This three-word sentence though very importance is rarely used in our language. Why do we not use it? Why do we have an opinion on almost everything? Why after reading a simple newspaper headline we can so firmly speak our opinion on a ‘public figure’ or ‘the state of the economy’? Why after visiting a country or company or meeting a person we form an ‘opinion’ on just one basic instance of our experience?
Source: Hunter-gatherers. Image credit: T.P.S. Dave
In order to understand this, we can go back to our hunter-gatherer days. In that era forming conclusions early could have been an evolutionary advantage as there was a limited amount of information and living together in small groups which rarely interacted with other groups made our conclusions quite right. As we knew those small set of persons or environment pretty well our conclusions may have helped us to arrive at right decisions. Take the example of hunting animals we had very short time frames to react or think, hence forming conclusions early could have helped us.
In today’s environment, this could be beneficial depending on your depth and width of the experience in the field in which you are being questioned. However, in most of the situations in today’s environment, this advantage is, in fact, a disadvantage. Our cosmos is quite vast and we are a small part of it, hence it is almost impossible for any one of us to know everything. Yet we are often forming opinions about almost anything which we see based on small instances.
Take the example, you reading a newspaper and reading about the death of famous actress ‘Sridevi’. You read about the various conspiracy theories suggesting that there could be some foul play about the matter. Now you meet your friends in the evening and everyone is discussing the case. Most people will start giving their conclusions like ‘Actors are like that only’,’Some will say the conspiracy reported in the media is true’, ‘Some will say it is untrue’. Suppose you also watched a one hour TV show on the same and you believe that there is some conspiracy. So one your friends asked you, you openly said that and started justifying the information.
Now, let’s wait here and slow down. There was a simple answer which you could have given which was ‘I don’t know’ and ‘My opinion is irrelevant’. Because in no circumstances you would have the appropriate facts for the case to be evaluated like an investigating officer. Further, your opinion is irrelevant it does not make a change in your life. If you say you don’t know your friends will give you a weird look, the truth of the matter remains same you are in no way in an appropriate position to judge the facts. You can form your opinion only when the case facts are revealed by the investigating officer and if it goes to court. Further, there is no need to form an opinion.
In order to understand the process of forming an independent opinion about something, there is a basic process which I think, relies on three basic principles in life. Though it is the interplay of these principles which is important rather than any principle in itself.
- Independent Thinking
I will try to explain the process of forming an opinion.
Let’s imagine you want to become an investor.
Phase 1/ (Intellectual stimulation)
You got interested in investing by seeing your parents doing it and by reading some news about stocks. Now after, a while you get enrolled to take a degree in investing. There you read various books and investing styles. You start reading a lot of books about investing. Now after so much of reading theory and giving exams you start reading the newspaper and read about few mistakes made by some investors and think how foolish they are. Further, while seeing some businesses fail or make wrong decisions you start commenting on the foolishness of those businessmen. You start considering your investing style which you like superior to others.
Now lets pause and think for a moment, you have just read a lot of theory and have never bought a stock in your life or ran a business. But you have started satisfying yourself just by reading few books and started forming judgments about other people.
By doing this you have violated the principles of open-mindedness. As by commenting on others (Business) by reading few books you have already started considering your self-superior.
Independent- Thinking assumes that we form our own conclusions even after reading theory, there is no use copying what others have said.
Further, you never understand the context, in which the decisions were made by those people. As you have already formed an opinion so early it is rare that you will understand the other point of view.
Reading books, data gives us a way to start practical experience. However, being only dependent on them to form opinions without practical experience satisfies our intellectual ego.
Hence, “I Don’t Know” about various situations will be the right answer in Phase 1.
Phase 2/ (Practical Experience/Intellectual stimulation)
Now let’s say you start reading about a very famous investor and start blindly following him and whatever he/she says you start speaking. You start applying what he said slowly and steadily. So you blindly follow whatever your mentor says on the face of it without ever questioning his authority.
In initial stages, it seems to be very good strategy though it never means what other people do is wrong. In later stages, when people overdo this, it creates a problem.
You will violate the principle of Independent thinking. If you really want to be creative and form your own opinions it is better to learn from others. Though statements in itself are quite incomplete. Language is an imperfect mode of communication. Like if your parents say this is right or wrong, you may take the statement completely wrong. As the context, of your parents, may be completely different from what you may understand. There are no rules in life applicable to all situations we need to understand the context, circumstantial aspect of the statement. (Though we as humans have a tendency to bias circumstantial aspect, Read Why Buddhism and meditation is true)
It is better to learn from mentors and evolve your own unique investing style which suits your own nature. Same applies to business.
Hence this stage, which involves some practical experience along with theory ‘I don’t know’ will be the right answer.
Now let’s imagine after years of hard-work you have evolved your own investing style.
In such a situation, you seem to have formed your own independent opinion. Now, you may form your opinion. At this stage, you are not correct, because other people believe you to be correct. You are correct because you think your reasoning seems right.
At this stage, you need to balance your audacity with humility.
So I think, at this stage, the right statement would be ‘I think this and these are the reasons. I may be wrong, please provide me the feedback.’
Even, if you are successful now this does not mean you know about each company of the world or about everything.
The above process is almost always there whenever you are forming judgments, though some have shorter time durations while others have larger ones. What do we learn from this excercise?
- ‘I don’t know’ is an effective statement.
- We don’t need to form an opinion on everything.
Now few questions arise from my above-mentioned process. How much is the time it will take in each stage of forming an independent opinion? How do we know that we have shifted from Phase 1 to 2 or 3? It would be quite inefficient if we did this for everything?
This Process (model) is imprecise it gives an approximate picture of things. This is how most of our processes in the world are. Hence, this model is to be used in the context of the subject you are discussing. It matters how expert you are in that field, your level of current knowledge, further the context may be dependent on how much time you have to arrive at decision.
Like if you listen to debates between two very highly believable people on the same topic without forming opinions early it helps you to view the same situation with different points of view. Worldly events are rarely 100% right or wrong (binary) it is always in reference to the context. If you understand their context or process of arriving at decision it gives you a better understanding of their judgments.
By saying ‘I don’t know’, it gives us the humility to learn further and remember that we may be wrong.
On which part of the above-mentioned phase you are is the job of a wise man (an imaginative character) to decide. For whether or when to form an opinion or not is again the job of a wise man to decide.
The entire part of reading this article is you realize when you are forming opinions too early (Practice). Otherwise, you would be just intellectually satisfying yourself (Though the author may be doing the same). Meditation has helped me, it may even do the same for you. You may find your own better solution for the problem mentioned.
Though it would be great if next time you form an opinion early (by reading the newspaper about someone or tweet), you become aware of it and say ‘I don’t know.’