I’ve been noticing something in my network of friends and family of late. Really, it’s been there all along, but I suppose it started really jumping out at me a few months ago. Like most things that really jump out at me, I notice it more when other people do the same crap I do, so this is not presented as an indictment of them. I’ve noticed a remarkable difference between people who really excel at moving their lives forward and reaching their goals and those who trudge along more slowly, or fail altogether. While lots of things can impede success, from dumb luck, to bad timing, to rashness, or lack of skills, one thing I consistently see out of people who aren’t doing well when they should be (ie., in the absence of those other things) is that a large number of them seem to describe their situations, both to others and themselves, in terms of their own powerlessness.
It seems obvious to me, but perhaps it needs stating again. You will NEVER be better off that you are right now, if the core of your mindset is that people who are doing better than you currently are cheating, lying, stealing, human beings who don’t deserve what they got. Sure, some of them (probably) are, but when you make the generalization to the whole group, you’re not really doing anything about any apparent corruption, only sabotaging yourself. Similarly, if you tell yourself that you can’t do something, you’ll have a heck of a hard time doing it. Now, does this mean that mere thoughts are going to get you anywhere? Well, no. That’s magical thinking and is (mostly) utter hogwash. But they can keep you from getting somewhere.
Let me give an example. I know perhaps half a dozen individuals who, when talking about people who make more money than them, who immediately launch into discussions about how the rich are screwing the middle class, screwing the poor, destroying the planet, and how they don’t work and live a life of ease, oftentimes within minutes of lamenting that they themselves are broke. So, what happens? Well, the rich guy they are talking about didn’t magically lose any money over the discussion – in fact, he probably made some while they were ranting. Did they make any? Nope. Did they save any money? Make any plans to get themselves to a better position? Clear off some debt? Nope, nope, and nope. Did they find someone better off than them who could serve as a mentor? Nope. I’m telling you this, while it’s a crap-shoot to guess where someone with a realistic (notice I didn’t say optimistic; I’ll get to that in a minute) view of their own capabilities will be in ten years, it’s pretty easy to peg the position of the person who is certain of failure and reinforces that mindset verbally and mentally at every opportunity. They’ll either be right where you left them, or worse off. Not only will they unconsciously self-sabotage when opportunity knocks, but their attitude will alienate anyone who might have helped them. Human beings have roughly the same resistance to becoming something they think of as evil as they do to self-impalement. It’s not something typically done intentionally.
Now, the above might convince you that I’m saying you should be an eternal optimist (those of you that know me personally know that I wouldn’t suggest that either). Honestly, a lot of really optimistic thought patterns can be helpful at times, but a more realistic assessment of things is usually better for actually getting tasks completed. To give an example, while it’s not going to work if you start trying to lose weight convinced that everyone lighter than you has “thin privilege”, “has it easy”, or that “my metabolism is slow and I’m going to be fat no matter what I do”, it’s also going to go poorly if you tell yourself “this’ll be easy”, or “this’ll be fun”. You have to watch the way you talk to yourself. It won’t get you to your goal, but it sure can screw everything up for you.
A good friend of mine is into all sorts of extreme stuff (lifting very heavy weights, bending horseshoes with his hands, tearing Metro Nashville phonebooks with his hands, swimming in places with ice floating around him, etc.). One thing he has tried to drill into my thick skull over the near decade and a half that I’ve known him is realistically assessing what’s going on and then responding to that, rather than how I feel about what’s going on. So, when he’s about to bend a horseshoe with his hands, he doesn’t tell himself that “I can’t do this” or “I’m going to hurt my hand”, nor does he tell himself “this is going to be easy”. He “simply” acknowledges that he’s going to have to exert a fair bit of force if he’s going to make the thing bend. You’ll note that the latter is an observable, established fact – the former two are not necessarily true, and the notion that it’s going to be easy is so completely far-removed from reality that you can’t con yourself into believing it. Correct measurements of reality can be mitigated or endured, incorrect ones cannot. I also put “simple” in quotes, because it’s a lot of work to really push yourself to the point that you are able to detach emotionally from something that could very well hurt you in the attempt. It does require discipline.
So back to the case of the acquaintances and friends who are constantly using verbiage that directly harms their chances of success. What should they do? Well, the first thing is to look inward and figure out where that’s coming from. Most of the time when I see this, it’s from people who have already succeeded beyond what might be expected (by them) given the sort of beginnings they had. I notice it particularly in two groups, those who were raised in a working class household and are now living a little more comfortable middle class lifestyle, and those who were raised in a middle class household who are now at the bottom end of upper class. I also see it with acquaintances who have lost a lot of weight and are close to where they really want to get. They get further than most they know, and yet, after all that, are convinced that they can’t pull themselves up even further. Some even start right back into the same habits that they stopped at this point. Why? Well, a lot of it has to do with things they’ve internalized and forgotten about. Some of them should, by all rights, given their intellect and the quality of their ideas, already be quite wealthy. But they don’t make it because they self-sabotage, and it usually comes as a surprise to both them and everyone observing them. The human mind is a funny thing – once a person has decided that something is beyond them (or worse, that those who’ve achieved it don’t deserve it), they can convince themselves that are not capable of the thing THAT THEY WERE JUST DOING. Oftentimes, what gets you to the next step isn’t what got you to the last one, but the same willingness to adapt and survive is very similar. But it’s easier to convince yourself that the next step is too hard; much easier than attempting it anyway.
You might not make it. You might not succeed at whatever you are trying to do. Failure is always an option. So is success that doesn’t measure up to everything you dreamed. But the least you can do is not to be your own worst enemy. You wouldn’t (I hope) tolerate someone around you constantly telling you that what you are trying to do would make you a bad person, that you are going to fail, or that everyone will laugh at you for trying, but nearly everyone puts up with that from themselves. The human mind is interesting in that it is self-modifying – it acts as one of its own inputs. From an information processing architecture, that’s amazing. From an information security and system consistency perspective, that’s horrifying. Be careful how you modify the working of your own mind with the thoughts you let into it and the words that come out of your mouth. When you are looking at doing something that is going to be difficult and potentially life changing, examine your perceptions about it. Most especially, look out for anything you can’t prove. Swimming in an icy creek is “cold”; there is no objective proof that “it sucks”, nor is there proof that “it’ll be loads of fun”. It simply is cold and is to be endured (or avoided). Similarly, building a business, wooing an attractive member of the opposite sex, getting in shape, or even switching careers might be challenging (probably is for most people). They are not necessarily things you are going to fail at, nor are they necessarily miserable, impossible experiences, unless you go into them with that thought foremost in your mind. You could fail, and it could be miserable all the way through; you could also succeed wildly. Determine whether the thing you want to do is worth it to you and then do it – don’t waste time telling yourself you can’t (while still wanting to). Be careful of the words you use, for they are how you program your own mind. It’s really strange how we tell our children that “you can be anything”, and then tell ourselves “you can’t get the last 10% to the goal when you just crushed the previous 90%”. Attitude may well matter in things more than skill does, as you can learn skill with the proper attitude over time, but it’s mighty difficult to pick up an appropriate attitude simply by having skill.
So my friends, go out there. Do big things. Fail if failure’s time has come, but deserve success by not flinching preemptively if it hasn’t.