We rarely do or say something intentionally that surprises us. That’s because we are in intimate contact with the noise in our heads–we spend our days looking in the mirror, listening to our inner voice and defining our point of view. “That’s not the sort of thing I would say or do…”
We call this internal familiarity our ‘identity.’ If it gets lost (when someone joins a cult, for example), it’s noteworthy and can be tragic.
If our ideas are equated to our identity, then talking about ideas is very much the act of talking about yourself.
And thus the tension is created. Our culture and our economy are built on ideas. Many of our society’s ideas get better over time (you don’t go to the barber for bloodletting any longer–it’s what probably killed George Washington) and yet some of them get stuck. Often, we need a generation to step away before an entrenched idea begins to fade, because the people who have been embracing that toxic or outlived idea see it as part of their identity.
As the media realizes that they can improve profits by narrowcasting ideas to people who embrace them as part of who they are, it gets increasingly difficult to have a constructive conversation about many ideas–because while people are able and sometimes eager to change some of their less personal ideas, we rarely seek to change our identity.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
If you’re doing a jigsaw puzzle and a piece you thought fit in a spot where it doesn’t actually fit, that missed fit is viewed as useful information. Go ahead and try the piece in a different spot–that’s not a threat to your identity as a puzzle solver. In fact, your identity as a puzzle solver is tied up in the idea that if the evidence shows a piece didn’t fit, you simply try a new spot, you don’t feel threatened or disrespected.
The most successful problem solvers are people who have embraced this simple method–your current idea isn’t your identity, it’s simply a step closer to a solution to the problem in front of you.
One way to define our identity is to fall in love with an idea (often one that was handed to us by a chosen authority). Another is to refuse to believe our identity is embodied in an idea, and instead embrace a method for continually finding and improving our ideas.