Thinking by and for oneself in the era of social networking

At a time when we are all increasingly connected and informed by everyone’s opinions, it is critical to step back and look at the way we live together and decide on our common and individual paths, for as long as we still can.

Political party

Society often makes us believe that we can influence the course of our lives through the ballot, thanks to a political party or a man (or woman) whom we have never met and with whom we have never been able to discuss our ideas.

In some countries like France or the United States, we find normal that there are two political sides, as if people’s views were purely binary.

Personally, I have often had to publicly answer the question of whether I was right or left wing. My answer is simple, I do not wish to be part of either the one or the other and I trust only myself to make decisions that I think appropriate for my life, that of my family and of society as I imagine it.

Without falling into the trap of individualism or excessive egocentricity, my political party is called « Myself. » It may sound pretentious but I advise you to create your own party where you’ll be the only activist and the only player. I’m not only speaking of politics. I’m talking about any subject.

In the corporate world, the problem is even more crucial. An entrepreneur can arrive with a fabulous project, and be demotivated by surroundings which will make him change his opinion without knowing why.

The entrepreneur will then assume « well, if nobody believes in it, I do not see how it could work. » I can assure you that the opinion of people around one is of absolutely no interest whatsoever if by creating a company one is deeply convinced to respond to a clear need in the best way possible.

If we analyze the history of humanity, we can notice that seldom groups of people were at the root of society transformation. This has always been the case of individuals who were able to think alone. (Incidentally, some of them had Machiavellian and purely selfish plans, but that’s another topic.)

History is full of people who changed the world, but few groups of people who changed the world for good.

The best quotes which one can regularly refer to, don’t come from any group, any community, but from individuals who were able to think alone.

We rarely mention, except to laugh about them, political party slogans to move us forward « Change is now, » « Yes, We Can » … say absolutely nothing about what we want and hope. These slogans appear as quickly as they disappear.

I have a Dream

« I have a Dream » by Martin Luther King … was initiated by one single man. A man who had decided to transform society and who spent his life fighting to improve it.

In the Bible, Abraham thought alone … and decided to bring moral values to the world.

The media, social networks and culture around us invade us with opinions.

So many opinions that we do not think by ourselves … We assimilate, digest and regurgitate the opinion of one’s friends, feeling obliged to hang onto them not to single oneself out of the group, instead of fighting for one’s own truth.

A little parable

Here’s a little parable which illustrates this situation very well.

A few hundred years ago, an extremely poor man could no longer provide for his family … This man finds a book about a very remote island full of diamonds.

The man asks permission to his wife to travel several months to cross the seas to go and fetch some. His wife, though uncomfortable with the idea of separating from him, approves, knowing they really had little choice.

The man leaves, travels, defies storms and arrived on the famous island of diamonds.

On the beach, he sees that indeed the whole floor is covered with diamonds. He takes out the bag he brought for the occasion and begins to fill it happily. In the meantime, a group of inhabitants of the island come and laugh at him …

– But what are you doing?

– Well, I’m collecting diamonds! Have you seen how many there are here? This is worth a fortune!

The inhabitants of the island began laughing more and more and were making fun of the man

– Ah ah ah, are you talking about this sand there, but it is worth nothing! It’s everywhere. Nobody wants it!

– But how can this be? This is worth a fortune!

– Absolutely not, it is worthless. What is worth a fortune, are the potatoes!

– Potatoes?

– Yes, the potatoes!

– But potatoes are worth nothing!

– But where are you from? We are telling you that the potatoes are worth a fortune!

– But where do we find potatoes?

– Can you see the volcano over there? At the bottom of the volcano, there are potatoes. But no one has ever dared to go or has never come back alive. One must go through a forest filled with wild beasts … We will not even try.

Our Man who had had such a long journey, had overcome many dangers, took his courage in both hands, emptied his bag, went through the forest, managed not to be eaten and arrived in a potato field!

– Woooow, potatoes! I am rich! RICH!

The man filled his bag to the brim, went back through the horrible forest, and so as not to have his fortune withdrawn, immediately hopped back in his boat and went home.

Throughout the trip, the man was happy .. I am rich at long last … rich at long last …

After a few months, he finally arrives home and knocks on the door of his wife!

– Sweetheart! Honey, I’m back! We are rich!

– But where are the diamonds?

– Diamonds? They are worth nothing! I brought potatoes!

– Ah ah ah, this is not funny honey … we have been eating potatoes for months, it’s the only thing we can afford …

The woman opens the bag and indeed discovers the rotten potatoes …

– But Honey? Where are the diamonds? Why are you fooling me?

The man then realizes what is happening and faints …

His wife tries to revive him, asking for help … while thinking it’s also part of the joke …

– Surely there must be some diamonds under the potatoes!!

She empties the bag … and finds nothing … except some diamond dust, which indeed was in the bottom of the bag.

– Oh. It’s beautiful … but where are the diamonds?

The man who was regaining consciousness faints again by actually remembering the time when he emptied the bag to get rid of the diamonds.

This story is a little ridiculous, is it not?

Yet, we live in the same way as the man who lets the islanders define what is valuable or not, what is right or wrong, that we must think or not.

Personally, I was lucky. Being the nerd in my class, the one you never want to have in his football team, I was lucky to have very few real friends in my teens. I was lucky enough to live in a home where my parents also had few friends and preferred to spend time together.

Being an observant Jew, I participate in fewer parties, less dinners, fewer events than those around me, and I prefer to spend more time with my family, without TV, this skylight that aspires to telling us how to think. In the end, this is what makes my personality.

Let’s avoid group discussions, let’s prefer individual contacts

Of course, one must not live recluse without speaking to anyone from outside, but as much as possible, avoiding group discussions, demonstrations that are useless and change nothing, one gains in time and intensity.

One is much better off meeting as many intelligent individuals as possible, and interacting in pairs.

When in a crowd, we might laugh because one’s friend next door has just done so, and may too often feel obliged to approve what the majority of participants think so as not to appear stupid, or not to be the odd one out.

Something along these lines happened to me in 1997, I was less than 19 years old. At the time, I was a journalist for PC Direct and ZDNet France. That year, came out a handheld computer called the Psion Series 5MX (I myself had been a Psion user for years).

I was invited as many colleagues at the launch press conference. I remember it was held in a Fnac store and there were thirty of us, from various media.

The product was presented to us. The product was exceptional. A real computer that held in one’s pocket, with a large screen, a great battery life, useful and well thought out software.

I was talking with a journalist friend sitting next to me saying, « This looks awesome … » He said, « Yes, clearly, what progress! »

This is when a reporter began asking questions to the team very proud of presenting the product. Actually, no, he was not asking questions. This man simply wanted to destroy our perception of the product without any real argument, aside from « isn’t the black color a bit ugly? » And » why does it have such small memory capacity? «  » But why is it so big? »… (Note that he had not yet tried it nor had he had it in hand).

All the other journalists followed in the same direction … finding all the negative sides of the product.

This man might have his opinion of course, but what happened next marked me till this day. Meanwhile, my friend sitting next to me, started to say, « Frankly this product is useless, I cannot see anyone using it. »

Yes, I’m speaking of the same friend who had found the product great a few minutes earlier. Nothing more had happened, no new information had been given. The product was then taken down by the majority of the IT press, when objectively it was a great product. All the sterile questions at the press conference completely covered the exceptional interest of the product which I was a user of for many years (and that I still regret today).

This was the event that made me turn away from journalism. I realized how most of us did not think individually and followed the opinion of colleagues, hence the huge and heavy single thought in the media which eventually almost all look alike.

The strength of the crowd … the crowd that does not decide … the flock is carried away like sheep by ideas and values of which they do not understand the consequences. For the more skeptical among you, or those who do not appreciate the stories of diamonds and potatoes, you can always turn to the experience of Solomon Asch on conformism.

This pioneer of social psychology was interested in the decisions of an individual within a group, which is our subject today. To caricature, and for those who like numbers, experience concludes that 33%, so 1/3 of the people studied, is consistent with the group’s opinion giving wrong answers, even when the right answer is as obvious as designating a nose on a face. That was in 1951 and since then, the experiment was repeated many times. Substantially with the same results.

With hindsight, I think the worst decisions I have taken in my life are those I have taken being influenced either by my friends or indeed by television – which I stopped watching 12 years ago.

Keep your independence of mind, get out of the herd as often as possible, do not howl with the crowd, react as free men and women, ask yourself the right questions while remaining honest with yourself. This is the price to pay to make the worst of bad choices and learn from it, and at best make the right decisions for oneself.