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Weekly 3: Seeing beyond your bias


Idea Journal Weekly 3

June 14 · Issue #143 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Embrace your ignorance. Insulate more people. Step outside for a different view. (~5 min read)

#1. Benefits of being ignorant
Authors Lauren McCann and Gabriel Weinberg write in their book Super Thinking that one way to reveal your bias is to use the “veil of ignorance,” a technique developed by philosopher John Rawls.
The veil of ignorance suggests that when you’re thinking about how society should be organized, you should imagine that you’re ignorant of your particular place in the world – as if a veil were preventing you from knowing who you are. 
This state of ignorance is called the “original position.”
For example, imagine that you’re the CEO of a company. You’re considering ending a remote working policy because you believe that your teams work better face-to-face. 
As CEO, it may be easy for you to consider changing the policy from your perspective, especially if you don’t value remote working. 
But the veil of ignorance forces you to view the policy change from the original position, where you could be any employee. 
  • What if you were a single parent?
  • What if you were taking care of an elderly family member?
  • What if you had a three-hour commute?
You may ultimately decide that the policy change is warranted, even after considering its broader implications. 
But the veil of ignorance helps you appreciate the challenges it might present for your staff. It might even help you think of creative alternatives.
The veil of ignorance can be helpful beyond the workplace.
For example, say you’re analyzing a policy that affects refugees. From the original position, you have to consider what your perspective would be if you were a refugee yourself.
Would you change your view?
As McCann and Weinberg point out, the veil of ignorance reveals privileges that are easily overlooked.
McCann and Weinberg acknowledge that they themselves are lucky to have won the “birth lottery.” Generally speaking, they weren’t born into any disadvantaged group.
“At birth, we were no more deserving of an easier run at life than a child who was born into poverty, or with a disability, or any other type of disadvantage. Yet we are the ones who won this lottery since we do not have these disadvantages.”
#2. Allowing more people to worry less
Marketing guru and public intellectual Seth Godin writes on his blog that many of us walk around with “invisible insulation.”
For example, if you’re reading this, odds are that you’re not worried about getting cholera from the water in your house. That concern is invisible to you.
Godin notes that over time we’ve built layers of insulation between ourselves and the world: “This invisible insulation is a form of civilization.”
But when this invisible insulation is unevenly distributed, it becomes a form of privilege. 
And sometimes that privilege is also invisible. 
But as Godin argues, in order to improve society, “we need to look at it and realize that it’s there and do something.”
Here’s another example. Shoes make it easier to walk around. You can put one foot in front of the other without constantly scanning for rocks and rusty nails.
If other people have shoes, it doesn’t make your shoes less functional. But if other people don’t have shoes, “then everything else they contribute (to you, to me, to everyone) is going to be different.”
Godin writes that we’ve failed to provide insulation to a lot of people: from clean water and decent healthcare, to good schooling and freedom of fear from state violence. 
That lack of insulation adds up over generations.
As Godin puts it: “It’s almost impossible to make a list of all the things I didn’t have to worry about yesterday. We need to work overtime to make that true for more people.”
#3. Multiple definitions of "normal"
Author and entrepreneur Derek Sivers writes on his blog that we’re so surrounded by our immediate culture that it’s impossible to see.
Many things we think are true are simply expressions of our local culture: “We can’t see it until we get outside of it.”
Sivers acknowledges his own background: “I was born in California and grew up with what I felt was a normal upbringing with normal values. I’ve been surrounded by artists and entrepreneurs for most of my life.”
But he didn’t realize how biased his background was until he stepped outside of his culture: 
“Last week I was speaking to a business school class in Singapore. I asked, ‘How many people would like to start their own company some day?’ In a room of fifty people, only one hand reluctantly went up. I was surprised and confused. If I had asked this question in California, every hand would have gone up! I thought maybe the Singapore students were just being shy, so I asked individuals in the room, ‘Really? Why not?’”
Here are a few of their answers: 
“Why take the risk? I just want security.”
“I spent all this money on school and need to make it back.”
“If I fail, I will be a huge embarrassment to my family.”
Sivers realized that he’d been viewing his question about entrepreneurship through the lens of his immediate culture. 
“I had heard that America was the land of entrepreneurs and overconfidence, but I couldn’t really see it until I was outside of it.”
Quote of the week
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’
… I am not the wise old fish. 
The immediate point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.
Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude – but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance.”
- Writer David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College
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