[Life Back West] February 2010 – “Is That Your Grandson?” and Other Assumptions

Assumptions form the basis of almost everything we do; for example, we assume that the sun will rise (somewhere) from the east every day, roads can get icy for driving when it gets cold and wet, and no matter how you plan it, someone will call on the phone or ring the doorbell if  you hop into the shower during the middle of the day.

The value of assumptions is they give you a particular sense of certainty about things, a belief without which you’d need to constantly check and recheck everything around you. Is that step made of concrete, or will I float into another dimension of time and space if I walk on it, as one example. Without some assumptions life would veer to a tenuous unpredictability that would make most of us psychotic.

Last week I had a pitch meeting downtown regarding a project: nice people, great firm, good conversation, and a prospective piece of work that was in my sweet spot. All seemed to go swimmingly until a question came up about the genesis of taking my consulting practice – the bulk of which is coaching individuals and teams – full-time.

Reflexively I pulled out my iPhone to show a picture of my 7 year-old son Traylor as in, “here’s a big part of the reason why I started my own practice.”

Is that a picture of your grandson?” someone asked.

No” I responded, “it’s my son.”

Waiting for a look of surprise to fade, I added, “I started my own practice when my son was coming out of preschool so I could continue to be continue to be active parent in his early childhood years.”

The other reasons – that I’m very good at what I do, like doing what I do, and clients get great results – would wait for another day.

An assumption is a proposition that is taken for granted, as if it were accurate and true based upon presupposition without preponderance of the facts. They come from your experience and what you’re told – absent something to the contrary – about how things work. Assumption has a kissing cousin in the word stereotype, though the latter typically applies to individuals and social groups.

And probably like you, many of my assumptions are from my formative childhood years though I find mine are sometimes different than the assumptions of other people. But what I find is that because at times I assume things will happen – for example, people will mostly be helpful and friendly – they happen.

I am one of three kids of parents who in their late 40’s / early 50’s when we were all born. My dad died a few years ago at 96, my mom is still chugging along at that same age. Both my folks worked when I was a kid and my mom ran a branch bank when it was uncommon for women to work (at least paid work) outside the home, as well as manage other people. My dad, when I was small kid and he was still an officer in the Air Force, had officers of color who reported to him at a time when that was unusual. My time as small child was hanging out with those officers and their bright, well behaved kids around me. Both of my parents had successful second careers – my dad’s after he retired out of the military and my mom after she’d birthed my siblings and me.

And as a guy who got dragged kicking and screaming into parenthood by his partner / spouse of 19 years, my experience of parenting is that it’s not something that happens by accident nor without a certain sense that life (particularly as a gay guy) would be fundamentally different moving forward.

Last, I had my son around the same age (50) that my dad was when I was born. [Side note: My favorite sentiment for having a child at age 50? It’s much harder than feared, and much, much richer than hoped.]

The value of assumptions is that they give you some sense – albeit not absolute – of predictability. The steep downside is that assumptions lock us into options and beliefs that may not just be inaccurate, but inaccurate and serve us poorly.

At their worst, misassumptions cause you miss out on all sorts of other choices that may present themselves. You skip the choice or path that’s most inviting because you think it’s not yours to choose: no big bold “This is for you” shouts out because your (mis)assumptions effectively block the sound.

In my case, as a child of my “normal” experiences I grew up assuming things that women really could be president, that all sorts of people from pasty white folks like me to darker coffee colored folks were competent and able, that second (or third) careers are usual if not desirable, and that older people as well as younger people could be parents of younger kids.

Michael Winerip recently wrote in a piece in the New York Times called The Virtues of a Slow Moving-Dad that “When a man has a child later in life, it helps to have thick skin.”

I suspect that it’s not simply thick skin, but more importantly having a sense of humor that helps most when people whose assumptions are different than yours interact with you (“Buying this for your grandson?”). Thick skin may shelter, but heart and humor – as well as an interest in engaging with others – is what will keep you feeling human. More participant than the object of someone’s assumption.

Unlike over age 50 dads that Winerip wrote about, my coaching work with start-ups, leadership teams, and individuals is very much a part of who I am. My model is Alan Greenspan, who still actively works now that he’s in his ’80’s. I think of the ages of both my parents and in terms of a long runway for raising a child, a second career, and still a fair amount of time before my final exit stage right.

One of my favorite bosses, Hubie McMorrow, would occasionally remind us about the word  assume: it can make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” And that’s what can happen when people state / make their assumptions in way that’s fundamentally different than what others might believe.

In my coaching practice I encourage people to be neutral – to avoid assuming things – that they simply don’t know.

As as example, a client initially assumed that one of her direct reports, a mother recent with her third child, would not be interested in taking on greater responsibilities while the child was young. But instead of assuming, she asked: “I’d like to consider you for added responsibilities. Is that something you’d like to consider now, or defer down the pike one or two years?” The answer?  “I’d like to be considered now.” So instead of missing the boat on some great talent, the neutral assumption had that employee engaged more fully earlier than anticipated.

The Zen Bhuddhist tradition contains a concept of Shoshin, or a Beginner’s Mind. It refers to having an attitude of openness, curiousity and a lack of assumptions when viewing or studying something, even at an advanced level.

I find that my own curiosity, a trait I’ve exhibited since I was a little kid, helps me keep the beginner’s mind about any number of things. It has served me well, for example, in my work coaching people. And it’s that beginner’s mind that helps me deal with things in a way that is lighter and easier, as opposed to thick skinned and dull, when people with other assumptions about families, work, and kids ask any number of innocent questions about my own life.

More curious than furious,” as psychologist Robert Canter might say.

Wikipedia also notes that “Shoshin also means ‘Correct Truth’ and is used to denote a correct or perfect signature on art works Shoshin Mei. This is opposed to fake signature, “Gimei” (bad Mei). The term can be used for any thing or person who is perfectly genuine.”

And parking your assumptions where they belong – sometimes inside, but sometimes outside your experience – will keep you authentic and genuine to the world around you.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.