Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day. — Bertrand Russell
Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense. — Buddha
“Believing seems the most mental thing we do,” wrote Bertrand Russell in 1921.
Reason is simply a tool to help the brain get what it cares about (and to feel good about it). And a brain cares, first and foremost, about itself—what’s happening in its environment and why, how it appears (to others and to itself), and whether or not it’s safe and in control. These hardwired biases to see patterns and make meaning, craft an acceptable and consistent personal narrative, and exert control over its environment are the irresistible forces that influence the brain’s creation of beliefs.
While delivering the commencement speech at Yale University in 1962, President John F. Kennedy noted, “We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. Mythology distracts us everywhere.”
Our minds crave consistency in our beliefs and behaviors. We want to appear logical, to ourselves and to others. And when faced with evidence which contradicts our beliefs, our minds work to eliminate the psychological discomfort.
Emerson once remarked that there is properly no history, only biography. The stories we create about the past aren’t the Truth (with a capital T). They’re a personal fiction, the mind’s meaning-making apparatus at work. But, like most everything the mind creates, it affects us. How we visualize each role in each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but also how we behave. Who we think we are is why we do what we do.
Desire not only focuses our attention on what’s attractive—on what has the potential to make us feel good—but also on information that supports those feelings. If we desire something, we’ll be attentive to the evidence that supports it and inattentive to conflicting evidence. And we update our beliefs based on that biased data.
Aspiring writers, athletes, actors and musicians ignore the mountain of data that point to frustration in their pursuits of fame and fortune. Instead, they persist by focusing on spoonsful of evidence—recognition, signs of progress and emotionally charged hero stories—which support their beliefs.
Our minds abhor a causality vacuum. We have a deep desire to understand and explain everything to ourselves, including the random twist and turns of our own lives. When no explanation is forthcoming, we will instinctively make one up to suit our situation and disposition, to make us feel good about our decisions and our stories.
Effective leaders know that the essential first step to changing people’s behavior is to understand their perspectives and embrace their desires and beliefs. Everything else flows naturally from there.
Dieter Rams said good designers “must have an intuition for the reality in which people live. For their dreams, their desires, their worries, their needs, their living habits.”
But research has repeatedly shown that rational arguments are not very effective, since people’s behavior is overwhelmed by their reasons—their beliefs and desires.
As Henny Youngman reportedly quipped, “When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading.”
There’s a well-known quote, or some variation of it, that is often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
Belief requires focus. It demands that we follow the lead of our feeling mind, of our intuition and assumptions. Distractions and difficulties turn on our thinking mind, which undermines belief by overriding our instincts.
Great leaders simplify the belief process by eliminating difficulties and competing options on our attention. They work really hard to make belief really easy.
As the film director Errol Morris recently made clear, “People despise reality, but love verisimilitude.”
As Lao-Tzu wrote in the “Tao Te Ching”:
Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.
Carl Jung noted, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
The great systems theorist and designer Buckminster Fuller put it this way. “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Perhaps it’s why I’m so amused by comedian Mitch Hedberg’s absurd declaration: “I’m sick of following my dreams, man. I’m just going to ask where they’re going and hook up with ‘em later.”
G. K. Chesterton wrote, “If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution.”
Face it: We are either breaking out of our spirit-sucking routines and breaking through to new insights and experiences, or we are breaking down.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “A single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities.”