There’s a moment before we do something where most of us have a choice. We can either choose to do what we’ve always done or we can choose to do something different. However, many of us aren’t even aware of this opportunity because the way we do things and how we react are so ingrained in us that choice seems impossible.
The good news is that, while it’s hard and can require immense effort, we can learn to interrupt that default pattern of thinking or acting. Why should we bother? Because it’s the only way in which, other than relying on luck, we can change the outcome and shape our reality.
A bit of context about how we think would probably be useful here. The brain, while a truly amazing organ, is also lazy. The way we think and what we do will often be a result of default behaviour and thinking that has become ingrained over time. To allow us the space to do everything else we think we need to, when choosing what to do our brains will typically take the path of least effort and, guess what, doing what we’ve always done requires a lot less effort than doing something differently. However, through active effort, concentration and application over time we can learn to put in place a checkpoint before we act where in the short space time between thinking and acting we choose what we do rather than default to our default. While never easy, over time it does become easier thanks to our brains inherent plasticity.
Let’s get practical. What does this actually mean? Let’s work through a personal example. A typically British trait is self-deprecation and it’s one I’ve fully embraced over the years. The idea of appearing arrogant is anathema to me and so, to avoid being seen as arrogant, I have a tendency to overdo the self-deprecation which in turn can actually undermine how competent people see me. How does this manifest itself? Let’s say I’m giving a presentation, rather than standing up and feeling comfortable explaining why I’m an expert in something or instilling the audience with an understanding of my skills and experience, I often downplay it to avoid being seen as bigheaded. As a result, the audience is left in some doubt about whether they should listen to me or not — “if he’s not confident about what he’s speaking about, why should we listen” they think.
Now let’s apply the technique of choosing a different action — something I always now try to do when interacting with people for the first time or speaking in public. Rather than just letting my tendency to self-deprecate take over, I consciously choose to do something different. In the split second between thinking and acting, I choose instead to set out the reasons why I deserve to be listened to. It always feels awkward to me, but for the audience it allows them to engage and trust in my competence. Bizarrely, even writing this down I’m aware that I might sound arrogant and it’s making me feel somewhat uncomfortable so you need to understand that the tendency never goes away. Instead, you have make the effort to do something different.
I wish that I could tell you that this sort of thing was easy, but it really isn’t. I’ve learnt and practiced this stuff for years, but even now if I’m not concentrating or consciously making an effort then my default patterns of behaviour and thinking will emerge. Knowing yourself to lead yourself is not an easy option which is why most people don’t take it. Firstly, the knowing yourself bit — not everyone actually wants to know what they’re really like and how people experience them. The answers aren’t necessarily what they want to hear and won’t necessarily reflect their view of themselves. Secondly, once you’re self-aware enough to know your tendencies you then have to be prepared to make the effort to choose to do things differently. Again, not something that’s easy to do. I write, speak and try to practice this stuff every day, but sometimes I can slip into default patterns of thinking or behaving if I’m not consciously making the effort to think about this stuff.
So, while it’s not easy, it’s not impossible. What’s more the benefits are immense — rather than wishing for things to be different in your life and that other people would do things differently, you start to take true responsibility and recognise that the only person over whom you have any sort of control is yourself. If you want things to be different then you have to choose to do things differently to how you’ve done them before. The old saying ‘do what you’ve always done, get what you’ve always got’ is spot on. Don’t blame other people for reacting differently to how you wanted to them to, instead reflect on your own actions and identify what you could have done differently to get a different result.
Good luck and have fun!