Core Principle #1: Question Everything

Part 1 – Accept that you’ve been brainwashed

That’s right!  You’ve been brainwashed.  And it gets worse, you’re still being brainwashed.  Every day, more brainwashing.

And it’s coming from everywhere.  It starts with marketing.  The evil, vicious world of marketing. They brainwashed you into “needing” a GI Joe action set when you were a kid.  They brainwashed you into paying $100,000 for a college degree in sociology where, if you use your degree, will spend decades trying to pay back (and if you don’t use your degree, then what was the point?).  They brainwash you into believing and celebrating (and buying things) for holidays like Valentine’s Day, and into buying an engagement ring worth 2 months salary (well done, De Beers!).

Marketing firms hire psychoanalysts to study human minds and learn to cater to a group’s irrational thought.  In the first half of the 20th century, marketing firms convince men that a personal car was an expression of male sexuality.  Now these companies could sell to the common man and not just the rich..  Later, cigarette companies realized there was an untapped market because in America it was taboo for women to smoke.  So they put together a strategy to convince women that smoking cigarettes was a bold statement for women’s suffrage and equality (they called them “torches of liberty”).  This is brainwashing.  And it works, until you start to question it.

For an eye-opener, check this out.

But it’s not just profit-seeking corporations, it’s also your school teachers.  They brainwashed you into thinking that your grades mattered as much as the content itself,  and that college is a requirement (and sure path) to a happy and successful life.

Your bosses have brainwashed you into working hard for the company, even at the expense of your mental health and family life.  There are real techniques for this.  I took the classes when I temporarily got into management!

The corporate owned media has brainwashed us into believing that there is this real cultural divide between liberals and conservatives.  Then they cater to our emotions and identity by hiring political pundits to yell at each other on TV.  They do this because it’s easier to draw an emotional audience than it is to sell a real discussion on policy.

All of this, of course, is hogwash.

And you could get mad at all of them for brainwashing you – except that you shouldn’t, because they were all brainwashed too.  There’s no one at fault, it’s the nature of civilization.  We’re all just doing what we have done since the day we were born – trying to control things.  What matters is that you recognize it, and reject it.  And this leads to part 2 – Question Everything.

Part 2 – Question Everything

My daughter is about to turn two, and she recently started asking “Why?” Every time she does, my eyes light up with excitement!  I love seeing her starting to question my authority and questioning how things work.

She’ll ask me why she shouldn’t touch my coffee (because it’s hot) and why that’s bad (because it will burn her and hurt) and she’s learning so much, so fast.  In my coffee example, she just learned two important lessons.

Unfortunately, if you’re an adult, you’ve probably already stopped asking these questions.  As a child, your parents might have answered your question of “why?” with “because I said so,” or “I don’t know, that’s just how it works.”  At school, your teachers may have told you to save your questions for the end of the lecture, never to return to the question.  At your job when you ask “why?”, you’re probably told “because that’s how things work around here,” or “that’s just how we’ve always done it, ” or once again, “because I said so.”  So eventually, and slowly, you stopped asking.

Asking “why” is the key to leading a deliberate life, because it answers how or why things are the way they are. Once you know this, you can make your own  educated decision on how you want to proceed.  The courage to keep asking “why?” is critical to a continued education, to being open to change, and to making smart decisions.

The sad truth is that if you don’t get good at questioning everything, you won’t be mentally prepared for an early retirement.  With no ability to continue your education and to explore, you’ll simply grow bored and return to work because it’s better than nothing.  Or you might develop some unhealthy vice, which most likely is even worse.

So question everything and don’t stop there.  Encourage your kids, your family, your friends, your employees and your employers to do the same.  Some people will hate you for it, others will love you. But I assure you that it will make you a happier, wiser, and more interesting person.

Question why you should or shouldn’t do something.  Question why you believe something to be true. Question whether you are spending your time wisely reading this site, or other sites.

An Empty Cup

“My friend, drop all your preconceived and fixed ideas and be neutral. Do you know why this cup is useful? Because it is empty.” – Bruce Lee

Your mind is a cup of water, and it’s filled with preconceived ideas.  Unfortunately, too many of these ideas are not your own.  And you can’t fill the glass with new ideas until you empty it of the old.

But once you accept that you have been brainwashed and conditioned from outside entities, and once you commit to questioning everything – you will have an empty cup, a blank slate.  And then it will be ready to be filled with the things truly important to you.  You’ll then be ready for the remaining 7 principles.

Below is a visualization of the blank slate.  In the next 7 principles we’ll begin filling it out, and updating this visual to show how each principle complements and supports the others.

26 Responses to Core Principle #1: Question Everything

  1. Penny says:

    Great post! It’s amazing the little things you accept because someone told you or you read it somewhere and never thought to check. Last summer there were emails going around saying that it was amazing that there were five Fridays in July and that only happens every (insert really big number here) years. If you look at a calendar, you’ll notice that there will be five Fridays any time July starts with a Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. That’s almost half of the time. Most people don’t stop to think because it’s such a mundane claim, but all of those little things really add up.

  2. Debbie M says:

    I love this one. But we don’t have time to question everything. So, how to modify it? Perhaps “Question something every [period of time].” Or “Question at least one assumption before every big decision.” Or maybe “Don’t think of anything as being beyond question.”

    “Question everything” is a better mantra, though. Short. Powerful.

  3. lifeoverwork says:

    Nice post! I couldn’t agree more about the merit of always learning. If you’re only cashing in for an early retirement to sit on the couch, I suggest you stay at work where you’ll probably live longer. On the other hand, if you’re going to use the time to explore the world, go to school, learn a craft, or even just learn more about other people, I’m fully on board.

  4. m741 says:

    I’ve gotta disagree with how you’ve phrased your first principle. I think the definition of brainwashing you’ve used is so broad as to make it meaningless. To start with, this post is most definitely not brainwashing. It’s simply voicing an opinion.

    When I think of brainwashing, I think of systematic, deliberate, coordinated efforts to coerce someone. Something like the Vietnamese forcing American prisoners to conspire against each other, and against their country. This is true brainwashing.

    I don’t think that a particular advertisement or advertising campaign is brainwashing – it’s simply trying to convince someone. On the other hand, advertising in general is a systematic, deliberate, and semi-coordinated attempt to manipulate cultural assumptions (buy more and you will be happy!). How the media portrays the electoral system in America is not brainwashing, because I don’t think it’s deliberate. The media is accurately portraying the mathematical outcome (two similar parties) that results from the rules which govern elections (plurality voting system). There’s an unspoken assumption that this is the only way elections should be, but again, I would call that an assumption rather than brainwashing.

    My point is basically that you should be very careful about how you use particular words. ‘Brainwashing’ is a very powerful word, but it has been abused, and each abuse makes the average person more likely to roll their eyes when they hear it.

    • I see your point, but allow me to rebut. I have three thoughts.

      First, I consider the English language dynamic. Words are created, words are obsoleted, and words evolve in meaning. There is plenty of evidence of this, just by reading a book from 100 years ago, let alone 500 years ago. Strong words like “brainwash” often get watered down over time, usually due to sharp rhetoric (political or otherwise) – so you could argue that either I’ve contributed to the watering down, or you could argue that I’ve simply used it based on the watered down definition. I realize there are people that say “no! words have meaning!” which leads to my second thought.

      Words have several meanings. “Brainwash” has two definitions just within Merriam Webster, one very strict and the other very loose like the way I meant to use it: “persuasion by propaganda or salesmanship.” Then there is the Wikipedia definition, which is still different. Your definition is a 4th definition.

      But the only definition that really matters in communication is the one by the receiver (reader). Since I’ll have over 1000 readers for this particular article, I have to wonder whether there is a single word or phrase that would have accurately communicated what I wanted to communicate. Perhaps “you’ve been persuaded by propaganda and salesmanship not to think?”

      One final thought. Taking your definition (systematic, deliberate, coordinated efforts to coerce someone), I still would argue that my usage of the word isn’t far off. I believe that my examples are systematic, deliberate and coordinated. It’s not really coercion, since coercion usually implies force or threat. Then again, I don’t think brainwashing required force or threat, so then I could argue that your use of “coerce” is too incorrect.

      With all that said, I do see your point. It’s a delicate balance to use strong enough words to make a compelling and persuasive argument, but not so strong as to cause people to “roll their eyes.” I’ll try to improve in this area.

    • One final thought outside of our discussion on rhetoric and language… I think we have a vastly different view on the media’s coverage of elections (at least in the US).

      The “liberal/conservative” divide in our current culture is not an organic result of differing views on policy, but instead was manufactured in the boardrooms of large media for the benefit of the billionaire’s that run them. The media feeds this divide by playing to people’s identity, rather than discussing policy.

      Fox News is often accused of this (for obvious reasons), but they are just the most egregious. Look at any of these shows and you’ll see them pull in pundits on both sides of a debate (as if there are only two sides, a false dichotomy created by the media for their benefit) and these pundits are paid to yell at each other. They don’t debate, they yell, and they feed the divide by playing with the viewers emotions and identity. And people tune in to hear their guy fight for their identity, and the media laughs all the way to the bank.

      In my opinion, this is systematic, deliberate, and coordinated. Which is why I would consider this “brainwashing” for the purposes of making money, at the expense of good debate on policy. I realize some people will consider me a conspiracy theorist for having this perspective…

      I certainly didn’t mean to turn this conversation political or even controversial, so perhaps I should have left that part out of the post.

  5. Wow! I actually have a post in the works regarding the same concept! You have to approach life with a bit of healthy skepticism.

    I was going to question your use of the word “brainwashing” but I see that m741 has already done so :)

    I’m glad that you highlighted that our conditioning isn’t necessarily malicious in origin. Surely our parents and teachers weren’t being malicious in telling us that we needed to go to college: they were just giving us the advice they were given.

  6. […] But the thing is, this is all avoidable.  These are all choices you get to make for yourself.  Just remember principle #1: question everything. […]

  7. If you haven’t seen Century of the Self .. watch it. Great break-down of how brainwashing has permeated into our daily lives.

  8. […] Core Principle #1 – Question Everything […]

  9. It took me years to get over what I thought was correct…. then for years I plugged away at graduate school thinking like a clog and not considering my finances. Now, I question it all and am re-educating myself with humble financial knowledge. All I gotta say is watch out world, I’m on my way.

  10. Poor Student says:

    This is an important thing, maintaining the childlike wonder of the world. Most of man’s personal growth is during childhood and adolescence, which also happens to be the time when the mind is most fertile and willing to look for reasons and alternatives to the unreasonable.

    I never heard the quotation about the empty cup but you can be sure that it is going to be a favourite of mine.

  11. […] New Life  discusses his Core Principles, beginning with “Question Everything”. There are actually five articles in the series now (perhaps there will be more?), but it’s a […]

  12. screaser says:

    I know this is an old post, but the video you linked to (via “check this out”) isn’t working anymore… care to update or add a new link in the comments?

    (Great blog btw!)

  13. Mick says:

    While I agree with most of the claims about the negative power of brainwashing, I question the argument that higher education has no point unless it is directly “used” in a career. My major subjects in college were Russian Language/Literature and Anthropology. I’m neither a literary scholar nor an anthropologist, but my college experience was of incomparable value to me, both in my career and personal life.

    How? Because college is where I learned to question society’s brainwashing. That’s where I learned think for myself, to express my ideas clearly, to participate as an intellectual in a society that doesn’t care a whole lot about the life of the mind. To see beauty, excitement, and fulfillment in places other than the superficialities of consumer pop culture.

    Major concession: with the exception of low-demand, part-time work on my part, my higher education was funded by ancestral money. I’d have to think pretty hard before choosing the same experience at the cost of $100 K in student loans.

    • Greg says:

      I could not agree with you more. I think college education should be about expanding one’s awareness, seeing new perspectives. It should be about enriching one’s mental and spiritual life.

  14. Sanjay Kumar says:

    Too much questioning is not ethical.Instead refer to the text, advises Plato. Questioning at most of the times cannot evoke correct response specially when the person you are question is unenlightened.

  15. leigh says:

    I know I’m late to the party, but I’m really enjoying your blog and decided to make my way through the core principles.

    While I heartily agree with your basic tenants in this post, I do have to be nitpicky about something: psychoanalyst is not the word you want. Psychologists, yes, but psychoanalysts, no.

    To clarify: psychoanalysts (which largely do not exist anymore) are followers of Freud’s branch of psychology. Clinical psychologists, counselors, psychodynamic therapists…all these are people who work with clients but do not strictly follow Freud (though they might use some of his ideas).

    However, clinical psychologists are not the ones hired by marketing companies: research psychologists are. These are usually social psychologists, though some other types of research psychologists are also hired. (I myself am a cognitive psychologist and have been headhunted in the past.)

    Sorry to be nitpicky, but just so you know: Freud isn’t hanging out on Madison Ave. 😉

  16. cot son says:

    I know I’m late to the party, but I’m really enjoying your blog and decided to make my way through the core principles.

  17. Brave New Life,
    I think this principle of questioning everything is the key to truly authentic and quality teaching too. I’m a teacher, and I strive to not only question my students in new and relevant ways, but to get them to form their own questions. We need to learn to question all of our notions about Finance, yes, but also about all aspects of our lives.
    Thanks for this post.

  18. Alex Rule says:

    Awesome! Can’t wait to read the others.

    Just thought I would give you a heads up (selfishly because I want to look):

    The link

    “For an Eye Opener, Check this out.”

    below the second paragraph is not working.

    Cheers :)


    • BNL says:

      If I recall correctly, this was a video/documentary about child psychologists that work for large corporation marketing firms to best market their crappy doo-dads to children. It opened my eyes to how much work and expertise goes into every detail of children’s product marketing campaign, from the colors on a yogurt container at the grocery to the music in a toy commercial.

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