The Hardest Question

Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while

The Hardest Question

Anne Gregory, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Anne Gregory, Class of 2017

As of last Tuesday, my classmates and I are back in the thick of courses for our second year at the NYU Stern School of Business. The terms “leadership” and “teamwork” surface constantly, and our syllabi are built around the drivers of success in a global economy. Yet international partnerships are beginning to show signs of strain: geopolitical discord is high, and nationalist themes are surfacing across the globe as terrorism, wealth disparity, and climate spasms become ever more visible. At the same time, technology is bridging nations with extraordinary speed, and yet many are rushing to close their doors to the rapid pace of globalization.

But let’s take a step back and discuss how these stories appear to us as individuals. Much of our daily news is sourced through social media and consumed in sound bites that deliver only as much as we need to start a conversation. A tsunami of opinion and lightly researched (or invalidated) data paired with our ability to shape what we do (and don’t) see, is a petri dish for confirmation bias. The phenomenon of confirmation bias owes one of its best definitions to mathematician Atle Selberg: “The thing is, it’s very dangerous to have a fixed idea. A person with a fixed idea will always find some way of convincing himself in the end that he is right.”

Fixed ideas are the norm and not the exception since, for many of us, our assumptions are at the core of our very being. But what if our assumptions are wrong? It is extremely difficult to question these deeply-held beliefs. Difficult, but worthwhile, as Isaac Asimov cautions: “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” No one has a monopoly on the truth, and having the courage to honestly examine one’s beliefs inspires integrity and empathy. The influence that beliefs have on our daily lives merit their review and constant self-critique. So taking some notes from my own experiences, here are some thoughts on how to embrace this practice:   

1. Entertain the thought that you might be wrong: To even consider that a lifelong assumption is wrong can be quite unsettling. However, it is an important source of catharsis to acknowledge new ideas and thinking as they surface. This practice can be as easy as taking a belief and doing some side research, or as deep as engaging in conversation with someone who thinks differently and not instinctively going on the attack.

2. That being said, don’t shy away from healthy disagreement: I am notoriously conflict-averse, but have started to see the value of bringing rivalry into planning conversations. Receiving pushback can strengthen an initiative – as it has essentially been critiqued from multiple angles. Debates are healthy, and we shouldn’t be afraid to deliberate with those who come from a different background or perspective. And if conducted with respect, you are more likely to learn something valuable.

3. Do something that scares you: for many of us, comfort in the “known” is a wonderful temptation. But trying something that makes your palms sweat or goes against the daily norm is quite liberating. Taking on an experience that is unique to you can make you a stronger and more capable ally to colleagues, and can enhance your contributions to society as a whole. Now “scare” should be relative, and not necessarily something that is objectively terrifying – but the general idea is to do something that makes your heart pound!

4. However, understand that “adventurousness” doesn’t always equal “openness”: these two qualities are quite close, yet there is a clear distinction between openness to experience and openness to change. The former implies traveling, experimenting and adventuring, all of which can do wonders for broadening a perspective. Yet these alone don’t necessarily add up to openness. Being open to change implies that you are also willing to adjust your perspective based on the experience.

I am still in the process of learning how to be more open myself, and so this list is by no means an exhaustive one. But what I can suggest is that openness breeds excellence, both in the professional world and in our personal ambitions. It broadens our understanding of society, introduces us to new people, and inspires the consideration of beliefs that challenge our own. So no matter your political or cultural standing, take a moment to consider your beliefs and how they influence others. And be willing to ask what is arguably one of the hardest questions: “Am I wrong?”

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