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The Cage of Assumptions

Craig Van Slyke,  Franke College DeanRecently I was reading an interesting book (Stoic Pragmatism) by John Lachs, a leading proponent of practical philosophy. Lachs stated, “If you take a bird out of its cage, it will resist. If you open the door to the cage, on the other hand, it will find its way out and try its wings.” Although Lachs was writing about something completely different, his quote made me think of the cages we construct around ourselves. Many of the bars that make up our self-inflicted cage come from our assumptions about ourselves, others and the world around us. While all of those are topics worthy of discussion, in this column, I’ll focus on the assumptions we make about ourselves.

What is an assumption? Basically, it’s a position we hold to be fact, without any real evidence. Assumptions are useful things, to a point. We make assumptions to fill in knowledge gaps and to simplify complex situations. But we often take assumptions too far, typically by failing to question our assumptions. This is a bad thing. Assumptions can preclude actions, and may keep us from even considering certain actions. Let me give you a trivial, but illustrative, example. When I was in junior high school, I had a massive crush on a cheerleader. At the end of the basketball season, the coach threw a party for the team. We were (gasp!) allowed to invite dates, a very big deal. Eventually I found the courage to ask out the cute cheerleader. I must admit my invitation was in a cheesy note. You know the kind. “Will you go to the party with me? Check one, yes/no.” As I recall, I actually made the check boxes. Cute Cheerleader replied with a note of her own saying that she had to do something with her parents and couldn’t go to the party. Of course, junior high Craig was crushed. I assumed that I wasn’t worthy of her affection. Several years later, I learned that Cute Cheerleader really did have to do something with her parents. She actually liked me, and I mean liked me-liked me.

My assumption prevented me from even thinking about asking Cute Cheerleader out again. My assumption trapped me in a cage of self-doubt. Unfortunately, the impact of our faulty assumptions doesn’t end when we graduate from junior high. In fact, our unquestioned assumptions often keep us from changing and growing throughout our lives. They keep us from pursuing careers, risking our affections, losing weight, and making positive changes in our lives.

Harvard professor Bob Kegan gives us a useful way to think about these limiting assumptions. Based on their extensive research, Kegan and his colleague, Lisa Lehey, concluded that our inability to change often comes about as a result of a “big assumption.” Our big assumptions lead to competing commitments – subconscious goals that conflict with more apparent commitments. For example, early in my business career, I had the bad habit of always having to be right. This often kept me from seriously listening to opinions contrary to my own. Although I wanted to become an effective leader (my conscious commitment), my stubbornness usually kept me from being effective. The competing commitment of having to be right conflicted with my conscious commitment of being a good leader. What caused my stubbornness? It was my big assumption that if I changed my mind or was wrong, people would think I wasn’t smart. Over time, I was lucky enough to recognize that I was on the wrong path and changed my behavior. (For more information about Kegan and Lehey’s work, check out their book, Immunity to Change.)

If you’re having trouble making a desired change, think about your big assumptions and how they limit you. Your assumptions, when untested and unquestioned, form a cage around your growth. Open the cage. Question your assumptions. Try your wings, fly, and free yourself from the cage of your assumptions. FBN


Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D. is the dean of the W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University.


The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to approximately 3,000 undergraduate and Master’s students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Please email me:



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