A recent social media post showed a six-second video of two people cycling across a metal grate on a dirt road. The bars on the grate were just wider than their bike tyres, and ran in the same direction as the road.
Person 1 straddled his bike, feet on the ground, guiding his bike along the bars carefully to avoid placing the wheels in the gaps. Person 2 remained on his bike, cycling diagonally across the bars, maintaining his speed and reducing the danger of his wheels slipping between the bars.
The message accompanying the video was: “Some people will always find a problem. Ignore them and do your thing”.
For me, this post highlighted a fascinating quirk of being human: in a life where we use both facts and opinions, we often fall into the trap of confusing the two, creating our own truths for how see ourselves and others in everyday life.
What is the difference between facts and opinions?
We obtain facts from the world. We create our world from opinions.
If we can evaluate a statement as true when measured against an agreed standard, the statement is a fact. For example, “I am 165 cm tall” is a fact if we can take a measuring tape and confirm the speaker is 165 cm tall. “I am tall” is an opinion because “tall” is not measurable.
We base facts on the properties of the person, object, or situation being observed. We base opinions on how the speaker of the opinion is interpreting the world. Each of us is seeing the world in our own way. Our opinions lie within us as the speaker and are not right or wrong.
Opinions and facts are different. So what?
In the social media example provided, people commented with responses such as:
- Be a winner like Person 2. Don’t let yourself be a loser like Person 1
- Person 2 shows great leadership and deserves to be a leader
There were many other similar comments, all praising Person 2 as a hero and labelling Person 1 as a loser.
What happened here?
Opinions were formed about two people in a six-second video. These opinions became truths. The “truths” were used to create a reality about the two individuals, their approach to the world, and their likely contributions and achievements. This reality included explanations for how the owners of the opinions existed in the world and also for how those people expected others to exist in the world.
The “truths” created by people watching this video placed boundaries on what was possible for Person 1, Person 2, the people watching the video and others in the world.
How can opinions create boundaries for what is possible?
When we see statements as “true”, we create and remove boundaries for what is possible. I can’t be both 165 cm tall and 185 cm tall. If one is possible, the other is not.
Since an opinion is not a fact, it won’t automatically create a factual boundary in the way the statement “I am 165 cm tall” creates a factual boundary. Instead, opinions create boundaries according to the level of authority we give them. If we don’t give authority to our opinions, they don’t create boundaries. If we give any level of authority to our opinions, we create boundaries.
Using our opinions responsibly means choosing the level of authority we are willing to give them.
People labelled Person 1 a loser. Used as a truth, this statement removed the possibility of people seeing Person 1 as a scientific genius, or a worthwhile contributor to a team. He could not be a genius, an innovator or a contributor, because he was seen as a loser.
The social media post labelled Person 2 as a hero. He was seen as an innovative thinker, destined for leadership. Perhaps he was cycling fast to leave a crime scene. Perhaps he wasn’t reliable. Regardless, the social media post’s “truth” created a reality where Person 2 was inspirational, innovative and a leader.
Is having an opinion wrong?
Opinions play an essential role in helping us to make sense of the world. We can’t not have opinions, because they guide our participation in life. Examples of this include:
- It is a fact all children in Australia must go to school. Yet, this fact did not help us decide which school our children should attend. Our opinion that the values of the school aligned with our family values led to our choice of school.
- It is a fact being an employee in Australia includes an amount of holiday leave each year. This fact is not what led to us choosing our last holiday destination. Our family’s opinion of the destinations we considered led to our choice.
Opinions are necessary. We can’t do without them. However, when we don’t pay attention our opinions and how we are using them, we reduce our ability to choose the reality we are creating.
How can we use our opinions to serve us?
An opinion is serving us if we are using it to create a reality that is useful for ourselves and our interactions with others.
If we want to have constructive interactions with others, we must be aware of our opinions and understand how they are serving us.
An opinion that Person 1 is inferior because of how he crossed a metal grate may serve us in the moment by helping us to feel superior about how we approach life. Will the opinion still serve us if we are working with the person in a team to achieve a common outcome? Maybe, maybe not.
An opinion doesn’t have to be positive to be useful. I have worked with people I would never choose to work with again because I don’t think our ethics and values are aligned. This opinion serves me by showing me what I want and don’t want from my work life. I have used the opinion to set limits for the behaviours I am prepared to accept. However, the opinion is helpful because of how I have chosen to use it. The opinion may not be helpful if I used it to judge these people in the presence of others, or if I allowed my interactions with these people to be centred in resentment.
To understand whether our opinions are useful, we must be aware of what we are creating. The opinion that Person 1 always seeks problems may seem harmless enough. However:
- How harmless is the opinion when it clouds our interpretation of everything Person 1 says and does?
- If we create a reality where others think Person 1 is a loser, is the opinion useful?
- Do we want to create a reality where people Person 1 being a leader is not possible?
- Do we want to create a reality where Person 1 is not considered a useful contributor, or an innovator?
If we don’t understand the boundaries our opinions are creating, how do we know if the boundaries and opinions are serving us?
Think about a personal or work situation where you are interacting with others.
- What are your opinions of the people involved?
- What authority are you giving to these opinions?
- What realities are those opinions creating?
- How are your opinions and the realities they create helping you?