skepticism, and the possibility of change
i am a big fan of skepticism — and it’s been reinforced throughout my life. in my favorite history class in college, challenging the perspective of historical writers was the key to getting past credulity and thinking critically about what they were trying to say. in my lifetime reading about science, skepticism is the framework for discarding old flawed ideas and moving forward with something better. when i’m reading the news, or social media, or whatever, thinking about them skeptically helps me understand things, and reconcile multiple conflicting sources.
however, skepticism can also be a crutch. going into leadership training recently, i realized that i needed to avoid falling into the trap of dismissing everything that was uncomfortable by using skepticism as an emotional defense mechanism. part of this was mindfulness: monitoring my reactions and deciding to give it the benefit of the doubt, even if some of the examples sounded like junk to me. part of it was a very practical realization that my employer was spending money and my time on it, and therefore clearly thought it was valuable. and part of it was a simple cost/benefit analysis: my time was going to be spent either way, if i was more open to the ideas and techniques being introduced, it was more likely i’d benefit from them.
but the bigger thing for me was the belief in personal change. a year ago, i would not have been open to it. from dieting, to smoking, to interpersonal relationships, it’s a truism that people don’t change. that physical, mental, or emotional habits are very hard to break.
the main thing that changed my mind about that was some research my wife heard about, about a simple daily exercise in gratitude: writing down three specific things you are grateful for. the presentation she heard was to a group of scientists, so it focused on psychological measures and brain scans. it was convincing enough that we started doing the exercise as a family each night at dinner, and i began to see results pretty quickly, both in myself, and in my children. people are pattern-matching machines, and when your mind is focused on things to be grateful for, you find them everywhere.
so that exercise was important to me, to be able to believe in real personal change. and more importantly, to believe that a small, simple exercise could change mental habits in a meaningful way. it makes it much more credible to me that small changes in ways of thinking, or management strategies, or silly exercises might actually be valuable. and most importantly, it allowed me to temper my skepticism and give some new ideas a chance.