#30 – You Can Adjust Your Default Setting

Two beliefs are highly problematic for the modern human being. The first is the belief that we are supposed to be rational actors and the second is the belief that we are.

Just two minutes of silence reveals that in each of our heads exists a chorus of competing, irrational voices that makes our decision-making, especially under stress, unreliable if not problematic. For an even more clarifying experience, try something new, meet someone new, go someplace unfamiliar, navigate by landmarks instead of GPS, anything that increases your heart rate and decreases your sense of security. Now listen to the voices in your head. They should be practically chanting what amounts to your default setting, or how you see the world and your place in it under the stress of change.

That messy mix of voices is the aggregation of your preferences, perceptions, judgments and biases, the result of years of dragging a large collection net behind you through a rich, difficult and multifaceted life.

Remember, your default setting has been working hard to help you make sense of your world and to protect your place in it for a very long time. It’s not that it’s bad or wrong, it’s just that it’s no longer as useful as it once was. It feels useful, and better than an alternative, because it’s familiar and that’s the thinking that keeps us stuck in the status quo.

Here are three options for how to adjust your default setting, not so you can finally become rational, but so that you can more capably organize your competing voices of irrationality under stress.

One, in the category of highly desirable but completely unrealistic, you can find a wise teacher high on a distant mountain and take the next 10, maybe 20 years to get there, live there, and learn.

Two, in the category of moderately desirable and more realistic, you can find a counselor, therapist or coach somewhere in your neighborhood (or via the magic of Zoom!) and take the next five years to explore yourself, make sense of your learning and practice new ways of thinking and feeling.

Three, in the category of undesirable and totally realistic, you can do the following beginning right now:

  1. Pay attention to yourself in familiar, stressful situations and notice what goes on inside. Write it down.
  2. Put yourself into unfamiliar situations and notice what goes on inside. Write it down.
  3. Share what you notice with someone you trust and who has your best interests at heart and see what they think and what feedback they have to share.
  4. Identify and clarify the few things that matter most to you (financial security, family happiness, health and well-being, new experiences, community building, environmental action, continuous learning, achievement, impact, etc.). Use your spending habits and your calendar for clues. Write them down and share them with the person in #3 above, among others. See what they think.
  5. Do the same thing with your strengths. Get as clear as you can about what you do best when you are at your best. Think of concrete examples, write those stories down and share them, as above.
  6. Repeat with an honest assessment of your weaknesses (“opportunities” or “challenges” for the euphemistically inclined). The more honest you get, the better off you will be.
  7. Now, your aspirations and goals. What do you want and why? Write it down. Who knows about this? Find the right people and let them know, you might even ask for help.

What’s happening here? How is this laborious (and therefore undesirable) process of self-reflection, paying attention, writing down and sharing going to lead to the better management of your inherent irrationality?

It’s going to ground you, root you, establish you in your corner of the world by using clarification and understanding as a means to build confidence. The irony of the personal and relational insight that you will gain is that it will make you more aware of and accepting of your irrationality, as well as that of others, which in turn will make you one of the most rational people around.


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The Paradox of Freedom

The things that free you also bind you.

It is a sad cliché that the prisoner, finally freed after years of confinement, has a difficult time adjusting to his new reality. In the face of so many possibilities – so many necessary daily choices and responsibilities – a highly routinized lifestyle dictated by someone else’s agenda could become impossible to live without. Certainly there are days or even just situations where you would much rather have someone else decide. The responsibility of freedom can be exhausting.

I think back on my transition out of corporate life and into the new life of a small business owner and I am reminded of Karen Horney’s (1945) psychological construct that each of us tends to cope with our basic anxiety along one of three dimensions: moving towards people (compliance), moving against them (aggression) or moving away from them (withdrawal). While each approach is available to us, it is our natural tendency to default to one of these primary coping mechanisms.

My default position for anxiety management has long been withdrawal. Frustrated by the demands of compliance and afraid of the consequences of conflict I would simply disappear, my aggression dissipated passively on those who were least deserving of it! Back to the career change, I recall so many people expressing to me how much sense it made that I was finally going to “do my own thing.” I buoyed myself, as I entered a new unknown, with their casual confidence and borrowed as much of it as I could. Looking back on the bumpiness of that first year – a particular and predictable set of anxious feelings – I recognize that the root of the challenge in my transition to a new life of “freedom” was that I was operating from the stress of reactivity rather than the stress of possibility.

As “right” as the change was on its face, it was also another excellent example of my tendency to “move away.” Initially, I made the move in order to get away from a particular set of circumstances rather than to manifest those of my own intention. It was no surprise then that I did not think of myself as a small business owner because to do so requires clarity of purpose, vision and direction. With the gift of space and time, and with the learning that comes from even incremental progress, that definition eventually emerged and I began to operate not from the insecurity of anxiousness (reactively) but from the confidence of determination (proactively).

I don’t think it’s possible to eradicate my default reaction to stress but I do think it’s possible to become deeply educated about my tendency and to stay open to new ways of orienting to the world. As comforting as it may sometimes be to take refuge there, it is imperative that we acknowledge, finally, that the prison cell we have created is not locked, and it never was.



A post script
: What do you notice about your style under stress? Do you disappear? Do you agitate and express frustration? Do you fall into line to diminish the feelings of uncertainty? The opportunity to become your own authority – to more effectively contend with life’s anxieties – exists in your willingness to, (1) identify the pattern and (2) free yourself to choose a new approach in the moment. 


 

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It was a very tough year

The year 2005 was the most challenging of my adult life.

In March we moved into a larger home to accommodate our growing family. In July we welcomed our third child, and two short weeks later I started a new job that would put me on the path I continue to walk today.

About a week into that job my boss told me I was being arrogant, which really pissed me off. I went home and fumed.

The next day we talked about it in what was one of the most crucial conversations of my life. It was as pure a moment of self-awareness as I can recall. The onion was finally getting peeled.

I wasn’t being arrogant because I was a jerk (at least I don’t think so) but because it was my default mechanism for expressing anxiety, fear and a growing sense of fraudulence. I was anxious about being the sole provider for my family, afraid I had taken on too much, and certain that I would be found out as a fraud who wasn’t up for the job as soon as someone decided to look just a little bit closer!

In the course of a few short months I had experienced three of life’s most stressful events. Fear, anxiety and insecurity make a lot of sense in those circumstances. But I just thought I was supposed to handle it; that I was supposed to summon my good friend “competence” and fake it ’til I made it.

It didn’t work and I got called out. Which meant, because I couldn’t “unsee” what was going on, that I could begin to learn better ways to navigate the stress of transition and the real difficulties of change.

Since life’s changes, big and small, keep rolling in with the tide, the lessons learned in 2005 continue to pay dividends. And I have no doubt that will continue to be the case.

I know in a very personal way how challenging it is to see things accurately, to understand oneself clearly and honestly, in the midst of so much change. And so to prescribe that kind of self-awareness – as if you can just a flip a switch –  isn’t helpful.

What I can suggest is that you familiarize yourself with the life events that are most responsible for spikes in stress. You might also do a sort of preemptory “life audit,” a review of your behavior under stress in the past so that you know what to look for. Finally, and most importantly, is to cultivate relationships of kind candor, the ones where people will see through your efforts at “competence” and remind you that you don’t have to go it alone.

 


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

 

 

The First

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Wednesday was Manvinder’s first day driving for Lyft and I was his first customer.

When he picked me up he quickly let me know I was his first customer by motioning to his phone which I soon learned meant that he was in active conversation with a friend who was guiding him through how to handle his first assignment!

What became clear right away was that Manvinder did not know how to use the Lyft app to transition from “picking up the ride” to “getting the ride to his destination.” It kept telling him to go back to the hotel to get me. And I was already there.

As he continued to struggle and his colleague continued to “help,” I chimed in that I could direct him there myself. He remained intent on following the instruction provided by the app which meant that he kept trying to return to the hotel.

At this point it was clear that Manvinder was stressed! He had an app giving him bad information, a friend in his ear and a passenger in his car…who wouldn’t be?

So I attempted to break through the noise and said, “I can get you there…just turn right.” And he did. But I underestimated my opponent: a human passenger who knows where to go is a poor substitute for a device that does not.

Slowly, so slowly it seemed, I made progress: “left here…yes…stay in the middle lane…no, the MIDDLE lane.”

Which is when it hit me that if the app wasn’t working Manvinder wasn’t going to get paid. And I was not – the first, first passenger he would ever have – going to have that on my conscience.

So I said, “Please hand me your phone.” Which he did, right away. A few clicks and swipes later I got the app to the “Confirm David Pick-up” button which led to the “Begin David Trip” button. And just like that we were official.

It was a random and energizing way to start the day. Except that wasn’t all of it. What then struck me was that Manvinder was driving me, his first customer, to meet with my first client. In March of 2013 a former colleague recommended me to the leader I was on my way to meet. We began a relationship that has led to a very meaningful project with his team as well as additional, rewarding work in his organization.

It is a gift to be reminded of someone helping me to get started. It is a gift to have played that part for someone else.

And, having arrived safely at my destination, Manvinder and I celebrated the moment in the best way we know how: with a selfie.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.