The Unexpected Benefits of Refusing to Think For Yourself
If the self-help side of our modern world is a song, then the chorus everybody’s singing is, “Think For Yourself.” It’s like when all your friends burst out with “Mamma!” at the right part of Bohemian Rhapsody. Everybody knows that line, and repeats it, and assumes the wisdom of it. I mean, of course it’s good to think for yourself, right? It would be foolish to let someone else do the thinking for you?
Implicit in this maxim is the idea that you are the one best qualified to manage your life. I can agree with the sentiment. Of course, we do trust financial advisors and mechanics to do some of our thinking for us, so our desire to think for ourselves is already somewhat limited. But we choose those people, and we choose to take their advice, so we give ourselves a pass.
What people are uncomfortable with is the idea that anybody else could somehow control them. “Think For Yourself” is one of those mottos followed up with a mock scenario about whether you’d jump off a bridge to follow your friends or not. We value our freedom and our independence. We don’t want to be the victim of someone else’s ignorance or abuse.
But “thinking for yourself” is often a terrible idea.
First, you’re never truly objective. When you come up with your own opinion, you’re really just summarizing the impressions of a million different sources. Your brain isn’t making a one-of-a-kind painting–your brain is a computer terminal at the library, printing out what everybody searched for over the course of your lifetime.
Second, to “think for yourself” is to choose selfishness, whether your noticed it or not. To think for yourself is to think of yourself first. If you are the one making your own decisions, you’ll intuitively prioritize your own needs and desires without realizing it.
Is there an alternative?
I’d like to believe there is.
Think For Your Community.
Bring the people you want to do life with in on your decision process.
Don’t go looking around for the feedback that just affirms your bias. Let the people you trust reshape your perspective, even when it’s painful. Consider making some choices that go against your inclination simply because you’re honouring the voice of counsel in your life.
This doesn’t mean you need a consensus of forty individuals before you can do anything. And it doesn’t mean you’re now open to being controlled. It just means you’re wise enough to choose, acknowledge, and welcome your influences.
Once they’re all seated at your table, a conversation can begin.
1. You go down roads you didn’t even know existed.
According to Instagram (and people with only a cursory knowledge of good poetry) the best life is on the “road less travelled”. I’d like to think I’m on that road–but when I’m thinking for myself, I can be certain I’m not.
Here’s why: when you make decisions and come to conclusions based solely off of what you know and believe, you can only go where you’ve already been.
This is hard to hear, but it’s true! Your intuition and judgement are learned instincts from your last experiences. Your way of responding to crisis might not be the best for this new issue–but how can you possibly do any better? You only have yourself to work with!
If you bring other people in–as examples and mentors–you gain a whole new set of possibilities that weren’t available to you before. Do you struggle with confrontation? Take orders from someone who’s good at it! Having a hard time getting motivated? Shadow someone who is more disciplined than you!
You can go on an adventure and throw away the map. But the richest experiences are in the details. Let the people who have already been there show you the way.
2. You gain the right kind of antagonists.
Too many people believe freedom and fulfillment are hiding in a mythical land beyond conflict. Unable to face criticism, these kind of people end up creating echo chambers of affirmation where nobody has the right to question their judgement. Nobody ends up there on purpose–I certainly didn’t. But there I was, wishing I had “encouragement” when what I really needed was correction.
I knew I had a problem when the people I trusted, and had given permission to stand in my way, hurt me with their feedback. I had to ask myself: “am I hurting because of them? Or am I ultimately hurting because of me?”
In my faith, we have a saying from the book of Proverbs: “faithful are the wounds of a friend.” I like to quote it but I prefer not to live it. The more I think as a community, instead of as an individual, the more I find myself surrounded by powerful people. And powerful people are willing to prevent me from hurting myself down the road, even at the expense of our connection in the moment.
When I think for myself, my need for affirmation becomes insatiable. I’m hungry for support and goodwill from my friends and family all the time, because only insecurity can grow in the vacuum of selfish thinking.
Instead, when I bring other people to the table, we get to stand in each other’s way sometimes. And in the end, after we’ve sparred with each other, we’re safer and stronger for it.
3. You lose sight of your preferred outcome.
You don’t get what you want anymore. You only get what we want. Yes, this will come with a sense of loss sometimes. In the end, desires are best fulfilled when they’re shared–but it takes all the way up to the end for us to believe it.
Life isn’t a zero sum game, but too many people play it that way–and then they wonder why nobody else shares in their victories. Success can be alienating, if you haven’t invited anyone in. If you think you’ve made it on your own, you’ll rationalize why other people are uncomfortable with you. Really, you just have to ask yourself: is what I want supposed to be the most important outcome for me?
Parents understand this better than anybody, because life beats the lesson into them. Like it or not, my son is going to wake me up in the morning and need my attention, before I want to get up. I can arrange one thousand other priorities if I want to, and he’ll just disregard my list! He isn’t being selfish. I am.
Perhaps the very premise of your thinking is faulty. You’ll only know it if you invite other people in. Does someone else have permission to say, “that shouldn’t be important to you right now?” Do you have a friend who can say, “you should really stop thinking about that”?
If you don’t let the goal be subjected to the people you care about, you might have to sacrifice them along the way.
I’ve had to learn that the best kind of life is where we dream together, and we work and sacrifice together, and then we feel fulfilled together. It’s the kind of satisfaction where everyone has compromised and yet somehow what we end up with is better than what any single person could’ve come up with on their own.
A rising tide can only float all boats when everybody’s ship is in the same harbour. Give up the captain’s chair. Let someone else steer your ship sometimes, even if it feels irresponsible of you.