TEDx Rainier 2015 – Maura O’Neill and the Curse of Narrow Mindedness

TEDx Rainier 2015 was a treasure trove of scientific breakthroughs, social Maura ONeilladvancement, and mind-blowing innovation.  Equal place was given to those speakers who asked the audience to take a close, perhaps uncomfortable look at themselves.  Never an easy task when the notion of unwelcome knowledge looms, these self-awareness requests, within the ebulliently hopeful atmosphere of TED, were met with a bit of “not me” disbelief and a lot of “its the other guy for sure” certainty.

Maura O’Neill revealed herself to be an expert on the subject of narrow mindedness, which is an attitude founded on an unwillingness to consider another person’s different beliefs or behavior.  We tend to think of this trait as an irritant peculiar to fundamentalists and Republicans, but to the degree any one of us is not open to listening nor recognizing the rationale or tradition behind strongly held beliefs, we are all narrow minded. Sputter, sputter, wha?, what!


I have been guilty, too, and been caught out shamefaced when the truth revealed itself. Not long ago, as a teacher-trainer with the English Language Fellow Program, I traveled to India to train college professors in strategies for better engaging their students, incorporating English language instruction in content classes, and including greater levels of critical thinking in the classroom. A completely rewarding experience, that was not when I was pulled up short by a clear view of a different perspective.  In the colonial mansion where I had a suite of rooms, I was also provided with a sweeper/toilet cleaner worker, a dish washer/duster worker, and a lady to wash and iron my clothes, at 10 cents a piece. Generally, she knocked on the main door to my rooms, I answered and handed off a pillowcase filled with salwar and khameez, my clothing of choice during that tour.

On other occasions, usually when she brought the clothing back, we would chat.  Aneesha asked me about how I got to India, what I demon rumthought of the country, and about my family back home. Not all at once, but over time, we covered a lot of territory.  It happened that one evening she came later than usual, obviously a little harried, and her conversation revealed a husband who worked all day, came home in the evening, ate a small plate of food and then drank a bottle of the local drug-alcohol combo.  Soon, he’d be fast asleep and Aneesha would get the children ready for bed.

The daughter of alcoholics, the idea of a man drinking up rupees that could be spent to benefit his children, was appalling.  “Why don’t you stop him?” I asked.  “Why don’t you explain that the children need the presence of a father to help them grow?” An unexpectedly visceral reaction led to a more intense tone of voice than I had intended.  When I saw her kind face tightened, I pulled back verbally and physically.  In a poor attempt to counter the previous vehemence, I said, “Well, I mean, it must be so difficult for you.”

“Ah, madame, no. It is not difficult at all.  I am grateful.”  Kamal, the husband in question, worked a twelve hour day lifting and carrying heavy sacks of produce, flour, or whatever needed transport.  His small frame, about 5′ 4″ tall by Aneesha’s gestures, sported no meat, only lean muscle and joints that were rapidly aging.  Essentially, Kamal hefted and moved hundreds of times his weight in goods every day.  And every day, when day was done, he ached from tip to toe,  ached with a soul-wrenching anguish that only quieted with the bottle of magic elixir.  Because he could sleep, he was able to get up the next morning and do it all over again.

“Kamal is a good man to do so much for his family. I am grateful.” Then, she laughed.  “Some men only do the drinking, and never the working.”

My mistake was to view drinking from the narrow, painful perspective of childhood.  That narrow mindedness is a social curse, but says Maura O’Neill, “We are hardwired to be narrow minded. It is crucial to our functioning.”  Narrow mindedness arises out of the vast amounts of sensory data that surround us every day, now more so than at any time in human history.  “Every two days of modern life we create,” asserts O’Neill, “the same volume of data that existed as a mass from the years 0CE (Common Era) to 2003 CE.” In other words, currently we produce in 48 hours an equal amount of new information equal to all the amalgamated knowledge of two thousand years.

Humans cannot absorb even a measurable fraction of all the material and statistics available, so we base our opinions and thence our behavior on a limited or narrow band of information.  It is not surprising that our narrow mindedness regularly reveals an unconscious bias. Exceptions arise, of course,  when an individual chooses a particular field for his or her life’s work and chooses to investigate all the research published on the topic.


Such was the case with the story Ms. O’Neill shared about Drs. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren. Dr. Marshall had a peculiar mindset. stomachulcersRather than exiting medical school with the notion that he would be able to diagnose and treat everything, he recognized the limitations of modern medical science and he was willing to live in the paradox of knowing a lot and very little.  At the time, severe ulcers affected 10 percent of the adult population in his native Australia and the medical community was sure that the cause was an overabundance of stomach acids produced by stress.  “Relax a bit, and those will go away,” was a common admonition from physicians. Alas, the rocking chair cure didn’t work, which led to thousands of stomach surgeries wherein the surgeon cut off the bottom portion of the stomach where the ulcers appeared and then reattached the stomach to  the intestine. Strangely, the ulcer could reappear.

Over time, Marshall along with his colleague Robin Warren came to suspect a microbial culprit, which we now know to be a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori.  In the course of their collaboration, they traced this bacteria not only to ulcers but stomach cancer as well. Their convincing research on the subject was ridiculed by traditional gastroenterologists, who held firm to the stress equals ulcer equation. So, Marshall faced a scientist’s dilemma, he couldn’t prove the theory by using mice and he was prohibited from experimenting on humans. All except one. Himself.  Dr. Marshall dosed himself by drinking some of the actual bacteria which he had “borrowed” from a patient.  Shortly, he developed severe symptoms and his own lab results proved that he was infected with h. pylori. Next, he began a round of antibiotics which worked wonderfully in affecting a total cure.  Marshall’s courage proved the bacterial source of the ulcer scourge and the narrow minded medical men who had initially scoffed, were forced to, uh, swallow their words. In 2005, Marshall and Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their ground breaking work on ulcers.


Corporate life exhibits the same shortsighted thinking as the medical field, as O’Neill pointed out.  Men had been the movers and shakers in business since Jack tried to get into the bean business.  In the last 100 years, and particularly since the 1960s, women have made gradual inroads into the business sphere but not without testosterone driven obstacles. Corporate culture, including that so titillatingly presented in Mad Men, reflects male values. It has always been thus, and for many, that is the way it ought to remain.  You don’t have to walk a picket line for gender equity to realize that in today’s world, that is a shortsighted view.  It is not simply narrow minded, it is unprofitable and the figures themselves prove.

  • Companies that have more women in top management are 18-69% more profitable.
  • Companies with 3 or more women on the board improve 40% upward on all measures.
  • Women rate higher in leadership effectiveness.
  • Companies with the highest percentage of women on the board achieve 42% high returns on sales.
  • 89 countries around the globe, most much small than the U.S., have more female representation in the government than we do.


“It is narrow mindedness that keeps us from responding effectively to new problems and opportunitiesphotos_datsun_160j_1975_1,” commented Maura.  Remember the Detroit of the 1970s, turning out gas guzzlers that stretched a full city block.  And then the gas war struck and gas was not only scarce and rationed, but it was increasingly expensive.  Somehow, Detroit wasn’t getting the message and they kept building the way they had always built. They couldn’t see beyond tradition and they wouldn’t listen to either the public’s or the government’s request for So, Americans went to Japan for answers and the era of the compact car was born. Maura O’Neill would say that narrow mindedness gave birth to the Datsun and the Honda Civic.

“Innovation and individual brilliance starts where narrow mindedness ends.”







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