The author and podcast host Tim Ferris often finishes his interviews with a question: “’If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?”. I was discussing this question with a friend the other day. This is what my answer came down to:
Start with yourself, before criticizing the world. Remember you are holding only a perspective, never the truth. Nobody knows, we are all just trying our best.
Think of them as three intertwined components, where each part works best in the context of the other ones. Here is what they mean.
Start With Yourself, Before Criticizing the World
This is not exactly contrarian. Mother Teresa once said “If each of us would only sweep our own doorstep, the whole world would be clean”, Nelson Mandela stated “One of the most difficult things is not to change society but to change yourself” and Ghandi’s philosophy is often summarized as “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. It’s nonetheless a message that is more needed than ever. Our world grows in polarization with political and cultural ideologies becoming increasingly hostile to one another. In the midst of woke identity politics, cancel culture, climate deniers, and right-wing populism, we lost our sense of togetherness. It seems like people rarely question themselves and all too often argue with a conviction that is both to be envied and utterly unjustified given our modern world’s complexity.
Our public discourse nowadays often takes place from a place of resentment and anger with little attempt to understand other perspectives. Truly considering other perspectives is not an easy task. It requires letting go of your own ego, something which has to be learned. Thus, before proclaiming a big change in the world, it seems wise to practice locally. Start by being a good friend, brother or sister, son or daughter, husband or wife. Then grow beyond this. Many of us are greatly privileged. It’s a modern tragedy that these privileges are so easily forgotten and how much conscious effort it takes to bring them back into perspective. Growing to become your best self and nourishing your gratitude for the person you are and the privileges you experience seems crucial, as one can not be grateful and angry, furious, or resentful at the same time. And, as the naive argument goes, if all of us were to do this, our world would be saved. But honestly. Wouldn’t it?
Remember You Are Holding Only a Perspective, Never the Truth
To start working on yourself before critiquing others requires some degree of epistemic humility, meaning the ability to recognize and accept our limited knowledge of this world. While there is some ground truth in hard sciences such as mathematics or physics, most things in life don’t have a right or wrong answer. There is not one “correct” political opinion nor is there one set of “superior” moral values. Seldom are conflicts caused by only one person and barely ever can we know something for sure.
Don’t mistake this as a case for moral relativism, it’s not. The author and philosopher Sam Harris describes morality as a mountainous landscape. There is more than one moral peak and more than one valley, but without any doubt, there are better and worse opinions and values to hold. Yet it’s crucial to be open-minded. Think about the fundamental shifts in morality we experienced in the last 200 years, from the abolishment of slavery to the rise of feminism. Not being open-minded might lead you to be stuck in a valley without even noticing it. To put it in the words of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows”.
Epistemic humility is also not an argument against the necessity of forming opinions which is essential to navigating life’s complexity. Yet, it puts opinions into perspective. One way of pointing out the limitations of opinions is to think about them as stories. Stories help us to make sense of our experiences. As reality is far too complex to be fully comprehended, narratives are our way of dealing with it. We simplify the experience, categorize it, and stitch together patterns in such a way that they form a coherent story. Yet, by definition, every story is a reduction of reality and its complexity. This has two implications. First, not a single story is an accurate representation of the truth. Second, every story, depending on the person’s personality and past experiences, is unique. Thus, the same experience can and often does mean two fundamentally different things to two different people. In this sense, no two people live in the same world.
Nobody Knows, We Are All Just Trying Our Best
It’s not just that our personal narratives aren’t wholly accurate; we have far less control over them than we believe. In fact, one might say it’s the stories choosing us. It’s not on us to select our genes, we have to play the cards we are dealt with. We are raised in an environment that is none of our decisions either. Entering adulthood and eventually moving out is just another way of transitioning into a bubble that is the result of our genes and previous environments. For better or worse, this leaves us with less agency than we commonly assume. The limited ability to choose our stories implies that whatever conflicts and disagreements we encounter, it’s often not caused by malicious intentions that we so eagerly attribute to others. Instead, people often behave the way they do because they simply can’t help but see things the way they do.
Putting Together The Puzzle
The above makes a case for humility, acceptance, and tolerance in regard to opinions and people. It does not, however, suggest any kind of passivity. This is to say, let us remember the power of conversations and change. Begin with yourself. Constantly question your own beliefs and opinions. Then engage with others from a position of openness. Never impose anything onto anyone, but instead listen actively, ask openly, and suggest carefully. As every perspective is unique, everybody holds a piece of the puzzle we call truth. So maybe we can figure it out together?