Mirror bean in Millennium Park, Chicago

Right around the age of two, children not only start to realize that they are separate from the rest of the world, but also that their experience of the world is different than other people. And this creates a dissonance, especially when it comes to the parents or caretakers. I want candy, so why aren’t mommy and daddy giving it to me? That is why we call it the terrible twos.

Don’t You Understand?

One of the things Malcolm Gladwell points out in What the Dog Saw is that while we think we grow out of that phase and have an intellectual understanding that our experience is separate and different from other people, we don’t really grow out of it. At least, we don’t really mature as much as we think we do.

When an expert in a field tries to explain a topic to someone who isn’t as familiar, there can be a great deal of frustration. “How can you not understand this? It’s so simple! It’s so straightforward!” That’s the experience of the teacher, but it’s clearly not the experience of the student.

Uncommon Common Knowledge

On some level, we almost assume that if we know something, everyone else probably knows that too. I can start yammering on about WordPress, domain registars and SEO, but the other party in the conversation might have all of this talk go right over his or her head. Similarly, if you started to discuss foreign economic policy of the 1820s, my eyes would probably glaze over too.

But those are just facts. Even if we think we are experiencing the same reality, that may not be the case either. Remember that perception is everything. One person sees the glass as half-empty, the other sees it as half-full, and they’re both perfectly valid observations. And then there’s a third person who might say there is no glass at all and that he is just a brain in a vat. And that could be a valid reality too.

Beyond the Funhouse Mirror

We think that mirrors reflect reality, but that’s not completely true. Because light takes time to travel, what we are seeing in the mirror is actually the world as it was several milliseconds ago. It’s not the present reality; it’s the recent past. That’s an entirely different perspective.

And then you get warped images from funhouse mirrors, as in the photo at the top of this post. That’s closer to the “other minds” problem, because the mirror image isn’t entirely accurate either and everyone sees something different. The way that you experience that mirror is not the same as the experience of someone else. We have to recognize that. We have to recognize our individuality and our separateness from the rest of the world. We have to recognize that how we feel about a situation does not necessarily reflect how others feel about the same situation.

Through a Different Lens

What does this mean from a business standpoint? You might think that you are being “helpful” with your client, but she might think that you’re just being “pushy.” You might think that you’re being “friendly,” but he might think that you’re being disingenuous. The “other minds” see the world differently than you do, so you have to approach things accordingly.

As an aside, Malcolm Gladwell also told us to embrace the chaos if we want to nurture our creativity. With Lexi now in her “terrible twos,” I’m sure Stephen will have to deal with his fair share of chaos and the conflict of “other minds.”