Context and Perspective are Everything

Have a look at that shape. Take your time, there is no need to hurry. Which side of that shape is in the front? Is it the one whose top left corner is the top left corner of the shape? Or, is it the one, whose bottom right corner is the same as the bottom right corner of the shape?

Did you move your head to see the shape from a different perspective so that you can see the different sides? Did it work? Do you have a more suitable answer now than a minute before? Most probably not, but here is an interesting idea: what if I tell you that the shape is not a cube?

You were thinking about a cube, weren’t you? But it can be a two dimensional shape with lines, triangles, rectangles and other shapes. I didn’t tell you that it was a cube.

That simple shape - I’ll call it a shape, because we don’t know whether it is a cube or not - teaches us an important lesson about context and perspective, how important they are, and how bad we are at interpreting them. They fill in the gap between appearance and meaning.

The brain is a complex, but efficient organ. It must be efficient, because our life can depend on the speed of the decision making, and we’d rather make a fast, but wrong decision than a slow, but right one. It is a basics element of survival. Or rather it has been, was for a long time, but nowadays the situation is different: we need to slow down and be effective, and not just efficient.

So, when you were reading the first paragraph for the first time, in order to be efficient you - or more precisely your brain - used a well known context, in which a shape like that has always been a cube. Therefore it was a cube. The questions about the sides justified your belief about the “cubeness”, the only thing you failed to accomplish is to answer the questions about the sides. The idea that it is not a cube at all changed this context and, after that, now you most probably looked at the picture differently. You needed external help to see the problem in a different context.

The change in perspective didn’t happen automatically either. Without bringing up the subject of which side is in the front the shape was an ordinary cube whose orientation didn’t matter at all. But after the side related questions, it became the most important thing about it.

If you think about the picture, it doesn’t matter whether it is a shape, a cube or a sheep drawn by a very avant-garde artist, because it is just a picture. However, when you see something on the street or at the workplace and you decide to act upon it, context and perspective do matter, simply because your action and the result depends on the information you have.

Here is an example. Let’s say that I have to solve a problem at my job, and the fastest way to do it is to ask for help from a senior co-worker. She says no, and I’m about to escalate the situation to my boss, because I want my problem to be solved and I won’t take no for an answer. Is there something missing from this story? Do I know anything about the context and perspective? Not really. What if the senior co-worker has something more important to do? I didn’t ask her about it. I just assumed that she is there to answer my questions - wrong context. Did I try to understand her point of view? Not really - unknown perspective. Practically, I don’t know anything, and yet I’m about to escalate to the boss, because I want my problem solved, but most probably I’m making a huge mistake.

Not everything is as simple as the shape that started this article, but the principle it teaches us is general: context and perspective matter. We should slow down and learn as much as possible about the context, and see things from different perspectives, because at the first look, the appearance and meaning may differ.

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