It’s an interesting pairing of words. I can think of half a dozen possible interpretations. But, in this case, I am focusing on a rather limited and probably unanticipated meaning.
Habits degrade situational awareness. What we do without thinking isolates us from the richness of experiencing what’s happening around us. That doesn’t make habits intrinsically bad. Some are very handy. They are shortcuts which we have developed to reduce complex situations to reflex actions. Such shortcuts may be as simple as a greeting which we habitually use or the routine which we follow in the morning. And, for the most part, these habits don’t do us any real harm.
But there are habits that do us real harm. And some of them restrict the depth and quality of the life we experience. It’s three of those shortcuts that I want to focus on. Unthinking actions which damage our life experience and debase the people we encounter.
At the beginning of most mentoring engagements I introduce three ideas. Each is deceptively simple to understand and difficult to implement. The first of those ideas is ‘finding the better way’. The second is ‘deciding who you are going to spend time with’. The third is ‘doing more of those things which enrich your life and less of those which impoverish it’. These three can be combined in a potent way. And, when they are, the results are life changing.
Let’s take them one at a time.
- Finding the Better Way: We’ve all had the experience. You find yourself in a situation, perhaps a stressful one, and you respond in a way that makes matters worse. Your visceral reactions take over and you lose any semblance of situational awareness. The results are almost always unsatisfactory. Maybe, a day or two later, you realize that you had an opportunity to find a better way to resolve the situation. But your habitual responses took over and the opportunity was lost.
Consistently finding the better way requires maintaining a high level of situational awareness. It means to be always looking for opportunities to generate superior outcomes. It involves putting your habitual responses on hold and dealing directly with the situation you are facing and the people who are involved. It means looking beyond your visceral reactions – taking the perspectives and interests of other into account – finding a way forward that leads to a better result.
The idea is simplicity itself. But then comes the implementation. Most of the initial experiences focus on missed opportunities. “I realized afterwards that I could have done such and such and that the results would have been much better.” But those who stick with it – and it tends to take six or eight weeks to have the tendency replace the old habits – get closer and closer to acting in real time. Then it happens!
One of the joys of mentoring is to watch someone discover that they can develop the capacity to find a better way in real time. One recently told me, “When you first introduced the idea, I didn’t think much of it. But now I have discovered that I have dozens of opportunities each day to find a better way. And I am now finding them as they occur and not a day or two afterwards. It’s not just those better ways. My relationships with people have improved as a result. They tend to see me as a creative and supportive person who is engaged in making things better.”
- Deciding Who You Are Going To Spend Time With: When you stop and think about it, there are people in your life who lift you up and those who hold you back. But, for most people, decisions regarding who you spend your time with have become a series of habits. I am comfortable with so-and-so, you might say. But this guy makes me uncomfortable. So, you spend more time with the first and avoid the second.
Maybe you don’t like being challenged so you avoid people who challenge you. Maybe you don’t like to think; so, you avoid people who make you think. Perhaps you think less of yourself and therefore avoid people who hold you in esteem. Or maybe you’ve just fallen into the habit of associating with certain people because you are comfortable with them.
In your life, there are those who lift you up and those who hold you down. Those who help you grow and those who keep you in chains. Your habits can override your interests – they can diminish your life experience. It’s like a farmer who, after planting the same crop over and over, realizes that his soil is depleted. But the process of fertilization just doesn’t occur to him. People who lift you up are high-quality fertilizer for you soil.
In teaching this perspective, I sometimes use two movies as examples. Good Will Hunting is a movie about a very gifted individual who spends his time with people who hold him back rather than challenge him. (An interesting subplot in this movie is that some of the people who hold him down are insulted that he allows them to do so) Eventually he removes his head from a posterior orifice and sets about claiming the life that was there for him all along.
The second movie is of a more positive cast. Finding Forrester is a story about a young writer who seeks out a mentor. And, in doing so, he takes the time and makes the effort to develop a friendship that is both challenging and enriching. Through his efforts, and those of his mentor, they who would hold him back are bested and left behind. The gift that his mentor gave him was his life and, with reverence to that gift, he sets about living it.
Even after watching both movies, it takes time for this idea to be taken on board. Sometimes there is a tendency to confuse the idea with the suggestion that everybody they know ought to be judged as to their suitability. But it’s not a matter of this kind of judgment. That’s just a smokescreen. “We are talking about how you are going to spend your life. Surely you understand that who you chose to spend it with, and what they bring to you, effects your life experience. Those who lift you up resonate with some deep desire to be better - to be more. Those who hold you back feed the insecurity that tells you that things can’t be better and that you can’t be more. The question is not simply their value but the quality of your life and whether you are living the life that is there for you.”
- Do More Of Those Things That Enrich Your Life And Less Of Those Things Which Impoverish It: As a mentor, I often begin by asking for a list of things that fills up a person’s life. Most don’t have trouble doing that. They all maintain extensive and detailed to-do lists. The hectic pace of modern life fills our time with an unending flood of things that need doing. But then, when I ask, “What of these things enriches your life and which of them impoverishes it”, the responses become more confused.
The habit of habitually doing avoids this question altogether. Many of the people that I work with discover, once they begin to focus on it, that a large percentage of their time is being spent, by habit, on activities which impoverish their lives. It may be, for instance, that they spend a lot of time in the isolating experience of social media. And, as a result, the breadth and depth of their relationships with real human beings suffers. Or they might spend a great deal of time in the fantasy world of video games or television and lose track of the direct experience of interacting with their fellow human beings. These, and many more kinds of activities, impoverish the experience of being alive. Like spice, they may be useful on small amounts but, as the main course, they don’t nourish your soul. So, my question becomes, why are you making your life less than it can be? Why are you working against your own interests?
Because we all have only a certain amount of time in any given day, the things that lift our lives tend to get pushed aside. Why? Because they are more demanding than the habitual responses that we have built up over the years. Our life ends up being impoverished by a series of decisions we have made entirely too casually and by habits that we haven’t examined closely enough.
When I first introduce this idea, there tends to be quite a bit of pushback. But, after some time working with it, the idea seems to sink in that free will means being able to select from among options rather than dumbly accepting the encrustations of habit. And then it sinks in. It’s not just a matter of doing less of the things that impoverish your life. It means spending more time doing those things which nourish your soul. It means tending your farm and seeing to its health.
The wind, one brilliant day
The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.
'In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I'd like all the odor of your roses.'
'I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.'
'Well then, I'll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.'
the wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:
'What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?'
At the end of each day there are roads not taken – opportunities lost. And all because of habitual responses. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can ‘find a better way’! A good Mentor can help you sort it out.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD
Mentoring Client, CEO and Serial Entrepreneur,
Mentoring Client, NPI Team Lead,
Mentoring Client, Deloitte,
CEO of Croix Connect and Host of ABC Radio’s ‘Taking Care of Business’,
Partner, IT & Telecom, Defense Solutions,