You Don't Have to Have an Opinion
Be more selective on the topics and spaces you choose to devote energy to.
My thinking has shifted the last few years as I’ve been exposed to stoicism, largely via Ryan Holiday. Ryan has a few central ideas he circulates frequently, and one of them is “You Don’t Have to Have an Opinion.”
Anyone who knows me personally and is reading this is probably chuckling right now. Let’s just say, I enjoy sharing my thoughts and arguing, for a lack of a better word. I’m trying to become more selective in doing so.
In general, in the past, the way my brain has worked is this:
A situation presents itself for interpretation. Regardless of my expertise or lack thereof in said situation, or of its relevance and importance on my life, I’ve spotted an opportunity. I’m a smart person. I’m good at taking pieces of information and putting them together in a logical flow. As a result, I can figure out the “right” opinion to have in this situation. And as a bonus, because I’m being logical, I’ll eventually be able to convince others that my opinion is “right”.
I see this situation play out on Twitter all of the time. There are some people who have an opinion on everything and engage in a back and forth on everything. A coaching decision. A sports event. Some celebrity gossip. A political problem. And it seems as if they suffer from my old (well sometimes presently) way of thinking. Each of these scenarios is an opportunity to show how good we are at figuring out the “right” opinion.
Aside from the obvious, that there are much better uses of time than forming and defending an opinion on the popular news item from the day, there are other issues with this.
First off, we’re doing our own brains a disservice. Reading through Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, there’s a concept that has really struck home for me - we have a finite amount of brain space. Breaking that down further, we have a finite amount of willpower, emotional intelligence, and focus and attention to use up over the course of the day.
Jumping into a conversation about whether or not an NFL coach should have punted may seem harmless on the surface, but you might sacrifice the focus and attention needed to pay towards something that’s actually important later in the day, especially if it’s an emotionally charged subject.
Secondly, we’re often unintentionally inflating our own ego because our focus can be in the wrong place. We view things from our limited perspective. How can I have the right opinion here? How can I convince others I am right? This feeds our ego because it’s a selfish motivation, despite being unintentional and disguised, even to ourselves.
And it’s ironic because this is actually the worst way to persuade people. It’s one of the reasons I stopped Tweeting about politics; I was never changing anyone's mind. In fact, if we’re going to change someone’s mind, the best way to do so is to NOT jump in and have an opinion. It’s to back off and reserve judgment.
Listening and asking intelligent questions will help you to learn and actually give you a chance to change someone’s mind. Even that, however, suggests the topic is worth devoting your attention to at all, whether you’re forming an opinion or not.
A good recent example of this was the Will Smith-Chris Rock slap (okay, I started this post a year ago, and I liked the example so I kept it - shoot me). I caught myself discussing whether or not what Will did was indefensible, and I saw this same conversation everywhere. People, who didn’t know there was an awards show the night prior, who don’t know Will Smith or Chris Rock personally, were lining up to give their take on the situation.
I think we’ve all been in that spot where we’ve gone from blissfully unaware of a topic to emotionally invested in a heartbeat (a fun example linked).
It’s insane when we take a step back. Having an opinion on topics like “The Slap” is such a waste of time and energy. The world doesn’t need to know how you feel about everything.
“The Slap” is an easy, low hanging fruit, example because it’s inarguable that it’s meaningless, but even on objectively important issues, it’s worth being selective and trying to understand whether or not devoting energy to the topic in this time and in this setting is helpful to anyone in any way.
Now, having a job where I am looked to to have an opinion and to defend it can make this whole “You Don’t Have to Have an Opinion” philosophy difficult to practice. I’m trying my best to delineate between work and my personal life in this regard.
I’m also not suggesting to become non confrontational or apathetic. There are important topics and ideas to think through critically and that need people’s voices in certain settings. Plus, we’re human; sometimes, we need a distraction. Other times, conversations and arguments can be fun and informative. But, most of us are nowhere near the equilibrium point.
Let’s try shifting too far the other way by having the default stance of avoiding having an opinion and ignoring irrelevant conversations. One of the ways I am trying to do this is to stop and ask myself: Is this important? If not, move along. If yes, do I have control over this? Will forming and sharing an opinion actually help?
I have my good days and bad days with this concept. But on the good days, I find myself freer, more at peace, and with more energy and focus for the things that matter and where I can influence a level of meaningful control.
Our brains were not designed to share/receive the amount of criticism we invite.
Enjoyed the blog post; nice job Mike. Reminded me a bit of Adam Grant’s book, Think Again, where he analyzed the modes of thinking and the pitfalls they can create. Trying to think/act more like a scientist (vice my default of prosecutor) remains a challenge for me. I’d highly recommend it for those interested in Stoicism or in improving the way we think.