Don’t jump to conclusions about yourself

Trying to understand oneself is a pain in the ass for many reasons, but most importantly because we humans are emotional beings and emotions tend to impact our ability to assess ourselves realistically. It’s especially hard to make a distinction between what are your actual traits, characteristics, and tendencies and what are ego-driven false beliefs and fears. For example, I had a friend in high school who had convinced himself that he was poor in math and English, and that that’s just the way it is. However, at the same time he was really good in physics and Swedish, which of course made no sense. Why would he be able to understand physics and Swedish if he was naturally bad at math and English? The truth is, he probably had gotten a bad first impression of learning math and English, and his ego coped with the frustration by developing a story that said: “I’m just naturally bad at these subjects, and that’s the way it is for me.” With physics and Swedish, he was somehow able to let go of that story and learn new things without beating himself down.

The story illustrates how we humans often react to feelings of frustration and fear: we give into our emotions and label ourselves as fundamentally bad at something. We then draw a black and white picture of ourselves, where we’re either really good at a given skill or we’re absolutely shit at it. This way of thinking is called splitting, or black and white thinking, and it’s an ego defense mechanism that prevents us from assessing ourselves in a realistic way. Because of this bias, we end up jumping into conclusions about our abilities, strengths, traits, and characteristics, which hinders our ability to lead balanced lives.

Let me use myself as an example. When I was in the Finnish army, I got selected to the reserve officer school in Hamina, Finland, where they train infantry platoon leaders, forward observers, pioneer officers and such. I was being trained to become an infantry platoon leader, which required learning about the use of terrain, leadership, tactics and strategy, different weapon types, and how to lead men in battle. Now, to be honest, I wasn’t a very good platoon leader, and especially when we were practicing leading men in a battle, I felt I was at a complete loss at times. It seemed there were so many little details that I needed to remember at the same time, and I just couldn’t multitask to the level required in the moment. Reading the map, giving orders, calling in artillery, using the radio, spotting the enemy, taking in reports from team leaders, and trying to breath all at the same time always put my head spinning. And based on the feedback I got (i.e. how red my instructor’s face got when he yelled at me), I just wasn’t a very good situational leader. And that’s the story I’ve been telling myself ever since: I’m just not very good at leading men in a battle.

But wait, is that really true?

What evidence did I really have that proved I wouldn’t be a good situational leader? Yes, I made a lot of mistakes during my training and most likely what I demonstrated really wasn’t particularly good leadership. But if you look at the circumstances, it only makes sense that I messed up. Firstly, I was doing something for the first time and mistakes are bound to happen. Secondly, multitasking in a rainy forest where it’s so dark you can’t see your nose, while you’re being yelled at by both your commanding officer (someone you’re naturally afraid of) and by your peers (someone whose respect you eagerly want), aren’t the ideal circumstances to practice something in the first place, let alone for the first time ever. And finally, considering I was 19 at the time and basically just learned how to wipe my own nose, it’s no wonder I had some issues leading 30 men into battle.

So, looking at the context, I actually did pretty good: we all got out of the forest alive and with only minor emotional traumas.

Let’s take another example, this time, someone who is a master: Cesar Rodriguez, an American former fighter pilot. Rodriguez has been named the Last American Ace because of his several aerial victories in campaigns in Iraq and Serbia, and no one can deny he is a true master in his art. But as the author Robert Greene reveals in his book, ‘Mastery’, Rodriguez wasn’t a natural-born fighter pilot or one of the ‘golden boys’ of the fighter training program. These golden boys were people who seemingly had the ability to fly a fighter the minute they got into the cockpit and would wipe the floor with people like Rodriguez all day every day. Despite flying several small aircrafts before, Rodriguez had tremendous problems handling all the multitasking, the G forces, the weight of the helmet, and the difficult maneuvers that were involved in flying a fighter plane. In fact, Rodriguez was completely overwhelmed by the fighter and was almost dropped out of the course.

What if Rodriguez had started telling himself: “I guess I’m just not meant to fly a fighter, I just can’t do it.” That would have been perfectly reasonable: not everyone did pass the fighter program, and he could have concluded he just wasn’t meant to fly a fighter. However, thanks to Rodriguez’s persevering attitude, he kept going, and after hours and hours in the cockpit, his brain got used to the multitasking and he could focus on the more advanced aspects in flying. And as it turned out, Rodriguez’s training allowed him to soon surpass the golden boys and become the Last American Ace.

The moral of the story? We humans can learn anything, and making too fast conclusions about your natural strengths and skills based on one or few experiences alone can place unnecessary restrictions on your life. So don’t judge yourself too fast, and be careful of what labels you give yourself – who knows what you can become if you just allow yourself.

Update on 30-day comfort zone challenge and what I’ve learned so far

I wrote about lying around on the pavement a few weeks ago and if you followed me on twitter, you saw my endeavors in real time. You might have also noticed that, being a cheap bastard, I was mostly wearing just one pair of trousers and shoes the whole time (don’t worry, I do wash my clothes. I just don’t go outside when they’re drying up).

In any case, the comfort zone challenge is 3/4 ways through and I am at 80 seconds at the moment. Next week will be the last week of the challenge, and at this point I wanted to share a few things I’ve noticed so far.

Without any further ado, here are two things I’ve learned spending time on the sidewalk.

Most people don’t pay any attention

The biggest thing that I was afraid of at the beginning was being approached by people or getting odd looks. Of course being afraid of such things is completely irrational and the whole point of the exercise is to go towards fears in order to conquer them. However, soon after starting the challenge I noticed two things: Firstly, most people don’t even pay attention, and secondly, as long as I showed some sings of life – for example fidgeting in anxiety – no one was ever interested in asking what the heck was I doing. So in the end no one even cared (what a relief!)

Furthermore, even when I did spark someone’s interest, people are pretty good at hiding their curiosity. I think most people either pretend there’s nothing odd going on, or try to find a rational explanation for odd behavior. This is because people want to avoid feeling embarrassed for other people, and both behaviors help alleviate the uncomfortable feeling that arises when you see someone making a fool out of him or herself.

Uncomfortable times at my home street.

Uncomfortable times at my home street.

The discomfort doesn’t go away – you just get used to it

I was partly expecting that after a week on the challenge I would feel somewhat indifferent about lying on the street. I didn’t, however, and I still feel quite uncomfortable whenever I’m at it. But what did happen was that I got used to feeling uncomfortable, which I think is the most important thing to learn from this ordeal.

In my mind, becoming used to being afraid is much better than abolishing fear completely. This is because being okay with being afraid is a skill you can use throughout your life. If you can handle uncomfortable situations rather than avoiding them, you are more able to take action whenever necessary. For example, standing up to bullies, saying no when you need to, and pursuing your dreams all require going outside your comfort zone. If you have already developed the habit of getting into uncomfortable situations, it’s more likely that you will take action when it is required.

What a bright and uncomfortable morning it was!

What a bright and uncomfortable morning it was!

Furthermore, it is the act of going towards your fears that creates courage, not the other way around. You don’t first become courageous and then take action. I think this is something that a lot of people get mixed up, including yours truly, mainly because they compare themselves to other people who already act boldly. Courage is a muscle you need to train, and going outside your comfort zone is like going to the gym. Moreover, if you don’t use your courage muscle, it will become soft and flabby and won’t have the necessary strength for you to pursue your goals and dreams.

Thank you for reading, and please, do share your thoughts! Have you done something similar? How are you building your courage muscle? Drop me a line below and let’s have a chat!

30-Day Comfort Zone Challenge: Lying Down on the Street

My heart’s racing, my breath becomes faster, and my palms begin sweating. I become super-conscious of myself and feel like everyone’s watching me. Every second that goes by I feel more anxious to get up and leave without looking back. And yet, as I lie there on the street I suddenly notice that the sky hasn’t actually fallen down on me. Finally my clock ticks 20 seconds and I get up and hurry back home – smiling inside.

Lying down on the street might not sound difficult, but if you’re like most people, it will feel very uncomfortable at first. It’s uncomfortable because no one ever does so. You just don’t see people on their backs on the sidewalk, and it’s very unusual when someone does decide to experience the pavement this way. Furthermore, lying on the street might carry a social stigma for many people, as the ones who are in a lateral position tend to be either drunk or homeless.

But why the heck would you spend time on the street, you ask? Well, the fact that you might ask that is exactly the reason I’m doing it. See, many people go through their lives in a state of dream or trance, without ever questioning the mental models or mind sets that they hold (of course you don’t, but most other people do). In many ways it’s because of our education and the way we were brought up. Both our parents and our teachers usually teach us to behave and do things in a certain way that conforms to social norms and rules. Put shortly – we are conditioned to act nicely.

Knowing what’s accepted behavior in society is important, because it helps us function in our world and prevents us from getting into unnecessary trouble. However, few people are ever taught about when or why the rules and norms should be broken. Instead, we are further conditioned to conform when we enter work life, which has its own set of rules and norms. We then proceed to go up the corporate ladder or stay on the same job for years without ever questioning whether what we’re doing makes any sense. We are stuck in the rat race, waiting for retirement and often feeling miserable without fully knowing why.

This is what I want to avoid. And that’s why I’m lying down on the street for 30 days.

I believe that by breaking the norm, by going outside my comfort zone and doing something out of the ordinary I can plant the seed for personal transformation. By taking a massive leap out of my comfort zone and by choosing not to conform to social rules I hope to escape the rat race – and live my life the way I see fit. By sharing my experience in my blog I make myself accountable to a larger audience – and hopefully inspire others to uncomform as well.

Why choose the pavement?

So why exactly did I choose lying down on the street? To be honest, it’s mainly just because I have pumped into this idea from time to time in different contexts and different books. Most recently I heard about the idea in Tim Ferris’s 4-hour workweek, but I also had previously seen this TEDx talk discussing the idea.

But what really made me choose lying on the street as my challenge was the fact that whenever someone told me about doing so, I would immediately feel fear and anxiety rise within me. I regard fear as a sort of beacon or a sign post that shows the next step in personal growth. It’s usually what we fear most that we need to do, because by going toward what we’re afraid of we liberate ourselves from that fear. Furthermore, lying down on the street is very simple and doesn’t require any skills – just the ability to face my fears.

So, the pavement it is. The next thirty days I will be lying down on the street every day. I will begin with 15 seconds and gradually increase the time to 30, 45, 60 seconds, and finally to 2 minutes or so. My aim is that by the end of this challenge I will have decreased my fear of social rejection – and that I will not be afraid of fear.

You can follow my challenge on Twitter, where I share updates and pictures each time I complete the challenge.

Wish me luck!

Here I am, feeling very uncomfortable. (I think the photographer was also a bit uncomfortable :D )

Here I am, feeling very uncomfortable. (I think the photographer was also a bit uncomfortable 😀 )

What I Learned Working In a Think Tank

This Spring I successfully sneaked my way into one of the leading think tanks in Finland, Demos Helsinki, and had an opportunity to see what the heck actually happens inside a think tank. To be more exact, I worked at Demos Effect, which is the management consulting arm of Demos Helsinki. Below are some of the things I learned.

We need more gym equipment in offices

During the past year or so I have had terrible neck pains from time to time due to sitting too much in front of my computer. It’s bad enough to spend most of your work day staring at the screen, but writing my blog and studying after work really breaks my back quite literally. However, I have learned that having training equipment and standing workstations in the office can have a huge impact on your well-being. Even having minimal equipment, such as a pull-up bar, in the office makes it more likely that you will take breaks and develop the habit of stretching your muscles during work.

What I really recommend is having a couple of kettle bells lying around in your office (just make sure no one trips on them!).

kettlebell-411605_640

 

It’s really possible to love your work

This didn’t really surprise me all that much, as I do believe that work should not be a drag, but a source of inspiration and fulfillment. While I don’t believe that you can or should enjoy every second of your work, I do think that overall your work should be something that you inherently enjoy doing. Working at Demos Helsinki strengthened this belief, and as I told my supervisor Johanna at the beginning of my internship, I was finally being paid for doing something I had previously done for free on my past time. I could also see that everyone working at Demos were there because they really wanted to, and not because of all the cookies and candies that were left over from meetings (although I do think the free coffee might have had some influence).

Chocolate chip cookies

Cookies and candies were abundant at Demos Helsinki.

 

We do need people thinking about things

I also learned that we actually do need organizations and individuals that spend time thinking things trough for the rest of us. It is very easy to get stuck in short-term thinking and to focus mostly on one’s own little world. Thinking-outside-the-box has become a cliché, but the box is alive and real, and can have a detrimental effect on thinking. This is true especially for large organizations and institutions, where individuals are restricted by strict rules, standard procedures and organizational boundaries.

Furthermore, as the world becomes ever more interconnected and everything has an effect on everything else, it is ever more important that we develop the ability to see the bigger picture and to question existing mental models. Although it would be best if everyone did some soul-searching regularly, I think it’s good that we also have people dedicated to searching people’s souls for them.

Baby-thinking

When was the last time you stopped to really think for a moment?

 

Some large companies actually do something about sustainability

This might be hard to swallow at first, but some large organizations do give a crap about sustainability. And more importantly, they give a crap because they’re starting to see that it makes good business sense. Companies have started to see that climate change, depletion of natural resources and all the other shitstorms headed our way actually have a major impact on their businesses – but also present new opportunities. For example, Lassila & Tikanoja has placed circular economy at the core of their strategy. And while big talk and greenwashing is very common these days, based on what I saw while working at Demos Effect, some companies really do want to take action and create circular businesses.

Bad news for little boys:

Bad news for little boys: carbage man is no more, but you know who’s really cool? – the resource collector.

Have you worked in a think tank? Would you work without the free coffee and cookies? Do you use kettlebells in your office? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Creative Commons Chocolate chip cookies by Brian Richardson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Embrace Your Limitations

What is it about some individuals and organizations that make them jump out the crowd and rise above average? How are people like Stephen Hawking, suffering from ALS, or Temple Grandin, born with autism, able to overcome their limitations and become the best in their fields? It sometimes seems that the ones who truly achieve something phenomenal are the ones who initially have the biggest limitations.

 

The truth is, limitations can actually work in your favor. I recently watched a TED talk from Phil Hansen, who while in art school developed a permanent nerve damage making his hand tremor and shake uncontrollably. As an artist, Hansen’s hand was his greatest asset and being no more able to draw a straight line was naturally devastating. Hansen eventually left art school and refused to do art for a long time. However, after searching himself for three years he found a new style of drawing that complemented his shaking hand. With his new style he was actually able to do beautiful art without being hindered by the nerve damage in his arm.

Then something very interested happened in Hansen’s life. Hansen had rarely had enough money to buy the tools and equipment he would have wanted to use in his art, but after getting a new job he decided to stack up in art supplies. For a moment he felt joy for not being limited due to a lack of proper supplies and for finally being able to think outside the box. However, shortly after buying the badly needed supplies, he got stuck in a creative slump that lasted for a long time. Hansen was dumbfounded. Why is it that while finally having enough tools to do the art he wanted, his mind becomes completely blank? The reason dawned on him later. His mind had simply become paralyzed by all the options that were now available to him. Not being limited in any way actually hindered Hansen’s ability to think creatively.

Doesn’t this somehow sound familiar? Haven’t we all had these moments where you desperately try to overcome some barrier, thinking that if it wasn’t for that one thing you would be able to succeed. And when you finally do overcome the barrier you just end up feeling blank and paralyzed? This happens also with relatively simple issues. I have sometimes paralyzed myself on my off-days just by trying to choose how to spend my time. Even renting a movie feels sometimes more exhausting than relaxing because of having to make a pick among thousands of options. It would seem that our minds get stuck when there are no limitations – when there are no barriers to guide us.

Imagine, for example winning a lottery  – something many people dream about regularly. What would it feel? Amazing? A dream come true moment? Initially many would be at the top of their worlds, but what do you think happens when the euphoria settles? Many lottery winners actually blow their money and ruin their relationships because they could not handle their new life situation. Suddenly all the limitations you previously had are gone and there’s no one telling what to do next, which is not easy to handle.

Luckily Hansen realized this and he eventually came to embrace his limitations. He realized first hand what many designers and creative thinkers intuitively understand, which is that limitations are in fact a source of creativity. Ever since his epiphany Hansen has found ways to self-impose new limitations into his work, including only using self-destructive materials or painting on his belly.

 

How to use limitations?

Hansen was able to use his natural limitations to his advantage, eventually creating new limitations to act as a source of creativity. This is something that many great individuals and organizations have also learned and which separates them from the masses. Steve Jobs was known for his unrelenting requirement for beautiful product design, with no exceptions. He even demanded that the insides of Apple’s products – where no one would ever look – must look beautiful. Jobs’s uncompromising attitude towards design (and deadlines) imposed a limitation on Apple that forced the company’s people to work in new ways and think outside the box.

Companies and individuals who have uncompromising principles and who set standards for themselves are in fact limiting themselves in a creative way. They are forced to design their future according to their self-imposed limitations – often transforming themselves to something outstanding, something we all look up to. What we as individuals can learn from Hansen and his kind is that to become limitless we must embrace our limitations and actively seek ways we can exploit them.

How can we use limitations as a source of creativity and growth? Here are several suggestions to consider:

  • Set standards for yourself. What are your must-haves, your top priorities that you will not compromise? Think of Steve Jobs or any other uncompromising person you know as a source of inspiration.
  • Try to turn your weaknesses into strengths. Ask yourself how can you take advantage from a potential weakness. Phil Hansen became proficient at finding new ways to create art due to being unable to use his hand. If your weakness is writing, for example,  maybe you can become an excellent public speaker instead?
  • Use deadlines, budgets, or other limitations to provoke creativity. If you’re building something, set limitations for the materials you can use. When practicing sports, limit yourself in some way and try to work around that limitation.

PS. Here is the TED talk from Phil Hansen: