“The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude.” William James

The world’s most influential people, that go far above and beyond the basic standards of “success”, appear to do so due, in large part, to their mindset and attitude. In particular, their mindset encourages them to embrace their individuality and think for themselves.

We quickly find out that we will face difficulties when we decide to create our own path. But we pay a price for all things, and we choose our responses to our circumstances. We can’t escape the reality that, for example, it is harder to get a flashy job out of college, if we ignore what is expected of us and follow our internal compass. But those that are committed to cultivating something in themselves that far exceeds this are rewarded for doing so, in one way or another.

When one makes this fundamental shift in mindset, they seem to find the exact opposite of the common idea that the system prevents them from following themselves.

In fact, it would appear that, in this system, following and cultivating yourself is precondition to thriving on this much higher level.

This brings us to another issue inherently related to the common conception of “the system” and the individual, which is that most people accept an extremely narrow and fixed view of “good” and “bad” which helps to support this equally narrow view of the individual in the system. It is easy to think that any external difficulties are “bad” and that it is external difficulties that make it hard for the individual to follow him or herself in this system. But aren’t “good” and “bad” fundamentally linked and complementary? And who decides what is bad? Is it decided by the individual or by society?

This kind of thinking strikes me as a failure to understand that we pay a price for everything. If we follow ourselves or if we don’t follow ourselves we will pay the price. When one internalises this, it becomes clear that people forgo their fulfillment and autonomy simply to avoid negative external consequences. They make the choice to follow external circumstances rather than internal convictions but often don’t realize this is a choice. That so many willingly make this choice due to such a limited perspective is disconcerting, to say the least.

It is hard for most people to accept the simple fact that it is one’s mindset that determines if this system, or any circumstances, will help or hinder someone in “following him or herself”. It is clear that it is not the response from the system that causes the individual to be able to realize him/herself. People love to read inspirational quotes on the internet from influential people that touch on this, but fail to go beyond a surface level understanding or allow the knowledge to influence their experience. Such a shift can only come from oneself.

There is, in my view, a property of our culture and mindset that makes it difficult to reform ourselves in this regard. This is precisely that, the ‘subjective’ is dismissed and undervalued. We unknowingly assume that the ‘right way’ to do things is to talk and act purely objectively. And what is it that one speaks objectively about? — External circumstances. Talk about values, principles, ideas, and beliefs and you are flirting with the subjective.

We, first and foremost, talk about the external circumstances as others agree upon it and then make decisions directly from that as part of a seemingly objective process, so that everyone in those circumstances might come to the same conclusion.

But why shouldn’t a different person always make a different decision under the same circumstances? They might be different people, with different ideas, beliefs, convictions, notions, etc. The answer is, in my view, because our culture and mindset limits this.

If one were to first and foremost consider his/her own beliefs and personal desires and then consider the circumstances, he/she wouldn’t be taken seriously in many social or professional circles. This would not be “realistic” behaviour. The subjective is viewed as not a part of realistic, legitimate, logical, or “scientific” behaviour. Thus, following one’s own beliefs, ideas, intuition is automatically discounted and marginalised by our social norms and culture.

Interestingly, one could turn this reality of our culture and society into an asset just as easily as they could turn it into a hindrance. Though the majority today would go farther than to call this a hindrance, they would characterise it as some kind of a force of reality that, ‘objectively’ speaking, one must face and come to terms with. It is this kind of climate of thought that facilitates the individual limiting him/herself to the point where their own fulfillment and potential are sabotage at the source.

While this culture is a problem in some ways, it does not stop or hinder any one of us from following ourselves for the same reason why no external circumstances do, as demonstrated above.

On this issue, Thoreau sums it up perfectly:

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours … In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

External circumstances are an integral part of the individual realising him or herself. They are anything but a hindrance. Without oppression and injustice, would Nelson Mandela have ever been ‘Nelson Mandela’?

Hopefully one day, when asked why the majority of people don’t follow themselves, the common answer will not be “the system”, it will be “our limited thinking and assumptions”.

Nick Taber is a writer, social commentator, and business analyst. He co-founded Comprehensophy, a project looking at the “art of thinking” and its importance in the 21st century. Nick is also a consultant and writer on business and policy in China. He received his Master’s from the London School of Economics in 2014 and has lived in East Asia since.




Image courtesy of Artem Bali.