Sometimes the things you’re afraid to let people see because you think they’ll judge you end up being the very things they really love about you.
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?
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.
There’s this one cashier at our grocery store that helps us sometimes. He’s disabled and has to sit on a stool while he slowly rings up our items. He’s very talkative and friendly, but his conversation is a little awkward.
I’ve noticed a lot of people avoid him. They know checkout will take longer and the topics will be weird, so they find a different line. More convenient, more comfortable. I caught myself avoiding his lane and felt awful.
He definitely notices when we recognize him and awkwardly shuffle away, as if we realized there’s a shorter line somewhere else. He can feel our impatience as he clumsily shoves our groceries into the bags. He knows we think his small talk is awkward. He can hear us thinking that employing a faster worker would be better customer service. After all, we’ve got important things to get to.
And he carries all this home with him every single night.
He’s a good sport and he makes the best of it. He tries to connect and he makes your day if he can. He knows some people like him. He’s proud of his work ethic and he’s a very sweet person. He’s got some friends and family who love him.
But sometimes he feels the hurt. Some days it really bothers him that people don’t want to see him. He wishes he could move faster so his customers would be satisfied. He replays the awkward comment he made to be funny, and hears again and again the pitying chuckle. He falls asleep to the impatient drum of your credit card on his counter. If he were more coordinated, he’d be more likable.
And he falls asleep with the same big feelings that I have when I’m embarrassed in front of my friends, the same big feelings you have when your boss makes you feel stupid.
“I can’t stand the IT guy. He’s super rude. Really unfriendly.”
Cassie always said what nobody else would say but everyone was thinking, so I knew that the rest of my team probably felt the same way about Ryan, who was there for the day installing new computers.
“Really? What happened?”
“I don’t know, he just… always looks really angry, and he seems annoyed when I tell him something’s not working. He never even says hi.”
I always encouraged my employees to speak freely, so I wanted Cassie to feel understood. But I’d worked with Ryan a lot, and he was a good guy.
“Have you gotten to talk to him much? He’s actually pretty nice once you get him talking. Maybe he’s a little shy, but he’s always been really helpful to me and he’s one of the hardest working people I know. You might like him if you get to know him.”
“Nope, his attitude sucks.” Cassie’s mind was made up.
Ryan is often misunderstood. He is very quiet and can be very serious. Focused, direct, and professional. Not exactly a social butterfly.
When people think and talk about Ryan the way Cassie did, it hurts Ryan. It’s not always to his face, but it gets around to him. Dirty looks, “feedback,” conversations overheard.
Cassie doesn’t know what has made Ryan who he is. Ryan served in active duty and saw some pretty dark stuff while trying to protect his country. Some of the stuff he had to see and do, he won’t talk about. “It just changes you,” he says. “You can never unsee it or undo it. And nobody back home will ever understand.”
Some nights he startles awake, ready to fight, only to find he’s sitting in a bed drenched in sweat. He has been through so much, sacrificed more than a lot of us can imagine. And it has left scars he carries with him to work every day–scars that rub people the wrong way. He’s seen more than just rainbows and butterflies, and you can see it on his face. But if you don’t know him already, it may just look like “unfriendliness.”
Ryan is a complete softy deep down. He’s head over heals for his wife and would give the world for his kids. He loves to serve. He has big feelings, just like the rest of us. It’s easy when we’re in Cassie’s position to forget that.
When I was about 7, I knew this girl named Bridget. She had a couple lively little siblings with cute curly hair–picture perfect. But she had plain black hair and lots of freckles. She was quiet and kept to herself. Shy.
Bridget brought me a picture that she drew of me as a gift. She had given me freckles, too.
“That’s so ugly! I don’t look like that at all! You’re so bad at drawing!” I yelled at her as I tore the picture down the middle and crumpled it up.
Tears welled up in Bridget’s eyes and she hurried away to hide. All alone.
Billions of people share this earth with you and me. Each one is unique. Each one has his or her own struggles and fears, insecurities and soft spots. But each one shares our humanness.
Look with compassion at the next person you see today, at the next person that bothers you, and the next stranger who interacts with you. They have feelings–big feelings–just like you. Good feelings and bad feelings. And you are going to have something to do with those feelings.
What do you see in this picture?
In 1915, the American humor magazine Puck published a drawing by British cartoonist William Ely Hill. The picture was entitled My Wife and My Mother-in-Law. The caption read: “They are both in this picture–find them.”
If not, show someone else. Maybe they’ll see it differently.
The illusion was popularized by psychologist Edwin Boring in 1930. Variations of the picture were more recently used by author Stephen Covey to illustrate that, as he put it, “two people can see the same thing, disagree, and yet both be right.”
I grew up very smart, confident, and passionate. I thought very deeply, came to the right conclusions, and cared so much about everyone in my life that I had to help them see my conclusions, too. I never genuinely considered I might be getting stuff wrong until I had a big enough crush on a girl to listen when she told me I didn’t have all the answers.
What’s funny is that years later, the majority of big things I so confidently knew and so passionately tried to help other people understand–I no longer see the same way.
We all have our perspectives and our perceptions. We can’t help that they are very limited. And we can’t help but act according to them.
Seeing my own illusion
I remember one time I flew to another state to visit my recently married sister and brother-in-law. My sister and I had been extremely close friends for a long time and cared deeply for each other, so we were excited. But I was also there, more importantly, to visit the girl I was dating. The schedule was lopsided significantly in favor of girlfriend time. Later, my sister expressed that she was a little hurt by how the visit played out, and I just couldn’t understand. She supported my priorities but felt frustrated that it was very different than she expected. She had the impression that I was there to spend a few days with them, too. But I spent less time than expected with them, and when I was there I wasn’t exactly present. Again–and to my sister’s credit–she didn’t think my priorities were wrong. She just wished I had decided and communicated initially that I wouldn’t be spending much time with them. It would have saved her some disappointment. TO me, her feelings seemed a little selfish and unreasonable.
It wasn’t until years later when I experienced similar scenarios, but with roles reversed–I was the one with expectations too high, missing out on people I loved–that I finally understood that my sister was completely right. I wasn’t wrong, but she wasn’t either. I was so sure she was seeing things inaccurately, but she wasn’t. And I just was not in a place with my focus and priorities at the time where I could truly see her perspective. But years later, when I was in her position, I also felt a little ignored, mislead, and taken for granted. And it didn’t feel good.
I was so sure. Saw things so clearly. And I was thinking very deeply and had the best intentions. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that there was a completely different way to look at it. And this is just one example. There are a hundred more, and I’m sure you have plenty as well. Times you took a dogmatic stand, only to look back some time later in embarrassment.
Do you see the old lady? Or the young lady? Which one is the right one?
The problem is not that I took a stand or believed what I believed. The problem is not that I acted on my perceptions. The problem was what happens when I don’t recognize that there may be other perspectives–just as valid, just as clear.
This idea gives a deeper meaning to the term “Self-Centered.”
Sometimes we do what seem to us to be the greatest, kindest, most caring thing. But because it’s born out of our narrow perspective, because our focus is completely on our own Self’s perception, without attention to another’s interpretation, we can leave a path of hurt and confusion. We can act passionately in one direction, completely missing the collateral damage we’re doing in another direction.
Why do we see many things so clearly, but so differently?
For one very simple reason: We’re different people. I’m not you and you’re not me. I grew up in an extremely black-and-white home, preoccupied with ethics and judging whether we’re getting things right or wrong. Maybe you grew up in a similar home, but experienced so much hurt that you threw out all standards as causing dysfunction and depression.
Or maybe you grew up in a very chill home where good intentions were assumed, self-esteem was encouraged, and time and energy were devoted to free creativity and expression of individuality. Maybe this was a positive thing. Or maybe there was too much obsession with freedom, and you couldn’t hold your siblings responsible for just being honest and treating you with respect.
I’ve had a quarter of a century of experiences, shaping my focus and my understanding–my perspectives and perceptions. I’ve had very unique experiences leaving me with unique needs and unique sensitivities, unique priorities and unique comfort zones.
Consider this example: Two people look at the same religious organization. The organization does a lot of good for people and gives a lot of hope, but there are a number of people involved in leading it for selfish reasons. One person sees it as a breeding ground for judgement, hurt, and disappointment. Another person sees it as a vehicle to bring hope to unfortunate and hurting people in the community. Both people are completely correct, but both people will think, speak, and act completely differently towards the organization.
This CAN’T and SHOULDN’T be avoided.
A simple solution is opening up your mind and starting to see everything through your neighbors’ lenses. Problem is, you’re not going to get their lens quite right, either. And even if you could, there’s another neighbor whose perspective you won’t have the time to consider as well.
Refusing to take a stand for anything just because you don’t know everything just results in a crippled world, a world where nobody can help each other. Maybe my help isn’t quite right.
Imagine a world where nobody stood up to slavery or persecution because there’s a chance the “other side” might see something you can’t see.
So what SHOULD be done?
What if we tried living every single day with a deep awareness, acceptance, and appreciation for the huge variation in yours and my perspectives? What if I always kept in mind that you may have just as clear a perception of something as I do, but you may be seeing it differently?
A few things may result…
- When it seems like I hurt you, but I know I wasn’t wrong, I’ll try to take the time to figure out why you’re hurting and see if we can fix it together.
- When you see that I’ve latched onto an idea that is bringing weakness and sadness into my daily life, like a self-defeating attitude about myself, you may be able to help me, because I may actually grant that you see a real thing in me that I’m not seeing.
- When I could do with a change of mind about a big subject, a respectful, constructive discussion can take place where we both come out better educated and appreciating each other.
- I don’t have a subconscious need to control everything, to make sure people are doing what I need or want them to do, to get you to live life my way, because I realize your way includes some strong and helpful perspectives I can’t give you.
- I can let you do you, with the peace of mind that all my solutions for you probably aren’t the right ones anyway.
- I can freely and happily admit that I am just doing my best and don’t have all the answers, instead of feeling like a fraud, trying to hide all my doubts and insecurities.
- I can ask for help because not having it all together is only a weakness to those who think they can have it all together.
At your funeral, people are going to remember you–people who have their own lenses.
Will they remember someone arrogant, who was sure they knew best, always focused on getting their own way, and always trying to fix other people?
Or will they remember someone humble, compassionate, and open-minded–someone who instead of judging whether others’ feelings were valid or invalid, just honored their feelings and beliefs as theirs? Someone who instead of trying to control the people they cared about just made sure to be there for them?