I recently came across a study of the behaviour of people in a buffet line. The results blew me away. At the average breakfast buffet, the first item was taken by 75% of the diners (even when the order of the items was reversed). Two-thirds of all the food taken came from the first three items, regardless of how long the buffet was.
It shows us two things:
- We are less in control of our actions and decisions than we think we are.
- You can’t beat your environment.
Buffet line behaviour is harmless, but it's scary to think about the other areas of our lives where this same passive consumption creeps in.
The Internet is like an information buffet - anything you could possibly imagine - available at the click of a button. Grabbing the first piece of information on offer - usually social media or a news headline - is dangerous.
We live in the age of abundance. It's never been easier to passively consume the opinions of others. It's also never been more dangerous.
Passive consumption acts as a blindfold, making us blissfully unaware of things which are right in front of our eyes.
In every period of history, people believed things that were ridiculous. People used to believe that evil spirits hid in the leaves of Brussel sprouts. They’d cut a cross in each sprout before tossing it in the pan - to drive out the evil spirits.
Hindsight makes it easy to see that these beliefs were ridiculous, but at the time you’d be frowned upon for believing anything otherwise. It’s naïve of us to think that our time is different. It’s unlikely that ours is the first period to have everything figured out, or the first period without any ridiculous beliefs.
If everything you believe is something you're told to believe, is it a coincidence? Probably not.
And if you believe everything you're told to now, how can you be sure you wouldn't have believed everything you were told to if you grew up in apartheid-era South Africa, or in Germany in the 1930s?
We believe things today that people in the future will find ridiculous. The way to avoid these beliefs is by learning to think for yourself, and having the courage to stand by your thoughts.
The aim is not to oppose the crowd, but to avoid believing something simply because the crowd tells you to.
THE NEED FOR INDEPENDENT THINKING
Your mind is like a sponge, it absorbs what it’s exposed to. Whether you put a sponge in water or in Coca-Cola, it’ll absorb it. Your mind absorbs the information you feed it, whether it’s good or bad.
Everything you do - the career you pursue, the partner you pick, the company you build - starts with a thought. That's why improving the way you think, improves the way you do everything. It’s difficult to think well when the sponge in your head is only exposed to the information at the front of the buffet.
My company prioritises independent thinking. Regardless of what you’re doing, you're encouraged to think creatively and independently. That ethos, and the creativity that results from it, is the reason a small South African company is being invited to work with places like Harvard and MIT. It’s the reason we’re making waves in education - an industry that hasn't seen much progress in over a century.
The world needs people who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for a country, for a company, and for those around them. People with a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.
But thinking for yourself is difficult. Copernicus realised the sun didn't go around the earth when traditional wisdom, everyone around him, and even the evidence of his senses said that it did. The idea was such a stretch that even he had a hard time believing it. He was forced into believing it because it was the only way the numbers made sense.
Everyone tried to talk him out of his idea. It happened in the 1400s, and it happens today. Society encourages conformity, and you’re ridiculed for having ideas that don’t fit into the box that society operates in. It’s important to reject the urge to conform, because what society wants for you is not always what’s good for you.
The world is desperate for people who think creatively, independently and flexibly. They’re the creators, inventors and innovators. The people that drive progress and make the world a better place. The people that steer us in the right direction as the world changes faster and faster each day.
DEFENDING AGAINST A BLAZING FIRE
During a scorching heatwave, when crops catch fire, a circle is drawn around the blaze and the crops in that circle are deliberately set alight before the flames can reach it. Once the fire reaches the circle it stops, as there is nothing there left to burn. They use fire to kill fire.
Our minds - when fed the first piece of information you come across - are like crops without a ring of protection. They’re vulnerable and waiting to be destroyed. By being deliberate about what we consume and what we believe, we develop a ring of protection.
In the centre of that ring is a mind that can go anywhere. A mind in the habit of going where society tells it not to, and thinking thoughts which are unthinkable. A mind capable of thinking creatively, independently and flexibly.
BUILDING THE FUTURE
We all have gifts. Whether you’re a painter, an engineer or a baker, it’s your responsibility to share your gifts with the world. That’s how the world gets better. That’s how the future gets built.
At the end of the day, the question is simply how will you use your gifts? Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?
I choose the latter. I believe most people will too. We all want to reach our potential. We all want to improve the world around us and feel a sense of pride in what we've done. Nobody wants to reach their death bed feeling like they could have done more.
When everything we do is determined by how we think, our minds are worth protecting. Are you protecting yours?