Before you judge, seek to understand

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Have you ever looked at something and thought, “That’s crazy!”?

Maybe someone paid exorbitant amounts of money to buy a jacket when you could have gotten something similar for a fraction of the price. Or a company launched a product that seemed so strange, so unlike anything you had seen before, that you wondered what they were thinking. To you, it seemed illogical, maybe even stupid.


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But to them, it made perfect sense.

If this sounds familiar, imagine how people felt when they first heard about cheeseburgers. What kind of person would invent such a thing?

It’s somewhat debatable as to who first decided to stuff a piece of cheese between a burger bun and a beef patty, but the credit usually goes to Lionel Sternberger. At age 16, he was working as a fry cook at his father’s sandwich shop, “The Rite Spot”, in Pasadena, California. One day in 1926, he decided to experiment by dropping a slab of cheese on a hamburger.

To most people nowadays, hot melted cheese on a burger sounds delicious. Luxurious, even. But back then, it was met with skepticism.

“Crazy”, “bizarre”, and “typical of California” were some of the words used to describe this new phenomenon. To the rest of the country, cheese in burgers sounded as odd as, say, burgers made with turkey, pork, or nuts (all of which are things now).

A writer for the New York Times who dared try the “cheeseburger” made the following remark: “At first, the combination of beef with cheese and tomatoes, which are sometimes used, may seem bizarre. If you reflect a bit, you’ll understand that combination is sound gastronomically.”

Eventually, others began to agree with this statement. Once fast-food chains such as McDonald’s picked it up, the cheeseburger hit the mainstream market.

Passing Judgment is Easy and Satisfying

If someone can pass judgment on stuffing a burger with cheese, imagine the judgment that comes with making bigger, potentially life-altering decisions. Judging others is easy. It makes you feel good. It provides a sense of satisfaction.

When you judge someone, you’re placing yourself at the top of a pedestal, looking down on this person or that person for their actions. In your mind, what that other person is doing makes no sense. In comparison, you’re the smart, logical one. What easier way is there to boost your self-confidence?

It’s understandable why we don’t see things from others’ perspectives. We spend our whole lives living in our own situations, seeing things through our own eyes, and perceiving everything based on our past experiences. Our own perspectives are the default.

But when you try to see through someone else’s perspective, you’re taking yourself out of the equation. You’re forced to think about the other person’s life, their circumstances, and the experiences that shaped who they are. You have to picture why they might think or feel a certain way, based on who they are and what they’ve done.

It’s hard. It’s really hard. As a result, we choose simply to keep living from our own viewpoints. So when you see someone do something that seems crazy, it’s easy to dismiss. But upon further thought, it might just make sense.

For instance, the eccentric Timothy Dexter sent warming pans (used to heat bedsheets in the winter) to sell in the West Indies, a tropic region full of sun, beaches, and palm trees. People laughed…until his captain turned a profit by selling them as ladles for the local molasses industry.

Even if someone’s behavior seems illogical at first, there is usually a valid reason behind it.

What It Means to Be Smart (It Isn’t What You Think)

When we think of someone who is smart, we normally imagine someone who is right about things. A smart person is knowledgeable and has the answers.

If you think back to your school days, our perception of a smart person aligns with this description. Students with high grades are seen as smart. In order to get those high grades, they had to get most answers correct on their tests and exams.

But if you were to ask Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder, on what defines an intelligent person, you would get a different answer. For Bezos, a smart person isn’t simply someone who gets it right. Instead, he identifies a smart person by whether or not they can admit to being wrong and changing their opinion.

From his observations, intelligent people are constantly revising their understanding of something by looking at it from a different perspective. They seek to challenge their current way of thinking by absorbing new ideas, information, and contradictory viewpoints. They’re open to having their minds changed.

According to Stanford professor Bob Sutton, the people at Palo Alto’s Institute for the Future describe intelligent people as having “strong opinions, which are weakly held”. As was explained to him, weak opinions are problematic because people don’t support them with strong arguments, or they don’t bother putting these opinions to the test.

Opinions that are too strongly held, on the other hand, cause people to become blind to differing and contradictory arguments. When people cling onto their own ideas too tightly, they start skewing everything they see towards their own opinions, otherwise known as confirmation bias.

Being smart is not about always being right. It’s about being willing to change your perspective and admit you were wrong. It’s about seeing the same situation from a different angle. That’s how you learn and grow.

How to Stay Flexible in Your Strong Opinions

There’s probably at least one thing in your life that you believe very strongly about. You have a number of reasons supporting your stance, and to think otherwise would be unfathomable. That is, until you meet someone who holds the opposite opinion.

When someone does or says something that completely goes against what you believe in, it can come as a shock. Naturally, your first instinct is to put up a shield and buffer yourself from them. You won’t listen to their arguments or try to understand what they’re doing.

If this sounds like you (and we’ve all been there), then consider trying to see from the other person’s perspective. Chances are, they have some very good reasons lined up too.

Understanding what someone else does or says, even if it’s contradictory to your own worldview, is incredibly beneficial. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Understanding others is good for interpersonal relationships. Sometimes, life forces us to interact with people who think and act differently. They might come from different walks of life or have different experiences. Seeing from someone’s point of view creates empathy, which builds trust and communication.

2. Understanding others is good for business. In order to create products or services that cater to what people want, you have to see from their perspective. Just like how fast-food chains saw how cheeseburgers were feasible enough to put on their menus, taking the effort to make sense of people’s behavior makes it easier to give them what they want.

3. Understanding others provides greater peace of mind. It feels irritating when you can’t understand why someone approaches an issue so differently from yourself. You’ve been stuck in your own habits and behaviors for so long, seeing someone do something else can make you feel uncomfortable. But when you open up your frame of mind, it becomes easier to accept why someone makes certain choices, even if you wouldn’t make them personally.

So the next time you see someone doing something that seems illogical or confusing, pause for a second. Before you arrive at any conclusions, first ask yourself, “Why?

What is one reason why someone would do something? What are some causes that would trigger such a reaction? Imagine what the person’s life is like and their circumstances. What are their greatest needs and wants? What motivates the person?

For instance, someone I knew spent hours every week doing free consulting work for small and medium-sized companies outside of school. At first thought, it doesn’t make sense. Why would someone put in so much time and energy for free, especially if the other side was profiting from all this effort? Yet there was a good reason for it. She put the experience on her resume and used it to catapult herself into a paid position at another company after graduation.

When I started picturing things from someone else’s perspective, I found it easier to understand why people acted in certain ways.

Seeing Through Someone Else’s Eyes Provides You with Insight

As time passes, I’ve found that I have been less quick to judge. I go through similar situations, hear about other people’s experiences, and learn that dealing with problems isn’t so simple when situations aren’t black and white.

It’s so easy to point fingers at someone and criticize. We see a problem at surface level and state the obvious, making suggestions as if the person had never considered them. In the process, we feel a sense of superiority that we were able to come to a solution so quickly.

Making the effort to understand someone is hard. It takes a lot of energy, which is why we usually don’t bother. But when you actually do experience another person’s viewpoint, you gain a completely new world of insight.

This article first appeared on Jump Start Your Life.