Analogy of Self, Profession and Academia: Blind Men and an Elephant | I AM TECHNOLOGY blog by Trey Warme, San Diego
Here is a similar follow-up post I wrote about the blind leading the blind.
Happy New Year! 2015 is going to be the best year yet!
Entrepreneurs set lofty goals, dream big and believe, without conviction, that they’re the next big thing. Sales people are motivated by money, to win, and to be the best. Engineers have analytical minds, backed by expertise in their field with an insatiable drive to be challenged in solving problems. Leaders are generally well-educated, clear communicators and great delegators. Writers deliver unique content that is strongly backed by good research, deep knowledge, and creative ideas that are able to capture and hold their reader’s interest.
As a professional, you bring to the table your individual strengths and have valuable skills in deftly achieving your employer’s objectives. That’s why they hired you, right? Your skills are recognized. You’ve managed to not only beat out the competition in order to impress your employer as the best candidate for your job, but you have also managed to win the admiration and trust of your customers, and equally important, yourself, with your ability to effectively master and improve upon the performance of the initiatives which you manage. You are smart. You know it. They know it. I know it. So, how could your ideas be anything but the best?
There is a fable originally circulated in cultures from India that has been translated into numerous theories today and basically boils down to “our subjective experience maybe true, but can also be essentially limited by our failure to take into account other truths or a totality of truth.” What does that mean? Well, maybe you are right, because, hey, you generally are, right? Maybe someone else’s idea is also right, from a perspective that you had not yet considered. And maybe, just maybe, someone else is completely right too, or possibly even more right than you. I’m using the term ‘right’ in the sense of knowing useful, factual information that can be applied to an understanding or improvement of a situation or circumstance.
The parable of the Blind Men and an Elephant has been retold many ways and is in essence a story where six blind men are brought to ‘see’ an elephant for the first time. After each having touched a different part of the elephant, the blind men are asked to describe an elephant from what they have just experienced. The blind man who felt the leg says with confidence the elephant is like a pillar; the one who felt the tip of the tail says the elephant is like a broom; the one who felt the trunk says knowingly the elephant is like a hose; the one who felt the ear says the elephant is like a soft blanket; the one who felt the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who felt the tusk says without doubt the elephant is like a solid pipe. Unable to agree, the blind men proceed to violently fight among themselves.
How little each of the blind men truly knew about the whole from their limited experience, while each thought their perceived knowledge had to be more right, a better truth? I think there are abundant applications in life, personal relationships as well as our business interactions in which we could use this teaching for good in our lives. We all think we know best, when in reality even with all of our acknowledged expertise, perceived experience and insight, we may actually know very little.
Can you remember any times when you and a friend, or friends, all watched the same thing, or attended the same event, and you all recount slightly different memories of the experience? Are any of your eyewitness testimonies necessarily wrong? Or, did you all just take away something different from your vantage points shaped by your individual personalities and unique prior experiences?
The idea of contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people has been around for a long time. One term for this phenomenon is the Rashomon effect, a phrase derived from the film Rashomon, where the accounts of the witnesses, suspects and victims of a rape and murder are all different. The term gained wide use in the late 1970’s with implications to ethics in journalism, and has been studied in the context of understanding the nature of truths and truth telling in journalism. The term has made its way into plays, film and has been used extensively in American television. The blind men and the elephant fable functions as a wonderful embodiment of this concept.
A big lesson I pulled from the story is to question the completeness of our ideas and to strive for greater knowledge before rushing to a conclusion from a sweeping statement that is based on insufficient evidence without considering all of the variables. A term used for this informal fallacy is hasty generalization.
Perhaps, we should consider the possibility of or own ignorance and weigh the value of letting go of the need to defend being right in exchange for the possibility of advancing our understanding through the contemplation of the conflicting ideas of others, who perhaps have more experience which may grant them a deeper insight than ours.
There is tremendous value in surrounding ourselves with people who see things differently than we do. Contemplation of contrary ideas can only make us smarter. Even if after careful consideration, we still decide to see things from our original perspective, our questioning can help us further solidify what we think we know plus help make us smarter from our engagement in the process of re-examination.
“If you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room” ~ Unknown
The blind men’s statements characterize classic aspects of an unreliable narrator’s perspective. The blind men are classified as naïf unreliable narrators, meaning their perceptions are immature and limited through their point of view, telling their recounts similar to children whose inexperience can impair their judgment and make them unreliable.
Some questions maybe worth pondering from the story are, how do we determine the authority of a speaker, how much of their information should we trust, and how should their information be interpreted? How do we proceed in dealing with someone we feel has seriously compromised his or her credibility with us? Do we recognize the possibility that they may still be well-informed in other areas of knowledge and remain receptive to discovering what their areas of expertise maybe, or are they just dead to us?
We depend daily on the reliability of information presented by others in our careers and personal lives. I’m reminded of the Russian proverb made famous by former U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s frequent use when discussing U.S. relations with the former Soviet Union, “Trust, but verify.” Our immediate reaction to this statement maybe, who has time for misinformation or the patience to feel the need to fact-check all information received? What could we stand to learn if we were equally concerned about management of our time and patience as the development of a relationship based on benefitting from the actual strengths of their expertise with they who we feel have misinformed us on a subject where their knowledge was weak?
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” ~ Albert Einstein
Another observation for reflection from this teaching is how quickly we resort to coming to blows when someone has an opposing opinion to our view. Remember, through healthy debate, many great ideas were born.
There are numerous teachings throughout the ages on overcoming disagreement and misunderstanding with an honest attempt to try to empathetically see things from our contender’s point of view with understanding, probably one of the most widely recognized being,
“Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness… Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
In America especially, our culture maybe losing the ability to handle someone else’s opposition to our ideas and the skills necessary to engage in an open-minded debate with our challenger. We Americans often perceive a stated opinion differing from our own as a personal attack, when in all actuality it could be an opportunity for us to question what we do know, maybe realize there are commonalities in which we do agree with our opponent, and perhaps even learn better ways to accomplish that which we think we already know best.
In traditional European cultures, like those found in parts of Italy, it is common for friends and family to argue and engage in lively debate for hours over dinner and wine, with considerable yelling and much emotion involved, and the ability to agree to disagree if unable to find a commonality of ideas, then still exchange hugs and walk away feeling no less love for their rival in debate.
Rhetoric, the ability to skillfully argue and persuade, was as talent highly valued by our founding American forefathers. We would be wise to develop these skills ourselves and for American culture to re-popularize the ability today.
Examples of famous people around the world who you may recognize that made lasting changes with their rhetorical abilities to argue and persuade in debate include Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and Plato.
“You fight to win; you argue to achieve agreement.” ~ Jay Heinrichs
This ancient story of the blind men and the elephant has withstood the test of time, first being interpreted into Jainism, Budhhism, Islamic Sufi Muslim, and Hindu cultures as well as eventually making its way into 19th century American poetry and, interestingly enough, modern interpretations of the story are still being formulated today.
Several academic modern analyses of the story are in use today, according to Wikipedia, ”The story is seen as a metaphor in many disciplines, being pressed into service as an analogy in fields well beyond the traditional. In physics, it has been seen as an analogy for the wave–particle duality. In biology, the way the blind men hold onto different parts of the elephant has been seen as a good analogy for the Polyclonal B cell response. The fable is one of a number of tales that cast light on the response of hearers or readers to the story itself.”
One modern interpretation of the moral of this story is:
“We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” – Werner Heisenberg
I’ve used this story repeatedly for years to bring a smile to my face and help me check myself when I find myself stubbornly convinced that I know better than someone else and am having a hard time considering their contradictory ideas. I take a moment to stop and ask myself, “Are you maybe being like the blind men and the elephant, Trey?” Oftentimes, after having asked myself this question, I’m able to recognize my inflexible attitude at that time, maybe have a little chuckle at myself, and then re-attempt to listen more acceptingly with a fresh perspective. Maybe this story could help you too.
In conclusion, this story’s greatest representations to me are: Never stop learning. Try to give wholehearted consideration to other people’s ideas, no matter how crazy they may at first seem. Keep questioning everything, especially yourself.
Thank you for reading!
Can you think of other morals or useful applications for this parable? Let’s hear it in the comment box below!
If you enjoyed reading, here is a similar follow-up post I wrote about the blind leading the blind.
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