Unlearning unwarranted absolutism

The past few years I noticed that many of my opinions are too black and white.

Thinking about the why, I realised, that that’s a natural result of upbringing: When parents educate, they simplify the world. They have to teach a simplified model of the world, because children couldn’t grasp the full complexity (grown-ups only do a sightly better job). Always explaining a child that the answer “depends” and trying to enforce a rule while stressing the precise, subtle context under which it applies (“this only applies if a and b and c are given, but when b is so-and-so, rather act so-and-so”) must be impossible. While growing up, every child gets in touch with more people, and therefore more opinions. Gradually children lose the ultimate, unquestioning trust in their parent’s worldview, and start to notice inconsistencies and hypocrisy (“Why do you say all drugs are really bad but drink alcohol yourself?”). As teenagers, many of us shape our own opinions for the first time. We calibrate them by acting antithetical to our upbringing. Annoyingly inefficient: every teenager has to re-discover, which of their parents lessons were personal opinions that are (not) worth adopting, and which are “truths” of our society. We re-gain much of the worldview taught by our parents after having broken their rules, pulled apart opinions, and re-attached them to our own lived experience. Inevitably, we never again find ourselves agreeing with some aspects we once considered “universal truth”. This is what drives cultural progression and is experienced as generational conflicts.

With myself though I noticed that the time of questioning fades away: I’ve grown more comfortable (= narrow minded) with my existing opinions, and getting new points of view in sync with mine becomes more difficult. It’s easy to dismiss conflicting input by overgeneralising existing opinions – and prohibits further growth. Making it a habit to question instinctive, engrained believes while exposing ourselves to different groups of people (= deliberation & critical thinking) might be the door towards life-long learning.

Here’s areas where I have to force myself to think more differentiated:

The difference between “bad” and “bad for me”

Let’s pick a recent example: Shawn Wang’s post on “How to market yourself”. My first reaction was: “What a bunch of snake oil”. Every fibre of my body disagrees with the notion of constantly putting as much work into selling oneself as suggested by the post. Then I considered Shawn’s position1 and mine. Clear take-away: this advice must be extremely valuable — but only for someone who is interested in following a similar trajectory as SWYX. That’s not my way though — hence my valid conclusion that the advice is worth nothing — with the important asterisk: I can only state this conclusion for myself.

Or, let’s look at the example of long-time friends: When we were kids, my friend felt like perfect equals. When I look at my friends today, it’s easy to point out things which I’d have done different, and where they “went wrong”. Of course they didn’t — they followed paths which were true to them, and so did I. Over time those small differences in character accumulated in visibly different lifes. Bridging the differences, and seeing them as interesting examples to learn from, must be key to up-keeping those friendships.

The same overarching argumentation applies to most situations where I classify things as “bad”. Those classifications are true just for my person. Once I change the lens to what’s “bad” for society as a whole, my opinions nearly always become more relaxed and libertarian. Many things might not be good for me, but the list can’t be extrapolated to society at all. That’s what’s great about democracy: Democracy forces society to negotiate the common determinator of behaviours we want to ostracise. This set of shared standpoints outlaws less behaviours than if a single person were to define the list. The result is a society where — on average — everyone enjoys more freedom. Admittedly every society is cruel to those who don’t adhere to the majorities’ ideas. This negative side-effect / damage / defect might be? an optimum for the group as a whole — or a fundamental “market failure” like it e.g. occurs in the economy for public goods.

Behaviour as consumer

On a lighter note, there’s a similar trap of oversimplifying when it comes to consumption. Where – if looking at the economy — “there’s no bad products, just bad prices”, there’s plenty items that seem like bad products to me. My bigger struggles lies on the opposite end of the spectrum though: the loooooong list of goods which I consider great products and would very much like to own, catapulting the desire department of my brain into day-dreams of the “Dagobert Duck”-like richness required to purchase them. The rational mind knows that this is a fata morgana: Earning the means to buy those goods wouldn’t (dramatically) increase happiness levels.

While it’s natural to desire nice products, the overwhelming majority of them does not benefit the own life. The best protection: Know your needs! Acknowledge those items without falling for them. The red line when it comes to luxury goods is taking on debt to own them. That’s a trap reducing worry-free-ness and the chance to seize other opportunities for a questionable short term status gain.

Are strong inherited believes useful for anything?

Alright, so we established that upbringing is a way how believes and opinions are passed on, and why the occurring oversimplification is a necessity. In addition we’ve noticed that in adolescence it’s harder to remain flexible in believes, hindering life-long learning. This raises the question: Does the friction that thinking differently comes with bring any value?

I think so! As Harari states in his fabulous book “brief history of humankind”, believes play a crucial role in allowing our grown population to cohabitate earth. And, closing the loop with the above section on consumption, a core class of believes, religion, has been weakened in favour of other rising shared believes, like the belief in money. It’s phenomenal how stable the belief in money’s value is, given that neither the paper nor the numbers in bank’s computer systems have any intrinsic value unless everyone else shares the belief in their value. Were our minds ever so slightly more open, the economy as we know it might cease to exist.


  1. From recent employments at Netlify to AWS, noteworthy OSS contributions, authoring a book, giving popular conference talk, and all of that within a few years of being in the scene.