The Overview Effect is a term coined by author Frank White more than 30 years ago. It refers to the cognitive shift in awareness that astronauts experience when they see Earth in its entirety for the first time. What he found was that this experience profoundly affects space traveler’s worldviews. What most of us know on an intellectual level, we are all traveling around a vast universe on one planet together, astronauts understand from direct experience.
What if we used this term and applied it to other areas of our lives? Is it possible to achieve this mental clarity in order to gain more empathy for one another? Let me share a story with you. As a child I felt different. I noticed I was unable to keep up with the other kids. I couldn’t run without feeling severe chest pain. When I played volleyball my arms would swell and it would be excruciating. I tried baseball but catching a ball would sting in my wrist and up through my arm. I would avoid hitting the ball when at bat because the vibration was so uncomfortable. I went to many doctors and all of them told my parents there was nothing wrong with me and that I most likely just wanted attention. I assumed that all kids felt that way and I needed to learn to suck it up and keep it to myself. In grade 4 my jaw locked completely and I was unable to put a spoon into my mouth. My face looked like a chipmunk was packing nuts for the winter. Things continued much the same throughout my childhood. I was in constant pain, I would have severe subluxations, bouts of inflammation and was unable to accomplish the same things as my peers.
I was taken for many tests, to many specialists and was always told that I was fine. It wasn’t until my twenties that I was finally diagnosed with a rare genetic soft tissue disease and then in my thirties a comorbid rare autoimmune disease which wasn’t caught until I almost died in 2018. Vindication, of sorts. However, that’s not the point of this story. I learned from an early age to put on a good face, to not share my true feelings and pain. Having rare diseases that most doctors haven’t heard of, let alone know how to treat, is an extremely lonely place to be. It’s hard to find anyone to understand how you feel and as humans we thrive on shared experiences. It’s how we feel connected, how we grow trust, and how we bond.
My husband has watched me modify the way I do things to get through life. While he understands limitations, he has had very little insight of the true pain I live with daily. A cough, my head tilted for too long during sleep, or the dog pulling on the leash too hard can all result in serious injury. That changed after a car accident caused a severe subluxation in his neck. He was now feeling all of the things I had previously explained. A severe pain in the neck and base of the skull, the feeling like all of the tissue in your face is being torn back, intense migraine, fatigue, nausea from pain, and inability to eat. He came to me with a shift in awareness for what I must deal with on a daily basis. He had newfound empathy for how I go through life and deal with everyday tasks. He understands me better now and is better equipped to help me find new ways of doing things which has also helped me to feel less lonely.
I’m not saying if a loved one falls down a flight of stairs and is injured, you need to throw yourself down one as well so you can feel the same pain. What I’m saying is that we need to be more understanding of the hardships of others. We need to meet them where they are and practice vulnerability. We also can’t expect everyone to understand us. Maybe we’re further ahead, maybe we’re putting on a good face. We only truly know the real life of a handful of people and everyone else we are either guessing, judging, or both.
As humans, one of the wonderful things about us is our ability to learn, grow, and change. There’s no better way to do that than in a safe-to-learn, safe-to-fail environment. A place where you are given the opportunity to learn about yourself and also learn about those around you.
Gasparotto Group can help you get “The Overview Effect” within your organization. We can help build trust among team members by giving them the chance to “chew the same dirt”, a metaphor for a shared common experience—an experience that will challenge the team physically, emotionally, and mentally—so they can appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses. With challenging obstacles, teams work together and come out the other side with a mental clarity and better vision for the future.
Check out our experiential learning programs and see how we can help give your team a cognitive shift in awareness.
Written by Lindsay Robb
Gasparotto Group helps organizations create cultures that develop highly effective leaders and build strong, resilient teams.