Byron Katie isn’t the only one out there screaming about questioning one’s established beliefs. Lots of people are–people of all kinds. Most aren’t quite as awe-inspiring as Katie, but they’re pretty cool anyway. Here, a small list of people I find myself thinking about long after reading their stories.
- Gary Taubes argued convincingly against the health and effectiveness of the low-fat diet and quickly became a polarizing figure. (See Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease.)
- Timothy Ferris rethought work efficiency and built a huge, loyal following and a global brand. (Read The Four-Hour Work Week.)
- Josh Waitzkin came up with a unique learning strategy—and won both the U.S. Junior Chess championship and the world champion title in Taiji Push Hands, a martial art. (See The Art of Learning: A Journey In the Pursuit of Excellence.)
- Social media marketers Seth Godin and Jeff Jarvis were among the first to realize the potential of online social media-, gift- and content-based marketing. (Read anything by Godin and What Would Google Do?: Reverse-Engineering the Fastest-Growing Company in the History of the World by Jarvis.)
- Robert Kiyosaki redefined wealth as the ability to live off the interest of your assets (Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!).
- Chris Anderson predicted the future of purchasing patterns (The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More).
- Tony Hsieh created a company devoted primarily to its front-line employees (Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose).
Then, of course, there’s Todd Beamer.
When United Airlines Flight 93 was hijacked on September 11, 2001, this all-American hometown boy from Flint, Michigan helped deflect a terrorist attack. The Wikipedia article on his life tells the story:
“United Flight 93 was scheduled to depart at 8:00am, but the Boeing 757 did not depart until 42 minutes later due to runway traffic delays. Six minutes later, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. 15 minutes later, at 9:03 am, as United Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower, United 93 was climbing to cruising altitude, heading west over New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. At 9:25 am, Flight 93 was above eastern Ohio, and its pilot radioed Cleveland controllers to inquire about an alert that had been flashed on his cockpit computer screen to “beware of cockpit intrusion.” Three minutes later, Cleveland controllers could hear screams over the cockpit’s open microphone. Moments later, the hijackers, led by the Lebanese Ziad Samir Jarrah, took over the plane’s controls, disengaged the autopilot, and told passengers, “Keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board.” Beamer and the other passengers were herded into the back of the plane. The curtain between first class and economy class had been drawn, at which point Beamer saw the pilot and co-pilot lying dead on the floor just outside the curtain, their throats having been cut, as a flight attendant informed him. Within six minutes, the plane changed course and was heading for Washington, D.C.. Several of the passengers made phone calls to loved ones, who informed them about the two planes that had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and the third into the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. Beamer tried to place a credit card call through a phone located on the back of a plane seat, but was routed to a customer-service representative, who passed him on to GTE airphone supervisor Lisa Jefferson. With FBI agents listening in on their call, Beamer informed Jefferson that hijackers had taken over United 93, that one passenger had been killed, and mentioned the dead pilots. He also stated that two of the hijackers had knives, and that one appeared to have a bomb strapped around his waist. When the hijackers veered the plane sharply south, Beamer briefly panicked, exclaiming, “We’re going down! We’re going down!”
At this point, Beamer and several other passengers and crew members decided to ignore the threats of the hijackers and face near-certain death by storming the cockpit and steering the plane into the ground. “The plane was twenty minutes of flying time away from its suspected target.”
Beamer, a baseball player and Sunday school teacher, was survived by his wife and two sons, aged three and one at the time.
What inspires me most about Beamer, and about all of the people in this list, is realizing that at some point, they all had to make a decision. A window opened–whether for minutes, as it did for Beamer, or for months, as it likely did for some of the others–during which they had to define who they were, no matter the consequences. And each of them was able to get it right.
By a general standard, I’m not a fearful person. Not shy. No huge paranoias or looming existential concerns. And yet, the opinions of others–or, more accurately, the possible opinions of others–give me pause on a nearly daily basis. Talking to other moms about various parenting decisions, for instance. Talking about a controversial book I like, or the fact that I’m a libertarian. Just earlier today I found myself seriously considering what my neighbors would think if I plant a bunch of new trees in our yard. Twenty trees, but still. They’re just trees.
What the heck?
I don’t know what it’s like to be Gary Taubes or anyone a tenth as influential as he. But if he can face the ire of entire organizations devoted to vegetarianism, grain production and nutrition information dissemination, plus a lot of reputable scientists and in-person hecklers, I think I can plant any damn number of trees I want.
I can make my yard into a damned forest.
I can question my beliefs–even the ones that people swear are healthy and important.
And I can swear once in a while, too, damn it.
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