrong, but you’ll now have considered and cleared more objections against what you came in with. “They” may also have some truth in what they’re saying, and you’ll be able to change your mind or refine your own position to include that extra information.
Get to know other people. This is part of curiosity about alternate points of view, but goes beyond any immediate topic that you may be interested in to the individuals behind them. Having friends who aren’t just like you will broaden your world view and, by osmosis, your experiences. Even if you can’t put on their skins or live in their pasts (please don’t; that’s creepy), you can talk to them about what their lives have been like, the things that they’ve done, the way they have interacted with the world, and the way the world has interacted with them. They might not be able to share a detail specific to what you’re wondering about, but simply knowing their context can open your eyes to what’s different for people who aren’t you so that you can apply what you know about what’s true for you to a different setting and to different people.
Embrace a growth mindset. Accept that you may be wrong or don’t know enough to be completely right. Even experts realize they have gaps in their knowledge that might or might not change their overall conclusions, but can always add nuance to exactly how and when and why those conclusions make sense – or don’t. For those of us who aren’t quite experts yet, remaining humble about the extent of our knowledge means that we have the opportunity to learn something new. Growth mindsets mean that there is hope for more, that the world is bigger than you already know, that there are wonders waiting to be discovered. It’s true that there may be horrors, that we may have the very foundations of our belief systems rocked, that we may become uncomfortable while we explore, but when the choice is between being blissful in ignorance or enjoying the excitement of newness, I know which I’ll choose. If you don’t, be clear and comfortable with what you may be missing out on and how that may impact your life and the way you choose to live it.
Think about how things work, not why you believe they work. I took this one from Adam Grant’s Think Again (affiliate link), a book I recommend for more about how to be and stay open to changing your stories about the world. It’s a way of forcing yourself to be objective about a proposed solution, to work through the implications of each step of the process. With pepper spray, that means considering the circumstances where it might be used; who it might be used against; how exactly it would be used; what the situation looks like before, during, and after; the mechanics of how the spray works; and other details along those lines. Running through all of the possibilities helps you figure out what you don’t know, and what you need to learn from others. It makes room for questions, instead of simply arguing yourself into a corner on faith. The idea is to raise doubt because allaying it allows us to either solidify what we thought, or open ourselves to the new knowledge that addresses the weaknesses those doubts exposed.
If it sounds like all of these strategies are interconnected, you’re right. They are. They are all ways of making sure you’ve thought about a world wider than your own, and of remaining interested in evolution and development so that as means and methods improve, so can you. Old or original ways of doing things may work, but they might not be as effective as you move into other arenas or as time goes on. You don’t need to be on the bleeding edge, but you can keep moving forward.