The Wisdom You Need to Succeed in a Diverse and Divisive World


Author: Dick Martin
Pub Date: June 2012
Print Edition: $24.95
Print ISBN: 9780814417522
Page Count: 288
Format: Hardback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814417539

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Who Is “Other”?

When our primordial ancestors dropped from the trees and started walking across the African savanna on two legs, survival favored those with an innate ability to work in small groups, as well as a deep hostility toward anyone not of the group. That had the doublebarreled benefit of making it easier both to acquire resources and to keep them. Those characteristics were so critical that, over a number of generations, they became the norm. And they survive to this day.

We may be born into a world of blooming, buzzing confusion, as William James thought, but we start sorting it out almost as soon as we let loose our first cry. Our brains are not blank slates, but learning engines that follow patterns set into our Stone Age ancestors’ brains even before they acquired the faculty of language. These same attitudes and behaviors have been bred into us by natural selection.

Mounting evidence suggests that we are born with a rudimentary sense of fairness and injustice, right and wrong. By one year of age, babies show signs of prejudice, preferring people who speak a familiar language and accent. Eventually, they slowly develop what is called a “theory of mind,” the realization that other people have beliefs, desires, intentions, and feelings separate from their own. In most circumstances, this capacity blossoms into empathy. Sometimes, it stagnates in suspicion. This book explores both ends of that spectrum and suggests that the ebbs and flows between them may be the defining characteristic of our age. Relating to people unlike ourselves has always been important; today it may be the most critical life and business skill we can develop.

At the most fundamental level, our sense of self emerges in relation to others. The first “others” in our lives, of course, are the most significant—our mothers, our fathers, our siblings. But our personal identity is also intertwined with close relationships beyond our immediate family. Our clan and our tribe have defined who we are since the day of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Everyone outside that circle is a stranger, neither one of us, nor one with us.

We are by nature labeling machines, which is one of the secrets to our survival as a species. We categorize and label everything— animals, people, situations. And then we act as if those categories define reality. Of course, they don’t; almost everything we label could fit into more than one category. But in daily life, unless motivated to behave differently, we narrowly pigeonhole things willy-nilly because it’s easier than analyzing and weighing their actual characteristics, similarities, and differences. That’s especially true in our dealings with other people, who are orders of magnitude more complex than inanimate objects.


Categorical thinking may have helped our prehistoric ancestors traverse the African savanna safely when anyone outside their tribe was a potential enemy, but in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is a shortsighted and dangerous practice. Thanks to the digital revolution and everything caught in its slipstream, the world is smaller, communications more insistent, privacy less certain, and community less personal. There are more people on the fringes of our standard categories than ever before. Our sense of personal identity and security, which we have always interpreted in reference to others, feels threatened. The real threat, though, may lie in our inability—or unwillingness—to control what social scientists call “irrelevant category activations.” In other words, we have to close down some of those pigeonholes.

At first, these issues may be seem to reside, at best, on the margins of a businessperson’s ambit—something worthy of an hour on the agenda of an executive retreat, or perhaps a paragraph or two in a speech to the local Rotary. But acquiring the wisdom of dealing with people unlike ourselves is not touchy-feely stuff; it's a hardcore operational capability, essential in relating to people, markets, and all the third-party activists who have an increasingly influential voice in how and where a company does business.

The world’s demography is changing more rapidly than ever. The population of developed countries is aging; the developing world and emerging markets have given birth to a new middle class; wealth is moving from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern, from the West to the East. The United States itself is fast becoming a minority-majority, multiracial, multicultural, multigenerational society. Non-Hispanic white people accounted for less than 10 percent of America’s population growth over the last decade. In fact, four states and dozens of the country’s largest metropolitan areas—including the twenty-three counties that constitute the New York metro area—already have minority-majority populations. Businesspeople need to get wise to these changes; they need to acquire the wisdom of relating to people so unlike themselves that they appear to be wholly Other.

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