Martin Amis said something interesting about writers in a recent interview with Charlie Rose. When describing a friend who is a writer, he stated that he felt this writer’s gift had really blossomed when he stopped defending Marxism. His point was not about Marxism, it was about writing from a standpoint of ideology: “Writing is freedom. If you’ve got some Commissar staring over your shoulder, you’re not free. If you have some consensus that you’re loyal to, you’re not free.”
I think he makes an interesting point: One may have extraordinary gifts, but if one looks at the world through a specific lens, then everything one writes is going to be unconsciously edited to support or promote that viewpoint. If, however, one can achieve a perspective of being open to many perspectives, then one can be free to consider many viewpoints, many possible outcomes, and one can authentically create various characters.
This requires an ability to perceive and accept different shades of gray. It does not allow for black-and-white thinking.
I think this applies not only to writing, but to many things: To leadership, to management, to relationships, to creativity; to the choices we make, to the paths we follow, to the way we encourage ourselves to succeed or prevent ourselves from succeeding.
The lens through which we look at the world consists of the beliefs we hold – beliefs we often take for granted. And those beliefs may or may not be grounded in sound and current data.
True freedom begins with identifying our beliefs. It then requires that we examine those beliefs and ask ourselves where they came from and whether they are valid.
Identifying one’s beliefs is harder than it sounds. This is because beliefs are like a layer cake, or like the layers of the earth. There are conscious beliefs that are easy to identify. But there are other, deeper beliefs that we can only reach by digging. How do we do that? By asking questions, especially “Why?”
If one is willing to pay attention to one’s statements and actions and ask, “Why?” – “Why did I do that?” or “Why do I think that?” and “How do I know that?” – then one can begin to peel back layers and open curtains. Only then can we examine our beliefs – by first identifying them – and decide whether they are valid.
I am reminded of a story I once heard, and I will paraphrase it here. There once was a woman who was teaching her daughter how to prepare a pot roast. “First, you must cut the ends off,” she said. “Why?” her daughter asked. “Because they’re no good,” the mother replied. “But they look fine,” the daughter said. “Well, that’s how my mother taught me,” the mother said in exasperation. Curious, the daughter later asked her grandmother about this. The grandmother burst out laughing and said, “I only had a small roasting pan, and the roasts wouldn’t fit in it if I didn’t trim them!”
The process of questioning our beliefs requires curiosity. And curiosity requires being open to chaos – or at least being at the edge of chaos – where things change our knowledge and our perceptions of the world shift. And that requires groundedness, a belief (ironic, isn’t it?) that change is not death, that I will go on and be OK even if I change, if I change my mind, if the world around me changes. I don’t have to control everything in order to go on.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that we go through life without beliefs. What I am suggesting is that we examine those beliefs so that we can consciously decide whether they are serving us or we are serving them.
As I said in my ebook, beliefs can be the seatbelt that keeps us from going through the windshield when life slams into us. They can be guideposts that help us choose what road to take. If we hold on to them too tightly, they can become a platform that we feel we must defend and even evangelize. If they are mistaken, they can send us down the wrong path. They can become unnecessary obstacles.
Here is an example from my own life: I believed that my gravelly, strangled-sounding voice prevented me from having an effective career presenting workshops and webinars, coaching, and facilitating meetings. Why? Because I believed people wouldn’t want to listen to me, and that they would not respect me because of how I sounded. Why? Because I hated listening to myself. Did I have any sound and current data about this? No. In fact, people were giving me unsolicited praise about my skills. I also created a double bind for myself: Because I had not done enough research and my voice had not been successfully diagnosed, I believed that there was no treatment for my voice. More specifically, the only treatment I knew of was unappealing. So therefore I had “real” obstacles to doing work I wanted to do. Once I did get more information, however, I found there were possibilities for improving my voice. So my beliefs on both counts were mistaken and created unnecessary obstacles.
If you had asked me if I believed these things, I probably would have said No – at least initially. Reflexively. It wasn’t until I examined the situation and the difference between my words and my actions that my beliefs became clearer. Often our words and our beliefs are consistent, but they may still be unfounded.
I am not going to ask you what you believe, at least not right now. But I will ask you this: How do you know what you believe? Are your actions consistent with what you say you believe? Have you ever let go of a belief? Are you willing to wonder?