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What's Your Story?: Reconsider Your Personal or Organizational History to Boost Your Vision


I’m on a vision quest and I hope you will join me!


After doing some research on personal and organizational vision, it is apparent that the first requirement for a “useful vision” is that it is “rooted in your past.”[1] So, step one of our vision quest is to revisit our past stories for a bit. Let's spend a little time here to see if we have some misconceptions about our histories. I believe the answer is “yes,” we do.


But, in order to effectively accomplish this first step, we need to be ready to drink a special tonic containing humility, empathy, emotional awareness, and, oh yeah, some more humility. To gain personal or organizational vision, we need to first understand our stories with more accuracy and nuance. Sometimes we get stuck in our pasts, because we are partly blinded by our own perspectives.


Message #1: We Don’t Perceive Our Pasts Accurately

“From the viewpoint of reality, all the senses see one thing, but from the standpoint of outward form they are each different from the other” – Rumi

The truth is that our perceptions of reality and our pasts are limited and, many times, they are illusionary! As the Rumi quote above states, only reality itself sees everything. The rest of us all have varying and fragmented perspective.


Research at Stanford’s Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute (“Wu Tsai institute”) has shown exactly this, that that we don’t always perceive reality correctly. “Our brains . . . unconsciously bend our perception of reality to meet our desires or expectations. And they fill in gaps using our past experiences.”[2] The Wu Tsai institute has uncovered how various common illusions predictably affect how we perceive color, size, movement, and can even create biases and polarize our political views.[3] Other prominent neuroscientists have further proven that fear creates memory loss[4] and that our past memories are unstable.[5]


Our life histories affect how we perceive images, events, and other stimuli.[6] In other words, our past experiences affect our current perceptions of reality. These perceptions create our beliefs about our personal histories, which then affect how we perceive our current realities.


Message #2: Be Open Minded! Naïve Realism is Real


This is where that dose of humility will start to kick in! Now that we have this background knowledge about our limited perceptions of reality, who is to say that we perceive our histories correctly? “If the science tells us our brains are making up a ‘story’ about reality, shouldn’t we be curious about, and even seek out the answers to, how that reality might be wrong?”[7] Yes! We should.


We need to be open-minded in order to see more clearly. But, here’s the real kicker: Science shows that we are battling a psychological tendency called “Naïve Realism.” Naïve Realism is the stubbornness we encounter that drives us to stick with our own version of events when presented with alternative viewpoints (even when we’re wrong). The APA Dictionary of Psychology provides the following definition for the term: “in social psychology, the tendency to assume that one’s perspective of events is a natural, unbiased reflection of objective reality and to infer bias on the part of anyone who disagrees with one’s view.”[8]


Studies, further, show that we even infer that people who hold positions opposing our own are “more influenced by a variety of cognitive and motivational biases and less by normatively defensible considerations than themselves.”[9] And our biases toward other opinions only grow stronger the more the other opinions differ from our own.[10] Naïve realism can lead to the false-consensus effect, where people tend to believe their own beliefs are more widely held than they truly are, further digging them into a whole of misperceptions.[11]


So, exercise your humility muscles and fight your naïve realism. Next time you feel the wave of bias when confronted with a view that doesn’t match your experience, try to be mindful of naïve bias and the fact that we often don’t perceive reality correctly.


This goes for our understanding of our histories, as well. Let's try to have humility about our past experiences. The odds are, we are wrong about some details.


Message #3: We Are Always Changing, and So Are Our Stories

“Presume not that I am the thing I was.” – Shakespeare, 'Henry IV, Part 2' (1597) act 5, sc. 5, l. [61]

We are dynamic creatures; no matter how much we try to fight the currents of time. It is no surprise, then, that research shows us that our memories are not fixed.[12]


Though this truth can mean that we forget some things from our past as times goes on.[13] It can also be very positive. Over time, we can actually see our pasts more clearly if we can strengthen our memory traces by expanding our knowledge on the subject.[14]


The Solution: Do the Hard Work and Take Your Tonic!


The key takeaway for this first step on our vision quest is that it is not necessary or helpful to hold on to past stories too tightly. That’s where the humility part comes in. It is important to actively approach circumstances with an open mind and to realize that other people’s perspectives and research hold keys to understanding our past stories. This also takes empathy. Listening to more diverse perceptions of a story can take some work, but it can also help us to get un-stuck from our biases and wrong beliefs about our pasts. Remember, the way we perceive our pasts affects how we experience reality.


Another practice that will help us to better understand our past experiences is to undergo, what psychologists call, a corrective emotional experience.[15] We can re-experience the emotions from our pasts to gain a better reckoning with, and understanding of, those past realities. I believe we can do this as an organization or group, as well, through focus groups or group conversations.


Here is my practical advice: (1) Write down your personal or organizational story. (2) Then start picking portions of your story apart by doing some research and gaining insight from diverse perspectives. (3) Finally, re-write your story. See how it changes.


I will do the same.


[1] Stewart D. Friedman, Defining Your Personal Leadership Vision, Harvard Bus. Rev., Aug. 7, 2008, https://hbr.org/2008/08/title. [2] Brian Resnick, “Reality” is constructed by your brain. Here’s what that means, and why it matters., Vox, Jun 22, 2020, 8:30am EDT, https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/20978285/optical-illusion-science-humility-reality-polarization [3] Id. [4] Sevil Duvarci & Karim Nader, Characterization of Fear Memory Reconsolidation 20 J. of Neuroscience 9269, 9269 –9275 (2004). [5] Jonathan L.C. Lee, Karim Nader, Daniela Schiller, An Update on Memory Reconsolidation Updating, 21 Trends in Cognitive Science 531, 531–545 (2017). [6] Resnick. [7] Id. [8] APA Dictionary of Psychology, naïve realism, https://dictionary.apa.org/naive-realism (last accessed Dec. 9. 2023). [9] Varda Liberman, Julia A. Minson, Christopher J. Bryan, Lee Ross, Naïve realism and capturing the “wisdom of dyads”, 48 J. of Experimental Social Psychology 507, 507–512 (2012). [10] Id. [11] Lee Ross & Andrew Ward, Naive Realism: Implications for Social Conflict and Misunderstanding, in Values and Knowledge 103–135 (Terrance Brown et al. eds., 1996). [12] Jonathan L.C. Lee, Memory reconsolidation mediates the strengthening of memories by additional learning, 11 Nature Neuroscience, 1264–1266 (2008). [13] Id. [14] Id. [15] APA Dictionary of Psychology, corrective emotional experience, https://dictionary.apa.org/corrective-emotional-experience (last accessed Dec. 9. 2023).

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