That was the question I asked after two weeks of driving my kids to a new school and looking for landmarks along the way. I brought my Mom along to show her where to drop them off, and as we were driving home I mentioned the signs and businesses I always look for to find the correct driveway during heavy morning traffic. After naming off several things I look for, she said, “Or just turn at the water tower.” What? Ten straight days of driving that route, and I hadn’t seen any water tower. How could I have missed a 200-ft structure right at the driveway? That afternoon I went back to get the kids, and I left a little early while traffic was lighter. I drove slowly looking for a water tower. No water tower. I stopped in the turn lane and looked 360 degrees. No water tower. I drove on in and picked up the kids. As we left, I asked them if there was a water tower by their school. Both of them immediately pointed up to it, right there above the treetops looming as the largest, and most obvious landmark in the area… from the passenger side of the vehicle. You see, the only way to see it was to lean over and see it from their perspective… in the passenger seat.
Tallahassee, Florida is a beautiful city of Live Oaks and tall pines. It is known for its canopy roads and tree-lined streets, the universities of Florida A & M and Florida State Seminoles. From the driver’s side of my vehicle, I could see businesses, and street signs, but the water tower was obscured by trees when looking out the windshield as we approached. As it came into view, the rooftop of the car hid it from my view, but from the passenger side of the vehicle it was the most conspicuous landmark by far.
If my mother had gone back to pick up the kids looking for that enormous water tower, she would never have seen it. We were in the same vehicle, travelling the same road, looking for the same turn, but something obvious to her was invisible to me. Moving three feet to my right changed my perspective drastically, and vice versa. We all like to believe that ‘truth’ is indisputable. In most cases, facts are pretty steadfast. We do have this term “accepted facts,” and even facts can later be proven inaccurate. Theories have to be adjusted sometimes, but facts can generally be trusted. Truth is something else entirely. Truth depends on perspective. If she had told me the water tower was the most obvious landmark, it would have been true. If I had told her she will never see the water tower when she comes to pick them up, that would also have been true. Had we been in an adversarial setting, we could have argued the point heatedly, and never given an inch of ground from our both of our perceived truths.
I write about this today, because our country is suffering from a lack of perspective in partisan politics, discrimination based on sex, race, and religion. From child-rearing to health care, everyone has an opinion, but too few seek out other perspectives. From menial wages to dwindling profit margins perspective is missing. My experience three feet away from you could be drastically different than your perspective. I can move three feet and see a giant water tower I had previously missed, but I cannot make myself into a different person. I cannot experience the truth of someone from a different race or gender. I can never replace my childhood experiences with your childhood experiences. I can only (hopefully) make an effort to understand.
We will never know each other’s truth, but we can acknowledge it exists. We can acknowledge it is unique. Each and every person has a truth of their very own. It is real, and it is valid, and we cannot dispute it. That truth is not more valid than our own truth, but it is valid in its own right. It is a different perspective. Stephen Covey used the term “paradigm.” He mused that you can have the best map of Chicago that was ever made, but it won’t help if you are in Detroit. His fifth habit was, “first seek to understand.” Your paradigm is the map from which you see the world. Everyone has their own paradigm, so the world looks much different from one person to the next.
I won’t bore the readers with how this can be applied to business, family, politics, or religion. I’ll leave that to each of you. I’ll only say that as we interact with each other throughout the day, we should stop to consider perspective. It might help us communicate and get along better with our employees, spouses, children, barista, or angry customer across the counter. Stop, and move yourself three feet and take another look at the world. It might keep us from getting totally lost.
Let me also take this moment to say I was wrong when I posted this blog. My perspective was narrow, and it has been radically altered on that subject. The Ice Bucket Challenge actually did lead to real advances in research on ALS. There are many, many great causes to champion, and none of us are important enough to rain on the passion of someone else’s cause. Everything comes down to perspective.