Take time to think about things that matter and stop living on borrowed beliefs
‘You aren’t free if you cannot take naps when you feel like having one.’ — Nassim Taleb
While this is as good a definition of freedom as any, there’s an even deeper, yet, under-appreciated indicator of freedom: having the time to just stop and think.
The notion of what freedom is supposed to mean has changed in the modern age. Most people are ‘free’ in the conventional sense, that is they are no longer actively oppressed by a king or regime. However, if we redefine freedom as the ability to live our lives deliberately, driven by decisions we have had the time to think about, the picture begins to get murkier.
Today, we live in a world where even our opinions are packaged and served to us on a platter by experts and media outlets. In such a world, can we be sure that our lives are a result of our own deliberate choices? Why are we where we are right now? What assumptions did we make that led us here? Do they still hold true? Or are we trying to navigate our way through life with an outdated map?
Thinking usually gets a bad rap nowadays: ‘Act, don’t think!’, we’re told. More specifically, there seems to be a pervasive bias against thinking deeply about things not directly related to work. Life, on the other hand, is to be lived, not analyzed. But while overthinking has its perils, many of our anxieties stem from not stopping to ask ourselves whether our lives are what we want them to be. Reclaiming the time and space to think is the first step towards avoiding the ‘lives of quiet desperation’ Thoreau wrote about in Walden.
Why it matters
The unbelievable power of original anchors
In his book Predictably Irrational, psychologist Dan Ariely talks about how the first decision we make in a certain context can continue to determine our behavior far into the future, even when the context has irrevocably changed. As a result, we stop questioning our repeated behaviors because we assume that since we have been acting like that for a long time, there must be a good reason for us to do so. In other words, we subconsciously accept that our original choice was a wise one.
Ariely calls this phenomenon arbitrary coherence because even though our behaviors seem to make sense in the present, they might be based on random choices made years ago. Your choice of career, where you live, your relationships — all of these are based on certain assumptions we make at specific points in our lives. Whether those assumptions still hold true is a question worth asking because the quality of our lives depend on it.
Furthermore, we are creatures of habit, designed to fall into automatic patterns of behavior without realizing it. If we are truly interested in enriching our lived experience, it is imperative to look at the original triggers of our habits and honestly question whether they still apply.
The default mode of believing
If I were to ask you whether pink elephants exist, what is the first image that pops into your head? If you are like most people, a large mammal with a light reddish hue should unfailingly appear in your thoughts. It’s only a split a second later that you would dismiss this thought as absurd (and probably question whether I’d been drinking).
This simplistic example depicts a well-established theory of how we form beliefs. Originally articulated by the Dutch philosopher Spinoza in the 16th century, this theory claims that in order to assess whether a claim is true or not, we have to first believe that it is. In other words, your mind first entertains the possibility of the statement being true and only later does it proceed to discredit it by using deliberate, effortful thinking.
This spontaneous impulse to believe has important consequences for our lives. One implication is that we can’t be dead sure that our beliefs and opinions are a result of logical thinking. The act of refuting a newly received belief takes work, but the brain is lazy and would rather accept what it sees or hears. Subjecting our most cherished beliefs to deliberate questioning is the only way to break free of subconscious assumptions that are holding us back.
What to think about
Bill Gates, now once again the richest man in the world, famously takes what he calls Think Weeks — twice-a-year solo retreats where all he does is read and think. Gates has credited this time away as a crucial factor in a number of breakthroughs, including Microsoft’s defining pivot towards the internet. While most of us can’t afford the luxury of disappearing like that for days, it’s worth emulating the principle of this ritual: we need to carve out time from our daily lives to think deeply about things that truly matter.
This is not about solving specific problems alone, but about exploring our whole system of thought and identifying parts that need to be repaired or discarded. To be clear, the objective is not to become a hyper-rational being or diminish the role of emotion and instinct in our lives. Rather, it is to take personal responsibility for determining the quality of our decisions in work, relationships and life.
In my own experience, asking the following questions has helped refine my belief structure:
Do I hold beliefs that might not be true any more?
Even if these beliefs still hold true, have my goals changed? If so, do I need to shift to new assumptions?
Is there a gap between what I want and where I currently am? If yes, what do I need to do in order to close that gap?
What knowledge do I already have? Can I make any meaningful connections between those ideas to come up with something new?
Do I need to learn anything new to move ahead?
How to do it
One word: writing.
As I have personally found out, writing is one of the most effective ways of thinking. Writing not only forces you to clarify your thoughts to yourself, but also breaks you out of endless loops of rumination. Our brain is an associative machine, which means that a single thought can trigger countless others and before you know it, your train of thought is completely derailed. Writing allows you to maintain a clear logical sequence without getting sidelined by similar, but unimportant thoughts.
What’s more, writing things down creates distance between you and your thoughts, allowing you to analyze them dispassionately. A thought that remains locked inside your head is a part of you, and questioning it feels like you’re attacking yourself. However, by spelling out your thoughts on paper (or a screen) you weaken your emotional connection with them and can objectively question their content.
A third benefit of writing is that it keeps you honest. Lying to yourself is easier when your thoughts remain safely tucked away in your mind, unarticulated even to yourself. Not so much when you write them down by your own hand.
Most of our beliefs derive their validity simply from the fact that they are accepted at large by society. As Erich Fromm wrote in To Have or To Be?:
‘…(social conditioning works) so well that most people believe they are following their own will and are unaware that their will itself is conditioned and manipulated’.
If we were to peel off the surface, we might find that there is no logical reason why we should continue to hold some our most cherished beliefs. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so at a time when we are bombarded by an endless stream of information from all sides. In a time such as this, our only hope lies in reclaiming the power to think for ourselves.