By Bill Reeb
Your perception of what you expect will actually shape what you experience. Let’s consider a few common perspective variations like “scarcity versus abundance,” “one right answer versus many right answers,” “opportunity versus threats,” “easy versus struggle,” “success versus failure,” “happiness versus sadness” just to name a few.
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With each of these, there is a continuum between one extreme and the other, and depending on where your outlook falls on that continuum, your perspective – that filter – will shape the way you interpret every experience.
For example, if we think there is a limited availability of something we want, studies have proven that we will act more hastily and less thoughtfully as we try to procure whatever it is while supplies last. Salespeople often try to invoke the feeling of “scarcity” to create urgency around a decision they want you to make. My experience is that rarely is there real scarcity.
For example, let’s consider that after months of looking, you finally find the perfect house, but the owners won’t sell it for a price you feel is reasonable. The feeling of scarcity would motivate most people to pay too much or more than they can afford. Why? Because they feel that if they don’t buy that specific house, another opportunity like it will never present itself again. I used to be easily manipulated by thoughts such as these. Fortunately, through my many years of experience being led around by the nose by others more worldly, to stay with the same analogy, I found that there are many great houses to be found. Sometimes you had to look a little harder, sometimes you had to wait a little longer, but ideal houses were always there, or about to come onto the market.
I was able to shift my perspective from looking at everything through the filter of scarcity to seeing everything through a filter of abundance.
When you approach life with the idea of abundance, there is no reason to overreact by purchasing the last one, because even if it is the last one, there will be other alternatives that will come along that will make you just as happy, if not happier.
I am not suggesting that you should put off whatever you are trying to accomplish to wait for the next best thing. I am simply stating that you almost always have alternatives. There really will be
- another “perfect house,” maybe at an even better price;
- a different great car that better fits your wish list;
- a new employee with stronger skills for the same salary; or
- an alternative business idea with even greater potential.
As I look back on my life, some of the things that I truly wanted and did everything possible to make happen ended up great … but an equal number of those situations turned out fairly marginal. Even more surprising, some of the things that I experienced that seemed terrible at the time actually created very positive changes in my life.
Many of the seemingly disparate perspectives mentioned above can also link together. In other words, one perspective may position you for the next. For example,
- the belief in scarcity can lead to the idea that there is just one right answer so you have to find it,
- which can lead to the idea that you have to take advantage of every good opportunity because it might be your last one,
- which can lead to the concept that life should always be a struggle because everyone wants what you want so you have to continuously fight for the few good things,
- which can lead to the idea that success and happiness are rare, so one shouldn’t expect to experience either for long,
- which can lead to the idea you are better off expecting bad things to happen so that you won’t be constantly disappointed, and the cycle continues.
Let me walk through this list and share with you why each is sending you down a rabbit hole.
As a consultant, I used to believe it was my job to find the one right answer to my client’s problems. I believed that while there were plenty of solutions, there was truly only one right one. I tried to find the approach that statistically gave us the greatest chance of success.
However, what I often found was that
- I didn’t always have enough information to really identify that best answer,
- people make or break ideas – so it was not as much about what might work as it was about what the client believed in and would support, and
- that there is no shortage of good ideas and right answers, each with different strengths and weaknesses.
I think there is an abundance of opportunity.
Rather than having to make one opportunity work because it might be your last, I now consider whether the current opportunity is good enough to tie me up to the point that I won’t be able to consider the new opportunities presenting themselves every day.
As for life being a struggle, certainly you will encounter struggles throughout your life. However, there are people I have encountered who simply gravitate toward struggle – they look for it, want to hang on to it, and it seems as if somehow they are comforted by the misery of it. As you approach whatever you are trying to achieve, know that while some struggle should be expected, it doesn’t have to become your norm unless you are looking for it to be.
Success and happiness are not rare. If you are like most of the people I know, you experience successes every day, and you have moments of happiness all of the time. The question is whether you are writing off those successes and worrying away your happiness.
The problem with success is that it is relative. I’ve mentioned “little Billy” and his disappointment in coming in second at his track meet. He wasn’t comparing his race results against his previous performances – he was making the common mistake of comparing his results against those of others.
The other common mistake we make after a successful action or encounter is to assume that anyone could have accomplished what we just did. It is difficult to feel successful when you are constantly ratcheting up your goals and setting new targets long before you reach even the first ones. These kinds of thought processes are self-destructive because they continually reinforce messages that you are unsuccessful, when in fact, you are achieving success every day. So, don’t write off your successes – accept the idea that it is okay for you to enjoy them.
I also see happiness washed away just like our successes. For example, in those moments when you find yourself in a happy place, if you instantly start trying to hold on to those feelings or begin wondering when those feeling will go away, you will effectively worry your happiness away. You have to enjoy the feelings as they come along. Don’t try to contain them. Don’t try to analyze them. Just feel them. Remember El Yunque: the joy was there all along … I was just too busy to see it on the way up. Thankfully, I came to my senses on my way down.
This leads me to my personal favorite: “If I expect things to go bad, then I won’t be disappointed when they do. If they end up better than I expected, well, that’s when I will be happy.” This mindset is rooted in ideas like
- there is a scarcity of success available;
- falling short of expectation in any way is failure; and
- a failure of an act should translate to failure as a human being, which should be embraced by shame and embarrassment.
This way of thinking – “I want to avoid disappointment at all cost” – just baffles me.
Last summer, I was playing golf with a friend and we got into this exact discussion. He wants to hit a good golf shot, he hopes to hit a good shot, but he expects to hit a bad shot. When I asked him why in the world he would think this way, his response was, “As long as I don’t allow myself to think I will hit a good shot, I am not as disappointed when I don’t because I was not expecting to anyway. And when I do hit a good shot, because I don’t allow myself to think I will, I am just that much happier when I do. This approach keeps me from getting too disappointed when I play golf.” So, here is what I heard when he explained this to me:
I am choosing the mental state of being unhappy for almost the entire round of golf. This way, if I hit a bad shot (something to be unhappy about) because I am already unhappy, it is no big deal. And if I hit a good shot (something to be happy about) because I am normally in an unhappy state, I experience a greater amount of joy in that moment. Then, I reset my emotions and go back to being unhappy until the next positive event occurs, all to avoid becoming too unhappy.
If you do the math, it becomes clear that it is absurd to voluntarily think this way, unless of course, your objective is to be generally unhappy almost all of the time. In a round of golf, often about four and a half hours, we are actually only in the process of hitting a golf ball for about 20 percent of that time (about 50 minutes). For the remaining approximately three and a half hours of the golf round, we are getting to our ball, trying to find our ball, waiting for someone else to hit a ball, and so forth. So, why wouldn’t you at least choose to be happy for this three-and-a-half-hour period regardless of how the remaining time goes?
Here is the sad part. After playing many rounds of golf with my friend, I can tell you that his philosophy isn’t really protecting him from anything because, based on my observations, when he hits a bad shot, whether he was mentally prepared to do so or not, his frustration level spikes. Whether you succeed or fail, whether an effort turns out good or bad, during that moment of realization, you will feel some spike in your emotions. So, if the emotional surge is going to occur anyway, positive or negative, doesn’t it make sense to try to be happy all of the rest of the time?
As well, when you prepare yourself mentally to fail, because your mind is processing those thoughts and likely creating physical responses to match them (like excess tension), you increase the odds that you will in fact fail. Don’t prepare yourself to fail … if it happens, deal with it, then forget about it, then get up and get ready to go again.
Here is an old joke that I have heard many times that really sums up how your perspective can shape your world:
A young couple had twin boys about the age of five. Though they were alike in so many ways, in one way they were vastly different. Joey, a generally melancholy kid, was commonly disappointed by life and would often succumb to the negative view of whatever was going on around him. Bobby, on the other hand, was almost always happy. He had a very bright outlook on life and always expected good things to come his way. Mom and Dad were a little concerned that both boys’ views of life were out of balance, so they decided a “teaching moment” was in order.
On the boys’ sixth birthday, they wanted both to experience life as the other saw it. So, while both were in school, the parents filled Joey’s room with new toys, knowing that this would help him realize that unbelievably good things can happen. And to help Bobby see that life does have its disappointments, they dumped a large pile of manure in the corner of his room as his present. Upon arriving home, both boys, as they did every day, went to their rooms to change out of their school clothes. After waiting about 20 minutes, the parents decided to check in and see how the life lessons were unfolding.
As they peered into Joey’s room, his parents noticed him sitting among his toys staring off in space. Surprised not to see him frantically playing running from new toy to new toy, they asked, “What’s wrong?” Joey replied, “I’m bored. These toys are nice, but I was hoping for a new train set. And besides, my friends are not here to play with me.” Disappointed that their experiment didn’t work with Joey, they went to open the door to Bobby’s room fully expecting him to be crying over his very smelly new environment. As they got closer, they heard Bobby laughing with noises that sounded like he had to be tossing himself around the room. When they opened the door, they saw Bobby half buried in his giant pile of dung. They pulled him out and said, “Bobby, what is going on here? How can you be so happy with this smelly manure in your room?” Bobby smiled as he got ready to start digging again and said, “There has to be a pony in here somewhere.”
We have all dug through a pile of dung or two in our lives. Like Bobby, we have a choice in the way we view that effort. You can spend your time looking for what is missing, thinking about how your situation falls short of expectation or expecting the worst. Or, you can dig through life with enthusiasm, hoping to find your pony.
Whether there is a pony buried beneath the manure is totally out of your control, and you will experience whatever emotions that arise once the reality of your situation is known. But I would recommend that because the vast majority of the time in our lives is spent in anticipation or in route of an expectation, choose “happy” as your default feeling, choose “hope” as your default outlook and choose “resilience” as your response to whatever happens. Deal with disappointment when it comes, but rather than look at it as some deep dark pit you have to climb out of, just think of it as a life experience that will only make you better, faster, stronger and smarter! And recognize that your perception of the world has a dramatic effect on the world that will actually take shape around you.
Assess yourself on creating your world. How do you feel you are doing?
On this subject, I:
- Need a lot of work
- Need a little work
- Am okay
- Feel good where I am
What can I do to change my perspective so that I more frequently choose happy, hope and resilience instead of scary, struggle and disappointment?
How am I getting stuck because I won’t allow myself to consider that there might be a pony in the pile of dung I am dealing with?