What Are You Thinking?
I read a fascinating article recently about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which led the world to the brink of nuclear war. Most people know that the crisis blew up suddenly that October when the US discovered Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. It became incredibly tense, with the world expecting the outbreak of World War III at any minute. American Generals were advocating a nuclear attack on Cuba, while Fidel Castro was pushing the Russians to launch against the US, the Russian navy was expected to run the American blockade, and the second-in-command of a Russian submarine that was being hit by depth charges had to convince his Captain to surface rather than launch a nuclear missile. It was that close.
What is really amazing is that the two sides, from the outset, had a total misunderstanding of the other’s motivation and thinking. The Americans assumed that the Russians were focused on the ‘missile gap’, and were being strategically aggressive in installing missiles in Cuba where they could easily attack the US in order to balance out the power. At the peak moment of the crisis, Kennedy secretly agreed to remove US missiles from Italy and Turkey in return for the dismantling of the Cuban weapons. They assumed that was the key. However, they also threw in a promise not to invade Cuba, which they had no intention of doing anyway (as the first invasion at the Bay of Pigs was such a political disaster for President Kennedy).
However, when documents were declassified fifty years later, it turned out that Russian leader Kruschchev’s main motivation wasn’t the missile gap at all. He simply didn’t want Cuba invaded again, because he believed that the Communist ideology would easily spread to South America if left alone in Cuba. The Americans thought the Russians were thinking strategically when in fact they were thinking ideologically. The Russians acted because they thought the Americans were going to invade Cuba again, when in fact the US had zero intention of doing so. The world came to the brink of total nuclear war and the two main protagonists completely misunderstood what the other was thinking and why.
I was reminded of that Cuban Missile Crisis article recently when I came a across a somewhat emotional but still thoughtful Youtube video. For four minutes, a camera simply moves through a hospital, telling you what is going on in the mind of each person as they interact, or don’t, with each other. One person on the elevator is terrified of his pathology appointment, the person beside him just found out he’s going to be a dad, the janitor is about to take his first holiday in ten years. You get the idea: No one has any idea what the person standing right next to them is experiencing, but we still have expectations of how that person should behave toward us. The video quotes Thoreau: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
How often do we all make very important decisions about how we will treat people, about what we will say, what emails we will write, whom we will demean, lash out at, or seek to embrace, based on very mistaken assumptions about their motivations or personalities? I do this all the time. Sometimes I realize my mistake later, and feel like a fool. Most often, of course, I never learn the actual truth, and just keep assuming that I have brilliant judgement.
It’s not an easy thing to solve, because even if you ask, most people won’t tell you, and often people don’t trust the answer they receive anyway. Kennedy wasn’t talking to Krushchev; sometimes I don’t communicate with my spouse so well either. Is that business person over there who won’t talk to me an arrogant jerk, painfully shy, or just preoccupied with a crisis of their own?
I blog about business, and this is one of the most important business issues I see. People don’t talk to each other, they don’t trust each other, they assume the worst and then totally unnecessary bad stuff happens. When ED people (usually justifiably) blame the company for the stupid stuff that we do, I try to explain that there really is no company. There’s just a group of people doing their level best, making lots of mistakes, not communicating very well, but doing their very best just the same. I guess we can assume the same about most governments as well. Maybe even the airlines.
So perhaps we could all just give each other a break, every single day. That’s the best answer I have.
There’s an old John Hiatt lyric:
“Yeah, we scheme about the future
As we dream about the past,
When just a simple reaching out
Might build a bridge that lasts.”
Maybe I’m getting all maudlin in my old age, but still…
Thanks for reading.
John Hiatt Lyrics: Through Your Hands