Setting yourself free (by reading)

In my opinion, the Dalai Llama has it right when he claims that no happiness can ever come from our external rewards, and true happiness can only every come through the right state of mind. In his book, The Art of Happiness, he expresses the concern about materialistic western approaches to love and life that are causing stress, feelings of inadequacy and frustration. In the book The Chimp Paradox, the author explains that our instinctive brain, driven by our feelings, is often out of control and setting us up to fail to achieve harmony and happiness. Feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure, often a result of conforming to society, create the self-limiting beliefs that hold us back from greatness.

 

I’ve written about the continuous battle between our ‘chimp’ brain and our executive logical prefrontal cortex in the context of Flow State and Conversational Intelligence. Both of these, while completely unrelated concepts, require a ‘quieting of the animal instinct’ in order to activate our best self. They tell us that unless we overcome our basic instincts, we will always live in our comfort zone and avoid risks, never able to build resilience. We avoid difficult conversations or asking courageous questions, public speaking or saying “yes” to taking on new opportunities because we are afraid. To unlock our potential we must extend beyond what we know and take for granted. We need to be challenged at all times in order to grow, living near the edge.

 

The authors do differ in one aspect, however;  In The Rise of Superman, the authors explain that to find Flow we need to ‘stop thinking’ too hard and create what is referred to as hypo-frontality; the dampening of our ego and the calming down of our overthinking brain is necessary for flow states. Interestingly, as often happens science often meets spirituality in concept. To me flow state can also be explained with the spiritual concept of Wu Wei, the ancient Chinese belief in effortless action. Stepping back from pushing hard until you find the ‘sweet spot’ of performance, is a more sustainable way to achieve high performance whilst avoiding burnout. “Trying too hard” simply doesn’t work.

 

Many Adlerain approaches suggest that we overcome our instinctive brain and choose to live our life on our own terms, rather than the continuous pressure to be liked, or live solely through our subconscious programming made popular by Freud. Books like The Courage to be Disliked, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, and The Four Agreements all suggest that our domestication, as part of a society that follows norms created to control and manage order, is limiting our full potential. Dweck’s work on Mindset also backs this up with the neurological aspects of how our brain is wired. When we are told how to behave, what is right and wrong, and even how to think at an early age, our brain is wired accordingly, and whilst possible, is very difficult to change. Duckworth’s research in Grit explains that the most successful people are the ones that get used to discomfort and build resilience by going against the grain. Success comes from putting in effort and hard work, rather than rely solely on talent. In essence, turning failure into a teacher.

 

I recall doctors telling me that I would never be able to do sports, since I was a severely asthmatic child. I became so convinced that exercise would induce an asthma attack that even the thought of running to catch a bus or being chased by a dog would trigger an attack. That is how powerful our mind can be. Handled the right way however, it can also overcome the most painful situations like when I had to cut out my toenails during the gruelling Marathon des Sables, or running multiple marathons on a ripped muscle during the 27 challenge.

 

In The Four Agreements, the authors describe how we accept concepts & rules from parents, teachers, religion and society and create agreements with ourselves that this is the right way of being (thinking & behaving). Many times these are restrictive and harmful, blocking potential and causing frustration. Dweck refers to these as fixed mindsets, in which we accept (or agree) to these standards and are held hostage, never breaking free.

 

We make assumptions that these agreements are fixed and cannot be changed. We assume for example, when a friend passes by and doesn’t say hi, that they are upset with us – we assume “isn’t it normal that you greet a friend?” As a result we climb the ladder of conclusions (described by Glaser in her excellent Conversational Intelligence) that we must have somehow upset them, and they now dislike me and are avoiding me. We become so fixed by these agreements that we fail to ask the courageous questions that would uncover the cause of this behaviour. We take things as they are, and we do it all the time. A very powerful example of this is in the beginning of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Steven Covey, in which he describes the moving story of a father who’s unruly children upset a train passenger. The angry passenger is then taken completely aback when the man explains his wife has just passed away and he doesn’t know how to tell the kids.

 

Assumptions are a huge problem in today’s world. We retreat back to our chimp brain whenever we feel pressure from our external environment. Our self defence mechanisms turn us into cynics, resisting any change and perpetually stuck subconscious amygdala hijack. If someone in the street hands us a flower, we immediately think of a ‘con’. When our political leaders suggest a change, we first assume they must be getting something out of it. When our partner gives us honest feedback about our behaviour, we launch into self-justification or passive aggression. We rarely ask the open and courageous questions that allow us to fully understand the situation, so we can make objective sense of it and get closer to the truth.

 

Perhaps it is time to break free from our hijacked mindset if we want to be truly happy. We need to turn our agreements around and brave the discomfort of facing our limiting beliefs. We need to be curious and creative, so we can fail fast and move on. We need to ask courageous questions to uncover the truth, as uncomfortable as it may be. We need to stop taking things personally and be open to growth and feedback. We need to live our life on OUR terms, not wearing ourselves out by seeking the acceptance of others.

 

By making a habit of mindful effort, we can ensure we avoid the guilt that comes with failure. By always choosing the right intention, we can be truly authentic in our behaviour. By being compassionate and forgiving about our failings, we can practice a growth mindset. By choosing to do what we love, not what others choose for us, we find our Ikigai. By considering our impact on the world and those around us, we can light the FIRE every day of our lives.

 

As Tim Ferris reminds us through his interviews in Tribe of Mentors, we need to continue to read in order to expand our minds. The books mentioned in this blog are a good start.

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