Do you need to do some scrubbing?

I’m going to have an embarrassing moment of honesty here and say I legit have had a really terrible grasp on American history for most of my life. To the point where I couldn’t tell you whether Martin Luther King Jr was an activist in the 1980s or the 1920s. Well actually, I had a pretty good guess: It must have been at least as far back as, say, the 30s, because the civil rights war was soundly won long, long, long ago in a distant memory.

So yeah. Let’s just chalk it up to “I’m really bad with dates.”

In school I studied a lot of history–even a lot of early US history. But somehow I didn’t grasp much of what went on in America from the civil war through 9/11. I’m working on it now. I’m halfway through William Chafe’s book The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II, and my jaw has hit the floor quite a few times.

So, turns out Rosa Parks got arrested not that long ago for not giving up her seat for a white person on a bus. I guess I always thought that was “like a hundred years ago.” Nope. And Dr. King was assassinated only 50 years ago this year.

I guess I figured we Americans must have had all this equality stuff figured out (at least per law and official doctrine) by the time we took issue with Nazism in Germany for mistreating Jewish people because they weren’t built like the preferred Aryan ideal. But we didn’t. Some of the details of our recent history are pretty shocking. And not just where African-Americans were concerned.

Most of my life, I had heard that, despite a few crazy racist southerners here and there waving their confederate flags, racism and discrimination and systematic oppression were mostly gone, and that all the activist noise was just people holding on too long to injustices that their great, great grandfathers saw.

But 50 years is not a long time! I’m more than halfway there. That means a lot of my friends and family remember those days–when they shared the city with other human souls who were refused service at restaurants and businesses because they were born with the wrong skin color. Where a lot of America struggled desperately not to comply with judicial rulings and legislation made to protect colored people and ensure their integration into society as fully equal fellow humans.

Suddenly I see so many things differently!

A lot more current activist movements make a lot more sense. And I am quite sure we have not made nearly as full and healthy a recovery from racism as I learned growing up. I think I understand so many more people now, people I’ve seen, people I’ve worked with, people I’ve tried to help as a manager in past jobs.

And I’m reminded of one of my all-time favorite quotes, attributed to Isaac Asimov: “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”

 

And that’s just a specific brand of discrimination. What about our treatment of over a hundred thousand Japanese who we incarcerated in our own concentration camps 70 years ago? Or what about the very weird and disturbing treatment and brainwashing our society promoted in the not so distant past of women regarding their roles in society and their purpose in life.

And these are just assumptions I’ve had to unlearn around recent American history.

What about things I have always assumed about my co-workers and where they’re coming from? Or the motives you’ve prejudged of that friend trying to sell me on their network marketing product? Or the obvious disdain we’re all supposed to have for those silly “self-help” books and “motivational speakers” who are just trying to get rich off gullible people? Or the crazy beliefs and weird religious rituals from eastern religions–like your friend who keeps talking about his weird meditation stuff? Or the fact that you’re obviously supposed to go to college, get a car, buy a house, and climb a corporate ladder? Or even things as personal as “Oh, I could never be a reader” or “I could never be a runner” before I’ve ever ever really tried?

 

The point is this: Over long, weird, narrowly-focused lives we have all picked up hundreds and thousands of little (or big) assumptions that color our world in big ways, ways that we might not realize, and ways that we rarely if ever question.

And those assumptions, prejudices, and misunderstandings can be blinding us from insights and opportunities. They can blind us to the reality others around us are experiencing. They can automatically turn us against a co-worker or family member, leave us always on edge, and keep us from fulfilling relationships or effective teamwork.

Until we finally stop and think: Wait… is that REALLY true?

 

Do you ever question your assumptions?

What is something you always assumed that you’ve recently had your mind changed about in a life-altering way?

And if you had to look at your life right now and take a guess at what is a big assumption you really need to reconsider today if you want to take the next step in your personal development–what might it be?

Isaac Asimov - Assumptions windows on world

Are you really seeing them?

“Look at other people and ask yourself if you are really seeing them or just your thoughts about them.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Have you ever found yourself looking back at old memories–photos, messages, etc–and realizing that your opinion now of an old friend is entirely different than it used to be? For example, I used to have very conservative (and vocal) opinions about how people should look and talk. I always judged the “rebellious” kids I knew, felt disappointed and hopeless for them. Looking back now at the those same kids, I see who they were as very normal and healthy and in fact think I should have been a little more like them.

Our minds change from time to time. Enough that we should be able to remember that the way we see someone right now may not be accurate.

 

It can be helpful to spend some time thinking about what determines how we see people. There are a lot of things that silently, sneakily influence our interpretations of others:

  • What we expect to see. As John Lubbock said, “What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” When you start with assumptions about someone, you tend to see what confirms your assumptions. It’s called “confirmation bias.”
  • What we’re already focused on. Always focus on the bad in someone, and that starts to be all you see. Always see the good only, and you can be blind to problems. Have you ever bought a car and then immediately started seeing way more of those models than you used to?
  • What we’re afraid of. How have you been burned in the past? How have people hurt you or let you down? Did you get cheated on? Then you see that in others. Did someone stab you in the back when they should have been supporting you? Than you stay on the lookout for the first signs of that in others.
  • What we are hoping for. Do you ever see people through the lenses of what you’re hoping for? What you need? Looking for friends who will accept you? Looking for a special someone to selflessly love you? You can want something bad enough that you might see it when it’s not really there.
  • What we plan to do about it. One of the biggest and most powerful influences on how we see others is our own intention to react and deal with things. Stephen Covey said it best: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Who might that other person be separated from how we think we should relate to them?

 

Have you ever realized somebody is not who you thought they were? Maybe someone you always thought was mean, or someone you thought was nice. Have you ever been on the opposite side? Feeling like someone is assigning an identity or motives to you that just aren’t you?

Assuming and prejudging leaves both sides hurting and confused.

On the other hand, opening your mind and seeing someone for who they really are and what they really say–not what you expect or judge about them–can open your eyes and heart to another amazing human. And honoring someone for who they really are can make you an empowering part of their life, too.

Jon-Kabat Zinn - Really seeing people

Everybody is bad at something

Everybody is bad at something.

I’m really bad at handyman stuff. I don’t know how to fix things or maintain things. Whenever something goes wrong with my car, or something breaks in the house, I feel totally lost. I feel overwhelmed when I have to take care of it. Like I’m out of my depth. I’m always afraid I’ll break it worse. Even if I take my car to the shop, or have someone come do the work for me at home, I feel embarrassed that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I never know if I’m getting ripped off by someone who’s realized they’re dealing with a guy who doesn’t know the difference between an alternator and a radiator.

It’s one of the things I’m bad at. There are lots of things I’m bad at. There are a few big important things that I’m especially bad at and feel very insecure about or even ashamed about. Those big ones I think about a lot.

Do you ever get stuck seeing yourself and your life exclusively through the lens of that one big thing you’re bad at?

 

A while ago I was chatting with a young couple about their big thing: Credit card debt. They were feeling very defeated. Sad, scared, embarrassed, and most of all hopeless. They could have more than paid for a mortgage with their minimum monthly credit card payments. They were searching for options to pay it down quickly and avoid thousands upon thousands in interest payments for years and years, but so far everything had been a dead end. They said they thought about it all the time, and it was constantly weighing them down. It was starting to define their lives.

But this young couple was the sweetest couple you could meet. Their careers were off to a great start. They were stylish and funny. They clearly had the greatest friendship and partnership. In most ways, they were the couple everyone wants to be. All they could see, though, was their debt.

And sometimes all I can see are the things I’ve failed at or the things I’m bad at.

 

I think we forget sometimes–very often in fact–that there is so much more to life than the one big thing we’re bad at. So we’re insecure.

 

Maybe someone has massive debt that they can’t see past, always stressing them out. But maybe that same person has a fantastic career going, one they should be very proud of, and if they focused on that they’d feel confidence and hope.

Maybe someone else without much of a career–still delivering pizzas or washing dishes–maybe that someone is looking enviously and insecurely at that first person with the great career, thinking that if only they were so successful, they’d be happy. But maybe the delivery guy is also fit and athletic, playing sports with friends all summer, hitting the gym every night.

Someone else is watching the athletic guy, wishing they looked like him–that they weren’t overweight, wishing they could go running, or at least climb the stairs without feeling short of breath. They focus on their weight problem until it seems like the only thing in their life. But they’re forgetting they have a couple hard-earned degrees from prestigious universities–an education many people only dream of. They’re smart and well-read. They have a great understanding of politics and current events. They have ‘Harvard’ on their resume and an almost automatic leg up on their professional competition.

And there’s another person who can think of nothing but how badly he wants and needs that education. If only he had taken out the loans to go to school, life would be so much better now. He constantly regrets it and feels inferior to his professional peers. He dreads getting asked where he went to school. But maybe he’s taking for granted what a great family he has. He has a couple kiddos that think the world of him. He gets to come home every night to warm hugs and smiles. And maybe in reality, that can make him a lot happier than a degree.

And maybe there’s someone else who doesn’t have a family. She doesn’t fit in with her siblings and she isn’t respected by her parents. She’s had to move on, and she’s lonely. She sees happy families everywhere and it hurts her. But what if she chose to focus on what she’s good at–the great things in her life? Maybe she gets to go on adventures, exploring the great outdoors, traveling to beautiful cities and exotic mountains.

 

The point is this: There’s always a hole in someone’s heart. There’s always a big thing someone’s bad at. Something they don’t have. Their big insecurity. But that’s never all there is to them.

 

What’s the thing you’re bad at? What’s the sad thing in your life? What’s your big insecurity?

If you find yourself thinking about it constantly, defining yourself by your weakness–you’re not alone. So many of us naturally focus on the sad or bad thing about ourselves.

But there’s also always good stuff. Good stuff we may not be seeing, because we’re so distracted by the bad stuff.

When you’re feeling discouraged about who you’re not, try thinking about who you are instead. There’s amazing stuff there.

Craig Lounsbrough - We focus more on our weaknesses

Noticing this moment

Eckhart Tolle - Most humans are never fully present

I have this compulsive habit of doing stuff on my days off. Lots of stuff. Too much stuff. It’s all stuff I love to do, totally worthwhile. I get really pumped about all these things I can do with all my free time. And then I do as much of the happy stuff as I can. But sometimes the more happy stuff I do, the less happy I feel.

In fact, I often find myself feeling anxious when I have spare time. Anxious that I won’t make the best of it. Anxious that I won’t do enough stuff that needs to be done or that I want to do. Anxious that the time will run out too quickly.

Does that ever happen to you? You get to the end of a weekend or a vacation, only to realize you spent so much time worrying about making the most of it that it slipped right through your fingers?

A couple weeks ago I took an afternoon off. This time I decided on a whim to go for a walk. No running, just a walk. No earbuds. No phone. Just walking and being with myself. Lots of freedom to think and feel. And see things! Things I don’t notice when I’m hurrying. Things like a colorful grasshopper I watched up close for a while.

I felt more peace and happiness in that quiet hour than I do in some entire weekends packed full of stuff to do. These kind of days always end up being my favorite.

I don’t think the problem is the stuff I do, either. One thing isn’t necessarily better or worse than the next. Some people take walks, some people go for runs, some people watch movies, and some people read books–and no matter what the activity, they can feel complete peace and freedom the whole while.

I think the key is incredibly simple. Whatever you are choosing to do, be there.

Be where you are right now. Notice the present moment. Your life in this world at this moment is exploding with color and music and flavor and feeling. But we spend so much time trying to make sure that right now becomes a good memory, that we miss the very thing we wanted the great memory to be about. We spend so much time trying to make this moment great, that we don’t see how incredible this moment already is.

Are you going to miss this moment?

“Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now. And that’s a revelation for some people: to realize that your life is only every now.” – Eckhart Tolle

Priority #1: What do you dread?

I have a natural tendency to ignore stressful things until they go away. (Which they don’t.)

It’s not really a natural tendency. I think I learned it through some very tough young adult years full of confrontations and stalemates. But I want to say it’s “natural” to give myself some credit: It’s not “The New Me.” I’ve been trying to kill it for years. It’s putting up a good fight, though.

I’ll call this tendency “Avoidance.”

A breakthrough in my fight against Avoidance came a couple years back when my insightful manager started using a kind of a mantra with me: “Rip the Band-Aid off!” It was excellent advice. She helped me see things in a new way. Dealing head on with a stressful issue is always, always, always (always) less stressful. It’s like when you were a little kid wiggling at your Band-Aid, tears brimming in your eyes. It hurts less if you just rip it off–no matter how scary.

But dealing with problems is not always as quick and easy as “ripping the Band-Aid off” sounds, so I want to explore this idea a little further and in a bit of a different way.

 

Sometimes you have an extra difficult choice to make, and it’s one that looks less like a quick fix and more like a long, exhausting journey. And you can choose to avoid it.

Picture yourself at the most out-of-shape you’ve ever been. I remember gaining 75 pounds after I got back from Africa 6 years ago. A bachelor, full of emotional stress, not sleeping, and eating free burritos every day. Suddenly my body was almost 150% its former size. I felt stupid and unattractive. I felt incapable. Defeated. You know how I felt and you know how hard it is to make the change I needed to make.

I dreaded seeing myself in the mirror, putting on clothes, letting my family see who I’d become, being shirtless in front of my girlfriend. Painful feelings–fear and disgust.

But here’s the thing. I couldn’t just “rip the Band-Aid off.” When I have to tell my landlord I accidentally put a hole in the drywall–that’s a Band-Aid I can rip off. 75 pounds, on the other hand, is not a Band-Aid you can rip off. That’s a giant mountain you have to move.

 

So I’m 75 pounds heavier than I was just a couple short years before. Feeling ashamed and insecure. I want to be fit, I could be fit, but I’m just not. And I have two choices. I can start my long, hard journey back to a healthier me–or I can avoid dealing with this problem. Tell myself not to worry about it–it’s okay.

Avoiding it means I also get to avoid dealing head on with how I really feel about myself. Avoidance means a lot more time on the couch for me, a lot less time sweating and feeling insecure at the gym in front of a bunch of people who the world tells me are a hell of a lot “sexier” than me. Avoidance tastes more like pizza and less like broccoli. Avoidance is way easier.

But the stressful issue of my weight remains. It’s not going away. And the longer I avoid it, the worse it’s getting.

Dealing head on with the thing I dread is my other option. I can start the journey I know deep down inside I really want to start. I can start making healthier choices in what I eat, how much I exercise, and when I get to sleep.

So I choose to make the change. I tape up a piece of notebook paper in my closet. Every day I weigh myself and mark my new weight on the paper. Then I pull the hanging clothes back in front of my paper because I feel embarrassed and I don’t want my girlfriend to see my struggle.

I lose 5 pounds and I feel excited. Inspired. Then after the weekend I step on the scale and I’ve gained it back plus a little to spare. I feel my heart in my throat. This happens a few times and I give up.

Avoidance is easier.

After a few sad years of feeling ashamed, powerless, and out of control, my girlfriend helped me make a change–just a couple months before we got engaged. We committed with each other to be in this for the long haul. We completely restructured our day to day lives. The dreaded problem become one of our top priorities. We fought it every day. Not sadly or without a little fun and relaxation here or there. We fought it in a positive light, with excitement and ambition. We fought with consistency and dedication. With focus. It became a major priority.

It no longer was a dark cloud always in the back of my mind. It was my challenge. I felt good about how I was dealing with it. Yes, it was still hard and stressful. But I was dealing with it.

 

Work is really the same way.

Why do heart attacks occur most often on Monday mornings? (It’s true, Google it.) Because we dread going to work. Because there are big, scary, stressful, depressing issues at work. There are the things that cropped up yesterday and there are the things that have been simmering for a long, long time.

Usually when it’s a situation that came out of the blue, you can rip it off like a Band-Aid.

But then there are the underlying realities at work that make our jobs stress us to death. Unrealistic sales goals. An unfair boss. Self-centered co-workers. Irresponsible employees. Our own bad habits. There’s always a mix of these, but usually there’s the big one: When you leave work thinking “If only…”–what’s that “if only?”

Let’s say for example that this is why you dread work these days: “If only my boss would actually listen to me.”

How did we get here? The first time your boss cut you off, you didn’t immediately lose all motivation. So how did it become the big thing you dread about work? I’d argue it’s a mix of two things:

1. It’s happened a lot.

2. It’s become your “mental model.” The way your mind knows and explains how your boss functions at his core.

Sure, it’s your boss’s fault that he keeps talking over you and won’t give you the time of day.

But maybe it’s your “fault” that you’ve let it happen to the point that you think it’s just the way things are, your boss is a jerk, and it’s not going to change.

Notice that this is not a Band-Aid you can rip off. You have so much pent up frustration, and your boss is so entrenched in his habit, that it’s going to be a long, slow, painful, stressful journey to a healthier relationship. You have to retrain the mental model you’ve created for how and why your boss is who you think he is. You have to keep addressing the offense, patiently and positively.

If you start working on it today, and I mean really working on it–making it one of your very top priorities at work–it will slowly get better. More importantly, you’ll feel better–sometimes immediately.

Or you can avoid it. Avoidance is easier.

But it will get worse, and worse, and worse. And one day you’ll suddenly realize, “I hate my job! This is killing me!” And you’ll find yourself completely incapable of dealing with it anymore. And you’ll give up and walk away, battered and bruised.

And then the process will start over with the next “big thing” that goes wrong at your replacement job.

Avoidance or chasing the solution without delay. . . .

 

What if every morning you felt yourself stressing about work, you asked yourself: “What do I dread about going to work?” And then made that your #1 priority for the day?

We can make a practice–a habit–of immediately dealing head on with the things we dread, or we can let Avoidance rob us of time and happiness and continue in a cycle of failure and broken relationships.

What big thing do you dread? What can you do about it today?

 

Picture two different worlds a year from today: A world in which you started dealing head on with your big “what if” today, and a world in which you put it off a little longer.

before & after