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As a recovering know-it-all 1 I love knowing things. I love sharing the things I know with others even more. I love the rush of adrenaline that comes when you have the right answer to an obscure question.
I also love Mormons and narwhals, which may feel unrelated, but I promise, it’s not.
Here’s the story about how narwhals taught me to have more questions about the world.
I used to be fairly certain in my opinions about everything, particularly my religious beliefs, which informed the majority of the choices in my life. They weren’t just my beliefs, but were part of my identity. I KNEW what I KNEW and nothing could change my mind… until my values (1. Everybody plays or nobody plays and 2. Be excellent to each other) and my beliefs (the Mormon church’s fight against the legalization of gay marriage and their approach to the lgbtq+ community as a whole) were at odds.
Side note: I recognize this conclusion is not true for everyone. That’s okay. I’m not here to change your mind about that. Your experience and my experience will likely differ. Our assessments of the situation and actions will also differ. However, as the main character in my own story, this is true to my experience, especially at the time. As I told someone close to me recently, I believe changes in LDS church policies regarding LGBTQ+ members will come from pressure being applied internally and externally, as we saw with changes to policies regarding race in 1978. There is a case to be made for LGBTQ+ allies staying as well as leaving. The decision will be different for everyone.
Back to the story
It was a distressing time in my life.
The distress I was feeling is cognitive dissonance, or the tension or pain you feel when your thoughts, beliefs and actions are not in alignment. The conflict between my thoughts, beliefs and actions led me to seek out more information to try and reconcile these differences.
As a result of the information I found, I ended up rethinking my entire identity, or at least that’s what it felt like at the time. Turns out my identity was more firmly rooted in my core values of equality and kindness than in the church I belonged to. The church was simply a culture I had been raised in, a culture that I could discard when it was in conflict with my values.
What I had done was rethink not only my entire life, but everything about who I thought I was. It is arguably one of the hardest, most painful things I’ve ever done (so far).
While trying to work through the rebuilding my life and my identity a therapist I saw tried to teach me about emotional boundaries. When you’ve been raised to believe that everyone is watching you, looking up to you and paying attention to “your example” it puts the burden of other people’s emotions on your shoulders. That’s not healthy. Other people are responsible for their own feelings. I am responsible for speaking the truth (as I know it) with kindness and managing my own emotions, not the emotions of others.
This was one of the tools therapy taught me so I could start working on building an identity based on who I was, rather than who I was supposed to be according to other people. The therapist used an analogy of building a new house to help me visualize how to construct my identity.
She said something like this,
Your entire life you’ve lived in a house built for you by other people. They decided the design, the layout, the decor. They chose what the gardens looked like, the location and the paint colors. They may have let you help, but didn’t let you do anything to your house they didn’t approve of, at least without emotionally punishing you using guilt and shame.
Now you’ve decided not only to redecorate, but to tear the entire house down and start over. Those people? They’re upset. You’re not only destroying your house, but the house THEY built for you others! They see it as you rejecting them, because you’re tearing down their version of you.
You are causing them pain through this process.
But that pain isn’t your job to fix and isn’t your responsibility to manage. That is their emotional work to do.
Your responsibility is to build a house that works best for you. A house in a location that makes you happy. A size, design and layout that feels good to you. Decorate in a way that brings you joy. Plant a garden of beautiful hopes, wishes and dreams to water and watch grow.
Learn who feels at home with you and who only comes around to tell you that you’ve got to change who you are to make them comfortable. Your job is to manage who you let through your front door. Even more important? Deciding who gets to stay. Fill your home with people who bring you joy and who celebrate you for who you are.
A narwal of a tale
Building my new “Amber House” taught me all sorts of new information about how brains work, what cognitive dissonance was and why it was so painful. I also learned more about logical fallacies than is healthy for any human. I thought I was so much more aware of the world now that I had this new, enlightened view.
It turns out I was wrong. 2
What happened? I learned about narwhals.
I know what you’re thinking, “Amber, everyone knows about narwhals. They’re everywhere!” But that is now. They’ve become common in popular culture, with children’s books written starring them (these children’s books by Ben Clantoon are my absolute favorites and if you have a baby I’m likely to send them to you), narwhal plushies are easy to find, they show up on t-shirts, receiving blankets 3 and baby onesies4 and you can even buy super creepy narwhal tea infusers.
In 2013 this wasn’t the case. It really wasn’t! Or at least it wasn’t the case in my corner of the world.
There was the famous Mr. Narwhal in Elf, but other than that? Narwhals hadn’t made their way into pop culture quite as much as they have now.
At this point in 2013 I was a marketing and social media intern for our local aquarium. Somehow, while doing aquarium stuff I stumbled across a picture of a narwhal on the internet. I may not have known about narwhals, but I did know about photoshop. I was also aware of Stephen Colbert’s recent success at changing Wikipedia pages to prove that you couldn’t believe anything you saw with your own eyes on the internet.
This, in addition to my recent complete life upheaval, made me extra wary of the truthiness of this image and information.
“Truthiness is,” as defined by Colbert, “the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.”
Who wouldn’t want to believe in whales with unicorn horns? We all would!
I couldn’t believe that an animal like this would exist and I wouldn’t know about it. That’s right. I was so certain that I would know that narwhals were real that the information I’d found couldn’t possibly be anything other than an internet prank.
Despite the available digital evidence, I wouldn’t allow myself to believe that any of it was real until I went to the library and looked up printed images of narwhals from before the internet was widely available. I was so certain I was right, and the thought of not being right, even about this relatively inconsequential fact, was still painful to my know-it-all brain.
Looking back, it’s a bit ridiculous. I’d re-examined the religious beliefs I’d been raised to believe my entire life. I thought that just rethinking those tightly held beliefs made me invincible when it came to knowing what was real and what wasn’t. Turns out I was wrong. Again.5
I still value knowing things. I still like being right. I still like being thought of as a smart human. But I’ve changed my approach… or at least I’ve tried. Turns out that whole “building your own house” thing is a life-long process and changing who you are is also a life-long process.
Since that experience I’ve tried to reframe my values about intelligence to be rooted in curiosity and learning rather than what I already know. To be happier to have more questions than answers. To question the answers I think I have and be open to changing my mind with more information.
So here’s to being wrong more often!
Okay, maybe not being intentionally wrong, but admitting6 I’m wrong more often? Getting that rush of adrenaline by learning I’m wrong vs being right?
Essentially, seek more questions, rather than attempting to have more answers.
Why? Well, there is so much certainty in the world, about everything. This means someone has to be wrong about something. at least sometimes, so maybe it’s me? At least some of the time.
When I am wrong, how would I know if I’m unwilling to rethink my previous position?
Being open to the possibility that there are things you don’t even know you don’t know certainly helps. If nothing else, it means there are still wondrous things out there for me to discover.
Can you imagine how sad would my life have been if I had been unwilling to accept the possibility of narwhals?
I’m still working on not being a know-it-all.
I have an entire room of the imaginary house I’m building, which is still a work in progress, dedicated to the questions I still need to ask. I have another room entirely that’s dedicated to the things I don’t even know I don’t know. You should see the shed where I keep the things that current Amber disagrees with past Amber about.
One of my favorite things is learning how to learn better. Learning how to think about the world differently and explore better ways to combat my inherent biases, as well and figuring out how to short circuit the brain tricks that stop me from being open to new information.
The books below have helped me learn better ways to rethink the things I think I know. They’ve been Instrumental in learning to ask more questions, have better conversations and to be open to more possibilities.
There are many books that I’ve read that have helped me think differently about how I think and books that challenge what I think I know. (That’s a mouthful). This will be an ever-growing list, and I’m always up for recommendations for other books to add, please drop your recommendations in the comments!
I plan to review them all in depth at some point, because they each deserve their own post, but for now, here is a short summary of each including what it helped me think differently about.
Recommended Reading for Recovering Know-it-Alls
- Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant
Think Again is the book we all need to read in 2021. It may be one of those books I re-read on a regular basis.
Adam Grant is one of my favorite writers. He makes his super-nerdy topics interesting and accessible, weaving the data and science so tightly with the stories he shares that you feel 10x’s smarter after reading any of his books.
In Think Again he talks about the value of intelligence as the ability to think and learn, but in a world that’s changing as quickly as ours, it’s perhaps more important to rethink and unlearn what we think we know.
Grant, an organizational psychologist and professor at the Wharton School of Business, talks about how to rethink as individuals, how to rethink our interactions with others to be more open to new information and how to have conversations that can change the current collective thinking we’ve all found ourselves immersed in lately.
I think my favorite part of this book is how Grant consistently demonstrates how he’s working to do a better job personally at thinking again. Particularly when he discusses having better conversations with people who we disagree with. How to open our own minds, ask better questions and to learn more about the whys and whats of other people’s beliefs and understandings of the world, so that we can better see when we’re wrong.
This summary from the book cover sums it up well, Think Again reveals that we don’t have to believe everything we think or internalize everything we feel. It’s an invitation to let go of views that are no longer serving us well and prize mental flexibility over foolish consistency. If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.
I also highly recommend Adam Grant’s other books:
• Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success
• Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
• Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy
• Power Moves: Lessons from Davos
- High Conflict: Why we Get Trapped and How We Get Out by Amanda Ripley
Full Review HereThis book should also be required reading for 2021. I realize as I look at my list that I could say that about every single book on this list. But really. They all should be read.
In this book Ripley covers conflicts in the book that vary from guerrilla fighters in Columbia to gang rivalries in Chicago. She interviews the attorney who pioneered mediation as an option for divorce, and then follows that same attorney when he couldn’t see his way out of his own personal conflict with his neighborhood association. Whether it’s uniting a Jewish Synagogue in New York City as they disagreed about Palestine and interfaith marriages, or that same Synagogue leaning into conflict as they did a home exchange with a group of conservative voters who were also employed at the local prison in their city in Michigan, this book is rich with examples of how to find our way out of high conflict situations in our lives.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who has found themselves frustrated at disagreements with family and friends that have become super heated and seem to cause every interaction to boil over into a battle of one line retorts and reductionist thinking. One of the most powerful lessons in this book is learning to use conflict as a catalyst for conversation and understanding rather than a place to get stuck.
The conflicts she uses as examples feel impossible to figure out how to resolve, but she demonstrates that solving our differences of opinions isn’t the goal, it’s understanding the humans behind the opinions as being more complex than that one perspective, and learning to see the underlying issues that may be driving their need for conflict around that perspective.I have so much more to say about this book. About 3,500 more words at least.
If you want to know more you can read those words on my full review of this book.
- Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz
This book is full of examples of how wrong people can be, while being absolutely certain they’re right. In her TED Talk, Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz talks about how it feels to be wrong… Surprise! It feels exactly like being right.
Schulz explores this conundrum, how to feel like you’re right even when you’re wrong, in more detail throughout the book. Through very accessible science and stories she explains the fallibility of the human memory, why we enjoy being right so much… and why it feels so bad to be wrong.
My favorite result of this book was the shift in perspective it offered me. It changed me from seeing being wrong as being a moral failing, to instead see the ability to be wrong, and then to change our perspective, as being human. Perhaps one of the most distinctly human things about our species.
By the end of this book I somehow felt simultaneously more and less sure of my view of the world. But in the best way possible.
- The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis
Many people are familiar with the earlier work of Michael Lewis, through the movie based on the book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. But this is my favorite Michael Lewis book. It’s about the men behind the numbers in Moneyball.
Two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky wrote a series of papers about judgement and decision-making theories, that when applied to economics (and baseball) created the field of behavioral economics.But Lewis was unaware of their work when he wrote Moneyball.
After the popularization of the book someone brought Kahneman and Tversky to his attention and he quickly became enamored with the story of their friendship, their brilliant minds and the work that changed the economic world.Learning about their work, how the discoveries they made tell us so much about how and why we make decisions, and how easily our brains our tricked when information is presented in different ways made me much more cautious in my knee-jerk reactions and more willing to consider multiple perspectives.
My favorite quote from this book, which Lewis uses to summarize the results of the concept of framing is, “people don’t buy things, they buy descriptions of things.” This is something I keep in mind while I do my work (which is selling people descriptions of things) but also when I consider the stories I hear from others. If they were to use a different description would I buy what they were selling?
- Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brene Brown
I’m a long-time fan of Brene Brown. I’ve read most of her books and am anxiously awaiting her newest book, Atlas of the Heart, coming in November.
Braving the Wilderness is all about finding belonging and creating belonging in communities by being who we are. She says, “true belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are.”
I read this book while navigating my life in the aftermath of a bunch of portions of quitting “who I was” in the eyes of lots of other people. I was working on the rebuilding process and was feeling very alone, despite all the people in my life.
She says, “true belonging requires us to believe in and belong to ourselves so fully that we can find sacredness both in being a part of something and in standing alone when necessary. But in a culture that’s rife with perfectionism and pleasing, and with the erosion of civility, it’s easy to stay quiet, hide in our ideological bunkers, or fit in rather than show up as our true selves and brave the wilderness of uncertainty and criticism.
But true belonging is not something we negotiate or accomplish with others; it’s a daily practice that demands integrity and authenticity. It’s a personal commitment that we carry in our hearts.”
I think most of this book is highlighted and underlined. She offers real advice about how to find personal clarity we need to be our authentic selves and the courage to stand alone when you need to.When speaking of the value of that alone time to find ourselves, that time in the wilderness she writes,
“The wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.”
There was so much about personal emotional boundaries that I learned through this book. How to limit my ruminating and hyper-focus on how other people perceived or thought of me. 7 The ability to not need validation from people for the design of my own house of Amber.
What books have helped you on your journey to change your thinking? What am I wrong about now? (Not even kidding, I’m open to that discussion). Leave a comment and continue the conversation!
- How deep into recovery depends who you ask on which day, so take the following for what it’s worth.
- I hate it when that happens.
- these ones are about to make me consider one more baby… not really!
- I clearly have fallen down on my job as an aunt. I’ve not sent this onesie to any of my recent nieces or nephews…
- I should really start to get used to being wrong.
- to myself and others
- Still a work in progress, but progress has been made!