Question Your Assumptions

It’s been said that the assumptions we make are the mother of all screwups.

I think of assumptions as deeply rooted beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. They help us put order to things in a world that is otherwise out of order. In math, you learn to make assumptions about keeping certain things constant while changing one or two variables to see if it will affect the result.

For instance, I haven’t been feeling enough energy during my exercise routines these last few weeks, despite having a nutritious pre-workout meal, leaving enough gap between meal and exercise, and even having the ideal room temperature. It’s been a struggle. I’d evaluated all the factors that would contribute to having a great workout—or so I thought.

We do things in our everyday lives without giving them much thought. We become a slave to our routines, habits, and processes to the point where we don’t question them enough. We do things based on what we assume. We form our worldviews based on our subjective realities of how the world works.

Mark Twain has aptly put:

What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.

We make assumptions about the world based on false or incomplete information. Our behavior is affected by our assumptions or perceived truths.

We often make decisions based on what we think we know. In order to make better decisions, we may rely on logic, data analysis, and research, mistakenly thinking that more data is the answer.

We often make bad decisions on the basis of assumptions. It’s easy to solve the wrong problem and to jump to conclusions, which are assumptions at best.

We make assumptions about others when we have little information. Our brain is quick to fill those gaps. We let our negative assumptions affect our objectivity. We mistake assumptions for the truth. We implicitly judge people when we first meet them. We make assumptions about their lives from their appearance and demeanor.

When things turn out well, it’s quite common for us to attribute our success to our intelligence—but when they don’t, we tend to blame it on external forces such as “the market” or “sheer luck”. No matter what, it can’t be both.

Far too often, we are inclined to offer unsolicited help to others, thereby discounting their judgement. We can’t help but assume they can’t help themselves and/or won’t request the help they need.

When we reach out to someone without hearing back, we assume things about them, often negatively. Sometimes, we fear the worst when we haven’t heard back, because they are probably unwell in some form or fashion. We jump to conclusions without knowing the facts.

We wrongly assume things about others by not giving them the benefit of the doubt. For instance, if we see a single parent on the bus with their children creating commotion, we wrongly make assumptions about their poor parenting without knowing the underlying context—for all we know, the other parent has just passed away and the children are feeling confused and lost.

It’s only after hearing the truth that we experience a fundamental shift in our perspective. Remember, things are not always what they seem.

Making assumptions about things can prove costly in time and/or money.

For instance, I implicitly assumed there would be no problem in forming my company and opening a business account abroad, only to find out the hard way that it’s not so easy as the government had claimed after all. Long story short, it ended up costing me 10 months of my time, which was money spent in traveling and the opportunity cost of not forming a business entity elsewhere, which would have been more productive.

I wrongly assumed that it would all work out for the best without thinking it through and doing my own due diligence research beforehand. While I’m still trying to recuperate my costs from this organization, they aren’t keen on compensating me for those costs incurred.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. It’s never wise to jump quickly into things, nor should one take an eternity to make a decision. Both of those scenarios can come and bite you—the former costing both time and money, the latter mostly costing time. We have to strike a balance between the two extremes, but that’s easier said than done.

How we think is how we act. When we treat our assumptions as facts, it wrongly informs how we see things, thereby feeding our biases.

How we act comes from our general worldview, which is based on our beliefs and upbringing. In order to change our actions, we need to question our underlying beliefs and basic assumptions about things.

Here are some ways for dealing with our assumptions.

Let us stop doubting ourselves, but do doubt everything we assume. Practice curiosity over judgement. It’s better to ask when we don’t understand things, rather than assume them to be true. If we want to serve others, we need to listen and understand their perspective without assuming things about them. Rather than offering unsolicited help to others, let’s trust their judgement.

We seldom realize that we hold such big assumptions, and we accept them as part of our everyday reality. It’s not until we find someone with a contrasting worldview that we can recognize some of those beliefs for what they are. Find others with a contrarian perspective and be open to challenging their ideas with a healthy discussion.

Question the obvious. Work to identify your blindspots. Find a coach or mentor, or even a psychotherapist. The common assumption here would be, “Why see them when we have no problems?” Well, we see them now to improve ourselves and prevent potential problems in the future.

We assume that others know what we think and that we don’t have to explicitly say what we want, but we need to clarify our expectations with others to sustain our relationships.

We need to hold ourselves accountable for every moment and every thought. We need to see beyond our fears. We need to recognize our assumptions and correct our misconceptions about things. Let’s play devil’s advocate to our ideas to seek an alternate perspective. It’s only when we distance ourselves emotionally from our situations that we can learn to see them objectively.

When looking to solve a problem with your team, it behooves us to get on the same page about that problem. This can only happen when we define the correct problem, thus leaving no room for misinterpretation. I know it sounds obvious, but sometimes it’s the most obvious things we need to pay more attention to.

Always keep an open mind. Never be afraid to change your beliefs about things based on what you experience. There is nothing wrong with having strong opinions loosely held.

Default to the positive when making assumptions about others. For instance, when someone cuts you off in traffic, instead of cursing them, maybe give them the benefit of the doubt. It could be they are late and need to get somewhere quickly. This goes back to avoiding harboring negative thoughts for others in your mind.

You have to assume that anything and everything you put on the web is going to be read by others, so let’s be mindful about what you put out there. We need to show up virtually the way we show up in real life. We shouldn’t do anything online (even under the veil of anonymity) that we would consider twice before doing offline. This is about having integrity and living to our own high standards, not necessarily being accountable to others.

Admitting to big assumptions can make us uncomfortable. But, it’s only by putting them under a spotlight that we can recognize and challenge them to avoid contradictions.

Let’s question our assumptions about things we take for granted. Let’s see the familiar with a fresh, renewed perspective. Let’s try to see the unseen. The correction of a simple false assumption can move us forward. What are some assumptions you are making about the challenges in your life?

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