The Naive Perspective

Looking inward as to how the words and actions of others implicate us in some way, we continually misread their intentions. We project our own feelings onto them. We think we understand people, but we are viewing them through a distorted lens.

Compared to other animals, we humans enter the world remarkably weak and helpless. We remain relatively weak for many years before we can truly operate on our own. This extended period of immaturity, lasting some twelve to eighteen years, serves a valuable function: it gives us a chance to focus on developing our brain — by far the most important weapon in the human arsenal. But this prolonged childhood comes with a price. During this time of weakness and dependence, we experience the need to idealize our parents. Our survival depends on their strength and reliability. To think of them as having their own frailties would fill us with unbearable anxiety. And so we inevitably see them as stronger, more capable, and more selfless than they are in reality. We come to view their actions through the lens of our needs, and so they become extensions of ourselves.

During this long period of immaturity, we often transfer these idealizations and distortions to teachers and friends, projecting onto them what we want and need to see. Our view of people becomes saturated with various emotions — worship, admiration, love, need, anger. Then inevitably, often in adolescence, we start to glimpse a less-than-noble side to many people, including our parents, and we cannot help but feel upset at the disparity between what we had imagined and the reality. In our disappointment, we tend to exaggerate their negative qualities, much as we once had exaggerated the positive ones. If we had been forced earlier on in life to make it on our own we would have become more detached and realistic. But as it is, the many years of viewing people through the lens of our emotional needs turns into a habit that we can hardly control.

Let us call this the Naive Perspective. Although it is natural to have such a perspective because of the unique character of our childhood, it is also dangerous because it envelops us in childish illusions about people, distorting our view of them. We carry this perspective with us into the adult world. In the work environment the stakes are suddenly raised. People are no longer struggling for good grades or social approval, but for survival. Under such pressure, they reveal qualities of their character that they normally try to conceal. They manipulate, compete, and think of themselves first. We are blindsided by this behavior and our emotions are churned up even more than before, locking us into the Naive Perspective.

The Naive Perspective makes us feel sensitive and vulnerable. Looking inward as to how the words and actions of others implicate us in some way, we continually misread their intentions. We project our own feelings onto them. We have no real sense of what they are thinking or what motivates them. With colleagues in the work environment, we fail to see the source of their envy or the reason for their manipulations; our attempts at influencing them are based on the assumptions that they want the same things as ourselves. With mentors and bosses, we project onto them our childhood fantasies, becoming unnecessarily adoring or fearful of authority figures and creating stormy and brittle relationships in the process. We think we understand people, but we are viewing them through a distorted lens. In this state, all of our empathic powers are rendered useless.

Social intelligence is nothing more than the process of discarding the Naive Perspective and approaching something more realistic. It involves focusing our attention outward instead of inward, honing the observational and empathic skills that we naturally possess. It means moving past our tendency to idealize and demonize people, and seeing and accepting them as they are. But before we can begin to acquire this intelligence we must first come to grips with the Naive Perspective itself.

Understand: you will continue to have problems in attaining social intelligence until you come to the realization that your view of people is dominated by the Naive Perspective. You can reach this awareness by reviewing your past, paying particular attention to any battles, mistakes, tensions, or disappointments on the social front. If you look at these events through the lens of the Naive Perspective, you will focus only on what other people have done to you. Instead, you must turn this around and begin with yourself — how you saw in other qualities they did not possess, or how you ignored signs of a dark side to their nature. In doing this, you will be able to clearly see the discrepancy between your illusions about who they are and the reality, and the role you played in creating this discrepancy. If you look closely enough, you can often perceive in your relationship with bosses or superiors reenactments of the childhood family dynamic — the idealizing or demonizing that has become habitual.

This new clarity about your perspective should be accompanied by an adjustment of your attitude. You must avoid the temptation to become cynical in your approach as an overreaction to your prior naivete. The most effective attitude to adopt is one of supreme acceptance. The world is full of people with different characters and temperaments. We all have a dark side, a tendency to manipulate, and aggressive desires. The most dangerous types are those who repress their desires or deny the existence of them, often acting them out in the most underhanded ways. Some people have dark qualities that are especially pronounced. You cannot change such people at their core, but must merely avoid becoming their victim. You are an observer of the human comedy, and by being as tolerant as possible, you gain a much greater ability to understand people and to influence their behavior when necessary.

Robert Greene is the author of five international bestsellers including The 48 Laws of Power. For a free report on strategies Robert Greene used to create his books and insights, visit his blog — Power, Seduction, and War