By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Most likely we’ve all heard the adage that “Assume makes an ass out of u and me.” And most likely we’ve heard it again and again because it’s so true.
I had that brought home to me in a truly humbling way recently when I was watching an episode of Shark Tank, the TV show where rich entrepreneurs hear sales pitches to buy percentages of start-up companies that make and sell more or less innovative products.
The segment began with an attractive, blonde woman walking onto the carpet with her two attractive, blonde daughters – one 15 and the other 11. The oldest tells us she is president of their company and the youngest introduces herself as “the vp.” They are so cute.
The cute little president says they are asking for $300,000 in exchange for 15 percent ownership in their company. If accepted, that would give the company a valuation of $2 million. Their business: making bottle cap jewelry. They are insane.
Yet, the setup looks like “good television.” We have an attractive little family -- cute mom, cute kids with cute idea. But their business looks more like a hobby than a legitimate enterprise – so the deal they are offering the sharks seems nothing short of crazy.
Very quickly one of the sharks asks: “What are your sales now?” The mom replies: “Over the past five years we’ve hit over $5 million.”
I roll back in my chair and gasp, “Whoa!”
As I do, I notice that the sharks are doing the very same thing. We are all shocked. It turns out the company’s past year’s sales are $1.6 million. This is a real business. What were we thinking?
Truth be told, before I heard the $5 million-plus sales figure I was only vaguely conscious of my assumptions about the business. But obviously I had some. And so did the sharks.
Apparently none of us expected the business to amount to much -- although if you had asked me the moment before the sales figure was mentioned, I would have had to stop and bring my assumptions to consciousness.
Nevertheless, all of us were seeing and evaluating the situation through a thick lens of largely unconscious assumptions.
The experience started me wondering how frequently and profoundly we make judgments based on assumptions which lurk largely below our consciousness.
When a certain person we know approaches us, what are we assuming? Why? To what extent will our assumptions filter the reality of our encounter in this time and place?
As we peruse our mail and look at the return addresses, what assumptions arise about the contents in the envelopes? We do make them, don’t we? Otherwise we wouldn’t toss away any mail without opening it – and I daresay all of us do that some of the time.
When we hear a voice we recognize on the phone, what assumptions immediately color the moment?
To be fair, instant, mostly unconscious assumptions can be useful. As in the case of sorting mail, they can serve as great shortcuts and save us a lot of time. But we should make an effort to be more aware of what assumptions are influencing us in the moment because they might be leading us down the wrong path.
I had a boss once who was a wonderful guy with an incredible intuition. I have never met a man who could get a better reading of another person in their first encounter. It was a gift, and over the years it served him well. But there was a darker side to his insight.
I knew him for over 40 years and worked with him for about 20 years – and in that time I changed a lot, from a college freshman to a married man with five children. Nevertheless, his assumptions about me were always shaped – more than he realized – by the impression he had when we first met.
We were friends when he died. But our relationship would have been a lot less painful and a lot more fruitful for both of us if he had been more aware of his assumptions and more able to let some old, outdated ones go.
As your next encounter with someone begins, quickly ask yourself: What am I assuming in this moment? And then ask the Lord to keep your eyes and heart open to the reality in your midst.
That way your eyes will not be so clouded by what you assume that you’re unable to see what really is.