Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few thoughts around glasses

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In school, long ago, I was frustrated by a difficulty to read what was written on the blackboard—and by everyone else doing much better. I can e.g. recall once during wood-shop*, when I had the misfortune of standing at the back of the crowd: I could barely make out the presence of white lines, had to ask the girl next to me again and again what was written, and saw her starting to wonder what was wrong with me.

*A mandatory subject through some school years in my native Sweden. (This might have been year four or five.) I suspect that the use of a blackboard was a rare exception in this class, but my memory is a bit vague.

The explanation was that I needed glasses—an obvious explanation both to me, today, and my parents and teachers back then. However, back then, even with both parents using glasses, this explanation did not occur to me. This in part because glasses “were for adults” and I was the first* in my class to get them, but to a greater degree due to the slow, continuous weakening: I had no reason to suspect that I had weak eye-sight, because I never noticed a change relative earlier times, until some critical limit was passed. Even past this limit, however, I did not so much notice the change in me as the difference relative everyone else.

*Looking at a few old schools photos from a few years later, there is still only one other wearer of glasses. (But some might use contact lenses.)

Similarly, every time I got new glasses, I became aware of how much my eye-sight had continued to drop through the sudden contrast between the old and the new—but the preceding gradual deterioration had not registered.

This brings me to four points (some with an overlap with [1] from earlier today):

Firstly, if we judge the abilities of others by our own, we are often misled. I could not read the blackboard at a distance—and I assumed that others should be similarly troubled. I was wrong. Others made the reverse assumption and were equally wrong. Similar examples can be found around the other senses: not everyone sees, hears, smells, …, equally well.

However, the problem is not limited to the sense. It also includes the ability to think. Indeed, an an ever-recurring annoyance for me,* is that many others, especially among the incompetent, assume that because they cannot see a connection, draw a conclusion, come up with a solution, whatnot, others (specifically, I) cannot do so either. They do not understand that knowledge and understanding can arise based on own thought—not just books and instruction. They do not believe that others can come up with a better way to approach a problem with just a few days of experience than they can with a few years** of experience. Etc. Many even seem to live in a world where there are quasi-magical authorities and geniuses that are the sole source of knowledge, which flows down to the rest of the world, and where no mere mortal, e.g. a co-worker, can ever be a source of his own. This is the more annoying as the people most lacking in ability are also those most unable or unwilling to recognize ability in others. The simple truth is that there are great differences in the ability to think between humans, even between those having college degrees or similar qualifications. If A is a few levels above B, then A will often run circles around B.

*Especially, because some of these people have been higher in the hierarchy at hand than I, including a few teachers, VPs and project leaders with a business education, and colleagues with seniority. (A business education is interesting, because it filters only weakly with regard to the ability to think, while e.g. a math education filters fairly strongly.)

**Which is not to say that I can do this with anyone in any field. However, when the gap in “brains” is large enough, there comes a point where experience is not enough to compensate for the difference. For a lesser gap, we might need to replace “years” with “months” and/or “days” with “weeks”, or we might see the difference disappear altogether.

Vice versa, admittedly, I often have problems understanding their short-comings: If I see something at a glance—should not every else also do so too? (No, and unfortunately there is no solution comparable to putting on glasses.)

More generally, it is dangerous to judge e.g. the reactions of others to an event, the feelings of others, the this-or-that of others, by our own reactions (etc.)—they can be quite different and making assumptions can have negative consequences.

Secondly, it pays to compare (to the degree possible) our own “nows” and “thens”. I* have e.g. often seen my impression of my “now” be distorted through not appreciating the nature of the “then” (as with glasses above). This is particularly negative when it comes to fitness, where it is very easy to lose ground over the years through the effects of aging and the often increasing time taken by other areas (notably, work and family). I have also often e.g. forgotten something enjoyable that I used to do (or rather how enjoyable it was). Even good solutions to a recurring problem might be forgotten, as with the mattress vs. duvet issue discussed in [1].** Such issues can be reduced by greater efforts to recollect the past, by using reminders for important things, running some type of log for what might need tracking over time, or similar.

*Here I assume that many or most readers will have a similar weakness. I might, obviously, be as wrong as with the blackboard…

**To further drive home a point from [1]: My original intention to buy a proper mattress (and the purchase of the original foldable one) was not just a matter of having forgotten a solution (i.e. the use of just a duvet or two). It was more a matter of unthinkingly adapting the “conventional” solution. Once I started thinking about the problem as a problem (as opposed to being lured to view it as a nail in want of the hammer provided by convention), other solutions presented themselves readily.

Thirdly, the benefits of experimentation and of trying something new—e.g. new glasses. If we never change anything, we will cease to improve. (And a change that goes wrong can usually be undone, with just minor losses.) Try a new approach, a new technology, another shop/restaurant/whatnot than usually, an unknown author, … What if I, looking back at [1], had not been experimental enough to try alternative sleeping arrangements? What if I had never bought my first Pratchett*? What if I had not become a free-lancer**? What if I had kept going to the barber instead of buying a hair clipper***? Etc.

*This was a fairly close call in the mid-1990s, seeing that I had a negative impression from the blurb on the back of the books I had looked at. I still bought one, due to his already considerable reputation, and he soon became my favorite author for at least fifteen years.

**Less money, less geographic variation, probably less work satisfaction, less opportunities during my sabbatical, and likely too small buffers to attempt a career as a writer. (But possibly deeper personal connections or a higher-ranking position through a longer stay somewhere.)

***Some money thrown away, (more importantly) time thrown away, and likely worse kempt hair (because I tended to postpone the barber until I was two months overdue).

In all fairness, I have probably still erred on the side of being too stuck in my habits and of experimenting too little, and questions like “What if I had become a free-lancer five or ten years earlier?” are valid (I really should have). I will try to do better…

Finally, we should be aware of the risk that an unrecognized short-sightedness distorts our world-view. In much, this amounts to what I have already written using Plato’s cave as a metaphor. In the other direction, the wrong glasses can distort a world-view—just like glasses with a deliberate distortion (e.g. green glass) or of the wrong strength can do more harm than good. It is not always enough to find (real or metaphorical) glasses—not all glasses are worthy of use and sometimes the right set depends on the intended user.


Written by michaeleriksson

May 13, 2019 at 8:16 am

One Response

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  1. […] A few follow-ups on two recent, overlapping texts ([1] ,[2]): […]

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