"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Adaptability
August 4, 2020

Have Fewer Beliefs

Minimalism is in fashion. Have fewer things. Tidy up what’s left. Maybe we could apply this to our beliefs as well. What if we chose to have fewer beliefs, to practise epistemic minimalism?

I love Marie Kondo. Sure, she has her critics. But after reading each of her books, I feel better. My stuff looks tidier. More importantly, life makes more sense.

Kondo’s approach to tidying starts with a simple idea. Put everything in one place. Rather than tidying up room by room, you gather together everything from one category. Consider books. You might have some in your lounge room, or in the kitchen, maybe a few next to your bed. Doesn’t matter. Bring them all together, and sort through them all at once.

A dramatic example of this is sorting through clothes. Empty all your hangers, shelves, and drawers. Make one huge pile. Then sort, deciding what to keep based on whether it ‘sparks joy’.

This simple idea cuts through a lot of our justifications for keeping stuff we no longer need, no longer like, or no longer use. It encourages us to shape our environment. It leads us towards designing a more joyous life.

Have Fewer Beliefs

This got me wondering: what if we applied this same idea, which works so well for the stuff around us, to the stuff inside us. What if we audited the things we believe – about ourselves, about the world – with the same mantra?

What if we kept only the beliefs that spark joy?

Throughout life, we acquire a lot of beliefs. They are our explanations for how the world works, the reasons we give for why we are the way we are.

We don’t question them often. Sometimes we ask if they are true or not. But what if we tidied up our beliefs more openly? Much like Kondo’s approach to tidying our homes?

What if we asked whether out beliefs help us live fulfilled lives?

Or whether they spark joy?

Learning To Choose Our Beliefs

Carole Dweck, in her book Mindset, introduces the idea of self-limiting beliefs – beliefs that limit our potential, hold us back, stop us from having what she calls a ‘growth mindset’.

For Dweck, a growth mindset includes the belief that your abilities can grow. Someone with a growth mindset believes they can become better, smarter and more skilful. Dweck shows plenty of evidence that people with growth mindsets respond more positively to setbacks, treat failures as opportunities to develop, and perform better over time.

Dweck says people with ‘fixed mindsets’ see their attributes as unchanging. They are more likely to consider failure a sign they should try something else, are less able to learn from setbacks, and are more likely to feel stuck in their life and career.

While the two mindsets can lead otherwise imitar people to very different life outcomes, they have only one real difference: a different set of beliefs about ourselves. People can be equally capable, but the ones with a growth mindset will, over time, learn more, adapt better, and thrive more often.

If we are interested in nurturing our creativity, our ability to innovate, our potential to create art, our potential to bounce back from adversity, and our skill at navigating uncertainty, then we should embrace a growth mindset.

The Beliefs We Should Hold Onto

Dweck has some suggestions for the kinds of beliefs that develop and support a growth mindset. We can accept the science around our brain’s ability to change and develop based on what we do (neuroplasticity). We can focus more on our effort than on our attributes. We can reflect on our actions and improve our strategies in the situations we face. We can track our progress and improvement and look for ways to develop further. And we can take more time to celebrate our perseverance and effort, not just our successes.

The lesson is our beliefs shape who we become, how we live, and what we achieve.

Going Further With Epistemic Minimalism

To get there, we’ll have to clean out our beliefs, just like cleaning out a cluttered cupboard. We’ll hold onto only the best beliefs. And, of course, we’ll end up with fewer beliefs as well.

To develop a growth mindset, we could consider the concept of epistemic minimalism. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with how we think and how we develop beliefs. Epistemic minimalism is one way to approach beliefs – it suggests we try to have as few as possible.

It’s tempting to think you have to have beliefs about everything you do. The internet encourages this trend. To some extent, so does modern education.

But consider walking for a moment. What are you beliefs about walking? What is your opinion on the right way to walk? If pressed for an answer, you can probably think of things, but most of the time we just walk. We don’t need a belief system for it or for many of the things we do in life. And where do have beliefs, things like ‘walking is a good form of exercise’, those beliefs are simple.

And sometimes the best answer is simply ‘I don’t know.’

The hidden secret is that we don’t really need beliefs or opinions about every single thing. More importantly, we could gain a lot by ditching many of the beliefs we hold about ourselves.

Beliefs And Conviction

My personal theme for 2019 year was conviction. A younger version of me would’ve taken this as a test: How many beliefs can you come up with, and how diligently can you defend them? I used to think having an intricate belief system was a marker of intelligence.

Now I feel like it’s a cage that just holds the believer back from experiencing the world deeply.

Having fewer beliefs is a radically countercultural move. You’ll need to embrace your inner rebel just to try. But if you do, your soul might find itself in a wild and peaceful place, untamed by the fear and rigidity that drags down so many conversations today.

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