Winston Churchill was a living literature of his time. He famously once said “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”
I have been embracing the idea of changing often and changing quickly over the last couple of years and it has been the single most fruitful personal growth I have ever experienced. But the idea of change is unnatural and certainly scary to most of us. How can we get comfortable with change? And why is change crucial in personal growth? How can we change to become more original and more authentic to ourselves? And perhaps more importantly, can we treat our brain as a software product and re-write our code?
When I look back into my beliefs over the last decade almost everything I believed was wrong. My ideas around politics, religion, philosophy, relationships, even life, were all flawed. If this is the case then I have a really bad track record of being right. Sure, I might be a little smarter now, but there is a good chance that I am still wrong about almost everything today. This is true not just in our personal beliefs but also in science, economics, laws, technology, medicine, etc. One generation’s verities so often become the next generation’s falsehoods. Think of all the beliefs we used to hold so close to ourselves and we now know are complete garbage.
You are no different.
If we can accept that all our theories and beliefs are fundamentally provisional and quite possibly wrong and add this idea to our cognitive toolkit, we will be better able to listen with curiosity and empathy to those whose theories contradict our own. We will be better able to pay attention to counter evidence those anomalous bits of data that make our picture of the world a little weirder, more mysterious, less clean, less done. And perhaps most importantly we will be able to acknowledge that better ideas are almost certainly out there, and be open to change and adaptation of new provisional theories to replace our old ones.
Alright, back to the topic. Change.
I believe initializing and implementing change involves 5 discrete steps:
1) Realizing that we are more wrong than we are right
2) Realizing that people around us are also wrong more often than right and that our surrounding and what is accepted as norm is not an objective truth
3) Getting comfortable to face the truth and reason with yourself on every decision that you make without any perceived notion of what the answer should be or have been
4) Kill your ego and ask “why” about everything, specially the already accepted behaviors
5)Make appropriate changes, continue, go back to step 1
Let me get into each of these and elaborate.
You are more wrong than you are right
One of my favorite books on the topic of human errors is Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong where she talks about why we like to jump to conclusions and be wrong.
In summary Kathryn describes how most of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything. We generally like to think that we are right about political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our relationships, our memories, our grasp of facts, our way of living, and everything else in between. As absurd as it sounds when we stop thinking about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.
We obviously are not. So why do we do this?
We don’t gather the maximum possible evidence in order to reach a conclusion. We reach the maximum possible conclusion based on the barest minimum of evidence. We don’t assess evidence neutrally; we asses it in light of whatever theories we have already formed on the basis of whatever other, earlier evidence we have encountered.
Know when you are wrong, and realize that you are wrong more often than you are right. That by itself will have significant consequences in your openness to change.
People around you are also more wrong than they are right — don’t follow others
In most situations no one knows any better than you do. We are all floating in a life that was so randomly given to us and everyone is following the “collective knowledge”. Almost everything that we see around us is a result of an imagination by another fellow homo sapien. The rules, the norms, the dos and donts, the accepted and unaccepted, and everything in between is all made up.
The reality is you are more right than someone else, and both of you are wrong more often than not. And you have to realize that change is as much about unbecoming who you are not as it is about becoming who you want to be. Not following what others have been following is a key in that process.
These two concepts of realizing you are often wrong and that others don’t know any better than you do are corner stones of allowing you to freely change with limited influence by others.
Going against evolutionary forces and seeking truth
But to add to the challenge, there are evolutionary forces developed over millions of years that are working against you in this process.
In the last few decades scientists have been able to hack into human brain through neuroscience and behavioral economics and have realized that our choices of everything from food to mates results not from some mysterious free will but rather from billions of neurons calculating probabilities within a split second. What we brag about as “human intuition” is in reality “pattern recognition.” It also turns out that biochemical algorithms of the human brain are far from perfect. They rely on heuristics, shortcuts, and outdated circuits adapted to the African savannah rather than to the urban jungle.
When we see a pattern, and when that pattern is enforced by action of others around us, we immediately skip the “reasoning” step (asking why & seeking truth) and go straight into hardcoding the behavior as acceptable and norm into our brain. It is not natural for our evolutionary brain to do otherwise. And so in order to independently come to a conclusion and ignoring the patterns of behaviors from our surrounding we need to train our brain and add that “reasoning” step back in the process.
But how can we change millions of years of evolutionary work and add any step to this process? It appears we are stuck in a circularly referenced illusion that works by observing the surrounding and believing the patterns to be the right answer.
Destroying ego and inserting “why” into every step of your brain’s decision making process
You have to utterly and completely destroy your ego and be open to every thought that is induced both internally and externally. You have to get comfortable with the idea of being wrong. And most importantly you have to ask “why” about everything you do and not be afraid of what the answer might be — specially if the answer shatters all your beliefs and means you have been wrong your entire life.
Usually asking yourself “why am I doing this?”, “why am I thinking this way?”, “why am I saying that?”, “Why would I behave this way?”, “Why can’t I do this?”, “Why should I do this?” and genuinely seeking an answer that is beyond “because everyone is doing it”, “because that is how it is”, “because it makes sense”, “because my mom taught me to”, can lead into a deep internal introspective conversation. And more often than not those internal introspective conversations lead into serious considerations of your own behavior and lead to a significant lasting change.
To summarize, change is critical for our growth, specially since we are more wrong than we are right. In order to change you need to unbecome what you are not, and to do that you need to realize following others and behaving according to norms is not healthy. Once you realize these two concepts, the rest is all a mind game as evolutionary forces are always tricking you to accept patterns as best solutions. Ask “why” along the way and try to convince yourself of why you make the decisions you do. Even the most basic decisions like eating chicken. And change accordingly to what answer resonates with you and only you.
If you are not questioning your thoughts, behaviors, reasons, and your beliefs you are not evolving to be the best person that you can be. By not questioning and not changing often you are following what others have already accepted and are putting your free-will into the hands of generations of your ancestors whom had less knowledge of the world, were living in a completely different environment, and most importantly, weren’t you.
So perhaps in 2019, change often, change loud, and change quickly. Think of your brain as a software product. Roll out new updates every week, A-B test the software, sometimes roll-back to older versions, and sometimes install a completely new operating system. It’s a new way of living full of growth and new experiences.