One of the best tips I ever got came from journalism school.
The tip involved assumption-making and it was offered in the form of a question-and-answer.
Do you know what happens when you make assumptions? The journalism professor asked my undergraduate, database research class. The first three letters of the word “assumption,” that’s what you make of yourself.
He was right. I just didn’t realize how much.
As a no-nonsense journalist-in-training, I was taught not to take things sources told me at face value. I was taught to always maintain a certain level of distrust in dealing with people. This would allow me to continue questioning everything to shreds until I reached the objective truth through information and fact gathering.
Looking back, I can’t help but wonder why I didn’t extend that piece of advice to my personal and professional life as well? It might have spared me years of self-inflicted anguish and grief over trivialities. Live and learn, I suppose.
It’s only now—through my Saybrook studies—that I see how the assumptions we make over time become ingrained in our thought processes and, eventually, in our self. Our assumptions follow us everywhere. They make us cookie-cut people, environments, and observable patterns in ways that fit our personal mold. They don’t let us comfortably take a step back and absorb people, environments, and observable patterns objectively—as they are.
Haven’t you ever entered a room full of strangers and found yourself pegging people a certain way almost immediately after meeting them? Assumptions… well, yeah, they happen.
If we opted for the more objective approach—the one that lets us be a casual observer without clinging to our usually-false pretenses the same way a child latches on to a security blanket—we’d be able to make more accurate sense of the world around us in all respects.
Consider the workplace. Nowadays, we’re constantly bombarded with allegedly “better ways” of doing things by so-called experts and business gurus. Blame the hype, blame the marketing, but in some way, we’re usually lured—and oftentimes duped—into believing that the bells and whistles surrounding these “better ways” of working can work for us too.
Deep down, we know they won’t, but we go ahead anyway and try applying a new motivational theory, for example, at work. Then, it fails. And we’re left wondering why? The answer’s simple: Because it didn’t fit our personal, ingrained assumptions. We don’t absorb the alleged “better way” because something held us back—our unique way of thinking and perceiving things, that’s what held us back.
This epiphany hit me yesterday after reading Douglas McGregor’s 1954 essay, “A Philosophy of Management.”
A business thinker who helped pioneer management and organizational development theory, McGregor discussed the power of our assumptions on adopting new philosophies concerning management in his essay.
“I am not opposed to methods, techniques, and formulas, but I want to make a point about them: their value and usefulness depend on the attitudes and the points of view of the people who use them,” McGregor wrote almost six decades ago. “There is always something that lies behind the method which is critically significant in determining whether the method works or not.”
That certain “something” McGregor noted—that “something” that lurks behind the method—is personal assumption.
So maybe, just maybe, that journalism professor of mine was right. But hang on. He sort of wasn’t.
That j-school professor was trying to teach us to set aside trust and confidence in others in an effort to aggressively pursue and find the objective truth. That’s not very humanistic or humanly. Entering relationships and situations with distrust certainly doesn’t facilitate growth and integration with others. It defies collaboration and achieves the opposite end-result—a lesson I learned the hard way in the years that followed j-school; a lesson I still wrestle with every now and then.
That journalism professor was right about one thing though: Make an assumption, make a donkey of yourself.
In more ways than one.