Empty Your Cup

During her Tedx Talk, Helen Turnbull shares an honest example of how she momentarily stumbled into a mindset that departed from the diversity and inclusion practices on which she coaches others. Based on her pre-existing mental models of male roles, Helen’s example provides a glimpse into how the practical act of creating and accessing our internal mental models can have unintended and exclusionary consequences if unchecked.

Mental models are deeply embedded in our reptilian/old brain survival instincts. They allow us to make almost real-time assessments about our surroundings by making assumptions about how things work. These assumptions are based on our comprehension of information and experiences previously acquired. (That metal is glowing red. Previous experiences have taught me metal does that when it is hot; therefore, it isn’t safe for me to touch any glowing metal.) Also, in the absence of direct knowledge, our unique human mental abilities allow us to imagine what something might be like based on experiences abstracted from a similar “nearly related” event.

The downside is mental models function through generalization. Unchecked, they allow us to become intellectually lazy by seeing only the things we expect to see. We are unable to detect and absorb information unique to a situation because we assume, often subconsciously, we have all the data we need. This is profoundly limiting and is summed best by a zen koan:

A martial arts student went to train with an exceptional master. Each time the master began instructing, the student proudly demonstrated a similar technique he’d learned elsewhere. Finally in frustration, the master stopped for tea. As he poured tea into the student’s cup, it began to overflow. The student spoke up, “What are you doing, it is already full!”. The master stopped and said, “You’ve come here to learn, yet you are like this cup. When I attempt to teach, you demonstrate all that you have learned before. Like this cup, there is nothing I can add to you. In order to accept what I offer, you must empty your cup. You must look and listen as if for the first time.”

In the same way, when we empty our perceptual cups, we are free to see and understand things as they are, not through a lens of preconceived notions masquerading as absolute truths founded on generalized mental models. When we interact with others in the world with absolute confidence that what we perceive is exactly the same as “what is”, we miss the point that our perception is not reality. Perception is a capability that exist on a spectrum defined by our ability to reconcile multiple perspectives beyond a singular self-originating vantage point. It is a capability that expands in proportion to our willingness to empty our cups and embrace information beyond mental models that may be outdated or worse – inaccurate.

When we fail to empty our cups, our perceptions lead to inaccurate judgments and exclusionary behaviors like those Helen experienced upon seeing the female pilot. However, when we make a habit of emptying our cups, we expand our awareness and venture beyond mental model behaviors based on old reptilian brain instinctual reactions. Through this expanded awareness, we open the door to neocortex-based behaviors that lead us to see and embrace diversity. In turn, our actions manifest as expressions of equity and inclusiveness.