When was the last time you really, sincerely challenged yourself? I’m willing to bet that it’s been a long time, if ever.

“No!” I’m imagining you shout, “Just last week I ran a half-marathon!”

Great stuff. Quite the achievement, considering your Lycra allergy. Also, not what I’m talking about. What about mentally?

“AhHA!” You conveniently shout again for illustrative purposes, “I’m currently studying Spanish and taking lessons in Salsa dancing. So there!”

My my, aren’t you busy. That second one isn’t really a mental ch…never mind. Once again, not what I’m getting at. Confused? I’ll explain.

The thoughts, beliefs, values and morals that make up the ‘self’ – our identity and inward perception – are a result of a lifetime of accumulated experiences.

The Life Canvas

From the moment we’re born, we immediately begin to paint our life canvas with the many hues and shades of existence, constantly touching up a stroke here or a line there, right until the moment we die. Our canvas is a rich and complex one, with many beautiful details. 

However, as we move through life, we begin to stop painting large swathes of colour and texture, and start to make progressively smaller and smaller brushstrokes. Our canvas will have accumulated little mistakes, so we adjust and tweak. But the larger errors become much harder to correct. As each additional layer of paint is added to the canvas, the mistakes become more and more difficult to fix.

So, we pretend they aren’t mistakes. Instead of trying to repaint the Eiffel tower we should have painted, we simply start adding details to the goose we actually painted. Over time, our goose gets more and more detailed and intricate, all the while looking out of place in the centre of Paris. We don’t see it. To us, the goose makes perfect sense, and no argument could convince us that we could be wrong.

Examining the canvas

The biggest challenge we can attempt in life, is to question our own ideals. Religion, race, sexuality and gender are just some of the many topics that we have largely finished painting upon reaching adulthood. We might touch up a few edges, but to change any fundamental aspect of the canvas is so uncomfortable that it becomes almost unthinkable for most people. Once we’ve ‘finished’ a section, we don’t really look at it again.

And that is precisely why it’s so important to continuously reexamine the canvas.

“I’m not prejudiced. I’m just cautious.”

You would be hard pressed to find a single human that could honestly say, “Prejudice is good”. However, we all hold prejudices – also known as cognitive biases – that colour and affect our judgements. They are rooted in evolutionary psychology. Our ability to make snap-judgements of people, animals and environments, and act quickly on those judgements, helped us to survive and thrive as a species. That might be the wind in that grass, but it also might be a lion. Guess wrong and you’re lunch. So you make the cautious choice to survive. Similarly, that dark alley might be empty, or it might contain a criminal. Err on the side of caution and you’re more likely to survive.

Minds in conflict

Cognitive Dissonance is a phenomenon whereby new information or a new environment conflicts with what we expect or desire, causing mental discomfort. This can only be eased by changing our ideas, or changing the environment. Due to our largely complete life canvas, we find it easier to change the environment, or reinterpret/dismiss the conflicting information.

For example:

A Young Earth Creationist believes that according to the Bible, the Earth is less than 6,000 years old. When a geologist presents data indicating that it is roughly 4.3 billion years old, then the Creationist is forced to either change their opinion about the age of the earth, or find a way to dismiss the evidence.

Due to the fact that Young Earth Creationists still exist, we know the outcome of this thought experiment.

Self-Reflection: repainting the canvas

To grow, not only as an individual but as a society and a species, we need to be able and willing to seriously challenge our existing ideas on any topic. Religion, race, gender roles, the sciences and so on. Challenging others is easy, because it is done from a position of confidence. We know what we think, and we wish to communicate that idea to others. However, to truly grow, we must be willing to challenge ourselves. It is uncomfortable and humbling, but necessary.

For example, a recent article by journalist Soraya Chemaly titled 10 Words Every Girl Should Learn, caused me to rethink how I speak to, and around women.

Now, I consider myself a champion of equality. I honestly and sincerely believe that women and men (and other genders, but for simplicity I’ll stick with two) should be equal, and I am vocal in this belief. However, after reading this piece, I started paying more attention to my speech behaviours around women and I was quite surprised at what I observed. I interrupted women more often than men without even realising it. I didn’t afford them quite the same courtesy I did with men in conversation.

I was, to put it bluntly, ashamed. I have since added this piece of information to my awareness, and now make extra effort to treat women the same as men in conversation. It may seem forced at first, but over time it will become natural. I will have repainted that section of my canvas.

Now, it would have been very easy for me to dismiss this article on it’s face. It uses strong wording and my intuition told me that it didn’t apply to me.

My intuition was wrong, and so is yours. Perhaps not on this particular topic, but nonetheless more frequently than you realise.

Challenge: Accepted!

So, seek out the information that makes you question your preconceived ideas, and really analyse it. Dig deep, even if it makes you uncomfortable.

You might still be right. Despite the information I’ve read saying that white people are better than brown people, I still don’t believe it. It’s poorly conceived rubbish, but still.

But more importantly, you might be wrong. What’s worse, your incorrect ideas might actually be causing harm to the people in your life.

So, challenge away. What have you got to lose?