Wednesday, February 08, 2020

Patience and Perspective

The TV news anchor turns to the guest expert and asks: "What's your perspective on the latest statement by the White House?" A thousand pundits claim to bring "a fresh perspective" to some problem they hope you have. Marketers claim their products "will change your perspective"—on diapers, or computer software, or whatever. Everyone, it seems, has a perspective; and nearly everyone else wants to change it right now to match theirs.

Like all overused words, perspective has lost most of its original meaning: a way to represent objects on paper while retaining the effect of distance between them and the viewer. Now it usually means little more than "opinion," as in "this is our party's perspective on the budgetary cuts being proposed by Senator Bigwig." This is a pity. The problems of reducing a three-dimensional world to a two-dimensional picture make a much better analogy with how the human mind works.

An artist must reduce a scene with height, breadth and depth—the familiar three dimensions—to a drawing that has only length and height. Done badly, the result is comic, with all the wrong size relationships between objects. Before perspective was discovered, pictures bore only a symbolic resemblance to what people saw. The size of a painted figure depended more on their importance than reality. Pharaoh would dwarf hundreds of enemies because the painter knew who was paying. Figures were drawn in profile because no one know how to make them look solid, let alone show their real size and distance relationship to anyone else in the same scene.

Our minds face a similar difficulty in reducing the unworkable complexity of the world to something we can grasp and act on. Instead of three dimensions, they must cope with many more: time, for example; importance, urgency, meaning and relevance. What reaches your conscious mind must come complete with a sense of what it is, why it matters and what you need to do about it.

This perspective, the mental one, relies on trickery, just as physical perspective does. The skilled artist tricks the eye into seeing depth where none exists. The brain tricks the conscious mind into seeing something as complete and solid and ready for action, where there is little or no substance to justify the picture. We believe we understand our world. In reality, all we have is an incomplete model, got up to look like the real thing.

How does your mind trick you into thinking you have a complete picture? By using your assumptions, values, beliefs, opinions and expectations. It presents you with limited and partial information and uses those extra elements to fill in the missing pieces.

Your assumptions, values, beliefs and opinions fill in the blanks. They supply assumed answers to the questions you ought to be asking of the situation—and of yourself. Do I understand this clearly? Precisely what does this mean? Am I sure? Like a painter creating the illusion of perspective, your mind takes one or two understandable pieces of information and completes the picture from all those pre-set categories and assumed patterns. It seems real, though most of the image is based on little more than past ideas, guesswork and imagination.

Assumptions are close at hand, quick and simple to use, and feel justified on the basis of experience or prior expectations. They are also dangerous and unreliable. This event may fit into a known pattern, or it may not. Assuming it does means accepting a risk you do not need to take; a risk born of complacency and the unwillingness to wait long enough to find a definitive answer.

It's hard to avoid making assumptions. You do it without becoming aware of what you have done. Haste and pressure, as always, make the problem worse. Without sufficient time or presence of mind to stop and consider, you move ahead on the basis of an assumption that's no better than a guess. But you still move. And when so much is pushing you from behind, any movement can seem preferable to standing still and waiting until the situation becomes clearer.

Immediate gratification has become the characteristic requirement of our times. People at all levels of society see it as a right: to have whatever they want—an answer, a piece of information, personal satisfaction, a product or a service—and have it now. Fast food, fast turnaround, instant messages and immediate information via the Internet; everything you wish for, and all without a wait.

TV news programs bring comment and evaluation of events before the smoke has died away and the people involved have caught their breath. They have "experts" on call, ready to go on air at a moment's notice with comments and opinions. Yet what does it amount to? Clichés, jargon and statements so qualified as to be meaningless. You cannot blame the speaker, save for accepting such a pointless assignment, whatever the fee. The blame lies with another assumption: that the public attention-span is now too short to allow proper evaluation of events before being told their significance.

Patience, so the saying goes, is a virtue. Maybe. More importantly though, it's a certain antidote to false and hurried assumptions. Given the patience to wait before reaching a definite decision, much may become clear that was murky or hidden before. This age prizes action so much it ignores the benefits of holding back when action must be premature. And so people hurry ahead blindly, like lemmings approaching a cliff above the ocean, intent only on doing something, anything, to content those for whom sitting and thinking is an obvious waste of time.

The perspectives of Slow Leadership are free of such tomfoolery. To wait, to think, to consider alternatives and allow the true facts to show themselves; these are marks of maturity and wisdom. Only a fool rushes towards the cliff edge when a little patience might have shown him how to avoid it.

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James Shewmaker said...

"Patience and Perspective" has been added to the Reading Assignment list at There is also a web feed for this Reading Assignment list available.

10:34 AM  
afaw said...

Thank you for this! Exactly right, and amazing how it doesn't get questioned more. I recently saw roughly 3 hours of news dedicated to the recent "nerve agent" scare in Washington. As you said - much expert speculation, etc. on-hand. Only problem was: There was no story.

The media (and viewer?) are so infatuated with immediacy that it trumps judgement. Sometimes it seems like that has replaced "news." Often, by the time the facts are revealed, everyone has moved on. The speculation becomes the news, and you don't even realize that there was no story. Hmm, news as vaporware?

Love your site - a faithful reader!

Andrew Faw

8:38 PM  

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