Through the looking glass: The nearly impossible task of the perfect perspective

Perspective – the lens through which we view the world – matters. It shapes how we see the world, our opinions and responses to world events, and eventually how we live our life. As a child, I was fascinated by the concept of perspective. It must have been around when I was nine or ten, well past the age when my parents thought they were finally done with the relentless childish “why”, when I got it into my head that I needed to figure out whether what I “saw” was what everyone else “saw”. When I see a yellow flower, and my mother tells me that it is a yellow flower, how do we know that we are both seeing the same thing? Sure, we both call it yellow because that was what I was taught to call it, but did she experience the same shades of color?

My father’s laboratory had a poster which read, “What the mind doesn’t know, the eye doesn’t see.” Every time I visited him at his work (which was quite often), I would read it and re-read it. A short sentence, but one that engaged my child’s brain for many hours. Clearly my parents and the adults around me seemed to know a lot more than I – did that mean they “saw” a lot more than I, my definition of “see” being quite literal at that age. I remember spending countless hours thinking about it, and possibly frustrating others around me, but at some point I gave in to more pressing matters, without ever really finding a satisfactory answer to my questions.

Perspective has been a long-time obsession of mine. Art from different perspectives fascinates me. Writing that explores novel ways of playing with points of view, difficult reads as they often tend to be, almost always gets my undivided attention. It is also a topic in which I find myself in the early stages of what I am sure will be a long and enlightening search. Today I will share three aspects on perspective to consider.

Plasticity of Perspective

Try to think back to the last time you learned something radically new? The last time you were willing to let go a firmly-held belief and replace it with something that you had not previously considered or had judged inconceivable? Children find it easy to learn and change their mind, most adults don’t. As we age, our brains tend to get more fixed in our neural pathways. However, recent studies have shown that it can be altered, but with deliberate efforts.

Without getting into a discussion on neuroplasticity here, let’s talk about retaining our ability to change our opinions, to learn something new, to be surprised. I like to think of this as collecting “aha-moments.” That moment when you learn a new concept, when you understand something for the first time, when you see something in a new light – that’s pretty close to bliss. But those are hard to come by as we age, unless…we go looking for it. I am a collector of aha-moments. I like to come across things or concepts or art that makes me think, that makes me question what I thought I knew, and eventually perhaps even come to a new perspective.

I also realize as I chug along the timeline of life that this becomes harder and harder with age. Individually, but also in a group. You realize that groups around you are hardened by certain ideals – their life experiences have shaped what they think. Or they are set in their ways of working – “this is how things always used to be” becomes a more common refrain. What does it take for all of us retain the curiosity to find out more, and the childlike ability to form new views?

Heterogeneity of Perspective

I believe an important contributor to it is our exposure to a wide variety of ideas. Let me call this heterogeneity of perspective. Quite simply, this is about not living in our own bubble. We all live in bubbles of some sort, and the ones who deny this most vehemently usually inhabit the most impenetrable ones. Algorithms that govern what we read – from the Facebook newsfeed to the book recommendations of Amazon – dictate what you see or read next based on what you read and liked before. They play on our instinctive need to be in our comfort zones, to not have our views challenged. Yet in the future that we cannot yet see, the ability to know and hold differing perspectives will be critical not just for success, but for survival. How do we pull ourselves out of the self-reinforcing mechanisms (internal and external) that drags us deeper and deeper into what we already know and away from experiencing differing viewpoints?

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald

Independence of perspective

Last but not least, I find it important to retain independence of perspective. Easier said than done. I started my career as an analyst – one of the earliest tricks of the trade you learn as an analyst is that data can tell whatever story you want it to tell. To this day, where by now I am usually at the receiving end of management reports, I retain a healthy skepticism to anyone who tries to sway my judgement without showing the entirety of the data. Those who tell us how to think – whether they are journalists who sensationalize the news or politicians who show only the side of a story – have a vested interest in shaping our perspective. Sometimes it feels as if the world is out to tell you what to think, and if you are not careful, the lazy (sorry, I meant energy-conserving) brains that we have are only too eager to fall into that trap. The reasons can be many – lack of cognitive discipline, biases, distractions.

Ray Dalio’s Principles addresses this topic in what he calls radical open-mindedness – the ability to explore different points of view without our ego or blind spots getting in the way.

Radical open-mindedness is an incredibly powerful habit that most people struggle to put into action. But it can be learned with practice – and that starts with honestly reflecting on how you are responding to disagreements, feedback, or simply how confidently you hold your own opinions. The next time you encounter one of these situations, take a moment to stop and reflect on your own open-mindedness. Are you more inclined to think, “I am right,” or to ask yourself, “how do I know I’m right?”

To wrap it up for now, we seem to live in a world that is waging a constant and relentless battle for owning our perspective. Whether that is reality or just my perspective, who knows. The physiological changes in our brain as we age, the barrage of algorithmically curated “news”, the normalization of the practice of “influencing” others – all make it particularly hard to widen our perspectives, to adapt our perspectives, or just to form our own independent perspective. But it is a battle worth fighting for, for who are we unique if not for being the sum total of our perspectives.

To be continued.