The importance of diversity

Published on 5/1/2010

How much of our time do we spend thinking about the right way to do things, either under the assumption that we’re wrong, or that everyone else is wrong? I’d like to ask you, is there one right way? Or, are there many right ways?

Obviously, there are a limited number of ways to put on pants, if pants are what you choose to wear. And, if the country you’re in says you must drive on the right side of the road, then in that instance the right must be right. But, when it comes to living your life, who’s to say?


One summer, back in ‘98, I was on a two month road trip with a friend, driving through the southern United States, and up the coast of northern California into Canada. At one point, as we drove through northern California we stopped at an unmarked beach to take a walk on the sand. The sun was blazing hot and the dark sand in the dunes was almost unbearable to walk on. But, the water was far from blue and inviting. It was the color of steel and the waves were fast and strong, and because the beach was short the waves could catch you by surprise and soak your shorts.

I walked about half a mile, just thinking and taking in the beauty. There were hundreds of birds flying around, and down the beach I could see a group of about thirty sandpipers dancing back and forth. They were scurrying in to peck at the freshly washed sand and rushing back to get out of the way of the next incoming wave. I watched them for a minute thinking, “Wow these waves are really coming in, I wonder if they feel like it’s dangerous.” I felt like I could get swallowed up at any second.

I watched a bit longer and pondered their movements. I wondered if their whole dance was completely random or if they all held their positions within the moving flock. To me, it looked as if some of them were risk-takers while others were timid. As I watched it became very clear. It wasn’t random. There were a few that skirted the very edge of the water, a few that stayed far away from all the action, and the majority bunched together somewhere in the middle.

I thought about what it would be like to be one of the sandpipers close to the waves. Would I think, “Why aren’t you all up here in the waves with me, where there’s more food to be had?” Maybe being close to the waves like that was risky and some of the birds would get swept away. And, maybe it was better for the entire flock if some of the birds are more cautious and stayed a bit farther from the waves. I guessed that the flock had a better chance of long term survival if each bird had a different role to play. In times of calmer waves, the ones near the ocean would thrive. In more dangerous and tumultuous times, the timid ones would ensure survival of the group. I guessed it wouldn’t work well if any of them, after watching other sandpipers, thought there might be an advantage to behaving differently. They needed to feel as though their position was intuitively right.

sandpipers 2

I had noticed that the flock was roughly arranged in the shape of a bell curve. After contemplating them for a while I began to wonder how much the different areas of my life could be depicted on a bell curve. Was I in the middle of the pack on some political thoughts, but closer to the edge of the group when it came to fashion, for example? The thought also dawned on me that I must spend a lot of my time feeling as though my way is the right way — how often did I look at other people and wonder why they were not doing things the same as me, and judging them for doing them differently? I became fascinated with my own, low-level assumption that my way was somehow the best way. This assumption pervaded my thoughts, and I realized that I spent a lot of time looking for ways other people were doing things wrong; finding evidence to support my own story.

Nature wants all the different kinds of sandpipers — timid, brave and all those in between — to exist together. If each of the birds didn’t think what they were doing was right, and started doing something different, it might upset the balance of the flock.

So what does this mean for our species? I think it wants nature wants diversity for us too. I think it’s extremely important for the survival of our species to move towards diversity because the more diverse we are, the more opportunities we have. There was a time in our evolution that it was necessary for our survival to reject what was different. But, now we’re at a point where that important defence mechanism is less necessary. We’ve evolved to deal with threats to our safety, and are secure enough in the continuance of our species that we’re able to appreciate people’s differences and recognize that everyone has a part to play. I think the problems that we will face in our future will be better solved if we can understand and appreciate our differences.

The experience with the sandpipers was very influential for me. After leaving the beach, I continued to wonder how much time we all spend thinking about the right way to be, and I still think about it now. I decided that I was going to try and be thankful for all the differences that people have, and recognize that those differences can lead to a better world. I was going to try and be open-minded and curious. I noticed, however, that it was easier for me to be more open-minded the further from home I traveled. In Egypt and Iceland I was curious about and receptive to the people and the culture, but it has been my experience that in your own back yard that can easily fall away. I found it was easy to revert to a more critical and less understanding way of being. I want to keep traveling and exploring the world with an open mind, but I realize that that learning to appreciate diversity will be a lifelong endeavor.

What are your thoughts on diversity? Do you agree that it’s important for the survival and evolution of our species that we cultivate our differences, or do you think it’s our destiny to become more and more alike, or something else? When you travel, do you strive to keep an open mind about your hosts and the other people you meet? How easy is it to do that? How about when you’re at home or somewhere familiar? Do you approach people with the same respectful curiosity or do you find it more difficult? I am fascinated by this topic and think it a valuable debate for Couchsurfing members to have.