Let Your Mind Be Not Fixed
When I was a teenager, I knew my mind was not like adults.
Sure, I was like adults in a lot of ways. I believed things. I trusted things. I knew I was right sometimes.
But they didn’t change their minds. I did about once a month!
Woe was me. How could I ever be as sure and confident as an adult? I felt inadequate, like a kid going through life dressed up in his father’s suit. The closer I got to 18, the more I became worried I was never going to figure it out. I was going to keep bouncing around like a child from one idea to the next, believing whatever good argument I last heard, and never settling into my own confident understanding of life.
Then one day, not too long after legally crossing the threshold into adulthood, I realized the truth.
Those adults were idiots.
Okay, that’s a bit strong, but it reflects the magnitude of the realization I had.
I had been trying to pattern match to what I saw adults doing. When I listened to public figures or read history books and biographies and talked to the adults in my life, they all seemed to have their minds made up about a wide variety of topics, and importantly they seemed to keep their minds made up. I, by contrast, kept making and unmaking my mind, and so I thought I was deficient by the standards of adulthood.
What I realized was instead going on was that these adults were stuck. Their minds had become fixed, ideas had been crystalized, and there was no way for them to easily rework the lattice of thought. They could tack stuff on at the edges, sure, but they couldn’t tear everything down if it turned out they’d worked themselves into a corner.
This was almost 20 years ago, and I didn’t have the advantage of ideas like fixed vs. growth mindset or the correlation of neuroplasticity with age that might have given me some clues about what was going on. Instead I had to figure out for myself that some people lost the ability to significantly rework their understanding of the world when it failed to correlate with reality, and losing this ability wasn’t a key feature of being an adult, just something that became more common with age.
So it wasn’t that I had to fix my mind to grow up. Instead it was a dangerous trap I was at growing risk of falling into.
In some ways, yes, I have, but not for the reasons I was worried about.
It turned out there is more than one way to fix thought.
There’s the bad way, where the mind gets stuck and can’t fully update in light of new evidence. The mind that can’t teardown the tower of thought built up over years of experience when it discovers the cornerstone has crumbled. This is the way of the likes of demagogues, of authoritarian teachers and preachers, and busy-body know-it-alls.
But then there’s the good way, where thought isn’t really fixed, even if it might look that way from casual observation, but robust. The mind well-honed against evidence that bends to the will of what it learns yet stays rooted because it knows what it knows broadly enough that there is room to move. This is the way of the likes of Hofstadter, Feynman, and many others besides who quietly get on with the way of keeping close to reality.
I could learn and train myself in the art of having a supple mind that moved and flexed as it learned. And so I put myself to that task.
To any measure I’ve succeed, it’s been done on the back of the advice of others. Their ideas, words of encouragement, and example helped me along my way. In the end, as in all great endeavors, I had to go alone, yet I kept meeting others along the way.
Among those I met, I would recommend you encounter:
All that said, have I succeeded at having the mind not fixed? Hard to say.
I clearly haven’t fallen for the obvious trap. I’m not identified with what I believe; I can change my mind without feeling like I’m being attacked. I can and have made some big updates to what I believe.
Yet I continue to be haunted by the specter that my mind is fixed in ways I don’t see. More than once I’ve realized what I thought was a robust understanding that flexed and moved to accommodate a broad swath of evidence without leaving anything out actually did. I don’t know if I can reach some point where my mind will flow like water, not sticking yet always filling the space it finds.
But I keep trying.