Choosing your perspective

Posted by Kenetha Stanton on

Elephant by Ian Barbour, on Flickr. Used via Creative Commons licensing.

There is an often told story of a group of blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time. Each one of them approaches the elephant from a different place and seeks to learn about this new creature by touching the part of the animal he encounters.

The man who has grabbed of the tail claims that this animal is like a rope. The one who has ahold of a leg claims that it is like a big column. The one grasping the ear claims that it is thin and flappy. The one feeling the hard point of a tusk thinks it is pointy and sharp, and the one who is holding the trunk thinks it is like a hose.

Each one is correct about what he is experiencing of the elephant from his perspective, but each version is also incomplete because each person is experiencing only a small part of what an elephant is.

As humans, this is true about the story we choose to tell ourselves about the things that happen to us in life. Every situation can be seen from any number of different perspectives, and the perspective we choose dictates the story we tell and the way we experience our circumstances.

Let me give a simple example of this. I have an idea for a new kind of polymer clay pendant that I want to make, but it is going to require that I learn some new skills for working with polymer clay that I currently know nothing about.

As I consider my approach to this idea, there are any number of perspectives I could take. I can come to the project with a perspective of "I don't know how to do this," or "this is going to be hard," or "it will be fun learning something new," or "it's a big experiment." (To name just a few of the many possible perspectives I could take.)

There is some truth in each of those perspectives: It's true that I really don't know how to do this or even how to get started with what I currently know. It's also true that I will likely find parts of it to be hard and frustrating as I try to master a new skill. And it's true that I will ultimately have fun as I master it because I enjoy learning new things. And it's also true that the learning process (and the creative process itself) will be a big experiment as I try and fail and try again until I produce something that looks like what I am imagining.

As I approach this project, however, each perspective feels very different and therefore equips me differently as I view the project from that place.

The "I don't know how to do this perspective" leaves me feeling uncertain and hesitant and is ultimately disempowering. The "this is going to be hard" perspective feels like struggle and frustration, and I find myself worrying before I even begin about the cost of the materials that I might wind up discarding and the amount of time that I might "waste" in the process of learning.

The "it will be fun learning something new" perspective is exciting and makes me want to dive in, but I know myself well enough to also know that this perspective can leave me with false confidence that ultimately causes greater frustration when things don't work the first time or two.

The "it's a big experiment" perspective feels grounded and hopeful to me. My years in the lab as a research chemist give this perspective a strong sense of open possibility and the solving of puzzles and continual improvement and learning that I relate to in a deep way. This perspective feels freeing and exciting, and I can't wait to start my research.

When I choose to stand in that experimenting perspective, this choice doesn't deny the truth found in any of the other perspectives, but since I have to approach this project from somewhere, I am choosing to approach it from the perspective that is most helpful to me in moving forward.

That is a very simplistic example, of course, and most of our everyday situations are not nearly so clear cut. Nevertheless, the same choice about the way we approach these situations applies. The problem is that we seldom take time to consider other perspectives and consciously choose the perspective that is most helpful. We all have default perspectives that we gravitate toward, and we tend to choose those unconsciously out of habit.

When our default perspective is not one that serves us well, this can often leave us stuck in situations because we don't realize we have a choice.

It took me years to learn that I truly had a choice about my perspective. My default was to get stuck in stories about blame. I either chose the perspective that someone else was to blame, which made me a victim, or I chose the perspective that I was to blame, which made me a bad person. I couldn't see any other choice possible because there was always some truth in the story I had chosen, and to choose a different story felt like denying the truth I saw in it. Yet neither perspective served me very well in dealing with life effectively.

My training as a life coach changed my understanding of this, particularly as I worked with client after client who was able to get unstuck from situations by exploring and consciously choosing new perspectives without needing to deny the truth present in their original perspective. They simply moved their starting point for their approach to the situation.

Choosing a perspective from which to approach something does not make any of the other perspectives untrue—just as approaching a mountain from a different side does not negate the truth of what the mountain looks like from a different angle. But if I am planning to climb that mountain (or deal effectively with the situation I am facing), choosing to approach it from an angle that makes the ascent easiest will radically change my experience of that mountain (or situation).

We are always choosing our perspectives to everything we face in life, but we seldom take the time to choose those perspectives consciously. If you're feeling stuck in a situation, it may be that your default perspective isn't serving you as well as another one might.

Can you identify the default perspective you've chosen in that situation? What other perspectives are possible? Which of those perspectives is most helpful to you in moving forward? Will you choose that perspective and move forward from that place today?

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