Yes, objectivity. And, subjectivity.
How to better understand the nature of reality by looking through more than one lens.
Yes, objective truth matters. And, so does subjective perception.
Full disclosure here: I'm a believer in objective truth. But, before you form any further conclusions, let me add that I also believe I'll never arrive at it, in its totality, in my lifetime. To take it one step further, I believe that the differing perspectives we each have are actually the key to understanding the fundamental truths of reality itself. But, enough with the philosophizing. What does this actually look like?
Last fall, I read a book that fundamentally altered how I view these ideas, and thus the world around me and the people in it. Let's clarify these terms according to Oxford Languages:
Objective is defined as "not dependent on the mind for existence; actual."
Subjective, on the other hand, is to be "dependent on the mind or on an individual's perception for its existence."
How do these coexist? I found a hint in that book I mentioned. It's called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and it's actually not really about motorcycle maintenance. Well, a little bit, but it's mostly about a man and his son going on a cross-country road trip. The main character is working out an idea about how to reconcile the objective and subjective—he's convinced that the two are not mutually exclusive. I won't spoil the ending, for any of y'all who are ambitious enough to pick up a book with a title like that, but what struck me about the book was that it showed there is value in both. I had thought that you either believed in one objective truth or an infinite amount of subjective perspectives on the world; what the book made me realize is that our subjective opinions can perhaps lead to objective truth when we bring them together.
Take a look at this set of drawings of different elements and angles of a guitar.
Now, imagine you've never seen a guitar before, and you only see one of these drawings—you'd probably be a little confused when you try to tell someone that a guitar actually doesn't have strings at all, but it does have four screws on a little plate at the base of the neck.
You've probably seen or gone through similar exercises with optical illusions, and usually the point is "everyone sees different things because of their differing perspectives, and everyone is right." I'd like to counter that idea with this one: it's not that anyone's perspective is necessarily wrong, but that no singular perspective is entirely right, either. Because, let's be real, none of us have the entire picture.
None of us are completely correct about reality. What do we do about it?
This is the fun part. No single one of those pieces of a guitar are the whole guitar; they need to go together to create the picture of the whole instrument. If we look at each of the elements, we can pretty well figure out what a guitar looks like—even if we've never seen one before. I think the same is true for the bigger things in life. How do we handle conflict on our teams and in our relationships? How do we know what makes a worthwhile career pursuit? How do we gain the best understanding of the current food system so we know where to make improvements? We can find better answers to all of these questions when we synthesize the varying and subjective perspectives of many different people (elements dependent on individual perception) into a more singular and objective picture (one that is not dependent on one particular perspective) of the situation we face. Some will have a better view of the objective than others, depending on the area we’re in; there is need to use discernment in which voices we listen to and rely on for information outside of our wheelhouse.
While Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance got me thinking more about this topic, it was a piece of advice from a Zoom call that has stuck with me as the best way to apply it. Earlier this year, my teammates and I had the privilege of meeting with an influential leader in the United States Department of Agriculture, Ms. Anne Knapke. (Who, by the way, is an FFA alum!) As I listened to her share about the many—often vastly different—roles she has played in food and agriculture since college, I was struck with her nuanced and compassionate way of looking at people and the world around us. She'd worked everywhere from a non-profit, to a multi-national corporation, to a U.S. Senator's office, to now at the USDA. To sum up all of these things, she said "it's important to put yourself in different seats so you can look at things from more than one angle." Putting ourselves in different seats to see different angles is precisely how we can embrace the complexity of the objective and subjective.
It might look like pursuing a variety of student leadership roles in high school or college. Instead of joining one ag club and looking at everything through that lens, maybe join another service organization with peers from other areas of study, too. Perhaps it's choosing mentors from more than one area: finding voices from school, and church, and the Lion's Club, and an industry professional, and someone who asks good questions on Twitter. Or—and I'm convinced this is the most universally effective way to view the world from different seats—we can choose friends who genuinely look at the world in a different way than we do. My friend Clint is one of my favorite people to disagree with and listen to; our conversations help me look at the world more objectively. It's only by bringing different ideas together that we can move from just knowing how things appear from our subjective perspective to understanding how the world really works, objectively.
Who is the one new voice you will listen to this week to gain a better view of reality? Let us know in the comments or on social media by tagging @miriamrosah and @nffaevp and using the hashtags #EmbracingComplexity and #FFA21.