Think for Yourself: Why Being a Conformist in Life is Dangerous

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“Humanity’s most valuable assets have been the non-conformists. Were it not for the non-conformists, he who refuses to be satisfied to go along with the continuance of things as they are, and insists upon attempting to find new ways of bettering things, the world would have known little progress, indeed.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

Are you a Republican because everyone else in your family is? Did you go to college because all your friends were going to college? What about your job? Did you become an accountant or lawyer because that was what was expected of you? What about religion? That’s a tricky one. Are you a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu just because your parents were? Are you happy with those decisions?

Well I’d like to put it to you that sheep-like beliefs are dangerous. Conformity is dangerous. It is dangerous for our society and it is dangerous for your happiness. In this post I am going to talk about why you need to learn to think for yourself if you want to be truly happy.

What is conformity?

Conformity is a process by which a person’s attitudes and beliefs become influenced by other people. It can be something that happens quite openly like peer pressure or it can be a more subtle influence that takes place over a number of years. The result is that you end up behaving like everybody else. That is why it is called being a sheep.

How sheep-like are you?

As you sit there reading this post you might think that you are pretty free, independent and that you don’t let other people’s beliefs influence you. You might be right. However, conformity can be extremely subtle and you might not notice how influenced you have become. Here are some ways in which you might conform without realizing:

  • the way you eat food
  • your manners
  • the way you drive your car
  • the type of music you like
  • the news channel you watch
  • the religion you practice
  • the political party you vote for
  • the job you have

What do you think? Are you a conformist in any way? I am betting that everyone here drives on the correct side of the road! And that is a good thing. You should continue to drive on the correct side of the road. That is a good type of conformity. Not all conformity is dangerous. But it does prove that you have, in some ways, become a conformist. Perhaps now you are open to the possibility that you conform in other more dangerous ways.

Why being a conformist is dangerous

Go on. Admit it. There are some things you do in life only because everyone else is doing it. Human beings are pack animals. They like to be in a group and they like to be like other people in that group. Being different is not seen as a good thing because it is threatening. And so we conform. We try to be like everyone else.

And here is why that is dangerous: because critical thinking goes out the window. Logic goes out the window. We don’t stop and think about what we are doing because everyone else is doing it. We forget to question whether it is right or wrong and we just follow the other sheep.

Take the example of religious extremists. These people have conformed to a particular ideal out of fear and they accept their cause based on blind faith. They do not analyze or use critical thought to come to a logical conclusion. This is extremely dangerous for society because these people are so open to negative influence. They will follow instructions without question and carry out horrible acts in the name of conformity.

Much religious sectarianism, racism, political hatred, violence and even war would be avoided if people would only think for themselves. I truly believe this.

Why being a conformist makes you unhappy

Creative Commons License photo credit: mrido

Now let’s take a look at something a little closer to home. I believe that one reason many people are unhappy in their day to day lives is because they have spent so many years conforming to an ideal that they don’t particularly agree with.

The classic example is a young kid who wants to be an artist or novelist but, at the instruction of his parents, goes to college instead to get a Degree in Law or Business. The kid has taken the so-called “right track” but has never really pursued anything that he is really interested in. He is conforming to his parent’s wishes.

We do this all the time. We conform to things because other people want us to. We are afraid to think for ourselves and we are afraid to be different. It is very sad. Instead of setting up our own business we get a 9 to 5. Instead of traveling the world after high school we go straight to college. We seem to live our whole lives in the gray area – the area that is neither here nor there but feels good because everyone else is doing it.

Why we need to think for ourselves

One of the most important things the Buddha ever said was this:

“As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, So, students, should you accept my words – after testing them, and not merely out of respect.” – the Buddha

He is introducing critical thinking into his religion. Here the Buddha is saying that it is not enough just to have faith in something because a priest or great person said so. You must use your own intelligence and critical analysis to decide for yourself if this great person is speaking something factual. It is a more scientific approach to life.

If we want to be happy in this world, and if we want to create a more peaceful place for our children, we need to start thinking for ourselves. We need to question, ponder and analyze the world around us. Do not accept things because your family or priest or political leader told you to. Do not accept things because your friends do it. And, perhaps most importantly, don’t accept things because the media says it is the truth. You need to question in order to find the truth. And when you find the truth suffering and hatred dissipates.

Do it before it is too late

There is a great song by John Mayer called No Such Thing and in that song he sings about how he is so happy that he just realized there is no such thing as “the real world”. He is so happy that he has just realized that he doesn’t have to take the “so-called right track” and he is free to blaze his own trail. There is one line in that song that always hits me hard. He says:

“And all of our parents
They’re getting older
I wonder if they’ve wished for anything better
While in their memories
Tiny tragedies

They love to tell you
Stay inside the lines
But something’s better
On the other side.”

– John Mayer, No Such Thing.

Start thinking for yourself today. Don’t wait till you are old and frail to realize that you have spent your entire life doing what everyone else wanted you to do. It is time to follow your passions. It is time to get out and make a difference in your life and in the lives of others. Question the world around you. Question your own life. And question why you do what you do.

Conforming never brought about anything but mediocrity and dangerous blind people.

23 thoughts on “Think for Yourself: Why Being a Conformist in Life is Dangerous

  1. I’ve nothing special to say, just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed this post, one of your best articles so far.

    Unfortunately I think most of the people who read this post are already think this way to some extent, while those who could really use this message are sitting in front of their TV right now…

  2. Hi Jani!

    What you said, in fact, was something quite special. Thank you for letting me know you enjoyed the article – it means a lot.

    Great point about people sitting in front of the television. I hadn’t actually thought about that! Perhaps if The Daily Mind grows enough I’ll take out a 30 minute advert on the TV and whip people’s butts!

    Thanks Jani. Feel free to comment anytime you like.


  3. If you think that we buy our thoughts and behaviors, Jani makes a good point that the majority of your audience is probably in the later stages of the buying cycle. Still, I see this as a foundation piece for future work. Keep it up.

    It’s good to have a reminder every once in a while that non-conformity in even the simple ways can truly transform. Sometimes what we’re missing is the simple.

  4. I think you are underestimating the value of conformity.

    Some of the most pleasant societies to live in have high levels of conformity, for instance the Danes and the Swedes. Homogeneity and conformity breeds community and happiness.

    The real reason many people are unhappy is that they feel disconnected from their community. People feel disconnected from their communities because they are different. America is not as happy and socially connected as other countries because of our new “tossed salad” mentality, as opposed to the “melting pot” we need to be.

    I have lived in Sweden for some period of time and I have lived in America for some period of time and the difference is striking.

    The answer for America is not necessarily to change jobs or go against the grain; this may very well lead to further unhappiness. Instead, you need to find what you have in common with those around you and share that bond and build community. Finding these similarities will create community and cohesiveness.

  5. one of the interesting ironies is when an individual is so hell-bent on being a “non-conformist”, that they conform to that ideology, and *still* don’t behave in a way that is right for themselves.

    this is a great post. thank you.

    the beauty of this journey is that each individual’s path to happiness (or enlightenment, if that is what they are seeking) is completely individual. discernment is key…

  6. I think a lot of this sort of stress in life is having the imagination to live differently while lacking the inertia to actually do so.

    Some people are very happy ignorant conformists. Some people are very miserable intelligent conformists.

    The key to happiness in this regard, I’d say, is more likely to be matching the thought with the action.

  7. I believe it’s much more about making conscious decisions rather than unconscious ones. It doesn’t matter whether you go with the crowd or against it, as long as you make it consciously, and you know why you’re doing that.

    “Some people are very happy ignorant conformists. Some people are very miserable intelligent conformists.”

    I think it’s probably due to one’s luck. In some cases there isn’t any problem with being a conformist, as TDM explained, but in other cases it can be a huge disaster (for example eating habits).

    Some people are non-conformist only for the sake of being a non-conformist, and they do the opposite of everyone else just to feel special and different.
    In my opinion, that’s just as unconscious decision-making as being a conformist…

  8. This is the essence of what I try to get at in my meanderings on (plug, sorry). How do we find the balance between going along to get along – which we all do, whether we like it or not – and being what Gregory Berns calls the Iconoclast in his book of almost the same name (Iconoclassts).

    Fear, he says, keeps us in line sometimes, partly because we don’t want to be ostracized. What struck me the most in his view on fear is that it actually changes the way we see things. I mean really changes our physical interpretation of what we see.

    Very interesting post.

  9. Conformity is a very good thing, when one is conforming to things that are good and wholesome. Rebelling against all auathority, just because it is authority is stupid, and is not thinking for yourself, it’s just automatically reacting in negative mode.

    The point is not if you are going along with people or not, but that you are doing what you do because you have principles that lead you in that direction, and because you have a clear conscience. Questioning things is a good thing, and we should examine everyhting to see if we really agree, that the ideals we have are really ours, or just adopted for convenience — speaking about things that matter, which does not include things like which side of the road you drive on. We don’t need to ponder over things like that.

    The idea that all religious people are dangerous and are out to kill us all — that statement in here shows a total lack of critical thinking, a lot of wilful ignorance, and a very mean spirit toward those who have a love and respect for their Creator, and an appreciation for the fact that we are all going to die and give an account of our lives to that Creator.

  10. Hello! I know this article is very old in comparison to the date today, but I am writing a research paper for my school, and I would love to use some of your article as quotations. However, I didn’t see an individual author (To which I would direct the credit). Do you happen to have the name of the person or group that wrote this article so that I could cite it correctly and give the author the credit they deserve?

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