I was recently chatting with a friend about people’s tendency to do things that are inefficient and/or expensive compared to superior, newer alternatives more aligned with what the professional world demands today. In this instance, someone I knew chose to return to his Alma Mater for an 18-month long Masters program “to learn finance and meet new people.”
What puzzled us were not the goals, but the path chosen to achieve them. My friend worked very high in the corporate ladder within the Finance industry, and he agreed with me: with today’s technology, you don’t need to spend that much time or money to learn finance. And to add social diversity to your life, it is not difficult to find more diverse settings than the university one already graduated from.
The problem I see is that information alone does not change beliefs or behavior. Showing someone a cost-benefit analysis comparing more efficient and effective alternatives doesn’t work. People don’t make decisions based on reason, but on feelings, motivations, and insecurities. When we follow dogma, like defaulting to university education when we want to advance our careers, it usually originates from a fear to question what everyone around us proclaims as true.
As my friend Gabriel puts it, dogmas come with a package: believe this, behave this way, and you get these perks and friends. As long as you color inside the lines, everyone has your back. Most of the dogmas we follow are rooted in social acceptance, not effectiveness. When we follow a path that clashes with the path our family, friends and colleagues are following, we’re basically saying “I disagree with your way of doing things, and I believe this path is better for me.”
We fear the freedom and responsibility of doing things the way we think they should be done.
We Are“Locked-in” to an Old Thermostat
Our environments dictate what we should and shouldn’t do. As Josh Kaufman explains, people are essentially very complex perceptual control systems (like a thermostat): we act in ways that keep our perceptions of the world within acceptable boundaries. We don’t put on a coat because cold weather forces us to. We put on a coat because we feel cold and we don’t want to feel cold.
In other words, we change our behavior when we feel that something is wrong, but the tricky part is that the boundaries that determine what’s right and wrong depend on the context. In life, the context is other people, and the boundaries are the dogmas that we accept. If the people around us say “go to college, whatever it takes”, not doing so will feel bad, despite of the cost or results. It’s as if other people numb us to feel the consequences of poor decisions.
The thing is, you can’t change how people around you think. The only way to abandon poor and outdated dogmas is to change your context for one that supports and encourages your beliefs. Like Reid Hoffman, Co-Founder and Chairman of Linkedin puts it: “The fastest way to change yourself is to hang out with people who are already the way you want to be.”
We fear the social consequences of doing what works best for us.
Change Your Environment, Change Your Beliefs
In his book “You’re Not a Gadget”, Jaron Lanier complains about the “lock-in” effect: a certain software, despite far from being optimal, becomes so widespread that it is impossible to replace or change because of the required effort. He uses MIDI, a technology that allows musical instruments to communicate with each other and with computers, as an example.
We can see the same “lock-in” effect in many aspects of our life where people stick to a belief that no longer works well:
- You need to go to college to learn X content or skill.
- You need a degree to get a job.
- You deserve a paycheck for doing any kind of work.
- You should raise money if you want to have a successful startup.
How we learn, how we work, and how we get ahead in life are just some of the areas where we are locked-in to inefficient belief systems. What’s the solution, then? Well, it’s not what most people do: hope that the world wakes up and decides to change so we don’t have to. The amount of effort that is necessary for a society to change its locked-in beliefs is so big it rarely happens.
However, as individuals, we are quick and nimble. We can change our context in the blink of an eye. We can move into a new environment, a new “thermostat”, and immediately break free from locked-in beliefs. While a person’s desires can get him or her the label of a crazy, erratic dreamer in one environment, he or she can be admired and encouraged to pursue those same goals and cultivate the same passions in another environment.
The history of the world is full of “weird” people that needed a different environment to have their talents recognized and encouraged. Getting ahead in life and breaking free from “locked-in” beliefs involves a lot of context-switching. It involves a lot of meeting new people that can help us go through the journey and get where we want to go.
Nowadays, sticking with outdated locked-in beliefs has worse consequences than ever before. Locked-in beliefs may be “inefficient” for society, but for a person that translates into not finding the right job, or not getting compensated, or not knowing how deal with the challenges of entrepreneurship, or wasting too much time and money in bad ways of learning. These are very real consequences.
In the end…
Locked-in beliefs remain as long as we let society dictate how we should think, feel, and live. But we don’t have to be passive. We don’t have to wait as life passes us by. We don’t have to quiet our calling.
We can break free and be in an environment that helps us get to where we want to go.
In the end, breaking free is about daring to take a step outside of our comfort zone, where new challenges and opportunities await.
In the end, breaking free is about having a bit of courage.