From Conventional Thinking to Personal Freedom

4 June 2024
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For many years, I felt like I was running on a treadmill, going nowhere fast.

The idea of deviating from the known and attempting something different made me anxious.

Lost in a maze, finding no exit. Each route a dead-end. I a part of a game, that wasn’t mine; others designed it. In my work, in my relationships, I followed someone else’s script.

I was tired of it, but change felt unattainable. So, I did what most of us do; I started blaming myself.

After several years of self-blame and feeling worthless, I realized that there was nothing wrong with me. Instead, it was my attachment to conventional thinking that was holding me back from being at peace.

In this article, I’ll share my struggles, my journey from conventional thinking to personal freedom and how I changed my life for the better.

Definition: Conventional Thinking

Conventional thinking refers to a set of socially or culturally established ideas, methods, and practices. It represents the mainstream way of thinking, behaving, or understanding something.

Examples of Conventional Thinking

I used to subscribe to the following ideas:

  • A college education is not only necessary but also the sole path to happiness.
  • Wealth and social status result in success and happiness.
  • Popular trends, products, and consumerism is worth my time and energy.
  • A high-paying job is always preferable to a lower-paying job I love.
  • Marriage and children are essential for a satisfying life.
  • I must accomplish certain things, like buying a house by a specific age, to be deemed successful.
  • I am too old to embark on a new career or gain a new skill.
  • Avoid mistakes and failures instead of embracing them as learning and growth opportunities.
  • Prioritizing others’ needs over mine is the right choice.
  • Conform to societal norms to be accepted and liked by others.
  • Work hard to retire at a specific age, regardless of my personal desires or circumstances.

I was stuck in a rut of unhappiness, not realizing that following conventional thinking was the cage keeping me from exploring and growing.

I was the only one to blame. The only one preventing me from taking risks or exploring new opportunities out of fear of going against the norm and looking like a failure.

My conventional thinking led me to compare my life with others’, resulting in dissatisfaction and a sense of inadequacy.

Like many of us, I resorted to distractions or numbing myself, but to no avail.

I could not break through my self-made wall until I understood what drove me to think conventionally.

So, let’s start there.

What Drives Conventional Thinking?

I discovered that conventional thinking is a combination of psychological, sociological, and cultural factors, each bringing their own expectations and rules by taking a step back.

I found that once I started journaling, a distinct pattern emerged;

My brain loves the illusion of predictability and comfort. Above all, it delights in mental models that offer mental shortcuts.

Conventional thinking is the opposite of intentional thinking and provides plenty of shortcuts.

My brain motivates me based on the same principles that helped my ancestors to survive and thrive. It uses fear and anxiety to motivate me to adhere to societal norms and collective thinking, even when the price is my happiness.

That is why I fear of uncertainty, this origin of my need to fit in. It is in my DNA. I am hard-wired to avoid taking the road less traveled.

Sticking to the beaten path feels safe and familiar, but this path also keeps me from pragmatic thinking and exploring the alternative paths.

Mental Efficiency

My brain’s programing is designed and optimized for efficiency. It follows familiar thought patterns and ideas because it requires less mental effort, thus conserving mental energy.

Making creative changes requires more energy than going with the flow.

I notice this in my routines, habits, fearful reactions, and prejudices. Yet, increased mental efficiency doesn’t result in personal growth and self-improvement.

The self: a Social Construct

Imagine waking up with no people in the world, living with no human interaction until the day you die.

Would you continue with everything you’re doing if there was no one to impress?

Once I realized that my self-concept is a social construct and there’s no central ‘me’ controlling my actions from within my brain, things changed.

My self-perception results from my social and cultural environment.

I build my identity through my interactions and relationships with others.

My experiences, memories, and the stories I tell myself about my life, how I see myself, result from social interactions and cultural context.

A substantial portion of what I define as “free will” is, in fact, my responses to the social interactions that take place in my life.

Without social interaction, or other people in the world, there would be no sense of ‘self’ as we know it.

Once I had this realization, I couldn’t go back to how I used to be.

Still, when I know something will make me unhappy, my first train of thought is to conform to conventional ideas and behaviors to fit in with my social group and avoid rejection or isolation.

Every day, I find myself caught in the same pattern of thought. Even as I type these words, I know fully that my sense of “self” is a social construct. Yet, when something makes me unhappy, my initial instinct is to seek answers to the same conventional ideas and behaviors that caused my misery.

I’ve accepted that I need others to cultivate my sense of self. The only change is that, as I age, I select the people with whom I surround myself more carefully.

Fear of Failure

In most cultures, people perceive conventional thinking as the ‘safer’ option because it follows the path most traveled and aligns with societal norms and expectations.

I’m a Muslim, I’m a Christian, I’m a Hindu. I’m a mom, I’m a dad. I’m famous, competent, virtuous or dominant in this or that area, we tell ourselves.

My fear of failure previously hijacked my lifestyle, work habits, and relationships, not by the desire to treat myself the same way I would show someone I love.

Living a life free from fear is not a goal or a destination, but a continuous process and journey. Life keeps presenting me with challenges in areas where I need to improve.

For years, I wanted to resign from my teaching job because the lack of empowerment and freedom was causing me distress. However, the uncertainty of what lay ahead was intimidating.

On the days when I was certain about leaving my job, my fear intensified.

The story I was telling myself went along these lines: My unusual path will end in failure, causing financial challenges for my wife and kids.

My fear of failure kept me trapped in a cycle of adhering to established norms and ideas, not reality.

On a note: I resigned from my job on February 14, 2024, and it took me less than two months to secure a new job. Initially nerve-wracking, I now work 25% less with a 25% salary increase and reduced stress.

Thinking Biases

My tendency to favor information that confirms my pre-existing beliefs is brutal and responsible for keeping me stuck in unhappy.

It’s not the words you spoke, the actions you took, or the situations you put me in. It’s my adherence to conventional thinking that hinders my self-improvement and personal growth.

The start and finish of everything lies in my thinking. The thoughts that align perfectly with my existing knowledge and beliefs, even if they hinder my progress.

I am full of beliefs, concepts, and ideas that I have picked up along the way.

When I’m alone, the voice in my head speaks loud and clear.

It says, “Most of your ideas stem from your early learning, and you continue to reinforce them when you don’t question societal norms.” Just because society accepts an idea or belief doesn’t mean it’s the most accurate or beneficial for you.

At the time of this writing, there are over hundreds of well-established and documented thinking biases. Most of these distort my perception and keep me stuck in faulty thinking if I let them.

Despite being familiar with most of them and having written extensively about them, I still fall prey to these thinking biases. I feel ashamed when I repeat the same biases.

I have found that the most effective strategy to counter these thinking biases is to first acknowledge their existence.

I attend weekly meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous for those dealing with thinking biases, only that these meetings takes palace in my journal.

Recognizing that biases exist within my thought and decision-making process is the first step in challenging and changing them.

When I read my journal, I discover many entries that expose my habit of opting for the easier path or resorting to mental shortcuts. It’s part of who I am that I must accept if I want to see any change.

I practice forgiving and accepting all parts of myself, including my shortcuts, like we do with our best friends.

Respect for Authority and Upbringing

My upbringing and societal norms have influenced my thought processes. My upbringing conditioned me to respect authority figures, even when they were selfish, manipulative, and abusive.

As a child, I believed that adults were the wisest and that conforming to conventional thinking was vital for success.

Whenever I asked why the answer was; because that’s the way it is.

The term “respect” stems from the Latin word “respectus”, which literally means “regard,” with the sense of the “act of looking back at one,” or “consider.” 

Despite their best intentions, few know what is best for their personal growth and happiness, their own and others.

My journey is my own. I need to decide based not on conventional wisdom or others’ expectations, and also create space for those I love to do the same, regardless of what others think I should do.

As a nurse, I’ve been by the side of countless people at the end of their lives. Their biggest regrets often stem from their failure to break free from conventional thinking and societal norms.

Imagine a world where your family, friends, bosses, and coworkers completely accept you, no matter what you choose to do.

If you could start over today, what changes would you make in your life?

Cultural Influence

As a South American male, the cultural norms and values of my home country heavily affected my thinking and decisions.

Growing up, I witness my mother enduring unhappiness in my father’s company. Yet, she never considered divorce, believing firmly in the cultural values she grew up with.

The belief that family unity was more important than her individual happiness took a toll on her health. Her unhealthy eating habits led to diabetes, kidney, liver, and heart failure.

Her cultural believes deeply influenced my own decisions later in life.

I found myself marrying for reasons that aligned more with societal expectations than personal fulfillment.

Even when I realized my marriage was not working out, I continued to keep the family together.

I made my decision based on the same cultural values as my mother, prioritizing family unity over my personal growth and happiness.

A common argument I often encounter is, “What’s the point of self-improvement and personal growth if you don’t have a family?”

Well, “What’s the point of having a family if you feel miserable and never get to be yourself or experience any self-improvement and personal growth?”

On a note: My wife and I have created a loving and respectful bond that allows us both emotional and mental freedom.

Limited Awareness

In the past, I wasn’t aware of any alternative ways of thinking or problem-solving. And the few moments of insights I had, I would bury in distractions and numbing behaviors, because taking responsibility felt harder.

Conventional thinking was so deeply ingrained in me I didn’t consider other possibilities.

My life transformed when I recognized these driving forces. With awareness came the choice.

Rejecting conventional thinking has empowered me to recognize limiting beliefs and explore my true self without limitations.

Becoming aware is the first step towards change. Recognizing these influences, particularly the ones I’m not proud of, has empowered me to break free from conventional thinking and embrace exploration, play, and innovation.

Final Thoughts

Conventional thinking, which is sometimes masked as socially accepted ideas, is deceiving. We typically see them as the “right” way to do things. We do this because giving up a sense of comfort and familiarity is incredibly challenging.

For years, I longed to explore uncharted territories, embrace new ideas, and foster my own solutions. I couldn’t resist conforming to conventional thinking.

As long as I think conventionally, personal growth is out of reach.

As I enter my fifties, I have accepted that as long as I think conventionally, personal growth is out of reach.

To explore new ways of living, I must embrace the fact that there is no authentic self. That I am a social construct, and I only exist in relationship to other living beings.

If I want to change, I have to choose my people wisely. This includes what I focus on. What I think about and how I think.

Holding onto any pre-existing framework of living hinders my ability to envision or explore alternative pathways or solutions that deviate from conventional thinking.

Conventional thinking leads to a conventional life and as long as I’m happy, there’s nothing wrong with that.

The fundamental problem I have with conventional thinking is that it makes me miserable.

Like so many things in life, the miserable life is mostly a matter of poor imagination. That’s why many people can’t go three seconds without scrolling TikTok. They prefer not to engage in independent thinking because it requires effort.

It’s much easier to be a mindless consumer of distractions than an active creator of your own life.

Creativity in communication, in relationships, work, and life involves stepping outside the comfort of conventional thinking and venturing beyond established thought patterns.

If I could advise my younger self, I would say: stop being a mindless consumer. Step outside your comfort zone and create something—anything. Embrace the unknown, even if it’s intimidating.

I was stuck in conventional thinking for so many years because it served as a protection mechanism. As a mindless consumer, I didn’t have to be vulnerable, as long as I followed the crowd mentality.

Personal freedom isn’t about status or money; it’s choosing which thoughts I pay attention to.

Every day, I work towards creating a life that is rich with purpose and peace of mind. And every day I am faced with the fact that there’s no blueprint to follow. I have to create my own.

I understand that it’s simple for me to choose to abandon conventional thinking. That breaking free from conventional thinking is a privilege few have, and most of us take it for granted. I know I often do.

Most inhabiting this planet doesn’t have the luxury to question conventional thinking. Thinking differently would make their existence unbearable.

Every time I take my thinking for granted, I remind myself of Malala Yousafzai, who became an advocate for girls’ education at a young age. She defied the Taliban’s ban on education for girls in Pakistan.

In 2012, when Malala was just 15 years old, the Taliban shot her in the head on her school bus. This brutal attack sent shockwaves around the world and highlighted the dangers Malala faced questioning conventional thinking.

Following the shooting, Malala underwent extensive surgery and a long period of rehabilitation to recover from her injuries. Because of the ongoing threat from the Taliban, Malala, and her family had to leave Pakistan and seek asylum in the UK.

Malala Yousafzai is neither the first nor the last to face hardships, as history has shown.

Despite facing immense danger, she showed remarkable courage and determination in her fight for girls’ education.

I have nothing to fear or face any adversity if I challenge conventional thinking or defend my beliefs. Still, I take it for granted.

From Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai to Mother Theresa, if I asked them, they would say the same thing: the mindset that got you here won’t get you there.

They would stress that courage is essential, not for its own sake, but to improve the world, starting with becoming a better person. This holds true not only on an individual level but also on a collective one.

If you have the privilege of thinking independently and act freely, embrace it.

When you question conventional wisdom, you’re not only doing something for yourself, but inspiring others to take measures to improve their lives.

Books To Dwell Deeper:

“The Art of Thinking Clearly” by Rolf Dobelli

“Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know” by Adam Grant

“Critical Thinking: Your Guide to Effective Argument, Successful Analysis and Independent Study” by Tom Chatfield

“Fooled by Randomness” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“Asking the Right Question” by Neil Browne and Stuart M. Keeley

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