I first came across Malcolm Gladwell after reading his 2004 New Yorker article, “The Ketchup Conundrum.” Two things occurred to me at that time. First, I thought, “this guy Gladwell is an incredible writer and storyteller.” Second, I was amazed by the unbelievable lengths to which the food industry went to influence (some might say manipulate) consumer behavior. It was then that I became interested in the structure of the food industry. I devoured (no pun intended) Michael Pollan’s books. I discovered the disproportionate power wielded by big agriculture. I learned how supermarkets and food companies collaborate to strategically place products in order to drive shopper behavior. I came to see that the obesity epidemic is the byproduct of a distorted food system that badly needs reforming.
Beyond food, I became fascinated by the overall role the environment plays in the choices we make each and every day. I read the 2008 book Nudge by University of Chicago economists Thaler and Casstein (Casstein would later serve as a regulatory reformer in the Obama administration). I learned that even small, intentional changes in our environment can nudge people to take drastically different and more effective action.
Today, we find ourselves suffering from an epidemic with consequences just as severe as those of obesity (a crisis that still hasn’t been solved). This one, however, is epistemic in nature. It concerns not what we put into our bodies, but what we feed our minds. Similar to a food industry that has designed its products and supply chain to maximize the intake of foods that fatten both the bottom line and the human belly, we have a technology and media ecosystem that seems more interested in capturing your attention than feeding your edification and erudition. Worse yet, the system has driven a perverted curation of information that has fueled and exacerbated (whether intentional or not) the toxic polarization within this country.
But there is a deeper, more sinister issue here. To be sure, our environments matter. The way the system is designed can have a significant impact on our behavior. There is truth to much, if not all, of everything I have just written about. And there is a legitimate need to reform the institutions that provide the goods and services on which we depend. But I’m afraid as a society we have come to place virtually all of the blame for our current woes – our crises of health, technology, education, energy, social justice, etc. – at the doorstep of our environment. We far too often claim that the solution to these problems lies outside of us. That the world is happening to us. And that there’s very little we can do to affect our circumstances.
What we have is an epidemic of victimization. I say this somewhat reluctantly. Not because I don’t believe it. But because it can easily (and I believe unfairly) be misconstrued. Again, we have every right to demand that our institutions serve us effectively. But we must also – with equal intensity – demand the same of ourselves. This requires a change in mindset. It requires believing that “I shape my world,” not the other way around.
Back to the epistemic crisis we are facing. How many times do you hear people blaming social or traditional media for the lack of truthful, high-quality content? How often do you find people faulting technology companies for the addictive nature of their products? How often do you observe yourself doing this? I know I can fall into this trap if I’m not careful. There is undoubtedly truth to these complaints, But when you blame your circumstances, you rob yourself of the power to architect the conditions of your life. You deny yourself the right to make perhaps the most fundamental decision – what you allow into your body and mind. Jim Rohn, the author, entrepreneur, and motivational speaker used to say, “Each day, stand guard at the door of your mind.” As challenging as it is, you have the responsibility to be the curator of the information you consume. Standing guard at the door of your mind is an essential daily discipline and practice.
Here’s what I do. Each morning, I read through a list of daily newsletters I have chosen to receive that cover general news, technology, philosophy, and psychology. I’m not reading for content. I’m reading to make sure I’m up to speed on any latest developments and that I capture longer-form pieces that I know I will want to read more deeply. I use Instapaper for this. Every night, I spend at least thirty minutes reading a book. I average about two to three books per month. Every weekend, I spend a couple of hours reading the stories and articles that I have saved from my morning routine. Most importantly, I’ve developed an eye for the informational equivalent of junk food, and I’ve learned to avoid it. I have chosen instead to nourish my mind with a life-affirming diet of rich content.
The year ahead will be full of opportunity, surprise, and challenge. Navigating it successfully will require a healthy mind. Remember to stand guard at its door. You get to choose what comes in and what stays out. Choose wisely.