Get that reality check

Acknowledging and accommodating different realities can help one become a better problem-solver.

I write this as the United States and the rest of the world is coming to terms with the biggest political upset in recent times…or ever, some people say. Almost everybody got it wrong — mainstream media, pollsters and political pundits. By the time you read this, the world would have slid back into some sort of equilibrium — we would have turned our attention back to ongoing issues that we are concerned with in our immediate lives. We would have burrowed into our safe spaces, surrounding ourselves with things and people we are comfortable with, and building a sense of our world based on what we see around us.

There are many lessons we can learn from the American election, and I certainly do not mean go into a deep political analysis here. But, there is one lesson that could be relevant to the process of learning — especially about life. A lot of the analyses in the days following the U.S. election indicate that the signs were there, but many people making predictions just didn’t pay attention. They weren’t looking in the right places, or talking to the right people. So, what is the lesson here? It is about looking and listening in ways that can put us in touch with different realities.

Most of the time, we are surrounded by people who think like us, with a similar range of life experiences. Occasionally, we may come across one or two instances that give us a sense of a different sort of life, but we tend to dismiss it as an aberration and go back to thinking of our own experience as the norm, as the “way the world ”. When we get too insular and self-absorbed, our parents or friends may tell us we need a “reality check”. What they mean is, we need to get outside ourselves and measure our ideas against an “external” reality.

Of course, many people will also tell you that there is no one reality; that the world is experienced in different ways by different people. But, we also know that we can share, empathise, and appreciate experiences that are not our own. This happens each time we watch a powerful movie or read a good novel, or even when we watch or read a skillfully told news story. However, the most powerful empathy generator is direct experiences of difference.

For this, we need to immerse ourselves in different realities, to expose ourselves to people who are living those different realities, all the while trying to get out of our own skins and into theirs.

But, empathy is only one part of the deal. Confronting or encountering other realities also helps us understand that people think in dramatically different ways and second, we are able to see why they think in these ways.

We do not need to agree with them or even sympathise with them, but understanding is necessary if we are to even begin a conversation that can lead anywhere.

As we go through school and college acquiring knowledge of subjects and their practical applications, maybe we can also seek out these other realities.

Often, just signing up for volunteering programmes like the National Service Scheme (NSS) can give you such opportunities. They are all around us, and all we need to do is to look and listen with greater awareness. The important thing is that the situation should be different from your own everyday life.

Acknowledging and accommodating other people’s realities helps you become a better problem solver and a more expansive thinker. If you are a designer, it pushes you to think about how to design a product or a service that helps more people. If you are into policy and planning, you will develop more inclusive plans. If you are into marketing or communication, you will be able to speak to or connect to people more easily.

It’s not an easy task to get a peek into other people’s world views, and it can even be deeply disturbing.

But it enriches us and can even help us gain perspectives that can contribute to our work and our study.

The author teaches at University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. Email:

Confronting or encountering other realities also helps us understand that people think in dramatically different ways.

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