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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Always Something Hidden


There's a rock garden in Japan where, when standing at any point in the garden, seventeen large stones are visible. An aerial photograph shows that there are, in fact, eighteen rocks in the garden.

A simple story but, for me, memorable and I think of this often (it was told by the karate sensei Shigeru Kimura during one of his training sessions). The message that I take from it is that there is always something hidden--in all circumstances, with everyone we meet, in ourselves--there's always something we cannot see or perceive. It's this hidden aspect that can be a risk, an opportunity, an explanation, a root cause, the key to something positive or negative. Constantly searching for the hidden, being aware that all is not as we see is a critical element in the art of impact. It's the rocks that we are not aware of that obstruct us unexpectedly and it's especially true in all our interactions, where the attitudes and experiences of others guide their judgments and choices.

Our ability to perceive things dissimilated can however be improved.  Think of the Japanese rock garden; its true nature was revealed by studying it from different angles. It's possible that someone with excellent visual perception would have noticed a discrepancy in the patterns of rocks between the different viewpoints and realize that there were more rocks than those immediately visible. The real number of stones was readily apparent from the aerial angle. The same principle applies in life: look at every problem, interaction, relationship, person, process from different angles. Look for patterns and then compare the patterns to see if they are consistent. We're good at pattern recognition and can quickly recognize discrepancies; if we're looking at lots of data, then we have tools to graph them, filter them, represent them in ways that reveal the hidden patterns.

This is a classic interview or interrogation technique: ask the same question to different people involved (or ask the same question repeatedly to the same person) and look for the patterns in their answers. It's auditing and science, looking at data to see if they are consistent with what we would expect from theory or process. Once we perceive the previously concealed, the next step is to assess its significance. Is this really a problem, risk, threat, or opportunity? Does this really explain the pattern we noticed? Seeing the discrepancies and being curious about these, understanding their significance, is to open the door to serendipity, or luck, noticing something good or bad. This is borne out by history where all manner of "serendipitous" discoveries have been due to these principles. Think of Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin; he was curious about the patterns of bacterial death in the petri dishes contaminated with mold, and related these to similar patterns he had seen with other agents.

There's always something hidden in our exchanges with others: we never know everything about the person's motivation and reasons for acting in a particular manner. The traditional advice of "walking a mile in their shoes" applies, trying to understand their perspective. In a karate contest the opponents constantly test each other, looking for gaps and hidden abilities. In perceiving the reasons governing decisions that are made by others, one useful principle is that of "positive intent". When we are treated in a way we feel is unfair, it's better to assume that the person responsible acted with positive intent, rather than an intent to harm us. This idea helps avoid being clouded by emotion in such circumstances, by first assuming that the underlying reason for the action was a beneficial one. Using this technique for searching for the hidden elements we can more easily analyze situations and reach a productive resolution.

So, always remember the rocks! Whatever is happening, remember that we do not see everything, and part of our attention should be on what we don't see. Staying vigilant in this way helps to enhance serendipity, avoid misfortune and stay on balance to make an impact.

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