I remember growing up in a very strict, religious environment. We were in church or church related activities at least 4 days in the week and I was part of the choir, learnt how to play the piano, drums and a little here and there on the guitar. I also attended a Christian boarding school for middle/high school, where I was very active in church related activities and created all these patterns and expectations for myself as to what it meant to live a happy and fulfilled life. I would say this background has played a huge role in who I am today, in strongly positive ways and albeit strongly negative ways too, but I digress.
All this to say, there was a very popular song that I used to sing at the time growing up in the church. I have forgotten the exact lyrics all the way through but I remember the part that said-
From North to South, there is no other God,
From East to West, we say there is no other God
Now, as harmless as these lines seem, they have caused a significant problem in my geographical calibration today. Growing up in Nigeria, I was used to people using forwards, backwards, left and right as directional cues when explaining geography and points of interest. I never had problems with this.
About 7 years ago, when I moved to the United States, I discovered that people used north, south, west and east as directional cues instead. I had somehow calibrated psychologically that the left would come before the right, and this song had east first, before west which led my brain to believe that my left was east and my right was west. As trivial as it seems, it prove impossible for me to change this pattern. Today, I am only able to function with directions at a whim by hacking my mind. I pretty much tell myself that whatever my gut says is east is actually west and whatever my gut says is west is actually east.
My reason for sharing this story is to express how much of a challenge it is for us to change certain subconscious patterns that we have been programmed to accept. An argument could be made that I probably am not strong at cognitive functions related to geography, but incidentally, the highest grade on my transcript from high school was from geography. Oh, how I loved those manual map enlargement and reduction exercises. I digress.
The only reason I was able to identify this pattern was because I needed it to function on a daily basis and because it is a very tangible pattern. So much for the patterns that occur subconsciously just like this one but I’ve been unable to realize because they are not as tangible as this. Patterns about judging certain types of people or behaviors? Patterns about enjoying certain types of songs? Patterns about being attracted to certain types of people? The list is endless.
Today, I am developing a habit of constantly challenging my subconscious thought patterns. When an opinion or decision seems to occur to me from the gut, I am very confident in it but also hack it through one more trend of thought. I ask myself, “Why?”. Why did that occur to me naturally and why does that thought or opinion make sense? Is it just because of a song I had been singing through my childhood? Or things I saw my friends and family do? Or opinions I hold because of my political or religious inclinations? I go through a series of objective thought processes like the six whys, or Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats to help me navigate through this maze and eventually come to a more healthy conclusion as to what stand I should take. More often than not, I have come up with different and more intelligent inclinations as a result.
It may seem like stress at the beginning but the more I do it, the faster I become at it, albeit creating a new pattern of being confident in my gut by challenging my subconscious thought patterns and being more objective as a result. In a world changing at the speed of thought, it is now more important than it has ever been for us to challenge today’s thoughts lest we fall victim to making today’s decisions based on yesterday’s archaic patterns that were cemented by a world that is far in the past.
Today’s most valuable competency is knowing how to think and create solutions in today’s world, and not necessarily having done certain things before. A popular saying by Otto van Bismarck goes “… a truly wise man learns from the mistakes of others”. So, if I expose myself enough, I don’t need to have experienced something personally to have it as a usable resource when taking decisions in contexts related to it. All we need is to be exposed and to know how to think. As simplistic as it seems, knowing how to think is incredibly hard. That is why it is a good practice to read lots of books and listen to lots of stories from people who have spent the better part of their lives making mistakes at the activities we spend most of our time on.
I am fortunate to be in positions these days where I have to interview people who are looking to work in an organization that I currently work with, as their manager, peer or subordinate. When asking interview questions, I go for those that exhibit the candidate’s ability to challenge popular thought patterns and accept reasonable change on the whim. Questions that ask to share past experiences and/or form updated opinions based on those experiences or similar scenarios. Objectivity could be very easy, when we realize that our gut quickly gets outdated and needs to be consciously updated frequently. People who integrate change into their thought processes are the ones who make significant impact in every context these days.