Spelunking our network of assumptions

I’ve noticed that my ability to operate in an ambiguous, complex environment depends strongly on my capacity to see a larger space of options and possibilities. There’s something very natural and yet completely unproductive about reacting to complexity with fear — diminishing our capacity for seeing what we need to see to overcome that fear. Working across different organizations at Google, the pursuit for seeing more and understanding my own fears is just as much of a personal development as it is professional. I simply can’t do my job without a continuous practice of expanding my capacity to see.

One kind of practice that I have is spelunking the network of assumptions. It comes from the understanding that our decisions are made on top of a massive network of assumptions: things that we believe are true. It turns out that many of these assumptions are unexamined, and might contain errors.

A child believing there’s a monster in their closet might finally confront their fear and open the closet. Finding no evidence of a creature, the child might decide that there aren’t any monsters, dispelling their erroneous assumption. Or they might conclude that the monsters are only present when the lights are off and the closet door is shut. In the latter case, the “monster in the closet” assumption had gone unchallenged, and instead, new assumptions were made around it. The monster story survives and if anything, becomes reinforced, more resilient, growing larger with each attempt to examine it. Parents can’t see monsters. Monsters only sneak from behind. And so on.

In the course of our lives, our networks of assumptions grow to contain multitudes of these resilient clusters of unquestioned assumptions. No longer as silly as “monsters in closets,” they pin the fabric of our reality in ways that prevent us from seeing more. Especially when these clusters are really, really old, they don’t even feel as conscious thought: instead, it’s the weird increase in heart rate, or the flushing of the face, or the sense of irritation that “just suddenly comes over.” All of these point at something happening deep underneath the veneer of the “rational thinking,” and all of these are the object of the spelunking practice. Why do I feel this way? Is there an inner dialogue going on? What could be the assumption that I am making? And what are the connected assumptions? With enough patience, the clusters of old unquestioned assumptions start to emerge — and become possible to examine and dispel.

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