“No matter where you go, there you are.”
That is the essence of the motto behind self-improvement. The constant factor involved in all of your life’s pursuits is: you. It’s not a big jump from that observation to the hypothesis that improving yourself might be the single most effective way of improving your life.
The biggest challenge in improving yourself and your circumstances isn’t that change is hard and success doesn’t come overnight. It is hard. But the biggest challenge is that we are very much blind to what it is that would make the biggest difference if it were changed. Our knowledge of ourselves looks like this:
Most of us work in the area of the things that we know about ourselves. We know we’re not as consistent as we’d like to be. We know sometimes we don’t react in the best possible ways. We know we’re not assertive enough when it counts. We know these things and try to work it out or live with it.
Then there’s the significantly larger amount of things we know we don’t know. We know we haven’t figured out yet what we really want to achieve in life. We know we don’t know how to have that difficult conversation with our parents. We know we don’t know how to manage a team well yet. When these things become important to us, we go and try to figure them out.
And then there’s the vast landscape of stuff we have no clue that it even exists. Sometimes these are things that are clear to other people, but not to ourselves. Sometimes these are things that nobody realizes. This is the source of why your relationships become so frustrating, why you’re easily upset, why people don’t listen to what you say.
What others see that we don’t see
I stuttered a lot when I was young. But while I was busy talking, I didn’t notice what it sounded like to other people when I spoke. I knew I stuttered, but I didn’t think it was a big deal at all. Therefore, I was absolutely shocked when I had my first encounter with another stutterer. I found it very painful to talk to him because (not quite unlike me) he stuttered every other word. You already knew what word he was going to say, but still had to sit around and wait for him to get through it. Now imagine you already know how the rest of that entire sentence goes. So even though I knew he was a nice person who probably had a lot of interesting things to say, I never had a long conversation with him. It was only then that I realized it might be equally painful for others to listen to me.
You might find it hard to imagine that I would fail to notice a serious speech impediment. Some might find it hard to imagine that that one ex-colleague with the abrasive manner who complains constantly about others while not doing their own job properly, doesn’t realize how off-putting his behavior is. Certain things are just much, much more obvious from the outside than from the inside.
How one person reacts to you often says more about them than about you. How many people react to you, tells you how your surrounding sees you. That may not be your “fault” and their perception may not be true, but the fact that this is their perception is undoubtedly true and it will impact your life. The most common problem is that we fail to see what they see and that makes us blind to why they react to us the way they do. Ask yourself:
1. If it were me who’s reacting the way this person is reacting, what would be my reason? (5x)
And then ask yourself: what would be another reason I could have? And another one? Usually 5 reasons will be sufficient to gain some insight.
We don’t have to completely change ourselves to fit other people’s preferences, or spend every day worrying about what others think about us. The hard thing about life is that the answer is somewhere in the middle, rather than somewhere out in either extremes: finding the balance between being true to ourselves and accommodating the people we choose to share a space with. Best of all, finding a balance that will allow us to achieve what’s important to us. Don’t fall into the trap of immediately thinking: “they’re wrong about me, that’s not what I’m like at all!”. That will be our first instinctive response. For most of us there is a big gap between how we see ourselves and what our actions say about us.
What nobody sees
Three years into college, I sat in a small class about advanced algorithms. There was a logistical issue with the projects that had been planned and the professor was asking for input on how to best compromise. After 3–4 others had spoken, I shared a proposal I came up with. The professor acknowledged the input and went on to the next. After another half hour of discussion, he finally said that he had a good idea on how to resolve the issue satisfactorily for everyone. He explained it and the class was dismissed. I thought nothing of it, until a classmate came up to me as we’re walking down the hallway and said to me: “Can you believe that guy? He took your idea and didn’t even give you credit for it.”
As so it happens there is an array of things that happen to women more often than men. Our surroundings react to us differently depending on whether we’re men or women. That might sound obvious, but it’s nearly impossible to see the extent to which that is true, because most of us spend either our entire lives being women or being men. Similarly, it is nearly impossible for people with a tall stature to see the extent to which people react to them differently because they’re tall. (Have a look at Paula Williams’ TEDx talk, for an illuminating and funny account of her experience transitioning from being a male CEO to female).
The cases where the differences stand out are rare. People associate culture with language or food, but those are just the beginning. Everything from when we wear our shoes to how often we see our parents to how we mail a letter to when/whether we get married and have children is part of culture. It just doesn’t look like it because it’s everywhere. We internalize it. We expect it.
How does this relate to self-improvement? These expectations are what in some circles are called beliefs. We build them up subconsciously over time. Beliefs that come from society, our parents, the internet, and our personal experiences. Most of these beliefs are never expressed, because they’ve been there longer than we can remember and they’re part of our reality. For example, if we have many experiences where what we say gets ignored, we might conclude that people don’t want to listen to us and cope by holding long monologues not giving others a chance to interrupt. This will then turn out to validate our belief, because lo and behold! people look bored and ignore what we say (honestly, how many people can hold 30 minute monologues while maintaining the listener’s interest?).
We’re often unaware of the subconscious beliefs and assumptions that drive our behavior, and neither do others know that about us. What we can do to lift the partially lift the veil, is to examine something that keeps happening that we find undesirable. Whether it be getting stuck with doing other people’s work, getting into exhausting arguments or making little progress with side projects — these things keep happening because we keep dealing with them in the same way.
When we run into an obstacle, the majority of the time we try to overcome it by doing more of the same thing or less of the same thing. Instead we can ask ourselves:
2. Why am I dealing with this situation this way? (10x)
Ask yourself this at least 10 times earnestly. You will see that your first answer is the most uninteresting, because it’s the one you’ve always been giving yourself. By the time you’ve answered it the 10th time, you’ve likely started scratching beneath the surface.
After exposing the assumption underlying that behavior, we can start to ask: how would I handle the situation if this assumption is NOT true? Is there anyone I admire who would handle it differently than I am handling it now? What’s the worst thing that can happen if I try doing that different thing this time?