December 2016

Perspective is Everything

Author: Kent Thune

Perspective is everything. That’s what they say. But what is perspective? How can it be everything? And by the way, who are they?

Put simply, perspective is the way you see yourself, other people, the world, and what happens to you. It’s the foundation of your outlook on life—the source of your attitude—and thus the greatest deciding factor of your general well-being at any given moment in time. That’s how it can be everything.

“They” are the collective representation of conventional wisdom, which does not always produce sage advice. But in this particular case on perspective, the conventional “they” do speak the truth. Think of a similar saying from conventional wisdom that helps teach the lesson of perspective: “Life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we respond.” Perhaps the response to Hurricane Matthew around the Lowcountry provides a backdrop on the power of perspective here.

Also consider that stress is a leading, controllable health risk that can be a contributing factor in many mental and physical illnesses including depression, heart disease and even cancer. So if you have a poor perspective, not only will you guarantee a less-than-happy life for yourself, but you’ll also likely have a shorter one. So when perspective is everything, it is imperative that you make everything the best it can be.

By now you may be wondering exactly how it is possible to make everything better with perspective. To begin, let’s study another saying from conventional wisdom: “Perception is reality.” Unfortunately, most people miss the best interpretation of the phrase.

Perception vs. perspective
Perception refers to the function of your senses (i.e. sight, sound, touch, smell and taste), or what we may call sensory perception. Most people tend to think of perception as the way we feel about what we see with our sensory perception. But feelings can be clouded by personal experience and by long-term conditioning from external sources. Therefore, saying that perception is reality is like saying opinion is reality, which is not a true statement.

For example, you can see a thing with your eyes. This is perception. But the way you see it—the meaning attached to it and the feelings arising from that meaning—is not a perception; it is a perspective. In different words, sensory perception is real and truthful, but it is nearly impossible for any human being to see, hear, touch, smell, or taste a thing without an experience or feeling—an opinion—attached to it. For this reason, perception and perspective are not always in alignment with each other.

To begin forming and maintaining healthy perspectives, you must understand that perception and perspective do not share the same meaning. But it is your perspective that will impact your life the most. Like Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters; it’s what you see.”

When you see a mountain the sensory perception or what you see with your eyes can’t be changed. You can’t “unsee” the mountain. But what you think or feel after seeing the mountain can be dependent on a wide variety of factors, such as anything occurring in the present moment or experiences from the past.

Your perspective of the mountain can be within your control. Perception tells you that there is a mountain ahead; perspective may see an impossible climb, but it may also see a rewarding goal that can be reached by taking one step at a time. Or it may just see a thing of beauty that does not need to be climbed to be fully appreciated. Perception sees the mountain; perspective masters it. Perspective is a choice, but perception is not.

For example, the mountain people of Appalachia do not share the same perspective of mountains as the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. To the former, mountains are a part of everyday living—a normal piece of scenery. To the latter, one glimpse of a mountain could quickly evoke anxiety or fear. Neither can easily imagine living in the other’s environment.

So your experience, and thus what you know or do not know, can have significant impact on your perspective. Similarly, you must be careful not to be too confident of your knowledge and, at times, you must be comfortable not knowing, and therefore not judging or fearing.

Put simply, perception does not lie. You have no choice about what you see, but you can choose how you see it. But “choosing” perspective is not easy for everyone, because it requires awareness. In different words, perception is a brain function that cannot be controlled in real time, and perspective is a mind function that is within your control (or at least manageable).

Twentieth century psychotherapist, author, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it best when he said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Given a healthy perspective, the simple things in life—the small pleasures—are easy to obtain. What appears difficult can be easy to endure; a life with few and small worries and wants is one of tranquility and contentment—one of peace—one of true wealth.

A new perspective
The way we see the world can become fixed because of fear, pride, competitiveness, biases, conventional thought, and various ego-centric rationalizations. You can convince yourself that there is no reason to see things another way, and you can become nearly incapable of seeing things in other ways.

For some people a healthy perspective is natural and easy; for others it must be learned (or relearned) until it becomes automatic. The ability to see things with a healthy perspective is to see things clearly with a well-trained mind’s eye, to interpret things well, or to know when to resist the temptation to interpret things at all.
Forming healthy perspectives requires the ability to detach from ego, social conventions, and other potentially misguiding preconceptions that distort reality. And this point bears repeating: Perspective is a choice. To be happy and healthy, you must choose well. Consider this masterful choice of perspective by Alphonse Karr: “Some people are always grumbling because roses have thorns. I am thankful that thorns have roses.”

Also remember that ego clouds perspective. If you can say “I never looked at things that way,” or conversely, “I now realize that I have always looked at things from just one limited perspective,” you will be given wonderfully illuminating and self-correcting tools to form healthy perspectives without ego in the way.

Remain aware of perception, but seek perspectives—seek alternative ways of seeing the world in which you live, both outwardly and inwardly. The alternative views need not be new ideas for you to adopt and follow, but to help train your mind and to learn the skill of forming healthy perspectives.

As philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “Restoration to life is in your power; look at things in another way than you have looked at them until now, for in this consists the restoration to life.” 

Kent Thune teaches entrepreneurship and finance at Hilton Head Island High School. He is also an investment advisor and freelance writer. You can follow his musings on mind, money and mastery of life at TheFinancialPhilosopher.com or on Twitter @ThinkersQuill.

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