I’ve always liked acronyms, and I’ve come up with the perfect one to encapsulate the 4 main types of tradition that dominate our lives:
CRAP. A fitting acronym for most traditions, in my opinion. You see, when I hear the word tradition, another more insidious word comes to mind: Routine.
To the creative, the adventurous, and the free spirited, the word routine absolutely reeks of inhibition, boredom, and staleness. Same old, same old. Gag.
“Tradition is an explanation for acting without thinking.” – Grace McGarvie
In a zoo, everything is very regimented. Breakfast at 8 a.m., lunch at 12 p.m., dinner at 5 p.m., doctor checkup twice a year, outdoor time twice a day, etc. Sounds like a prison movie to me. Don’t drop the soap.
Traditions are just that, a part of your cage, keeping you from becoming well and truly free. Traditions fill you with guilt, burden you with unwanted responsibility, eliminate options, and shame you into submission. Woe is he who breaks from tradition!
Before we go any further, let’s dig deeper into each of the components that make up this pile of CRAP:
Cultural – A significant portion of tradition falls into this bucket, regardless of where you live. Cultural traditions are all of the things that are forced on you as a normal part of existing within the society that surrounds you.
Depending on where you live, cultural traditions might involve:
- Going out for drinks after a long day of work.
- Bowing as a sign of respect.
- Saying “bless you” whenever someone sneezes.
- Being limited in life because of your place within a caste system.
- How you dress, and in turn how you are treated based upon how you dress.
- Determining who you can and can’t marry.
- Men working and women staying at home.
- The firstborn son taking care of the parents, and/or taking over the family business.
- Attending college.
- Strict ceremonies that must be followed.
I could probably go on forever, but you get the gist.
Religious – Ahh, religion. The creator of zealots, the starter of wars, the destroyer of nations. There are few topics on Earth as touchy and complicated as religion.
Part of what makes religious tradition so dangerous is that it is almost inseparably connected to all of the facets of tradition.
Religion tends to be so deeply threaded and ingrained into society that it becomes almost impossible to escape from it (just look at the immense Biblical influence on the US Judicial System).
One of the hallmarks of religion is the concept of faith, but whenever I hear someone say, “Just have faith,” my brain automatically translates that as, “I don’t know, so stop asking questions I can’t answer.”
The dangers of religion, and the reason that I include it in this list, are threefold:
- Too many religious people follow blindly, never thinking for themselves and never even fully understanding what it is they believe in. Too many people know only the Cliff Notes version of their religion, if that.
- Religion makes heavy use of fear as a means of control. I automatically distrust anything or anyone that tries to rule via fear.
- Most people are raised in a religion, and that sort of early childhood indoctrination is little better than brainwashing. This makes it difficult to examine your religion (or religion in general) objectively as you get older. We’ll cover this in more depth in the next chapter.
Again, don’t get me wrong, religion isn’t automatically good or bad…it’s just a framework. It can make your life better, or worse, depending on how you apply the framework.
However, you should be acutely aware that religion is rife with cognitive biases. From loss aversion and survivorship bias to the backfire effect, bandwagon effect, availability cascade, illusory correlation…I could go on.
If you want religion in your life, all power to you. Just make sure you’re making that choice objectively, after careful thought and study, paying close attention to the power of the cognitive biases that hold sway.
Ancestral – When I say ancestral, I mean family traditions. To be fair, there could be some pretty heavy overlap with cultural and religious traditions, but not necessarily. What sort of family traditions might be holding you back? Here are a few for thought:
- Vacations or holiday celebrations each year where attendance is pretty much mandatory. (I.e. skip it and you’ll hear about it forever.)
- Attending a certain school, or college in general (lots of overlap here with cultural tradition).
- Supporting and/or hating certain sports teams.
- Entering a certain profession because it’s a family tradition (cop, military, doctor, etc.).
- Naming conventions (giving children a certain name because it’s a family name).
- Taking up certain hobbies (i.e. Dad played a certain sport, so you do too).
Anything that is done by rote, “just because” or “because that’s the way we do things”, is something to be wary of.
With family traditions in particular, there is often immense pressure to conform to tradition. Family members who rock the boat are often picked on, shunned, or possibly even outcast.
Personal – Last but not least, personal traditions…better known as habits. Wearing a certain type of clothing, eating certain types of food, frequenting the same handful of places, and only dating a certain type of person are habits, and all habits are born of repetition.
Habits can have an incredible variety of negative effects on your life, from health issues and patterns of joblessness to criminal activity and beyond. Of course, habits can have positive effects as well.
The trick with habits is to A. become aware of them, and B. determine if they are worth keeping or worth overcoming. Because habits form so easily, you may be entirely unaware that something has become a habit, so careful introspection is needed.
Though personal habits may have the fewest number of external influences, they can still be some of the hardest to overcome.
And there you have it, CRAP. Once you’re made aware of something, it becomes easier to see it going forward because your mind views it differently.
For example, have you ever bought a car, and noticed shortly after that a TON of people seem to have the same car as you? This is called the Frequency Illusion.
The number of people driving the same type of car hasn’t changed, but your awareness of that car as it appears around you has changed drastically.
So it is with CRAP. Personally, I’ve found the easiest way to increase your awareness of it (and to avoid stepping in it) is through a three-step process:
1. Sit down with a pen and a pad of paper, and tear off 4 sheets (or you can use a spreadsheet and multiple columns or tabs). At the top of each page, write down each of the 4 elements of tradition, one on each page.
Now, lay out all the sheets and start adding to each as things come to mind. Try to think of things you do regularly. Mentally go through your average day. Think back on your childhood. Think about the city/state/country where you grew up.
Next, ask your friends, family and co-workers if they can think of any things that you seem to do habitually, or without thinking. If they ask why, just say it’s a self-improvement project.
As you work on this list over time, you will quickly become more and more aware of the things that you do out of habit or adhere to because of one tradition or another.
2. Now that you have your list, you need to go through each item and classify it as positive, neutral or negative.
This is going to be a bit tricky, because the brain strongly resists change and is going to want to classify most things as positive or neutral right off the bat.
It helps me to think of things in terms of opportunity cost. I.e. “What am I possibly passing up or missing out on down the road by doing this today?”
3. And, last but not least, now that you have your list of positive, neutral, and negative traditions, it’s time to start eliminating the negatives.
Any negative tradition needs to be expelled from your life in order for you to be free. Life is too short to allow anything, tradition or otherwise, to prevent you from truly living.