Faulty Assumptions

by Paul W. Schenk, Psy.D.  

[Biodata and picture of contributor will be found by clicking here]


One Friday night when I was in the waiting area of our local hospital’s emergency room, an ambulance arrived. The crew wheeled in a stretcher carrying a young teenage driver who was looking quite pale. As the ER physician came out to meet them, the crew explained the teen had been in a bad car accident and had lost considerable blood. The ER physician gave the boy a quick once over and said, “He needs to get into surgery. Immediately. But I can’t operate on him, he’s my son!”


Here's a brain teaser.  The physician was telling the truth. Who was the physician?


I like to use this story to teach my clients about the power of the assumptions we make.  Why? I frequently find that people unwittingly block themselves from succeeding at their goals and dreams because of logical, but faulty, assumptions. If you’re like most people, you’re probably unwittingly thwarting yourself from succeeding at some of your goals too. Later I’ll be dealing with four major types of faulty assumptions and a simple exercise you can use to identify them – and then get rid of them. With these illusory obstacles out of the way, you’ll find it easier to achieve the goals you set for yourself.


Wouldn’t it be obvious if you’re falling into the "assumption trap"? No. Not when they’re your own faulty assumptions. It’s much easier to spot other people's. Ever watch someone get frustrated trying to push a door open that you know needs to be pulled? All it takes is one inaccurate belief to stop the person from getting through the doorway. Once the error is realized, the person can open the door easily. Assumptions are always based on our best logic. In turn, that logic is a combination of personal experience and the information available.  Faulty logic inherently produces incorrect assumptions.  At times, incorrect assumptions can have serious consequences. Even a single faulty assumption can turn an opportunity into an unsolvable dilemma.


Here’s one more brain teaser for you to help you understand how easy it is to make an assumption that is logical but wrong. Connect the 9 circles in the box below  with four straight, continuous lines.  Do not lift your pencil off the page once you begin drawing.  (For the answers to both puzzles click here.)   




Time, talent, money, and energy

There are four kinds of faulty assumptions that I find regularly block people from succeeding at their goals.  These include assumptions about time, talent, money and energy.  Let’s take a look at some of the ways that faulty assumptions about these four issues may show up in your life.  Then I’ll deal with what you can do to identify and get rid of them.


There are some common core qualities that characterize such assumptions.  They tend to be vague or generalized in some way.  They may be based on an implicit belief that “other people can, but I can’t.” They typically involve a belief that something else must change first, something that is beyond the person’s control. [Add more of these core characteristics after I write the examples.]


Assumptions about time:

“I don’t have enough time.” As a senior in college I looked forward to the illusion of having an abundance of free time once I graduated.  Without the demands of nighttime and weekend studying, I would have lots of time on my hands.  I don’t remember exactly when that belief crashed in flames, but it happened long before the next New Year’s Eve.  I replaced it with the belief that when I retired I would finally have more free time.  My 90-year-old father, who retired at 87, has long since helped me dispel that myth.  When we talk, he sometimes still muses about how he had too little time that week to work on his hobby. With concerted practice, I’m continuing to get better at finding short but satisfying windows of opportunity for my own hobby of model railroading. Success became much easier when I stopped looking for big blocks of time and noticed what I could do with even fifteen minutes. 


The “80 – 20” rule refers to the phenomenon that 80 percent of the work gets done in 20 percent of the time; the remaining 20 percent takes 80 percent of the time.  That means that in a 40 hour work week, most of the work is done in 8 hours!  You can see how transforming just one hour of time pays big benefits.  Let me offer two examples.  When I replaced some of my office furniture a few years ago, I bought a desk with file drawers.  Previously, my clients’ charts were stored six feet away in a file cabinet.  Now I keep the charts within reach.  As a result, paper gets filed immediately instead of going into the ubiquitous “to be filed” stack. That one change has eliminated countless hours of thumbing through the stack looking for a particular piece of information. Though I took a typing course in 8th grade, my speed has never been terrific.  With the advent of dictation software, I now dictate at something approaching 90 wpm. Just these two changes went a long way towards creating the time that I now use for writing.


Assumptions about talent:

“I’m not smart enough to learn how to do that.”  “I’m not a creative person like she is.”  The most common form of faulty assumptions about talent centres on personal insufficiency.  Notice some of your friends’ talents that you admire.  Have you been assuming that their talent was genetic, and somehow emerged fully developed like Zeus from his mother’s womb?  Most people rarely see the hundreds (or thousands) of hours their friend has spent nurturing the development of that talent over a period of years. Much of what is labeled as talent is primarily the application of persistence. A lot more seems to be accomplished when the focus is on the enjoyment of being engaged in the activity rather than on the gap between the current level of ability and the desired final goal. When I run into assumptions about insufficient talent, I find it helpful to play with the question, “What would I do next if I did have the talent?” This came in handy when I began to contemplate whether I had the talent to write, and publish, a book. A colleague suggested I would have more credibility with publishers if I had already published several articles. Further, she noted, an article involves a much shorter time commitment than an entire book. It proved to be good advice. Since I began setting aside time for writing in 1998, I’ve had 18 articles published. A number of those became the basis for one book that I published last year, Great Ways to Sabotage a Good Conversation. A second book is now in search of a publisher.


Assumptions about money:

“I can’t afford it.”  “It would cost too much.”  The common core of these assumptions involves a belief that there is only one solution that must take a particular form.  A variation of this occurs in the movie A Beautiful Mind.  One day while teaching mathematics at Princeton, Professor Nash closes the windows because of nearby construction noise.  With no air conditioning, the students begin to complain, to no avail.  Then an attractive co-ed opens the window, leans out, and politely asks the men working below if they could work somewhere else for the next hour.  When they willingly oblige, Professor Nash pauses for a moment before commenting, “Multivariate problems have multiple solutions.”  Using a mathematician’s logic, he realizes that he had assumed the problem had only one solution.  His student’s action had quietly demonstrated the flaw in his thinking.


It is easy to make a faulty assumption about a goal if the solution requires a specific amount of cash. Several years ago, the 13 year old daughter of a friend of mine told her mother she wanted to attend a private boarding school.  As a single mother, the woman’s income could not stretch to cover the school’s expenses.  Knowing how resourceful her daughter was, she invited her to find an alternate solution.  The girl drafted a detailed letter to the school’s headmaster in which she explained her circumstances, her credentials, and her reasons for wanting to attend the school.  She was awarded a full scholarship.


Assumptions about energy:

In our society, a sense of fatigue is typically at the core of assumptions about insufficient energy.  “I’m just too tired by the time I get the children into bed.”  One contributing factor often involves an implicit belief that there is no way to reduce the energy required for other tasks. I find that the fatigue is often iatrogenic, that is induced by the treatment being received: Because there is too little time set aside for leisure pursuits, the person begins to burn out and lose energy for the required tasks. Setting aside even small amounts of time for personal pursuits serves to re-energize. It is not unlike turning off a cell phone for awhile and plugging it into the recharger.


The Threshold of Believability:

Here is a simple exercise to help you identify whether you are holding faulty assumptions about one of your own dreams or goals.  If you are, the exercise can quickly help you identify and release them.  To demonstrate how it works, I’ll apply it to a problem my son, Matt, faced when he was nine.  He was jealous that his older brother made money mowing lawns for some of the neighbours.  He also wanted a way to earn money, but knew that he was too young to use the lawnmower himself.  Identify something you want which you believe cannot happen now.  Ask yourself if you believe that what you want could happen 30 years from now.  Matt had no doubt that 30 years hence he would have a job with a good income.  It is critical that you begin with a time frame far enough in the future that your answer is an unhesitating, “Yes.”  If there is any doubt or hesitation, select a time period even farther out in the future.  Once you get a convincing, “Yes,” then begin working backwards in five year intervals. Matt continued to have no doubt at five year declining intervals until we reached a time five years hence. At that point he stopped being sure of the answer. Your own doubt may emerge in any of several ways. “I hope so.”  “Probably.”  “I would like to think so.”  The only acceptable answer before moving to the next time period is a convincing, “Yes.”  Anything else defines doubt or uncertainty.


Once you cross that threshold yourself, examine the interval between the last point where you answered “Yes” and the point in the future where you begin to have doubts.  For Matt, it happened between six and seven years in the future.  Looking seven years ahead, his answer was a clear, “Yes.”  Looking six years ahead, he wasn’t sure. Notice what assumption emerges for you when you identify this first “threshold of believability.” Matt had assumed that he could not get a real job until he was 16.  I asked him to notice if that assumption was, in fact, true.  He quickly identified a few things some teenagers do to earn money before they reach 16, such as babysitting, pet sitting, and mowing lawns like his older brother.  Carefully question any assumptions you identify to be sure they are valid in your particular case.  If you have trouble recognizing the assumption, remember that it can be very helpful to do this exercise with your partner or a good friend whose perspective may shed important light on your assumptions.  


With that faulty assumption identified and eliminated, return to the process of slowly working back one or two years at a time towards the present until you again encounter some doubt about succeeding at your goal within that time frame. Then repeat the step of noticing the assumption that  triggered the doubt. For Matt, the next threshold occurred between four and five years away. This was based on the fact that his older brother began mowing lawns when he was 14, and Matt doubted whether he would be allowed to do that when he was only 13. Eliminating this doubt meant expanding his range of possibilities to include other things that children 13 and younger can do to earn money. To test the waters, I told him about how I used to bake cookies and sell them to neighbours when I was about his age. I paid my mother for the ingredients and cleared 50 cents for my efforts. (Good money for a half hour’s work in 1957!)  He wasn’t interested in baking cookies, but his eyes lit up when he thought about our bread maker. He had his answer. By dinner that night he and I had put together a one page flyer offering nearly a dozen different varieties of home made bread. The next day we calculated the cost of the ingredients at our local supermarket and then revised some of the prices. By the weekend he had his first order. While his interest lasted, he and I had found another way to spend fun time together (since I supervised all the mixing), and he enjoyed being a successful entrepreneur (even too successful some weeks!)


If you get stuck on a particular assumption, experiment with these questions:


What if that assumption happens to be wrong? What would I do next about my goal?


Who might I talk with to learn if there is something faulty about that assumption?


Do any other obstacles emerge at this particular time interval?


Has there ever been an exception to this obstacle (such as a dollar amount or an age requirement?)


There will certainly be times when you are unable to find a flaw in your logic or assumptions.  In such cases, I invite you to experiment with pursuing a variation of the original goal.  One of my long-standing dreams has been to travel to outer space.  Aside from my age and the ease with which I can develop motion sickness, there are a number of very good reasons why this dream would seem impossible to achieve.  Then, for my 41st birthday, my wife sent me to NASA’s Adult Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama where I spent a long weekend sampling the daily routine of an astronaut. I haven’t made it all the way to outer space, yet, but I have some wonderful memories of getting part way there!  


horizontal rule


ER solution: The physician is the boy’s mother. People who have trouble finding the solution don’t realize that they have made a faulty assumption that all physicians are men.  Once this assumption is made, there is no solution to the puzzle.  Once the faulty assumption is identified, most people instantly recognize the solution.


9 dot solution: Hint: Most people think that the solution has to lie inside the boundary defined by the four corner dots.  Let go of this faulty assumption and let yourself think outside the “box.”