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Assumption Is Death

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A father and his daughter, Katie, go to a movie theater and see a long line of people waiting to buy tickets. Katie walks to the back of the line. Her father walks directly to the front and buys tickets.

Dad then waves, motioning for Katie to join him at the front. She does, and as they are both walking into the theater, her dad mumbles under his breath, “sheep.”

A few seconds later a theater employee walks outside and says, “This line is for a special sneak preview screening. If you wish to purchase tickets for another movie please proceed to the sales counter.” About half the people in line groan in frustration and scurry up to the front to buy tickets.

As Katie and her dad see this, he says, “Honey, most people live like sheep. They stay close to the flock, avoiding the danger of standing out and being on their own. When they see others standing in line they presume they should too and instinctively walk to the back. Many years ago I decided to live my life as a shepherd, not as a sheep.” 

While driving home after the movie Katie’s dad wants to further prove his point. He says, “Next week I want you to test my ‘stand in line’ sheep theory at school. Be first to your classroom after lunch, close the door, and then just stand there in front of the door waiting to go in. See how many students line up behind you, assuming the door is locked.” 

The following Monday Katie does just that. The door is already closed but unlocked. She stands outside facing the door, waiting… 

The first student takes his place in line behind her without saying anything or trying the classroom door handle. Then another. And another. Within minutes a long line forms behind Katie. No one asks. Nobody tries to open the door. They all just assume. 

Finally the teacher arrives. She has to know the door is unlocked because she was the last one out of the classroom before lunch. But when she sees all the students standing in line she assumes the door is locked and starts fumbling for her keys to unlock it.


Several years ago I wrote a book, How Fathers Change Lives. It contains 52 stories of lessons learned from remarkable dads as shared by their daughters and sons. The story above is from my book, shared with me by Katie. It’s a powerful lesson from her dad that positively impacted the way she has lived her life. I believe this simple story contains a powerful lesson… the danger of assumption. 

“If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would be little hope of advance.” -Orville Wright

I’m sure you’ve heard the comical expression – “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” It’s obviously a playful jab at the spelling of the word…ASS-U-ME. 

But the lesson rings true. Making assumptions is one of life’s most insidious “hidden traps.” We assume that what others do, and what has always been done (tradition), is what we should do too. Why?

The scientific answer… Our brains save energy by making assumptions. We draw on past experiences to find patterns in the world around us, then apply these patterns (assumptions) to new environments and situations (many times, falsely). Nevertheless, this process saves us the energy of analyzing each new situation.

But saving brain energy can be costly to how we live our lives.  Ancient Greek playwright Euripides summed up what many consider to be the most valuable lesson in life with just two words…

“Question everything.”

When should we question the way it has always been? When should we assume the way it’s done now is the way it should always be?

Last week my article was about Nike’s “Just Do It” television commercial. Mark Parker, Nike’s former CEO, may have answered that question perfectly…

“Curiosity is life. Assumption is death.”