Last week, I picked up Stumbling on Happiness by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert.

Overall I’ve found the book to be quite compelling. Gilbert weaves a narrative through the human experience in an effort to explain why we feel and behave the way we do. Along the way, the text is dotted with Gilbert’s unique wit and humor – I’ve really enjoyed reading it so far.

One of the portions of the book that I’ve found particularly interesting pertains to how to we see, store, and retrieve memories.

Gilbert starts by establishing his argument in biological fact. He states that at the very back of the human eye there is an optic nerve that carries signals from the eye to the brain. Most of the back of the eye is built to absorb light, however, the optic nerve itself can’t absorb any light. Therefore our vision really should have a small dark spot at the center of each eye’s field of sight due to the lack of light absorption into the optic nerve. Of course, we don’t all have dark spots in the center of our vision because our brains fill in the missing spots using information from adjacent areas. The images that our eyes absorb are imperfect and spotty, but our brains take that information and weave together a rich illusion that makes it appear as though we’re looking out into the world through a crystal clear picture window.

Talk about subjectivity – Gilbert claims that there is no objectivity even unto ourselves. People literally see the world differently because what we see is an illusion built by our brains.

To extend this principle, Gilbert talks about memory – and how it is that we’re able to remember what the kitchen looked like in the house we grew up in just as clearly as we remember what we ate for breakfast this morning.

Gilbert posits that our brains do not store HD video of what is going on around us – rather, we only retain the highlights. For instance, from dinner at a new restaurant last month you might remember “tough steak, rude waiter, white tablecloth,” but when you recall the memory your brain takes those highlights and re-assembles a rich scene – filling in the details with your imagination. If you try hard enough you may be able to visualize the pattern on the waiters tie – but there is a chance that you didn’t actually record anything about the waiters tie and your brain is just making it up.

That’s why eyewitnesses so often mis-identify key facts of a crime scene even though they swear they remember. When a witness is looking in their mind’s eye, they may see the brown get-away car pealing out from the bank – however the brownness of the car they see in their memory wasn’t recorded, it was filled in. When the scene actually occurred the car was blue. Similarly, you might swear you left your keys in your coat pocket (and be able to see in your memory your hand putting the keys into your pocket), but then find them missing when you go to retrieve them later – because you actually left them on the kitchen table.

Pretty cool, right?

The reason I find this lesson so interesting is because it really pertains to how you lead a group of people. One of the first principles to being a leader in business is to embrace subjectivity. Everyone sees the world through a different lens. Even you.

To be a truly effective leader you actually have to play two different roles. One role is that of a person who sees the world and forms an opinion. The other role is that of an interpreter who evaluates what has been seen by everyone – with what you saw in your other role as just one input.

The more I think about it, the more it really makes things complicated. The world is not simply “how it is”: it’s how we see it.

Stumbling on Happiness