Taking a balanced perspective in an opinionated world

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A friend of mine recently said to me that ‘if you can’t see both sides of an argument, then you shouldn’t be arguing.’

 

It continues to amaze me when I see people announce a strongly-held one-sided view on some topic, whether it be religion, consumerism, politics or whatever else. These issues are divisive and controversial essentially because each side of the argument has strengths to it.

 

And yet attention is rarely given to those who sit on the fence. We like to listen to those who make a lot of noise and take a strong stance on one side – people like Richard Dawkins. I believe we perceive these people as intelligent, charismatic, strong characters. They’ve thought about a subject in depth and come to a firm conclusion. But were there not another valid side to the argument, the argument would not exist. All they’ve done by taking a strong stance on one side is to show that they are either a) lacking in empathy by being unable to understand another person’s perspective or b) too stubborn to acknowledge that they just might not be 100% right.

 

I believe we should pay more attention to those who can see and argue both sides. And often they will come to a conclusion that leans more on one side, but the crucial thing is that they have a balanced perspective. To me, these are the people who have genuinely thought about it in depth and are interested in the truth of the debate, rather than simply personal recognition.

 

This subject arose at the recent Anti-Hero launch at the RSA. They drew attention to the dominant model of leadership which rewards, amongst other things, those who take a firm and clear stance on subjects. They then pointed out that the nature of many complex problems is that they do have conflicting, strongly-held viewpoints and we need leaders who can understand both sides well enough in order to make the decision that benefits most.

 

Next time someone sits on a fence about an issue, don’t assume that it’s because they are weak or indecisive. Perhaps it is precisely because they have that rare ability to hold and balance two counter-argument simultaneously and see the bigger picture. I long held the belief that as we grow older and wiser, we will have much firmer opinions about the world. What I’m finding instead, is that as I increasingly see how complex and contrasting the world is, often it seems narrow or short-sighted to sit firmly and stubbornly on one side of argument.

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Two types of confidence

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Here’s why the ego is weak and vulnerable; it depends upon external stimuli to boost it. It goes up and down according to the feedback it gets from the outside world. Thus, when our confidence is tied to the ego, our confidence too depends on the outside world. Our self-esteem is entirely dependent on how people behave towards us. It goes up when we are paid a compliment. Goes down when we hear someone talk ill of us. It is fragile and fickle. It can balloon up, but just easily burst and leave a person in tatters. Think about it, it means that our opinion of ourselves is inexorably tied to the opinion others hold of us. Other people can build us up, or tear us down.

 

I believe there’s another type of confidence. It’s a type I’ve seen in Buddhist monks, such as Thich Nhat Hanh. Sometimes I see it in prominent leaders, who are so self-assured, and yet seem so humble with it. This type of confidence is not dependent on our external world, but on our internal world. It’s a confidence that can only come from self-awareness and self-understanding. From self-acceptance. It is not so easily influenced by others in our external world. I’m sure these people still have ego (I believe it to be a fundamental part of evolutionary human nature), but they do not rely on it for their self-worth. How liberating…to not fear how others judge us. To try to be the best we can be individually, not the best that others think we can be.

 

As such, this confidence grows from deepening our acknowledgement of ourselves. Of accepting and embracing our weaknesses, just as we like to embrace our strengths. It grows as we grow in to ourselves, and try to be the best version of ourselves. When at peace with ourselves, we are not concerned with whether a person ‘likes’ us or not. In fact, some will dislike us for it simply because they envy that way of being. More likely, people will be drawn to it though. For all our differences, I believe at some level we are all looking for that sense of self-acceptance and inner contentment.

 

The ego can provide quick bursts of confidence that feel great. This inner type of confidence takes time, work and a lot of patience. But unlike that of the ego, it is real confidence. It stays with us and enables us to flourish.

A fear of the path well-trodden

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On occasion, I feel there’s value in pausing on the path we’re taking through life, turning around and taking a good look at how far we’ve come. It can be quite surprising.

Over the last few days a number of events and conversations have triggered off the realisation in me that I’m further along in my own development than I thought – in terms of my abilities, skills, assuredness –  and in my crazy mission to make the world we live in better.

When I turn around on that path and look at where I was going through school, it’s a very different person I see. I was shy, unconfident and didn’t like groups of people. My self-worth wasn’t great. This is probably true for many teenagers, but there was little evidence of how much that would all change.

During the end of school, through college and early university this changed a little and my fear of judgement receded a little, but I was still terrified of criticism or of appearing foolish. I grew more comfortable in groups, and valued myself more, but remained very cautious. This impacted upon my view of the future. I didn’t see a great deal of adventure or excitement, and didn’t trust in my own ability to engineer these as core components of my life. I wasn’t sure what the future held, but I was sure that the ones I could see – working for the sake of earning money in an office somewhere, living for the weekends, being stuck in a lab doing science – were not ones that appealed to me. In fact, I found them quite depressing.

Oddly though, I appeared to be less worried about my future than many of my classmates. Despite what I’ve written above, my glass was always half-full and I the hope that something extraordinary would emerge remained ever-present. That attitude helped me a lot in getting through depression. And though I wasn’t sure how I wanted Nathaniel’s future to look, I did have some idea of how I wanted future Nathaniel to look. I could see traits in other people that I admired, and could see the amazing things that those traits enabled them to do. Writing, public speaking, enterprise….I wanted to be good at these things.

I was aware that to develop these areas, I needed to just throw myself in with the knowledge that I would be no where near as good as other people or as I wanted to be – and other people would judge me for it. For a long time, that fear of what others might think of me held me back though. Instead of just jumping straight in, it was easier to bask in the envy and make excuses why I was actually better than them or why some other circumstance outside of my control meant that I couldn’t do these things. That it was down to talent perhaps.

And then something happened one Christmas. My sister and her husband bought me a book by Alastair Humphreys. I was hooked not so much by the astonishing fact that he CYCLED AROUND THE ENTIRE WORLD, but more by the huge personal doubt he overcame to do so. That he was just an ordinary guy, with an extraordinary dream. What set him apart was not physical excellence or unshakeable self-belief, but attitude. He dared do something extraordinary, and that made him extraordinary.

And with it my attitude changed. I was inspired beyond belief and decided I would dare do what terrified me. Those areas that I wanted to get better at – that scared me – I started doing them and giving them a go. Put simply, it came down to this: my fear of being judged by others was outweighed by my fear of leaving an ordinary life – of judgement by myself. Living with the knowledge that I didn’t take risks and hadn’t been bold terrified me more than anything else – than getting up in front of 50 people and talking, of jumping out of a crane, of starting something original and letting others judge it.

So I did things like run student groups, start new ones, go bungee jumping, write for the uni paper, take every opportunity to speak in front of people that I could. Risk being wrong. Risk making a mistake. Risk being judged. I recall how I would feel speaking in front of a group, or when I was writing for the paper – I would try to overcome my fear of what others would think of me. All that attention, all those opinions at one time. It wasn’t natural to me.

But those things have turned out pretty well. It’s hard to explain how rewarding it is to see my improvement in those areas; I enjoy talking in front of people and now even have people coming up to me telling me how good I am at it! I write very transparently in my blog and elsewhere. I’ve started up a number of community organisations. And I don’t worry about what people think of me, in fact I tend to belief they will think well of me. And I’m always open to constructive criticism and areas of improvement. The emotion of envy pops along infrequently , and when it does, I pay close attention to its lesson. It means that somebody is able to do something that I can’t and would like to. So I listen, and then get on with changing that. The envy very quickly disappears.

And now I reflect that this turning point in terms of my attitude to self-improvement, is one of the biggest of my life. Because now I’m on this bike, I can’t get off it. Whenever I see something I want to get better at – no matter how ambitious it seems or how far off I am – I immediately work out how to improve and get straight on it. I think this will serve me well for the rest of my life.

The sad thing is, I see is this same fear in many others – held back by a fear of what others may think of them. And yet, if we had that fear when we were toddlers, we would never learn to walk. We look pretty stupid falling over all the time before we finally succeed. I believe that to some extent it is natural that as we become self-conscious, we do develop some fear of judgement.

However, I am firmly of the view that this fear of judgement – of being wrong – is more often than not facilitated by current public education. It’s an education system based on right and wrong, of assessment, of being compared to others. We’re given little numbers that tell us – and everyone else – how good we are and we’re judged on them. We’re pushed to fit in to a system. And yet, there is an opportunity, through education, to encourage people to flourish, to build their self-belief and self-worth. To help young people realise their strengths and improve their weekends. Except in some unconventional schools, this is an opportunity that is wasted.

And here’s a question I won’t waste much time trying to answer, but that is thought-provoking. If I had learned this attitude to self-improvement earlier, and this self-worth at 5 years old, instead of 20 years old, where would I be now?

Drive

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The realisation crept up on me recently that my frameworks around what defines a ‘good’ day have changed quite dramatically.

Going through my early teens, I recall that as I lay in bed at the end of the day, the question I would ask myself was ‘was I happy today?’ That was how I framed whether or not it had been a successful day. Of course when you’re a teen, simply attaining happiness is no easy feat – your hormones are going crazy and of course, no one understands you…especially not your parents. It’s not like they were ever teenagers.

As I matured and progressed through my mid-teens towards adolescence, this schema changed once again. I learned that one of the most fundamental forces behind my feeling good was the richness and variety of experience. It wasn’t just happiness I was after, but the whole spectrum of different emotions. Whether or not I attained that variety of emotion was determined by novelty and depth of experiences – new places, people, conversations, learnings, challenges, activities. I wouldn’t say that happiness and richness of experience were necessarily distinct, there was a great deal of overlap, but the scales certainly began to weigh more heavily on the latter.

My framing was completely shaken up when I went through depression at 18/19. The questions I asked myself were things like ‘was today better than yesterday?’ or ‘am I getting closer to feeling ok again?’ and at its lowest points, ‘was there one good thing about today?’ or ‘did I feel something positive today?’ It took some time – years – before I started asking myself again whether it had richness of experience.

But I remember that around 17/18 I began to notice another motive creeping in, one that grew stronger and stronger over time. The question was ‘have I helped someone today?’ or ‘have I had done some good today?’ I recall that I spent more time wanting to listen to how people were, understand them and try to support them. And then after – and even during – my experience of depression as I tried to make sense of it, tried to see something positive out of what felt really shit at the time, this motive gathered momentum. It told me that if I used my painful experiences in some kind of positive way, then that would help me feel better again. And it did. Enormously so.

As more and more of time went to volunteering, and particularly volunteering based around youth mental health, this motive of ‘doing good’ shaped up as the main driving force in my life. Richness of experience, happiness were still there, but this started to weigh heavier than either of them.

Now unquestionably this is how I define my days. It’s not about whether I’ve had a ‘good time’, but by ‘what good I’ve done’. And it’s all inexorably linked, the more of a positive impact I feel I’m having, the greater emotional richness I get to experience and I guess, the more happiness I feel. It’s a neat cycle.

But it’s only since I arrived in Sydney, and looked at the almost completely blank slate of my new life in front of me, that the considerable impact of this drive to do good became obvious. Some of the more ‘fun’ activities I used to take part in – drinking, watching films, playing sport, travel – no longer appealed to me anywhere near as strongly as they used to. This core drive is so fundamental to who we are and how we spend our time, that it shapes every little activity and decision we make, even when we don’t realise it. I find myself now more drawn to networking, learning, personal development and trying to further the good I do. Indeed, I understand very well that in order to help others, we have to first look after ourselves. So I even look at the time invested in taking care of myself as again something that facilitates my having a positive impact in the world. It’s a gradual shift, but the effect is enormous.

And even now as I appreciate the value of long-term thinking more and more, I notice the question shifting from not just ‘what good have I done today?’ but also including ‘has today enabled me to do more good in the future?’ I have little idea how it’s going to develop next, and I’m actually pretty excited by that.

What drives you?

Learning to love your ego

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A gripe I have with social entrepreneurship and the social sector more broadly is that ego often rears its head and interferes with the primary purpose of these areas; to do good. Much of the time the two are aligned; doing good meets our more philanthropic urges and can also give us the status and praise that our ego needs. But there are inevitably moments when what is best for our ego is not what is best for the greater good, and this is where you see people taking ownership, getting competitive and allowing the cause to take a back seat.

I decided a while ago that I didn’t want ego to my motive for doing the work I do – as there would inevitably be times when it bumped in to the more philanthropic motives and indeed that’s proven the case on a number of occasions. There’s no place for ego in a line of work that is dedicated to helping others right? So I made a great decision – I’m going to ignore my ego/beat it into submission until it buggers off. Yeah, because that’s really going to work.

I was faced with a big decision recently, one that really challenged my ego. And my initial reaction when faced with this decision was unquestionably ego-dominated. This was a confusing moment for me, as I hadn’t I decided that my ego wasn’t allowed to influence me? Hmm…obviously it’s not quite that simple.

And then an insight came to me. That it’s futile to try to ignore your ego. Unfortunately having an ego is a symptom of a larger condition called ‘being human’, and I’m going to put my neck on the line and say that all of us share this condition, and therefore all of us have some ego. It’s human nature. We are naturally driven to survive and procreate, so being successful and having status facilitates that. Ego is a strong adaptive mechanism for humans and is an incredibly powerful tool for achieving success and status. Every human has it. Yes, even Ghandi did (sorry Ghandi).

So rather than turning your back on that little creature in the corner of your room called ego, it’s best to look it in the eye (quiet – it’s my blog, and I’ve decided it has eyes. Yeah it’s got ears and a nose too, get over it) and say, ‘Hey, I just met you, and this is craaaaazy, but you’re my ego, and I’ll do what I choose’. Or words to a similar effect. Acknowledge its existence, its potential value in helping you to achieve your goals, but then when it comes in to conflict with your more philanthropic motives then send that ego to the corner of the room. Again, it comes down to first accepting that it exists, and then taking action based on this knowledge. You can use ego to help you, but don’t let it rule you. And don’t pretend it’s not there, as it always will be.

In the bigger picture, for the reasons I’ve stated around human nature I don’t believe pure altruism exists. Although I do recall reading a psychological debate about it that went back and forth with research for 20 years, eventually descending in to semantics and even mocking, snide remarks in the research publications (which were hilariously petty – these are supposedly adults…). Ironically, whilst debating altruism, the two main protagonists were motivated by the need to prove themselves right – their own egos. But I digress…

I believe we are influenced by many motives, which play in to the hundreds of decisions, big or small, that we each make every day. Altruism/philanthropy is one motive, ego is another and then there are more basic motives such as food, safety, sex and the more complex motives such as love, social, growth that are more associated with humans than other animals. The respective strengths of these motives varies depending on situation, context, how well they are being met etc. And there’s overlap between them and so on and oh no…this is in danger of descending in to psychological theory so I’m not going to explore this in more depth for now.

What I will say is that I’m yet to figure out how or why altruism/philanthropy fits in this complex picture of human motives. Although there is an interesting line of research-led thought that this suggests that this is the direction the human brain is evolving towards. I’ll leave that for another blog I’m writing.

I’ve come across some social entrepreneurs who I’m still waiting to really meet, as thus far I feel I’ve only conversed with their ego. Yet, these are people who dedicate their time and efforts to doing good. They’re driven by their ego, but they’ve decided to pursue the success of status that comes with creating social change, rather than just making money. That’s great, and I’m glad the social sector has them rather than the corporate sector. But I think ego as a dominant motive will only take you so far. Perhaps it will come through in small daily decisions, or culminate in one massive decision, but ego will make it harder to put your own desires aside in the favour of the ‘greater good’. It’s also fragile and needs regular feeding in order to be happy.

Ego is an incredibly powerful driving force. But I think those of us working within the social sector need to be aware of the role it plays within each of us so that when push comes to shove, and we have to choose between doing something that benefits us or that benefits the cause we’re trying to help, the hammer comes down on the latter. Every time.

I’ll end with a quote from Jack Sim, the founder of the World Toilet Organisaton:

“Ego and money make for good slaves, but poor masters.”

 

Is ego your slave, or your master?