Jewish World Review Dec. 8, 2003 / 13 Kislev, 5764

Marty Nemko

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How Open-Minded Are You, Really? | In George Orwell's Animal Farm, the animals mindlessly accepted the human leaders' slogan: "Two legs good; four legs bad." And when the pigs took over, the animals were equally quick to mouth the new mantra: "Four legs, good, two legs bad."

Alas, many employees have also been brainwashed into too uncritically accepting trendy nostrums: collaborative leadership good, hierarchical leadership bad; high-tech good, low-tech bad (or vice versa), team player good, not team player bad; diversity good, like-background workers bad; calm people good, hotheads bad; workers good, bosses bad; protecting the environment good; development bad; friendly people good, quiet people bad; nonprofit good, corporation bad.

The best decisions are made without such preconceptions. For example, so many people today are environmentalists. That dictates the sorts of work they're willing to do and the decisions they make once on the job.

But while "save the environment" may appear to be a truism, the reality is more complex. For example, environmentalists have successfully lobbied that no freeways are to be built in the San Francisco Bay Area for the next 20 years! They did so based on tenuous arguments:

  • Freeways cause pollution. In fact, a lack of freeways also causes pollution because cars must sit in traffic, which results in more pollutants per mile driven.

  • Any net increase in pollution will cause changes to the ecosystem. In fact, the significance of any such change is not known.

In total, it is unclear how much if any benefit we will derive from not building freeways. Yet it's an absolute certainty that not building freeways forces millions of drivers to waste precious hours each day in traffic.

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So, even something as seemingly obvious as "save the environment" is more complex than the zealots would have us believe.

How have so many people become True Believers, non-religious zealots for groupthink? Consider, for example, the bosses bad, workers good mentality. A core belief before the '60s was that leaders usually got to be leaders because they were smarter and harder working. But the '60s' "power to the people" movement asserted that leaders were often no better than anyone else, just more ruthless. The logical extensions: hierarchy bad, collaboration good; bosses bad, workers good.

As the young adults of the '60s aged, they rose to leadership positions in society's mind-molders: the schools, colleges, media, and activists. Still stoked by their '60s values, these zealots trumpeted their screw-the-system message, too often appealing to emotion without fairly presenting the issue's pros and cons. As a result, we, the citizenry, too often bought their feel-good preachings. We too started to chant the slogans and live by bumper-sticker reasoning." Too many of us became uncritical thinkers, True Believers.

Quietly, critical thinkers laugh at The People, but alas, they often must laugh from afar-too many True Believers will only choose leaders--corporate, non-profit, and governmental--who share their zealotry. But they mouthe overdrawn comfortable slogans: "Move forward, not backward" "Three strikes and you're out!" "Diversity is our greatest strength!" "Abortion is murder!" "Meat is murder!" which we then, like the animals in Animal Farm, parrot. So simplistic. For example, if no one ate meat, millions of cows would never live at all.

Truly free thinkers are too often ostracized into society's corners, and viewed as "out of the mainstream" or worse. People concerned about technology are dubbed Luddites. People who don't embrace team decision-making are called jerks. People who don't support affirmative action are labeled racists.

But ultimately, you will make a greater contribution in your career and otherwise if you make the extra effort to realize that most hats are neither black nor white; they're like photochromic lenses, changing from light to dark as conditions dictate.

Unfortunately, you probably think you're already a clear thinker and open-minded. I have yet to meet someone who felt, "I'm a closed-minded zealot." Yet, most of us know many people who indeed are.

So, I invite you to be really honest with yourself. Ask yourself whether you are truly open to the possibility that:

  • A co-worker who is not friendly, not a team player, and is a hothead, might nonetheless be the most valuable employee?

  • A boss who makes decisions without extensive collaboration might (or might not) be a wonderful boss?

  • The benefits of a developer building oceanfront condos might (or might not) outweigh disturbing the red-legged frog's habitat?

  • When you disagree with someone, that you've not sufficiently considered its pros and cons?

Key to making a difference in your worklife and beyond is the ability to replace zealotry with critical thinking.

The next time you find yourself thinking you have The Truth, ask yourself, "Should I try to explore other perspectives on the issue?"

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JWR contributor Dr. Marty Nemko is a career and education counselor in Oakland, California and hosts "Work With Marty Nemko," Sundays 11 to noon on KALW, 91.7FM. He is co-author of Cool Careers for Dummies and available for private consultation. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2003, Dr. Marty Nemko