“The physicist Leo Szilard once announced to his friend Hans Bethe that he was thinking of keeping a diary: “I don’t intend to publish. I am merely going to record the facts for the information of God.” “Don’t you think God knows the facts?” Bethe asked. “Yes,” said Szilard. “He knows the facts, but He does not know this version of the facts.”
-Hans Christian von Baeyer, Taming the Atom
Perception is reality.
It’s taken me a while to accept that. Yes, I understood it at an intellectual level, but not deep down. I kept persisting with the belief that there’s an objective reality called ‘The Truth’. No matter that truth has many faces, as captured brilliantly in Akira Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon. To be sure I understood the ‘Rashomon Effect’ - the contradictory, but plausible interpretations of the same incident by different people - but I never fully absorbed the implications until I found the link that had been missing for me:
If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.
It’s the interpretation of a situation that causes us to act. Our outcomes are shaped by the story we tell ourselves to make sense of an event. Ergo, perception is (causes) reality.
What brought this home powerfully was a coaching session with a client, James (*). The personal myth that James was unconsciously living was that he had no power – that he was at the mercy of forces bigger than him much like the Biblical legend of Jonah being swallowed by the whale (for disobedience). James had come to America fifteen years back after getting admitted to a Top 20 MBA program. Upon graduation, he’d secured a job where his employer sponsored him for the H1-B visa that would allow him to work and live in the United States. James faced a rough few years initially. He regularly worked extremely long hours. Even on major holidays like Thanksgiving, James would be busy modeling a prospective transaction handed to him last minute by his boss. When I raised my eyebrow at working through Thanksgiving, James remarked bitterly “His attitude was: be thankful you have a job!” James’ boss knew that he couldn’t quit, because he’d lose the work visa and have to leave the country. Then, how would he pay back his USD student loans? His life would be turned upside down…
James suffered through this bondage in the ‘Land of the Free’, and became resentful and cynical of senior management. He developed a negative attitude and that reputation followed him in all succeeding internal assignments. Eventually, after the requisite years had lapsed, James became a U.S. Permanent Resident, and left his employer shortly thereafter.
At his new employer, James faced similar issues. He didn’t develop a healthy professional or social network, and continued fraternizing almost exclusively with other professionals who shared his heritage. This was another personal myth: I’m an outsider and will never get acceptance in America. I held a mirror to him and gently reflected how his perception and myth were holding him back from achieving all that he was capable of. He was merely surviving. To thrive he needed to live the right personal myth that would help him adjust culturally. I also asked him to examine his antagonism with ‘senior management’. James still carried the overarching perception that he was working in an oppressive system and to maintain his personal dignity and self-respect, he needed to be a rebel and not a “corporate slave”. But, I pointed out, things were different now: James not only had the power to choose his attitude, he also had the freedom to choose another employer rather than be miserable at work.
James was a prisoner of many personal myths he should have long discarded. Granted, rebelliousness may have helped his soul to survive a disrespectful environment to get what he wanted (U.S. Green Card), but times were now different. James had more options, and he could choose a new myth to guide his worldview, work interactions, and social relationships.
(*) Name and tertiary details have been changed to ensure client confidentiality.