Our culture has a way of collectively falling into the groove of conventional wisdom, whether that means seeing everything through the outdated prism of left vs. right, or willfully blinding ourselves to unpleasant or inconvenient facts. So I want to put the spotlight on three thinkers who are committed to approaching big questions from fresh angles in order to help us arrive at much-needed solutions.
One of these thinkers is Stephen Dubner, the co-author of "Freakonomics" and "Super Freakonomics," whose work amply demonstrates his humor, willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, and passion for starting conversations. In a recent video on HuffPost Business, Dubner asked a question sure to ruffle the feathers of a certain Washington, D.C. resident, of those who would like his job and of the media establishment endlessly obsessing over his every move (to the exclusion of a lot of very worthy stories): How much does the president of the United States really matter? Here are some of Dubner's answers: On the economy? "The president's actual abilities are extremely limited." Education? "The president's more like a cheerleader than an agenda setter." Settling international conflicts? "Most presidents talk loudly and carry a small stick."
Another is Susan Cain, author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking." In her TED talk, Cain recalled getting the message at an early age that there was something wrong about her quiet and introverted style, concluding, "I should be trying to pass as more of an extrovert." This judgment, from others and from herself, caused her to deny who she really was and took her down a path that was very wrong for her: "I became a Wall Street lawyer, of all things, instead of the writer that I had always longed to be - partly because I needed to prove to myself that I could be bold and assertive too."
In "Quiet," Cain traces our society's preference for extroverts back through the years, identifying the causes and effects of the "Extrovert Ideal," the cultural criteria that determine "who we are and whom we admire, how we act at job interviews and what we look for in an employee, how we court our mates and raise our children."
In conversation with me earlier this month, Cain spoke of how she personally has embraced her introversion and shared her insights on how our society can better appreciate those who do not fit the Extrovert Ideal. "The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting," she said. And she chipped away at the conventional wisdom surrounding introverts, extroverts and success. For example, in our society, talkers are widely perceived as smarter than quiet types, even though SAT and grade-point averages reveal that this isn't accurate. "Solitude can be a catalyst to innovation," she said, citing transformative introverts throughout history, from Moses and Jesus to Eleanor Roosevelt and Gandhi.
Finally, there's Michael Sandel, the political philosopher best known for his popular course "Justice" at Harvard, and author of "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets." He writes: "In a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means. The more money can buy, the more affluence -- or the lack of it -- matters." In a talk at HuffPost's offices earlier this month, Sandel said the conventional wisdom that "markets are the primary instrument of achieving the public good" has been on the rise for three decades, beginning with the political ascent of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. And America's unyielding faith in the power of markets - even in the wake of the financial crisis - is nothing less than a threat to our country's soul, he said. "In our society especially, markets seem to embody a certain idea of freedom," Sandel said. "It's a narrow, limited, impoverished idea of freedom - the freedom to buy and trade goods, a consumerist idea of freedom. And it's deeply held."
All of these thinkers, in very different ways, reinforce an important lesson: that conventional wisdom, no matter how deeply held, is often dead wrong. When we assume that it is right, we limit not only the range of our debate, but our chances of arriving at the solutions we so desperately need.
Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.(c) 2012 Arianna Huffington. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.