Challenge your assumptions


So I finish this meeting ahead of time and decide to have an early but quick lunch with my colleague.

A quick lunch means sushi and stop at a Japanese outlet.

Those of you who go to sushi bars know that the staff stand in the middle of a revolving serving tray while the customers pick the various dishes that glide past.

So, of course conversation tends to come rather naturally with your hosts and my colleague asks: “You must be worried about things back home?”

Our hosts frown as if to say what do you mean? My colleague clarifies: “You know the tsunami . . .”

Our hosts smile apologetically and announce they are not Japanese but are from China! Straight away my prejudice, no that is a strong word . . . my stereotyping is exposed.

Since sushi is a Japanese speciality, is it any less sushi because it is made by a Chinese person?

I mean, everyone knows pasta is Italian but it is so universal that you do not need to go out to a restaurant to have it but sushi! Am I really stereotyped?

I would like to say some of my best friends are Chinese but the best I can come up with is when Arabian Nights on Second Street Extension, at the time, was taken over by a black couple, I did not stop going there and of course, I knew that Sopranos in Avondale was not owned by Italians so there, leave me alone! I mean, I know many people who assume the Scots and the Irish are English and I enjoy the ensuing drama and swearing that goes on! That’s assumptions for you, isn’t it?

Let’s turn the tables then, now that you’ve had a chuckle at my expense. What are your assumptions?

A common assumption in the pub is that Manchester United will be the next most successful English club at the end of the season. Pah! They forget Liverpool’s five Champions League trophies but to less excitable topics . . .

In the harmless sushi example, the assumptions do not do any damage but how many of us hold assumptions that end up proving to be the self-fulfilling prophecy that actually stops us from achieving what we want to do?

For instance, how many people assume the banks do not have money to lend for a project they have in mind and, therefore, do not get to make the start?

I know of people who have started businesses in Zimbabwe at a time when the press reports that the banks are not lending.

How do they do it? They turn up at the bank, present their case and argue on merit refusing to allow preconceived ideas to dominate their futures.

Instead they prefer to believe in the possibilities that life offers rather than the daunting task that their minds might propose.

What about your assumptions about people? How often do we close the gate to a potentially fantastic relationship because we decide, without talking to a person, that we do not see any value in getting to know them?

Sometimes, it is the other way round, we decide we would gain more from impressing them with talk about ourselves and our modest achievement when our cause would be better served by sitting and listening to them! I ran in to Peter John Blatch at a wedding a couple of months ago and I remember, vividly him talking about fatherhood at a men’s breakfast years before that.

He also told me how hard he worked to get Power Sales going, getting a loan, living on little initially and believing in the five (was it six) pillars that helped him and his family build a behemoth.

It was like talking to Colonel Sanders of KFC and those words sill resonate today. When you meet powerful people, spend more time listening than trying to impress them.

Your assumptions about organisations? Some people prefer to leap in to an oranisation that has a great brand name and end up being being a small fish in a very big pond, when they could have chosen a visionary one that they would grow with and end up being a big fish in a small but growing pond.

A close friend of mine left a multinational, years ago, to join a company in a different industry.

When he told his dad he was moving, the dad checked the telephone directory and, correctly concerned for his son, said: “But their name is not even in bold in the directory!”

During the interview, the MD told my friend what his plans were and my friend signed on. Why else would I be telling you this story?

To cut a long story short, as a result of that decision my friend climbed all the way to MD, then left to run his own business and has just returned from a week-long holiday in Mauritius with his family, courtesy of his previous employers, thank you very much! If he had stayed, he might still be senior HR manager at the multinational and not even manage to have a weekend getaway to Kariba.

If there is one thing people looking for success need to do, however they define that success, it is to read the autobiographies of successful people.

If reading is not your thing, watch History Channel and see how these people simply light a candle that brings light to dark assumptions about life, people and organisations. Challenge your assumptions!

Albert Gumbo is an alumni of the Duke University-UCT US-Southern Africa Centre for Leadership and Public Values. Contact: