Today’s title comes from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which is an incredible book. Soon after the above quotation, he continues,
The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world.John Berger
That period of time when you come to be you is really interesting. As an adolescent, and before films like The Matrix, I can remember thinking that the world literally revolved around me; that other people were testing me in some way. I hope that’s kind of normal, and I’d add somewhat hastily that I grew out of that way of thinking a long time ago. Obviously.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that we cannot know the ‘inner lives’ of other people, or in fact that they have them. Writing in The Guardian, psychologist Oliver Burkeman notes that we sail through life assuming that we experience everything similarly, when that’s not true at all:
A new study on a technical-sounding topic – “genetic variation across the human olfactory receptor repertoire” – is a reminder that we smell the world differently… Researchers found that a single genetic mutation accounts for many of those differences: the way beetroot smells (and tastes) like disgustingly dirty soil to some people, or how others can’t detect the smokiness of whisky, or smell lily of the valley in perfumes.Oliver Burkeman
I know that my wife sees colours differently to me, as purple is one of her favourite colours. Neither of us is colour-blind, but some things she calls ‘purple’ are in no way ‘purple’ to me.
So when it comes to giving one another feedback, where should we even begin? How can we know the intentions or the thought processes behind someone’s actions? In an article for Harvard Business Review, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall explain that our theories about feedback are based on three theories:
- Other people are more aware than you are of your weaknesses
- You lack certain abilities you need to acquire, so your colleagues should teach them to you
- Great performance is universal, analyzable, and describable, and that once defined, it can be transferred from one person to another, regardless of who each individual is
All of these, the author’s claim, are false:
What the research has revealed is that we’re all color-blind when it comes to abstract attributes, such as strategic thinking, potential, and political savvy. Our inability to rate others on them is predictable and explainable—it is systematic. We cannot remove the error by adding more data inputs and averaging them out, and doing that actually makes the error bigger.Buckingham & Goodall
What I liked was their actionable advice about how to help colleagues thrive, captured in this table:
Finally, as an educator and parent, I’ve noticed that human learning doesn’t follow a linear trajectory. Anything but, in fact. Yet we talk and interact as though it does. That’s why I found Good Things By Their Nature Are Fragile by Jason Kottke so interesting, quoting a 2005 post from Michael Barrish. I’m going to quote the same section as Kottke:
In 1988 Laura and I created a three-stage model of what we called “living process.” We called the three stages Good Thing, Rut, and Transition. As we saw it, Good Thing becomes Rut, Rut becomes Transition, and Transition becomes Good Thing. It’s a continuous circuit.
A Good Thing never leads directly to a Transition, in large part because it has no reason to. A Good Thing wants to remain a Good Thing, and this is precisely why it becomes a Rut. Ruts, on the other hand, want desperately to change into something else.
Transitions can be indistinguishable from Ruts. The only important difference is that new events can occur during Transitions, whereas Ruts, by definition, consist of the same thing happening over and over.Michael Barrish
In life, sometimes we don’t even know what stage we’re in, never mind other people. So let’s cut one another some slack, dispel the three myths about feedback listed above, and allow people to be different to us in diverse and glorious ways.
Also check out:
- Iris Murdoch, The Art of Fiction No. 117 (The Paris Review) — “I would abominate the idea of putting real people into a novel, not only because I think it’s morally questionable, but also because I think it would be terribly dull.”
- How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis (The Atlantic) — “I had found my salvation in the sheer endless curiosity of the human mind—and the sheer endless variety of human experience.”
- A brief history of almost everything in five minutes (Aeon) —According to [the artist], the piece ‘is intended for both introspection and self-reflection, as a mirror to ourselves, our own mind and how we make sense of what we see; and also as a window into the mind of the machine, as it tries to make sense of its observations and memories’.
Header image: webcomicname.com