unicorns and the language of otherness

Because even in the face of overwhelming evidence, people will come up with excuses for why they should not, will not, can not—learn or change.

Presented at Velocity NY 2014.


This man is albino, which means he has no skin pigmentation.

The red you see is the blood below the skin. His name is Brother Ali. He is a muslim rapper from Minnesota. That makes him different from all of us, in some way. And in all likelihood, we don’t think like him.

Let’s say that I believe the earth is flat. It’s part of my identity. It’s a strong belief. I have convictions around it, decisions that I’ve made around it. I identify as an earth-is-flatter. My identity is invested in the earth being flat. An attack on the idea is an attack on me. If the idea is wrong than I am wrong. Personally. Not just about that one thing, but about my person.

Let’s say you believe something different. You believe that the earth is round. You’re an earth-is-rounder. That makes you apart from me. Not because you have a different idea, but because you have a different identity. I cannot identify with you. If you’re successful in your belief, then maybe my way isn’t the only way. If you’re more successful than I am, then maybe my way isn’t the best way. If you are successful and then I am less successful, then maybe I’m wrong. But I’m not just wrong about the idea, I am wrong as a person.

But, I don’t have to see that. I don’t have to see anything. I have labeled you as something other than me. I cannot identify with you, thus I do not have to see your success. I can ignore it. I can bury my head in the sand. My ingrained belief creates a bias about you that I have. And I rationalize that bias by calling you something else, by putting a label on you. 

There is a saying by our friend, Brother Ali, that we have a “legacy so ingrained in the way that we think that we no longer need chains to be slaves.” He’s taking about racial biases. but any ingrained way of thinking creates a bias. Biases pile up and compound into a kind of psychological debt. It’s like technological debt: you have to refactor it in order to move on. It will eventually slow you down, bog you down, prevent you from seeing things. Prevent you from noticing thing. Prevent you from seeing a thing you might want to learn. 

And what’s true of you as an individual is true of us as groups. Teams can have shared biases created by their entrenched ideas and ways of doing things that create a shared psychological debt that prevent them—not just from learning—but from seeing that they should be learning. And while they are not learning, while we are not learning, there are other people who have learned and through their learning have changed the world around us. 

I was an analyst at Gartner for a couple of years and I heard this all the time: - “These companies are not like us. They do things differently. They have different users. They have different environments. They can do whatever they want. They don’t have the same security concerns we do.” Any litany of excuses that say “we don’t have to learn from them because they are unicorns” and unicorns are different and different people are others. So, eh. It’s ok. 

Turns out that unicorns are just people. And as people, they’re just like us. They’ve just made a different set of decisions in a different context in a different environment. We can make different decisions. We can create a new context. We can pay down our psychological debts. We can even declare bankruptcy like people do with economic debt and start over, throwing out ideas and practices. 

Cause the thing is, if we really want to move forward and expand and learn and grow and change for a changing environment—we have to get past the mess of our past decisions. We have to separate our identities, who we are and who we will be, from who we were, what we have done and what we have been. So that when we encounter something different or see change, or see change in others, that is not a threat to our identity and it doesn’t hurt so much to accept change and to do change. 

I don’t want to be a unicorn. I don’t want to be someone who is apart from you, other than you, does not have to be listened to, can be dismissed. And I don’t want to think of anyone else as something special, apart, different, cannot be learned from, to be dismissed, not part of the same humanity that I’m in. 

Cause, in the beginning and in the end, we are all still people. Thus, mainly in essence the same. The fact that we have some simultaneous differences, that have evolved, that don’t cause us to die out there in the world—suggests that the single strongest signal that you have something to learn is the fact that a difference exists. 

..the single strongest signal that you have something to learn is the fact that a difference exists.