The First Truth
The Work Is The Way
When I started working in media, I noticed early on that I was able to see things my clients could not: aspects of their products or services they should accentuate, potential problems with their brand identities, market position insights. As a younger man, I thought this was because I was the smartest guy in the room. Now I understand that this is because it is impossible to be objective about your own stuff… or anything else, for that matter.
The First Truth: No Objectivity
Many philosophical and academic disciplines concern themselves with what we see and why we see it the way we do. Semiotics, a linguistic discipline, concerns itself with the snap moment between when you hear or read a word and when your brain creates an interpretation of that word. For instance, if I say the word “tree” to you, you and I think of two different trees. I thought of the one above. You did not.
The interpretation you have of the word “tree” is constructed entirely out of your personal history. Your perception of everything is the sum product of your total experience up to that moment, and it is never knowable to anyone else, because no one else has lived your life. This means that it is not possible for you to hear something exactly as I mean to say it, and vice versa. There is no transitive property of derived meaning. Failing to understand this is the source of most discord in our lives, from simple misunderstandings between individuals to the most casual tragedy of the human condition: our seeming inability to know or understand ourselves.
This is about perception, which governs a great deal of philosophy. When thinking about it in terms of business (or family, or any other intensely personal thing), consider it this way: you know the difference between directed sight (in which you focus on one thing) and peripheral vision (in which you do not focus and can see a broader field). People that work on a project or run a business are often focused on one thing or one group of things. They do this at the expense of being able to see what we colloquially refer to as the Big Picture, but in this case the idiom is very accurate.
As a consultant - which is what, as an ad man, I fundamentally am - I am not buried in the day-to-day details of running someone else’s business. So, I can take in the whole picture, free of context or values that may skew my perception or make it much more difficult for me to get at the truth of a thing. This is because I am forced to approach it with a beginner’s mind.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. - Shunryu Suzuki
I have a beginner’s mind in this moment even if I don’t know it: I do not feel like an expert in what I am seeing, so I do not make assumptions. I am in Discovery Mode, the possibilities are endless and I am doing very little or nothing to close myself off from them. This makes the work I do much more powerful.
This requires some unhappy admissions that fly in the face of ego, the first of many being that I don’t know everything or have all the answers. It is a first small step but it is necessary. Understanding the advantage of the beginner’s mind is what follows as a matter of course when you come to understand that true objectivity in human interaction is a myth.