What we are, what we can become

One of the many recent life lessons I've learned from parenting an 18-month-old is that where you are and what you know right now doesn't have to limit where you can go and what you can become.

It's been fascinating to watch our daughter learn about the world and incorporate that knowledge into her life on timelines that span mere days and weeks. I had apparently developed a cynical view of what people have the capacity to learn and how long it takes, and she is challenging those assumptions and views every day. The old, limiting way of thinking about this puzzle/game/word/object/creature is so yesterday, dad! It is delightful and surprising to watch the human brain expand its understanding of how the world works, and I must constantly re-evaluate what she is capable of in order to keep up.

It's also a good reminder for me about how much we as a society tend to categorize and label people and what they have the capacity to know or do based on our initial encounters of them.

I've been thinking lately about how this dynamic is at work in the tech world in particular - people are pigeonholed into being developers, support/customer service, marketing/sales people, administrative/HR people, founders, or other roles and then we quickly start to make assumptions from there about how they think, what they know and what they're capable of. We can quickly forget that someone might have a broad range of skills and life experience that would allow them to take on multiple roles or see a given problem space from multiple perspectives, even if they choose to primarily occupy one particular role right now. Even worse, there's strong temptation to use only one or two direct encounters to label someone as a good/bad/mediocre version of their singular role, never again mentally giving them the chance to demonstrate otherwise.

"Him? Oh yeah, I worked with him on a project three years ago. He's a so-so developer but I wouldn't trust him to really thrive with this new project."

It can be a dangerous way to see people. Three years is a long time for someone to learn, improve, transform. If I looked at my daughter that way, she'd still be playing with toys meant for a 6-month old and would never learn any new words or have any new experiences. I'm reminded instead that we need to assume everyone has the capacity to learn, improve and change...at least until they demonstrate otherwise.

I suppose the same is true in the realm of political viewpoints, religious understandings, the capacity to know and share deeply in love and friendship, even just the way we relate to our neighbors on the street. If we label people after just a few encounters and never look at them in a new way ever again, it feels like we're perhaps denying some part of their humanity.

And yet I do this all the time. To my embarrassment I'm perhaps doing it most frequently in political conversations right now, having a very hard time staying open-minded about people who I perceive to be spreading misinformation or intolerance. But I also do it in my other relationships, even my marriage. Even with people we love dearly, it's hard (but important) work to be open to the idea that a familiar dynamic can be changed or replaced with something deeper, different, better. And the work can pay off, enriching our experiences of each other and the world.

Today I'm thankful to my daughter for reminding me of the danger of making assumptions and the power of seeing familiar things with fresh eyes.

 

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Chris Hardie

Chris Hardie is an Internet tech geek, problem solver, community-builder and amicable cynic.

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