This interview with Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink and Outliers) and his concept of the “uncomfortable luxury of changing one’s mind” posted by NYPL The New York Public Library and Brain Pickings really got my mind churning. There is a comfort in knowing we do not have to have it all figured out, and a humility and grace in admitting it. I am a passionate person. If I have an opinion I express it unabashedly and I know it’s not always based on fact. Actually, most of the time it’s not. But I’m the first to admit when I’m wrong and have no trouble apologizing when I have wronged someone else. You would think at this point being ‘put in my place’ time and time again would make me think twice before taking a stand…I guess in a way I welcome the adversity. I am not saying that it is fun to get called out. Like that time that I interrupted a disheveled woman as she tried to get my attention on the subway steps. I was in a rush, I said bustling past, and could not spare change. Baffled and agitated, she shot back, “I was JUST gonna say, that I liked your dress!” Ouch… Oftentimes we show our stripes through our snap judgments especially at the times that are least convenient. Now, I am not saying that it is wrong to place judgment…quite the contrary. It is natural and even fundamental to our survival to have a set of pre-conceived notions that are like the shortcuts on the drive to our day-to-day destinations. These notions are based on our past experiences, our cultural background, and learned behavior. More often than not though, they are stereotypes. I do not think that stereotypes are inherently wrong. A lot of times, there are facts and statistics that back them up, thus the playground decision to take the kids to to the slide rather than the swings where a creepy, loner, white guy is lingering. When an unanticipated reaction or response is elicited from the typecast subject, it can shake up your previously conceived notion of how a particular subset of people will react. It’s like a mental gut check–it reminds me to factor in context and situation whenever appropriate and not jump to conclusions about a person or cohort of people. I recommend testing these notions on the regular.
From least to most invasive, here are some ways to hit reset on your predispositions.
- People Watch / Eavesdrop–For a day, free yourself of your headphones and devices, find yourself a populated park, and just listen and watch. It is amazing what you will absorb and experience by being a super-conscious observer. It’s the stuff Humans of New York are made of.
- Stay Current –Pick your favorite newsfeed and make it a habit to get familiar with the global goings-on. Read beyond the headlines and local happenings. I like having it on in the background while I get ready for the day and using a reader app that’s available offline to read on the subway.
- Attend the Unlikely Event— Go in with an open mind to your friend’s open mic night or register to watch a Magic The Gathering competition. The stronger the association the better. Make a point to speak with several fellow attendees and prepare to have your mind blown.
- Try a Service Job— When I was waitressing in NYC, I met, worked with, and served the most interesting and diverse group of people. You make assumptions and modify your behavior and level of service according to how much gratuity you think they will leave based on all sorts of verbal and non-verbal cues. I would not have charged for the chips and salsa and been a little snappier in getting out his soup had I known it was Mr. Zagat I was serving. He still gave me 20% tip to the penny. The amazingly chipper and inquisitive Austrian tourists whom I gave away all my best-of-downtown-NYC tips to? Left me with no tip of my own. (Though I should have known, it is not customary to tip in Austria and throughout parts of Europe...)
- Or Better Yet, Serve Your Fellow Man for Free– Dedicating time to serve others is the best way to unveil some unrealized truths about ourselves. I spent a Sunday this winter ready to prep meals for the homeless at the NYC Rescue Mission Outreach center. The articulate, well-groomed corporate relations director there gave all the volunteers an anecdote about a man who went through the program some years back. He had a business that went south, made some bad decisions, and found himself out on the streets. He lost everything, including his wife. After finding his way to the shelter, he was so changed by his experience that he decided he wanted to help others get back on their feet the way he had been helped. “And that man,” he said beaming, “standing before you today.” With his wife next to him, who just so happens to now be the PR director there. His story was remarkable, but what really drew us all in was the fact that we have all been there, a little lost, making stupid mistakes, and most of us find our footing through good support systems and perhaps a little luck. Identifying with people that you otherwise have no commonalities and even a fear or disdain for with can be a transformational experience. It’s the human condition to want to connect with our fellow man, so be open to it. I would like to end with a quote from the 2013 Wesleyan commencement speech given by screenwriter, actor, and producer Joss Whedon.
He goes on to say that this contradiction and tension never goes away, and that if you accept it, everything gets a lot better. So be receptive to the argument within yourself, find humility in it, and for everyone’s sake, some humor in it.