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'Poisonous Certainties': Beliefs Successful People Avoid

10/05/2016 10:27 | Updated 10 May 2016

My known interests aside, I like to investigate how to prime one's life for success. I took the title from Dr George Brock Chisholm, who was the first Secretary General of the United Nations' World Health Organization (WHO), and he said, "We have swallowed all manner of poisonous certainties fed us by" various parties. While his perspectives spark debate, I'd like to focus on some "poisonous certainties" we may have grown up with that are hindering us from realising our full potential. Here are some pieces of advice from earlier generations that gave me a hard time:

The first piece of advice that I deem pernicious is the mandate not to "make friends" (or rely on connections) and not to trust people easily. Yet the world is interconnected and we live interdependently. Collective intelligence is greater than individual intelligence. Although not everyone is trustworthy and not everyone measures up to our standards of integrity, we should still try to maintain friendly and peaceful relationships with each other as far as possible and to carefully avoid people who are a bad influence. That also means that we should be aware of interpersonal relationships and office politics, no matter how distasteful they seem. If you consult relationship-building books such as How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie and Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi, please first read to the end before implementing any suggestions, because ideas on how to connect with people depend on each other, and are best viewed in context, never in isolation.

The second piece of bad advice is to lie low and be modest, to avoid tooting your own horn. The problem with this piece of advice is that it takes the competitive edge off you, and that you are not motivated to have worthwhile pursuits because you won't be showing them to others anyway. You need to show schools and employers that you would be a good fit and that you're prepared for what's coming. To hide one's accomplishments and abilities is to tell the world they don't matter -- when they do. Other people are already branding themselves in one way or another to stand out online, and employers are Googling to find out more about you, so please make good use of the Internet to show everyone your best side.

The third piece of bad advice is to relax and not to have expectations of oneself. Everyone has expectations; it's impossible to imagine living without them. Even the most laid-back person in the room expects to get by with as little as possible. The better way to live is to have certain expectations that will make you a better person. For example, you may be a student and you expect good grades, so you study hard, but you also take care of your health so that you're in top shape for exams. Or you may be an office worker and you expect to put on a smile and turn in your best work. Sometimes well-meaning friends and family members might say that we need to relax or have some entertainment; take those words with a pinch of salt. Sure, stress is not good, but then we still need to do the best we can. Don't underestimate the alluring power of distraction. Turn them, if possible, into opportunities to connect with other people and share good information with them. For instance, having tea with those in your field is perfect for exchanging ideas, but you need to be deliberately looking out for those ideas and to be prepared to give your two pennies' worth too.

There are situations where these pieces of advice could be applied correctly. The problem is that, when presented as if they were truths, they cloud the thinking, the way of living and ultimately the satisfaction in life of impressionable (young) people, who need to learn when these "rules" apply and when they don't. Guidelines are not problematic unless they're touted as certainties, so when you seek advice, make sure they are appropriate for your situation before adopting them. This means not getting overexcited about new things, and noticing the assumptions underlying the guidelines and seeing if those assumptions are valid in your case.

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