Sometimes the best way to solve a nagging problem is to slow down, take a close look at it and try a different approach.
Not far from my home in Washington State is an incredible volcanic formation known as the Ape Caves. The Ape Caves are stunning lava tubes that hikers visit in droves every summer (sorry, despite the name there are no apes residing there). Because they’re underground, the tubes have a consistently cool temperature regardless of the air temperature outside. They’re also fantastically dark. Visitors won’t get far without a light source of some kind. And even with a flashlight or lantern, odds are high that they’ll stumble over the uneven surface. Some even take a fall.
I imagine those who are most prone to stumbling and falling are the folks without sufficient light, along with those who are moving the fastest, eager to reach the end of the tunnels. In either case an adjustment, either slowing down or breaking out that extra flashlight will usually correct the problem. It doesn’t eliminate the obstacles, it just makes them easier to navigate. Those who fail to adjust are the ones who will most likely suffer repeated stumbles and falls.
The old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results has become cliché, yet the idea remains true. We’ll repeatedly make the same mistake when a simple adjustment could fix it.
I struggled for years trying to play certain tunes on the guitar. When I practiced, I always attempted to play the songs I was learning at the same speed as the musicians who wrote them. Only when I slowed down the tempo did I learn to pluck each note properly and create the right melody. Once I had the fingering right I could increase my speed until I reached the tempo of the original song. It was a small fix that improved my guitar playing in a big way.
What are areas that you’re struggling in? What small adjustments could be made to turn those struggles into victories? Sometimes it helps to slow down and shine a little light on the problem. It may take sincere reflection; an act that often takes the form of asking yourself the right questions and giving careful thought to the answers. Here’s a few questions that may help you turn your struggles into victories:
Mistakes are a part of life, and if we’re doing things right we’ll learn from them and return to our problems with better approaches. That’s what growth is. Fail, learn, improve, repeat. Slow down, shine a little light on things and change your approach. It’s either that or continue stumbling.
Respect the process of achieving a goal and you'll notice how everything you do takes you one step closer.
I’m a barbecue fanatic. I love the method, the art and especially the final product. A well smoked, melt in your mouth brisket is my idea of not just a perfect meal but a perfect end to the hours long process of bringing that meal into being. A beef brisket is a tough chunk of meat; producing a tender and juicy final product involves what barbecue enthusiasts call “low and slow” cooking.
A properly smoked brisket can take up to 14 hours to produce. The key is to let the heat and smoke do their work; the pit-master’s chief job is to constantly monitor the temperature and provide just enough wood to the fire to keep that temperature as stable as possible. It can be a tough job, but with a bit of hard work to go along with the ambitious goal of a perfect brisket, the result is both delicious and satisfying.
The low and slow formula is basically this:
Hard Work + Goals + Ambition = Satisfaction
The pitmaster’s goal to produce the perfect piece of meat is brought to fruition through ambition and hard work over many hours. If he cooks it too quickly, the meat will toughen up. Low and slow is the only way to produce the desired outcome.
The same is true for everything in life. To reach our goals we must respect the process and take things one day at a time. When you feel like each day brings you incrementally closer to your goal, you can feel excited about the day itself. It’s true that most jobs are uninspiring on their own. But if each day in that job takes you a bit closer to your goal, doesn’t that make it worth waking up and going to work in the morning? The minimum wage job will lead to something slightly better which will serve as the next stepping stone toward your goal. The goal is the target. Your ambition and your work ethic make up the fuel that takes you there.
It applies everywhere
Raising a family involves more hard work than anything I’ve ever done. For me, the goal fueled by ambition is to hold my family close to me and raise children that grow into happy and generous adults. That is a satisfying end for me. Each step along the way takes my family and me a bit closer to the goal. Each minute spent fishing with my sons. Each chore I teach them to accomplish without complaint and every talk or I love you I offer to my daughters takes us a bit closer. But the formula applies to much more; building a business enterprise, growing a career, crafting a piece of art or any other process oriented effort. You’re limited by the loftiness of your goal and the amount of work and ambition you put into achieving it.
Remember to take it one day at a time, low and slow. The perfect brisket isn’t crafted on a 500 degree skillet. It’s made in a 250 degree smoker, one minute at a time, hour after hour. As problems arise and the temperature rises and falls, make the necessary adjustments but take heart in the fact that you’re a little bit closer to an end that’s personally invigorating for you. Press forward. You got this.
We have to look for traits and actions that confirm our value, not a negative self-image.
I have a friend who has an irrational belief that cars with license plates from a certain state are all operated by terrible drivers. Over the course of a day, he’ll see hundreds of vehicles equipped with the offensive plates and each time he sees one make a bad driving decision, it validates his opinion of all drivers from the state. Of course, the huge majority of the vehicles he sees with these plates are driving safely and courteously. But those are ignored. They don’t validate his opinion. Only the tiny minority of poor drivers are considered. This is confirmation bias at work.
Of course, it’s easy to see how such thinking is illogical and irrational. But most of us do it all the time. For example, in a marriage, one partner may insist that they do the dishes all the time and the other insists that isn’t true. When the first does a load of dishes it confirms their belief. When the other sees a sink full of dirty dishes it confirms their belief. The second doesn’t recognize when the sink is empty and the first may not being do the dishes all that often.
Confirmation bias can be even more sinister when we use it to undermine our ability or achievement and reinforce a negative self-image. I can accomplish a lot of things over the course of a day, but if I don’t do something that I considered very important, I sometimes consider myself lazy or useless. How backwards!
In my case, I should consider the day a success. I just have a little work leftover for tomorrow. The same is true for you. You failed, you aren’t a failure. You answered a question wrong, you’re not dumb. You made a bad decision, you’re not incapable of making good decisions. Often, people will consider the small errors as confirmation of their negative self-image.
When pressed, my friend will acknowledge the ridiculousness of his opinion. When he drives, if he makes a conscious effort to recognize the good drivers his opinion changes. Drivers from that certain state are just as capable and efficient as drivers from his own state. We have to go through the same exercise.
Recognizing the reality of things and changing a negative self-image takes effort. You have to step back and take stock of your victories, no matter how small they are. Don’t blind yourself to them; don’t let just the failures, the missed opportunities or the bad choices confirm an illogical, irrational self-image. You must consciously look for the good.
The opinion you have of yourself is what will make the difference between achieving success as you define it, or ultimate failure. When you catch yourself exercising a negative confirmation bias about yourself, make a concerted effort to consider a few actions or traits that confirm the opposite. You have value, even if it doesn’t immediately jump to the surface of your consciousness. Sometimes, it just takes a little thought to convince yourself of it. Just like seeing the good drivers, over time that effort will help reinforce a positive self-image.
There’s a line from the movie Castaway that has always stuck in my mind as one of profound depth and wisdom. After being rescued from a deserted island where he’d spent years struggling to survive, the character played by Tom Hanks described how he was able to get through the ordeal. He said simply, “Tomorrow the sun will rise.” Despite terrible hardship and abject hopelessness, he could always return to that one simple truth. Tomorrow the sun will rise.
It’s impossible to appreciate the poignancy of that statement until you’ve reached a point that seems completely hopeless; a time when there seems to be nothing there to keep you moving forward. Despite the desperation you might feel and the desire to give up, you can’t escape the truth of the statement. Tomorrow the sun will rise.
Perspective matters. I’m told that distance runners often focus simply on reaching the next telephone pole. Once they reach it, they focus on reaching the next one. That process goes on for the length of whatever distance they’re running. They focus on the process rather than on reaching the end of the race.
I tend to focus on the horizon; I go for big goals, but in doing that I seem to ignore each small step that it takes to reach them. I ignore the process. I’ve tried and failed in significant ways on many occasions. I’ve gone ‘all in’ on business ventures and lost everything. I’ve put myself and my family in seemingly hopeless positions, even getting to the point where I literally forgo buying medication for myself. When it seemed as if things couldn’t get any worse, my car broke down.
It’s painful because as circumstances become more challenging, the horizon that I tend to focus so hard on becomes invisible to me. I’ve fallen down, the sun has set and I can’t see the path forward. But that horizon, appealing as it may be, was never a reality. It may yet become a reality, but it isn’t right now. The circumstances of today however, are reality.
If you’re like me, you tend to view the goal as an end and once that end is reached then things will be better. Say it out loud and the true nonsense of the idea will ring in your ears. If I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy. Put in that context, the problem becomes crystal clear: When the goal becomes the be-all, end-all of our lives we lose sight of the goodness of today. Consequently, the contrast between the sky blue end concocted in our minds and the challenges we face right now can make today seem far more miserable than it should. But the end that we envision is likely an illusion; there will always be struggle. And there are good things in life right now that we’re ignoring. So, what value does focusing on the sky blue end give us if it clouds our eyes to current blessings?
Rather than focusing on what might have been but for our failures or other obstacles, we have to focus on what is. When you’ve bottomed out, you have to remember to take things one day at a time. One step at a time. Take some time to focus on the right now. Count your blessings and start over if you need to. Tomorrow the sun will rise. A new day will begin.
Being true to ourselves helps build self-confidence, create deeper connections and encourage creativity and ambition.
A few years ago my children welcomed a new grandmother into their life. Like most grandmothers, she’s loving and proud of her grandkids. She attends their events, bakes them cookies and cakes and loves them unconditionally. She’s everything a kid could want in a grandma. She’s also a big fan of death metal music, occasionally dragging my father-in-law to such concerts as Five Finger Death Punch, Slayer, Anthrax and Lamb of God. She doesn’t fit perfectly into the grandmother demographic. She doesn’t fit perfectly into the death metal demographic either. And that’s exactly what I love about her. She lives her life in ways that work for her instead of trying to fit into someone else’s mold.
I see her as a great example in how to live a fulfilling life. Approaching life in this way leads to improved self-confidence and deeper connections with others. When you’re authentic, you’ll find there are people you truly connect with and others that you don’t connect with as much, and that’s perfectly ok. It’s those real, deep connections that demonstrate that people will like you for who you really are. Not a filtered version designed to appease them. With real connections featuring your authentic self, your self-confidence will soar in regards to developing quality relationships.
I struggled for most of my life as a people pleaser. Every interaction I had involved a clear personality change. I wanted to fit in so badly that I genuinely forgot who I was and had to reinvent myself with each interaction. The adjustment to being a more authentic person who didn’t try to fit in wasn’t easy. In fact, it involved a very real willingness to stop caring what people thought of me. But the result has been a much greater level of comfort and confidence in my interactions.
It’s none of your business what other people think of you.
There’s a hilarious stand up bit from comedian Mike Birbiglia that illustrates this pretty well. Birbiglia felt snubbed when he tried to shake someone’s hand and subsequently confided in baseball legend Dennis Eckersley. Eck’s advice? “Eh, f**k ‘em!”. I imagine that being an elite professional athlete, Eck had to take this advice to heart himself in dealing with the endless line up of critics. But the same applies to you and I. It's no use wasting our limited time and energy on pleasing folks that you simply can't please. We're better off devoting that energy to pleasing ourselves and our loved ones. You can watch the bit here.
But there’s more to it than self-confidence and connection. Attempting to fit in comes with overtly negative consequences including a moving set of personal standards because our behaviors are influenced by whomever we’re currently with. Peer pressure affects adults as well, and it’s not just pressure to do something “bad.” Its pressure to conform regardless of what our inner voice says.
This pressure to conform stifles individual creativity and ambition. We don’t want to stick our heads above the crowd and expose ourselves to the criticisms of the people we want to fit in with! What a tragedy! Not only does the desire to fit in inhibit our ability to feel happiness and joy, it inhibits our ability to add value to those around us!
The moral is this: be yourself. Be authentic and don’t stress any more than you need to in order to win approval from others. Start by telling yourself that someone else’s opinion of you simply doesn’t matter. Accept yourself for who you are. While you’re at it, don’t forget to drop off the fresh baked cookies for your grandkids on the way to the Anthrax concert...