I open my apartment door, walking into the sunny, bustling LA world. Piss-smelling stench clogs my nostrils as I walk on the dirty sidewalks. Homeless people begging me for money everyday. Yes, I live next to Skid Row. Where do homeless people take shits? How do fat homeless people even exist? Did you know there are different types of homeless people all over LA? The Downtown LA homeless, the Venice Beach homeless, Koreatown homeless. Yes, I ponder deeply about homeless people. I see them every day as I walk to work. But I don’t choose to think about the homeless. Everyday my walk to work etches the image of a frail-skinned, hungry, brain-roasted homeless person begging me for money.
Why do I think about homeless people? It’s automatic due to repeated exposure from my environment. If these thoughts already recur from a short walk, what other things could be etched into my mind through repeated exposure? How does this affect my thoughts? What are the sources of my thoughts?
If I observe my thoughts, I notice that I’m conscious of a few thoughts at a time. But subconsciously, my brain does a shit ton of work, organizing and processing all the incoming information. As my life has changed, the incoming information changes and my subconscious accepts and interprets this information. But most of the time, the same information gets repeatedly pounded into my subconscious. And when something gets repeatedly pounded into my subconscious, the thought pattern becomes a habit. It becomes a part of me.
Napoleon Hill refers to this as “the law of auto-suggestion” in ‘Think and Grow Rich’:
“Through the dominating thoughts one permits to remain in the conscious mind( whether these thoughts to be negative or positive is immaterial), the principle of autosuggestion voluntarily reaches the subconscious mind and influences it with these thoughts.”
In other words, I become what I think.
Does this mean that I’m going to become homeless? No. Although I think I’m “smarter than that”, what I’m repeatedly exposed to often has a huge effect on what I think and ultimately, who I become. And if I want a conscious choice in moulding my own future, I need to examine the merchants of my thoughts and make sure I purchase the right ones.
Without getting bored, let’s become accountants and audit the source of my thoughts. Might look like this:
50% 9-5 job + co-workers
25% Reading books + blogs
20% Socializing with friends
Or let’s look at college version of myself:
60% Getting fucked up + social life
Or let’s look at high school version of myself:
33% Friends at school
Obviously there are a ton of other factors, but my point is not to be accurate. In high school, most of my friends and I never said “shit”, “fuck”, “bitch.” We thought that having a potty mouth meant we were dirty, un-educated people. Most of my friends and parents didn’t swear either(not all though). On the other hand, most of my friends studied hard and did well in school. Seeing them do well pushed me to work hard and do well. I ended up at a pretty good university.
In college, most of my friends were business majors. By default, they became consultants, bankers or accountants. I thought that becoming a consultant, banker or accountant meant I was smart, driven and successful. So where am I now? I am a consultant. Of course, I don’t imply direct causation, but these environments have had a huge influence on my decision-making.
So if the sources of my thoughts influence my decision-making, I want to be able to control where they come from and which ones I buy. This is my theory.
Limit Media Consumption
This age of information is the age of distraction. In an era where books are replaced by ‘140 word characters’, ‘blog posts’ and ‘nuggets of information’, we quench our immediate gratification through quick hits of information. Social media deserves its own post. In this context, mindless consumption and acceptance of information is what dilutes our minds with useless, scattering thoughts. Of course, freedom is better than censorship but the downside of freedom is that anybody could start bullshitting(I’m not exempt) and people would mindlessly buy it.
As the internet ingrains itself in society, we must separate the shit from the sugar. The online advertising industry is built on people mindlessly clicking through flashing ads and hyperlinks. That’s how they sell shit. Facebook wants us to keep clicking refresh and mindlessly scroll through the newsfeed to see their ads. That’s how they make money. I know I sound “anti-social media” and social media does do good for the world. But if we allow too much iffy information to litter our minds, we lose sight of what’s truly important to us. Social media should be used as a tool, not as a crutch.
Influence of our Social Circles
Let’s say I have a conversation with a friend and we talk for two hours. Our talking speed is 80 wpm, multiply that by 120 minutes, that’s 9600 words. If we hang with this friend frequently, say once a week for an entire year, that’s 499,200 words. Assuming a book is 300 pages and 300 words per page, that’s around 5.54 books of ideas. Add to that, body language, tone of voice, emotion and shared experience to color those ideas, those ideas not only enter our system but the conversation vividly pounds these thoughts into my system. The law of auto-suggestion at work.
“You are the average of your five closest friends” is a cliche but it’s true. The more we associate with someone, we subconsciously inherit their values and thoughts. For example, if our social groups’ main shared experience is “getting fucked up”, we’re going to have to “get fucked up” to maintain those relationships. Or if another social group always spends $100+ on dinners, we have no choice but to spend $100+ if we want to stay integrated in that social circle.
I don’t advocate for us to abandon our friends but rather, be aware of our own values and goals to see if our social circles are positively nourishing that. The people surrounding us have a huge effect on our thoughts and habits, we have a duty to selectively choose who we surround ourselves with, rather than allow our environment to dictate for us.
The beauty behind this idea is that our social circles don’t need to be physically there. Famous dead(and living) people put all their ideas and thoughts into what we call books and we have immediate access to them. But we shouldn’t just read their books. We should devour them. Ask questions, make comments, talk to these people as if they’re sitting on the couch next to us, enjoying a cup of coffee. We can’t choose our parents but we can choose our teachers. We can choose our role models. We can choose who to emulate.
Even with reading and exposure to “successful” people, no source of thought is 100% correct. So how do we know what to accept and what to ignore?
Mindfulness & Self-Examination
Most people I know need to be doing something. Any pocket of space is devoted to mindless phone scrolling or web-surfing. But rather than succumbing to phone addiction, we should devote pockets of space to mindfulness and self-examination. We become aware of our thoughts through mindfulness. We reflect and eliminate toxic thoughts through self-examination. When examining one’s thoughts/beliefs, be alone and ask questions like:
– What type of information/evidence would change my mind?
– What is the opposite of what I believe? What evidence would support the opposite?
Mindfulness and Self-examination allows us to identify which thoughts are poisonous and replace them with productive thoughts that help us solve our problems.
Be a Little Kid
Remember the “why” game? Our parents would tell us something and then we’d constantly ask “why.” Our parents would say “because I told you so” to shut us up. Don’t buy it. Be that annoying little shit that asks why until they strike the root. We dig into our beliefs by asking why we believe something. If we dig and we find there’s no merit behind an idea, we throw it away.
For example, in high school, if I found out somebody drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes, I’d sneer at them and think they were horrible people. I guess D.A.R.E worked. But as I got older, I saw super smart and successful people get fucked up. I re-examined my belief and saw no evidence to back this up. Which leads me to my next point…
Any new thought entering our brain should require evidence as its ticket to entry. This is hard to do and for good reason. Most of the time, we purchase thoughts without knowing how much we paid. But examine it before we pay for it. I give you Aristotle:
“It’s the mark of an educated man to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle
We can entertain a thought, examine it and decide if we’d like to accept it. And we accept that thought when we find substantial evidence to back up it’s claim. This is critical thinking in practice. More on how to think here.
Most of the time, we aren’t conscious of where our thoughts come from and what we choose to believe. We spend time with negative friends out of habit. Buzzfeed listicles, sensationalized news shape our view of the world. We believe ‘stock-picking experts’ when they’re lucky. We accept rules without really looking at why they’re there.
Not having control over our own thoughts is dangerous. This is what David Foster Wallace refers to as ‘the default setting’ in ‘This is Water.’ Hitler couldn’t exterminate jews alone. He convinced millions of people to follow him by hammering repeated propaganda into their heads. We might think we’re better than those idiot Germans but are we really? Jobless college grads realize that going to college doesn’t earn them a free pass to a job. The U.S isn’t always the “good guy” history books make it out to be. If we expose ourselves to shitty thoughts, beliefs, people, websites without evaluation, we develop a shitty mind, habitually thinking shitty thoughts and eventually becoming a shitty person.
In conclusion, the quality of our mind is determined by what we repeatedly think. And to exercise control over our repeated thoughts, we need to consciously choose the right social circle, consume good information and place ourselves in the right environment. We have control over our minds only if we choose to exercise that control. This is how we avoid becoming slaves to un-grounded ideas. This is how we truly think for ourselves. However, as Buddha says:
“Don’t take my word for it. Try this out for yourself.”