3. Go outside your personal comfort zone.

The following is a work in progress.

The “echo chamber” effect–our tendency as human beings to seek information that we’re likely to agree with–is well known. To be well informed, we need to seek out and pay attention to sources of information that will offer new perspectives and challenge our own assumptions. This is easier than ever before, due to the enormous amount of news and analysis available on the Internet.

The easiest way to move outside your comfort zone is simply to range widely. If you’re an American, read Global Voices Online (I am an advisor), a project that aggregates blogging and other material from outside the North America. If you are a white American, stop by Black Planet and other sites offering news and community resources for and by African Americans. Follow links in blogs you normally read, especially when they take you to sources that disagree with the author.

Whatever your worldview, you can find educated, articulate people who see things differently based on the same general facts. Sometimes they’ll have new facts that will persuade you that they were right; more often, no doubt, you’ll hold to the view you started with–but you may have more nuance on the matter.

I engage in a semi-annual exercise that started more than a decade ago, when I was writing for the San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley’s daily newspaper. I kept a list in the back of a desk drawer, entitled, “Things I Believe”–a 10-point list of topics about which I’d come to previous conclusions. They weren’t moral or ethical in nature. Rather, they were issue-oriented, and about my job as a business and technology
columnist.

Every six months or so, I’d go down the list and systematically attack every proposition, looking for flaws in what I’d previously taken for granted.

For example, one longstanding item on my list was this: “Microsoft is an abusive monopoly that threatens innovation, and government antitrust scrutiny is essential.” From 1994 until I left the San Jose Mercury News in 2005, I continued to believe this was true, though a shade less so by the end of that period than at the beginning and during the software company’s most brutal, predatory era. Conditions have changed. Given the rise of Google and other Web-based enterprises, I’m not as sure as I used to be.

Consider creating just such a list of “givens” that you will challenge on a regular basis. This is especially vital when it comes to political beliefs. My basic political grounding combines elements of liberal, conservative, and libertarian doctrine, and I vote according to a collection of issues, not by party. But I’m constantly reassessing.

Rush Limbaugh and other “conservatives” who believe in dictatorial government when it comes to security and personal liberty but have no patience for equal opportunities in life infuriate me. Yet I regularly read and listen to their arguments, and occasionally learn something useful.

Going outside your comfort zone has many benefits. One of the best is knowing that you can hold your own in a conversation with people who disagree with you. But the real value is being intellectually honest with yourself, through relentless curiosity and self-challenge. That’s what learning is all about. You can’t understand the world, or even a small part of it, if you don’t stretch your mind.

Next: #4 Ask more questions.

One Response to “3. Go outside your personal comfort zone.”
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