What do you believe?
I’m not asking about your religious faith, although it may form part of your belief system.
I’m asking about your convictions – What makes life worth living? How are you choosing to live? And what is your essential nature as a human being?
You might not be aware, but somewhere inside you, there are answers to these questions. And they show up in your words and actions.
But the degree of consciousness you bring to your beliefs is of paramount importance. For one, it paves the way to a more fulfilling, meaningful life. This is why I maintain a Living Document of highly resonant quotes and passages, which I call “core beliefs”.
In this post, I’ll describe exactly why this habit of clarifying my core beliefs has been a catalyst in my personal growth. I’ll also invite you to try it for yourself.
But first, it might help to explain exactly what I mean – and don’t mean – by a “core belief”.
What’s on this page
What are core beliefs?
To believe an idea means to stand behind it with conviction.
This isn’t the same as holding an opinion – an opinion is a judgement based on fact or observation. It’s our honest attempt to draw reasonable conclusions.
We may have an opinion on ‘kindness’, for example:
“The world would be a better place if everyone was kinder to one another.”
That’s a clear opinion.
Maybe the speaker has witnessed unkindness, prompting them to make a judgement call – more kindness is needed for the sake of human flourishing.
Belief, on the other hand, has a different quality.
Were the speaker’s opinion to mature into a belief, here’s how it might be expressed:
“I believe in kindness.”
We’ve left the realm of theoretical abstraction and stepped into conviction.
When we genuinely believe in something, we feel it with deeper layers of our being. And over time, we might even develop the courage to express our truth through action. This is where hypocrisy ends and congruence begins.
Now we’ve reviewed the difference between belief and opinion, let’s turn our attention to core beliefs.
In my book, a core belief is simply the articulation of a powerful inner truth. Of course, that begs the question, “what’s an ‘inner truth’?”
An inner truth is a truth so true, that we feel like laughing when we read it, or maybe even crying. We want to shout it from the rooftops, “YES! That’s what I believe!”
Okay, perhaps that’s a little dramatic. But you see what I mean.
Core beliefs are so undeniable to our authentic selves, that being able to finally articulate them feels like a relief. They point to who we are, and they invite us – no, call us – to shift our conditioned self-perception, worldview, and sometimes entire way of living. There’s no turning back.
Our mental defences usually don’t survive contact with a core belief. It burrows through our habitual thinking, and we resonate from a place beyond the cognitive.
One reason I read so many books is that many of my beliefs remain undiscovered and unarticulated. Like many of us, they’re repressed in our unconscious.
But if we want to, we can change that. We can clarify our core beliefs, and bravely permit them to guide us through the thousands of decisions we make each day.
Before expanding on why this practice is so useful, I want to make three quick distinctions. In my view, core beliefs are not:
1. Conditioned beliefs
As I’ve mentioned, core beliefs act as signposts, pointing the way to a place beyond the cognitive. You could call that place spirit, heart, inner wisdom, or inner truth; the words don’t matter that much.
This is where I’m departing from mainstream psychology. For instance, PsychCentral defines core belief as “a fixed thought or idea that affects how you see the world. It can be positive, negative, or neutral.”
According to this definition, which is rooted in a mechanistic view of human nature, a core belief might go something like, “I am not worthy of love.”
While this belief might drive out behaviour subconsciously, to call it a “core belief” isn’t very inspiring, is it? It conjures the visual of something hijacking our core, like a virus infecting a computer.
But in actuality, “I am not worthy of love” is just another conditioned belief. It might do a lot of damage, and be hard to move past, but we needn’t identify with such thoughts.
If we wade in and label our thoughts ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – or even ‘helpful’ or ‘unhelpful’ – we’re only splitting our conditioned psyche into smaller and smaller pieces.
There’s a saying in Buddhism, “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”
The same is true of the human mind.
And when our minds settle, they become receptive to wisdom – both internal and external. We can then trade our anxiety, fear, panic, and dread for inspiration, joy, possibility, and truth.
Core beliefs (to me) are ideas which point in this direction.
2. Blind faith
Core beliefs are also not the same as blind faith.
The dictionary defines blind faith as “belief without true understanding, perception, or discrimination.”
Blind faith is believing, and then hoping the belief to be true – often while ignoring those who disagree.
On the other hand, core beliefs tie into our experience in a real way, whether on the sensory, emotional, or intuitive (gut) level.
But this is only the initial spark; we never have to accept beliefs unquestioningly. We might still want to test them, refine them using logic/reason, or let them ferment for a while – more on that shortly.
3. Mental models
When it comes to my ongoing education, I’m a big fan of mental models. But these factual, theoretical interpretations of reality are not the same as core beliefs.
Mental models seek to explain the world, whereas core beliefs give meaning to our way of inhabiting that world.
Mental models lean into the objective, whereas core beliefs have a subjective flavour; they add richness to our inner lives where mental models add complexity. I’m not saying complexity is ‘bad’. But I am saying it doesn’t lead to a fulfilling, meaningful existence.
To illustrate, take the metaphor of building a house (an example of a mental model).
Our mental model represents the floorplan, foundations, furnishings, and so on. This all determines whether we erect a minimalist bungalow as opposed to a high-spec mansion.
Core beliefs, on the other hand, represent the intangible feeling of being ‘home’.
I can be an expert on all things cosmological – the Big Bang, black holes, quantum theory – but do these mental models lead me to feel at home in the universe? This is the difference between inner truth and outer truth.
3 reasons to clarify your core beliefs
To make the benefits more explicit, here are 3 reasons I clarify my core beliefs on an ongoing basis. If you want to skip this section, here’s the short version: this habit is an avenue to all kinds of personal growth and self-understanding.
1. Self-knowledge catalyst
One of my favourite films is The Truman Show.
The final scene always gives me a chill. As Truman’s epic voyage of self-liberation ends, we turn to the two parking attendants. We get the impression they’ve been loyal viewers, perhaps glued to their screen for years, if not decades.
And how do they respond to this climactic moment?
They simply ask, “What else is on?”
I can never help but judge those characters harshly. But then again, I recognise the genius of this scene – it’s holding up a mirror.
As an avid reader, I love learning for its own reward, and seeking out transformative books to challenge my perspective. But on the other hand – and I’m embarrassed to admit – reading used to be a mechanical, mindless activity for me.
I would read books just to say I’d read them. And I wanted to show off how many books I could read in 1 year. Breadth presided over depth. Rather than pausing to digest, I was ravenous for the next nugget of wisdom. I was hoarding for a winter which never seemed to arrive.
But more recently, I’m carving out time to really chew over the material. Sometimes this means putting new books on hold, while I revisit old notes. Other times, I decide to reread a particularly rich book with a higher level of consciousness.
Never before have we been so flooded with opinions – as of writing, 4.4 million blog posts are published every day. It’s staggering. And of course, this doesn’t include all the educational resources at our fingertips; there are 56 million Wikipedia entries alone.
Yet, in the midst of this sea of words, isn’t it easy to feel completely lost? Who on earth am I? What do I believe? What do I want from life?
Those questions are beckoning us to go deeper; to create order from chaos, and meaning from the meaningless. Luckily, we’re surrounded by tools with which to do so.
For instance, you have access to the complete works of every great philosopher who walked the planet, from the comfort of your toilet seat. Don’t become desensitised to how miraculous that is.
I don’t mean to sound haughty – philosophy might not be your thing. The source of wisdom is less important than our decision to engage with the world of ideas in a conscious way. When this happens, something shifts. We learn to discern how we actually feel about that book, article, podcast, video, or even conversation we’re having.
And when something hits the right spot, we can investigate further – why does this idea speak to me? The more attention we bring to such questions, the more we’ll understand who we are, and what we hold to be true.
What’s more, our core beliefs begin to coalesce into themes, signposting our values.
When I first started logging my core beliefs, for instance, I saw that many of them revolved around the idea of “presence” – here are 2 quotes from my Core Belief document under that heading:
- “The present is all you can give up, since it is all you have. And what you do not have, you cannot lose” ~ Marcus Aurelius
- “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes” ~ Marcel Proust
I became conscious of presence being a core value – an essential aspect of a life well-lived.
If life is the ocean, and you’re the ship’s captain, think of your core values as the stars. Sometimes there might be clouds in the way, but they’re always up there. Your core values are principles to live by and cherish daily.
Say someone asks me for feedback on an essay they wrote. To me, it needs work. Given that I value honesty – and I’m conscious of the fact – I won’t try to brush them off with a reductive pleasantry like “great job”.
But this doesn’t call for bluntness. If I also value compassion – which I do – then I’ll temper my honesty with kindness, making sure to express my thoughts in a way that gives them hope.
This is a simple example, but some core values are harder to grasp. For instance, do you value “freedom”? If so, can you explain what it means to you, and why? This can be surprisingly hard.
Core values are a significant form of self-knowledge, and logging my core beliefs helps me track their evolution over time. And one reason for this evolution is all the writing I do, both publicly and privately…
2. Purposeful self-expression
Sometimes an idea resonates with me, and I feel it holds a kernel of truth without quite knowing why. Writing allows me to engage with that truth and own it for myself. As referenced earlier, this separates core beliefs from blind faith.
There’s no need to accept any idea at face value, even it does fire us up. Sometimes they need to percolate for a while, before we hold them up to the bright light of reason.
As I said, we need to construct our own maps of meaning, and our beliefs are important tools for doing so. Writing is how I polish and refine these tools before allowing them to rejig my psyche unchecked.
It’s interesting to look at my blog archive. I can see a clear shift in tone, with earlier posts focused more on mental models, explainers, and opinion pieces. But more recently, I’m drawn to weightier themes like truth, fulfilment, and freedom.
My Core Beliefs document is one reason for this shift. It continues to open up fertile ground in which to play with stimulating ideas. And when I start new articles, my first move is often to peruse my core beliefs for inspiration.
But as a reminder, creativity isn’t limited to writers and artists. We’re all creating, all the time. Every time we open our mouths, we’re creating a conversation. How much thought goes into it? To what degree have we reflected on who we are, and what we believe in?
Without a purpose for expressing ourselves – and a worthwhile purpose might simply be authentic self-expression – we’re lost at sea. Because if we don’t have a sense of who we are, how do we know when we’re hitting the mark?
3. Stolen insights
Your life is a canvas – and you’re the artist, the architect, the grand creator.
One myth about creative insight is that it happens in a vacuum. We imagine the lone genius locked away, their spirit possessed by fits of creativity. I used to try and live this way. I thought I had to figure everything out alone, and it felt like staring into the abyss.
Pablo Picasso is often quoted as saying, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”
In essence, he meant that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
If we need clues on how to live our best, most fulfilling, most meaningful lives, we’re already standing on the shoulders of giants. This is why most of my core beliefs take the form of quotes.
Where these words come from is ultimately immaterial, but it just so happens that many, many thinkers before me have managed to articulate the truth better than I’ll ever be able to. It never ceases to amaze me how people who lived centuries ago, in entirely different cultures, could have left behind words that echo so profoundly to this day:
“Stop leaving and you will arrive. Stop searching and you will see. Stop running away and you will be found.”
But remember, core beliefs only spark something. Others can shine the torch, but we have to find the way ourselves.
Think of it this way. Would you expect a biomedical researcher to justify their conclusions without reference to any literature? Of course not; that would be ludicrous. They, and everyone around them, would doubt the whole thing.
Similarly, why should you expect yourself to have all the answers? Well, you actually do have all the answers – but discovering them doesn’t have to be a lonely endeavour.
We’re each wise in our own way, but we’re also a microscopic piece of the whole. And your Core Beliefs document can help you to track and navigate the magnificent array of insights already out there.
Charting the evolution of your beliefs is also a humbling experience. When you immerse yourself in other people’s ideas, and contemplate them deeply, it has the effect of weakening your attachment to them. The goal is to develop what some people have called “strong convictions, loosely held”.
3 practical suggestions
This has been a long post, so I’ll finish up with 3 practical tips for building your own Core Beliefs document.
1) Create your workflow
First things first – choose where to store your Core Beliefs. For the sake of simplicity, I maintain a Google Document, divided into two overarching sections:
- Beliefs about Human Nature: in this section, I log my core beliefs on what it means to be human. What do I believe is our essential nature? If you think about it, this is an area that divides us into many different camps.
- Life Philosophy: in this (larger) section, I track my beliefs around how to live. There are numerous subsections; What do I believe about parenting? What does love mean? Is there value in solitude? The possibilities are limitless.
However, I suggest not starting with preset headings; at first, just start adding to your document. Over time, it’ll make sense to periodically organise your core beliefs into themes.
I update my Core Beliefs document as often as needed. Most of the time, I add to it while reviewing book notes, though I also update it on an ad-hoc basis.
When it comes to workflow, it’s also useful to create a system for ‘capturing’ these ideas. I read books using Google Play Books, which like most e-readers, has the option of highlighting in different colours. I’ve assigned Yellow to represent a standard note, Red to denote a ‘Core Belief’, and Green to signal an ‘Actionable Item’.
Whether you prefer ebooks, physical books, podcasts, or some other medium, having a solid capture system will pay off dividends to your future self.
2) Explore seminal works
Now I’ve covered the logistics of capturing and logging core beliefs, let’s think about where to unearth them.
99% of modern self-help bestsellers simply repackage old ideas.
There’s nothing wrong with that – some of these publications are truly absorbing. And many have exposed me to ideas and thinkers that speak to me. Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck is a great example.
On the other hand, there’s great value in exploring the works of seminal thinkers independently. Modern books are like training wheels, but sooner or later we need to take them off.
For one, this avoids Chinese whispers. There’s always the risk that ideas will lose their original meaning, or become subtly distorted in some way. In the extreme, they can even be hijacked for nefarious purposes, as anyone familiar with Darwinian evolutionary theory according to Adolf Hitler will testify.
In other words, going to the source gives us context.
If you’re interested in themes like ‘meaning’, for example, you have a long line of seminal thinkers to delve into before approaching bestsellers yet to stand the test of time. You could look at Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, or venture way back to see what Greek philosophers like Epicurus had to say. Above all, really engage with what those people believed.
One final suggestion is to quit often. There are an estimated 170 million books in existence. At a pace of 1 book every 2 weeks, it would take you 6.5 million years to read them all. Talk about the need to be selective!
If a book isn’t capturing my attention beyond the 50-page mark, it’s usually a “no” for now. Don’t make quitting your worst enemy; make it your best friend.
3) Effortless retention
This one’s more of a bonus tip – use flashcards (sparingly) to retain what you come across.
When I discover a highly resonant quote, I sometimes copy it into spaced repetition software called Anki. In the past, I used Anki to memorise important material from medical school, but more recently I’ve repurposed it for all sorts of things. (There are many Anki tutorials out there, but here’s one you could start with.)
Why make this extra effort? I have a few reasons:
- Respect. My memory is terrible, so unless a quote has a real zing to it, I’ll probably forget the wording. Remember my point about Chinese whispers? I also tend to forget the attribution. Making an effort to remember is my way of paying respect. And as a bonus, it prevents me from fumbling mid-conversation; “wait… who said that again? I’ve drawn a total blank…” ← This becomes a thing of the past.
- Creativity. By reviewing these flashcards, I embed the ideas into my subconscious, and they become an extension of me. This does wonders for my creativity. When I’m writing, I’m more likely to hit that coveted ‘flow state’ – just the right quote pops up to support my argument at just the right time, and it’s often one I committed to Anki. It’s a joy to realise that beneath conscious awareness, my mind has been connecting the dots for me.
- Fulfilment. This reason is most important. Think of it this way: you can stock the pantry with unhealthy convenience foods, you can leave it empty, or you can fill it with delicious, nutritious items. If I’m going to use my mind (make a meal), I want to do so productively. The material for ‘thinking’ had better be rich and wholesome. Otherwise, I’ll be left with my default thinking patterns, which too often veer into anxious daydreaming. Having Core Beliefs in the front and centre of awareness keeps me grounded if my mind starts carrying me off into fruitless territory.
To walk my own talk, what better way to conclude than to share with you a quote, directly from my own Core Belief document. Here it is:
“There are two different types of people in the world – those who want to know, and those who want to believe.”
Both types of people live within us – which will you choose to be?