"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless, and yet be determined to make them otherwise."
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
I knew so much when I was young. On virtually every "important" topic – politics, religion, class, economy, existence, etc. – my knowledge was concrete, like the foundation supporting a lighthouse in a storm. Even concepts that I had not considered months or weeks before were quickly judged and added to the catalog of Truth. The certainty of my knowledge was bounded only by the inverse of my experience. Which is to say: I had experienced very little, but was certain I knew nearly everything.
The inability to admit that I might, occasionally, have misjudged something, missed a few relevant facts, or been just plain wrong meant that every lesson had to be learned the hard way. I was correct, and everyone who disagreed was wrong.
I know so much less as I get older. It turns out that both sides of most important questions have merit, and most of them have more than two sides. The world is not as yes or no, true or false, this way or that way, right or wrong as it seemed through youthful eyes. Finding new ideas and workable solutions became more important than being "right". This dissolution of certainty, while painful for my ego, opened the door to a kind of "general agnosticism" that has improved decision making and overall happiness.
Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort our minds feel when actions are in conflict with beliefs, or while holding two contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time. It is what drives us to ignore facts that are at odds with belief and discount ideas that differ from our own. Embracing cognitive dissonance – learning to accept both points of view – will set you free.
Humans have evolved to avoid discomfort. That trait is not terribly unique – cockroaches also prefer to avoid discomfort. However, we simultaneously evolved brains that view order and rational behavior as virtuous. The desire for order and preference for comfort are not always in sync.
When a rational idea opposes a core belief, it is uncomfortable. It is much easier to overlook the idea than to admit that a belief may be incorrect.
When our actions do not match our values, it is uncomfortable. It is much easier to discount the consequences of certain actions than to admit that we behave irrationally.
There is a faulty logic at work that goes something like this:
If I am A, then B is true.
If B is not true, then I am not A.
I know I am A, therefore not B is impossible.
The logic is sound if we assume that B and not B are mutually exclusive. But what about the rest of the time? Is it possible to be fast sometimes and slow other times? To be sometimes careful and sometimes careless? To plan for the worst and hope for the best? Of course.
Is junk food bad for your health? Yes. Is junk food super tasty? Absolutely. Both are true at the same time. Instead of ignoring one side of the equation – that one is either healthy or one eats junk food – embracing both sides can lead to a better relationship with food choices. A person can be very healthy and also occasionally eat unhealthy things.
Michael Jordan was the best basketball player of the 1990s. His Chicago Bulls also ended the dominance of my beloved 1980s "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons. It is uncomfortable to acknowledge him as the best player of his time while also hating him for the same reason. Yet both sides are true.
The universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. The universe is also slowly dying. Gravity keeps our planet in orbit with the Sun, and also causes stars to collapse into black holes. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort of knowing that the universe is both order and chaos, that we control our lives and also control nothing. The king is dead; long live the king.
The urge to avoid discomfort prevents us from exploring new ways of thinking, finding new solutions to old problems, and making new friends with different perspectives. It allows us to rationalize actions we know are wrong and ignore information we know is true.
Accepting the discomfort of cognitive dissonance allows one to sit in between certainty and questioning, to see interesting possibilities have been ignored, which ideas are relevant and which outdated, to see where values do not match actions. It allows us to improve, to learn, and to grow as people.
Existence is not meant to be easy, but it can be meaningful. We must embrace new and conflicting possibilities – even at the expense of our own comfort – like a long-distance runner must embrace the hard work required to finish a marathon. We must lean into discomfort to test the resilience of our beliefs. Turning away from cognitive dissonance is easy, but also keeps us from learning new ideas or doing challenging activities.
Like the opening lines of "A Tale of Two Cities", we live in the best of times and the worst of times. We live in the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness. It was also that way before you were born. It will continue to be that way after you die. It is always the best and the worst at the same time. We can struggle against cognitive dissonance, or embrace it. The world will not change for our benefit, but the way we navigate the world can benefit us tremendously.
Timothy Iseler, CFP®
Founder & Lead Advisor
Iseler Financial, LLC | Durham NC | (919) 666-7604
Iseler Financial helps creative professionals remove stress while taking control of their financial futures. As both advisor and accountability partner, we help identify current strengths and weaknesses, clarify and refine your long-term goals, and prioritize understandable, manageable, and repeatable actions to bring long-term financial well-being. Reach out today to take the first step.