5 Beliefs That You Need to Rethink
As most people familiar with the Personal Growth space of a bookstore know, eliminating negative or limiting beliefs is a central focus of helping people feel and live better. Most of those limiting beliefs come from two places:
- Past experiences that become assumptions and expectations as to how the future will unfold
- Opinions from others regarding you or the world that shape your (self-)perception.
Now, most of those are about you, which is the focus of most self-help. If you believe that you can't succeed at doing something you love as a profession, you'll give up. If you believe that you're ugly, incapable, or unlovable, it'll subtly affect how you behave so that your future will be a reinforcement of those beliefs. Self-sabotage and other means of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy is common, which is why it is so important to eliminate those beliefs.
However, there are many other beliefs about how the world works that can cause you to live a suboptimal life. For example, if you feel that certain groups of people are evil without evidence, you will treat them poorly. If those people could help you in some way, then you'll be missing out on the value that you could provide to each other. Beliefs about the world can have just as much of a negative impact. Because they can get controversial, though, and are secondary to self-beliefs, they don't get as much coverage in the industry.
However, it's very important to test your beliefs to see if any are holding you back. Below are five beliefs that are blatantly false and might be causing you to behave in ways that you would find anywhere from illogical to counterproductive if you realized that you were wrong. We'll cover the belief, why it's wrong, and how your life can improve if you rethink it.
Note: I understand that core beliefs shape people's worldview, so I don't expect you to abandon your old one instantly—hence why this is modestly titled, "rethink" and not, "Change now because I said so." You are free to believe anything you wish.
5 Beliefs That You Should Consider Rethinking
- "The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer." – I know that this is a favorite one for people to say as a way to complain that some people have it better than they do, but it's just blatantly, objectively false. The truth is that society as a whole gets better for the overwhelming majority of people over time, and under some systems, the truth is actually reversed: the rich get poorer, and the poor get richer. People hundreds of years ago didn't have vaccines, microwaves, refrigerators, electricity, air conditioning, indoor plumbing (for sewage or for drinking water), computers, superstores, or fast food. Imagine being in a world in which people are so abundant that the highest causes of death are a result of said abundance: obesity, smoking, and drug overdoses. We live in that world now. The average person today lives with technologies and luxuries that monarchs didn't have 500 years ago. Finally, estate ("death") taxes, multiple children, marriages, and other life events cause most fortunes earned by a person to dilute quickly (If the rich get richer, then why aren't Carnegie and Rockefeller family members still at the top of the wealthiest people lists? Oh, yeah, because it's bunk.), whereas the average person gets better off every generation as advances in medicine and technology benefit everyone.
- "Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it." – Everyone knows that not learning from society's mistakes or successes would cause you to try them again, which is what the statement refers to and is true in that regard. However, there are two areas where it is false, and no one bothers to mention them when they state this point. First of all, you can learn the wrong thing from history, such as when people say things like, "REAL [insert terrible idea] has never been tried before!" Usually, it's that the bad thing that happened was only because their approach wasn't given the support/money/time it needed to be successful. I'm not here to pick winners, so I won't say who I believe is right or wrong, but if you take the wrong thing away, you can actually make it worse. Secondly, there is an irony that people who remember or are told of history are actually doomed to repeat it by trying to reverse it. Reciprocity is a core ethic built into social species to enable groups to cooperate, but it unfortunately has one weakness: people who see injustices of the past will try to get revenge by trying to do the same thing done to their ancestors on to people today who didn't do it to them as some sort of cosmic scorecard of fairness. Remembering and harboring that past—the resentment, the bitterness, the anger, the revenge—will doom the people who remember that history to repeating it, making this statement false in this circumstance. Terrible things, such as slavery and indentured servitude, were part of governmental systems for millennia; trying to do something today to make up for that will only create more unfairness, injustice, hate, and harm in the world and will only perpetuate the very issues that people seek to resolve.
- "In a perfect world, ______ wouldn't exist." – Another flavor of this is the, "The world would be a better place if everyone was like [you/me/him/her]." I've gone through this thought exercise before, and unlike many people I understand how dumb it is. Sure, there would be almost no gambling and violence if everyone were like me, but there would also be a lot fewer great/charismatic leaders, artists, and a million other things that I cannot do to remotely the same ability as others in this world can. So the idea that the world is supposed to be perfect or that you have some magical idea or system that would make it more perfect is naive at best and arrogant and dangerous at worst. But, back to the heart of this belief, there is some sort of acquired belief that the world is wrong, unjust, or imperfect and shouldn't have certain things. However, that's just not true at all. What if we didn't have fire? Yes, there would be fewer deaths in the world from house fires, but there would be more deaths from not being able to cook things and kill the bacteria in the food. Yes, you could not have violence, but then everyone would starve to death since you couldn't eat food (eating food requires ripping out roots, hunting animals (even if it's just to clear the land for vegetables), etc.). I'd love to sit outside wherever I wanted without getting bitten by mosquitoes, but they exist and serve as food for other life forms that eventually benefit me in some way. So, whereas there are things that you will perceive as good or bad, you have to accept two things in life: 1. for growth to occur, things have to be able to get better, which means they (by definition) can't be perfect; 2. many of the things you hate are necessary for many of the things that you like. So stop worrying about stuff that you can't control existing and focus on what you can do to live your best life given that the world exists as it does today and that it will be better in the future.
- "The meaning of life is to be happy." – Yes, the meaning of life is to have growth-enabling experiences that make you happy, but it is not just to be happy. As such, many people hear this, believe this, and then seek pleasure 24/7. Happiness in the English language can refer to either pleasure or fulfillment, unfortunately, and this is why many eastern cultures have sayings that tell you that if you try to chase happiness, you'll never find it. The biggest risk to misinterpreting this statement is to think that if you're not happy, you're supposed to be and so you look for the next high/pleasure/entertainment—basically, the next dopamine hit. That is dangerous, as drugs, gambling, promiscuous sex, and other addictive behaviors will feel fantastic while doing them and then have some sort of consequence (e.g., withdrawal, loss, unwanted/unsupported children). Fulfillment is what people should be looking for, and that only comes from growth: success in life, helping others, learning, etc. So if you do those things and are happy, you are on the right track; if you are seeking pleasures and are filling a void you feel in your life, then you are doing it wrong. So seek growth for yourself and others, and then you'll be happy. If you seek pleasure, it'll feel good for a while but you'll quickly find yourself bored and seeking the next thing to replace it.
- "It's not fair!!!" – Life isn't "fair" because "fairness" is an ethic established by humans to live together cooperatively (and without harming each other). The problem is that everyone has their own perspective, and everyone has a self-centered view of the world. Therefore, anything bad or unexpected that happens when they try to follow the rules will seem "unfair" to them, and anything that benefits them even if others view it as unfair will be dismissed as, "It is what it is." Of course, if you have an agreement in place and someone violates it, you should try to work it out and enforce the rules where applicable. But the fact that one person has more followers on Instagram because they're attractive even if you have a life-changing set of teachings that would actually benefit those people more does not mean that life, "the system", or the universe is somehow "unfair". Like somehow in a just society, teachers would all be millionaires and no one would go hungry. And that to make it fair, set up a system where healthy people get sick so sick people don't feel bad and most people become poor so everyone is equally miserable. The truth is that what someone "deserves" is not up to you. People need to be free to live their lives as they see fit as long as they are not harming anyone else. So, if you can think of a better solution to a question like the optimal way to board a plane, the best way to help someone, etc., great. Do it. But complaining that something is not fair creates a similar reciprocity problem that the "learning from history" belief does: if you see some perceived unfairness, you'll try to respond by taking away the benefit/advantage from one person and give it to another in revenge. Here's the thing: unless they did something grossly illegal or unethical, taking someone down doesn't really make things better. For example, if someone gets promoted over you because there was only one slot, maybe you can just find another job elsewhere or help to improve the evaluation criteria instead of complaining and trying to sabotage the person who did get promoted. Similarly, if someone you know from childhood is now very wealthy, maybe it's better to see what you can do to improve your own life or to realize that you defined success differently and are just as successful—just in different ways. Being constructive as often as possible is almost always the right call, and obsessing over how unfair something was after the point at which it tells you how you can behave differently for better future outcomes will only make your life worse and cause you to do something that you might regret.
I'm sure that someone could write 100 books on beliefs that people need to rethink because they're holding them back, but hopefully these five will give you some food for thought that it's not just beliefs about yourself that might be holding you back. Instead, it could be beliefs about your world that are causing you to be miserable, to not live up to your potential, or—worst of all—to do something that you might regret later.