Something to Think About

Chellee has a link to an excellent, thought-provoking essay, What You Can’t Say by Paul Graham. It’s long, but well worth the time.

He makes some very interesting points about the difficulty in separating your genuine, thought-out beliefs from society’s accepted standards. How much of what you believe is what you really believe, and how much have you just absorbed? To determine if you’re really a free-thinker or just one of the sheep, he proposes the following:
Let's start with a test: Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?

If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you're supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn't. Odds are you just think whatever you're told.
My first reaction was that no, I don’t have any opinions I’d be reluctant to express in front of my peers, which alarmed me because I like to think I’m a little better than the average sheep, that I have my own sense of right and wrong instead of accepting what the population at large believes.

But then I realized that perhaps I was defining my peers too narrowly. I was thinking of my close friends and family who are uniformly intelligent people who love entertaining ideas for their own sake. We talk about controversial issues regularly, and don’t worry a lot about the most common taboos. I realize we all have our blind spots and personal prejudices, but I think and hope that they are smaller and less entrenched than those of most people.

Further along, Mr. Graham states:
The trouble with keeping your thoughts secret, though, is that you lose the advantages of discussion. Talking about an idea leads to more ideas. So the optimal plan, if you can manage it, is to have a few trusted friends you can speak openly to. This is not just a way to develop ideas; it's also a good rule of thumb for choosing friends. The people you can say heretical things to without getting jumped on are also the most interesting to know.
Which is very much in keeping with my experience. I was lucky to grow up in a family which valued well-thought-out opinions over correctness (although table manners were more important than either of these). Our dinner conversations centred more around the ridiculous than the morally suspect, but the basic idea is the same – take an idea that is, according to conventional wisdom, patently foolish, and explore its ramifications.

So, getting back to the original question, if I redefine my peers to include people I work with, then yes, I have quite a few opinions I wouldn’t want to discuss openly. I already have a reputation for being a bit odd, for thinking too much, for not following the party line. Not an extreme reputation, because my desire to be polite and easy to work with outweighs my desire to create controversy, but I like being shocking once in a while if it encourages the people around me to think a bit.

One other thing Mr. Graham said struck a chord:
In places where great work is being done, the attitude always seems to be critical and sarcastic, not "positive" and "supportive". The people I know who do great work think that they suck, but that everyone else sucks even more.
I do, indeed, get fed up with incessantly positive and supportive environments, when they don't actually contribute meaningfully to anything. And most of my friends revel in sarcasm when it serves a purpose (yes, humour is a purpose). Although I don't handle personal criticism as well as I should (who does, really?), I understand its importance and certainly have no problem critiquing ideas, as opposed to people. Hell, I enjoy it, especially over a bottle of red wine.

So perhaps instead of worrying about how much I suck at what I do, I should concentrate on how much less I suck than everyone else. Given the feedback I get, I almost certainly suck less than I think I do, so perhaps I need to start looking at myself a little differently, and look at the peaks instead of the valleys of my performance.

And start being a little tougher with those moral assumptions ...