Changing Your Mind Essay

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I changed my mind.

Those sound like dirty little words, don’t they? That sentence is short. But, it holds a lot of meaning—and, if you’re like most of us, likely a lot of shame and regret as well.

Yes, there’s a healthy dose of guilt that comes along with suddenly shifting course—this undeniable feeling that had you just been smarter, better-informed, or more prepared, you’d never be in this mess to begin with. You’re a flip-flopper, a flake, and an undependable person who can’t follow through on even your very best intentions.

We all do it. Whether it’s something as simple as backing out on plans or something as major as completely switching careers , we tend to beat ourselves up over the fact that we’ve had a total change of heart. After all, you laid all of that groundwork only to decide to go in a completely different direction—and that’s worthy of all of the self-loathing you can muster.

But, I’m here to challenge the idea that simply changing your mind is some sort of sin or mistake—that it’s an undesirable behavior or characteristic that immediately qualifies you as unreliable, careless, and indeterminate.

When it comes to describing people who have the guts to change course, I’d actually use different adjectives altogether. What ones, exactly? Well, words like self-aware, brave, and constantly evolving seem to fit the bill.

Allow me to explain. I think there’s this immense pressure on all of us to always have everything all figured out—to have this systematic approach to our lives that leads us to exactly where we want to be (or, at least, where we’re supposed to want to be).

By the time we’re old enough to talk, everyone around us is asking us what we want to be when we grow up. And, while few people likely hold you to the answer you spit out right then and there (thank goodness, considering I wanted to be a bird for most of my childhood), it sets the tone and sends the message that we’re supposed to always be working toward something specific. We’re expected to set the end goal , and then it’s up to us to forge our path and follow the necessary steps to finally reach that objective.

But, what happens when you get your hands on new information and new experiences that tempt you to stray from that path that’s been laid out ahead of you? Well, needless to say, that’s where the guilt comes into play.

However, changing your mind and adjusting your approach isn’t something worthy of shame or remorse. Instead, it’s a natural part of growing. It’s totally understandable (and even recommended) to find out what you like, what you don’t like, and keep making changes from there.

Just think: What if Walt Disney had decided to stick it out as a newspaper editor? What if Albert Einstein convinced himself he needed to remain focused on his career as a patents clerk? What if Buddha had chosen to stay with his cushy life as an Indian prince, rather than venturing out to find his own values and ideas? What if doctors were so stuck in their ways that they refused to tweak their methods with new technologies and tools?

Yes, making big changes can be scary—I won’t even try to deny that. But, I think it’s important to recognize that sticking with something (particularly if you’re craving something totally different) doesn’t make you dedicated, loyal, or committed. No, it really just makes you stuck.

If you ask me, changing your mind is really the mark of someone who’s brave and self-aware—someone who’s willing to try new things and has the courage to admit when they aren’t exactly working out.

So, the next time you feel the least bit tempted to launch into a spell of self-loathing when you have a change of heart? I hope you remember this message—and I hope that I’ve changed your mind about changing your mind.

Photo of man thinking courtesy of Dougal Waters/Getty Images.

Zadie Smith, the prodigiously gifted English novelist, seems to have been caught in the tangle of literary debate from the beginning. White Teeth, her first novel, became doubly famous for being the subject of James Wood’s essay “Hysterical Realism” (first published in The New Republic, and later collected in The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel) in which the esteemed critic, at his polemical best, offered a devastating analysis of big contemporary novelists such as David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo, writers for whom the novel is a “perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity.” White Teeth, Mr. Wood suggested, carried within itself an “instructive squabble” between two different modes of writing: one that dares a picture of life (“at her best, she approaches characters and makes them human”), and one that wants only a spectacle (“formally, her book lacks moral seriousness”). “Which way,” Mr. Wood asked, “will the ambitious contemporary novel go?”

To her own credit, Ms. Smith has herself emerged as a promising critic and essayist, devoting to literature the seriousness that her novels have occasionally lacked. (On Beauty, despite its flaws, was a far better book than either of its two predecessors). Readers of The Guardian, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books will be happy to recognize in her new collection of essays (Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, The Penguin Press) many of the brilliant pieces Ms. Smith has written over the years: her defense of E.M. Forster, her account of rereading Nabokov and Barthes, and not least her attempt to come to terms with the criticism of James Wood, “Two Directions for the Novel.”

Changing My Mind is divided, perhaps arbitrarily, into five sections: “Reading”; “Being”; “Feeling”; “Seeing”; “Remembering.” The first section, which is also the most interesting, collects her critical essays, and what unites them (and gives the section a kind of intellectual coherence) are the genuinely interesting critical observations gathered throughout. In an essay on Zora Neale Hurston, to give just one example, Smith argues that “it is not the Black Female Literary Tradition that makes Hurston great. It is Hurston herself,” while at the same time acknowledging, in her own identity as a Black Female writer, that colorblindness in fiction has yet to be achieved. “I always thought I was a colorblind reader,” she writes, “until I read this novel, and that ultimate cliché of black life that is inscribed in the word soulful took on a new weight and sense for me.”

“Two Directions for the Novel,” Ms. Smith’s now-famous predilection for the postmodern avant-garde over the traditional lyrical-realist novel, is a review of both Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Netherland, or so Ms. Smith’s argument goes, is exemplary of an obsolete kind of novel writing, the sort that began with Flaubert in the 19th Century and has continued (apparently) unencumbered until today. Netherland is thus “precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction.” But what is strange about Smith’s reading of Netherland is that it seems entirely at odds with the novel itself; because of its perfection, she argues, it forces the lyrical-realist novel into “a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.” Netherland, in other words, is fully aware of its alleged complacency. “It’s a novel that wants you to know that it knows that you know it knows.” In the midst of these “unhealthy times,” Tom McCarthy’s Remainder emerges to “shake the novel out of its present complacency.” It is the progressive path forward to Netherland’s nostalgic conservatism.

Smith, I think, misreads or misinterprets Netherland, giving it an unfair treatment, but the greatest fallacy of “Two Directions for the Novel” is stated plainly in its title: two directions. Is the future of novel writing necessarily limited to one direction of writing over another? Are lyrical realism and the avant-garde mutually exclusive? Surely the novel-form is flexible enough to accommodate O’Neill and McCarthy. In one sense a response to James Wood’s question of which way the contemporary novel will go, Smith provides as her answer the conquering of one novel form over another.

If “Two Directions for the Novel” offers a somewhat ungenerous view, it is in stark contrast to the generousness so beautifully expressed in “Speaking Tongues,” an essay from the book’s “Being” section. Mixing personal experience with the hopes for Barack Obama’s coming presidency (the essay was written in November 2008), Smith makes a wonderful argument for the advantages of what she calls “the multiple sensibility,” or the sensibility of a great artist, and sees in Obama the possibility of that rarest of things: a politician with an artistic sensibility. “For reasons that are obscure to me, those qualities we cherish in our artists, we condemn in our politicians.” Before skeptics can brush away this confession as simple naiveté, Smith rightly invokes Shakespeare:

Even more than for his wordplay we cherish him for his lack of allegiance. Our Shakespeare sees always both sides of a thing; he is black and white, male and female – he is everyman. The giant lacunae in his biography are merely a convenience; if any new facts of religious or political affiliations were ever to arise, we would dismiss them in our hearts anyway. Was he, for example, a man of Rome or not? He has appeared, to generations of readers, not of one religion but of both, in truth, beyond both. Born into the middle of Britain’s fierce Catholic-Protestant culture war, how could the bloody absurdity of those years not impress upon him a strong sense of cultural contingency?

Smith is wise enough to recognize an element of incompatibility between the artist and the politician (unlike politicians, “Shakespeare’s art, the very medium of it, allowed him to do what civic officers and politicians can’t seem to: speak simultaneous truths”), but her hope, implicit in the beautiful passage above, that public officials might at least look upon the Bard as a philosophical role model, is a hope that deserves to be nourished. 

Much of the remaining four sections of Changing my Mind – “Being”; “Seeing”; “Feeling”; “Remembering” – are very uneven in their quality. “That Crafty Feeling,” a lecture on the nitty-gritty elements of fiction writing, only confirms my belief that there is nothing quite as dull as a writer talking about how he or she writes (in the morning, in the evening, at home, at a café, upside down, etc.), whereas the essays on Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo are lucid and timely (“You can have something resembling Madonna’s body, if you try. But you cannot have Garbo’s face.”) But the major failing of Changing My Mind is the inclusion of something as frivolous as a film review of Date Movie (It is, Smith concludes, is “the worst movie I have ever seen” – what did she expect?) Smith’s admirers are forever going on about her ability to consume serious literature and pop culture (even of the lowest sort), but it is to some extent her biggest limitation. Despite the obvious pleasures and gems of Changing my Mind, I can’t help but nourish a hope that Fail Better, that “solemn, theoretical book about writing” that Ms. Smith alludes to in her foreword, might eventually make it into print.

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