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Nov
23 2011

Believing is Seeing … the Tyranny of Common Sense

Syndicated from: Getting in the Groove - Random Riffs and Random Notes

It ain't so much what we know that gets us into trouble. It's what we know that just ain't so. Mark Twain or Josh Billings or …  Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen. Albert Einstein Someone once told me that he couldn’t possibly have been influenced by Freud because he’d never read him. (How’s that for a conversation stopper?!) And yet, despite his protestations, his talk was liberally sprinkled with the mind metaphors of the Viennese mythmaker. Having sat through twelve weeks of a reading-discussion course in his company, I knew, for example, that he expected great things of his creative unconscious and that there remained, within him, fascinating unplumbed depths. That we are all like icebergs with only our tips showing was, for him, a matter of common sense. He was in Freud’s thrall and didn’t even know it. The problem with common sense, as Bernard Lonergan once succinctly put it, is that it has no table of contents. The lenses through which we survey and interpret the world are largely comprised of an unexamined mixture of aphorisms, pithy folk-sayings, things our grandfathers told us, out-of-date theories, strategies that worked once and simplistic generalizations. To put it briefly, what passes for common sense is really an undifferentiated melange of sense and nonsense. While each of us carts around our own idiosyncratic sense/nonsense bundle, we have enough in common with those with whom we spend most of our everyday lives that we manage to muddle along reasonably well. And if we don’t find them (those with whom we share prejudices, that is) close to hand, we seek them out − hence the popularity of gated communities. And here’s where this unexamined, undifferentiated collection of sense and nonsense can become a real problem. Organizations, institutions and communities of various stripes (which themselves are forms of gated communities) regularly get trapped in their shared commonsensical minds. Here prejudices are institutionalized informally as culture and formally in strategies for dealing with the world beyond the gates. (By the way, if you don’t like my use of the word “prejudice” − others are prejudiced whereas we hold reasoned opinions; othersare stubborn whereas we are steadfast, right? – feel free to substitute “untested assumptions.”) So what’s to be done about what we know that just ain’t so? In a nutshell: test the assumptions. Occasionally rearranging the furniture of our minds can be a good thing. In organizational, institutional and communal terms it means periodically, and with some rigor, surfacing the assumptions that inform the way we think about and act upon the world beyond our gates. In making such a suggestion, I have no particular techniques in mind; no “simple, powerful tools” that might be employed. Being brave is important, as is creating the conditions for people to speak truth to power. The musicians of Getting in the Groove and I did a workshop for the senior management team of a project-driven, hi-tech organization and they were reflecting on what they’d seen going on in the improvised jazz performance. A participant who had remained pretty quiet (completely silent, actually) and had given the appearance of someone who would rather have been anywhere other than where he was, finally spoke. “I know what was going on.” We held our breath. “You guys were practicing servant leadership.” Not what I had been expecting. He then went on to say that one of the most important things leaders can do is to create space for marginalized voices. “There are people in our organization who know things and we never hear from them. I’ll bet they know stuff we should know.” As I recall the Hans Christian Andersen story, it was a little kid who noticed that the emperor was wearing no clothes; the last person who would be invited to court. Our so-called limitations, I believe, Apply to faculties we don’t apply. We don’t discover what we can’t achieve Until we make an effort not to try. Piet Hein Hein’s aphoristic little poem captures the matter nicely. I’ll leave you to conjure with it.

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