Monthly Archives: September 2011

Einstein, warp speed, and the Elephant in the Cave

An experiment publicized yesterday could rewrite physics in more than one way.

“European scientists are shocked by an experiment that showed particles moving faster than light. The result, if confirmed, could challenge Einstein’s signature theory of relativity or point to a universe of more than four dimensions.” (The Christian Science Monitor)

My enthusiasm about potential warp speed travel aside, this yet to be confirmed finding prompted me to recall two anecdotes that express the human condition of living with an incomplete understanding of the world. I paraphrase them here:

The one with the elephant: three blind men examine different parts of an elephant and argue about the correct description, each convinced to have grasped all there is to know about the elephant.

The one with the cave: prisoners living their lives tied down and facing a wall, with a fire behind them, believe the shadows to be the reality, and are prepared to kill one who would argue differently.

Lacking both Plato’s allegorical talent and an Indian gusto for parables, I have not found a pithy way to describe my own take on this human condition, but I would like to throw in my two cents anyway.

I believe reality (whatever that is) suffers from consecutive filtering as we perceive the world, genuinely try to make sense of it, and then finally represent it to ourselves and others – truthfully or otherwise. At each stage of meaning-making, what starts as an infinite and rich variety gets gradually reduced until we often get a single story about any given thing – the truth, right?

However, just as Einstein’s theory, such truths are really stories of the world, told to the best of our current abilities. We adopt the versions of the storytellers that tell them best. And if this happens in science, a discipline based on hard evidence, imagine the extent to which we are vulnerable to similar storytelling in less rigid environments, such as business strategy.

One of my ongoing interests is to understand how the worldviews we hold influence business decisions, and to find a way to systematically map out incumbent mindsets, and overcome them, as a prerequisite for meaningful decision-making. What makes this difficult is that I am dealing with untold stories – the unspoken assumptions, the taken for granted, the lens through which decision makers look at the world.

These stories, in my experience, are the most difficult to rewrite, even when new evidence is available. My clients want me to help them make better observations by looking harder at reality. My task is to convince them such reality is accessible to them through a certain personal lens, and that the most effective way to succeed in an increasingly complex world is to start by analyzing the lens itself.

Then, later down the road, if all goes well, one may become a lens-maker instead of an unaware user, understanding the benefits and shortcomings of their personal lens, and more importantly, understanding that while focusing and refocusing is a constant, the time eventually comes for an altogether different lens, showing us an altogether different story.

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