Replace the need to perpetually prove yourself right, with an ingrained reflex to prove yourself wrong.
Visualize climbing a thousand-foot ladder up the side of a steep mountain face. You desperately want to reach the plateau so you can rest, enjoy the view, and prove to everyone else that you are strong, determined, and superior. With each step up the ladder, the previous step disintegrates, making it impossible for you to climb down. You have no choice but to commit. As you scale the mountain, the climb gets steeper, and eventually inverted. You feel gravity working against you. Your arms get tired. Your progress grinds to a halt. You began the climb up this ladder at the speed of light, but halfway up you’ve slowed to a snail’s pace. You can’t possibly reach the top at this rate. But you also can’t get down unless you jump, and we all know that might be a pretty hard landing. You are stuck.
This is the life you build in the ceaseless pursuit of proving yourself right. You have committed to climbing this ladder made of your empty and untested beliefs which fall away with any sign of applied pressure. You’ve reached an untenable point, yet your ego insists that you continue. You committed to this climb out of vanity. And it has left you with a life devoid of truth and full of ego. You are trapped.
Told You So
It’s human nature. We spend every waking minute plotting how we might show our boss that our way is the right way, hoping for a raise or a promotion. We spend all our time trying to prove to our colleagues that our ideas are better than everyone else’s, hoping for empty praise or useless validation. We take pride in backing the winner of the election and espouse all his/her prepackaged “ideas” upon our friends in order to feel superior. When we make a prediction or a bet, our ego and our perceived self-worth fluctuates with the outcomes, over which we have absolutely no control. When we get home, we put whatever energy we have left into showing our kids and our spouse the “correct” way to behave, and most of the time these efforts only prove to enhance their defiance. We live for that “told-you-so” moment.
And this is just part of the equation….
With the rest of our time, we spend copious amounts of energy in our head. We try to prove to ourselves that we know the best way to diet. We try to prove to ourselves that we “will” follow a particular exercise regimen, and that we “will” prioritize our health. We “will” save money, we “will” find a better job, we “will” do this because we know the best way. We convince ourselves that our way is right, or we convince ourselves our way is wrong. Either way, we know that we are right, and ourselves is the one that we have been successful in convincing. “Told you so!”
The life of constantly trying to prove yourself right is exhausting. It is constant. It often proves to be fruitless. It is that never-ending ladder up the side of a steep cliff, disintegrating below your feet because you are not grounded in truth, but rather the fleeting nature of your ego. You’ve scaled the mountain high enough that you feel you have to stay true to your beliefs whether or not they are proven wrong.
The Zero-Sum Game
The ceaseless pursuit of proving yourself right ultimately rears its ugly head in your pursuit of status. Status is an umbrella term I have referred to in previous posts, which encompasses our need for attention, validation, substantiation, certification, admiration, veneration, you get the point. Status lives in a world of scarcity, where you have to put someone else down in order to get ahead. Status is a zero-sum game—in order for you to win the game, someone else must lose.
Status is married to the ego. Ego lives and dies with status. Ego is the reason why we feel sad when things don’t go our way. And when things don’t go our way, we are unable to prove ourselves right. And when we can’t prove ourselves right, our status takes a hit. And so goes the cycle into misery. This is the default mode of the modern human mind.
But is this accepted default really the best way to live? Is it sustainable to be enslaved by our need to be right and our need for external validation? Is that a worthy goal in itself?
If you ask me, to put status before truth is to put the cart before the horse. Aiming for external validation in order to justify your internal thoughts is a one-way path to suffering. Instead, prioritize your truth, and status will follow.
Prove Yourself Wrong
Visualize laying a foundation of heavy rectangular stones. Each one weighs a thousand pounds, so it is going to take time, considerable strength, and a lot of help to put these in place. You want to reach that thousand-foot plateau, for which you (and everyone else) thought the ladder would suffice. The higher you want to go, the wider you must build your foundation. Building a structure made of thousand-pound stones is sure to get you to the top, but could take years to build. You proceed anyway because you know that you won’t have to worry about these stones disintegrating under your feet like the rungs of the ladder. You’ll be able to carefully scale the mountain all the way to the plateau with peace of mind. You can rest when you want, and work as fast as you want. Go at your own pace. The only factor involved is your commitment to the process.
This is the life of proving yourself wrong. This is the life most wouldn’t dare pursue. It’s harder, more time-consuming, more painstaking, but it guarantees that you will eventually get where you need to go. It is a life of putting effort into your thoughts, prioritizing truth, and setting the ego in its place.
In seeking to prove yourself wrong, you cease to automatically believe everything you think. You stress-test every belief you have, and each belief you prove wrong is simply one less you have to carry around with you. Do this until all you are left with are the beliefs that simply cannot be proven wrong. These beliefs are the thousand-pound stones you will use to build your structure.
Here is a three-step process for laying your foundation, one block at a time:
- Take time: Take time to take stock of your available options. If you have a problem that can be solved through iteration (most can be), make it a habit of trying different approaches rather than the one that you’ve stubbornly stuck to for years. Identify what works and what doesn’t. You might just stumble upon an approach that makes your life so much easier!
- Get help: Understand when you cannot provide the best solution. Ask questions, ask for help, ask for feedback. Remember, these thousand-pound blocks are hard to lift by yourself. Building a strong foundation based on truth is often a team effort. Expertise simply comes down to who is most believable on a given subject. Instead of jumping right in with your “expertise,” always assume there might be someone else more believable than you on the subject. If there is, never be too proud to seek their help.
- Do the heavy lifting: You need the strength to avoid those “told-you-so” moments. The pettiness of this mindset will slowly destroy any helping relationship you’ve built, and it will often result in having to start over. You also need the strength to avoid taking the ladder approach—the easy way. Things always look easy from the outset, until you hit resistance. It’s all too easy to get stuck when you take the easy way.
In developing the habit of proving yourself wrong, you begin to live life free of the need for external validation. You don’t need to look “right” to everyone. You no longer cling to the belief that all your thoughts are truth. You may look foolish to many, and you will be wrong a lot. But you will learn to embrace this discomfort.
Being wrong in small doses cracks artificial confidence, which allows you to learn.
Being wrong gives you the feeling of being lost, which leads you to go somewhere unexpected.
Being wrong teaches you lessons that surprise you and change your mind.
Being wrong keeps you humble and open minded.
Being wrong beats thinking you have it all figured out.
I wrote this post as an addendum to The Magic of an Orthogonal Mind. I believe that resisting the calcification of the mind, challenging authority (especially the one in your own head), and seeking truth, all begin to form the essence of why I started this blog.
We all, at one point or another, fall victim to lazy thinking. We become enslaved to our commitment to such lazy thinking. And it’s not until one day, when we wake up to the fact that we are confined to this limited world we have unconsciously built for ourselves, that we realize the crucial mistake we’ve made:
We pursued the ladder strategy.