Have you ever watched Star Wars?
What about Rocky? How about any movie at all?
Okay, forget about movies. Have you ever read, heard, or watched any story about anything? This is a silly question. We all have watched movies and TV shows, and read books. We love storytelling. We love entertainment.
All stories use the three-act structure: set-up, confrontation, and resolution. Many of these stories revolve around two characters: protagonist (good) vs. antagonist (bad.) Luke Skywalker pitted against Darth Vader. Rocky squares off against Apollo. Stories need conflict, otherwise they wouldn’t be very entertaining. The ones I’m referring to do that by creating good-vs-bad. Luke vs Darth is just a glaring example.
On the surface, this seems like a good thing. Not only do stories entertain us, but they also help us develop our moral compass.
It’s good to have a general understanding of good versus bad, right?
Well, maybe. But let’s look a little deeper.
In November 2018, I spoke with Tyler Cowen about his new book, Stubborn Attachments, an optimistic look at how to move forward as a society into a future mired with uncertainty, polarity, and conflict. So I asked him, “What’s a way that helps you disagree with people?” Without hesitation, he responded, “Cultivating detachment.” He said it’s why he has open comments on his popular blog, Marginal Revolution. It forces him to look at things from other angles. “Numerous people insult me every day, but they’re actually doing me a huge favor. I would urge them to continue. I am able to learn from the critics who have useful things to say.”
This idea of cultivating detachment has really fascinated me. Maybe that’s obvious given my mission of trying to help people be more open minded and think differently.
But what IS it?
Cultivating detachment is about temporarily removing yourself from your ideas, beliefs, and opinions. It’s about not letting yourself be defined by an identity in the moment. It’s about striving to be objective. In doing so, you’re able to entertain any idea, belief, or opinion—even when they’re in direct opposition to your own. It’s really powerful, and it sounds like something everyone should learn how to do. So why is cultivating detachment so hard?
I found myself going down many rabbit holes trying to find the root of the problem. Sure, we can chalk it up to our basic survival instincts. We can’t be shown up in front of our tribe.
Maybe it’s our desire for status and dominance. We protect our ego and save face, at all costs.
Or our desire for certainty and comfortability. We want to feel like we know and close that cognitive loop as quick as possible.
I’ve written about many of these topics before. All seem plausible and valuable contributors to the problem. But as I kept digging, I came back to Luke vs. Darth.
Stories program us with good-vs.-bad wiring
Loretta Breuning, PhD, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, has told me, “...the essence of being human is being born with an unfinished brain that wires itself from early experience. And those early pathways become really well developed and we rely on them because they’re so well developed.” In short, our neurological wiring takes shape pretty early on in our life. It sucks. This is mostly out of our control. We’re depending on the adults in our lives. The same adults who shove movies in front of us so we’ll stop annoying them. The same adults who are reading us stories just so we’ll stop crying. The same adults who watch their movies and TV shows with us sitting next to them. And the same adults who say, “You see, Pumpkin, Luke is the good guy, and Vader is the bad guy.”
I love entertainment and storytelling just as much as you. Maybe more. I don’t have any kids; otherwise, I’d probably do the same thing. All I’m suggesting is that stories program kids (and adults) to believe in good vs. bad. This mentality only hardens as we go through life reading, watching, and listening to more stories. I wouldn’t suggest changing how stories are created. That would be ridiculous. Nor am I attempting to tell you how to parent better. I have no idea what’s best for your kids. My interest is in helping you to cultivate detachment. This good-vs.-bad wiring seems to be at the root of why it’s so hard to cultivate detachment.
One of the remarkable aspects of the human brain is its ability to rewire itself at any age. As my conversation continued with Breuning, she said:
“Our power lies in building new neural pathways. But it’s effectively the same as taking a tiny little dirt trail and avoiding a well-paved highway. So most of time we don’t feel like building a tiny trail and braving that uncharted territory when we have a nice paved road. So we take the paved road even though it’s the paved road we built when we were kids.”
So if we’re going to try to cultivate detachment, building and taking that tiny dirt trail might be our best shot. I’m not a neuroscientist or clinician in any way, but here’s what I’ve come up with.
I’d suggest you replace good-vs.-bad with agree-vs.-disagree.
Good vs. bad is the cousin of right vs. wrong. It’s definitive. It’s one way or no way. It’s me vs. you.
Agree vs. disagree changes the frame. It leaves the door open, but still empowers you and gives you a position. It gives you an out when new facts, opinions, or beliefs arise. Agree vs. disagree will reframe the situation to make it easier for you to cultivate detachment.
Here’s agree-vs.-disagree wiring in practice:
You read an article and say, “I agree with this,” rather than, “This was good.”
You watch a movie and say, “I disagree with this,” rather than, “This sucked.”
If agree-vs.-disagree seems unnatural, it is. It feels weird to say, “I agree with this movie. I agree with this song. I agree with this podcast.” Hey, I’m not recommending you say it out loud. I’m recommending you become consciously aware of what you agree with and what you don’t. It’s a tactic that will set you up to cultivate detachment.
Ultimately, you’re trying to not indulge daily in things you already agree with. This will only compound that good-vs.-bad wiring. You should be engaging with more things that make you feel uneasy, uncomfortable, and unsure. If something offends you, that might be a good sign to dive a little deeper.
You have to know what you agree with in order to detach yourself from it.
In that same interview with Cowen, I asked, “How do you read books you disagree with?” He said, “Look for markers of quality, such as good reviews from some people but not others...and when markers of quality and offensiveness come together, I would just say, cultivate detachment. The returns of detachment are underrated.”
We’ve been wired to think good-vs.-bad. Luke vs Darth. We’ve been wired to be attached to our ideas, beliefs, and opinions. We’ve been wired to think, I’m right. You’re wrong. We’re all in the same boat. Cultivating detachment is hard. Yet it’s probably our best option to ensure we all get to shore safely.
Maybe you’re left wondering, What if I’m not sure whether I agree or disagree? Well, then you have no skin in the game. This is the easiest scenario to dive deep with an open mind, assuming you’re interested in whatever the thing is you’re not sure about. Just start diving. You’ll hit something solid eventually.
Cultivating detachment will be difficult. Not only is it an under-discussed skill, but it’s also unnatural. I agree with Cowen, though. Its returns are underrated.
It’s much easier to default to good-vs.-bad. After all, the force is strong with that one.