‘Y’ Think—A Tale of Two Realities
September 7, 2018
By Alex Alexander
Recently, my 5-year-old grandson, Danny, and I were in the crystal shop in downtown Grass Valley. Danny was fascinated with a carved stone figure of a pig, so I bought it for him. I asked him why he liked the pig so much, and he said, "It's not a pig; it's an African Buffalo." I showed him the pointy ears and the curly tail, and he said, a little heatedly, "They're not ears, they're horns, and it's a buffalo tail." Then I said, "I asked the store lady, and she said it's a pig." Danny turned the heat up a notch. "IT'S AN AFRICAN BUFFALO!"
This little anecdote teaches us some important lessons about reality, habits of mind and the metaphorical goldfish bowls we all live in that constrain our thinking.
Let me start with reality. There are actually two realities for everything. For every situation, there is an actual, factual reality — something exists or something happened. That's what I call "Reality A." Regardless of what Danny or I thought, Reality A was a carved stone figure with a curly tail and pointy things on its head.
Separately from Reality A, there is our internal understanding of that reality. That's what I call "Reality B." Danny's Reality B was African Buffalo. Mine was pig. (If you're beginning to form some judgments about a boring grandpa and a little guy with imagination and a lot of personality, then you've been paying attention.)
Reality A is what it is.
Reality B is what we think it is.
We all create internal Reality Bs that, sometimes, are distorted perceptions of the actual Reality A. Sometimes that's good, sometimes it's bad. The real-world impact of Danny's African Buffalo included happiness, excitement and a positive experience for him. But if one of Danny's other Reality Bs made him believe that hitting other kids means he's powerful and that the other kids don't matter, that would be harmful.
Reality B matters. A lot.
When real-world consequences are at stake, Reality B absolutely must match up with Reality A. When you're seeking medical treatment for life-threatening conditions; when you're making decisions about your retirement; when you're choosing a lifetime mate; when you're voting for the nation's leaders; when you're raising your kids; even when you're fixing a leaky toilet — whenever you're doing something with real-world consequences, you'd better make sure your Reality B lines up with the factuality of Reality A, or you're headed for problems, sometimes even disasters.
Why do we sometimes have distorted Reality Bs? Why was my Reality B so different from Danny's? Modern science says that my sense of reality is constructed mainly by my unconscious habits of mind, which have been conditioned into me by 77 years of life. My reality seems like the reality. I'm certain of it. It feels so right. It has to be right. Danny's five years have supplied him with a different set of mental habits, but he feels the same way about his Realty B as I do about mine. We each believe that "I know what's real, so you have to be wrong."
No wonder there's so much conflict in the world.
Wouldn't it be helpful if there were a way you and I could do "reality checks" on ourselves and figure out if our Reality Bs are aligned with Reality A or not? Well, there is a way, and it's pretty simple. I call it the 2Q technique because all I have to do is ask myself two questions. It works because the two questions interrupt my unconscious habits of mind and put my conscious mind in charge. The two questions are:
1. What's Reality A? — What are the facts? No speculation, no opinions, no interpretation, just the bare facts. What more do I need to know?
2. What are the possibilities? — How would other people see this situation; what Reality Bs might they believe? What is the range of possibilities, even if I don't believe some of them?
You should ask yourself the two questions whenever you want to do a reality check on yourself, but always ask them when making important decisions or when you need to truly understand something important about your life or about people and things you care about.
So, when you're arguing with the one you love, ask: "What's Reality A; what's really going on here?" "What is her (his?) Reality B?" and "What are the possible ways I could handle this situation?"
When you're helping your kids make important life choices, doublecheck your advice by asking: "What's Reality A about this situation? What do I really know about it?" and be prepared for the possibility that the truth might be, "I don't know." Then dig deeper into the many possibilities.
When the Board of Directors at Lake Wildwood makes a decision that doesn't seem to make sense, ask: "What's Reality A about this decision; what are the bare facts?" "What's Reality B for the Board members?" and "What are the possibilities I haven't thought about?"
When you ask yourself the two questions, one of three things will happen: (1) You might simply confirm your Reality B. When that happens, be careful. Your unconscious mind wants to confirm the Reality B that you already believe, so challenge yourself a bit. (2) You might improve your Reality B, maybe even change it completely, based on more information and clearer thinking — always a good result. (3) Your certainty about your Reality B might shift. You might think "Maybe it's different from what I thought," or "Now I don't really know for sure," and that's a good thing.
Certainty, especially about complicated matters, and situations for which you don't have much information or experience, is often a red flag, a signal that you need a reality check. When you feel certain, there's no room for doubt and nothing is going to change your mind. On the other hand, a mindset of "maybe" or "I don't know" opens you up to new information and possibilities that would otherwise be blocked off by your habits of mind. "Maybe" and "I don't know" become doorways to clarity.
What I'm learning to do, and what Danny will need to learn as he grows up, is to know the difference between Reality A and Reality B. He'll need to understand the value of both of them, and he'll need to make sure that Reality A rules his decision-making when there are real-world consequences.
In future columns, I'll be talking about the habits of mind most often responsible for distorting our thinking. You might not think you're affected by them, but the mind scientists say you are; we all are.