An hour ago, I saw on television the excited faces of young Mumbai children and the rest of the cast of the 8 Academy Awards winning movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” They and winning Director Danny Boyle were being interviewed at Hollywood by BBC. “We are on top of the world” exclaimed one of the young boys. The scene shifted to a crowd in Mumbai cheering and jumping as they saw all these on an outdoor TV screen.
Suddenly, the limits of the possible in the minds of many Mumbai slum children have been breached. You CAN become a Hollywood celebrity. You CAN dream greater dreams. You CAN achieve greater things.
Three months ago, the victory of President Barack Hussein Obama triggered a similar breaching of the limits of the possible among African-Americans and among blacks and minority groups all over the world. The color of your skin is NOT a limit to becoming the most powerful person on Planet Earth. Young black children watch on television the Obama girls, Sasha and Malia, in the White House. The concrete reality in front of their eyes is changing the limiting assumptions at the back of their minds.
The limits of the possible are not out there. Those limits are inside our heads. They are self-inflicted (or parent-inflicted or teacher-inflicted) limits. And this is very important: they limit our seeing, thinking and deciding in a manner we are often not conscious about. They imprison us but we don’t know it.
This morning I had coffee with an economist of a development agency. For many years, he had been practicing and advocating that the political PROCESS of economic reform is as important as the technical CONTENT of the economic reform. Some colleagues do not see what he sees, and so they do not agree with him. Others agree with him, but because their expertise is on technical content, they are hesitant and unsure how to proceed. Traditional economists hesitate to touch the political economy, yet they know from experience that success of development projects depend on political, socio-cultural, personal and other non-technical factors. They are more comfortable working within their familiar mental boxes. The traditional economists are men and women of goodwill and great intelligence, but their own unconscious limiting assumptions prevent them from seeing more fully. The result: continuing low development aid effectiveness, many failed projects, and projects that wittingly or unwittingly strengthen the ills in a recipient country’s political economy.
“Presencing,” (see Q15) sensing the emergent (see Practice #10) and innovation (see D14 and D19) (and our other important decision making) can better proceed if we first learn how to manage our self-inflicted mental boxes.