Upgrading Our Internal Software: How Inquisitive Adults Evolve

Any truly intelligent person has an innate curiosity about themselves and how the world around them works. What gets most people into trouble, I think, is assuming that the rules and strategies that worked for them before will be equally useful now. Not so. For those who are truly dedicated to expanding and enriching their comprehension of life, revisiting some of these old precepts is necessary. In fact, much adult learning requires us to unlearn previously taught techniques. When we were children, we lacked the capacity to manage anything beyond the most basic of approaches, but now we are more capable. The way we thought about and solved problems as children are no longer appropriate or helpful now that we’re adults. Relying upon childish fixed logic or rote memorization can interfere with our ability to grasp far more abstract and amorphous wisdom. The kind of wisdom that presents itself during the course of adulthood–if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Think of it this way: a five year old needs to master basic grammar and sentence structure (subject-verb-object) before he or she can advance to more complex concepts such as sentence diagramming or dangling participles. Learning these fundamental rules involves simplistic thinking and is about as much as a five year old can handle. But, spring ahead thirty or forty years, and our capabilities are much greater; the rich veins of meaning we find buried in a book extend far beyond what we could mine as children. A parent who reads Hop on Pop to his four year old has an entirely different understanding of the story than his child does. Why is this? What explains the difference?

Although the adult is applying the basic syntax and vocabulary rules he learned as a child, he simultaneously gleans far more insight and humor from the tale because he sees more and understands how to apply these insights in his life. His understanding of the plot is mature, rounded out by his experience of life. “True learning takes place in both our hearts and minds and is grounded in our acts.” It is a fundamental truth that understanding a concept intellectually is not enough—we must reflect what we have learned through our choices. This extends from how we interpret religious texts to our definitions of success or failure to our expectations about life and the behavior of others to extending sensible patience as a form of love towards the people around us (let alone ourselves). To clarify what I mean, here is an example: when you were a child, you probably believed in Santa Claus, whereas as an adult, you have evolved to appreciate the spirit of Santa Claus, instead. Literal vs. archetypal. Concrete vs. symbolic. We all know that the spirit of Santa is much more expansive, nuanced, and powerful than Santa the Toy Guy could ever be. If we limited ourselves to the child’s understanding of Santa that would be…pathetic.

How have you outgrown your old beliefs? What has life taught you that you refuse to accept? Where do you cling to childish or immature ideas, interpretations, or desires?

Everyone does this. For example, an adult who continues to feel plagued by the guilt they felt at 16 when their parent expressed disappointment in them. Decades later and despite having lived a productive and fulfilling life, they continue to wrestle with this shame. Wouldn’t this person be better served by reminding themselves that their parent’s opinion was based on outdated information? That feeling bad about who they were then has little to do with who they are today? Their guilt is a perfect example of clinging to an outworn interpretation.

Far too many of us blunder through life using the same techniques for analysis and decision making that we applied decades earlier. Despite acquiring adult bodies and lives, it’s never even occurred to us to reconsider how we interpret life, to update our internal software. This is where that hard work of re-booting comes in. Re-wiring our pre-programmed ideas about ourselves and our lives can feel awkward and excruciating. Upgrades unwelcome. It’s so much easier to continue to rely on the “fact” that X + Y = Z. Where Z is the only acceptable or possible result, and the only way to get to Z is through X and Y. It never occurs to us that there could be another way. Math at a first grade level.

Is this the level at which you want to operate?

Of course, there are trade offs to making this sort of upgrade in our thinking. Returning to my Santa analogy, I know that exchanging the childish idea of Santa for a more sophisticated understanding means that we won’t enjoy the same sort of anticipation come Christmas morning. That wonder and delight is limited to children. But children can’t experience the feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment that accompanies knowing we were able to provide the presents under the tree or the recognition that a warm hug and feeling of genuine acceptance surpass anything in a Tiffany’s box.

So, what does all this mean?

When it comes to extracting the very highest and best from life, we are obligated to lay down our childish ways. We need to look beyond the answers we have always relied upon, answers derived from a period in our lives when our capacity for abstract thinking was much more limited. We know more now, so we can see more. We can appreciate nuance now in a way that would have flown right over our heads in years past.

I offer myself up as a concrete example. There’s an ancient photo of me in my brother’s perambulator wearing a shirt that said, “I am the boss.” Oh, how I loved that shirt! For most of my life, I have believed that real achievement in this life meant being a power broker with outsized influence, bossing people around and making a lot of money while doing so. Anything else would prove I was a “failure.” These past five years of re-booting have (thank God) led me to radically reconsider every single part of this ill-conceived idea. In fact, I would no more want to have a power lunch at the fanciest restaurant in DC with all the other blowhards than I would want to boss around a bunch of people knowing how much they would loathe and resent me! That’s how much my ideas have changed. That’s how much my understanding of success and career has evolved. If I were to have clung to my shopworn ideas of what success looks like for me, I’d be one unhappy camper right now because what I thought was so great turns out not to be. I just couldn’t see it five years ago. But, now I can.

Where might you start re-programming some of your old ideas? How might doing so free you up to live a wiser, more compassionate life?

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