Rise Up From Your Chair of Self-Condemnation

“Take back your right to be yourself and get up from the chair of the defendant.” -Vadim Zeland, Reality Transurfing Book I

You vowed to exercise at least three times this week and you failed.

You set a goal to blog every day for a week straight and you missed a day.

You promised yourself you’d cut down on the sodas, refined sugars, or whatever your personal vice happens to be and you stumbled a little.

You lost your cool again, said a few hurtful things you shouldn’t have said, and now you feel like a jerk.

Here’s a distinction that might be useful for you:

Remorse versus Self-condemnation.

Remorse is when you feel bad for violating your moral code, for failing to live up to your standards of right and wrong. It’s when your conscience tells you “That wasn’t right.”

Self-condemnation is when you respond to the sensation of guilt by berating, belittling, and beating yourself up.

“Yikes! I really dropped the ball this week. My behavior was unacceptable. I need to make some changes and step my game up.”

That’s remorse.

“I’m such an idiot. I always do stuff like this. I just feel so horrible.”

That’s self-condemnation.

Notice a few key differences here:

  1. Remorse focuses on the specific pattern of wrongdoing that needs to be fixed. Self-condemnation focuses on personal identity. The former says, “What I did was wrong.” The latter says “I am a bad person.”
  2. Remorse focuses on a specific time frame (ie. “this week”). Self-condemnation focuses on permanent-sounding conditions like “always” or “never”. The former says “What I said yesterday was wrong.” The latter says “I always put my foot in my mouth.”
  3. Remorse focuses on what needs to be done in order to get back on track. Self-condemnation focuses on wallowing in the feeling of unworthiness and shame. The former says “I messed up. Therefore I’ll clean it up.” The latter says “I always mess up everything and it just feels so horrible to be this way.”
  4. Remorse leads to constructive change. Self-condemnation traps you in a negative feedback loop where you feel bad for failing, wallow in feelings of shame, and keep on failing because you feel too unworthy to try again.

Here’s the ironic thing: Most people get stuck in guilt-trips because they sincerely believe it’s the morally right response to have towards personal failure. After all, what could be more irresponsible and disrespectful than walking around with an inspired countenance after you just let everyone down? A truly good person, it seems, would be one who punishes himself or herself after doing something wrong.

The logic makes sense, but it’s still flawed. For starters, being self-confident and inspired doesn’t have to take the form of rubbing your enthusiasm in someone else’s face. You can still feel inwardly motivated while also understanding and respecting the fact that other people are upset.

Imagine walking into a funeral ceremony for a complete stranger. Your life is going well and you’re in a peaceful mood, but everyone at the funeral is sad. You’re not sad, but everyone else is. Do you run around giggling while trying to cheer everyone up? Do you engage in a bunch of happy-go-lucky chatter about how awesome your life is to everyone there? No. Because you have respect for the moment and what it means to others, you conduct yourself compassionately and considerately while remaining grounded in your own internal sense of well-being.

The same is true of remorse. You don’t have to put on an exaggerated display of guilt-ridden sadness just to establish the fact that you mean business. In fact, this kind of behavior usually has the opposite effect. When you engage in melodramatic performances of “whoa is me”, people might begin to wonder if you have the stability and resilience to handle the job of turning things around. Moreover, by making the whole issue center around how bad you feel, you cause valuable time, energy, and attention to be spent on comforting you. Do you know where else those resources could have gone? That’s right: towards creating and executing a concrete plan that would have made things better.

Instead of relying on dramatic declarations and theatrical gestures to prove to others that you really feel bad, carry yourself with confidence and dignity as you showcase your seriousness with action.

Avoid the mistake of equating moods with morality. You are never righteous or sinful merely because of what you feel. Your integrity is determined by the responsibility you to take for making good things happen.

Have you failed recently? Go ahead and own it, but from now on start owning your commitment to winning as much as you own your confession to wrongdoing.

This Blog Post is ………….Not That Good…

Full disclosure: I stole the title of this blog post….from a YouTube comment.

Here’s the evidence…

This is a screenshot from the comment section of a trailer for the movie Inception.

How did I end up there? Well, I have a little ritual that I perform every month or so. It’s simple. I begin by identifying some person, philosophy, or project that I feel deep admiration or respect for. Then I go on YouTube to see how long it takes me to find a video comment where someone says something like “I’m not impressed” or “This is overrated” or “I don’t trust this.”

Whenever I conduct this experiment, I time myself. It’s never taken me longer than 90 seconds to complete. I’ve never failed to find a comment like the one in the screenshot. Today’s choice was Inception. As expected, Inception turned out to be just like all the other past candidates. It took about 20 seconds to find someone who wasn’t impressed.

Why do I do this to myself? It keeps me grounded. It purifies me of my illusions. It reminds me of the simple little fact that there are always people talking smack about the things I believe are cool. My loves are someone else’s laughs. My inspirations are someone else’s irritations. My standards for success are someone else’s standards for stupidity. And if this is true of the things I consume, it’s probably true of the things I create.

It seems to be the case that everything will be criticized, everyone will be hated on, and everybody will get to experience what it’s like to be disliked. Like Inception, I am no exception. And precisely because of that, I find it a little bit easier for me to be exceptional.

Don’t Let Questions Kill Your Curiosity

What happens if X occurs? And then, what about Y? While we’re at it, what about Z? What if X, Y, & Z all happen at the same time?  What if X & Y occur for 75% of the time, but Z only occurs 50% of the time? What if X, Y, and Z work for me, but not everyone else? What if there are variables involved that I don’t even know I should be asking you about? 

Questions: They can help you get exactly where you want to be, but they can also take you in the opposite direction if you’re not clear about what you’re asking for, how you’re asking for it, and why you’re asking in the first place.

A compelling or pointed question might reveal important information to you, but it might also reveal equally important information about you. Questions don’t just solicit information, they also signal information.

Sometimes a question signals things like “I care enough to think things through” or “I’m curious and intrigued” or “I would like to connect with you, but I don’t know how” or “I need to understand this so I can explain it to others” or “I already know the answer, but I want others to know what I know” or “I’m great at conversation” or “I’m good at reading people.”

Sometimes a question can signal things like “I’m unwilling to take action unless I have a guarantee” or “I can’t stop worrying about every unpleasant hypothetical scenario” or “I don’t want to be here, but I’m trying to find a way to say how” or “I don’t trust you” or “I don’t like you” or “I have power over you and I want to watch you squirm in the face of my interrogations” or “this is how I tend to act when I don’t get enough sleep” or “I’m not a very patient person to work with” or “I like to ask a ton of questions” or a host of other things.

While it isn’t always easy to discern what every question signals, it’s undoubtedly true that every question signals. Our questions not only shape how we see the world, but they also shape how the world sees us.

If you’d like to conduct a little experiment to see if this is true, try the following:

Walk into a jewelry store and ask “do you guys have security cameras here?”

That simple little question is almost guaranteed to modify your experience at the jewelry store.

The takeaway here is not “stop asking sincere questions lest other people see you as a nuisance.” The takeaway here is that questions are never completely neutral or one-sided. Everything ranging from the way you frame your questions to the tone of voice you use is a factor that alters your chemistry with the other party.

When we ask questions, the urgency we feel about getting a reaction or response often subverts our sensitivity to how others are affected by the timing, tone, and texture of our inquiries.

Some people use questions like pistols: they point them in your direction and give you no choice but to take them seriously: “I ask the questions. You supply the answers. Now, go fetch me some data.” While this approach can be highly effective for getting intel in the short-term, it overlooks the most powerful factor that determines our ability to get great answers in the future: relationships.

If you like asking thought-provoking questions and you’re passionate about getting to the bottom of things, then there’s nothing more rewarding than mastering the art of getting others to feel open, unsuspecting, and excited about giving you the information that you want from them.

The goal of asking a question shouldn’t be to merely obtain one piece of information in the present moment, but rather to build an enduring bridge to future knowledge. A good question is one that helps you accumulate intellectual capital while simultaneously helping you create social capital.

If your style of questioning leaves people feeling ignored, or irritated, or interrogated, they will run the other way while encouraging their friends to do the same.

How do you avoid this? How do you use questions to build bridges?

I can’t give you a skeleton key that will open the heart and mind of every person you decide to question, but I can offer you three words of advice that will get you closer to that goal than any other strategy I’ve seen: question your questions.

Are you asking questions in a way that makes others eager to assist you or are you asking in a way that makes others feel defensive? Are you paying attention to other people’s reactions when you ask questions? Do you care? Should you care? 

Does this moment present you with the best opportunity to be heard and received? If you were the one answering this question, would this be a good time for you? 

How much do you actually need this answer? If you had an amazing answer to this question, would it truly make you happy? Would your course of action change in some substantial way? 

Are these questions your own or are you asking them for the sake of others? Are you looking for an answer or are you looking for an exit sign? Are your questions designed to help you find your way into something or are they motivated by a desire to find your way out of something? 

Are your questions moving you closer to some kind of constructive action or are they leading you further down a rabbit hole of greater restlessness?

Being honest with others about what you want to know isn’t enough. Asking questions is the complete opposite of being curious if you’re close-minded and careless about the way you request information from people. Curiosity might be a cat-killer, but it has never been a conversation killer.

If you’re a true seeker of knowledge with a genuine thirst for understanding, you’ll be relentless in your efforts to adopt communication strategies that are designed to keep conversations alive.

Curiosity is a beautiful thing and nothing stifles it more than a mind too stubborn to reimagine and reinvent its own questions. Be bold enough to ask whatever you want, but make sure you stay curious enough to keep exploring new and better ways of asking.

Introducing Small Business Edge (New Podcast)

I am now the host of the new podcast series Small Business Edge.

In the sea of entrepreneurship content for startups and solopreneurs, small business entrepreneurs are sometimes overlooked. As a result, they often don’t have the support and knowledge to grow and prosper in their business. Small Business Edge exists to share the stories and wisdom of successful small business entrepreneurs.

In our introductory episode, Ceterus CEO Levi Morehouse joins the show to discuss how Small Business Edge and Ceterus help to empower small business entrepreneurs, and what you can expect from future episodes of the Small Business Edge Podcast.

Check out the episode below:

To hear more episodes, subscribe to our show on itunes here or listen via YouTube here. To follow Ceterus on twitter, click here. To follow me on twitter, click here.

I hope you enjoy the show.

Cheers,

T.K. Coleman

Give Me a System, Not a Superstar

If you want to succeed in any endeavor, you need to adopt a system that reliably produces successful outcomes.

In Goals Inspire Us, but Systems Transform Us, I wrote:

Our success is mostly determined not by in-the-moment self-control, but rather by our ability to effectively construct systems that naturally lead to progress.

Goals inspire us, but systems transform us. The thing about goals, though, is that they have lots of sizzle. Goals often sound so impressive that they can seduce us into feeling like we’ve accomplished something merely by talking about them. Systems are far less glamorous than goals, but it’s the day-to-day rituals that make uncommon achievements truly realizable.

When many of us begin the process of trying new systems, however, we tend to underestimate the most significant factor: problems. We do this by treating human imperfections and circumstantial inconveniences as if they are variables rather than constants.

When we establish new systems for exercising or eating healthier, for instance, we acknowledge the fact that some days will be more difficult than others, but we treat those days as exceptional. Instead of adopting systems for exercise or dieting that are capable of working effectively during a week from hell, we structure our plans around having lots of “normal” days. The bad days are recognized as legitimate possibilities, but they are usually brushed aside as bridges to be crossed at a later time.

Think about the person who vows to write every day for 30 days. They start off strong, but things begin to feel a little uninspiring somewhere around day 14. Sheer willpower, however, keeps them going for a few more days. Then all of a sudden, they get really sick on day 18. On top of that, a friend calls with a serious emergency. So now they have to get out of bed when they really should be resting and drive across town to help their friend. While on their way, they get a flat tire. The flat tire incident eats up half the afternoon. Don’t forget the part about them being sick. By the time they make it to their friend’s place, do all the things a good friend would do, and make it back home, they feel like dying. Exhausted, they collapse into bed. Writing streak broken.

Who wouldn’t understand, right? You’d have to be a total jerk to expect that person to produce on a day like that, right? Maybe. Maybe not.

The problem with the above scenario wasn’t the existence of problems. The problem was that problems weren’t programmed into the plan.

This person’s system for writing every single day was designed to work only on non-emergency and non-sick days. This isn’t a lazy person. It’s an ineffective system. It’s ineffective because it only works under conditions when life is fair, or when things go well, or when there aren’t any crazy surprises.

The solution: redesign your system around the assumption that problems are the constant, not the variable.

Start with the assumption that every day is going to be surprisingly problematic and create a system that’s optimized to achieve results on those kinds of days.

Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Milton Friedman wrote:

“I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or it they try, they will shortly be out of office.”

Friedman’s observation was about politics, but his insight is just as useful when discussing any system for getting things done: build your system around great incentives, not great individuals.

The best kind of system isn’t one whose functionality depends on the genius or goodness of the one at the helm. The best kind of system is one whose functionality can be sustained in spite of the lack of genius and goodness of those who take the helm.

A good system builder creates programs and plans that are still designed to work even when people aren’t at their best.

It’s okay if you need a genius to create your system, but you’re in trouble if you always need to be in genius-mode in order to execute your system. It’s okay if you need a great person to help you come up with a plan, but your plan is bound to fail if it requires you to always be in a great mental and physical state in order to get things done.

Your plan will always benefit from your A-game, but your A-game cannot be the plan.

The most brilliant kind of system is one that helps you and your team produce the most brilliant kind of results even when none of you are feeling or functioning like the most brilliant kind of people.

Discipline Needs to Be Learned, Not Taught

There is no inherent value to being disciplined.

The willingness to do something difficult is only meaningful if it’s exercised within the context of a worthy goal.

We often force students to do all sorts of things that don’t matter to them in the name of teaching them the virtue of discipline. Students don’t need to learn discipline. Students need to learn how to identify their preferences, how to assess their priorities, and how to think in accordance with principles.

When a person understands what they want, knows how to reason about the cost & benefits involved, and understands the implication of their choices, they can decide for themselves if discipline is useful or not in any given situation.

No matter who you are, life is going to teach you about the necessity of discipline. How do I know that? Because we’re all creatures of desire. Every single one of us will continuously experience the universal phenomenon known as “wanting something that isn’t easy to obtain.” And when that happens to you, me, or anyone else, we will be forced to either forego our desires or exercise some form of discipline.

There will always be moments when it’s simply not easy, fun, and convenient for you to get what you want. During those moments, you can estimate the cost & benefits involved. If the perceived benefits seem to outweigh the costs, you can exercise discipline and find a way to achieve your goal. If the perceived costs seem to make the benefits worth less than the effort, it would be self-defeating to force yourself to work really hard at something you neither value nor believe in just because of a dogmatic attachment to discipline.

The people with the most discipline in the real world are the ones who know what it means to believe in something deeply enough to fight for it in spite of the costs.

True discipline is nothing more than the combination of conviction and determination. And if you try to teach people to be determined without taking their genuine desires to be the rightful starting point, you’ll just make them experts at feeling guilty, resentful, and stressed out.

If you’re afraid that your students won’t ever work hard, you can relax because the combination of desire and difficulty will give them plenty of lessons on the topic of discipline.

If a person doesn’t want a particular thing, then it’s pointless for them to exercise discipline in relation to that thing. If a person truly does want something, however, they will learn to be disciplined as long as you don’t swoop down and save them.

If you really want to teach people how to be disciplined, then discipline yourself enough to let them struggle when it’s good for them. Discipline yourself enough to stop rescuing them and bailing them out every time life tries to make them work hard for something they sincerely desire.

Don’t Be Afraid of Hard Work

There comes a point in everyone’s life when they realize that hard work is overrated.

Each person in his or her own time will have a moment of epiphany that forces them to respect the complex array of variables that go into the making of a success story.

This epiphany is at once heartbreaking and liberating. Heartbreaking because we’re aroused from the comforting illusion that we’re in complete control over all the factors that determine our destiny. Liberating because we’re freed from the stress of believing that we always need to be hustling and bustling in order to make good things happen.

Stories abound of people who toil day and night only to suffer the disillusionment of a world that doesn’t always honor a rigorous day’s work. We’re also flooded with movies and TV shows illustrating the emptiness and regret of the person who spends too much time at the office and too little time doing things like sitting by the ocean, watching the sunset, gazing at the night sky, conversing with friends, watching the children grow up, and so forth.

These narratives have created a legitimate demand for task management systems and other approaches to work that can help people minimize the harmful effects of the daily grind. A great deal of self-help and personal development now centers around the idea of showing us how to hack productivity, how to optimize creativity, and how to get more results out of less effort.

And I love every bit of this cultural shift towards making work more fulfilling and less stressful. I wholeheartedly believe that everyone on the planet could benefit from learning how to simplify their workload and increase their efficiency, BUT…

I also believe that we’re running the risk of forgetting one very important, empirically attested fact:

Hard work isn’t a sufficient condition for fulfillment and success, but for most of us, it’s very likely a necessary one. 

In his advice to other artists, Pablo Picasso counseled “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

That is, there’s no point in reinventing or rebelling against the rules if you’re completely clueless about what the rules are, why they were established in the first place, and how they can be useful in certain contexts. Some people are so eager to be unorthodox (or so afraid of being seen as rigidly orthodox) that they wholly disregard the valuable lessons to be learned from custom and convention.

I consider Picasso’s observation concerning art to be true of hard work:

You have to know what it means to step outside of your comfort zones, push yourself, and work vigorously before it means anything to master a bunch of techniques for hacking your schedule. After all, you can’t optimize a process unless the process has already begun. Optimization isn’t a precursor for action. Optimization is an aide to action. You have to act before you optimize. You have to learn how to hustle before you learn how to hack.

It’s easy for people to make the fallacious leap from “hard work isn’t everything” to “hard work isn’t anything.” We may very well be a culture guilty of working too much, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the idea that there’s such a thing as working too little.

I travel the country giving talks and lectures at dozens of colleges, high schools, churches, and conferences per year, and I’m noticing a trend among many young people: a fear of becoming an overworked adult who wastes 30 years doing meaningless work.

These sincere and well-meaning students are disenchanted and discouraged when they see us adults running around looking stressed and exhausted by our jobs. And the last thing they ever want to become is us. But for many of them, this fear translates into an inability to stick with any tasks beyond the point where it ceases to be fun or “spiritually fulfilling.” “If I work on something for a longer period than what feels exciting, I’ll end up being trapped with a meaningless soul-sucking job until I’m too old to change things” many of them seem to think.

This weekend, I gave two talks on the value of entrepreneurial thinking for artists at the Moving Picture Institute. The seminar was attended by several young business and film students. During a panel discussion, someone asked the CEO of a production company for advice on how to be successful in highly competitive fields. His advice was interesting:

“Be more of a worker than a dreamer. Everybody claims to be creative and passionate nowadays, but nobody knows how to work hard anymore. If you can consistently work eight-hour days, you’ll be way ahead of most people. It sounds sad, I know, but the bar is that low. Nothing is harder to find than a young person who can be consistently reliable with executing ideas and following through on the things they start.”

I have no interest in debating people about how big of a problem we have in this country with young people being afraid of hard work, but I thought I’d pass this CEO’s advice along in case you happen to be one of those people who struggle with the fear of getting stuck with a monotonous life as a result of working too hard.

I’ve had several business owners over the years tell me about “creative-types” who came to them seeking opportunities, but who were turned away because they hadn’t proven their ability to stick with something for longer than a few weeks or a few months.

Contrary to the contemporary fad of mocking the “follow your passion” idea, I’m one of those people who still believes that you should follow your passion. But here’s the key: If you give up on your passions when obstacles, inconveniences, and hardships get in your way, then you’re not actually following your passion. You’re following your obstacles, inconveniences, and hardships. If you truly want to follow your passion, then you have to keep pursuing it even when stuff gets in your way. That’s the difference between following something versus just focusing on it when it happens to be standing in front of your face.

If you’re a young person reading this, here’s my two cents for you:

Follow your passion, but don’t mistake that for having it easy all the time. Go after your dreams, but keep going after them even when they drag you through a muddy pile of hard work. Don’t guilt-trip yourself into doing things you hate, but love your goals enough to hustle beyond the happy hours of comfort and convenience.

Being creative in today’s world means so much more than having a big imagination and a cool personality. It also means having the sense of artistry to create massive opportunities out of mundane tasks. It also means having an imagination that’s big enough to discover new ways to manufacture your own inspiration as you navigate the peaks and valleys of the creative process.

In your quest to create a 4-hour work week, don’t forget about the value of the 40-hour work week. Freedom from hard work is often the reward of learning to find freedom in hard work.