A view from the outside
“Be fair. Be objective. Don’t just come to conclusions based on one-sided evidence.” Mahinda Rajapaksa (*1945), Sri Lankan president (2005–2015) and prime minister (since 2019)
The mercurial sloth inside of us likes to fall back on the role of a creature of habit in a presentation to the outside world. 95% of our daily processes run smoothly, almost as if they were well-rehearsed rituals. This demonstrably relieves our brain and creates space for important thought processes.
Such focus can yield great results, as Colin Powell (1937–2021) once elaborated. “To achieve excellence in big things, you have to develop habits in the many little things.” Powell must now. He walked a truly impressive path – the son of migrants from the Bronx became a US army general and the chairman of its joint chiefs of staff.
So far, so good. But what happens when ingrained routines gain the upper hand and hard-won space isn’t used and filled mentally? Then we’ve arrived in the presence of many others with the same fate, from which we can’t absolve ourselves either.
In this case, bureaucracy’s ‘rule of three’ comes into effect, be it in the private or the professional world. “We’ve always done it this way; it’ll always be done this way; not just anyone can come along and make changes.” In this way, through convenience, many an erroneous development is considered normal, or even unavoidable.
It will come as little surprise that something new grows out of such a world view, which we would of course all reject if we were asked. So how do we escape this risk of mental numbness? Usually, experts recommend a mix of objective self-control, regular self-criticism, constant vigilance and tireless curiosity. You’re right, I’m being mean. Every single one of these phrases is a contradiction in terms and certainly not a suitable recipe for our more or less hassled everyday lives.
Routines can be tough opponents, as US humourist Mark Twain put it so inimitably. “You can’t just throw a habit out the window. You have to beat it down the stairs, step by step.”
So the question is not that easy to answer by ourselves. In contrast, a completely different method seems more reliable to me. A view from the outside. Preferably from people who hardly know our topic or our field. This is often the best way to exchange ideas, as Gautam Mukunda, assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, showed in a study. According to his analysis, an unbiased view put forward by a lateral entrant can triumph over a wealth of experience and a head start in terms of knowledge. A third party that bluntly gives us their opinion often gets us farthest.
This process of exposing yourself isn’t just about the joy of debate. A view from the outside reveals the blind spots of common patterns of thought and behaviour. Of course, it’s not only the truth that hurts; abandoning cherished habits frequently hurts too. In the end a critical commentary on the present often gives way to the enthusiastic prospect of dormant potential and unawakened talent. And that’s worth the process.
Is that too abstract for you? Then you can have some fun with an experiment – one with a loss of control. Give a third party freedom to judge what you do. What if the result coincides with your hunches? Then you’re on the right track, according to Esther Kleppen. “Criticism from outside is the best answer to doubt from within.”