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.

Would I?

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:

There are more and more by oth­ers. This list is just a small sam­ple, all by a sin­gle au­thor who was highly in­fluen­tial in my life when the time was ripe.

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.