The Magic of Perspective
Glasses without Frames
It sounds too easy. "Change your perspective, change your job." Could it be so simple?
When we have hated our jobs for long enough, it starts to seem impossible to fix things. Every day we see evidence why our workplace is awful; after awhile this becomes just a part of "how things are." To suggest that it would be possible to change it by merely looking at it differently sounds naïve and ridiculous!
On the other hand, what we call "reality" is defined by our perception of it. Our eyes and ears assemble information, and our brain processes it. Along the way, the "objective" information that we are processing gets entangled with our subjective selves. Our history, our biases, our preferences, and our emotions all come into play as we make our assessment of what is "real." Some information gets emphasized, some gets filtered out, and what we are left with is our own perception of reality. This version contains both the situation and the self.
However you feel about your job, there will be parts of it that grab your attention and parts that don't. The parts that grab your attention are the ones you respond to; they are the ones you use to craft your definition of "how things are" and decide how to respond. The other parts, filtered out along the way, just drop into the background of your perceptions.
A change in perspective can make all the difference. Consider "polarized" sunglasses, a favorite among fishermen because they eliminate glare from the surface of the water. Imagine standing at the edge of a fishing boat, looking down at the water and seeing nothing but reflected sunlight. Do you cast your line here or move on to a different location? The answer is pure guesswork.
Imagine donning a pair of polarized lenses. The glare disappears; you can see 30 feet into the water. Now you know what swims beneath you. Guesswork is gone, along with the stress that goes with it. Your responses are more closely matched to your situation, and your sense of uncertainty decreases. Over time, your overall sense of "how hard it is to fish" probably decreases too.
If you can find a new perspective, then you're more likely to choose a different response. If your new perspective gives you new clarity, your different response might be a better and more productive one. And each different response can produce a different outcome. If you use your new perspective enough times and create enough different outcomes, suddenly your whole experience of the situation has changed.
- Cultural author and columnist Tamim Ansary said this about glasses:
- Eyeglasses that corrected both nearsightedness and farsightedness [became available] around 1450...I have an affliction that is considered trivial today: I'm myopic. If I were living before eyeglasses, I would be considered blind. My job would be to sit by a road with a begging cup. Roughly 25 percent of the people in North America are nearsighted like me. I wonder how many potential writers, artists, scientists, inventors, philosophers, and the like never developed their talents because they lived before the invention of eyeglasses? 13
Each new perspective we try is a new pair of glasses. The situation doesn't change, but the way we see it does. Some elements become clearer and more pronounced while others fade into the background. Things that took up our whole field of view become less important.
As any eye doctor will tell you, there's no way to know for sure whether the new glasses will be useful without trying them on, but the right pair can change everything.
Wearing New Glasses
New perspectives give us new options, especially in difficult situations or those where the stakes are high. Like polarized lenses for the fisherman, a useful change in our own perspective will reveal hidden information; it will make us "situationally smarter!" The more we know about a situation, the better equipped we are to respond to it. We think of options that we hadn't before because we have a more complete view of what is going on.
This has positive effects on our self-confidence and our stress level. There are few things more frustrating for a fisherman than to cast all day based on guesswork and to go home empty-handed. By the same token...
If instead we understand what's going on, respond accordingly, and know when to expect the next wave of trouble to hit, things are better. We might still be tired at the end of the day, but we will be a lot less stressed.
Our own feeling of increased control and decreased stress has an important side effect: It reduces the stress levels of those around us. Studies have shown that only a few people in a large group are needed to change the dynamics and tension levels of everyone around them.14 Most of us have experienced this phenomenon in the negative direction, with "one rotten apple spoiling the whole bunch." But it goes both ways! By reducing your own stress levels, your mere presence can reduce the stress of those around you. Wouldn't it be nice to be surrounded by people who are even just a little less stressed?
Changing Perspective: An Exercise
Our first activity in changing perspective is simple but powerful. On first read, it also seems quite silly. But rest assured, it is based upon the empirical science of how the mind works.15 What seem like childish or unnecessary exercises are actually physical cues to activate specific parts of your mind. The difference between reading this exercise and doing it is the difference between wanting things to get better at work and making them get better. It sets the stage for all that you will be doing in future chapters. It can also be fun. We suggest, therefore, that you begin your experience with this book by setting aside any cynicism you might feel and trying this out as fully as you can.
You will need three sheets of blank paper to begin. Number the pages 1 through 3 by writing a large number on each that takes up the entire page. Set the three pages face up on the floor a few feet from each other so that they form a triangle.
Think of a situation in which you've had a disagreement with another person. Choose an instance you remember well. Recall who was involved and the object of the conflict.
Figure 1-2 The three sheet exercise
Now step onto the sheet labeled "1." Stand16 with both feet on the sheet, facing sheet 2. This is the first person position because you are "being yourself." The person with whom you disagree is the "second person." Imagine that he or she is standing on sheet 2 and that you are having the conflict you remember. Explain your position out loud as if you are speaking to the other person. You can also pause and make "aside" statements about what you are thinking or feeling that are not meant for the second person to hear. Keep talking until you feel that you have explained your position as fully as possible.
Then step off of sheet 1 and on to sheet 2. Turn so that you are facing sheet 1. Now you are in the second person position. Imagine that you are that other person. As you look over at sheet 1, try to picture yourself standing on it, arguing your position. See yourself from the other person's perspective! As long as you are on sheet 2, your role is to be the best "other person" you can be. Work hard to play the role of the other person as well as you can. Have the conflict again, this time as the other person. Speak as the second person and argue with the first person. What are your needs, wants, and feelings? Again, you might want to say some things within the conflict and make other "aside" comments not meant to be heard. Both are useful.
It is important to resist the temptation to "play" the other person as being stupid, confused, or misinformed—especially if that is how he or she appeared to you in the original conflict. To get value out of this exercise, you must act out the other person's role as a rational, intelligent human being, no matter how difficult this might be. Try to be the best, brightest, most thoughtful second person you can be. In doing so, you might feel as if you are giving the other person "too much credit." That is a good sign. The aim is not to prove anyone right or wrong; it is to give you practice with changed perspectives.
Then step on to sheet 3. Stand so that you are facing sheets 1 and 2 equally. In the third person position, you are an observer of the interaction, a neutral party who sees everything that is going on but doesn't care how the argument turns out. This is the "fly on the wall" position. Imagine now that you can see both yourself (on sheet 1) and the other person (on sheet 2) as the interaction happens between them. Try to view both parties as acquaintances so that you have a general interest in seeing what happens without a preference for either side's position.
Watch the conflict play out, with each side stating their positions and arguing with the other. What do you see? Picture the interaction as completely as you can. Think about voice tone, body language, posture, hand gestures. How long did it take? How heated did it get? At the end, how were things left? How did each person appear to feel as the conflict came to a close? Is there anything you can see that the two people in conflict cannot? Describe what you see aloud, as if you were the narrator of a story or the announcer at a boxing match. As you narrate, use your right forefinger to repeatedly tap the inside of your left palm at the base of your left thumb, once every few seconds. Continue narrating and tapping until you have described the situation to your satisfaction.
At this point, you will have experienced the same conflict three times from three different perspectives. Most people find that they "see" something different with each new perspective. Often participants in this exercise report that they leave with a better understanding of the real reason for the conflict and perhaps even a little more empathy for the other person's position. Take a moment to answer this question: If there were three things you learned from doing this exercise, what would they be?
About Perspective Shift
It takes a lot of effort to look at your sunglasses while you are wearing them. The same is true about shifting perspective. To adjust the "lenses" through which we view the world, we must first become aware of them.
Imagine if, in place of the detailed instructions for the three-sheet exercise, this book had simply instructed you to "think of a recent conflict and then try to see it from the other person's position and like a fly on the wall." Those instructions are technically correct, but in the absence of a clear process and steps to follow, most of us probably would have not learned nearly as much about the situation.
Why? Many of us don't have much experience with how to change perceptual positions. By requiring us to step on and off of sheets of paper and to imagine the other people in the situation, the three-sheet model provides a framework to help develop our new perspective. At the same time, it alerts our minds that a shift is coming. Like training wheels for a new bicyclist, the model provides help and support while we learn a new skill.
If you repeat the three-sheet exercise many times, eventually you will become quite adept at switching positions. At that point, your high level of expertise will replace your need for the exercise, and you will no longer need sheets of paper to switch perceptual positions. That's when "the training wheels come off."
The upcoming chapters of this book present specific perspectives to help you see new things in the same situations. Each new perspective comes with its own model, a framework to support you while you learn to see things in the "new" way. And each new perspective, when used carefully, will give you new insight into what is going on around you at work. Your new insight will lead you to new actions, and your new actions might very well change your experience of your job. At the very least, they will teach you what to look for in your next job.
Unlike the three-sheet exercise, the chapters to come will not require you to pretend you are someone else, but they will require you to see things from the "third person." The ability to mentally "step out of" your own role and into an observer role is crucial; as long as you are "stuck" in the first person, your ability to perceive things differently is severely limited. Stepping into the third person position and looking at what is happening with an objective eye is the beginning of any major perspective shift.
Author and professional athlete Arthur Ashe said that "Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is more important than the outcome." The same is true here; if you focus on the doing, the outcome follows naturally. As with any sport, you start learning by getting used to the movements. The fun and the good results follow, and they increase along the way.