In Our Own Little World

Mar 30, 2011   //   by Steve Wooding   //   A Slice of Lemon, Articles  //  1 Comment

IN SHORT: Our visits to other people’s worlds give us a chance to grown and expand our own, so why on earth wouldn’t you want to take a trip like that..?!

“Being comfortable isn’t the way to learn to expand your abilities.”

[Thomas Perry, US author]

(1180 words, approx. 7-11 mins to read)

My wonderful wife recently bought me a Kindle – an e-reader that I can carry a whole library’s worth of books around on in a device around the size of a large paperback but the thickness of a pencil.

To start with I set about finding as many freebie books as I could and, as some of you may know, many older books are now out of copyright and electronic versions are pretty easy to find. One of the many books I downloaded, which I’m sightly ashamed to say I’d never read before, was Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”.

The protaginist, the namesake of the title, finds himself though various circumstances in a series of strange lands. The first, the one most people are familiar with, is Lilliput where Lemuel Gulliver is a giant – twelve times larger than any of the inhabitants – and he’s presented with an opportunity to see life from a completely different perspective.

The other three places he finds himself in also offer similar opportunities to see the world from novel points of view – in Brobdignag as a tiny fellow amongst a race of giants, in Laputa, a floating island populated by a people so self-absorbed in maths and music they forget to communicate, and then in a country dominated by intelligent horses – the Houyhnhnm – whose lives are so centred on reason, honesty and openeness that they have no conception of deceit or lies and who find humans more like animals.

Those of you of a more literary bent will no doubt already know that Swift’s work is a parody of many parts of society and prevailing ideas of his time, but throughout it all, Gulliver is made aware of the limitations of his experience and how blinkered we can become in assuming that our view of the world is the view of the world.

As I write this I’m in the middle of delivering a series of Performance Management workshops to the senior managers in a large funding organisation up and down the UK. What’s been really interesting from my perspective is the number of participants who’ve commented on a realisation that many of the people they find most challenging to manage are challenging because their internal world is radically different to their managers.

Most of us, myself included, grow up and live our lives based on an underlying and largely subconscious assumption that the people around us are, to a significant degree, similar to us and that any apparent large differences are simply a matter of choice and will.

What psychologists have managed to repeatedly show, however, is that the truth is very, very different.

For example, in my default world, the world I lived comfortably in when I was much younger, all decisions are made rationally, objectively and logically based on hard evidence. Anyone attempting to sway me with sentiment, emotions or values might as well have been speaking an alien language. It’s not that I didn’t understand the words, it’s simply that their arguments just didn’t register as valid or important because they weren’t based on concrete facts and figures and derived via a plausible chain of solid reasoning.

And then I met someone who literally changed my life. Not overnight but slowly, perhaps even glacially but significantly nonetheless. She made decisions based on sentiment, values and emotions, in the pursuit of harmony, what others wanted and needed.

Let me explain one of the implications of this difference:

Objective decision-makers, like me, tend to subscribe to the ‘equality of opportunity’ philosophy, i.e. that all are entitled to access the same RESOURCES AND OPPORTUNITIES, e.g. education, in equal proportion and that your success is down to how you use those resources, or not. To them, event like the Olympics make perfect sense – that it’s only right that those who try harder, invest their time and efforts are rewarded and that in life there will be winners and losers.

Subjective decision-makers, on the other hand, tend to subscribe to the ‘equality of outcome’ philosophy, .i.e. that everyone is entitled to achieve the same END RESULT and that resources and opportunities must be allocated on the basis of personal need. This means, for example, that those who struggle get more and those who are already succeeding get less, and that life is more about taking part and mutual benefit than winning.

As you were reading those last two paragraphs, you’ll probably have connected more with one. And, whilst you may acknowledge the validity of both, there will be one approach you believe to be ‘more right’ than the other. And in some contexts you might even feel that the other approach is actually ‘very wrong’.

This difference runs so deep that in some workshops and training courses I’ve run in the past the exercises I’ve set around this have actually caused heated arguments between groups – don’t worry though, it was all in the name of experiential learning and the conflicts were all sorted out and understood!

And that’s just one example of how markedly different our own little worlds can be. We all have our own world, built on the scaffold of our genes from the bricks and mortar of our experiences, family and culture and then decorated with our INTERPRETATIONS of those experiences etc. And so two people brought up in the same family and environment can create two very different worlds.

It’s this external similarity that sometimes makes it even more tricky to appreciate that these major differences exist. After all, if you meet someone of a difference race or language, there are external clues to a range of possible cultural and experiential divergences.

However, there ARE clues to the structure of someone else’s world even if you’ve worked with or lived with them for years, but they take a little more effort to uncover. One of the places you can find those clues is in the way people talk – their choice of words and phrases, but more about that another time perhaps.

What I’d like to invite you to ponder is the inescapable fact that your world is exactly that – your world. You are the only inhabitant and we converse with others most effectively when we’re willing to go to the border, like chatting over the garden fence, and appreciate something of the world next door, rather than expect everyone to come visit us in ours.

Gulliver had no choice about the worlds he visited and had to adapt in order to survive, including learning the local languages too. We do have a choice to either learn something of the ‘local language’, or behave like ignorant tourists who expect everywhere they visit to be just like home.

And every time Gulliver returned to his own world, his own home and life, he found himself changed and his view of what was familiar changed too.

Our visits to other people’s worlds give us a chance to grown and expand our own, so why on earth wouldn’t you want to take a trip like that..?!

Until next time,


1 Comment

  • Thanks for this Steve; really profound, and very timely! Excellent insight, as ever.

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