It’s always been this way


The other day, I was discussing the issues of progress, consumerism, politics and trust with some older folks. Many said that it’s basically always been this way.

What exactly do we mean when we say that “it’s always been this way” or that “we’ve always done it this way”?

It means that our actions and our behavior have become routine. Our brain has gone on autopilot. We’ve become conditioned to accept, enjoy and even defend the status quo. By cocooning in our routine, we don’t feel the need to change. Trapped by our perceptions, we are not able to see what we haven’t seen before.

Carl Jung – the founder of analytical psychology – observed that “children are educated by what the grown-up is and not by his talk”. Actually, I think that it is a combination of both. He could also have said that conditioning starts at a very early age, when we’re still too young to be able to differentiate between good and bad. We’re brought up to be responsible or irresponsible human beings, we’re not born as such.

“We accumulate our opinions at an age
when our understanding is at its weakest.”
(Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, scientist)

Those familiar with Konrad Lorenz and his geese will recall that this is also called imprinting.

And let’s not forget that humans, unlike other animals, are born underdeveloped. We can therefore be educated, socialized and shaped more than any other animal.

We of course reject the notion of having been conditioned. We like to think of ourselves as intelligent human beings, who have put a lot of time and effort into getting where we are. Unfortunately, we often fall in love too deeply with what we have achieved and therefore tend to overvalue it. We want to reap the benefits from our achievements forever and hate to let go.

“Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself and to
copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others.”
(Pablo Picasso, painter)

“The strongest poison ever known
came from Caesar’s laurel crown.”
(William Blake, poet)

“It’s a mistake to suppose that we deserve a society that
happens to value the qualities that we may have.”
(John Rawls, philosopher)

When confronted with something new requiring change, our reluctance to let go leads us to focus on what we may lose, rather than what we may gain.

Fear, stubbornness, pride and denial of reality often make us act against our long-term interests.

“The discovery of truth is prevented more effectively not by
the false appearance things present and which mislead into
error, not directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but
by preconceived opinion, by prejudice.”
(Arthur Schopenhauer, philosopher)

We are not helpless, but often claim helplessness as an excuse not to leave our prison, also known as our comfort zone.

And let’s not forget that brain, which is on autopilot 85% of the time.

Don’t rock the boat.

“Only the guy that isn’t rowing,
has time to rock the boat.”
(Jean Paul Sartre, philosopher)

But if we don’t rock the boat, the boat is going to hit a rock, or an iceberg – remember the Titanic – sooner or later and sink anyway, isn’t it?

Are we well advised to rock the boat, if there is no other boat nearby and we don’t know how to swim, or fly, or walk on water?

We are prisoners of our conventions, standards and customs, who are afraid of change. We prefer the known to the unknown, no risks are better than known risks and known risks are better than unknown risks. Good is good enough, if we don’t have to disrupt our routine, as routine gives as a sense of safety.

Are we imprisoned by what we have learned?

Can education liberate and imprison at the same time?

Don’t we sometimes wonder, why Pavlov used dogs in his experiments?

After all, we’ve always done it this way.

Corporate lingo is full of similar statements.

“It’s out of the question”, “it’s beyond doubt”, “it’s undeniable, self-evident, obvious, indisputable”, just to name a few. One that I’ve encountered quite often is “it goes without saying”. Well, more often than not, it doesn’t.

Not to mention “never change a winning team”. Sure, but we live in a world, in which the game changes all the time and new opponents with new strategies appear in the most unlikely places.

Nonetheless, speaking your mind and rocking the boat leads to isolation, discrimination and mobbing in many organizations. An open mind in a company with a closed door policy is pretty much useless. We live in a system that does not promote telling the uncomfortable truth, which leads to even more lies.

“In times of universal deceit, telling
the truth is a revolutionary act.”
(George Orwell, novelist)

Why do we let these organizations get away with it?

Do we want to live in a world, in which the truth has to be comfortable – rather that at times uncomfortable – to be generally accepted?

Wishful thinking is a powerful drug. And those claiming that some things never change, usually mean that to include themselves. The resulting lack of opposition strengthens unpopular conventions and oppression.

In other words, “we’ve always done it this way” is a great way to silence the majority and is a formidable barrier to change. Pluralistic ignorance – when no one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone believes – incapacitates even further.

“”Relax,” said the night man, “We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like.
But you can never leave!””
(The Eagles: “Hotel California” released in 1977)

It is also quite dangerous, because, as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman pointed out, familiarity is not easily distinguishable from the truth and by frequent repetition, we can make people believe in falsehoods. Dictators do this all the time, but they’re far from being alone.

It can even be deadly, as the French knights discovered in 1415 during the battle of Agincourt, when the longbow, rather than the knights themselves, brought knighthood to an end. Hanging on to yesterday’s conventions and status symbols can literally kill you.

“Defending yesterday is far more dangerous
than making tomorrow.”
(Peter Drucker, management consultant and professor)

Yesterday’s realities give us a wrong sense of security. But as prisoners of the past, we can’t find our freedom in the future.

This, incidentally, has always been this way!

“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.”
(The Beatles: “Yesterday” released in 1965)

Focusing on yesterday can make sense, if we’re in the business of writing history books.

Speaking of history books, why is it so hard to learn from history?

“What experience and history teach is this – that people
and governments have never learned anything from history
or acted on the principles deduced from it.”
(Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, philosopher)

History tells us that majorities have always followed like sheep and that minorities have often exploited this behavior by imposing their rules and “values”.

Does it have to be this way though?

Why do we seem to prefer to conserve the ashes, rather than to pass on the fire?

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