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In my book, The Transformative Leader, I write about coming home from work one day, over 25 years ago, and having my son, who was only a toddler then, excitedly tell me about his day. I vividly remember him asking me, “Guess where I goed today?” It was hilarious. I absolutely loved it. I was so happy that he had figured out the whole past tense thing that I almost didn’t want to correct him. Despite his limited language skills at the time, he had already started to master the art of identifying and reapplying the patterns that he observed.
The ability to collect, analyze, and use information to draw conclusions is indeed a blessing that is built into each of us. In our quest to make sense of how the world works, we drive our parents crazy by asking “why?” when we are little kids, and the truth is that we never stop asking that question. The only thing that changes as we get older is that we repeatedly, and subconsciously, ask ourselves "why?" rather than others. Then we instantly form an answer based on whatever cause-and-effect relationships we have been able to establish up to that point in our experience. We develop the ability to connect the dots, then draw certain conclusions, and do it constantly. If you want to know just how addicted we are to this tendency, check out the stats on the math problems that are posted on social media. Some of these literally take only a 5th grade education to solve, yet thousands of highly educated people are compelled to figure out the pattern and respond.
Unfortunately, the same ability that is such a blessing to us in so many ways tends to become a curse as we get better at not just using the information that we have, but filling in the blanks with what we consider to be the "obvious missing pieces" based on our experience. This is what I call putting 2 and 2 together and getting 5496. At times, this can completely distort our picture of reality, sending us down rabbit holes that have nothing to do with declaring, pursuing, or achieving what is important to us, personally or professionally.
I can tell you, I frequently find myself at the effect of this natural tendency and I have come to know that my only hope is to catch myself when it happens, and get back on the right track. One such occasion, that you might get a chuckle out of, dates back to 1978, just a couple of weeks after my arrival in the US from my home country of Iran. …By the way, if you’re not in the mood for one of my stories, feel free to skip this paragraph and the next. I remember buying a can of soda on the way home from school. It was a brand and flavor I'd never seen back home, and exploring new foods and drinks was one of the few simple pleasures that took my mind off of constantly being homesick and under pressure to figure things out in a place where I didn’t know anyone, and had rudimentary language skills to boot. Anyway, I brought the soda back to the apartment that I shared with three other guys who were also in my exact situation. I opened the can and took a big gulp, with much anticipation, only to be shocked at its nasty and bitter taste. ...It turns out I bought a diet drink, which was something I had never heard of, and what made it unbearable is that back then, artificial sweeteners were not nearly as sweet as they are today!
As the guys and I sat in our hot apartment and each got a small taste of the drink, we wondered if it had gone bad. Then one of my roommates read the words “sugar-free” on the can and asked me if I had asked for the sugar when I bought the soda. In response to the puzzled look on my face, and with the demeanor of Sherlock Holmes right after solving a crime, he pointed out the obvious truth that we had all missed. He enlightened us to the fact that those drinks don’t have sugar in them and if you ask for the sugar, they will give it to you for free so you can add as much as you like to the drink! Of course! How could I have missed that?! I felt silly for not noticing the words “sugar-free” on the can, and felt cheated to have wasted my money on that nasty tasting stuff, and missing out on getting the free sugar that was supposed to come with it! It would be quite some time before I figured out that my friends and I had put 2 and 2 together and got 5496, and what we considered to be the truth was, in fact, very far from it.
Has that kind of thing ever happened to you? You got some information, filled in your own assumptions and came up with conclusions that you considered, at the time, to be the truth, only to discover later that your ironclad conclusions were only a figment of your imagination and merely a story you had constructed about the situation? We all do this, all the time. In fact, we couldn’t function without making a huge number of assumptions every day based on our past experiences.
Many of these assumptions are routine and mostly subconscious. We make them automatically and they serve us, like driving through an intersection when our light is green rather than stopping every time to examine our assumption that the other cars are not going run their red light. We don’t examine the chair we are about to sit in every time, because we assume it will hold our weight.
Then there are situational assumptions that we make, consciously or subconsciously, on an as-needed basis based on the cause-and-effect relationships we consider to be pertinent to the particular situation at hand. Here again, some of these assumptions serve us well, but many of them hold us back from going for something extraordinary.
If you have been considering taking a bold step, going for something extraordinary, and you have been putting it off, or if there is any area of your life or career that you are less than satisfied with, it may be time for you to consciously examine your assumptions surrounding the topic. Otherwise, if you continue to accept all of your random and automatic thoughts as facts, you may be missing out on your best life, career, and relationships.
Immediate steps you can take to set yourself free from false assumptions that have been holding you back:
1. Identify one area of your career or life that you would like to have a breakthrough in. Be specific.
This could be a relationship that you would want to take to the next level of fulfillment, a career aspiration, or a life goal you have been putting off.
2. What is the immediate next step you would take in the direction of making it happen if you had complete faith that it would go well?
“I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer. If that is the case, then the immediate next step is to talk to people who know something about the topic and begin the process of discovery on what needs to be done.
3. Identify why you have not been in action to do what you just identified as the next step.
If the first thing that comes to mind is “… because I can’t,” rephrase the answer as, “I don’t want to (take the next step), because (your reason).” i.e. I don’t want to start my business because I don’t think it will be successful.
4. List all of the evidence that has compelled you to believe your reason to be legitimate. (In the case above: Thinking you will not be successful at starting your business.)
Be straight with yourself and include as many bullet points as you can. i.e. It takes $100k to start the business and I don’t have the money; I don’t think I am any good at doing the work that needs to be done; I am not sure how to deal with XYZ.
5. Enlist the help of a coach, or an objective confidant, to help you separate facts from stories.
“It takes $100K and I don’t have it” may be a fact. “I don’t think anybody would be interested in helping me fund the business,” is a story, which may or may not be true.
6. Take the stories and zero in on them to find their origin.
Ask yourself, “At what point and under what circumstances did I form this belief?” Considering the insight you get from your answer, examine whether it is time to let that belief go. i.e. If I think I am not smart and I am able to trace that belief back to the day that my third grade teacher told me I would never amount to anything, I can perhaps consider that the scared and intimidated third grader that has been telling me I'm stupid for the past few decades is not a credible source of truth and I just need to stop listening to him/her.
7. Give up the stories that have held you back and begin to act on empowering thoughts that are rooted in your commitment to the breakthrough you want to create.
I realize this is easier said than done, but every worthwhile endeavor takes some effort. The key is to start taking some baby steps and doing it right now, not later!
The Bottom Line:
We all have a built-in ability to continuously gather and analyze data and form conclusions that tell us how the world works and help us in our daily lives. Sadly though, the reality we have constructed in our mind is fraught with baseless cause-and-effect relationships which are not rooted in reality at all. It is, therefore, prudent to examine our assumptions periodically, keep the ones that are serving us and let go of the ones that are merely figments of our imagination and are holding us back from living an extraordinary life.
Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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