I’ve been hopping around the globe now for more than five years, to see what the experience could teach me. I don’t fancy museums or buildings; rather, I love to meet all types of different people everywhere I go, and learn about they see the world.
Once, I was quietly sipping some noodle soup at a tiny stall in Cavite province, in the Philippines, minding my own business. Suddenly a man of about 45 burst in out of nowhere, walked directly to me and handed me a thin booklet about Mr Jesus Christ.
The way he’d acted, it seemed that he believed I had never heard the name before. He went on in earnest detail about the new kingdom that was coming, and stressed the importance that I repent and profess my love of Jesus. That was the only way I would receive an invite to this giant orgy in the afterlife.
In Kochi, India, I had a Thali lunch with a man of about 50 who was adamant that one could heal any illness - simply by using their thoughts. Doctors and modern medicine were not necessary, he said, because everything is made of energy.
I've visited prayer halls in mosques of Indonesia and Malaysia where the “truth” was broadcasted, at maximum volume, across loudspeakers for the willing (and me, the unfortunate unwilling) to hear.
Everywhere I’ve went, people who know nothing about me or my life, take it upon themselves to suggest to me the correct way of living, either directly or indirectly. But the majority bear their burden silently, dutifully following the routines and rituals that their mother culture and society thrusts upon them.
If I were to ask you, perhaps: how many things can you say that you absolutely know, with full certainty?
Left is left and right is right. Or are they? The sky is blue. Or is it?
Since I’ve left home I’ve found that every conviction I’ve once clung to has been debunked. I question every belief I’ve ever had or have, because being proven wrong again and again, I know the fickle ground upon which beliefs stand.
Yet everywhere I go, I see humanity like stubborn children, clinging to what it perceives to be true. Entertaining any idea that conflicts with our depiction of reality makes us uncomfortable, so we don’t. We simply accept what is convenient, what is handed down to us, and let those beliefs form our convictions.
To be sure, there’s assurance and solace in being able to definitively settle the question of who we are and why we’re here.
I think the details of what we believe matter less so than the need for certainty.
Uncertainty is uncomfortable, so we seek to settle the issue permanently. There is certainty to be found in the sign of a cross, or the half moon of a mosque, or in a gohonzon.
The symbol and what it represents matter more than the details.
As a symbol, the cross or the gohonzon replaces actual understanding. It substitutes the hard thinking and questioning, and “fixes” us, so to speak, for life.
On the other hand, the more I travel, the less rigid my own beliefs become. I care nothing for the religion, politics, or sports teams from my youth.
And in this pursuit I find myself in lonely company.
As we rid ourselves of ideology and narrowness, we venture deeper and deeper into unfamiliar territory. We learn that there are very few hard truths in life.
Uncertainty can be chilling; but it’s also empowering. I remember how excited I felt when I realized how remarkable the world and it’s people were, and how much there was to discover and learn. Each person and culture and place and idea that I’ve discovered has given me anew and unique lens to view this wide magical world that we live in.
But I feel myself among a small minority; most of humanity still hums along in blissful childlike innocence (and ignorance). A Muslim taxi driver who picked me up in Kuala Lumpur pointed to events in Myanmar to assert that Buddhists were violent. While a Thai Buddhist pointed a finger the opposite direction.
And would the Filipino man still be so certain of God’s kingdom if he was born in, say, Nepal? Or would he question, find the answer on his own, and arrive at the same conclusion?
Convictions provide faith and comfort, but at the cost of true understanding and a loss of the ability to reinvent ourselves and realign our values to ones more meaningful to our core sense of self. As far as I understand it, this, I believe, is a fundamental human flaw.
On a macro level, psychological biases can also be very dangerous when they lead us astray. They also blind us to the possibility of what Nassim Taleb calls “black swans,” a sudden unforeseen event that disproves everything.
History proves that what humans conventionally believe (which in the cultural and historical context in which it appears seems seems set in stone), is often completely wrong.
- Until the 16th century humanity lived and died believing that the Earth was the center of the universe. Then Copernicus published his heliocentric model, and we believed (incorrectly, again) that the sun was the center of the universe until the 20th century, when we discovered other galaxies.
- China, the ancient land of wisdom and philosophy, believed unquestioningly that the world was flat and square all the way up until the 17th century.
- Before Darwin, we believed that the world began 6,000 years ago. Now we have discovered carbon dating showing us fossils that are 3.5 billion years old.
Almost every single belief that any human has ever conceived was proven wrong at some point - often irreversibly. In hindsight, we laugh and wonder how people back then could have been so foolish.
When generations of the future look back at us, will they laugh and wonder how we could have been so foolish?
Black Swans and their effects
A “black swan” is a sudden and unforeseen event which catches the unprepared fully unaware - often with catastrophic events.
Consider the life of a turkey.
A turkey spends his whole life believing tomorrow will be the same as yesterday. Every day in his life so far has confirmed this. He’s had an easy life, and been treated well by the butchers. As they wish to fatten him up as much as possible, he’s never suffered from want of food.
There’s a belief the turkey adopts that being a part of a coup with other birds is somehow safe and acceptable - and all of these other turkeys seem to have things figured out.
Then a little old holiday called Thanksgiving comes along, and once he’s come of age and large enough, the butcher’s axe comes.
The turkey never saw that one coming. He couldn’t have.
I fear that many of us have chosen the life of a turkey in a world of rapid, dramatic, irreversible change.
And I'm worried that more and more people are rushing to join the hen house without realizing the serious dangers that certainty poses.
Entrepreneurs, for instance, are viewed as something like rockstars these days. Everyone wants to call themselves an entrepreneur, and big communities of entrepreneur support groups have formed as a result.
The trouble is that these communities are quickly becoming a mediocre majority in and of themselves. And there's so much information being thrown at them. There’s too much money in consulting and selling books about how to be an entrepreneur and content about escaping the 9 to 5.
Something that used to be very uncomfortable and difficult - entrepreneurship - is suddenly easier than ever before, and everyone wants to become one. It’s the fashionable thing.
It’s also become more comfortable than ever before. People associate with something because of the identity it gives them. When I first began to tell people I was an author, it felt so incredibly cool. I was damn proud of myself.
But the identity becomes an end in and of itself. And, if you care about your life, this is very dangerous.
Many (entrepreneurs, musicians, authors, artists, etc) become attached to the identity and addicted to the struggle of trying to make it, without actually focusing on results and creating real change.
Remember, it requires less thinking and energy to choose a position, an identity, a religion, or a career, and ride it out indefinitely. This is why graduates fresh from college, firm in beliefs, enter the world supposing they have life entirely figured out.
And why wise seekers such as Socrates - a name that has echoed down the ages - once said "I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing: that I know nothing."
It’s important to understand when our deeply-held beliefs may be holding us back, and how to discover newer, better, more effective ways of looking at things.
Success comes to those who break the conventional molds. Who shed old identities and biases and ways of doing things to embrace a newer, more empowering sense of self, and ways of acting and being…
If and when you ever find yourself among the majority, it’s time to pause, take a step back, and reflect.
Question everything. Accept everything, and see how it fits. Only through a collection of viewpoints and ideas can you find what meshes with you. Explore the truth, on your own, as earnestly and as long as you can.
Do so if only to join me in this lonely quest. I’d most certainly welcome your company.
Please join me on my blog too if you would like more :)