Which is pretty much the Internet in a nutshell, isn’t it? Exposed to the entire spectrum of human enthusiasms, it’s basically impossible not to judge. Our empathy overloads and gives up and we sit, staring at the screen aghast, that somebody, somewhere might actually believe that what they’re doing is OK, is acceptable, is even appropriate.

Everybody is somebody else’s monster.

Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that he can’t persuade himself to believe are good.
Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

Judgment vs. Understanding

Life decisions are never one-dimensional. Yet we often simplify the decisions others make to squash it into a context that’s easy to understand, because human nature. The problem is that trying to make other peoples’ decisions fit into our own neatly-defined boxes of understanding leads to something that’s poisonous for the soul: judgment.

We hear about someone’s decision to quit their job, or move somewhere, or marry someone, or drink tea instead of coffee, and we judge. Oh, how we judge. I do it too. You know why? Because judging is so much easier than understanding. To judge someone all you need to do is ignore the complexity of their situation. But understanding takes time. It means we have to listen, get context, step out of our own world views. That’s a lot of work.

I write about this because our family recently decided to move to Portland, OR. Our plane leaves South Africa on March 30th. It’s easy to look into our lives from the outside and see the decision as centering around one specific issue. I hear words like career, quitting, finances, family, different values. But here’s the truth: It’s all of these things, and none of them. We didn’t make this decision lightly. It wasn’t rash, and it wasn’t based on a single factor. We don’t hate South Africa. Our moving isn’t some perverted statement or value judgement on those who choose to live here. We love Cape Town and have an amazing community here — one that we hope will remain in place forever.

We’re moving to Portland because when we step back from our lives and look at all the factors that make us a family, we’re convinced that it’s what we need to do.

That’s all there is to it, and of course that’s not a long enough paragraph to explain the complexity adequately, but I doubt any paragraph would be long enough to accomplish that. The simple fact is that most of us are the same people. We’re all just pilgrims in a strange land1, trying to do the best we can. So the next time someone does something you think is really stupid — pause. Ask yourself if you really understand the complexity of their situation. And if not, you owe it to yourself (and to them) to take the time and really listen.

Understanding is much harder than judgment. But doing hard things is the only way we grow.


  1. Hebrews 11:8-9 

Traditional brainstorming simply doesn’t work as well as thinking alone, then pooling results. That’s because, the scientists found, groups that have direct contact suffer from two problems. The big one is blocking—a great idea pops into your head, but by the time the group calls on you, you’ve forgotten it. The other is social dampening: outspoken, extroverted members wind up dominating, and their ideas get adopted by others, even if they’re not very good ones. Introverted members don’t speak up. In contrast, when group members work physically separately from one another—in what researchers call “virtual groups”—it avoids this problem because everyone can generate ideas without being cognitively overshadowed or blocked. This is one of the counterintuitive secrets behind online collaborations. They inherently fit the model of people working together intimately but remotely.
Highlighted by Rian van der Merwe in Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better by Clive Thompson
A large group can argue about a set of facts and come to a reasonable consensus; Wikipedia does this every day. But a strongly worded opinion—the core of an op-ed—is not subject to consensus. This is why collective thinking online also tends to fail when it attempts an aesthetic creation. The Web designer Kevan Davis set up an online experiment to group-think pictures, allowing anyone to vote on the color of a randomly located individual pixel. But when the group tried to draw relatively simple figures—a castle, an apple, a human head, a cat—it produced undifferentiated blobs. Nobody could agree on what the subject ought to look like. Which is the point: Art is usually the product of a single independent vision. As most corporations discover to their dismay, groups can suck creativity out of projects because they tamp down the most original, idiosyncratic parts of each individual’s vision.
Highlighted by Rian van der Merwe in Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better by Clive Thompson