#1: 👓 Me-Glasses, You-Glasses

How to acquire more reality by swapping out the lens through which we see the world

Welcome to the first edition of the Samadhi City - a series of articles to help you cultivate a sense of inner stillness amidst the chaos of everyday life. Check out this post to learn more about its goals and what you can expect for the coming weeks.

💬 If there is something you’d like to learn or share about mindfulness, you can get in touch with me here and on Twitter.

We all wear glasses.

I'm not talking about Warby Parkers and Ray Bans. I'm talking about the one-of-a-kind specs that have been made for and by every one of us. Its raw materials sprung into existence the minute we were born, its shape forged throughout our upbringing, its lenses constantly evolving as we navigate through life.

Have you ever been the middle person when two friends are fighting? It’s an uncomfortable but often insightful situation to be in. You get to hear the absurd assumptions each person makes about the other’s intentions, when reality is a lot more mundane. It’s admittedly sometimes kind of fun, like you’re getting to try on glasses that distorts the world in different ways. When someone tells you how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking, you get a glimpse of what they see through their custom lens. What you see will often surprise you, but their actions will make a lot more sense when you see what they see. To try to see the world through their eyes is a gift to both the other person and to yourself.

When we share our lives and physical environment with other people, it's easy to forget that the world others experience is actually different from the one we experience. Their perception of the world is colored by their experiences, cultures, traumas, and passions, just as our perception is colored uniquely by ours. Oftentimes when we find ourselves surprised or offended by somebody’s actions, we are imposing our world onto theirs and making the grand assumption that their thought processes follow our own. The truth is that we can't get to the root of somebody’s motives and intentions without proper communication and a genuine attempt to understand each other.

The blind men and an elephant parable is about a group of blind men who are encountering an elephant for the first time. Each man feels a different part of the elephant, and comes to differing conclusions about what an elephant is like based on their limited perspective. The one feeling its leg believes an elephant is sturdy, like a pillar. The one feeling its tail disagrees and says an elephant is more like a rope. The one feeling its ear disagrees still and says it is more like a rug. Each man thinks the others are being dishonest and they start fighting, failing to consider the possibility that the others’ perspectives are equally valid.

If reality is the sum of our perceptions, to acquire more varying points of view is to acquire, literally, more reality.” - Matthew Woodwing Stover

We only see one data point, out of many, that can inform us about what reality is. In the blind men and the elephant story, the information each person offers can bring them collectively closer to the truth about what an elephant is like. In believing that only they themselves can be right, the men mistake their own limited perspectives for absolute truth. They prematurely disregard other perspectives and miss out on the bigger picture.

Before the internet, our options for new glasses to try on were limited to our local communities, the books we had access to, and maybe documentaries that happened to appear on mainstream broadcasting. Now, we have seemingly endless avenues to see the world through a different lens. We just have to know where to look and be more intentional in our exploration...

Watch Foreign Films

I would strongly encourage learning a new language in general, especially if you are monolingual. Knowing multiple languages is like being able to tap into different thought patterns at any given moment. There’s a reason why some words in a given language don't have a direct translation to others. They hint at social norms and the varying importance that a culture attributes to different aspects of life: 

  • “Greng jai” is a Thai word that describes the hesitation to ask someone for a favor because you don’t want to impose on them. It’s a common reason that a Thai person might keep quiet when they may very well need help. If you’re unfamiliar with this norm, you might have attributed this behavior to shyness or pride. At the other end, the Thai person may wonder why you were frustrated they didn’t speak up.

  • The Danish concept of “hygge” is the warm, cozy feeling when you’re curling up with a book or sitting around a campfire with close friends. It’s often associated with candles and dimly lit lighting, being with loved ones, intimate conversations and indulging in a good atmosphere. Happiness researcher Meik Wiking describes “hygge-ness” as something as deeply ingrained in Danish culture as freedom is in American culture.

Language differences aside, foreign films can tell you a lot about how another person’s way of life differs from your own. The way they eat, spend time with friends and family, their daily rituals. The next time you watch a foreign film, take note of the characters’ mannerisms, how long of a pause they take before responding in a conversation? Are they more expressive or reserved? Is there a distinct sense of humor? Are you able to deduce their internal monologue from their facial expressions or body language?

If you have friends from another country, ask them for film recommendations. As a non-native English speaker, it’s exciting and rare to come across a foreigner who has seen movies from your country, and be able to talk about it like we do about English films. 

Here are two recommendations from Thailand, both are on Netflix depending on your region: 

  • My Girl paints a very relatable picture of friendship, school life, music, and family relations in 1980s Thailand 

  • Pee Mak is a unique comedic twist on an urban legend that is usually told as a ghost story

Use Twitter Lists

Social media is blasted for making issues more polarized and getting people more entrenched in their own bubbles. This is true, but only for those who use it naively and let the algorithms take control of what they should be seeing. The thing is that social media is just a tool. If you are intentional with how you use it, you can ensure you remain its master.

While your Twitter Home Feed is a mash of what everyone you follow is thinking and reacting to, Lists provide a way to categorize the types of information you’re getting at any one time. Your Home Feed is dramatically different from those of a person with different views and interests. Because we only have access to our own algorithmically curated Feeds, it can be easy to mistake this limited perspective for the bigger reality, just like the blind men and their elephant.

If you find yourself agreeing with everything you see on your Feed, it might be time to try on some new glasses. With curated Lists, you can intentionally craft bubbles you can peer in and out of instead of being entirely engrossed in one.

At the basic level, you can build your Lists by industry or topic. For example:

  • Venture Capital

  • Startups

  • Politics

  • Brainfood

You can also be more specific and split them into subcategories (these are not mutually exclusive and you can the same person to multiple Lists):

  • Silicon Valley / Europe / Asia VC

  • Big Tech PM / Startup PM

  • Foreign Press

  • Conservatives / Liberals

  • Independent News and Thinkers

When some event is capturing global interest, like the US Presidential Election, you’ll see that each of these Lists exude a different sentiment. You won’t like all of them, but that’s the point. Ideally the people you add to Lists convey their thoughts in a coherent manner that you’d at least consider their position, even if you end up disagreeing with them still.

The litmus test for effective use of Lists is that your Twitter experience feels more like “I agree with Group A’s take on this topic, though Group B does bring up concerns that I hadn’t previously considered. I’m surprised this is barely on the radar for Group C...” rather than “everybody seems to share my opinion, I’ve found my tribe, it’s all good”.

While Lists are still influenced by your own interests, it enables you to broaden your perspective in a more strategic manner than Following people and letting the algorithmic chips fall where they may.

Learn to articulate your opinions well, and expose them to feedback

One benefit of a regular writing habit is that you get to find out what you really think. Thoughts come and go, but freezing them on a page is a way to dissociate with and scrutinize them more closely. Through writing, you can improve how well you articulate your opinions.

Exposing your opinions to feedback requires some courage upfront. If you have something to say that is anything but vanilla-neutral, there is bound to be somebody who disagrees with you. The trick is to find places where people who have a different viewpoint are able to express them in a way that allows you to have a healthy discourse. You can look for meetups in your area that attract a diverse group of people that share an interest with you (easier in metropolitan cities than in a small town), or you can look to online communities.

Allowing others to evaluate your opinions and challenge them is how we enrich our own thinking and “acquire more reality”. Sometimes, the alternative considerations must come from others because their worldview encompasses our blindspots, just as our worldview encompasses theirs.

The goal here is not to befriend everyone or find the “average” view to conform to, it’s to increase your surface area of exposure to new perspectives.

So far, these suggestions have been for how you can perceive the world through the different glasses that technology offers us. What about when we’re interacting with others directly?

Don’t assume bad intention without reason to 

This is a modified version of Hanlon’s razor, the adage that you should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. One error the blind men made when trying to learn about the elephant was to mistake their own perspective for the absolute truth. The other crucial error was that they assumed the others were being dishonest.

The immediate consequence of assuming malicious intent is that it brings out negative emotions within us, perhaps anger or stress. It’s also a surefire way to derail yourself and others involved from coming to a shared understanding as our goal shifts from the original issue to protecting ourselves or getting back at the other person.

Before assuming the worst, think of other plausible explanations why someone might not be behaving the way we expect them to. Could it have been a miscommunication or an honest mistake? Could the other person be adhering to a social norm other than the one you’re used to? 

The way to answer the above questions is to talk to the other person. Describe the situation from your perspective and allow the other person to share theirs. We often impose our expectations on others without them even being aware of it. If this is a person we want to have an ongoing relationship with, it’s better to address concerns early before resentment builds up. Hard conversations only get harder the longer you wait.

The most thoughtful and empathetic people I know seem to acknowledge this and act accordingly. They make the best colleagues, leaders, and friends. They seek to understand how the world looks through a new perspective instead of retroactively trying to make sense of someone’s actions given their own lived experience. Disagreements still happen, but they rarely turn ugly.

Remember that nobody knows everything, but everybody knows something

Knowledge asymmetry is what makes other people a great resource to learn from. By listening without judgment, we create a space to discover things others know that we don’t, and vice versa. People are different in motives, goals and preferences. So it’s unreasonable to expect that we can all come to agree on every issue, regardless of how much empathy we have and how well-facilitated our conversations are. Our blueprint of the world is just one of many. In cultivating the habit of seeking to understand others before expecting them to understand us, in trying to see the world through a different lens than those we have grown accustomed to, we can foster healthier relationships, navigate thorny issues without resorting to shouting matches, and collaborate on global projects whose success depends on more perspectives than one.

You can find me at nichanank.com and on Twitter 👋🏼

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Big thanks to Akash Kumar, Bea Trinidad, Andra Oprisan, Anand Mariappan, James Richards, Jamie FinneyMatt Susskind, Natalie Toren, Nivi Jayasekar, Varun Kumar, for reading drafts of this giving invaluable feedback.