Become smarter, challenge your beliefs

“If you don’t like the way we are bringing you up, find those who do better and copy them.” These were words from my mother when I was 13 or 14.

The message stuck and it has had a positive effect on my life. Perhaps if you consider her words of wisdom, you, too, might benefit.

“Happiness is largely a matter of contrasts,” according to Mary Pipher, Ph.D, in her book, “Reviving Orphelia.” That’s true. We judge our happiness by comparing previous good times or bad times with our present state. We usually do this without our awareness, but if you reflect for a few moments, you will find it is true.

Contrast is one of the most effective tools to increase intelligence. I use it all the time when I teach. Contrasting differing points of view brings issues into clearer focus and increases awareness.

Studies reveal that intelligence is not set, as many believe; that is, using IQ scores as the basis for the belief in fixed intelligence. We can grow in intelligence by asking questions and noting the differences between opposing views. When we contrast opposing arguments or themes we often are able to synthesize new ideas.

People who believe intelligence is set tend to make excuses for themselves and to cheat because they believe they can’t get any smarter, according to studies by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck in her book, “Mindset.” Being open to new ideas and better ways of doing things actually makes us smarter.

The idea of contrast can be seen in the writings of philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel, 19th century European philosopher. He came up with a theory called the Hegelian dialectic: it is defined as one perspective (thesis), which comes in contact with another opposing thesis (antithesis). From the interaction of these two opposing beliefs comes something new that is a combination (synthesis) of the two opposing views.

Perhaps that is why a competitive and open society like the United States has made such great strides in virtually every field – science, mathematics, technology, the social sciences, medicine – the list is endless. Closed and authoritarian societies don’t grow as quickly or create new things to make lives better. Dictatorships spend much of their resources and energy suppressing differences rather than encouraging them. As a result, the people do not increase their intelligence to become smarter.

Contrasting ideas can improve our lives and the lives of others. Ideas are infectious and they spread like viruses. Once an idea comes into common use, it is impossible to suppress.

One excellent ancient example comes from the book of Deuteronomy in the Bible. Moses taught the Israelites the law by putting half the tribes on Mount Gerizim to bless them for obedience and half on Mount Ebal to emphasize the curses from disobedience. The contrast between blessing and cursing was meant to clearly define good and evil. We only understand the good by seeing the evil.

Ever since my mother gave me that advice, I have sought out people who did things better than I did or were smarter than I was about some issue. Once I noticed they were successful at something where I had done poorly, I questioned them, trying to find out what thinking they were using to achieve success.

Usually they had some saying or thesis in their heads that they used as a guide. Over time they had developed that theme into action on many fronts, making them successful. My goal has been to try to absorb and internalize those thoughts and proverbs so I could develop those same patterns in my own life.

It usually takes a while, but once I learn the guiding principle, I reflect on it from different angles over time. It is like examining the different facets of a diamond. Each side gives a different perspective that deepens my understanding of the subject.

My mother’s advice was like that diamond. The longer I thought about it, the smarter I became. Contrasts open up whole new worlds and enrich us. Seeking differing opinions can do the same for you, if you have the courage to challenge your belief system.