What’s your worldview – sink or swim?

Sink or Swim

Years ago I moved to the Netherlands to work at a Dutch professional University. I was surprised that many students had real difficulty with even the basics of writing academic papers. In talking to my colleagues, I found out that they were very frustrated about this. Their explanation was that the students weren’t intellectually curious.

Being new, I asked what sorts of support they had for learning academic writing in our program. Did teachers offer guidelines to help students understand what they wanted? Did they give them any sort of explicit help? It turned out that the answer to these questions was consistently no.

Thinking I was onto something, I brought up this issue at our next staff meeting. I made an analogy that to me seemed clear and powerful. I said:

Look it’s like learning how to swim….you can help people by bringing them into the water slowly, and going a step further each time they reach a milestone, or you can just throw them in the water and see if they drown…. Come on, which way is better?

My colleagues looked at me perplexed. I looked back, not understanding why my metaphor hadn’t landed. I asked them how they had learned to swim. Literally, everyone in the room had been thrown into the water and left to their own survival instincts. Left to sink or swim, they all did indeed learn to swim when asked if they thought that was a good way to learn something, they said yes.

This was an important moment for me. I saw that my assumptions and actually even my worldview related to this was radically different from theirs. Of course, if you believe it is good for people to let them almost drown in order to learn to swim, you won't have much patience the idea of learning skills of academic writing in a slow, step by step fashion with lots of support so they succeed.  It can even seem condescending to the students, as if we are not trusting their survival ability. The fact that it wasn’t working and everyone was frustrated about it was taken for granted.  At least it was until we started examining the worldview upon which these actions were built.

It was also interesting for me to see that something I took completely for granted as the “right” way, came from my own worldview and that my actions and initiatives were logical only from that standpoint. Where I grew up, the idea of throwing your child into deep water and letting him/her sort it out was almost literally akin to child abuse. No wonder I wasn't willing to see these students struggle, and most often then prevail. So, by talking about it, I too had to re-examine my own core of what I believed to be true, and the worldview that underpinned that.

Once my colleagues and I began to speak from the perspective of our worldviews and assumptions,  we could see that although both ways have their advantages, in this particular situation, the worldview guiding the current  actions were standing in the way of students achievement.  We also saw how it was contributing to a great lot of stress for teachers, students, and the school as a whole. What’s more, once we had more conscious awareness about this, we were able to develop an appropriate program to help those students who, when thrown into the water of academic writing, were not yet able to swim.

Of the many lessons I learned from this experience is that diving to this deeper level and uncovering those things you take for granted holds so many gifts. It taught me to remember that when something isn’t working as you wish, go beyond the action, go underneath what you assume to be true and dare to examining your worldview.  This can help you to understand why things are as they are, and provide a path to something new.

Attending to Your Worldview: The Key to Making Change Successfully


Online Workshop | May 25, 2022 | 9 am – 12:30 pm EDT / 15:00 – 18:30 CEST (also available for self-study)

A worldview, simply defined, is a collection of values, attitudes, beliefs, and expectations that inform thoughts and actions. Your worldview is a big component of what shapes your reality. As a leader, you bring your worldview into your organizational development – shaping your organization according to your worldview too. The better you understand your worldview and the worldview of the people you work with, the more positive the outcomes of your work are likely to be.

  • Explore common worldviews and how they can shape your leadership and your organization
  • Develop a more clear understanding of your personal worldview so that you can begin aligning your leadership with your worldview…and experience more joy and ease
  • Learn to use a simple tool to clarify the worldview of others you are working with and how you can find alignment for better working together from your unique perspectives

When you consciously understand your worldview and those of the people you work with, conflict is reduced, decision-making becomes easier to consciously set out a collective path to the future in your organization. Give yourself the gift of time to make conscious this (often) unconscious driving force in organizational life so that as you shift and change, you always this powerful orientation point.

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  • Doris Gottlieb

    I'm a Consultant, Facilitator, and Mentor working with clients to unearth and use the potential within their organization to address change in a healthy way as they strive to make positive contributions in the world.

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