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Philosophy

Seek to Understand

As social animals who are hardwired to sort chaos into order and turn meaning into chapters and chapters into memories, we find comfort in right or wrong answers.

We do this with politics, parenting, innovation, or holding chopsticks. “What is the right answer?” is ultimately a translation of “How do I mitigate my chances of failure, ridicule, or death?”

Having the right and wrong answers is like having a warm blanket that shields you from the cold and sometimes painful process of critically thinking. Right and wrong in our minds can apply to anything and everything: Is the new AirBnB logo right or wrong? Are Trump’s supporters right or wrong? Is quitting my job in finance to pursue acting right or wrong?

Many people would rather not think about those things, but when we do, we usually stick to a narrative and process that’s entirely self-serving. What humans are good at is searching for answers—points of view, ideas—that resonate with our current worldview. We latch onto them like a child to a parent’s leg, without ever questioning why we’re subscribing to a belief other than the fact that it feels good or sounds right. If it comes from an authoritative figure, it makes the belief that much more compelling. And then we move forward in life, lugging around this borrowed conviction and using it as an anchor to our lives and a reflection of our being.

But what if we, just for a moment, stopped engaging in the pursuit of right versus wrong? What if we sought to understand? How might that impact the way we lead our lives or do our work?

The difference between right, wrong, and understanding

The pursuit of right versus wrong is fast, is easy, and can be helpful—but it also blocks you from exploring deeper insights.

Seeking to understand is a process that requires time, space, critical thinking, and perhaps the most difficult of all, empathy.

You intuitively know that anger isn’t good—it correlates to stress and bad behavior. But when you seek to understand anger rather than placing it in a bucket of right versus wrong—exploring it philosophically, scientifically, psychologically—you learn more about this emotion and gain newfound appreciation. If someone were to ask you a question on whether it’s right or wrong to be angry, your response will go beyond the surface treatment.

If there was a right way to respond to an angry customer, more of us would love our airlines and cable companies. Alas, no one has figured it out yet, and the notion that it may be unattainable is exactly what drives people to try to attain it.

Maybe a better use of time is seeking to understand what makes an empathetic, human response rather than a masterful ability to read off a script because it was deemed adequate by someone who thinks only in terms of right or wrong.

How to understand

If you aren’t willing to change your mind, you won’t even begin to understand.

Seeking to understand rather than to be right requires empathy. And empathy requires the ability to pause on your default narrative. Empathy isn’t the hard part—pausing is.

Here’s an example of exercising understanding.

As first generation Korean-Americans, my parents believe they have all the right answers when it comes to careers. Law, the medical field, or an MBA is, in their worldview, the safety net that they never had. Because they didn’t have X, they didn’t have the opportunity to lead the lifestyle of Y. This is the underlying belief in all their admonishments.

I always believed they were wrong, or rather, that the image they had in their minds was not an accurate reflection of today’s economy. This tug-of-war lasted my whole life until I finally let go, sat down, and sought to understand them because trying to prove that I was right or that they were wrong took us nowhere.

Both of my parents are immigrants from South Korea. They don’t have college degrees. Any job that they held was due to connections from their communities, mainly church or friends. Their work is unfulfilling, corporate, and cutthroat, but it keeps a roof over their heads. Their tireless admonishment for me to get an MBA—even though I work for one of the top marketers in the world—is rooted in their worldview, and their worldview is based on survival and fear. Rather than dictating my life, they want me to have a foundation for a successful one. The more I put myself in their shoes, the more I begin to understand why they use the language they do.

With this understanding, my job is not to persuade them or get them to change their minds. We can have a conversation, sure, but worldviews don’t change overnight. By growing an understanding and letting go of the notion of being right, I don’t flinch or get hot around my neck when they say, “You should consider going back to school.” Instead, I nod my head, understand where that concern is coming from, and continue leading my life.

Invite uncertainty, exercise empathy, and keeping asking questions

Physicist Carlo Rovelli, in This Will Make You Smarter, said it beautifully [emphasis mine]:

Failure to appreciate the value of uncertainty is at the origin of much silliness in our society. Are we sure that the Earth is going to keep heating up if we don’t do anything? Are we sure of the details of the current theory of evolution? Are we sure that modern medicine is always a better strategy than traditional ones? No, we are not, in any of these cases. But if, from this lack of certainty, we jump to the conviction that we had better not care about global heating, that there is no evolution and the world was created six thousand years ago, or that traditional medicine must be more effective than modern medicine — well, we are simply stupid. Still, many people do make these inferences, because the lack of certainty is perceived as a sign of weakness instead of being what it is — the first source of our knowledge.

When we don’t know an answer, we desperately search for one. Rather than using that space and time to scratch our chin and look up at the stars to ponder a constellation of possibilities, we shop for an answer that is viscerally and immediately comforting.

When we don’t have to critically think, we withdraw from responsibility, from taking ownership of that point of view, and the possibility of having to defend it. We’re off the hook and it feels good—for now.

Can you empathize with Trump’s or Clinton’s or Sanders’ supporters? You can list 99 reasons why they’re wrong or crazy, but can you get so close to a place of understanding that you almost believe they’re right in their beliefs? Is the other side dumb?

The thing is, you aren’t obligated to understand. You can go your whole life in the pursuit of right versus wrong. But my argument is that an understanding is far more enriching to how we lead our lives and the actual quality of our lives, than it is to defending an idea or worldview that was passed down to you without any consideration or examination.

Understanding our fellow humans and how they make decisions is some of the hardest work that we do, and it’s the easiest to avoid; even harder is empathizing with them. Understanding grows into empathy, and empathy rooted in understanding can grow into compassion.

You probably have watched the sensationalism behind Trump’s campaign, and maybe you think that his supporters are just crazy.

But here’s the catch: If you had their worldview and came from their background, you might do the same thing.

When you feel frustrated because you’re smacking your forehead and saying, “I just don’t understand these people!” maybe that’s an opportunity to become a mature, empathetic human being. Maybe through empathy you will grow compassion, and with compassion maybe you can learn to accept others.

Am I right or wrong?

— PAUL JUN