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Courtney BarnesSep 18, 2018 5:59:42 AM3 min read

Unlatch Your Assumptions: The Danger of Getting Trapped By What You Take for Granted

Doubt–we all have it at times–but the bigger question is what is the “right amount” and when does doubt work for you rather than against you. While having too much doubt can be paralyzing, a little doubt can be a lifesaver. This is a simple lesson I had to relearn recently when faced with the sort of situation no parent ever wants to confront.

“Trapped Three-Year-Old Finally Escapes!”

If the local newspaper had shown up at my mother’s childhood home a few weekends ago, “Trapped Three-Year-Old Finally Opens Bathroom Door to Escape” just may have been their next headline.

This old, circa 1890s, jumbled beach bungalow is quaint but rustic. In fact, it’s charm has a lot to do with the fact that it still has so many original features, including old door latches and bolts.

When my three-year-old daughter, Adie, announced that she was going upstairs to the toilet, I thought, “Great–how independent!”  Then, I heard her shrieks of panic. Although Adie entered and closed the door, she soon discovered she had no idea how to open it again. She was trapped.  As her screams filled the house, her older brother, Preston, went from laughing to bursting into tears. At five, it didn’t take long for him to convince himself she would never escape.

Laugh if you will, but in the moment, the situation didn’t feel all that funny. What’s interesting, however, is how the adults in the situation decided to respond. After sending my mother off to calm down my son whose tears weren’t helping matters, my husband and I, along with my mother’s friend, started to strategize.

The first step was to help Adie calm down. The second step was to get her to open the door. And, this is where we made a grave error. My mother’s friend told my husband and me that the bathroom door had a bolt lock that slid from side-to-side. As tensions rose, and they did, we all bought into the fact that this was exactly how the door opened and closed. We did not question his certainty. This may reflect the fact that I was admittedly consumed with managing my own emotions and calming down my daughter. Whatever the reason for our certainty, however, we didn’t once doubt his account of the lock. In fact, we tried several times to get Adie to look for this bolt, which was apparently above the doorknob, but she couldn’t find it.

Eventually, we shifted strategies. My husband found a ladder, and climbed up the side of the house, hoping he might be able to get in through the window and then open the door himself. The ladder was barely tall enough to reach the window, but at 6’2, my husband was able to peer inside. That’s when we discovered that there was no bolt after all.

With a bit of coaxing, Adie easily opened the door and walked out into my arms. But this isn’t where the story ends.

Assumptions Can Block Us from Finding Solutions to Problems

The lasting impact of this incident, beyond Adie’s new fear of being locked in a room, is about assumptions, or what we take for granted. As this incident reveals, our assumptions are powerful. In fact, they profoundly impact how we make decisions. In this case, we were all convinced that my mother’s friend, who had only visited her childhood home on a few occasions, was right about the bolt lock. Even though he was wrong, his assumption was so convincing, we all trusted to his account. Of course, in this case, a bit of doubt would have served all of us, and especially Adie, well.

In the absence of doubt, we found ourselves attempting to find a solution to a problem based on a false assumption about the source of the problem. In our work and life, there are often times when assumptions, our sheer conviction that this is how things work, also blocks us from finding other and even easier ways to troubleshoot challenges. While being doubtful or at least a bit uncertain can be a hindrance, there are times when letting go of our certainly can also open up new possibilities.  

Walking away from the bathroom door incident, I was left with a small child who now worries a lot more about being left alone and a strong reminder of the value of keeping my assumptions and other people’s assumptions in check.