Many people make the mistake of thinking that some things they think are beliefs and others are not beliefs but facts. Or that they are just right.
For example, if you ask them who they think might be the next President, they might say it could be Hillary Clinton. They’d say that was a belief because they can’t prAove who will become the next President. They just have to wait until it happens. If you ask them what one plus one is they’ll say two. If you ask them if that’s a belief, they’ll say no, they don’t believe one plus one is two, it’s a fact they know.
What you believe isn’t reality, it’s your belief about reality
Even if something is objectively true, you still believe it. The distinction between something you believe and you believing something is subtle, but huge, as I’ll show. The statement “The sky is blue” says something about the world. The statement “I believe the sky is blue” says something about your mind.
What difference does that make and why should I care?
There are several consequences to confusing your beliefs with reality. Let’s look at eight.
Consequence 1: People were wrong about things they were more sure about than you are about any belief you have
The following statements, each from recognized experts, show what we now consider hopelessly wrong beliefs. Imagine how adopting those beliefs would have affected you, like that stock prices couldn’t drop on the eve of the Great Depression.
Imagine how right each of those people felt and how much “incontrovertible evidence” they had to support themselves with.
“Stocks have reached what look to be a permanently high plateau.”
— I. Fisher, Prof. of Economics, Yale, 1929.
“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
— M. Smith, Decca Records, rejecting the Beatles’ demo tape, 1962.
“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
— Lord Kelvin, President, Royal Society, 1895.
“Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
— C. H. Duell Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899.
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
— Thomas Watson, Chair, IBM, 1943.
“So we went to Atari and said, …’We’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said no. So then we went to HP, and they said ‘We don’t need you, you haven’t got through college yet.’”
— Steve Jobs, co-founder, Apple Computers. (Repeated with Google founders approaching Yahoo!, Excite, and the other major search engines of the time)
“640K of RAM ought to be enough for anybody.”
— Bill Gates, Microsoft, 1981.
“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
— H.M. Warner, Warner Bros., 1927.
People believed the Earth was flat. You have little to no direct evidence to the contrary, but consider that belief hopelessly backward.
How wrong might you be about other concepts you can’t imagine being wrong about?
Consequence 2: You can change your beliefs easier than reality, especially other people and organizations
Changing your beliefs involves only yourself. Changing someone else means you have to motivate them and they may not share your beliefs or values. How much success have you had in changing other people who didn’t want to be changed? Has doing so improved your relationships with them?
Have you found changing organizations a quick process that consistently leads to success?
If you haven’t changed your beliefs, you may find it difficult, but you can. It’s a skill like any other. Do you want to be like the guy who rejected the Beatles or who wouldn’t hire Steve Jobs, only to see his company eclipse yours?
Consequence 3: Being wrong doesn’t necessarily make your life worse
Have you been wrong in the past? Did you find being corrected hurt you? Did you learn from the experience?
Consequence 4: You lose ability to influence others
When people sense you won’t change your views, which you can’t if you consider them objective reality, they resist changing their views.
Consequence 5: People who disagree may see you as self-righteous, opinionated, inflexible, and holier-than-thou
If you believe something and someone disagrees, can you not admit the possibility of being wrong? Or can you only believe you’re right and they’re wrong?
How often has feeling “I’m right and they’re wrong” improved relationships with someone else? If you’re so right, why don’t they agree?
Consequence 6: You become self-righteous, opinionated, inflexible, and holier-than-thou
If you consider yourself right and people who disagree wrong, which you do when you consider your beliefs right, you become self-righteous, opinionated, inflexible, and holier-than-thou. You have this in common with every fundamentalist in the world. Do you enjoy putting yourself in their company through your own beliefs and behavior?
Consequence 7: Believing something wrong doesn’t necessarily make your life worse
Bring wrong or, more conservatively, not taking a position on something you can’t tell conclusively, doesn’t make your life worse. Did people who believed the Earth was flat deprive themselves of happiness? They probably lived just fine. So if you believe you’re right and fear some penalty from switching your belief, consider all the people who believe contradictory beliefs yet are living happy lives with great relationships. Since they disagree they can’t all be right, so some are wrong. Yet they still live great lives.
Why not try considering an alternative belief?
Consequence 8: Not taking a fixed position on something can have advantages and create opportunities
Consider taking less literal views on things. You might be surprised how much alternative views can improve your life and solve problems.
For example, when I look at a blue sky, I see it as blue and would say it’s blue. I can’t see any other way of looking at it. It seems correct. Yet when I look at a Monet painting, I see beauty and creativity beyond what my belief would allow. I don’t see the colors he shows in any sky, but the colors he shows communicate something meaningful and important.
Alternative views don’t always make sense or help, but they can. Trying them out — that is, trying to believe something that contradicts what you believe, however temporarily — helps you see the world differently and potentially learn. You can reject what you find after trying it.
In many cases alternative views expand your perspective of the world — as with Monet, impressionists in general, and countless other artists. Alternative views help solve problems that don’t admit to straightforward solutions. Recognizing your belief isn’t reality lets your change your beliefs without risking hurting yourself or anyone else.
Consider something less artsy and subjective. Try for a moment to think of the consequences of forcing yourself to believe 1+1=3. As much as you know 1+1=2, believing 1+1=3 isn’t without potentially helpful meaning.
Does it get you thinking about a couple having a child together? Or two companies merging and creating a new company worth more than the sum of its parts? The meaning may change from the original mathematical concept, but it doesn’t hurt you.
Where does such thinking lead you in life? What great historical figures believed things that contradicted conventional wisdom? How many were clearly wrong from one perspective yet effective leaders and living great lives from another perspective? What do you miss in life by being literal and fixed on right and wrong?
For that matter, 1+1=2 is just a belief too. It’s an abstract mathematical concept built on other abstract mathematical concepts. There is no such thing as “1” in the universe. If you have one rock, I can point at the rock, but I can’t point at the “1”. If you collect two rocks, I can point at the rocks, but I can’t find any “2” anywhere. Numbers are abstract concepts — that is, beliefs. It’s not clear how much you can say they are part of reality any more than any other belief.
For that matter, if you say the sky is blue, its color changes with time and location. If it’s blue for you it may be overcast and gray for someone else or black with stars for someone else. What is a sky anyway? It’s a concept that isn’t so clearly defined.
You can take apart any belief to where it doesn’t make sense any more, but where does that get you?
I recommend never confusing a belief, which is a mental state, with the object of that belief, which is something else.
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