"I know my own mind well enough to mistrust it.” - Daryl Morey

To begin with, we will take a look at how our minds work. How we evaluate circumstances, make decisions and form opinions. Why we think we are right even when we are wrong. What the difference is between self-consciousness and self-awareness.  Then we will examine how perceptions can be manipulated, for better or for worse, in competitive work environments

How Our Minds Work

From Benjamin Franklin, through Edgar Allen Poe to Jay Z, smart people have realized that you should “Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.”

Markus Aurelius said "Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective not the truth."

All this may sound cliché, but the notion is supported by contemporary neuroscience. For a broader understanding of the supporting science, please see the suggested reading at the end of this section!

The examples below are simple and clearly make the point.

Believe what you hear?
from Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Here is a simple puzzle. Just listen to your intuition! The combined cost of a racket and ball is $1.10. The racket costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

A number came to your mind. The number, of course, is 10: 10¢. The beauty of this easy puzzle is that it evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing, and wrong. If the ball costs 10¢, then the combined cost will be $1.20. Do the arithmetic and you will see!

$0.10 + $1.10 = $1.20; Remember the racket costs $1.00”morethan the ball!

The correct answer is the ball costs 5¢. ($0.05 + $1.05 = $1.10)

Believe what you see?
from Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Have a look at the picture of the three men and answer the question! Is the figure on the right larger than the figure on the left?

Here again, the answer seems obvious: the figure on the right is larger. But if you take a ruler or use your fingers to measure them, you'll discover that the figures are all exactly the same size. Your perception of their relative size is influenced by an illusion. You believe you're looking at a 3-D image with depth and distance. But it's really only a 2-D image on a flat screen. In the 3-D illusion, the figure on the right is both much farther away and much larger than the figure on the left. This clearly demonstrates how our brains tend to substitute what comes fast and easy for what's really there.

How about this?
Found on the Internet

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid! Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer inwaht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pclae. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

The examples above were intentionally selected because most of us tend to jump to the same wrong conclusions. And the point that our brains can mislead us in some cases and help us in others is pretty obvious.

In everyday life, people can see, hear and experience the same thing, but come to completely different conclusions about what it means. That's because we tend to draw conclusions based on information that is currently in our unconscious mind. The unconscious mind never rests, even when we are sleeping. That is why it is a good idea to postpone an important decision until you have had a chance to "sleep on it".
The unconscious is not that dark Freudian place you may have heard about. In healthy people, it is a very active and creative center of thought that can help us to react quickly when necessary or cause us to jump to wrong conclusions as seen in the examples above.

This fast thinking part of the brain is filled with both recent and familiar information. Like the special memory in your PC or tablet or smart phone that remembers the most recent websites you visited or people that you have sent messages to lately or even the words you use a lot when you write. In other words, our unconscious contains information that has been reinforced through repetition. Like kicking a can, typing without looking at the keyboard, or speaking without thinking about the words you choose. Inherently, our unconscious also contains memories of events and encounters that left emotional scars or happy memories. These can influence our perception for life.

This function of the human mind is called "system 1" in Daniel Kahneman's book
 Thinking Fast and Slow. Malcolm Gladwell calls it the "adaptive unconscious" in his book Blink. It's often simply referred to as "what's on your mind". It will be called memory cache" or just "cache" (pronounced "cash") in this project. Since each mind is unique and the information contained in its memory cache is exclusive, the conclusions we draw about what we see and hear will not necessarily be the same as that of a colleague or friend or even a spouse or partner.

We have all experienced situations where a friend or partner has read the same book or saw the same film as we have, but came away with completely different conclusions about the point the director or author was trying to make. After discussing it, you may both change your opinion, or on the other hand, be more convinced than ever about your original conclusion. When trivial things like this happen to people who know and respect each other, it rarely leads to long term resentment. But in toxic work environments, innocent differences of perception can sow the seeds of resentment that lead to perpetual stress.

Self-awareness verses Self-consciousness 

Wilbert Linnemans, founder of Human Sense Consultation, exploits the fact that our self-image is never the same as the image others have of us and vice versa. He explains how this difference in perception creates a potential that can be compared to electrical voltage. Electricity, when properly channeled, can be used to produce useful things like light and heat. But if it gets out of control, it can burn the house down. In competitive workplaces, personality potential can be the catalyst for creating win-win situations like well-functioning teams and interdepartmental collaboration. But in toxic work environments, it can turn a pissing contest into a knife fight.

If you're like most people, you spend a lot of time thinking about yourself. And you are the only living person who sees yourself the way you do. In all likelihood, you wouldn't even recognize the person who occupies the space reserved for you in someone else’s consciousness.

Martha Graham said "What people in the world think of you is really none of your business". I say; Make it your business! Apply what you learn from the perceptions of others to become less self-conscious and more self-aware!

Self-consciousness is being uncomfortably aware of oneself as an object of the observation of others.  Self-Awareness is having a clear perception of your personality, including strengths, weaknesses, insights, values and emotions. It helps you to understand other people, how they perceive you, your attitude and your responses in any given situation.

A practical example of how self-awareness is applied can be found in the column "Conflict and Ego" published in the New York Times on February 6, 2015. In the column, David Brooks made some lucid comments about how he handles painful criticism from readers.

"It’s too psychologically damaging to read these comments as evaluations of my intelligence, morals or professional skill. But if I read them with the (possibly delusional) attitude that these are treasured friends bringing me lovely gifts of perspective, then my eye slides over the insults and I can usually learn something. The key is to get the question of my self-worth out of the way — which is actually possible unless the insulter is really creative."

It's obvious that Brooks understood that the perceptions of others, even if they are hostile and contrary to our own, can be valuable. They provide an opportunity to learn. Of course in order to take advantage of these learning opportunities, a healthy self-awareness and a modicum of humility are necessary.

Self-awareness also includes the understanding that emotion influences our perception as much as the other 5 senses. This concept is highlighted in the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0. Emotional intelligence or, "EQ", is composed of two basic elements: personal competence and social competence. Personal competence is your ability to gauge your emotions and manage your behavior. Social competence is your ability to understand other people’s moods, behavior and motives.

We have often heard and maybe even used the expression "I wasn’t thinking straight." This is often used as an excuse to explain silly mistakes or bad behavior like emotional outbursts that are intended to hurt someone or cause embarrassment . Episodes like this occur when emotions like anger, envy or humiliation take over and we lose our composure.

Whenever you see, hear or read something that would normally trigger a strong emotional reaction, think of it as a wakeup call!  Do not succumb to the kind knee-jerk reactions mentioned above!

Uncontrolled emotional outbursts triggered by what someone does or says, hurt in a number of ways. The perception of those present will be overshadowed by the impression of immature and unprofessional behavior. It will be gossiped about.  The perpetrator will have the reputation of being unfit for leadership or other positions that require polished interpersonal skills.

Theodore Roosevelt said. "If you could kick the person most responsible for your trouble in the pants, you wouldn't be able to sit for a month"

Influencing Perception

If you want people to take you seriously, they have to perceive you as a serious person. And it is your responsibility to make sure that happens. Influencing perception requires conscious effort. A basic understanding of how the subconscious mind works is useful. Well practiced interpersonal skills coupled with a healthy self-awareness are practical. But a pragmatic mindset is essential. What does this mean?

W.C. Fields said "You can fool some of the people some of the time -- and that's enough to make a decent living". It is easy to fool some of the people by updating their memory cache with information that will lead them to see things the way you want them to. This is why the use smoke & mirrors in the work place is so effective. Influencing the perception of others can be as innocent as blowing your own horn. In fact, "If you don't blow your own horn, someone else will use it as a spittoon." as the One Minute Manager admonished. You may have been taught that “blowing your own horn” is bad. That showoffs and impostors have to behave that way because they have nothing of any real value to offer and that the contributions of honest hard working people speak for themselves. This may be a legitimate perspective in a perfect world. But not in a toxic work environment!

Outstanding performance draws attention. And every individual who pays attention will have a different perspective. The boss may be happy because she feels like she made a good decision when she hired you, which will make her look good to her boss. An honest colleague may sincerely congratulate you but at the same time be concerned because the light that’s shining on you isn’t shining on her. An ambitious rival may feel threatened and try to influence the perceptions of others to benefit herself, at your expense.  This scenario is not far-fetched.  The higher you rise in an organization, the more intense the completion becomes.

It is your responsibility to be aware of the perceptions, motives and emotions of the people around you! It’s your responsibility to realize that honest hard work has to be underpinned by a savvy understanding of how to project and protect the image you want others to have of you

Occasions where smoke and mirrors are employed to mislead and deceive are omnipresent. For example, loudly taking credit for someone else's success, or cleverly shifting the blame for something that went wrong. You will see this at meetings, hear it on conference calls or read it in emails. If you believe that this kind of behavior is so obvious that everyone will see through it and nobody will take it seriously, you may be right. But the desired result of the one blowing the smoke will still be achieved. The impression will be planted in the listener's cache! The skillful manipulator knows that relentless repetition of a self -serving message, even in the face of doubt, will cultivate the perception to the point where it will fool some of the people. And that's enough to make a decent living. Like the poet said, "If you throw enough shit against the wall some of it will stick."

Please do not misunderstand! This is not a battle cry to "Sally forth and deceive!" It’s an admonition to be astute, and learn to deal with “smoke and mirrors” without getting hurt.


Realizing that our perceptions are biased by influences lurking in our memory cache, we might start to understand what Daryl Morey meant about not being able to trust his own mind. We should always remember that differing perspectives, no matter how eloquently or aggressively stated, present learning opportunities. For example learning to develop the skill to turn emotional bombshells that are triggered by what someone else says or does, into wake up calls, cues to take a moment to compose ourselves before we react. This level of composure doesn’t come easy to everyone. With some of us, it’s a skill that has to be consciously developed. But in the world of Smoke and Mirrors, the ability to keep your composure in difficult situations is by far the most potent skill you can have in your portfolio.

As this theme is developed from different angles throughout the project, you will learn how to make this awareness part of your psyche; to store it in your memory cache. You do this the same way you did it with every skill you have ever acquired: practice; practice; practice. It has to start consciously, with repeated cognitive effort, like learning to strike a ball with a golf club or automatically smiling when your eyes meet someone else's. As studies of first responders, pilots and astronauts have shown. In times of critical stress, conscious analysis of a situation is replaced by quick subconscious processing as these highly trained professionals draw on the skills they have perfected through years of training. The more you practice, the less cognitive effort is necessary and the skill gets stored bit-by-bit, byte-by-byte until it is "cached". Then you own it, for as long as you continue to use it regularly.

Here are a few points to take with you:

           1.      Embrace the fact that others see themselves, you, and the world differently!

           2.      Make it a habit not to judge, but to learn from the perceptions of others!

            3.      Don’t take yourself too seriously!

Suggested Reading

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman;

The United States of You, Kathrin Köster;

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell;

Emotional Intelligence 2.0, by Travis Bradberry, Jean Greaves +1;

Go to  Ethics



"through the smoke, a practical education" © Bill O'Connell 2013