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When in doubt, zoom out

The importance of gaining a wider perspective

04 August, 2023

I’m currently in the market for a new car, so this week I’ve been browsing on Autotrader. I kind of know what I’m after so I’m doing a Nationwide search to see where the best deals might be as I don’t mind travelling.

One thing that really bothers me though is when you want to see where a vehicle is located.

The default setting for the map view is zoomed in all the way to the street level so you need to zoom out every single time to get an overall picture of the area you’re looking at. An example of a map view on Autotrader

Since I’m not always familiar with the area, until I zoom out I only get a tiny portion of the information I’m actually looking for.

This reminds me of the parable of The Blind Men and The Elephant.

It tells the story of six blind men who examine one part of an elephant and each come to very different conclusions on what an elephant is. The story has been told in many forms but the simplest goes like this:

Six blind men are brought to examine an elephant that has come to their village.

The first man touches the trunk and says that the elephant is like a thick snake.

The second man touches the tusk and says that the elephant is like a spear.

The third man touches the ear and says that the elephant is like a fan.

The fourth man touches the leg and says that the elephant is like a tree.

The fifth man touches the side and says the elephant is like a wall.

The sixth man touches the tail and says the elephant is like a rope.

Each of the blind men is convinced that he is right, and that everyone else is wrong.

In their isolated zoomed-in view, they are all partly right, but it’s not until we zoom out and see the whole picture that we see they are all entirely wrong.

We also apply this philosophy to software development. We organise our work by ‘features’ or ‘epics’ which are later broken down into more manageable tasks.

While our day-to-day work might be on small pieces of functionality, we always need to keep a zoomed-out view in mind and consider how the work that each member of the team is going to come together.

Stoic philosophy talks of The View From Above which is about the way we see the world, and our place within it.

The Stoics used the view from above to shift their point of view from a first person perspective to a third person perspective. We see ourselves as if from above, and in doing so we see ourselves, not just as individuals disconnected from the things around us, but part of the whole. A participant in everything around us.

Perspective is everything.

When in doubt, zoom out.