Earlier this week I spent a good couple of days writing a piece on a contentious subject that’s been bugging me…but I didn’t post it. I can’t post it, because I’m afraid my views will offend some people. And you know what bugs me even more? Offending people used to be a good thing – in my liberal artsy-fartsy background, we were taught that if you created a piece of work, whether it was writing, music, art, theatre, or whatever, a strong reaction was a good reaction. Good or bad, the goal was always to make people feel SOMETHING. Not so much anymore; these days we are all about keeping people “safe” in their little bubbles and protecting ourselves and each other from ideas that might challenge or offend us. Sounds like some boring bullshit to me.
I go out of my way to read things that challenge my ideas and make me look at problems in a different light. And hell, if I’m wrong about something, let’s have a discussion about it! Try and change my mind – maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t, but these kinds of conflicts are good because we get practice at criticizing ideas. Challenge is healthy.
True story: recently I was told, by someone for whom I have a great deal of respect, that I was on the right track…but I was still sucking. He didn’t stop there, either – he went on to detail HOW I was sucking and what ideas I was missing. Hearing this diatribe was hard – it stung because I thought I was doing pretty well. It made me angry. For a couple of days I stewed about it, justifying in my head why I was right, but I just couldn’t dismiss his point of view because…well, because what he said made sense. He had a list of good reasons why he was right, and on some level I knew it. I wasn’t angry because he was being a jerk, I was angry because I was wrong and I felt stupid. So I set about being better. What else do you do in that situation?
I don’t like feeling stupid. Not really – but here’s the thing about feeling stupid: it’s an opportunity to learn and grow. It’s the universe stringing a trip wire across your road to make you fall on your face, maybe cry a little bit while you wipe the dirt off your skinned hands and knees, and then continue on – this time, paying more attention to your surroundings. And seriously, if the worst possible consequence of being wrong about an idea is looking like a newbie, is that so bad? Are we so afraid of losing the facade of being competent that we can’t stretch out and learn and experiment in case we make a mistake? Look, if that facade is so fragile that it shatters at the first sign of an error then it wasn’t worth much anyway so we might as well just embrace the mistakes and enjoy the learning process.
Learning hurts sometimes. As kids we did it all the time; it was just part of life. Do you remember that kid who nobody liked playing with? You know, the one who was always insisting that everybody play their way, and when they didn’t get their way they got mad and went home to their mommies? What happened to them? They either ended up with no friends, they learned when to compromise and try someone else’s ideas, or they learned to sell their own ideas so convincingly that nobody even wanted to argue with them. As adults though? We develop an alarming tendency to close ourselves into places where we feel comfortable, competent, and safe…and then we stay there.
It’s alarming because in order to learn and grow we NEED to be able to admit that we don’t know things. We need to develop the skills that allow us to discuss ideas, poke holes in them, to see multiple viewpoints, to quell our gag reflexes when we are forced to swallow spiny little concepts that challenge the way we see things. If we don’t, we develop a fucked up case of Stockholm Syndrome where we prefer to seek out people who agree with us, read literature that reinforces what we think we already know, and obstinately and bull-headedly cry foul against those who dare disagree with us. Wouldn’t it be more fun to learn something from them instead?
So today, I challenge you to seek out something that makes you uncomfortable. Learn something new. Feel stupid. Challenge yourself. Read something that you disagree with and take the ideas apart without writing off the person they came from as an asshole. Practice a skill that you aren’t good at. Play devil’s advocate. Go toward things that unsettle you, because here’s what I think: the world isn’t safe. It’s spiky and sharp, and navigating it can be challenging and scary…but getting through the scary stuff is what gives us a sense of accomplishment; like we did something that mattered. The only way to develop the skills – the sense of self-reliance or confidence to get through the really scary stuff – is to practice them at times when the worst case scenario is that you look dumb. Because that isn’t so bad.