So in the past six weeks I have travelled across three continents, dodged a hurricane and sat on the beach of the black sea watching Bulgarian software developers build boats out of cardboard. I sometimes reflect on how diverse my daily life is and the impact that has on how I view things. Diversity has always been a topic I have been interested in and I was struck by a statement I read this week from Beau Lotto a neuroscientist.
“Meeting others unlocks our perception. We spend our lives in the cuffs of our own assumptions, but encountering people who think and act differently teaches us so much about ourselves, and what we may have been blind to up until that point. If creativity is the act of thinking differently, then surrounding ourselves with a diversity of people, with diverse life experiences, can radically expand our field of possibility.”
It struck me that this statement sums up how powerful diversity is in not only expanding our own perceptions on life but increasing our organisational performance. For me humanity is consistent and culture is purely a habit developed from years of observation and repetition, however it is also obvious to me as I observe people across the globe that there is a common approach to viewing the world from our own assumptions, creating a perception of difference where their isn’t. For example we stereotype culture every day without really understanding it. English people stereotype Asian nations as “book worms” studying hard and being good at maths and sciences, whilst Asian nations laugh at the English culture of saying “sorry”, and it’s not just Asian nations that think this. I was having a conversation with a Bulgarian who was telling a joke about the polite nature of English people and our inability to walk up to strangers and have a conversation because it would be rude, where in his opinion Bulgarian’s found it rude not to talk to total strangers. His opinion of Russian’s was also somewhat intolerant complaining that they were arrogant and didn’t like to queue but simply pushed to the front of any queue and demanded service. These conversations have been the same in Hong Kong about Korean or Chinese people, or American’s about Canadians or even other states in America.
There are truths in all of our perceptions, English people do say sorry a lot, however there are also exceptions and truths that sit deeper in each culture that tell the real story of how people view the world. Diversity however is not just about culture there is also age, sex, the colour of skin, facial features, religion and of course the political diversity of nations that are all differences that play a part in our perception of the world. As I get older my perception of the younger generations forces me to re-evaluate my own thought processes. I consistently slip into a commentary on the millennials, that focuses on the loss of culture, individualism and the development of a global culture of technology, isolation and the reduction in communication skills. But is that true? On reflection I don’t think it is, I think the younger generation are far better equipped to deal with the changing world we live in than most middle aged people I meet. So why do I fall back into that thought process? The answer I think is that it’s easy, and when we don’t have the energy to deal with difference we fall back on what is easy for us to process and understand rejecting difference because we don’t have the energy to spend on understanding it.
For many years I have been outspoken about the “time management” challenges that people present to me in coaching sessions. I refuse to accept the complaint ..”this is all very good but I just don’t have the time to change, to do something new at the moment..” To me what you are really saying is..” this looks great but it’s not important enough for me to do anything about..” I say this because we always find time and energy for the things we feel are important. So the first thing we need to do if we want to change or be more balanced is to make that change the most important thing for us at this moment in time. In terms of diversity when I talk to people in a classroom or in a one to one session of course we can rationalise that difference is not wrong, in fact we agree that difference is powerful in creating new ideas and opportunities, and yet we fall back to stereotyping and assuming the worst when dealing with others, because it’s not important enough for us to want to change our perception of the world around us. By doing this we limit not only our ability to understand the world we live in but we limit our relationships and our range of possibilities for the future.
So the next time you fall into stereotyping people you meet, stop and think, what are my thoughts telling me about me, why do I think this way and what am I missing about this person. Become curious like a two year old, after all children accept difference as an everyday experience. To them every day holds a whole spectrum of possibilities and opportunities, because every interaction for them is new. Its only as we get older and wiser do we see less and less surprises in the world, because we have seen it all before, we know what to expect of people and situations. But for everything we know is right there is an alternative “right” that we don’t see, because as Beau Lotto says …” We spend our lives in the cuffs of our own assumptions”.
Take the shackles off and see that diversity is power, embrace it every day and search for it in every experience you have, retain the inquisitiveness of a child and you will see the opportunities this world offers.