My son spent the first five months of his senior year writing essays for various college applications. One highly ranked research university asked, “How comfortable are you being uncomfortable? Please explain in 350 words or less.” Wow. A truly revealing question that applies to everyone.
There is nothing wrong with being comfortable. We have our routines, traditions and close friends. But for many of us, we end up living in a bubble — safe places where we surround ourselves with people who agree with us, who share our opinions and beliefs. We tend to join organizations, boards and clubs with people who are like ourselves. People in bubbles are more likely to become stuck in their ways, isolated and polarized.
Failure to acknowledge and learn from differences can cause polarization and segregation, whether based upon socioeconomic background, religion, race, gender, politics or where we grew up. Polarization often prevents us from being able to diagnose and solve problems thoroughly, which leads to bad assumptions and serious miscalculations, ultimately resulting in failure. When that failure occurs, those in a bubble perceive themselves as victims; they don’t look back and ask, “How could we have predicted the failure? What can be learned from this? What questions should we have asked? How can that type of failure be avoided in the future?”
Aside from avoiding failure, living in a bubble can lead to many missed opportunities and stifles creativity and innovation.
The best leaders I know do what whatever they can to avoid isolation, to move beyond their comfort zone bubble. As explained by a long-time mentor and former Fortune 100 CEO, you are truly isolated when people start telling you what they think you want to hear and stop telling you what they think you don’t want to hear — and you don’t know the difference. As Elon Musk explained at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival, this causes “unexpected surprises,” usually negative ones, where we are blind-sided by a turn of events that would have been predicted “if I had asked the right questions instead of being spoon-fed a presentation filled with what others thought I needed to hear to make decisions.” Isolation, as another leader added, “is only effective in stopping the spread of infectious disease.”
Bubbles stifle our ability to grow, to lead and understand. How do you know if you might be living in a bubble? Ask yourself how often someone asks you a question that makes you feel defensive. Do you immediately dislike that person because an alternative perspective threatens a deep-seated belief of yours? When I asked for advice on how to handle my own defensiveness when I encountered tough questions, I was advised to recognize my discomfort and then lean in: listen, be patient and learn.
How often do we spend time in a different community (even one near our own) that has different socioeconomic or infrastructure challenges, or a different way of educating? Do we listen and read topics that illuminate and honor different perspectives? How often do we reach out to people we don’t know and learn about them? Do we interject conversations with our own stories instead of saying, “Tell me more — help me understand?” Are we able to embrace another person’s life, culture or perspective with an open mind?
Given the amount of distrust, hate and bigotry in our country today, some differences are hard to tolerate. However, being open to another perspective doesn’t mean you endorse it, nor does it mean that blindly accepting assumptions and statements without validation is wise. Be wary of those, especially in leadership who avoid feedback and who answer questions with, “Why do you need to know?” Be curious about people, ideas and cultures that are not familiar to you. Challenge yourself to at least one new experience, discussion, or activity a month. Embrace the initial discomfort and just maybe a whole new and fascinating world will open up for you.
Mary Frantz is a member of the Prior Lake-Savage Area School Board.