“I began to come into close contact with poverty, with hunger, with disease, with the inability to cure a child because of a lack of resources… And I began to see there was something that, at that time, seemed to me almost as important as being a famous researcher or making some substantial contribution to medical science, and this was helping those people.”
– Ernestro Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journal
If you’re chronically pessimistic, going into every situation expecting disappointment, then I’m confident that at some point you’ve been told to “think more positively” or “change your attitude.” How frustrating it must be to hear the same banal advice, over and over, that inversely causes you to become more negative, more resentful, and more directionless. “Change your attitude,” they say. But they can never specify what it is about your attitude that is fueling your negativity and thus needs changing so badly. What are you to do?
Here’s a scenario: You’re an archetypal conservative Republican who disapproves of undocumented Mexican immigrants because they’re a burden to society, taking our jobs and wrongfully benefiting from the taxpayers. You will do almost anything to defend your warped belief system; you publicly protest against illegal immigrants and, occasionally, guest star on internet podcasts to discuss issues concerning border security. But then, one day you’re at a local coffee shop and the beautiful Mexican American woman behind you is about to order the same drink as you, the chicory vanilla latte with extra whipped cream.
The woman raises her eyebrows and smiles. “Haha, I thought I was the only person who asked for that drink with extra whipped cream,” she states.
You respond with, “Oh, definitely not. I find that it helps me think straight when I’m trying to write.”
“You’re a writer, too? What do you write about exactly?” asks the woman.
The two of you decide to sit down and sip on your chicory vanilla lattes together. She reveals her name to be María. It’s like you’ve known her your entire life because there is a natural fluidity to the conversations with her. It turns out that, apart from also being an avid writer, you both share a lot in common. An hour passes, then two, then four. Finally, María slips you her phone number.
From that point on, you and her develop a healthy and productive romantic relationship, your overall happiness levels elevating. But about three months later, something goes awry: María shamefully reveals to you that she is an undocumented immigrant and that, after years of fighting tooth and nail for citizenship, she will get deported back to Mexico in the up and coming fall. You plead with her to stay, but she assures you that there is nothing more that can be done to obtain a green card. You try to spend as much time with her as possible before she must leave, but one fateful morning you awake to a note beside your bed that reads, simply, “I can’t say another ‘goodbye.’ I’m so sorry.”
You search for her at the coffee shop where you two first met, and the airport, and the train station. But you never see her again, and you convince yourself that you will never feel the same way for any woman other than María again.
You can imagine how your attitudes toward undocumented immigrants might have changed after your relationship with that beautiful Mexican woman, whom you planned on asking to marry soon, was abruptly cut short. Perhaps you adopt a more liberal stance on issues of immigration, no longer so adamant about withholding citizenship from – and even abridging the rights of – the undocumented people you’ve denounced with such militance. Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of my all-time favorite book and primary catalyst for the conception of this blog, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, calls this a “paradigm shift.”
According to Dr. Covey, paradigm shifts occur when a major life event, or large influx of knowledge (the paradigm), changes your perception of the outside world (the shift). For instance, everyone’s favorite fictional vigilante, Batman, never would have dedicated the better part of his life to fighting crime were it not for witnessing the deaths of his parents at a very young age. That is, losing his parents to a lowlife street thug (the paradigm shift) generated his belief that Gotham City is a hellhole whose criminal underworld must be deterred, and as such Batman – the symbol that everyone looks up to when law enforcement doesn’t do its job right – was born. Paradigm shifts are therefore the origin points – the basic frameworks – of our beliefs and attitudes that, by extension, coat reality with a fresh paint and drive our behavior. It’s only when the paint becomes dried up and crusted and stale do you need to think about taking a trip to Menards and buying a new gallon of it. You’ve painted your bedroom wall the color blue for the past 20 years, but perhaps the color purple will suffice this time.
Funny story, I experienced something of a paradigm shift when I took Introduction to Biology in my sophomore year of college. I received a D+ on the first exam and became wary that, if I did not step up my game, I would fail the course. To remedy my feelings of apprehension and dejection, I sought my professor in person for help, sometimes studying for three, four, and five hours at a time as a precautionary measure against the second, and potentially more challenging, exam. (I also studied in public places when my Internet speed at home fell below 3 megabits per second.)
I subsequently received an A on the second exam, a marked improvement over the previous, but a C on the third. On the front page of the exam packet, my professor wrote the question that asked, “What happened?” with a frowny face drawn right below it. I could tell that she wanted me to succeed and that it irked her, quite a lot, to give out poor grades because she saw that her students weren’t as dumb as they were led to believe all their lives. This motivated me to study even harder for the final exam, eating, sleeping, and breathing biology so much that, after awhile, I began to think in biology (albeit temporarily).
I remember driving to Chicago to visit the Museum of Science and Industry and looking at the vast, metropolitan skyline, seeing the buildings not as static structures but as testaments to how far the human race has come in the larger span of its evolutionary history. When my family and I had finally arrived at the museum, I observed the crowds of people and reflected upon how amazing it is that each of these passersby – these strangers that I will neither speak to nor interact with – started off as a single-celled organism that would divide, billions of times, into a complex, multicellular organism equipped with the cognitive capacity to build the structures characterizing the city of Chicago. These are thoughts that I simply would not have experienced if I did not study so intently for my Biology course.
Side note: In case you were wondering, I ended up getting a C+ on the final exam and a B in the course. Not a great grade by any means, but considering that Introduction to Bio was one of the harder classes I’ve taken, it was a much better grade than I would have received if I had continued to slack off.
By now, you can see that paradigm shifts do not have to be likened to some kind of spiritual awakening championed by esteemed self-help gurus such as Dr. Covey. All they are is conceptions of different facets of the world based upon past experiences. So, if you’re feeling resentful towards a significant person in your life, then ask yourself where that resentment might stem from. And if you’re discontent with your grade in a difficult college course, as I was, then assimilate its material into your thought patterns so that the next time you have to take an exam and write an answer to a daunting essay question, you’ll know exactly what to say without having to cheaply B.S. your way through it.
Stop trying to change your attitudes already, because that’s fruitless. Instead, change the experiences from which your attitudes manifest.