In 1995, I walked into a Barnes & Noble and began perusing the new hardcover books displayed at the very front of the store, a habit I’ve continued to this day. There is always something novel and unexpected in new books, especially non-fiction.
On this particular day, I happened across a book with the strange and alluring title The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History, by Howard Bloom. After reading the inside front cover and the back cover, I picked it up, as I am always willing to invest $25 and the obligation to read at least fifty pages for the chance to sharpen the lens through which I view the world. Howard is a wonderful writer, it turned out, and The Lucifer Principle is a galloping good read.
The book was my introduction to memes, a word that you might associate with the rapid spread of photos with witty captions on social media. But those memes only tangentially connected to the term’s real meaning: “an element of a culture or system of behaviors that pass from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially imitation” (Oxford Dictionaries). You can think of this kind of meme as an “idea virus.”
You’re probably familiar with genetics, which traces how your physical body is built by your genes. But Howard focuses on memetics, the idea that your beliefs are built by memes. The Lucifer Principle taught me that you don’t have ideas. Instead, ideas have you. Much of what you believe was installed, like a computer program—or, more precisely, a virus.
Memes work very hard to spread from one mind to the next, especially when there are social consequences for refusing them, such as being ostracized by your community.
This might be the first time you have been confronted by the idea that you didn’t choose your ideas, your beliefs, and your values; they chose you. Here’s the point: if you are going to be infected by other people’s ideas, many of them extremely limiting, disempowering, and negative, you are better off determining for yourself what viruses you let infect you.
What You Believe
In last week’s newsletter, I wrote about the politics of success. It’s remarkable that two people can have the same experiences and interpret them in different ways. Imagine a 16-ounce glass that contains exactly eight ounces of water. One person’s belief would cause them to believe the glass is half empty, while another person’s beliefs would cause them to see it as half full. The person who recognizes only what is missing is infected with beliefs about scarcity, while the other carries a virus that suggests abundance.
You might have been infected with the idea that you should play it safe, that the world is dangerous, and that the best thing for you to do is go to school, get a degree in something practical, and punch your time card until you can retire and enjoy what’s left of your life. Or maybe you’ve been caused to believe that life is an adventure, that the world is an incredible place that you should explore, that you should live a life of your design, and that there are many opportunities for those with the courage to pursue them. Wherever you ended up, odds are that you picked up the meme from other adults in your life.
Since the beginning of this newsletter, I have been trying to infect you with some ideas that have infected me too. So, let me share one of the most important memes out there: you can choose to infect yourself with positive, empowering beliefs, ones that massively increase the quality of your life. You can also reject beliefs that would cause you to be consumed by fear, scarcity, pessimism, or the dozens of the beliefs that reduce your options, your success, and your happiness.
The fact is, that glass of water is half full and half empty. The facts are not in question. But your beliefs cause you to determine what the level of water means, even if nobody else holds that interpretation.
Shopping for Your Infections
You can very literally shop for the ideas and beliefs—the mindset—that will help you improve every part of your life. By seeking out people who have something you want, you can look at what they believe, what actions they take because of those beliefs. Then, you can use both the beliefs and actions to acquire your own version of the outcomes they produce.
You might believe that you need to disagree with people who have different beliefs than yours. You could instead believe that they have been infected by different memes, motivating you to learn something from their perspective and allow their memes to infect you. Because memes compete to capture their hosts, your existing beliefs are going to work very hard to maintain their hold over you.
The reason confirmation bias is so powerful is that ensures that the meme keeps its hold over you—and that you spread it on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.
The quality of your life depends on your beliefs, so there’s no reason to infect yourself with beliefs that don’t support the life you want. Instead, seek out the most powerful and empowering beliefs you can, and make them your own by reading, listening, and studying—even if you have to pretend to believe them to develop the habit. Listen closely to what you say to yourself and determine where you picked up the idea viruses that currently have a hold over you. Choose to replace those that no longer serve you.
One final infection, if you are open to accepting it: you can be more, do more, have more, and contribute more. You can wake up, grow up, clean up, show up, and speed up.