Challenge Your Assumptions

Your assumptions can limit the actions you take, the possibilities you explore, and the relationships you build. Learn how to find more opportunity – and success -- by challenging them to your advantage.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #233

Assumptions are at the root of how we think. The right assumptions can lead to happiness, money, power, love, and joy. The wrong assumptions can turn even the most talented people into quivering, resentful piles of jelly as they find themselves unable to make things work, no matter how much they try.

Assumptions are what we believe about the world…somewhat intangible things we more often than not don’t question. That’s a mistake. Because we don’t question them, if they’re wrong, we make decisions we may regret. Or, we decide between the wrong alternatives. Or, we decide using the wrong logic.

Would it surprise you to learn that some of your assumptions are always wrong?

Since no one but me is right all the time (ha!), some of your assumptions are, in fact, always wrong. Today, I’d like to challenge you to find and question some of your assumptions -- especially the ones you’ve made for years. It’s hard, I know. But it’s only if you’re willing to look at your world from a new perspective that you can often reach your goals in ways that are faster and easier than what you’re doing now.

Challenge Your Assumptions

Choose a topic that stresses you out, where challenging your assumptions might send you in creative new directions. Maybe a topic like “How do we make our new Web-enabled tissue paper a huge success?” “Am I in the right major?” “How did my teenagers turn out to be such monsters?”

Now grab your favorite memo pad, paper or electronic, and write down your thoughts on the topic. “We have to have a huge ad campaign to promote our tissue paper. We need to invite celebrities to our product launch. If only we could get it in the hands of influencer Andrea Roberti, it will be a huge success.”

When you’ve filled as much of a page as you can, stop and go back and find the assumptions. An assumption is anything you don’t have actual proof for, an interpretation you’ve made of someone else’s motivations, or something implied by something you wrote. Here are some of the assumptions:

  • Advertising is how you launch a new product.

  • Celebrities at a launch party will influence customer spending.

  • Influencers are the way to spread the word about a new product.

  • Andrea Roberti is an influencer.

When I do this, I actually write the assumptions down on a separate piece of paper. Each one of those assumptions is probably subject to debate and may, in fact, be wrong. OK, so maybe I’m not right ALL the time. But by writing down my thinking, I can go back and evaluate it in a different frame of mind, which lets me see the assumptions more clearly.

Check Your Intentions at The Door

Some assumptions are about other people’s motives. I don’t know why, but humans seem hardwired to assume the worst possible motives when they don’t like what someone else is doing.

Here’s an example. I’ve been involved in curriculum redesign efforts at colleges on two, separate occasions. Both times, students protested, saying “They’re just trying to destroy the value of the school’s brand.” They assumed they knew our intentions, and our intentions were destructive.

If some of your assumptions are about other people’s motivations, examine them closely. Would a school administration and faculty knowingly try to destroy the value of the school’s brand? Really? Why in the world would they do that? Their status, community, and consulting fees depend on the school’s brand. The students’ assumptions were way off base.

Intention Assumptions Become Self-Fulfilling

Oddly, assumptions about intention are often self-fulfilling. If you enter a negotiation assuming the other person has your best interest at heart, you’ll act one way. You’ll treat them with respect and consideration. You might even look out for their interests, and they will respond in kind.

When you assume the other person is an evil monster out for blood, you’ll act another way. You’ll go on the attack, concerned mainly with defense and battle. They’ll see you as coming on like an Oreo-ice-cream-cake-crazed zombie, and this person will retrench and put up defenses. Yes, sometimes assumptions about bad motives are true, but it’s worth giving your opposition the benefit of the doubt, as you risk creating the very situation you want to avoid.

Make Sure Your Time Assumptions are Correct

Do you make assumptions about how long things will take? If you’re like me, you probably vastly underestimate. I’ve been running Do-It Days for years, where we do hourly check-ins. I’ve done hundreds of them and my assumptions about how long things take are still screwy. If you are assuming someone (even you) will have something done by a certain date, it’s worth revisiting that assumption. They may be late, and it’s not that they’re an evil person hellbent on ripping your entrails out of your body and bathing in your blood, it may have just been a bad estimation to begin with.

Test Your Cause/Effect Assumptions

Some of the most insidious assumptions are about cause and effect. Although all of us feel extremely confident that we understand cause and effect, almost none of us does. That’s why science was such a great invention. Before science, we had lots of explanations of cause and effect that made us feel good, but didn’t actually work. Then we invented science and finally had a way to tell which cause/effect combinations really worked. OK, so that’s dramatically oversimplified but you get the idea!

In ancient times, suffering was relieved by releasing noxious humors in the body through bleeding. Patients would often bleed to death. Once dead, they no longer suffered. Then we discovered science and, eventually, medicine. Now we give those who are suffering aspirin and the pain stops. Trust me, it’s an improvement.

When you find you’re assuming some action will, without a double, lead to a specific result, double-check that. Think it through. If you assume celebrity-studded launch parties will increase product sales, challenge that assumption before you pay Lady Gaga $1,000,000 to sing Bad Romance for your new dating service launch party. It could be that a good DJ and open bar will work just as well.

Your assumptions can limit the actions you take, the possibilities you explore, and the relationships you build. Double-check your assumptions about intention, cause/effect, and time by putting your thoughts on paper and then reviewing them. “I don’t need to do that. My assumptions are right,” I hear you think. That’s an assumption. Review it. Now.

I’m Stever Robbins. I help people be more effective, focused, and successful by finding and challenging the assumptions that get in their way and lead them off course. If you want to know more, visit http://www.SteverRobbins.com.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.