I don’t want to speak negativity into existence. – SZA
I was watching a TED talk today on a topic that I’ve been interested in for a while and when the speaker started talking someone else’s voice entered my head and I didn’t like it at all.
I’ve noticed a tendency for a certain group of people to attack others on this topic. Someone says something on social media and then you get a response – these comments and negativity pointing out that the person is wrong or doesn’t understand what they’re talking about.
I’m not a big fan of those voices and I need to stop myself becoming one of them. But it’s very easy, once you know something about something, to think you know all about it and everyone else must be wrong or stupid or incompetent or dumb. It’s like the people who come out and correct grammar and speling – quite often their responses contain errors of their own which sort of defeats the purpose. And yes, I do know how to spell spelling…
There’s also an age-stage thing going on with knowing things. Sometimes you aren’t ready for the more nuanced stuff until you’ve been through some time trying to make the obvious stuff work. I find myself thinking things like, “I went through that phase five years earlier.” And I need to remind myself that because I have had an experience and come to a conclusion doesn’t mean that others are at the same point. There’s this idea that life is like being on tracks and some people are coming up behind you and going through the stations you were at and that there are stations that you are heading towards that others have passed through before you. It can make your head hurt a bit when you think about it too much.
One of the best things you can do when faced with these situations is to look at the context – what is going on around the thing that you are looking at. When someone puts an approach forward for you to think about – a solution that they have come up with – what you need to remind yourself is to think of that solution in the context of the problem that it solves. It is very tempting to generalize a solution and feel like it should fit all circumstances. It sometimes can but you can often end up trying to put in a solution for a situation that doesn’t need that particular one.
Ernesto Sirolli has a story that helps to make this point. Imagine you go to a remote location to help a village and see that there is a very deep and fast flowing river that separates them from resources on the other side. They have to brave the water and ferry things across. What would you do to help them?
Sirolli says that everyone who goes there wonders why the villagers haven’t built a bridge. So, they apply for funding, get international donors to pitch in and start building their bridge. They do all the earthworks, drive in the pillars get everything built and get ready for the adulation of the villages. And then the rains come and the river changes course, running half a mile to the side leaving the bridge proudly spanning dry earth. And that’s why, the villagers tell them, we don’t build a bridge over this river.
What this should tell you is that you should probably be wary when someone gets up and promises to tell you how to fix all your problems. The problem is that what they tell you may have worked for them in their context but you need to figure out what will work for you in yours. Use other people’s solutions as a starting point to figure out what you need to do – not as a prescription to follow that will give you the results you want. At the same time you need to be careful not to discard what other people have done because they don’t do it like you do. You will still be able to learn something if you look at what they say critically – working to put it in context and seeing if that context has similarities to your context.
Of course, it does mean you find it harder to provide simple, easy, canned solutions and some people don’t have the patience to deal with all that complexity or, more charitably, they aren’t quite at that stage yet. And that’s ok. These things take time. What you don’t want to do is become such a know-it-all that you turn into a cantankerous grouch when you hear anyone say something that you don’t agree with.
Better, in those situations, to say nothing. Or smile and nod.
If it’s any good, it will still be around in ten years. If it’s not, it won’t. And you will have all that time to make up your own mind.