Ontological Arrogance

My husband Mark and I have fundamentally and radically different taste in music.  He listens to a lot of jam bands, like Widespread Panic and the Dead.  I’ve been to a lot of the Widespread Panic shows because many of our friends love the music as well, and the scene is a complete blast.  But when being honest, it’s pretty much the last music on the planet I’d chose to hear if given options.  In fact, I’d rather listen to silence than that type of music.  It’s a source of tension in our marriage because I’ve resorted to snide remarks about it.  (yes, not good, I know).

One day, rightfully so, he had enough of my nasty comments.  And he said to me something like “It’s not that the band sucks or that the music is shit.  Its that YOU don’t like the music – so quit projecting your opinion as fact.”  His comment has stuck with me (and is yet another example of why he’s such an amazing human being), and I began to realize  how often I’ve taken my perspective and generalize it to the rest of the world.  Its more often than I’d like to admit, so I’ve been actively working on rephrasing how I say things to more accurately reflect that something is my opinion rather than a widely-held truth.  It’s true at Techstars as well, we tell mentors to state things as opinions, to share with teams their experiences, rather than stating perspectives as fact.  And we warn teams to beware of the person who states their opinion as fact.

Today, I’m reading Conscious Business and the author put a term to this patten.  He calls it ontological arrogance, and its the belief that your perspective is privileged, that yours is the only true way to interpret a situation.  He goes on to use the example of his daughter, that she says she won’t eat broccoli because its yukky.  But the real truth is that she calls broccoli yukky because she doesn’t like it.

I find this fascinating, and since I’ve discovered there’s a term for it, I’ve noticed how often it happens outside of my own actions.  Nearly daily, if not hourly, someone I interact with does this.

I’m curious as to all the ways ontological arrogance is holding us back, and holding me back.  Off the top of my head, I can tell you it’s probably a huge driver in startups as they seek product/market fit.  A team has a hard time getting out of their own head (hence why customer development methodology has really taken off).  I know it happens in board meetings, I know it happens with investors.  I’d argue that not being able to see other people’s perspectives is a major factor in entrepreneurial and investor success.

So today, I’m making a public commitment to massively reduce my ontological arrogance.  I’ve started by simply rephrasing how I talk In an effort to affect how I think.  Just by saying “my opinion is xxxx” will help (I hope).  But I need your help too.  If you catch me doing it,   highlight it for me.

Maybe we’ll all be a little more successful for it.

4 thoughts on “Ontological Arrogance

  1. My ex-gf would employ a highly effective two-word comeback to make me aware of my ontological arrogance – “To you.”

    A typical scene would play out like this:
    (Couple in the car)
    Me: “Wow, this song sucks.” (While gripping the steering wheel like a stress ball.)
    Her: “To you.” (As she raises the volume and proceeds to dance in her seat.)

    The end.


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