A Fish Doesn’t Know It’s in Water is attributed to David Foster Wallace, and is most likely a play on the Chinese proverb If you want a definition of water, don’t ask a fish.  What it means is that we can rarely see – objectively, at least – that of which we are a part, for example, ourselves, our families, our communities, where we work, our society, especially what we would rather not see about any of these.  Our beliefs about ourselves and that of which we are a part are incredibly potent, and it is important to note that beliefs seek reinforcement and so are reinforce-able, by way of simply learning that others believe in a similar way or being presented with even false evidence of what fits with what we believe.  Our beliefs will hold sway even in the face of reality that contradicts it.  This is known as cognitive dissonance.  I have noticed that we often react with negative emotion to reality presented that threatens to distort or nullify belief, while we react with positive emotion to that which bolsters existing belief.

Now, please don’t get me wrong.  Emotion is full of information to which we need to be giving our attention.  The problem is that emotion is messy and difficult to understand, so in US society in particular, and in our organizations especially, we have taken to ignoring its worth and as a result, our ability to work with it, to hear what it is trying to tell us.  As a result, we remain vulnerable to being manipulated by emotion in reaction to single source sound bites and quippy memes that support our beliefs, whether based in reality or not.

So what can we do?  Well, we can start by simply asking ourselves the question, what is true?  Then, take time to check our sources.  Is it a source we prefer because it makes us feel right?  Does the source provide a variety of viewpoints or only one, one we already accept as true?  Acknowledging another viewpoint does not require us to believe that viewpoint, but it should at very least pique our curiosity to ask, what is true?  If something we read or hear supports existing belief to the point of an emotional response, like “yeah, that’s right!”, it might just be too good to be true.