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The Trouble with Been There, Done That.

If you’ve learned anything from this blog, or The Unstuck Leader, it’s that as a rule, humans don’t like uncertainty.

Uncertainty is so unpleasant, and in some cases, dangerous, our brains have evolved so we process it as quickly as possible. We do so by drawing from our personal experiences in life. I call it the psychology of been there, done that.

But interestingly, there’s also a physiology of been there, done that.

It turns out, our brains are constantly adapting to our experiences and the context within which they’re formed. Or as neuroscientist Beau Lotto puts it: “The functional structure of your brain is literally a physical manifestation of its past interactions with the world.” That is to say, we are shaped by our experiences not only mentally, but physically through the neural connections formed in our brains.

That can be a good thing. We evolved this way for a reason. Been there, done that can function as an advanced warning system. For example, after a few scary near misses, our ancestors got really good at spotting killer predators lurking in the forest. And while today’s dangers are less, well, dangerous, we’re still pretty good at spotting them. Like when your two-year-old gets a certain look on his face right before a meltdown. Or when you know exactly how your boss is going to react in a certain situation, even before she knows it herself.

Been there. Done that.

When it works for us, been there, done that, is deeply comforting. It gives us confidence. It gives us a sense of agency. And, it gives us certainty.

But sometimes been there, done that gets in the way. And that’s because most often, we’re completely unaware of the biases and assumptions that are affecting our perception.

Just ask BuBu and KiKi. Who are they? You tell me.

Take a look at the image above. Which shape do you think is BuBu and which is KiKi?

I’m willing to bet that you named the shape on the left KiKi and the one on the right BuBu. I’m right, right?

Hmm. Why did you do this? And how do I know you did this?

In 1929, researcher Wolfgang Kohler determined that what he called the Bouba/Kiki Effect is all about sharpness. The shape on the left looks sharp doesn’t it? The word KiKi sounds sharp too. And the letters that form the word KiKi also look sharp. And, the shape on the right looks round doesn’t it? And the word BuBu sounds round. And the letters in the word BuBu look round too.

This of course, is stupid. But that’s how our brains work.

Your brain took some meaningless data (the shape of two things), and through various neural connections (sharp things and sharp sounds), jumbled it up with experiences from your past (maybe the pain of getting poked by a sharp thing, heightening the potency of sharpness in your mind) to form assumptions which you then projected to the world in the form of KiKi and BuBu.

Been there. Done that.

Or as Beau Lotto puts it, “Perception is a reflex grounded in your history.”

How been there, done that affects our perceptions of people.

People are excellent sources of meaningless data. We see a person and we have no idea what they’re thinking, what their passions are, who they love, what kind of music they listen to, etc.

Our brains don’t have a problem with this. Just as with KiKi and BuBu, they use our previous experiences to form biases and assumptions which we then project upon the people around us. In fact, researchers Vilayanur Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard found that in the real world, people with round-sounding names (such as Molly) are perceived to be easygoing and people with sharp-sounding names (such as Kate) are associated with determination.

So, rather than making the effort to form a new opinion, our brains automatically narrow the scope of possibility for that person within our perception.

Blonde = Stupid

Millennial = Entitled

Wearing all black = Vampire

Sound familiar?

We may only know one or two things about someone, but our brains are more than happy to fill in the blanks because we’ve been there and done that.

Take this guy. Who’s he? A start-up intern? Journalist? Social Media Manager? Vampire? Not quite.

Michael Katchen, a not-stupid, un-entitled, non-vampiric blonde millennial, who happens to be wearing all black, is the CEO of WealthSimple, a wealth management company that he and his team grew from 1,000 clients to 150,000 clients in only four years. Yup. That guy sitting at the table there. He manages $4.5 billion in assets.

How about this woman? She’s pretty enough to be an actress. And, yup, she was. But that’s not all she was.

During WWII, Hedy Lamarr invented a radio frequency hopping signal (using a miniaturized player piano mechanism of all things), that could prevent radio-controlled torpedoes from being jammed and set off-course. And yes, she was also a 1930’s era mega film star who shared the screen with actors such as Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland and Jimmy Stewart. But also, she was arrested for shoplifting, once at the age of 52 and again at 77. The charges were dropped in both cases.

Hmm… not what you were expecting? Me neither. Though perhaps at this moment you’re thinking, “I don’t make assumptions about people. I’m as open minded as they come.”

Nope. You’re not. You’re making assumptions all the time. We all do. Brain biology is destiny. And by the way, convincing yourself that you don’t make assumptions is just one more way of clinging to certainty. Stop that. It’s bad for you.

How been there, done that affects our perceptions of events and situations.

The reason our brains like to make assumptions is that our assumptions enable us to create order. The problem with order though, is that it’s an illusion. The real world isn’t orderly. Complexity is all around us all the time. Rules are being broken. Teams are self-organizing, solving problems and dissolving all without the help of formal leadership structures or policy manuals. To try to impose order on these complex adaptive behaviors would be madness.

Assumptions lead to a false sense of certainty that kills creativity. That’s a good way to get stuck. Everyone’s been in a meeting, especially early in their career, when they suggest something and someone says, “We tried that, and it doesn’t work.” In other words, been there, done that, shut up. Not a lot of ground-breaking solutions are likely to come out of that meeting, are they?

There’s only one way out of the been there, done that trap: Change our scope of possibility by questioning our assumptions.

In other words, embrace doubt.

We don’t like doubt, primarily because it makes us feel less certain, but also because doubtful people are seen as annoyingly dubious Debbie-downers who “haven’t bought in”. People like people who go along to get along. They call them “team players” and the main job of the team player is to make everyone feel comfortable and certain by not causing any controversy.

Don’t be a team player. Team players suck.

Be a team contributor. And the way to do that is by asking really good questions.

First, question your own assumptions.

Why have you arrived at the meaning you’ve arrived at? What are the experiences you’re drawing from as you come to your conclusion? Is the story playing in your mind true? Or is it the result of your brain’s established patterns of thinking? Are you reacting? Or responding?

If sales are down, is it because you need to spend more on marketing (as you’ve always done in the past), or could it be that there’s been a shift in customer need?

If an employee is ineffective, is it because they’re lazy (as you were often berated for being as a teenager), or is it that they’re not being used effectively?

Where have you been there and done that? And have you really? Maybe not.

Then, question the assumptions your organization holds to be true.

Because contrary to popular belief, the most common cause of cynicism in organizations isn’t lack of faith in the company’s mission. It’s lack of doubt. Because if we’re free of doubt, we’re placing comfort above truth. And when we do that, we’re lying to ourselves. And we ask our ask our colleagues to lie to themselves. And ultimately, betray themselves. No one wants to be there and do that.

So ask questions:

How can we…?

What if…?

Why do we…?

How does that…?

What kind of…?

Who is best to…?

Where should we…?

The best thing about questions is how freaking fun they are. They create an opening. And that opening leads to new perspectives and new possibilities.

And soon you’ll have new been theres. And new done thats.

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