Most of the time we believe what we hear. And too often we hear—and then believe—things that are not true. But imagine how hard it would be to question every fact and underlying assumption you hear or read throughout the day.
Your brain acts like a sponge soaking up conversations with family and friends, daily news reports on TV and radio, information in emails and social media posts. It would impossible to every day test and probe every sentence from every source for complete accuracy. Even getting through one hour—much less a day—would be almost impossible. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
To efficiently navigate life, we learn to trust people and institutions. Your life runs on trust for many things we take for granted. You trust when you flip on the light switch that electricity will be available to power your light bulb. You trust that pipes coming in and out of your home will provide water to flush the toilet. You trust that the ambulance will show up if you dial 911. You trust that the money you deposited in your bank account today will still be there tomorrow.
Trust undergirds our financial system and our justice system and our transportation system and provides the glue to hold our social fabric together. Without trust we would live in a world of paralyzing fear and violence. However, it’s important to recognize when it’s time to switch off your trust autopilot and begin questioning assumptions. If you don’t, you can make painful mistakes and walk blindly into bad decisions.
I spent twenty years of my professional career working on the wrong problem. Blinded by a utopian vision of renewable energy, I didn’t apply critical thinking to test my beliefs. Renewable energy technology has a role to play in providing the power in some situations, but currently it represents 2% of global energy. The laws of physics prevent renewable energy from becoming an efficient and preferred source of energy to power society.
I was not alone in making this mistake. One of our worst decisions in the 20th century was to underfund and overregulate nuclear energy. We let activists, rather than scientists, lead the national conversation on nuclear energy. Unfortunately, we were told many things that were not true—and we believed them.
In the book How Innovation Works, author Matt Ridley shares evidence for nuclear energy being the safest form of energy we produce: “Per unit of power coal kills 2,000 times as many people as nuclear; bioenergy fifty times; gas forty times; hydro fifteen times; solar five times (people falling off roofs installing panels) and wind kills twice as many as nuclear. And these numbers include the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima.”
New nuclear technology in the form of many relatively small reactors has no risk of explosion or meltdown, produces very little radioactive waste, and cannot be used to make nuclear weapons. But our fears of nuclear accidents and nuclear waste have kept us from pursuing this energy solution. Instead of having energy that’s too cheap to meter fueling massive new growth and innovation, for the past fifty years we have been dealing with economic stagnation and unnecessary environmental impacts related to pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change.
Dig down to bedrock
How much of your perceived reality is grounded in truth? What would happen if you took a crowbar and pried under every assumption you have about the world. What would be left? What are your foundational beliefs? I know what I see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. But I have to recognize the limits of my perception. Peering through a microscope or out the window of an airplane enables me to see different perspectives and helps me understand that there are truths I rarely recognize.
Limited perception helps you focus and survive. Imagine if you were not shielded from unlimited awareness. You would likely be so overwhelmed by sensation and experience that you would not be able to function. But perception does not equal reality. Therefore, it’s important to probe and question your beliefs often.
My beliefs today have changed from yesterday. And my beliefs yesterday were different from what I believed last week, last month, last year. If your beliefs are not changing, you may not be learning. Some of my best ideas and beliefs have been wrecked on the sharp rocks of reality. I have learned that it’s useful to question what I believe and to keep a loose grip on my opinions because my perspective changes with new experience and knowledge.
When I dig deep down to bedrock and question my understanding of the world, I see patterns of creative destruction—cycles of growth trying to maintain a balance between chaos and order. But my crowbar could not dislodge the following assumptions.
- Dependence. You and I are both dependent. To survive you need oxygen to breathe. Water to drink. Food to eat. All life on earth depends on other organisms for survival. You alone are not self-sustaining.
- Struggle. Life requires struggle. I’ve not yet met a human who does not struggle—no matter how much money or power they have achieved. Scratch beneath the surface of anyone’s life, and you will find struggle and pain.
- Violence. You cannot escape violence. Life requires it. We are made of it. From the cells in your body fighting viruses to our need to kill plants and animals to acquire the nutrients we need to survive. Life is based on cycles of violence and rebirth. Every living creature on the planet participates in violence. You may choose to wear a veil of ignorance and pretend you are nonviolent. But there is no escape. Even heroes such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. who promoted the principle of nonviolence were violent. Existing in the world requires killing other life to survive.
- Pain. Nothing sharpens your mind more than pain. Don’t believe me? Put your hand on a hot stove and your mind will snap into focus instantly. All other thoughts and desires will instantly vacate your head.
- Growth. Growth requires violence and pain. Muscles can’t grow without breaking down and rebuilding. New ideas can’t progress if you don’t allow old ideas to die.
- Reproduction. From a biological perspective, your purpose is to survive long enough to reproduce. And pass on what you learned to the next generation.
- Death. You cannot escape death. As we push the limits of technology, we will extend life and maybe be able to upload our consciousness. But our bodies are going die.
If you don’t routinely strip bare your beliefs, you can end up making poor choices. Dig down to uncover your foundational beliefs. Consider how your beliefs shape your perspective and influence your decisions.