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Rivers Of Knowledge

May 11, 2019

Describing each individual as unique has become cliche. And yet, isn’t it the case? Our lives are our own - no other person has the same blend of genes and experiences. I always like to imagine two people standing side by side on a corner. Though only inches separate them, they can mean the difference between an unimpeded view down a broad boulevard and staring at a brick wall.

The things we see combine with experiences to form a body of knowledge that we draw upon to understand our world - and by necessity, that combination is unique. This combination is our education, it’s how we see the world, and I visualize it as a river. Every person has their own river, but there’s also one for society writ large - that portion of knowledge that is generally accepted (though not necessarily universally). There’s significant overlap between our individual river and society’s, so much so that it’s often easy to forget that their understanding of the world is, in fact, unique.

Reminders of that unique perspective can come in many forms - from innocuous to jarring - from a friend explaining they’ve never heard of an author who’s been influential in your life to the discovery that 1 in 10 Americans (or 1 in 5 Millennials) are not sure they’ve heard of the Holocaust.¹

While a minority, the fact that 10-20% of Americans are not aware of the Holocaust is particularly jarring because of the prominent role that period plays in my understanding of the world. Raised Jewish, I attended a Jewish day school through the third grade. I never felt like there was anything particularly unique about the experience, and as a result, I never had cause to question whether or not it was different from the education that others received. In retrospect, of course, the answer is clear. I suspect there weren’t many elementary school classrooms that discussed the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in ’95 the way we did or who spent as much time and effort ensuring that the students “Never Forget” the Holocaust.

I began thinking about the divergence between my understanding of the world and what other’s see a few months back when listening to The New York Times’ The Daily interview with Fadi Quran.² During his time at Stanford, Fadi spent time trying to understand the motivations of Jews by attending shabbat dinners and events at the Hillel, a Jewish community center. His impression of Jews had been shaped by his experience growing up in the West Bank, and the Jewish communities on campus gave him an opportunity to “infiltrate” the community to understand them from the inside.

One of the most striking moments of the interview was his recollection of a seminar hosted by the Israeli consulate for Jewish-Americans on defending Israel. The consulate began its two-day seminar with an entire day dedicated toHolocaust education. Only after establishing that baseline - a shared understanding among the attendees on the horrors that occurred - did they proceed to discuss Israel’s role as a haven and make the case that it needed defending.

It should come as no surprise that my education differed from Fadi’s, just as it differed from the 1 in 5 of my generational peers - though of course it does. It’s not that my peers are denying the existence of the Holocaust, rather, they were never exposed to it at all (or not in a way that left a lasting impression).

The recognition that world views are unique also means that there’s a huge opportunity to not only learn from others - because of course, they’ve seen things I haven’t, but also to share my thoughts with them.

If I want what I say to stick, however, I need to do more than just tell facts. Facts as I understand them have been processed through a filter of my experiences. Since I can’t assume that the person I’m talking to has a similar filter, I need to communicate.

Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management recently published an article about influencing your boss.³ The article draws on the perspective of Colonel William “Chip” Horn and while I’m not focused exclusively on the workplace, I am talking about influencing someone else’s thinking. To that end, one quote in particular has stuck with me. Colonel Horn says, “When leading up, you become what Thaler and Sunstein refer to as a ‘choice architect.’ You have the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.”

How to influence others is big business and I will not pretend that I have all of the answers. That said, recognizing the source of the difference in understanding has led me to the following conclusions and tactics on the topic.

  • Acknowledge that others may view the world differently and, importantly, given the same “facts”, may draw different conclusions.
  • The fact that they can interpret facts differently is a consequence of their past experience that shapes their belief system - these are their “priors” and any shifting of them off the positions supported by those priors must recognize that you’re taking on the task of reshaping their identity and how they understand the world (big or small).
  • People will provide signals that you’re on different pages through looks puzzlement and confusion or by asking questions.
  • When people are confused (or ask a question) about something that you understand as true, recognize that it is not a personal failing on their part, but an opportunity for you to expose them to an idea that you understand to be true.
  • Lastly, if you take on the challenge of sharing your understanding of the facts with the other person, it is within your power, however, you are responsible for communicating the facts as you see them in a that the other person will come to understand them and feel them the way you do. Failing to do that, you may speak at them, but they will not understand. You have to be the ‘choice architect’.

While I’m presenting these as “conclusions” they are not final. They are my current understanding based on the facts at hand, processed through the filter of my life experiences. As with all advice given in a vacuum, it fits into my experience, but may not be appropriate for someone else. I hope to continue to reconcile my understanding of the world with others — but this has to start by recognizing that everyone views the world in their own way.

Resources ¹ Knowledge And Awareness of the Holocaust In The United States ² The Daily’s Interview with Fadi Quran ³ Four Ways to Influence Your Bosses without Alienating Them


Stephen Weiss

Written by Stephen Weiss who lives in Chicago with his wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Follow him on Twitter!