Two quick announcements.
First, today is the LAST DAY to apply for my Moonshot Mastermind. I won’t offer the program again until 2022. You can find all the details and apply at this link.
Second, the video reel I shared with you last week was so popular that my server crashed! If you weren’t able to watch it, here’s a link (and here’s an alternative link if the first link gets the hug of death again). Thanks to all of you who wrote with such amazing feedback.
Onto the regularly scheduled programming…
There’s an old saying in academia: Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.
I experienced the truth of this saying firsthand in my early years as a law professor. I had written a series of articles that bucked conventional wisdom on military coups, which drew the ire of several prominent scholars in my field.
During one particularly memorable conference dinner, a senior scholar was so offended by my work that she hurled a series of invectives in my direction across the dinner table while spitting up her spaghetti alfredo (I will exercise the good taste not to transcribe what she said, though it’s tempting. Senior scholar, if you’re reading this, know that I’m protecting your good name).
It was hard not to take attacks like these personally. My heart rate would increase, my blood pressure would skyrocket, and I would get defensive, clinging to my arguments as if they were the only thing protecting me from impending doom.
My academic beliefs got wrapped up in my identity—and became my biggest weakness. This was my article, my argument, my idea. This was me.
I know I’m not alone here. Once we form an opinion—our own very clever idea—we tend to fall in love with it, particularly when we declare it publicly.
Our language often reflects this inflexible posture. I’m a liberal. I’m a Republican. I’m vegan. I’m Paleo. When our beliefs and our identity are the same, changing our mind means changing our identity—which is why disagreements often turn into existential death matches.
The hardest part about thinking differently is admitting that what you once believed is now wrong. That’s an admission that most egos are unwilling to make.
The trick is to separate your ego from your beliefs in order to see them clearly, evaluate them honestly, and discard them if necessary. For great, limber, wildly creative minds, there is no shame or embarrassment in evolution. “Strong opinions, loosely held,” in the words of Marc Andreessen.
Here are three ways you can put this mindset into practice:
1. Ease the blow on your ego
Your ego doesn’t like being wrong. So, trick it into believing that it wasn’t wrong. To ease the blow, tell yourself that you were right given what you knew, but now that new information has come to light, your beliefs should be updated.
This way, you’re not invalidating your past self. You’re simply upgrading it.
2. Don’t blend ideas into your identity.
In my late 20s, I used to call myself a libertarian. But then I found myself defending libertarian positions even when I didn’t agree with them or hadn’t thought them through.
That’s the danger of wrapping your identity around your ideas. Once you’ve done that, you’ll find yourself embracing a belief system simply to preserve your identity.
A subtle verbal tweak can be surprisingly effective. It’s better to say “I agree with the libertarian approach to this issue” (as wordy as that might be) than to call yourself a libertarian.
3. Ask yourself a simple question.
Here’s a simple question to help unearth fixed beliefs.
Ask yourself, “What fact would change my opinion on this subject?”
If the answer is “nothing would change my opinion,” you don’t have an opinion.
You are the opinion.