Thinking About Thinking - 2019


A Billion Shades of Grey

By Balaji Prasad

“He makes you the person you want to be, instead of the person you are."
~ E.L. James, Fifty Shades Trilogy

Some of the things that human beings have accomplished are absolutely mind-blowing! It's not the moon-landings or the conquest of Mount Everest that I'm speaking of. It's the accomplishments that are far more extraordinary – so extraordinary, in fact, that they have become all but invisible.

Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary

How often do we pause to reflect on the fact that we are able to walk and talk – things that the infant that was us, once upon a time, would have sworn that it would never be able to accomplish?

But infants don't “think". For, unlike most of us, they have not been indoctrinated into this dark art, at least not quite yet. Toddlers simply put one baby foot in front of the other, wobble a bit, fall, pick themselves up again, and do the cute three-step shuffle all over again. And again.

Then one day, the activity that had appeared clumsy, error-prone, tedious and, perhaps, even comical became a native pattern – something that was executed with ease, skill and grace. An “expert" mysteriously appeared on the scene, at some point in this rather wobbly progression. The interesting thing is that unlike an adult, the child never needed to be admonished to “walk the talk". Children do not talk; they simply walk.

From extraordinary to ordinary

And then … everything changes. How does a child who learns so effortlessly to do impossibly complex deeds suddenly lose what would seem to be an extraordinary ability? Could it be that our brains fundamentally change and somehow get rewired, making us mere shadows of the learning machines we once used to be? Or, could it be that it is not that the “hardware" of our brains ossifies, but that it is the “software" layer that somehow gets mis-programmed with a number of “bugs"?

Maybe there is not a whole lot that we can do about the hardware – the neurons, the synapses, and the trillions of weighted connections among these. At least not in any direct manner. But perhaps the software layer is a bit more accessible to us? There has to be a smidgen of doubt in our minds that we may be part of a team of programmers that writes the code that makes things inside our heads hum.

“No, no!" you say, shrinking away from me, “There is no 'team'. There is only me! I am the one that owns this thing. I am the programmer! To which I might be inclined to say, as Shakespeare's spirit unceremoniously enters my writing soul, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

From copycat to albatross

Could it be that the very thing that helps us learn at blinding speed when we are little ones be the albatross around our necks at later points in our lives? Is it possible to have learned more than we should have? Could the infant's extraordinary ability to learn through mimicry become the adult's source of gimmickry? Copy me? That adults copy? And copy! Copiously.

Perhaps when we are younger, our abilities are so far below that of the giant beings that tower over us, that a simple, blind copying technique works like magic. The adults walk and talk with ease, grace and poise, as the wide-eyed child fumbles, tumbles and flails. Maybe we have wonderful role models at that stage in our lives. We had so much to learn then.

However, as the toddler metamorphoses into a little girl or boy and beyond, the gap with potential role models starts to narrow. They become more like us, as we become more like them. But the one thing we got habituated to, in this process, is to being programmed. To copying.

The word “copying" doesn't do justice to what actually occurs. Nor does “programming". Both words indicate a directionality of flow – one that is effluent from us, and the other from those around us. The reality is probably that it is a blend of both. It is collaborative – true teamwork. Things flow from this side to that, and from that side to this, as the copier and the copied shift their roles from this to that.

An addiction to “uniqueness"

The net of all this copying is that you look like me, and I look like you. It's not just fifty shades of grey; it's billions of shades of grey. We are all cast from the same grey cloth, and we collaborate fast and furiously to make sure that it all stays as grey as grey can be.

“But I am a unique individual!" you exclaim, with more than just a little rancor. “I am not like everyone else!" To this I say in a rather professorial manner, “Well, yes and no! Yes, there are seeds of uniqueness in all of us. But “unique" is a fuzzy word that can mean different things to different people. Just because you wear a tattoo on your left shoulder, and I don't, doesn't make either of us unique."

It is often trivial, and – ironically – copied things that people often view as ways of differentiating from one another. Even more ironically, it is these kinds of attempts at being “unique" that thrust an individual deeper into the morass of gray goo that is the mindless mainstream,

There is a different kind of uniqueness though! Perhaps if we tried a bit less to be unique, we would actually be that in a more organic way. Then we would be true to the one entity that we actually are. You would be you, and I would be me. And suddenly there are a billion points of light streaming from every direction, where there once was a dull greyness that cast an unbearable haze over the universe.

So, let there be light! From you.

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Balaji Prasad is an IIT/IIM graduate, a published author, SAT/ACT Online and Offline Coach, interview, resume, and career coach at NewCranium. Contact: 704.746.9779 or balaji.prasad@newcranium.com