When beliefs work

Do you have a crazy belief that serves you?

We have come a long way in our fight against dogma and superstition. We no longer think of mental illnesses to be caused by evil spirits, or that mercury can be used as a medicine. And yet, not all beliefs, however fantastic, are harmful.

The author Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are ethereal beings that exist just as plants, animals, bacteria and viruses do. She believes that ideas have consciousness and float around, waiting for an owner to birth them. And she believes this with a passion. When a “very serious” NPR reporter tried desperately to give her an out – to call it a metaphor – she laughed and refused to take it. While she recognizes that treating an idea like a free-flowing spirit with its own agency isn’t rational and is perhaps unscientific, it does not shake her belief in them.

Why would a person continue to believe something they think is irrational? Her belief in ideas helped Gilbert write a book and effect a purposeful change in her own life as well as in the lives of the people she leads – her readers.

Authors and creatives are not alone in their beliefs. Issac Newton was very religious. He claimed how in the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince him of God’s existence. Albert Einstein’s famous quote on quantum theory “God does not play dice”, hints at the strength of his faith. Arthur Conan Doyle, the author who created perhaps the most famous rationalist, Sherlock Holmes, believed in fairies and that many cases of diagnosed mental illness were cases of spirits possessing the victim. Before his death, he wrote “The reader will judge that I have had many adventures. The greatest and most glorious of all awaits me now”.

I do not assert that all those beliefs I have cited above served their believers. But we see how even the greatest scientists and thinkers among us have beliefs that are inconsistent with their otherwise rational selves. To believe is to be human, and at times, the craziest beliefs can help us change the world for the better, where rationality only tethers us to doubt, skepticism and inaction.

What does it take away?

One striking difference in a chess game between amateurs and one between two grandmasters is the nature of the moves. In amateur games, pieces often spring into attack to pose obvious threats. In grandmasters games the moves are often most subtle, for an obvious idea would be of no use against a seasoned opponent. Instead, the threat is often concealed several moves down the line.

An amateur always strives to improve their attack, whereas the grandmaster already settles into a great position and tries not to weaken their defence. When any piece marches forward, along with increasing its attack potential, it creates several defensive holes that the opponent could exploit. While the amateur looks out for the attacking initiative he could gain, the grandmaster is more worried about losses – about his defences and the space he could left behind by moving a piece.

Henry David Thoreau, when he was 28, wanted to discover what was essential to him. He removed to a small cabin next to Walden pond, far away from society to live by himself. In this cabin, he ensured that he had only the barest of necessities. He did this as an experiment to find out how much work it took for him to sustain himself with the barest essentials.

The cabin took him a mere $28.5 to build (a little under $1000 in today’s dollars). He then realized that he needed to work for merely one day a week. With his leisure, he was free to take walks amidst nature, contemplate and write about what he learnt. He wrote about how most human beings could enjoy a lot more leisure if it weren’t for all the stuff they surrounded themselves with to be socially accepted. He even observed how walking was more efficient than owning a horse carriage, for the time one saved by riding a carriage was smaller than the numbers of extra hours one had to work to be able to afford it. Sure, Venetian blinds are nice to have, but they would, again, require a disproportionate investment of our time and effort for the incremental benefit they bring to our lives.

The inside of Theoreau’s cabin

In other words, Thoreau examined life like a grandmaster examines his position. He observed how anything he added to it would take away his valuable time and attention. By living alone in the cabin, he understood the value of things for not just what they give us, but also what they take away.

Minimalism is the intricate understanding of whatever is essential to us, and the disciplined rejection of anything that threatens it. When we add a new article to our house, a new habit to our day, a new app to our phone or a new account on a social network, corporations makes the benefits of their addition patently clear to us. But by including them in our lives, what do they take away from it that we value the most?

Consider buying a farm very carefully before signing the papers – Cato (Roman philosopher).

Inspiration: Digital Minimalism – Cal Newport

Harnessing the present

How we feel in the present moment has an overwhelming influence on our perception.

When we enter a supermarket hungry, we are likely to overshop. On the other hand,  after we stuff ourselves with food, it often feels as though we won’t ever need to eat again.

People hate falling sick because during sickness, one feels as though they would never feel healthy again. When we have a fever, it is difficult for us to imagine what it feels like to be hale and hearty, although we spend most of our lives without a fever.

When asked about how happy they are with their life, people often answer it based on how they are feeling in the moment. Or depending on how nice the weather was that day.

Our minds are prisoners of the present. So how can we use this to our advantage?

A habit is an outcome of our mind’s present state. Our present is nothing but a sum total of each and every habit we have – from what we do after we wake up every morning, which people we hang out with and what kind of thoughts we entertain. Every automatic response to a stimulus is a habit that we have ingrained through practice that is often unconscious.

Therefore, if you wish to tinker with your present state, you need change your habits. Forming a habit is deliberate at first, but turns automatic later. It might be difficult to go for a run every morning, write everyday or floss every night before sleeping. But do any of those things for about two months (66 days to be precise) and it infiltrates your unconscious present. After those two months, you would find it hard to imagine not doing those things.

Forming a new habit is hard because of our anchoring to our present. However, once you grit your teeth and get past the threshold, it is interesting how the same force that worked against you nudges you forward and keeps you going.

Looking a customer in the eye

We live in the era of digital giants, which are present in countries we have never heard of and whose revenues often exceed the annual budgets of those countries. Given their widespread influence and their massive economies of scale, can anybody compete wit them? Can an online retailer compete with Amazon? Or can a local car rental company compete with Avis, Hertz or Sixt?

If the smaller players wish to run the same race as their larger competitors, they stand no chance. The behemoths already have a huge head start there. Instead, they ought to look at things that do not scale – such as looking a person in the eye. When we converse with a customer while making eye contact, we forge a connection that with a legacy that is longer than our existence as a species. One cannot produce the same effect while addressing a large mass of customers via automated email.

While planning a holiday to Scotland, we explored two different options for renting cars – the conventional search for a deal on the Avis website, and a local rental agency that a blog post recommended. As one would expect, these experiences were quite different. With Avis, I got to a quote on my own through the website. With the local agency though, I had to actually fill out a form to receive a quote. I thought of this as a burden, but realized its benefits when I received their reply. The email response, which arrived in an hour or so, was clearly written by a human. It pointed out how if we were to reduce our booking duration by an hour, we would save an entire day’s rental fee. The quote was very transparent about their pricing, with clear bullets on what their price included and what it did not. The quote asked for our local addresses to organize convenient pick-up and drop-off points. The company even offered to check if quotes from other companies were accurate and complete.

From the moment we received that email, we stopped comparing prices. We looked up some reviews online for the company, all of which were overwhelmingly positive. Besides, they weren’t just merely star ratings, but descriptive text based reviews with a human touch.

The Scottish travel agency, Celtic Legend, does several things that does not scale. But in the process, they make a human connection with their customers. And that is where the Davids have an edge over the Goliaths.

Sacrifice as a driving force

We have a natural aversion for things that make us suffer. But this aversion is not universal. When we suffer for a cause greater than the suffering itself, we embrace it and call it sacrifice. And with sacrifice paradoxically, the more we suffer, the greater is our dedication to the larger cause.

Ritual and sacrifice is central to every major religion. Every religious faith draws its strength and credibility from the sacrifices of its followers. Few Hindus feel the fervour of the devotee who rolls on her back in circumambulation around a large temple complex. The story of prophet Mohammed’s ordeal in travelling between Mecca and Medina is felt in greater magnitude by the pilgrims who undertake haj or fast during Ramzan. Sacrifice is felt by the soldier, who is injured in war – the extent of his injuries lends bravery to his act and legitimacy to the war that his nation is fighting. The same bravery and legitimacy is also felt by terrorists and suicide bombers. Every parent sacrifices a bit of their own pleasure and freedom to raise children.

Sacrifice is a powerful force that galvanizes action – both positive and negative. Given it serves as an impetus for forward motion in many a difficult situation, we could use it purposefully. The student who sacrifices parties and football games to work on her project is likely to bring greater focus to her work. The person who works out early in the morning is also likely to avoid junk food and eat healthier.

The focus that we bring to the essential depends on how much of the peripheral we sacrifice. The Buddha said that suffering is inevitable. We might as well channel a part of this suffering to work for us and help us in our most valuable endeavours.

Inspiration: 21 lessons for the 21st century – Yuval Noah Harari

Discarding and Discernment

We live in a time of abundance, where the most useful knowledge and information is literally at our fingertips. Our challenge is to retain the essential and discard the rest.

The act of discarding is easy – deleting files, deleting social media accounts, curating news and uninstalling applications require but a few clicks. But discernment – the ability to differentiate between the essential and the trivial – is exceedingly rare.

As the pools of information swell around us, discernment would become more valuable.

Putting your eggs in one basket

Diversification is a sign of robustness. A diverse investment portfolio is less prone to risk. If you have more than 1 professional skill – say you’re an accountant and a great chef, even if all accounting jobs are outsourced from your country you still have another skill to count on. A columnist in 1 newspaper is vulnerable to that newspaper shutting down. If the columnist writes in 10 newspapers, even if 3 are shut down, she is fine.

With relationships, diversification doesn’t work as well. You’re better off with 5 true friends rather than a 100 superficial ones. You’re better off with one life partner rather than having to change every now and then. As a venture capitalist, you’re better off making a focused bet in a sector rather than diversify spray and pray.

Whether to diversify or not depends on your time horizon. How long do you wish to play the game? If it is one or two years, then diversify by all means. If it is 10 years or more, put your eggs in one carefully chosen basket.

Don’t call it “content”

The defining trait of an artist is that she doesn’t sell herself. She may sell her work, but never her soul – the part of her where the best art is created.

With digital mediums, when somebody calls their work “content”, they subordinate it to something that fills space on a website as it generates income through other means – ads, affiliate marketing or as a front for a commercial enterprise. The writer who uses click-bait headlines and one-sentence paragraphs creates content. An artist who resorts to creating content is analogous to the musician who is forced to dance and turn into a “diva” at the expense of her musical capabilities. Content is the forte of those who dilute the substance behind their work for the mass market in search of “eyeballs”.

One more way to distinguish between art and content is to look for the “how to” guides. Tonnes of Medium.com articles will tell you how to create content – to make headlines that grab people’s attention (“The one secret behind Eric Clapton’s success”) or to water down your ideas to cater to an audience with the attention span of a goldfish. With art, though, there is no map or set of instructions one can follow. Every artist has to find their own path. Leonardo da Vinci or Rembrandt’s formula for creating art would not work for even their most dedicated students.

I have nothing against people who create content for a living. That is a professional choice, like any other. But content is different from art, and calling their work “content” doesn’t serve artists.

I loathe the term “content” as applied to cultural material — it was foisted upon us by a commercially driven media industry that treats human beings as mindless eyeballs counted in statistics like views and likes, as currency to be traded against advertising revenue. Somehow people have been sold on the idea that the relationship between ads and “content” is a symbiotic one, but it is a parasitic one. – Maria Popova 

Coping with randomness

How well are our brains suited to deal with randomness? Let us explore two forms of randomness – perceived randomness and real randomness.

Perceived randomness happens when we have an effect with a cause that eludes our complete understanding – as with a slot machine or the pick of a lottery ticket. When your computer generates random numbers, it actually runs an algorithm that is pegged to a deterministic variable (such as the ticking of the computer’s clock). With enough randomly generated data from the computer (and a lot of time), you can calculate backwards to find out the method the computer uses to generate these numbers. Similarly, when you toss a coin, you flip it with a particular force applied at a particular distance from the coin’s center. More than 20 years ago, Prof. Persi Diaconis demonstrated this by building a coin-tossing machine. Here’s a video where he explains how a coin toss is actually deterministic. Here’s another video where programmed robots can flip bottles with a better accuracy than humans can ever aspire to.

And then, there is real randomness, which I define as an effect without a cause. Now the natural question is if such a phenomenon can even exist. How can we have an effect without a cause? How can there be a response without a stimulus? Our brains are not capable of fathoming such a situation. But at the quantum level, we have learnt how an electron can, at once, be everywhere within an orbital and nowhere within it. Even with everyday phenomenon, such as the smoke rising above a cigarette, we see how this smoke forms a regular trail for a couple of centimeters (laminar flow) and then disperses randomly in several directions (turbulent flow). Despite today’s super-computing powers, precise prediction of how turbulent cigarette smoke disperses eludes our understanding.

And yet, when you think of yourself living in a world of effects without causes, how does that make you feel? To mitigate the mental tension of the unknown, our brain creates stories to explain these effects. Several people attribute the results of even deterministic coin-tosses to destiny or to divine sources, even as we are surrounded by phenomenon that are far more complex – ones that we are yet to comprehend.

“Man is a deterministic creature thrown into a probabilistic universe”, said the psychologist Amos Tversky. Much of our suffering occurs when our causal stories collide with a world which doesn’t care much about them. Perhaps there is no greater truth in the universe than its fundamental unknowability.

Permission, forgiveness and the endowment effect

Making a significant change for the better is often uncomfortable in the moment. This is why, especially in entrepreneurial circles, one often hears “Ask for forgiveness rather than permission”. In the face of such a change, the idea is to implement the change and then inform the people in charge, rather than to get all the necessary approvals before starting on it.

For instance, as a tech company, it would be better to do a makeover of your app (based on a reasonable hypothesis) and and then get feedback on how well it does, rather than perform in-depth market research before making the change. Or to surprise your spouse with a new recipe for dinner rather than asking her and then making the dish. But why does this seem to work? Why should somebody be more likely to be accepting of a change after it has been implemented rather than before? The endowment effect offers us a hint.

The most popular study of the endowment effect involves coffee mugs and chocolate bars, each worth $5 (both economically and notionally). Participants were randomly distributed these two items, with information about their worth. Soon afterwards, they were given to option to trade the coffee mugs and the chocolate bar among each other. A little later, the researchers asked how much they would like to sell their items for.

Here are the interesting results:
1. Since the assignment of the item was random, we expect about 50% of the participants to exchange their coffee mugs for chocolate bars. In reality, only about 10% were willing to exchange.
2. Most participants were willing to sell their mugs or chocolate bars only for a price of about $10 – double of what they knew those items were worth.

In mere moments, the ownership of these items had instantly increased their worth in the eyes of their owners. Richard Thaler, the father of behavioural economics, called this the endowment effect.

A similar thing happens to the status-quo when we make a change. Once the change is made, we all own the change and are likely to value it more. This difference in value between the old situation and the new one, in many cases, ends up preventing or procrastinating an important but uncomfortable decision. By opting for forgiveness rather than permission, we jump over this chasm to a better state.

Of course, this advice ought to be used with discretion. It does not justify carrying out an unethical action and asking for forgiveness later. All the same, not all uncomfortable changes have negative consequences. And when you embark on one such change, the endowment effect can serve as a lubricant for forward motion.

Unmasking entertainment

Entertainment is complete in itself. We play a game mostly because it is fun – not because it teaches us skills in the real world (although it well may). We binge watch movies and the Game of Thrones merely for the hours of pleasure they give us. Pure entertainment is an investment in return for pleasure, without any other pretense.

Entertainment can also serve as a great front door to serve different ends. Apps like Duolingo gamify language learning. Quizzing is a form of entertainment that nudges its participants towards the more esoteric but fascinating facts of the world around us. Any popular science author makes the technical subject matter of their book entertaining so that a wider audience benefits from it. Entertainment is valuable in making difficult, but important activities easier to engage in.

However, entertainment as a back door, is counterproductive. Facebook’s mission statements – “To Make the world more open and connected” and “To Bring the world closer”, all hint at improving the quality of interaction between people. And yet, we know today that Facebook is primarily an entertainment platform, with several questions raised about whether it actually brings the world closer. It is certainly valuable (at $500+ billion), but based on its mission, Facebook serves to entertain through the back-door.

In 1903, the world’s first tabloid newspaper was born. The tabloid was a pioneer in separating news from entertainment (and being explicit about it). Tabloids carried sensational stories, celebrity gossip, sports news, puzzles and comics. They sell for cheap and are primarily financed by advertising money. Several mainstream newspapers (such as India’s most popular English newspaper, The Times of India) switched to this revenue model (ads make up more than 70% of The Times of India’s parent company’s revenue) but continue to pretend that their primary goal is to inform their readers. The internet has embraced and exploited the tabloid revenue model of keeping access free or cheap, and serving ads in exchange. But in the process, it ushers in entertainment through the back-door.

Entertainment is a great front door, but a lousy back door. In Shakespeare’s words, a rose by any other name, would smell as sweet. But entertainment by any other name, is often ground for deception.

Fall to the level of our practice

We often hear about somebody “rising to the occasion”. What we don’t hear often enough is about how they fall to the level of their practice.

It makes for a poetic story for somebody to wake up inspired on race day and perform much better than they do during practice. The newspapers will not report, “Michael Phelps fell to the level of his practice to set a world record”. It does not make for an attractive headline.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll uncover Phelps’s practice – his rigid routine that starts the moment he wakes up, that determines what he eats, what he listens to and how he warms up (with the same warm-up routine for more than 13 years). Phelps visualized winning and enacted it to the greatest detail, including which foot he places on the platform and how he flaps his gigantic arms. By the time the race begins, Phelps has already won over and over again during his practice. In other words, with each of his 28 Olympic medals, Michael Phelps merely fell to the level of his practice.

We do not rise to the occasion. We fall to the level of our practice.

Subtraction over addition

The law of reciprocity is probably older than civilization itself. Its earliest record is in the Code of Hammurabi, which dates back to 1750 BC. It is featured in Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism among several major religions of the world.

The law takes two popular forms. The Golden Rule, which states “do unto others as you would have them do to you”, is its positive or directive form. The more understated Silver Rule is its inversion: “do NOT do unto others as you would NOT have them do unto you.”

What is the difference between the two? Is there even a difference? And which one is superior?

Improvement can happen through both addition and subtraction. To improve a smartphone app, you could add useful features or do away with features that make it harder to use. To improve vehicular movement on a highway, you could add an additional lane or reduce existing bottlenecks. To lose weight, you could add an exercise plan or subtract through your diet. The Golden Rule advocates addition through prescription, while the Silver Rule favours subtraction through proscription.

To add is often the more tempting option (and why the Golden Rule is golden). The person who works harder seems like the more valuable employee. When shown two cameras identical in other respects, people end up picking the one with more features. But the problem with addition is that it often introduces more complexity and hidden feedback loops to an inefficient system. Let’s say a particular diet gives you a tummy ache. Taking a pill might make the ache go away, but the pill now interacts with the body in unforeseeable ways that might now give rise to other problems (what we like to call “side-effects”). With improvement through addition, we make systems more complex and leave open the door open for consequences that we do not foresee.

An improvement through subtraction happens by reducing complexity. It has the opposite effect of addition. Your system now has fewer moving parts, and becomes easier to manage. We are also wired to detect what is bad for us (and for others) better than what is good for us. Ergo, most societal rules are prohibitions and not prescriptions.

In a world of varying preferences and increased freedom, “doing unto others” is to impose one’s taste on others, while “not doing unto others” is to mostly stay out of the other’s way. Or as Hippocrates first principle of medicine states – era-primum non nocere (“First do no harm”).

The horse before the cart

The internet is wonderful if we could setup our digital lives to help us succeed in our real ones. It could be destructive if we compromised our real lives in order to succeed in our digital ones.

Do your digital interactions lead to enriching conversations in real life? Or, like the person who texts while driving, does your real life subordinate to your digital one?

Better than anybody else I know

What sets you apart in your circle of friends? If your close friend were to answer the following question, what would he or she say?

“You do _________ better than anybody else that I know.”

If your friend were to ask you that question, what would your response be?

The answer need not be a single adjective (“you’re the most thoughtful person I know”), but a combination (“you combine aesthetics and practicality better than anybody else I know”).

Let me list out a few hypotheses here:

1. We are all uniquely wired and gravitate towards certain interests more than other people do.

2. We are often unaware of what sets us apart. This is because our mind perceives whatever we do to be normal. We do not often realize that what feels like play to us feels like work to other people.

3. Our close friends know us well enough to answer that question above, but are sufficiently disconnected to give us an objective response.

4. This question makes for interesting conversation among friends who are close enough.

Embracing uncertainty

In 1913, Neils Bohr, a Danish post-doctoral student of the physicist Ernst Rutherford, proposed a model of the atom that we continue to use today.

Most of us think of atoms as being small little balls orbiting a nucleus, much like planets. But this isn’t true – it is merely something that is easy for us to imagine. Bohr proposed that electrons in an orbit are similar to the whirling blades of a fan, in that they fill the entire region in which they move. The difference, though, is that while a fan merely gives us the appearance of doing this, the electron actually does it. Within its orbit, the electron is everywhere as well as nowhere at the same time.

Several other thought experiments (and actual ones), have now established how uncertainty is the bedrock on which atomic theory exists. Werner Heisenberg gave us the uncertainty principle, which states that it is impossible to simultaneously know the position and the speed of any object in the universe (explained elegantly in this 5 min video). This degree of uncertainty is negligible for larger objects, but significant at the atomic level. Given the uncertainty principle, Stephen Hawking once proclaimed, “We certainly cannot predict future events exactly if we cannot even measure the present state of the universe precisely!”

On the other hand, our mind perceives uncertainty as a risk and tries its best to get rid of it. We crave for explanations because their absence is stressful! Therefore, we often make predictions and include explanations for all manners of events (“Bombay Stock Exchange falls due to Chandigarh municipal by-elections results”). While insurance helps us bear the economical burdens of uncertainty, religion (fate) helps us cope psychologically. Threats that appear random and without any explanation cause us to panic and routinely overestimate them – like we do with terrorist attacks.

We live in the constant tension between the uncertainty that is fundamental to the universe and our mind’s need for causality and explanation. Religion, stories and other comforting illusions serve to alleviate our suffering – like pills and balms do. To prevent it, though, we could learn from the mystics who embrace the mischievous uncertainty of the universe with a full heart.

Inspiration: A short history of nearly everything – Bill Bryson

A conversation about trigonometry

Sin2θ + Cos2θ = 1

We all learnt this equation back in high school and its elegant derivation from Pythagorean principles. When was the last time, though, that we used trigonometry in the real world?

I converse everyday, both in my personal as well as professional life. Conversation is the currency of our social capital. The art of making good conversation is an invaluable skill for most of us, regardless of our profession. How many schools today teach us how to converse well?

Trigonometry is easy to teach, with its elegant mathematical proofs. But even to type out that equation above, I had to open a Word document and google the symbol for theta. In our schools, why don’t we simply teach people how to use the existing keys on the keyboard instead? What is school for? Is it merely a place where we teach concepts that are easy to teach? Ones for which we already have textbooks, lesson plans and problems formulated in elegant prose?

I do not dismiss the value of trigonometry. I am only questioning our assumption to teach it universally in place of several skills that are far more universal.


Paying it forward

How kind are we to strangers?

The answer, of course, depends on where you look. If you looked at a pay-it-forward restaurant such as this one, you either pay what you want, pay what you can or volunteer in exchange for your meal. At these restaurants, about 80 percent of the guests pay the suggested price or more for their meal.

My move to Germany about two years back was all thanks to the kindness of strangers. When I thanked them profusely, they mentioned how several people had helped them out before. I continue to help people out with their own international moves. I see this not just as a privilege, but as my duty.

The golden rule – to treat others as one would like others to treat oneself  – has been around on since the beginning of time. It is an unwritten code that is part of our genes.

Does your community or organization have a culture of paying it forward? If it does, this culture would sustain itself. If it does not, like a fire, it merely needs to be kick-started.

The 100x rule

Intuition is familiarity that we do not recognize – familiarly that we gain at an unconscious level through repeated practice.

Practice is the ability to perform something in a situation that is replicable – such as positions on a chessboard, the arrangement of notes in a famous song, or 100 leaky faucets that have the same problem. With sufficient practice, a chessmaster chooses the best move in a position within a split second. The fingers of a saxophonist push the right buttons to play Take Five with clockwork precision. An expert plumber can fix a leaky faucet with a few cranks of her spanner, and without a second thought.

But not all professions are equally suitable for developing one’s intuition. Take the case of the stock picker, who based on rigorous analysis, projects that a competitor to Facebook is 20% likely to double their revenues next year. For this soothsayer to validate his data, he would have to recreate our world a 100 times and observe in how many of those worlds the competitor succeeds. He operates in what psychologists call a “low-validity environment”. This is true, to varying degrees, of doctors who examine patients with different internal chemistry, of interviewers who examine candidates with different backgrounds and of all varieties of pundits who predict where the stock market is headed.

Before you believe an expert’s intuitive prediction, ask yourself whether she has had the ability to recreate a particular situation 100 times in her profession. The degree to which she can do that is the extent to which you should trust her intuitive judgement.

World-view vs. the world

When the world collides with our world-view, there are two broad ways to respond.

The first is to treat our world-view as the sacred truth to which the world must confirm. Anybody who doesn’t or measure up or act accordingly is dim-witted, narrow-minded or downright evil. Our response is to write them off as lost causes and stick to circles of people who share the same world-view. This mode of response unites people in opposing sides of a camp. Each camp is devoted to their world-view with equal fervour. Like the Shakespearean families of Montague and the Capulet, they are identical, but hate each other.

The second is to put the world before the world-view. Our world-view is nothing but our imperfect interpretation of the world, and if something doesn’t add up, it’s our world-view that needs to change. We engage with people who have a different world-view and converse with them, not to agree with them but to understand where they come. Seen this way, camps such as Left and Right, Democrat and Republican, Conservative and Liberal, are meaningless because they all represent world-views that are bogged down with inertia.

The world is real and complex. Our world-view is like a globe – a simplification that helps us cope with these complexities. By holding on too tightly to our world-view, we stand to mistake our globes for the world itself.