It was a tense meeting, and I was picking my cuticles until they were bleeding. It’s a nervous habit, and I was fully giving into it because it felt like a lot was at stake. My boss and I were talking with the school leadership about how parents were interpreting a situation, arguing that this could seriously hurt enrollment if left unchecked. Thing was, the parents were wrong on the facts. And this meant that school leaders couldn’t see parental perception as an issue, in large part because the reality was actually demonstrably different. But as my boss curtly noted as we were wrapping up, “perception is reality.”
I’ve thought about this phrase so many times since first hearing it that morning, because over and over, I see how true it is. Politically, socially, physically - facts seem to matter far less that one might hope. How we interpret the world around us is surprisingly durable. This capacity we all have for information-resistance can be depressing.
But more recently, I’ve been thinking about perception as a sort of superpower. If perception doesn’t need to be tied to facts to be meaningful, that actually leaves us free to create perceptions that serve us. This means that to the degree we can, choosing *what* we think about different challenges in our life can have a positive impact.
We see the perception as reality easily in large social movements – if we believe that girls are less drawn to science and math then they are, if we believe that women aren’t as competent as leaders then they won’t be, if we believe that men aren’t in touch with their emotions they will prove this out. But perceptions matter at the individual level as well.
An easy example – I have a good friend whose father was a super high powered executive type. He was a great guy, and worked as a turnaround cousultant for companies in hard times. Few people were as good at analyzing and fixing problems as he was. He worked long hours most days and really valued his weekend downtime. Trouble was that he had a big yard, felt the need to mow it weekly in the summer, and hated every last minute of it. After watching his dad slog through years of resenting this chore, yet refusing to hire it out either, my friend proposed an odd solution. He asked his dad what if instead of hating the chore, he decided he liked it?
“That doesn’t make sense,” his dad told him. “Mowing is my least favorite chore.”
“Ok, but what if you just thought about it differently?” My friend asked.
My friend didn’t need to say anything more. He had planted the idea and he watched as his dad slowly went from being miserable about mowing, to deciding it was probably ok, to actually feeling like he valued the outdoor time and the exercise all within the span of a couple of months. Nothing material had changed, but how his dad thought about his work had shifted, and as a result he was happier.
What perceptions do you have about yourself, your closest relationships, your goals? Do your perceptions help you or hold you back? What would you have to change to believe something different?