The Blind Men & the Elephant
Today at a Glance
- What have you changed your mind on recently? Egocentric Bias says that we convince ourselves of the accuracy of our own personal perspective—that we view ourselves as unimpeachable—and therefore struggle to acknowledge any perspectives or data that may alter our understanding of the world.
- The parable of The Blind Men and The Elephant tells the story of six blind men who examine one part of an elephant and each come to very different conclusions on what an elephant is. They are all partly right, but also all entirely wrong.
- The information you have about the world represents a tiny fraction of the information available, yet you use it to form a view of how the world works.
- Remember the Blind Men Razor: "Never attribute to malice, ignorance, or stupidity that which can be adequately explained by different information."
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What have you changed your mind on recently?
This seemingly simple question is often quite difficult to answer. We find it easy to acquire new learnings, but challenging to overwrite old ones that have been established as "truths" in our minds.
Egocentric Bias says that we convince ourselves of the accuracy of our own personal perspective—that we view ourselves as unimpeachable—and therefore struggle to acknowledge any perspectives or data that may alter our understanding of the world.
It's damning behavior for anyone interested in progress, for all growth requires "software updates" that improve upon the old. Our inability to internalize and learn from the perspectives of others is holding us back.
Today's piece shares a short parable that brings this to life, as well as the action steps to fight back against perspective blindness and open your mind to new growth.
A Parable on Perspective Blindness
The parable of The Blind Men and The Elephant dates back to the Tittha Sutta, a Buddhist text from ~500 B.C. It appears across a variety of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain texts from those years.
I first heard it from my grandfather many years ago.
The story has been reproduced in many forms, but the simplest version goes like this:
Six blind men are brought to examine an elephant that has come to their village.
The first man touches the trunk and says that the elephant is like a thick snake.
The second man touches the tusk and says that the elephant is like a spear.
The third man touches the ear and says that the elephant is like a fan.
The fourth man touches the leg and says that the elephant is like a tree.
The fifth man touches the side and says the elephant is like a wall.
The sixth man touches the tail and says the elephant is like a rope.
Each of the blind men is convinced that he is right, and that everyone else is wrong.
American poet John Godfrey Saxe's version of the story concludes with a simple, beautiful line:
Each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong.
So, oft in theologic wars, The disputants, I ween, Rail on in utter ignorance, Of what each other mean, And prate about an Elephant, Not one of them has seen!
The moral of this story is that the information you have about the world represents a tiny fraction of the information available, yet you use it to form a view of how the world works.
The world is much more complex than any of our narrow observation windows would allow us to surmise.
In his famous This Is Water speech in 2005, David Foster Wallace commented on this (emphasis mine):
"The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded."
You can either choose to (A) cling to the notion that your view is the absolute truth or (B) embrace a degree of humility about your views and open your mind to change.
The goal of Path A is to preserve the notion of our own intelligence. The goal of Path B is to broaden and improve our view of reality by acquiring new and better information.
We should all choose Path B...
2 Steps to Open Your Mind
There are a few steps we can all take to fight back against perspective blindness in order to view the world more clearly and unlock new growth:
Step 1: Use the "Blind Men Razor"
Hanlon's Razor says, "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by ignorance or stupidity."
While humorous, it may be minimally useful, as it forces the user to assume ignorance or stupidity in the person with an opposing viewpoint.
I would propose the Blind Men Razor:
"Never attribute to malice, ignorance, or stupidity that which can be adequately explained by different information."
The first step to fighting back against perspective blindness is to acknowledge that different perspectives are often just the result of different information.
A person raised in a different environment is going to have an entirely different set of data and view the world through an entirely different lens as a result.
The blanket rejection of their perspective on this basis is harmful to your own understanding of the world.
Step 2: Ask Two Questions
Two important questions to ask yourself about every strongly held belief:
- What would it take to change my mind? Knowing what it would take to change your mind on a topic is essential. If you realize that no amount of new information or data would cause you to change your mind, you have work to do.
- What do they know that I don't? When someone has an alternative perspective, always ask whether they might have some information or insight that you have yet to acquire. What data have they gathered that might inform their perspective, is it valuable, and how might you acquire it?
These two questions create a forcing function for humility and turn a potential disagreement into a game—a pursuit of progress.
How to Change Your Mind
"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” ― Mark Twain
At the end of every quarter, ask yourself what you've changed your mind on recently.
If you can't think of anything, that's a bad thing.
Fighting back against perspective blindness and opening your mind to new ideas is a tried and true path to consistent, compounding growth.
The next time you want to reject an alternative viewpoint without thinking, remember the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant: The world is much more complex than any of us can possibly understand.