Category Archives: Psychology
What is success in life?
Success is an esoteric subject that could be looked at in all sorts of different ways. When someone is described as a “successful person,” however, there’s a very definite picture that tends to appear in our minds. This is culturally learned. In America we naturally picture a wealthy businessman, with a great family and a nice house. Why can’t success be defined differently? If you’ve read or seen Les Misérables, you know the benevolent bishop who opens up the story by saving Valjean’s life. He excelled at giving everything away, and I’d call him successful.
The Bible talks about success. Proverbs 16:3 says “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” I love this, because it requires submitting to God and doing it for Him, and then God will make His plans yours. It’s subtly not saying “God will bless your plans,” but implying that God’s plans will be blessed through you. God will give you success – not yours, but His. Joshua 1:8 talks about meditating on God’s word so that Joshua will be prosperous and successful. When the Bible talks about prospering, it tends to be more of a holistic wellbeing, not only financial. A commission was given to Joshua, and through trusting God he would achieve it.
I’d call success the achieving of God’s call on our lives. This can relate to any number of separate vocations. I’ve got a vocation as a husband, as an employee, as a friend, and so on. At any given moment, I can be succeeding or failing in each. I’m succeeding if I’m accomplishing what God is looking for me to do. If God wants me to gently correct and teach a friend, but instead I only encourage them, I’m failing. If I’m called to encourage a friend, but I try to teach them instead, I’m failing.
How then do we know what to do? We get close to God and listen to him – not just occasionally, or even daily, but moment by moment. This isn’t some kind of weird constant praying or something, it’s just a general posture of leaning on God for direction. In the moment, we’ll know what we’re supposed to do, and success will come if we follow the direction.
Taking the long view then, what is success in life? It’s the same thing, but applied over the course of life. If we’re called to be a fabulous businessman, then success is being the best businessman possible. If we’re called to invent something world-changing after a lifetime of research and trials, then success is finally inventing it late in life. If we’re called to be an incredible father, then success is raising awesome children. And yes, if we’re called to be a faithful custodian, success is doing the best job cleaning each night. Success is finding whatever we are called to do, both in the short-term and long-term, and getting there with the Lord’s help.
Response from Aurelius
I wouldn’t define success as the achieving of God’s call on our lives because without religion that definition is arbitrary, but we both define success in large part by working hard and treating others well in whatever area makes sense for us. One struggle I had in writing my response was distinguishing achievement from effort. While success by itself requires accomplishment, I think success in life is about effort.
When you talk about God wanting to correct vs encourage behavior, I would interpret that as you upholding a moral standard. If you uphold the standard, either by correcting or encouraging, you are succeeding. For example, if my coworker says privately to me, “Truthfully, she was only hired because she has boobs,” I’m forced into an awkward situation. Most moral standards would concur in rebuking this behavior. If I uphold my moral standard and call him out, I’m succeeding, but if I reluctantly laugh or say nothing, I’m failing. In that situation, which unfortunately actually happened, I failed by merely going quiet and walking away, and I hate that I did that. However, when he said something similar in a different setting later on, I spoke out against that behavior and reported the incident to HR.
My problem with leaning on God to provide this direction and calling is when no direction is provided. How can you be sure that direction is God’s? For me, it came down to a gut instinct with a sprinkle of social pressure. Just be the best person you can be in whatever situation you find yourself. Work hard, be kind to others, and devote yourself to something beyond your own ambition, something that will make the world just a little bit better.
As a new father, I try actively to praise my son’s effort, not his results. I will be disappointed if my son is lazy, but I genuinely don’t care if he follows in my family’s footsteps of becoming an engineer or academic, as long as he tries hard, is kind to others, and is satisfied with how well he’s tried and how well he’s treated others, not with where it’s gotten him. That’s what we want for our kids and the next generation – do your best, be kind, and be happy.
So much of what we in our culture consider success in life is nothing more than luck. A corporate executive is seen as significantly more successful than a hotel janitor, but this perception of success is wrong. Success is working hard regardless of the gained achievement. The executive likely had a lot of parental support, financially and otherwise, to get her a top-tier education and the network along the way to position herself at the base of that corporate ladder with no way but up. Sure, she worked hard, but circumstances could have been different. The hotel janitor had to work through high school to support her family, so she had little or no extracurriculars and her learning suffered. Her parents are both working full time making barely above minimum wage struggling to support their four kids in a land where they were told opportunity was boundless. She can’t afford university, and her community college classes are a struggle because she is still working full time now trying to support a family of her own. The cycle continues. There are exceptions, but social mobility is a huge barrier to what we often call success. Toby Morris’ On a Plate illustrates this misconception poignantly.
Hopefully most in the developed world have a sense of success in life larger than material status and social positioning. When I was a Christian I measured my success with how well I thought I exemplified a Christ-centered life, how my relationship was with God and how I helped others in their spiritual journeys. I still measure my success in part by how I help others through their lives and spiritual journeys, just not with a Christian focus. I love teaching and try to incorporate that into my life, judging my own success in part by how well I am using that skill I have been given and am passionate about.
Mostly these days I measure my success by how good of a husband and father I am. At the end of the day, it’s the little decisions that add up. Did I turn around to kiss my son on the forehead before leaving for work or did I go on my way once I realized I’d forgotten because I was already late? Did I call my wife during my lunch break because I knew she was having a rough morning and I thought I should check in, or did I forgo that because I had a lot on my plate that day? When my coworker seemed a little more down than usual, did I ask how he was doing and offer an ear if needed or did I quietly hope everything was alright? How we treat others is ultimately how I think we should measure success.
My favorite excerpt about success is from Ralph Waldo Emerson in a poem entitled Success.
Response from Antipas
I like how you call to mind themes from Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book, Outliers. It’s a great read about what the makings of “success” are, and you’re absolutely right that it’s largely due to situations outside of the person’s control. Taking this same theme and applying it to what you’re saying about a broader definition of success, you could say that success is doing the best with the hand you’re dealt. I like this view a lot, because it doesn’t try to change one’s situation too much, just make the most of it.
We’ve said some pretty similar things, which I like. How we treat others. Whether or not we work hard. Pulling the definition of success away from results is a great move – can you be successful even in failing to accomplish a goal? Yes, and sometimes life works like this, but sometimes it doesn’t. There are times that hard work doesn’t matter without achieving some sort of goal, and we have to keep this in mind. Sometimes we hear people talk about “succeeding at the wrong thing” and so we have to have the goal clear.
My only concern with your line of reasoning is that I believe it’s imperative to have a standard by which to measure actions. How do we know that it’s important to show love to one’s family, to care for a coworker, to be industrious, and to help guide others? I can draw such moral imperatives from my religion, but you draw them from your life goals and a strong moral compass. Without an absolute like religion, it’s important to make sure that such a moral compass isn’t lost.
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When is a Closed Mind Appropriate?
It’s hard to describe things in absolutes like “never.” Should we ever have a closed mind? Yeah, of course – I have a closed mind about my wife. She is the only one for me, and I would never consider another nor compare her to another. I see no problem with this.
But I think we’re talking here more about things like beliefs and values. And on that, I think that there is some relevance to my above point. Sometimes, when we’re talking about a belief that is unprovable or an opinion, it might be most helpful to make a commitment and stick to it. Our culture is not good at commitment in general, and some things are better committed to. I believe that nobody is beyond hope, and that’s a commitment that is worth sticking to. I also believe that Bud Light is a terrible beer, and I’m sticking to it.
What about other beliefs? I believe that we normalize things that are so core to us, and so proven to us, that they become part of who we are. We have a closed mind regarding them. My Christianity is so core to my identity, and to me so highly proven, that it’s become part of who I am. I can’t imagine what kind of evidence would ever, for me, disprove my Christian belief. And again, I think there’s an intrinsic value in the kind of commitment that leads to that closed mind. Without it, we can be wishy-washy. If a person has a wide open mind about their most core beliefs, they must not be all that important to them after all.
I believe that we all have things that we have closed minds about. We all have some sort of authority that we assent to, whether it’s a religious book, human reason, or scientific evidence. These authorities, by definition, create a closed mind. A scientist is closed to anything that ignores the evidence. A humanist is closed to anything that is irrational. A religious person is closed to anything that contradicts the religious book. I’m not ready to say that this is wrong, only that we need to be careful about how many things we let into this category.
There are, of course, many things that we need to have open minds about. A new experience, a new acquaintance, or a family member. We ought to have an open mind about our current situations. I like my job and my home, but I ought to have an open mind that I could also like a different job and a different home. We also ought to have an open mind about many of our beliefs. I believe that supply-side economics increases economic inequality, but I am willing to be proven wrong. I focused most of my post on things about which I think it’s good to have a closed mind. Don’t read that to mean that we ought to have a closed mind about most things. In fact, I think we ought to have an open mind about most things.
Response from Aurelius
We approached this question differently, which is great. In matters that are unprovable, we cannot use the scientific method and there is therefore merit in sticking to what we believe to be true, our opinion. I also think there is merit in remaining agnostic depending on the matter. I can’t prove there is no God, but I see no reason to commit to him not existing or commit to him existing. That is, there’s no evidence or experience to compel me to believe, and on the contrary the current ideas of God do not match anything I find to be true. Others feel the exact opposite and that’s ok. If an idea of God were to arise that were supported in my viewpoint, I could be swayed. In that way, I haven’t committed to atheism. When it comes to my wife, I’m committed. I am not open to other possibilities unless a rare situation developed such as unfaithfulness, abuse, or neglect. I’ve heard older couples say that what got them through so many decades together was not primarily enduring love but unwavering commitment.
I like your approach here, and it brings up the subject of values. We should not easily, or perhaps ever, waver in our values. I will always uphold some core values I’ve taken to heart: honesty, reason, love, commitment, education, justice, compassion, and persistence. My mind is closed to violating these values. Other values of mine tend to fluctuate in importance based on life stages, such as ambition, loyalty, obedience, punctuality, boldness, and self-reliance.
Whenever possible I like to approach matters scientifically. From that perspective, closed minds are detrimental. They hinder progress by introducing biases that skew the truth. For instance, if I have nothing indicating to me how our world came to be, I could use the best science of our day to arrive at a universe 13.8 billion years old, expanding, and begun with a Big Bang. Countless findings support these conclusions. It doesn’t mean these are irrefutable, but they are heavily supported and extremely likely. On the other hand, if I have a closed approach to answering this question by adhering to 2000+ year-old religious writings, I could arrive at a 6000-year old Earth created the same calendar week as the universe. This is inconsistent with what science shows, so science must be wrong in this case, causing distrust of corroborated science and hindering further discovery because we already know the answer. A closed mind is harmful to science
Ibn al-Haytham created the scientific method in the 11th century during the Golden Age of Islam. He was interested in finding truth, inviting scholars and obtaining texts from all over the world. In this pursuit he developed and taught the principle to not trust ancient writings at face value but instead to question and critically examine the writings from many perspectives. Submit only to arguments and experiments that hold water, not to oration or unverifiable texts. Further, suspect and question your own ideas to avoid prejudice and careless thought. Truth will then follow (see Cosmos S1E5 for a brief history of al-Haytham’s scientific achievements). In other words, question what you and others take for granted and perform experiments and critical analyses to reveal the truth.
After repeated evidence supports a hypothesis it becomes a scientific theory. At this point it is reasonable to more or less close your mind to the other options, but even trusting in the scientific method can backfire. The cause of peptic ulcer disease (PUD) was up in the air until the 1950s when a single study found that bacteria was not present in biopsies of the stomach, leaving the hyperacidity theory as the only remaining cause. Two Australian scientists kept an open mind, and decades later postulated that PUD might be caused by the bacterium H. pylori since antibiotics seemed to consistently treat PUD patients. Their findings were repeatedly rejected until Marshall, one of the scientists, dangerously consumed the bacteria in a dramatic effort to show that antibiotics cure the symptoms. They received funding, published their findings, and 20 years later were awarded a Nobel Prize. The closed mindedness of this area after the 1950s study delayed this discovery and subsequent treatment of the disease.
Closed minds are generally bad for science, so, how do we keep an open mind?
Derren Brown, a British illusionist and psychological manipulator, states, “Being open minded doesn’t just mean believing everything because you’d like it to be true. Being truly open minded means being prepared to change your beliefs based on the evidence or the lack of evidence.”
Response from Antipas
Great thoughts, Aurelius. Your researched approach is admirable and I really appreciate your example of PUD. I agree that a closed mind seems to be bad in general for science. We tend to close our minds once we accept something as proven. The key question, however, is what do we accept as proof? Even science is getting divided in recent years because of the question of what is accepted as proof. There is a growing body of “pseudo-science”, such as anti-vaccinators, organic and non-GMO proponents, essential oil vendors, and so forth, who are changing the scene quite a bit. I’m no expert on any of these debates, but in them you have people who are mingling science with other values and ideas and coming up with answers that are being hotly debated. Even if science totally disproves that there is any health benefit to eating organic foods, will Whole Foods go out of business? Nope. What we accept as proof is the key question.
I think that we are converged on the matter of values and commitment. I, however, have different values. Whereas you accept the scientific method and evidence as proof, and that is one of your highest values, I value something higher than both. That leads me to have a different worldview and different things I will accept as proof, because I have different aims – rather than knowledge, sometimes my aim is spirituality or theology.
Do preconceived notions lead to prejudice and discrimination?
Preconceived notions are two things right from the start: 1) impossible to avoid, and 2) often based on the truth. First, it is critical to note that they are often how we make sense of the world. They form our worldviews as we categorize things. Second, they arise from previous life experience. If you are an employer who has a preconceived notion that poorly dressed and uneducated job applicants are not likely to be the best candidates for a job, your preconceived notion is not necessarily incorrect. We could call this preconceived notion a first impression, or even “judging a book by its cover.” In a world where sometimes decisions need to be made quickly, few would disagree with this preconceived notion or fault anyone for carrying it. Malcolm Gladwell makes some similar suggestions in his book, Blink. It might be helpful to free the term “prejudice” from some of its pejorative connotations and think of it more in terms of applying one’s life experience to a situation in which one doesn’t know all of the facts.
Preconceived notions become a problem when we incorrectly believe that they are based on the truth, because preconceived notions also have a third critical attribute: they can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, a preconceived notion that black people are criminals is not based on truth. A preconceived notion that a higher proportion of black people than white people are criminals only has a resemblance to the truth because it has become a self-fulfilling prejudice. Prisons are filled with black people, it’s true, but it’s not because black people are inherently destined to be criminals. It’s because the above preconceived notion leads people to discrimination. Unfortunately, some such preconceived notions have become so pervasive that they are very difficult to break free of. Even if we know intellectually that they are not based in reality, our subconscious has a stubborn way of hanging on to them. This is the danger, where preconceived notions do lead to discrimination.
This is where we have to get down deep into ourselves, into our worldview and even our subconscious. We need deep reprogramming of our minds and hearts. The Bible offers us a worldview where we are all equally broken, and equally living in a broken world. Contrary to some who teach a Christian worldview of “triumph” – that living a spiritual life is one of victory over temptation, life’s struggles, and so forth – the Bible teaches a path of pain, challenge, imperfection, and even defeat. If we are serious about building this teaching into the base of our worldview and programming it deeply into our subconscious, two changes will occur in our response to preconceived notions. First, we will allow everyone the opportunity to prove us wrong. Second, rather than allowing preconceived notions to push us into a judgment of superiority, we will see ourselves on a level playing field with those we are judging. Though we pre-judge a person, we will accept them for who they are as no better or worse than we are.
Response from Aurelius
We approached the prompt quite similarly, and interestingly we both identified the dangerous self-fulfilling aspect of preconceived notions. You took it a step further by providing takeaways in the final paragraph linked to a Christian worldview, with which I have to partially disagree. Although the takeaways are valuable, I don’t believe that a Christian worldview is necessary to form them.
In my personal worldview, we all make mistakes and we all have imperfect knowledge. That is, we don’t know everything. We are inherently finite. Therefore, to your first point, we should always approach situations knowing that someone else may know better, that we might be wrong. An open mind should accompany us always.
I am hesitant to respond to the second point, because I do in fact categorize some people as better or worse. However, it is not based on preconceived notions. I categorize others based on their use of opportunity. We are not all born with equal opportunity, but we must make the best of it, maximizing the outcome from that opportunity. Preconceived notions may lead us to look poorly or judgmentally on those in less desirable circumstances, but they may have had little choice, less opportunity. On the contrary, those with tremendous opportunity that make little of it would be categorized as worse in my view due to the wasted potential.
By and large, though, we agree that preconceived notions have a slippery slope into prejudice and discrimination.
This topic piqued my interest after hearing two separate radio stories. One story was about favoritism, the lesser, more acceptable form of prejudice. A Yale professor cut her hand severely while doing the dishes and promptly sought help at the hospital. After telling the ER doctor she was an avid quilter, the doctor started to stitch up her cut. However, someone in the ER recognized her, addressed her as “professor,” and all of the sudden the ER doctor devised an alternate course of action. They brought in a whole team of doctors, including a famous hand specialist in order to give her the best possible treatment. The ER doctor treated a quilter much differently than he did a Yale professor.
We all analyze people through first impressions, heavily weighting factors we consider to be superior. Well-dressed, groomed, fit, good looking, smiling, warm mannerisms, speech, accent, associations, etc. From an evolutionary perspective this allows us to quickly ascertain how to react to a situation, but it can cause us to treat people differently in subtly harmful ways. Sometimes not so subtly, crossing the line from prejudice to discrimination. Favoritism reveals that our less-than-best treatment of those we do not believe are familiar or worthy is a form of discrimination. Treating those in our own networks preferably inadvertently treats others unfairly.
The second story focuses on white teachers in predominantly black districts that realized they were not completely colorblind. Teachers are more likely to let minority students get away with slang and incorrect grammar, and will even discipline them more frequently and severely.
It is all a matter of expectations. We expect certain behaviors from people based on our preconceived notions, and we are not always aware that our expectations influence behavior.
The Pygmalion effect describes this behavior, as evidenced by the famous Rosenthal-Jacobsen study and more recently in an Israel Defense Forces replication. Four instructors were told that certain students in their training groups had high, low, or unknown potential. After a week of training the instructors rated the potential of their students, and the students were also separately tested and questioned. Those with originally high potential scored 15 percentage points better on performance tests than the low potential students, and the high potential students gave more favorable ratings of the course and instructors. However, the original high, low, and unknown potentials given to the instructors were completely random. The instructors expected more of the randomly selected high potential students. Leadership and expectations influence behavior more than we know.
Response from Antipas
You’ve come at this topic from a somewhat different angle, but we ultimately agree. Preconceived notions are dangerous self-fulfilling prophecies. I’m curious though about the inevitability of them. I feel like it’s nearly impossible to really avoid them. Your question of favoritism makes me want to take it to the extreme…what if it’s an extremely specialized pediatric heart surgeon who needs her hands to save lives? What if it’s the UN Secretary General? Would favoritism be avoidable…or even should it be avoided?
Your thoughts on expectations are well-put. But it’s also a matter of analyzing worth. The teachers are expecting less from the minority students, just as the ER doctor is calculating the worth of a professor differently than an avid quilter. I thoroughly agree with your conclusions, but I would like to take it a bit further to emphasize that it’s not just the prejudice and discrimination that are wrong. The reason that prejudice and discrimination are wrong is because it’s ultimately wrong to calculate the worth of a human being. I strongly believe that we are all equally valuable, from the wealthiest to the poorest, from the most qualified to the most inept, from the mentally handicapped to the most brilliant.
This doesn’t preclude us from exercising some judgment against people, but not of their inherent worth. We can judge people’s actions, and criticize them, and blame them, but we’ve got to find a way to separate the judgment of people’s actions from the judgment of people.