This human behavior of not challenging assumptions reminds me of an experiment psychologists performed years ago. They started with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, they hung a banana on a string with a set of stairs placed under it. Before long, a monkey went to the stairs and started to climb towards the banana. As soon as he started up the stairs, the psychologists sprayed all of the other monkeys with ice cold water. After a while, another monkey made an attempt to obtain the banana. As soon as his foot touched the stairs, all of the other monkeys were sprayed with ice cold water. It’s wasn’t long before all of the other monkeys would physically prevent any monkey from climbing the stairs.
Now, the psychologists shut off the cold water, removed one monkey from the cage and replaced it with a new one. The new monkey saw the banana and started to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attacked him. After another attempt and attack, he discovered that if he tried to climb the stairs, he would be assaulted. Next they removed another of the original five monkeys and replaced it with a new one. The newcomer went to the stairs and was attacked. The previous newcomer took part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, they replaced a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth.
Every time the newest monkey tried to climb the stairs, he was attacked. The monkeys had no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they were beating any monkey that tried. After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys had ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approached the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been around here.
How many times have you heard “It has always been done this way. Don’t mess with what works.” Instead of challenging these assumptions, many of us, like the monkeys, simply keep reproducing what has been done before. It’s the easiest thing to do.
– Michael Michalko
The 20’s are a period of significant transformation, it’s when we exfoliate ourselves of the fears and aspirations of others. In youth, our notions of self are heavily influenced by the identities of those around us. We’re impressionable, we’re sponges that soak up remnants of our family, social circles, the media and our greater environment. It is in our 20’s that we begin to venture away from the familiar…we go to college, we start our professional careers, we move to new cities, and we build new relationships. It is during this time that we begin to challenge what we once held as absolute truths. In our 20’s, we realize that our identity has been carefully threaded by external ideologies, and that we’re now free to cut ties with that which we can no longer identify with and fortify the parts which we want to keep.
I’m trying to be more introspective and analytical when it comes to my own beliefs and mannerisms. I want to re-evaluate my thoughts and desires, and determine whether they truly belong to me, or if I’ve borrowed them from someone else. I want to avoid group think, but I don’t yet have the blueprint on what it means to be a free thinker. How do I hold myself accountable to experiencing the world outside of the silo of my life experiences?
I recently heard back that I didn’t get into any of the PhD in Economics programs that I applied to. I wasn’t very disappointed because I knew I tried my hardest and I received feedback on what additional Econ courses to take to make me more competitive. Their suggested courses would cost me thousands of dollars out of pocket. I began unpacking why exactly I wanted to go back to school in the first place. I had a question I wanted to answer, sure, but honestly…I just like being kept busy and having something tangible to show for it. School has always been a safe route for me. I feel a lot of pressure to keep moving, even when I don’t have things deliberately planned out. Unfortunately, poor planning sometimes results in taking steps backwards. I feel in disarray, like a lion that’s running aimlessly in a field filled with prey. I try to justify my behavior by saying it’s easier to switch gears than warm up a parked car.
I’m realizing that being associated with intelligence is extremely important to me, because it’s important to others. I’ve always been reaffirmed by my Mamaiay, peers and teachers that I was smart but I hate how it’s taken up such a large part of my identity. In addition, it feels elitist. Why do I, and why does society at large, romanticize mental abilities? Why do we idolize high achievers? The thing about being called “smart” is that it’s a relative metric. You’re smarter than what? Dumber than what? It’s a constant state of comparison. I don’t want to value myself on a baseline or metric system that’s defined by a third party (e.g. GPA, IQ, salary etc).
I was recently reading an article about Jack Ma, who was rejected by Harvard 10 times before launching Alibaba. In immigrant households it’s not atypical for there to be high academic and professional expectations for the children. Jack Ma’s take on his son’s education deviated from the usual narrative. He shared his parenting beliefs, he told his son he doesn’t care if he’s a straight A student. A B student would suffice. His reasoning was that if a child is a straight A student it means they didn’t have the time to develop any other skills, and he’d rather his child exercise his curiosity and be more well-rounded. Numbers can be dangerous, if we give them too much power to define us. From weight, height, money, grades, social media friends etc. I’m trying so hard to distance myself from quantifiable metrics. We have enough smart and successful people in the world that have become slaves to their own egos. I just want to nurture my curiosity, to openly know nothing and not be penalized for it. I’m learning “smart” seeks applause, whereas curious seeks direction.
I’ve been reflecting on my greatest teachers and lessons over the past few months. The most significant one came from a short-lived lover. I had asked him what he felt his purpose on earth was. He stated that he doesn’t feel like we was put on earth to save the world or anything exceptionally remarkable. That he felt is purpose was simply to be kind and love others fully. I wrote him off, and interpreted his answer as lacking ambition. I was naive, and too pretentious to understand. It took me a while before I realized how wise and potent that statement was. I felt like this was some Bruce Lee shit, how the teacher only appears when the student is ready.
Nowadays, it seems likes every post I read and song I hear is about “the grind” and “making moves.” In the words of Mark Train, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” I’m actively working on not looking at ambition as the highest form of self-esteem and social currency. I’m trying to challenge myself to approach everything as if status didn’t exist and as if every single act paid the same and reaches the same destination. This helps me construct what I want to be doing vs what I think I should be doing. I don’t want to be another cog in the machine. In a time when people are constantly preaching about goin’ harder shootin for the number 1 spot, maybe the best way to get out of the rat race is to just be still. Perhaps success and purpose is like happiness, it finds you when you stop seeking it.
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