I keep coming back to the words of Leonard Mlodinow: “We choose the facts we want to believe. Unlike phenomena in physics, in life, events can often obey one theory or another, and what actually happens can depend largely upon which theory we choose to believe. It is a gift of the human mind to be extraordinarily open to accepting the theory of ourselves that pushes us in the direction of survival, and even happiness.”
It is because he is a professor of physics and neuroscience, not a preacher or a self-help guru, that I find it easier to accept Mlodinow’s bizarre message – our fate depends largely on what we choose to believe. And above all, what we choose to believe about ourselves.
In that spirit, I ask you to compile Nine Things I Choose to Believe. It should be your list, not mine, and it can be a list of seven-to-ten things. I offer an illustration, with some commentary afterwards:
Nine Things You Might Choose to Believe
One – I choose to be Friendly, Well-Intentioned, and Lovable
I might as well jump in at the deep end. It’s well known we all have different temperaments and biases. Some of us are optimists and naturally outgoing and friendly. Others of us are more reserved and suspicious, and some are inherently pessimists. Yet whatever our predisposition, we can change it. If we are inclined to be wall-flowers, we won’t become the greatest party animals. If we are glib and mindlessly sunny, we won’t become profound philosophers. But I know from observing other people and myself that what matters is our internal attitude, not our external style, and that the attitude can change. And if the attitude changes, if our expectations shift, the whole world revolves.
In my view, it is a no-brainer to become well-intentioned, friendly, and yes – even lovable. First we have to love ourselves, and which of us doesn’t really want to do this? Forget everything parents, teachers, peers and anyone else has told you. You are lovable, and you have the capacity for love. After all, you are, so I am told, a human being. You are not a monster, not unless you behave as one. And what is the percentage in doing that? Nada.
So it is a choice, but it should be an easy one. If you are genuinely friendly and well-intentioned, you cannot avoid making friends and being well thought of. First you love yourself, then everyone else does. Why not?
Two – I Choose to be Talented & Useful
Everyone is good at something. Everyone can use that talent to be useful to other people.
It’s a real duty – and good fun – to work out what you can be best at. It may take several years, or a lifetime. Use your brain and your physical energy to make it the best possible thing. If you do, you will feel good. And be good.
The more talented you feel, the more talented you become. So be very generous to yourself.
The more you use your brain, the brainier you become. Work at it. It will make you live longer and be happier. The intellect is a gift of the universe to every human. You are lucky not to be a cat or a dog, or even an elephant. Relish the fact.
Three – I have a Few Wonderful Friends
A few. Not hundreds or thousands. Real friends with whom you spend real physical time, talking, eating and drinking together. Long-term friends or maybe new friends, but you intend to hold on to them forever, to make their lives richer and deepen the friendship. People you can depend on, whatever happens – and the other way round. This means that the friends must be counted on your fingers.
Four – I Like My Work
For a fulfilling life, work – paid or unpaid – is essential. Studying is work. Looking after a family is work – and how! Voluntary work is work. These are all of the same substance as paid work.
There are two reasons for work. One is to help other people and make their lives better – either now, or in the future. The other, even more important reason, is to develop your brain and your skills, and take pleasure in doing so.
The more you like your work, the better the work and its value to you and everyone who benefits.
Five – There is a Force for Good in the universe, of which I Choose to be Part
This is the most controversial of my nine “Choices”, and the one about which I have hesitated for years. I could easily believe the opposite, and so could anyone, because there is no conclusive evidence either way. The nature of science is that every generation believes it has solved all the important questions about life, and every single generation before ours has been wrong. I doubt that we are an exception.
But go back to the premise at the start of this post. As Professor Mlodinow says, we choose the facts we want to believe – events can be consistent with more than one theory, and what actually happens can depend largely on the theory we choose to believe.
Let us simplify our mega-theory into three possible ones. Theory A is that at the heart of creation there is a benevolent force which is making our world – and indeed our individual lives – better. There is a lot of evidence to support this view, because humankind’s control of its environment in the past hundreds of years, and especially the last three, is getting increasingly better, with the resultant reduction in disease, starvation, premature death, and suffering of all kinds.
Theory B is that the universe is totally indifferent to the fate of humans and other creatures. This is a perfectly respectable theory with lots of supporting evidence, just like Theory A.
Theory C is that it is all too difficult for us to decide. This, too, is intellectually defensible; and perhaps the most reasonable conclusion of all.
Remember, though, that what actually happens can depend on the theory we choose to believe. In the absence of a clear indication of what the truth is, it makes sense to believe the theory that most conduces to human happiness – and that of other creatures too. It is very similar to the debate about optimism or pessimism. There are always grounds for both positions, but the reasonable optimist – someone who tends to believe there is a way through difficulties, who respects the truth, but given alternative truths chooses to believe the one that is most constructive – the reasonable optimist will usually win and achieve more than the reasonable pessimist. It has been well said that one of mankind’s evolutionary aces has been the delusion that we can control and influence our world.
This is true especially in business. If you fully knew the roadblocks and problems that starting a new venture entails, you would probably never start it. The same is true in taking an established firm and changing its purpose, trajectory, and DNA – this can even be closer to Mission Impossible than starting afresh. But if you are an optimist who believes that difficulties can be worked around, who re-frames apparently impossible situations into challenges that can be overcome, you are far more likely to win. Only creative optimists should start a firm – but, my, how the world is a better place because so many creative optimists have done so.
On similar grounds, I choose to believe in some kind of mysterious Force for good in the world, and I choose to position myself, in a modest yet serious way, as part of it. On quite selfish and functional grounds, I choose to be well-intentioned. What the nature of the Force is – on that I am almost totally agnostic, and for me at least it is better that way, as I don’t want to believe six impossible things before breakfast.
Six – I can Help Ten People to lead a happy, fulfilling and useful Life
For me, ten people is enough, and it’s a realistic number. You can work out your own number, and to some extent it depends on how many ‘candidates’ you can count for your intelligent benevolences. Try making a list now or later today, and how you can best help them with the minimum of effort.
Seven – I can Create Something Great, and I Will
What is it going to be?
Make it as great as you possibly can.
Eight – I have – or will have – a great Lover whom I appreciate more each day
If you are young, don’t be in too much of a hurry to fill the slot. But try hard to make your first love your last true love also. This is not a matter of chance. It depends on your attitude and on how hard you work to make the relationship work. This may be the hardest of all your choices, because living deeply with another human being calls for our greatest intelligence and creativity. It’s not a test at which I have done well.
Nine – I will die happy
If you have done all the above, it should be easy to choose this attitude at the end. But hopefully not too soon.