Have you ever wondered how people work? How the world works? I have.
Ever since I was a kid I tried to make sense of the world I live in. Maybe I tried harder than most kids my age but then again maybe my world was a bit more complex than most. Or maybe, it was just a question of my own sense of not fitting in anywhere.
I grew up in New York City back in the 1970s. It was a rough city back then. Not like now; it is more of a shopping mall. It was a city of tribes: Blacks, Whites, Latinos; Irish, Jews, Italians, Chinese. Drive by shootings were common place. Drugs were the norm. And getting mugged or robbed was…..well, it happened to me a couple of times. Nonetheless, I was lucky. My dad provided well for the family and my brother and sister and I grew up in an upper middle class home.
In a way, that just complicated things further.
Mom is Jewish – American with origins in the Ukraine and the Baltics, and an artist. Dad is an immigrant Italian, a Catholic and a scientist. Both very anti-religion. Mom shunned her family and embraced Dad’s. Dad worked in an almost exclusively Italian milieu so all our “aunts, uncles and cousins” were either Italian or first generation American. All three of us went to a school with kids from all over the world and travelled quite extensively. Our school friends and teachers came from everywhere: Japan, Venezuela, Spain, France, Cuba, Israel, India, Italy, and so on.
Oddly enough, I don’t think I met an actual American until I went to college! Then again, maybe it was in graduate school where I met my first American.
One guy who I did my MBA with once expressed surprise at my lack of religious schooling because he thought I didn’t have the moral fiber to not kill anyone and feel guilty. I guess he didn’t realize that growing up in the Judeo-Christian tradition is enough to not go out and kill people. And, another who couldn’t believe I knew nothing about the great American sport of baseball. I didn’t. (I went to my first baseball game later on life and had to have the game explained to me.)
After my MBA, I moved to France and started a family there. It was a shocker for me even though I had many school friends from France. The people I encountered in France were real Frenchmen not the Americanized French kids I went to school with. After a few years in France, I moved the family to Italy thinking it wouldn’t be a problem. A European is a European, right? Wrong.
Even though half Italian and having spent many a summer with friends and family, I was once again an outsider. And, my French wife didn’t like Italians. She once started screaming at a bunch of high school kids just as they were getting out of school about their conformity in clothing. Was I embarrassed? You bet ya!
My work obliged to travel all around Europe. So I met people from other countries all the time. This allowed me to notice differences between them and me. And when my business trips were with colleagues from a third country, I couldn’t help but be struck by the differences between us all.
Over a lifetime of experience, observation and study, I can safely state that we are all different. Much more different than we think.
Sure, we can wear the same brands, use the same software, frequent the same social networking sites, read the same books, …… we can globalize as much as we want, but in the end that is not what is important. Globalization is economics, which has very little to do with who we are.
It is within this great big muddled life of mine that I have tried to make sense of the world.
After many years, I have arrived at a paradigm that works for me and, I hope, will work for you. In this article, I will do my best to explain what is to me a very simple tool for understanding the world we live in. Hopefully, you, the reader, benefit from this tool in your everyday life and be all the better for it in your dealings with others.
For centuries, man has always thought that what distinguished him from the animals was his intelligence. Man’s ability to think.
On the hand, man was this wonderfully intelligent being capable of building stupendous monuments, writing great literature, developing the sciences, and so on. On the other, animals were viewed as unthinking beasts that could be killed for sustenance or used in some other way for our benefit. But anyone who has actually spent any time with animals will be able to tell you that they too have a capacity to reason. Sure it may be limited (we have only just begun to understand this so we don’t know how much) but it is there. Likewise, we have all encountered people who are not the brightest bulbs on the tree.
In his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1 edition (October 25, 2011)), Dr. Daniel Kahneman puts thinking into perspective. He explains that there is a fast or autonomic way of thinking; and, a slow or deliberate way of thinking. In summarizing his decades of work, he concludes that we think mostly using our fast thinking brain and not very often with our slow one.
I don’t plan on entering into the details of this work – you can read it on your own, it is fascinating – but I do want to posit that our automatic/fast way of thinking is probably the result of learned patterns of behavior. Man is really quite good at pattern recognition.
Interestingly, while reading Dr. Kahneman’s book I noticed that a great many of the tests he ran on test subjects gave surprising results that provided insights into the workings of the human mind but that he could not be readily explained. One of the first illustrations Kahneman provides is a simple math problem that most people got wrong. Aside from the doctor’s insights into the results, I think it is fair to say that the solutions provided by the test subjects was primarily the result of their discerning a pattern in the information provided in the test question. As I read his book I could see that a large number of these test results could be best understood by applying reasoning based on pattern recognition.
Based on this interpretation, discerning patterns is key to understanding the world.
The Pattern Paradigm
Over many years of peeling the onion I have been able to confirm that patterns of behavior are key to understanding the people I met. Most people simply communicate instinctively without giving much thought to what they say. This is quite normal because the contrary would be very tiresome. This is what Dr. Kahneman calls thinking fast. However, if you start to peel back the layers of that fast talking and dig down to its roots you find that person’s belief system is at the core of their thought process.
Let me explain.
At our center, underpinning our very existence, is our belief system. Whether it is a religion, a philosophy, a sect, a new-age belief system it makes little difference. Our belief system feeds into every part of how we see the world. This is makes sense since belief systems are the oldest part of our societies. Likewise, this serves an important purpose: social cohesion. The closer our neighbor’s own belief system is to our own the greater the connection.
In Europe, even today, there is a very noticeable difference in how business is conducted in the predominantly Protestant North and the predominantly Catholic South. In the Protestant tradition, there is nobody between you and God, and you have to work every day to go to heaven. In the Catholic tradition, there is the Pope and you can be an ass your entire life just as long as you confess and receive last rites you will go to heaven. These are patterns of behavior most people don’t even question but which dominate how they see and act in the world.
The next level up is the communities common experience or collective consciousness. This part of the individual is the shared experience or history that binds together the communities’ members. Usually, this shared experience is passed down from generation to generation through storytelling and mythology. After all history is a “story”.
Notwithstanding the importance of a common experience it seems to be a very weak component. Over and over again, I have been amazed by how unevenly this “factual” experience is actually lived by the people. Not even the scientific method breaks through to people. Just by way of an example, on a television game show in France, about 75% of the public said that the Sun orbited the Earth instead of the Earth orbiting around the Sun. Copernicus and Galileo must have been turning in their graves!
The next pattern that influences how people perceive the world comes from their family experience. All families sit around a meal telling stories about one ancestor or another, just like they do about a living family member or close friend. These stories and the patterns of behavior also shape the learned patterns of behavior through which new generations see the world.
Lastly, there is our own individual experience. As any psychologist will attest, what our parents did to us as children and what we did to ourselves can make us or break us. Only after we get over all our issues can we be well-adjusted and happy individuals.
These spheres of influence taken together form our automatic selves. We just are. We just do. We don’t think too much anything in particular. Even if every once in a while we do take the time to verify that this internal reality corresponds with outside one this is a rare and infrequent event for most of us.
And rightly so, because when we do ask these questions we risk breaking the connections we have with our community.
Just consider for a moment what happens to us when we start to question all the patterns of behavior that we have learned over our own brief lifetime? You go to school to engage in some profession only to discover that there are no jobs in that field. You work in a particular profession for many years before being down-sized and finding out that your profession is obsolete. You are a parent one day and not the next. So on and so forth. All those patterns disappear in a what seems like a brief instant and you feel, what is called, disaffected.
Your life in shambles you turn to your family and friends for support but they turn you away. Next you turn to your community and find no support there. So down you go into the rabbit hole ending up on the doorstep of your belief system.
Traditionally, it is the church that provided for the weakest members of society. Nowadays, there are government sponsored programs as well. But it is easy to understand how certain not well-intentioned organizations can attract followers.
Humans need connections.
As a result of this most basic human necessity, when a stranger comes into a community the force shields go up. Defensiveness becomes the norm. Protection the imperative. No matter how open the stranger is to the community, they will not be met by the same degree of openness. It is just the way it is.