Keeping Things Simple: 4 Thoughts For Navigating The Every Day Path

There is an interesting short series on Netflix called “Cooked”.  It is a four episode look at the history of human cooking, and in particular the impact of the hectic pace of our society on our diets, because fewer people are making food for themselves.  I’m a bit of a foodie, and there are not many days in my life where I don’t cook something from scratch, so the series caught my interest right out of the gate. 

One episode entitled “Air” was about bread. One particular segment of this stood out, where the narrator stated that homemade bread has three ingredients – flour, salt and water – while much store-bought bread has between 31 and 37.  I won’t make this a rant about the quality of commercially produced foods – that isn’t my thing.  In fact I think we could go as far as to say that we need commercially produced foods now to sustain our society.

What “Cooked” wonders about, and what prompted my thinking for this post, is whether the pace of our existence and the drive to pack so much into our lives has driven us away from the goodness and simplicity of cooking our own food, and introduced a myriad of health issues driven by processed food and its attendant preservatives including obesity, gluten sensitivity, cancer, etc.

There is also a parallel that occured to me – what is  the emotional intellience equivalent to this highly processed diet?  We are also fed a steady diet of sound-bite news, Internet opinion that feels like news, video games, provocative programming, etc. that has the same “complexifying” effect on our emotional state.

How often do we find ourselves rising up the “Ladder of Inference” (theory first put forward by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris), creating new truths for ourselves that  clutter our view of our world and make it difficult to answer the question “what’s really happening right now?”  I think the diagram below is self-explanatory … our experiences bias our observations and influence our actions, which then colour our next round of observations.

Ladder of Inference
Ladder of Inference

In short, the way we experience the world around us is a collection of bias and interpretations.  We are champions of MSU … making stuff up!  Of course everyone around us is doing the same thing, but their own beliefs and personal/cultural biases are different from ours so we often end up with competing realities that make life very difficult to sort out.  Very complicated!

So how do we simplify this back to the basic ingredients?  The first thing we have to do is get off the ladder.  We have to understand when we are being selective, adding meaning, making assumptions and creating new realities.   Here are some thoughts on how we might go about that.

Return to the facts.

When we find ourselves in a new and elevated situation, it is effective if we can develop a habit of returning to the bottom of the ladder to re-examine the facts.  This is a bit of an art as we are always going to be tempted to run up the ladder.  What is it that is actually true vs. what am I making up?  Here’s a simple example.  You walk into a room and a colleague says “what an idiot!”.  You immediately feel a surge of anger because you think your colleague called you an idiot. What’s the facts here?  What are you making up?  Your colleague could have been reading an email or perhaps even talking about themselves. The only fact is they said “what an idiot!”. One of the key tricks here is to be able to accept what it is you don’t know.  Once we are comfortable with the notion that it is okay not to know everything, then we can be more comfortable with asking others for information.

Assume the best about others.

One of the main reasons we rise up the ladder of inference is out of self-preservation.  It’s a very basic part of our humanity that goes back to cave dwelling times.  We use our minds to infer what could go wrong so we can devise a means of avoiding any impending risks. That instinct is still with us, but the same level of risk doesn’t surround us, particularly in an office or social setting.  What if we cultivated a habit of assuming that others have a basic intention of doing their best at all times. Then when we begin to move up the ladder making less complimentary assumptions we catch our self and stop.  Don’t assume.  Ask. By doing so you get to add more real facts to the situation.

Accept imperfections.

I’m not sure which part of this idea is more important.  Everybody is imperfect … it is part of our beauty.  Is it more important to accept imperfections in ourselves or in others?  My guess is the root of this is to accept that I am imperfect.  Once I’m comfortable with that, it is much easier for me to accept imperfection in others.  But it is the acceptance of imperfection in others that simplifies our life, because we can’t change other people.

Decide to act (or not).

One area of imperfection we will likely discover is that we are still sadly lacking in true facts, so a path forward may not be clear.  Each situation will be different, but we will have two basic choice.  Take action or do nothing.  Doing nothing can be difficult when the current situation is less than ideal.  Often the challenge  is knowing what to do because of the lack of facts.  If there is a clear next step, take it.  Where things are more ambiguous that can be a source of anxiety, because doing nothing about an undesirable situation doesn’t feel good.  What would it take to develop the capability of assuming things we can’t control will turn out okay? As a coach once said to me: “what would it take to trust the universe on this one?”

What do you think of this as a new ladder to climb?  First, return to the bottom of the ladder and take a real inventory of the facts.  We then notice our lack of information and ask questions to find out more, basing our questions on the assumed good intentions of others.  We then begin to intentionally create a new perception of the imperfect state of the situation and accept it for what it is.  From there we can decide what actions, if any, might help the situation, or if we should just trust that things will turn out well.

Or perhaps its not a ladder at all … just a set of stepping stones to the other side!


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Ian Munro @

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

5 thoughts on “Keeping Things Simple: 4 Thoughts For Navigating The Every Day Path

  1. Love this post Ian — one of the challenges I see, particularly if I am working from a state of elevated circumstances, is the fact my desire to run up the ladder increases. 🙂 I love how you frame the idea of going back to the bottom to check the facts.

    And this — “basing our questions on the assumed good intentions of others”. — I’ve recently encountered exactly just such a situation where I forgot to base my thinking on the other’s good intentions. Albeit there was cause, had I stopped to embrace this idea first, I would not have felt the same angst moving through the situation. While the outcome would still have been the same (they needed to do something which they eventually did) I could have avoided a bunch of drama had I simply returned to the bottom of the ladder and taken it wrung by wrung without the belief they were trying to be devious.

    Thanks for the brilliance this morning Ian!

  2. Back home after three months away, I found my ‘to-do’ list and my anxiety immediately began to rise. It is interesting that those (‘to-do’) things have been sitting there for 3 months causing me no grief at all … it is just now the meaning I am giving them that is causing the angst.

    Great post!

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