This is part 1 in a new series of posts titled Irresolvable Inter-Polar Tension, or “II-PT,” for short. The acronym conveniently looks like “two-part” and can be pronounced in that way. F. Scott Fitzgerald once claimed that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This series seeks to develop this “first-rate intelligence” in us all by diving into pairs of conflicting ideas, the tension between which can’t easily be resolved.
As an educator and as a student, I often reflect on my own experiences as a learner. How did I learn best? What did teachers do that led to the deepest understanding and/or the greatest excitement for the subject? What kinds of assignments pushed me to improve my skill without boring me, without being too hard, without being too easy, without being too long, etc.? What did my teachers do to put me in situations in which I could work most constructively with my peers?
Similarly, as a leader and as a follower, I likewise reflect on my own prior experiences being led in different situations. What did a teacher/mentor/manager/leader do that particular inspired me? Helped me be most productive? Helped me be most eager to contribute? Helped me grow the most? Helped me have the biggest impact?
Thinking back on my own experiences, there are lots of examples of things that teachers/mentors/managers/leaders did or said that I responded very well to and also lots of examples of things they did or said that I did NOT respond very well to.
When I, myself, act as a teacher/mentor/manager/leader (or a colleague, partner, or friend), before doing anything, I strive to jump into the perspective of those who will be impacted and I work to optimize my words and actions so that people respond in the most desirable way.
I try to imagine how people might feel and adjust myself accordingly in order to create the best possible outcome based on my own introspection about how I would respond to a similar situation.
As a basic example, I remember as a young student being HIGHLY upset when my whole class would get scolded or punished for something that had absolutely nothing to do with me. I imagine that other people feel similarly, and I structure the things I do in order to not put others into this situation.
I tend to think this mindset is very useful. In practice, this active empathy works quite well. I often see cases in which problems are avoided with this strategy. I also see people get into difficult situations due to NOT using this strategy.
However, while this is clearly a valuable tool, what is not at all obvious to me is the extent to which I can assume that, put in the same situation, others would actually react the same way that I would.
To what extent are my own observations of my own reactions generalizable to others? What components of my own reactions are simply human nature, uncovered by my own introspection, (which can be generalized to others) and what components are simply unique to my own specific personality and experiences? What percentage of people might respond as I do?
There is certainly value in using introspection to explore my own reactions, assuming others will react in similar ways, and making decisions based on this. However, I am also very aware of situations in which I wasn’t able to predict people’s reactions correctly or they reacted in a way that hadn’t even occurred to me. It is not practical (or fair) to always assume a particular response.
There is certainly tension between the constructive use of introspection and the over-use of introspection. Finding the correct balance is an interesting and ongoing challenge!