Going against the grain

published Apr 12, 2007, last modified Dec 08, 2021

Life tends to sucker you into believing tons of crap. Here's the how and the why to breaking free from the shackles of "accepted wisdom".

The two ways to live your life

Hey, you. Yes, you! Did you know there are two ways to live your life?

The "standard" way is to do as you're told. Blindly accept what mommy and daddy told you was right and wrong. Don't question the wisdom of "superior" and "experienced" individuals and traditions. 99% of the people unconsciously coast through their lives, mindlessly applying these principles to each choice they have to make. In effect, their choices are made for them.

The other is to go against the grain. Question everything. Continually ask why; never, ever accept a "just because" for an answer. If the world won't budge against your desires, do the opposite of what you're told, and deal with the consequences. Figure out what's right and what's wrong, using your head.

Facing this choice would ultimately appear to be choosing among a life of happiness, or a life of meaning. But there's no such choice -- if you go against the grain, you get to have both.

The gradient of beliefs in your head

Now, we all fancy ourselves to be "independent", "free-thinking" and all sorts of noble things that emphasize our "uniqueness" and "open-mindedness", values widely held in high regard in today's society.

But are you all that? In all probability, you aren't. See this graph?

Beliefs charted in the mind

I'm not exactly Salvador Dali, but that's beside the point.

I've tried to (crudely) depict the organization of your beliefs in your mind. Did I get it right? If I got it right, and you're not a psychopath, you can assume that:

  • the circles are ideas and beliefs; you can assume they're interconnected, but I didn't have the time to start drawing connection lines
  • the light areas of the graph represent the beliefs you're positively certain about
  • conversely, the dark areas represent the beliefs you know for certain to be absolutely wrong
  • and the grey area in the center, bounded by the blue rectangle, depicts things "you're not so sure about" that you're willing to question and reflect about

The point is, the only ideas we people really question are the ones that fall on the grey area. Some people have a bigger "blue rectangle", some have a smaller one.

But do you ever question ideas and beliefs in the white and black zones? Because if you don't, you may fancy yourself to be open minded, but you're not "open-minded" at all.

Why you shouldn't do as you're told

  1. You will always have others telling you how you should think and what you should do.
  2. 90% of what people think is right, is really wrong. It's just that these beliefs are the products of moral fashions.

Throughout history, Mankind has held many utterly wrong beliefs, widely and under penalty of death or grave pain. Here are some examples:

  • the Earth is flat
  • the Sun revolves around the Earth
  • God exists and created all life
  • homosexuality is an abomination
  • slavery and monopoly are good for the economy and society
  • kings are allowed to kill their subjects without reason
  • there is such thing as a soul, and diseases are caused by imbalances in it
  • when things burn, they release phlogiston

It's as simple as that. In fact, the job of scientists is to continually challenge the accepted wisdom in all fields, and devise alternative, better explanations for what happens around us.

Thanks to them, we have unquestionably happier, longer, more enjoyable and productive lives.
It bears repeating: thanks to their persisten (let's call it) destructivism, you and me live happier, longer and nearly trouble-free.

We're enjoying an unprecedented golden age in humanity. All thanks to the work of a few brilliant people who decided to question accepted ideas.

It follows that Do as you're told, and you'll be doing incredibly stupid things all the time.

In summary, many of the things understood to be right today, will turn out to be wrong tomorrow. Given a good dose of open-mindness and solid logic reasoning, you may be able to crack the treasure chest of the future.

Starting to see the value in going against the grain?

But I'm not a scientist, so how could it possibly be good for me to go against the grain?

I'm not saying you should publicly and successfully shatter some widely held notion whose disbelief would cause society to crumble down.

I'm saying you should question everything. There are several ways to do that and still participate in the real world:

  • Maybe you can offer passive resistance (to propaganda such as TV advertisements).
  • Perhaps you can disagree with your boss, but still find a way to apply what you think is right.
  • Oftentimes you'll have to dump women because they're too stupid to actually follow through your reasoning as to why some of herl beliefs are wrong.

Overall, there are many reasonable ways to disagree with the world that don't require going to jail or suffering pain.

So, how to go about it?

Not difficult at all. You know what we discussed about the black and white zones on the graph? Those are accepted beliefs. Question them.

Ask yourself:

  1. Why is X the way it is?
  2. How would the world be if it weren't?
  3. Is X true? Is X always true? Are there exceptions?
  4. What would happen if I started to think/say Y instead of X?
  5. I just heard X. How and where can I verify, independently, that X is true or false?
  6. Someone just assumed Z. What are the grounds for his assumption?

Do this as a conscious, continuous exercise. Challenge authority's notions of right and wrong. Ask yourself about other people's motivations.  Don't take "just because" for an answer.

Here's an example train of thought to get you started: did you know that almost everywhere in the world, attempted suicide is punishable by law?  Why?  Is there a practical, ethical reason to force people not to take their lives?  Are we to force others into doing something they don't like, even if it doesn't affect the rest?

(For the record: my personal conclusion to this train of thought is: laws against suicide are in almost all cases immoral, because the right to independent self-determination trumps the right to tell others what to do, no matter how abominable you may feel suicide is.  You're welcome to digress, as long as you explain why.)

Think about your beliefs as a house made out of playing cards: pluck one out, the house falls down.  This is the normal course of things: most probably, you'll have to readjust your entire belief system. In the beginning, you'll find it painful; don't let that surprise you: how do you think you'd feel after the first week in a gym?

True, a lot of these exercises will yield results in the vein of well, X actually turned out to be correct. But after doing the exercises, you'll know the why, and that's valuable.  After all, (in the words of V):

[...] look around the world and tell me what you think is happening. Form your own hypothesis. Do your own research. Quit depending on a society to tell you what is real! When did we all lose faith in our individual ability to learn anyway? And when did learning become synonymous with memorization?

So get the fuck into life and start thinking!