Ignorance is never random.
~ Gunner Myrdal
We are living in a period of dramatic change. It became obvious on 9/11. The 2008 financial crisis, Brexit and the US Presidential election are more recent markers of a big shift. Humans are changing the way they view morality, religion, politics, education and marriage, just to name a few domains. The old is breaking down and the new is emerging, albeit clumsily at times. When I get rattled I have to remind myself to look at the big picture and recognize I am living in the middle of a broad cycle of human evolution.
We typically resist deep change. Most of us settle for the devil we know. Then we get thrown off balance when we are faced with a reality that conflicts with our expectations. We rationalize that we aren’t shocked, sad or angry or we get overwhelmed with what’s happening and want to escape or shut down. It seems completely human during times of uncertainty to feel a sense of excitement and vulnerability. I know I am feeling this way and trying to stay open to everyone’s worldview and to what’s changing and what’s to come.
How to Deal with Change
During periods of rapid and extreme change we need as big a perspective as we can get in order to stay emotionally grounded and make good decisions. When the world around you is shifting all the time, ignorance (a lack of knowledge, awareness, or a blind spot) becomes a big leadership, communication and relationship-building liability.
To help adjust to and direct change, leaders need two skills: The capacity to objectively take in a wide range of information and the ability manage relationships with people who think different than they do.
I’ve been asking myself, “How do I broaden my perspective? Isn’t my worldview fixed, a function of my upbringing, culture and life experience? Isn’t it right to hold tightly to my well-established beliefs? How do I become aware of what I don’t know?” Our ignorance is not an accident or act of fate. The Myrdal quote (he’s a Swedish sociologist) reminds me that I create and reinforce my own perspective. If my worldview is skewed to a larger degree than I want to admit, it’s my own doing.
You are less Open-minded than You Think
Have you ever noticed that you start to feel tired, distracted, annoyed or confused when you read certain material or listen to certain individuals speak? It’s as though your IQ drops 30 percent when you come across unfamiliar material that challenges beliefs you feel strongly about. If you pay attention to when this happens you will notice that you are not enjoying the content or the source, you are too busy judging, resisting or avoiding it and you can’t really process it. It may be more accurate to say you don’t want to process it.
If you are a Fox News viewer you may find it hard to watch CNN and vice versa. Our mind will resist absorbing what we don’t want to know about or can’t deal with. Hence, we move through our lives not bothering to learn what we don’t want to process. The result: Our liberal lens just keeps getting more liberal or our conservative lens keeps getting more conservative.
We are conditioned to stick with the beliefs we are so certain are true rather than step into the uncertainty that comes from being exposed to opposing perspectives. In fact, studies have shown we are more afraid of experiencing physical pain than we are of experiencing uncertainty.
What’s it take to be a Conscious Leader?
The conscious leader has the capacity to see both sides. The Buddhists refer to this as “nondual thinking” or living from the perspective of the Middle Way. The conscious leader knows there is some truth in all perspectives and that the secret to making informed decisions and living a fulfilling life is being open to all new information before deciding what aligns with his or her deepest core values.
Developing an open mind takes practice. It starts with tuning into your resistance to challenging your unexamined beliefs. Then you need to build up your tolerance to exposing yourself to information that is foreign or outside your familiar and comfortable zone. Sometimes we get help in form of life circumstances. Say you are opposed to homosexuality and your 20-year-old son announces he is gay. If we look carefully, we are being challenged to open up every day by the people in our lives that see things differently. We choose to challenge our beliefs or stay ignorant.
How to Reduce your Ignorance
I am increasingly aware of just how little I know about the topics and people I have strong negative opinions about. In order to feel connected to others and be empathetic I have to do the work to become more aware of my blind spots and chosen areas of ignorance.
If you want to build your capacity for Middle Way thinking, try this practice. Once a day for a week tune into the media outlet you most resist—the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, Rachel Madow or Bill O’Reilly. Set a timer and see how long you can watch the channel without becoming angry, critical, judgmental, or emotionally shut down. Stop watching when you feel the big resistance. Try the practice again the next day and see if you can go longer and be more curious. You could do this practice with people in your life as well but people don’t respond to a remote control.
As you practice leaning in to what you most want to resist you become less emotionally reactive. At a minimum, you will start to notice your resistance or openness. When you reduce your ignorance you can see the big picture and are more tolerant and more able to build the bridges necessary to lead change (not to mention better equipped to manage family gatherings over the holidays).