What were you “born into”?


One of my acquaintances has a private jet and generously offers “a lift” to those in need. He provided lifts to a family whose young son needed specialist medical attention in the US on several occasions. This boy had never travelled by plane before. In a way, he was “born into” an elite worldview of transport.

Thankfully, months later, he recovered, but an amusing phenomenon unravelled. When he embarked on his first-ever family holiday abroad, he went to the airport as before, but to a different departure gate. He waited this time longer than usual, he thought to himself. And then he boarded the plane. Oh dear, it wasn’t pretty!

Amidst a flood of tears, he sobbed, “Mommy, Daddy… why are all these people… on our plane!”

Was he a bad kid, or did he not know any better?

Food for thought from Aidan McCullen’s recent Substack post.

We all have biases and mental blindspots, based on our lived experience. What’s normal for you may be abnormal for someone else. What’s easy for you may be difficult for someone else. What’s acceptable for you may be rude to someone else. It’s more understandable for a child to be unaware of their thought processes and simply react, but, as adults, we should make attempts to understand ourselves and control our responses.

Although Aidan is focussing on upbringing and first experiences, we can consider our lives as consisting of multiple parts, multiple chapters, multiple “births”, all of which shape us.

Much of the time we function on varying levels of autopilot, moulded by our life experiences. A great example is physical actions, such as brushing our teeth or driving - we usually aren’t consciously thinking of where our hand is going or where we’re looking, we’re just repeating the actions we’ve internalised. Similarly, we also often respond and react to others on autopilot, before fully considering the situation and the different interpretations or factors. While this allows conversation to flow, it can also result in saying something you later regret.

Pondering this concept can be a powerful tool of self improvement. What have you been “born into”, what beliefs has it instilled in you, and how does it affect you how act? These insights can help you pause before acting and avoid making regrettable decisions.

This can also be applied to others. What might the person you’re interacting with have been “born into”, what beliefs may it have caused them to hold, and can you predict how they might react to different situations? Based on this, you can tailor your approach to best connect with the other person.

I can see two potential traps when contemplating these questions:

  1. Being too extreme. Don’t compare your Western life to someone in abject poverty in an undeveloped country. This might be good as a gratitude practise, but large differences make it hard to see the subtle nuances between your life and those you interact with on a regular basis - and, for your day-to-day life, the nuances are more useful.
  2. Falling into the victim mentality. Don’t obsess over how others have it better than you.. This doesn’t help you grow, only to feel negative feelings of resentment and anger. Focus on how your life is great - although it can also be beneficial to consider if you do have a victim mindset in any areas.

A catalyst for these concept is to speak with others, especially those significantly different from yourself.

Speaking with an obese person made me realise some people don’t know what a healthy diet is. I was (literally) born into a family of farmers, who eat homegrown food instead of highly-processed microwave meals. For me, the latter isn’t food; for the obese person, the latter is the only food they know how to prepare, and the flavours their taste buds have developed to desire. While I don’t have the body of a Greek statue, I know what I could do to get there, and I accept the delta is due to personal choices, not a lack of knowledge.

Speaking with an Asian friend in London made me better understand how racism still exists (even if it’s mostly from thoughtless kids). While I could argue I received some racism when I lived abroad, because I was born into being a heterosexual white educated male, I’m less likely to experience any discrimination, so less likely to notice it. And yet my Asian friend is also privileged by being able to fly half way around the planet to live in a foreign country visa-free - when her grandparents were her age, their country was in the middle of a civil war!

We also fostered when I was young, so I usually had foster siblings. I never had to fear where the next meal came from; they learnt to steal, to ensure their own survival. I never had to fear being beaten; they learnt to lie, to ensure their own safety. In short, I was born into a loving family; they were not.

Of course, these people aren’t powerless to change - growth mindsets are one of the key factors to a successful life. However, activating the mindset, and the motivation to change, is difficult - and that, again, links back to your upbringing and what you’re “born into”.

So, what were you “born into”?