What a gift it is to experience a shift in our perception, to suddenly see the beauty in something that used to seem less than lovely.
I walked into my studio today and I saw a piece I’ve been working on over the last few weeks. I created the sculpture 25 years ago, and lately I’ve been getting it ready for an upcoming exhibition. But there’s something about the texture and patina that’s really been bugging me. I’ve felt highly critical of the whole thing—because it’s so old, it’s not like the art I make now, and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to include it at all. Nevertheless, I’ve continued to work on it; I always find it interesting to finish a piece.
I left my studio for a few days to do consulting work, and today when I opened the door, this piece caught my eye. Its new silver patina has tempered beautifully, almost soaking into the cement of the sculpture. The antique mahogany stand from Sri Lanka I placed it on contrasts perfectly with the polished silver. All of a sudden, I was having a wow moment with this piece, after 25 years of thinking meh whenever I looked at it.
It reminds me of other times I’ve overlooked the value of what’s surrounding me—only in those cases, it’s people, not sculptures, that I’ve failed to see properly.
Sometimes when I meet someone, I’m immediately blown away by them, dazzled by their polish and poise. Unfortunately, there are also times when I underestimate or discount people based on my first impressions. More often than I care to admit, I’ve failed initially to see people’s full worth.
Discoveries in the rapidly expanding field of neuroscience suggest that the human brain is structured to make such biased judgments. Our minds basically act as machines for jumping to conclusions, especially when evidence is limited or when our minds are overtaxed. When we don’t take or have the time to slow our busy minds, and allow for contemplation and reflection, we are more likely to make superficial and biased judgments.
I have been making a conscious effort to account for the fact that the human brain is a judging machine by attempting to “think slow,” as Daniel Kahneman puts it. I’ve been doing my best to recognize snap judgments when I make them, and to question my assumptions. Sometimes this means just giving other people the benefit of the doubt. It has been humbling to recognize just how often I judge, but it has also been a rewarding experience that has helped me to better understand how my mind works and enriched my sense of empathy for others.
Sometimes it doesn’t take such conscious efforts to shift our perception. Sometimes, all it takes is time. Fortunately for me, I work with people up close whether they dazzle me or not. And a funny thing happens when I start to see people and connect with them more deeply. Sometimes those who glitter at first glance end up having less depth and substance than I thought. And those who seem dull often possess an innate steadiness, calm, and intelligence that give them a quiet brilliance of their own. Time and patience are often what is needed for us to move beyond our biases and see people (or things) in a new light.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to get to know so many people; it means I’m constantly revisiting and revising my initial impressions. Sometimes shining the light of attention on people makes them brighter; sometimes the work of coaching or facilitating acts as a polish for a client’s brilliance; sometimes seeing someone in a new context—on their own mahogany stand, if you will—makes me realize how much they have to offer. Whatever the circumstances, it’s so good to learn that the world around me is more full of radiance than I knew.
Have you been surprised to see your initial impressions and assumptions proved wrong as you’ve gotten to know someone better? Has your perspective on a familiar situation changed dramatically through the passage of time? If so, I’d love to hear about it!