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Updated: July 6, 2014 16:00 IST
backpackers' guide

Dangerous assumptions

Usha Raman
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Drawing baseless conclusions often leads to anything from wasted time and lost opportunity.

“Assumption is the mother of all mistakes,” a good friend once told me, while discussing how one could get students to think critically and carefully. “And that’s the first rule I put up in my class, in big bold letters: Do not assume anything.”

Cut to 20 years later. I am waiting in my office for a student who is scheduled to meet with me. My door is closed as I catch up on work in the meantime. Time passes, but she does not arrive. I take a quick walk down the corridor to talk to someone and catch a glimpse of her waiting in the lobby so I go back to my room expecting that she will come by any moment. More time passes, but no sign of her and I get caught up with something else. Later I find out that since my door was closed, she thought — assumed — I was in a meeting, and therefore hesitated to disturb me. Net result: we had both wasted our time waiting for a meeting that never happened, despite the fact that we were both ready and available to meet.

We all routinely act on assumptions. In fact, we can’t get by in life without assuming some things. That trains and buses will run on schedule. That a cloudless sky means no rain. That paying for a service will result in its being rendered. That people will behave in certain expected ways. That thirst will be relieved by drinking or hunger by eating.

Four kinds

But assumptions sometimes stand in the way of things happening, and can prevent us from taking full advantage of opportunities. In my experience, there are at least four kinds of assumption that can limit what we learn, what we do, and what we get out of life.

About our own abilities/aptitudes: Either because people have told us we are good or bad at something or because we have convinced ourselves that this is so, we tend to avoid certain activities or areas of doing/learning. If we think carefully about why this has come about, we may find that the judgment of our abilities was based on very flimsy evidence. We may have performed poorly in a few tests or not found some lessons interesting enough to apply ourselves. We begin avoiding certain types of exposure because we think we’re not “suited” to it.

About what is expected: Most of the time, when someone asks us to do something, we just jump into doing it without thinking through why we have been asked to do it, and whether we understand the requirements completely. I’ve talked about this earlier, the need to understand clearly what is asked of us. We assume too much, and therefore end up delivering either too little, too much or something completely different from what was required.

About other people: A student once told me that no one took me seriously when I said they could come and knock on my door to talk any time, that they could come discuss doubts and assignments at any point in the semester, and if I was not terribly busy, I would make myself available. Given his past experience with the system he (and others) assumed this was just one of those things people said without meaning it. By the time he realised I was actually as accessible as I had indicated, it was already the end of the semester—we had all lost many opportunities to interact and learn from each other. It’s important to keep an open mind about people; avoid making judgments without giving them a chance. If you’ve heard the expression “try me,” this is what it means!

About situations: We need to develop the ability to “read” our environments critically. This means that we make use of our own eyes and ears (and other senses) and use the evidence to understand or make meaning of a situation. Of course, we should also not disregard earlier knowledge but we do not depend on it entirely. We need to weigh the evidence produced by our own senses against other facts we may have access to, and make a decision accordingly.

Coming back to the situation with my student, I must admit to having been tripped up by my own assumptions. When I passed the student in the corridor, I assumed she had seen me and would then come into my office. It wouldn’t have taken much for me to go back and invite her in, instead of taking it for granted!

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and is the editor of Teacher Plus. Email: usha.raman@gmail.com

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