Think Again | January 8, 2016

Think Again

We have a family friend whom we used to affectionately tease for his habits. For a man in his mid twenties, he was fairly set in his approach to the world. As a teacher, every day, he would wake up between 7:15 and 7:18, take a shower and be at school breakfast between 7:20 and 7:24. Once he was at breakfast, he would have particular foods. Cereal—always. Sometimes eggs, too. If the dining hall had a new food option, he would say "no"---unless it was something new to the dining hall but familiar to him, something that he had tried before, in which case he might opt for it. If, for example, there was a new option for French toast, and it looked like his mom's French toast, he would go for it. If it was a style of French toast that he had not seen before, he would pass.

He was a former high school All-American lacrosse player and captain of his college team, and as a coach of high school boys' lacrosse, he would use only a Fox 40 classic whistle. For his coffee, he had specific beans from a specific local coffee shop that he used in his particular French press that he kept in his classroom office. He graded biology tests only with a Pilot G2 .07- millimeter tip. "That's the best kind of pen," he would say. "I do not use other kinds of pens."

Along these same lines, if someone exhibited behavior that he had never before encountered, Jake would be skeptical. For example, if someone entered the room with a big personality, he would be wary and judgmental. Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, he had been taught that when you entered a room, you did not do so in a loud way. Now, there might be many reasons why a person might enter a room in a boisterous way. They might have just had some kind of personal victory, they might be nervous, they might be talking to someone who is hard of hearing, but Jake would not consider the reasons why, he would make a judgment based on the behavior because he had been taught a certain protocol for social interaction.

When Jake was challenged about his habits or the way he did things and invited to do something another way, he would say, "Why would I do it that way?" Jake embraced his habits and had strict methods for how things should be done. He liked and gravitated to the familiar, and he avoided the unfamiliar, and it was very hard to change his mind.

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The Constitution of the United States took four months to debate and draft, including two weeks to polish the prose. When it was ready, the much-discussed document was read aloud to the delegates, who would subscribe their name to the new system of government. When the reading was complete, Ben Franklin rose from his chair, indicating his desire to speak. He was eighty-one years old, and too tired to make another speech, so he wrote down his thoughts, and James Wilson read his remarks, which were addressed to George Washington, presider of the meeting.

What Ben Franklin said is a lesson on the importance of recognizing that over time our minds might change.

"Mr. President," began Ben Franklin, "I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better Information, or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions, even on important Subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise."

In effect Benjamin Franklin recognized the importance of being open to changing your mind, even on issues that you believe to be irrefutable.

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Professors Sheen Levine and David Stark have evidence that if you are surrounded by people like you, you are more likely to fall for wrong ideas. In a homogenous group, you are more apt to "mindlessly imitate" those around you than you are in a more diverse group. They found that ethnically and racially diverse groups could more accurately calculate prices for simulated stock because they thought more critically than groups containing people like themselves. Diversity disrupts conformity and prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply, analyze more effectively, and develop their own opinions. Being with different types of people actually makes you brighter even in situations that seem unaffected by race or ethnicity. Clearly, consulting with different types of people before making a decision might prevent you from making foolish mistakes – they might help change your mind so that you make a sound choice rather than a decision that you regret.

I am not saying it is a bad thing to be a creature of habit or hang out with friends who are like you. It is necessary to have patterns and structure in our lives. Ms. Luna affectionately calls me "el caballo de lechero," which means "the milkman's horse." She calls me this because she finds my behavior during the day very routine and predictable: I arrive to school at 7:20. Every day I have an egg sandwich at 8:07. I eat lunch at 12:10. But we need to make sure that our patterns and habits and whom we call friends does not limit us, that they enable us to experience new things.

Jake has learned to be comfortable with things that used to make him uncomfortable. Through being a teacher, Jake was thrust into unfamiliar situations, and he was forced to reach beyond his known and familiar orbit. Presently, he is living in Harlem while going to graduate school, and he is applying to the Peace Corps, where every day, even his breakfast, will be a new adventure.


"The Commandments" by Jill Lepore

The New Yorker

January 17, 2011

"Diversity Makes You Brighter" by Sheen Levine and David Stark

The New York Times

December 9, 2015


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