Slants. And How To Manage Them

The following is a personal and professional life lesson. I hope you find it useful. All terms and definitions are mine.

The Slant

A slant is a mental “thread” or state of thinking that makes certain assumptions about a certain thing, event or people. This could be something that has happened in the past, currently taking place in the present or “most probably” will happen in the future. Our minds are constantly generating slants from our personal experience and interaction with the world around us. We cannot avoid them. A slant generates vivid mental scenarios with imaginary conversations, conjured up images that stir up a range of emotions inside us. This makes it feel very real. Albeit it is completely fabricated by our mind. A slant is lopsided by its very nature i.e. it is either overly pessimistic or impractically positive. A slant can be visualized as a colored blob of emotions. Our mind can then be pictured as a collection of colored blotches (see this blog’s image).

Slants are our mental resting places. For example, let’s say Bob’s boss, Tim, regularly shouts at him. In return, Bob takes refuge in a slant where he becomes Tim’s boss one day. He then finds solace in the contrived images and conversations where he trashes Tim in public and ultimately fires him in the utmost humiliating way possible. This slant will grow every time Bob feels being unfairly treated by Tim. Each mental conversation and images of his slant will be progressively refined and made more poignant.

Most of the time we do not realize that we are developing a slant deep inside us. Instead, we ponder on it and let it grow. We collect “evidence” selectively; we connect the “dots” incorrectly assuming that these are correlated; we derive “logical” conclusions that reek of subjectivity. Before we know it, we gradually start to slide down along a path that’s disconnected from reality.

We realize the slant only when it starts to manifest through our behavior and actions towards others. Even then we do nothing to monitor or prevent it.

Slants are our mental ballasts. However, left unmanaged, they can be the anchors that moor us into severely biased mental states. This can lead to a variety of personal and professional complications.

Slant versus Reality

My personal experience is that almost all slants are dead wrong. That is, they never take place in the reality in the shape and form we see them.

This is not surprising. Theoretically, there’s an infinite number of possible events in real-life. This means the chance of an event, tied to a slant, happening in real life is close to zero. Therefore, the chance that a slant’s sequence of conjured up images and conversations match perfectly with reality is zero (i.e. event 1 AND event 2 AND event 3 … — probability of events multiplied is less than the probability that at least one of these events will happen, each of which is close to zero to start with) for all practical purposes.

When the actual event unfolds or when the context and facts are taken into objective consideration, the reality almost always turns out to be different. Slant then feels like a waste of time and energy. It can then give rise to guilt and shame in us. But another slant can then start in its place with a new set of conversations and images. Let’s take Bob’s example again. One day Bob learns from an HR colleague that Tim is under significant stress to save Bob’s job from an upcoming layoff. Bob now realizes the true reason behind Tim’s outbursts. This makes Bob squirm with remorse. He promptly develops a replacement slant where his superior skills and personal traits are sincerely appreciated by Tim. Bob creates several mental scenarios where he shows off his skills and publicly fights with Tim’s adversaries to prove his loyalty.

Slants can turn on a dime.

I have seen that, the reality occurs, if at all, somewhere midway between a slant’s extremes.

But in general the reality happens, from my observations again, differently as in a skew line i.e. a line on a different plane that does not intersect the slant at all. That is the reality and our slant are so different that they exist in different dimensions so to speak. Continuing Bob’s example, the reason Tim wants to save Bob’s position may not be related to his performance or personal traits at all. In fact, Bob could be in a redundant role, struggling to perform his routine tasks while being obnoxious to his team members. But eliminating Bob’s job may jeopardize Tim’s position in the corporation. For example, he may lose the minimum headcount necessary to justify his supervisory role. Also, his outburst may not have anything to do with his job related stress. Indeed, Tim could be a seasoned manager who has lived through several corporate layoffs quite successfully. The impending layoff is just business as usual for him. But he could be facing a bitter divorce, or may have a dependent with serious health issues. Tim could also be developing serious health or money problems that may have an effect on his demeanor. Given this context, Bob’s new slant that draws on his perceived superior job skills, personal likeability from his boss, and public altercation with Tim’s foes to display his loyalty does not have any bearing to the reality. It is quite probable that by expressing his slant in the workplace Bob could irritate and embarrass Tim. Eventually Tim may get to keep Bob’s position but not Bob.

Yet we constantly generate slants.

Objectivity is the most potent antidote to slants. But what happens if we start out with a mind that’s crooked by our slant? We then selectively pick the parts that support our slant and ignore the rest. This makes us feel justified and tilts the slant even more away from reality. It can then eventually transform itself into a deep-seated belief in us that may destroy our personal and professional lives.

I used to think that slants were beneficial. My line of reasoning was that slants would arm me in advance with a set of “reference architectures” or “well thought out strategies and actions”. So that when a slant scenario became reality I could just tackle it right away using these carefully crafted arsenals. I was sure to have a head start.

In reality, this almost always never happened. In the rare cases, when a slant scenario did become a partial reality, the context, complexity and the facts threw most of my strategy and reference architectures out of the window. I suddenly found out that I did not have the advantage I was hoping for. Worse, the biases from my slant had to be undone first to objectively grasp the aspects of the situation. The slant effectively handicapped me instead of helping.

Therefore, I now think of slants as waste of mental energy with huge opportunity costs. But as I cannot eliminate them entirely, I have found four steps to manage and use them.

The Solution

First, be aware of your slants. Ask yourself how you feel about a certain thing, event or people. The associated slant will start to rise up from your subconscious mind.

Second, once you “see” the basic shape of a slant, reverse it. Deliberately cook up mental images and conversations that are opposite in nature. The reason is very simple. A slant by its very nature is unbalanced. So to balance it you have to consciously tilt yourself to the other extreme. Here are some example slants that I have witnessed along with my suggested reversals.

  1. Slant: Feeling depressed about a client opportunity that you think is a dud. You are dreading public shaming from your competitors. You will lose credibility from your colleagues and superiors. Reversal: Think of images in which you trounce the competition to win the deal. That’s right, in their face! Never underestimate the power of one.
  2. Slant: You have met a super nice executive in your workplace. He listens patiently and empathizes with your job environment. He promises to fix all your work issues. What a breath of fresh air! Your mind is flooded with the images of friendliness and caring of this executive. Reversal: Imagine your colleagues telling you how this person has abused his charms to uncover and exploit their weaknesses. This person must never be trusted. You must never drop your guard. An executive can never be a personal friend.
  3. Slant: Donald Trump will be impeached as the current US President “very soon”. Reversal: Donald Trump will serve two terms as the current US President.

Third, when a slant’s image or conversation floats up in your mind, manage it by invoking their opposite counterparts that you have created in the previous step.

Fourth, visualize your slant as a moving point N in the possibility space S. The reality is an unknown but a fixed point R in S. You use real-world data as a guide to move N towards R. You do this by objectively analyzing the events that you think could be related to the slant. It is perfectly fine to start anywhere in S, that is, way away from the point R (or to be completely out of whack with the reality). But you must continually evaluate if N should stay where it is now or move. The results of moving my Ns to their Rs in my professional and personal lives have been a humbling and enlightening experience.

The above four steps will manage your slants and use them to improve your outlook in terms of possibilities. You will be mentally flexible to see both their positive and negative sides. When the reality hits you, hopefully by that time you have pushed N close to R. You are now mentally ready with an objective mind backed by relevant data to handle the reality. Ultimately, that’s the best we can do in this uncertain world.

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Sandip Lahiri

Sandip Lahiri

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