Shadows or Reality?

By Ron Pereira Updated on April 1st, 2013

cave.jpgOne of my passions in life is to learn. As such, I have begun the year by ditching books about leadership, lean, and six sigma (for now).

In their place I have decided to study philosophy which may make you want to yawn… but I would be less than truthful if I didn’t admit to finding the topic fascinating. 

Plus if you study people like Taiichi Ohno (chief architect of Toyota Production System) you will notice his teaching is rich with philosophical thought.

So tonight I want to share one of Plato’s famous allegories as I see a tremendous relationship between it and the many challenges we as continuous improvement practitioners face.

The gist of the allegory goes something like this.

Imagine a Cave

Plato asks us to imagine a cave. Inside the cave are people chained to the ground. These people cannot move and are only able to look forward at a wall. Directly behind them is a fire burning which subsequently shines light into the cave.

Shadows on the Wall

Now then, as people on the “outside” walk by the cave shadows are cast onto the walls. The cave inhabitants have seen the shadows all of their life and as such believe them to be reality.

In fact, they believe these shadows are all there is to life. And since the shadows are the only thing the cave inhabitants have ever seen who could really blame them.

Unshackling the Prisoner

Plato then asks us to imagine someone from the outside world entering the cave and unshackling one of the prisoners. The prisoner is then allowed to exit the cave. The bright light of the sun almost blinds the prisoner and they quickly run back into the cave completely shaken with fear.

Eventually, the curious prisoner ventures back outside and realizes that what he thought was reality was in fact only shadows on the wall. The person then attempts to explain this new amazing reality to the other cave inhabitants.

Sadly the other inhabitants don’t want to hear anything about some fantastic outside world. They have grown comfortable with their life and don’t appreciate this excited person’s attempt to destroy the only reality they have known.

What about You?

So, let me ask you a few questions. As you move forward with your life – personally and professionally – how many shadows are you mistaking for reality?

And as it pertains to continuous improvement how many cave inhabitants are battling you as you attempt to unshackle them and show them a new reality?

Group think and attitudes like “this is the way we have always done it” and “you wouldn’t understand… our business is different” may in fact be nothing more than shadows on the wall.

Our challenge, if we should choose to accept it, is to unshackle these modern day prisoners showing them a far more excellent reality.

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  1. pete abilla

    January 14, 2008 - 9:32 pm

    Okay — my all time favorite Philosophers are William James, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Soren Kierkegaard.

    James is an American Pragmatist; Wittgenstein revolutionized the world of mathematics, language, and eventually computer science, and Kierkegaard’s Christianity is inspiring and has actually influenced much of Leadership literature today.

    Very nice, ron.

  2. Ron Pereira

    January 14, 2008 - 9:36 pm

    Thank you Pete. I will look these guys up at the library and see what I can learn. Thanks for the tips.

  3. Tim Foster

    January 14, 2008 - 9:42 pm

    First time commenter. But let me just say you have been rocking your blog lately with your writing. Your recent articles have really inspired me. Keep up the great work.

  4. Ron Pereira

    January 14, 2008 - 9:49 pm

    Gosh Tim. Thank you for the kind words. I will do my very best! Hope to hear from you again. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Jon Miller

    January 15, 2008 - 1:23 pm

    I’m reading Light on Life by BKS Iyengar.
    All we perceive as reality is shadow, Ron.

  6. Ron Pereira

    January 15, 2008 - 3:01 pm

    Interesting comment, Jon. I am not sure I agree but need to think some more. As usual you have given me something to think about.

  7. Laney Nackos

    July 28, 2008 - 10:39 pm

    I loved your summary of Plato’s Allegory! I, too am a student of philosophy, a “lifer!” Plato’s work was dedicated to the notion that Truth must be experienced rather than told because language is inadequate in the attempt to convey belief. In the metaphor of the cave, language is the vaguest shadow of reality. You can learn much more about this in NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming): Communication is only 7% words; 38% tonality/modality; and 55% physical expression. I must add, however that Aristotle taught us how to make the most of words by communicating in the form of metaphor. He said, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the sign of genius.”

  8. DonKy

    May 11, 2010 - 8:00 am

    And yet, all of life is relative to the perspective from which we see it and experience it. And there are infinitely many perspectives, none of which are complete or perfect except for one.

    The difference between a process flow on paper and how it works in reality is greatly influenced by the complex interactions of all the perspectives of the personnel in the process. It is therefore wise to consider these perspectives and work to continuously improve them. (See “Motivation”, “Morale” and “Training” in the ISO or other standard …)

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