Lessons You Won’t Learn In School

Wisdom lies in acting on the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Here are 10 skills that will clarify your vision and bring you closer to your life goals.

By Jena E Pincott, published May 1, 2018 -Photo by Tim Petersen

1: Understanding that not everything that happens to you is about you.

We are all stars of our own movies, and everything in the world is but a backdrop. Your partner’s mood dips. Your company’s market value lifts. You’re mired in a traffic jam. It’s human nature to experience it all through the lens of how it affects you personally. This slanted sense of reality has a name: the egocentric bias.

Social psychologists say our tilt to egocentricity is deeply ingrained because it helps us maintain a coherent narrative of the events in our lives. The more we personalize experiences, the more relevant they are to us—and only relevant memories stick around over the long term. These memories are all we have and all we are; they’re the foundation of identity.

Even so, it is essential to recognize the egocentric bias for what it is: an adaptive illusion.

There will definitely come a morning when your boss will barely acknowledge you. Or you won’t get the job you thought was in the bag. You’ll take it personally and feel baffled, offended, maybe irate. You will be sucked into your own emotional state to nurse perceived wounds, perhaps even act on them.

At the very least, the egocentric bias causes us to misread others; it undermines empathy and tolerance. It also traps us in a bubble; we waste vast amounts of psychic energy recovering from insults that were never targeted at us in the first place.

To live a life that is less reactive, more directed, it is necessary to put the ego in its place. We can cognitively prompt ourselves to recognize that our own point of view isn’t the only one, or necessarily the best one. We can then see situations with clarity and approach them effectively. We may even see the wisdom in others’ points of view, and learn from them.

There are some situations in which such ego-shifts occur naturally, with little effort—sublime experiences that pique awe or defy comprehension: Brahms’s concertos, childbirth, mathematical formulas, contemplation of the universe. What they all do is subdue the ego and widen perspective, scholars say. Some studies also find that memento mori, reminders of the impermanence of life, also displace the self from center stage (and increase happiness).

2: Focusing on other people without dwelling on how they view you.

The corollary to the egocentric bias is the spotlight effect: If you live life as the star of your own movie, you’ll almost automatically assume that everyone is observing you closely. As the center of your own universe, you naturally believe that you’re also the center of everyone else’s. The consequence is that in your interactions with others, you might find yourself thinking less about them and more about how you appear to them and what they must think of you. Are you displaying confidence, competence, awkwardness, or agitation?

It likely doesn’t matter. The evidence shows that the spotlight is not quite so bright. People do not notice us nearly as much as we think they do.

Consider one study in which participants who wore an embarrassing shirt—emblazoned with the image of Barry Manilow—were asked to guess how many peers would notice. Fewer than half of the estimated number were aware of it. Similarly, an experiment on group dynamics found that people assumed that their contributions—as well as their little verbal flubs and gaffes—registered more with others than they actually did.

The spotlight effect extends beyond external events. People routinely believe that their internal state is known to others. When subjects were asked to practice a deception, they radically overestimated how much of their deceptive intentions they “leaked.”

When we care a little less about our curated self-image, we open the door to interacting more genuinely. We can let down our guard. Others may respond in kind, focusing less on their own self-image and opening up. In this way, moderate self-disclosure can inspire emotional reciprocity. The spotlight becomes more like a floodlight, expansive and shared.

3: Realizing that you don’t have to act the way you feel.

No one feels good all the time. We suffer disappointments or outright opposition. Some days require more effort and energy than are available to us. We disappoint ourselves on something that matters to us. Or events happen that absorb us in sadness or consume us with anxiety.

But we are not transparent. The knowledge that we inherently misperceive the degree to which people notice us and misjudge the extent to which our states of mind are somehow visible to others, confers on us the opportunity to preserve our dignity, our privacy, and our self-respect when we’re not at our best.

We don’t have to contaminate social interactions with our own state of mind. But how can we be gracious when feeling moody and snappish? How, after an ego blow, do we hold back defensiveness, aggression, or anger?

In recent years, the psychological technique of self-distancing has gained traction as an effective means of self-regulation. The idea, explains Ethan Kross, the director of the Emotion & Self Control Lab at the University of Michigan, “is to process one’s feelings from an outsider’s point of view.”

First, imagine that your mind contains more than one self. If the self that reasons through the negative experience—on paper, out loud, or silently in your head—has a different voice from the one that experienced it, the bad feeling doesn’t feel so immediate.

The distanced self can give the suffering self the mental space to react to a bad experience less emotionally. We think more clearly and have more control over the way we act.

Kross identifies several ways to use this “linguistic jujitsu” to shift mood (and behavior) at will. A pep talk works well when couched in the same language you’d use to counsel other people, using your first name or the second-person pronoun you, rather than the usual I or me(Look, Jane, getting fired is an opportunity to examine your strengths and what you’d like to do next.) 

Use of you or one in the universal sense is also helpful, Kross notes, and we sometimes even use it unconsciously as a way to normalize and make meaning of experience. (If you work for a misogynist tyrant, you’ve got to expect problems.) The more emotionally intense the feeling in the moment, Kross says, the better self-distancing works.

4: Being able to reframe (and manage) disappointment and adversity.

To give a job interview your all and fall short is a disappointment, not a crisis. To throw a party that bombs is a letdown, not occasion for depression. To be reprimanded for arriving late to work is an indignity, not grounds to quit.

The most resilient people give themselves mental latitude, space to see their setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow. They believe failure is an event, not an identity. Social psychologists recognize that, although people may differ in their inborn ability to tolerate stress, mental fortitude can be cultivated.

Every Buddhist knows—and mindfulness techniques actualize the knowledge—that emotions are not an accurate reflection of reality (in fact, there’s no such thing). Feelings are no more than passing ephemera—and so are flops and fiascos. Resilient people do not define themselves by their adversity. They understand that bad times are temporary affairs.

The same self-distancing tools that work to improve mood and self-regulation can also be used to bolster resilience. Kross recommends calling upon your distanced “second person” self to ask and answer questions about the failure or disappointment that bothers you. What was under your control, Alice, and what could you have done better? If the same thing happened to a friend, what would your advice be? How is this incident going to affect you in a month, a year? 

In the telling, you recast the setback as a strengthening experience—a form of cognitive reappraisal, or reframing. We may even come to recognize how we tend to knock ourselves down with the usual cognitive culprits: catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, personalizing, engaging in polarized black-or-white thinking, and jumping to conclusions. As Hamlet said, “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Using imaging techniques, researchers have observed subjects’ brains as they practice reappraisal. The reasoning medial prefrontal cortex becomes particularly activated, and the overactive, emotional amygdala calms down. That’s mental fortitude in action.

5: Knowing how to solicit honest feedback.

There are two types of people in the world, observes organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich, author of Insight. “There are ones who think they’re self-aware and the few who actually are.” To complicate matters, there are two types of self-awareness: internal (how we see ourselves and our own values and passions) and external (how others view us). Only the latter can tell us that the tale we’re telling is boring or that no one trusts us because we kiss up to the boss.

External self-awareness allows us to be more in sync with others. It makes us more effective leaders because we have more empathy, which comes from understanding other people’s perspectives.

If we knew how others perceived us, we wouldn’t be blindsided by criticism or interactions that go awry for no apparent reason. “Other people, including those who don’t know us well, are often better predictors of our future behavior,” Eurich says. It may come as a surprise, she adds, but people high in introspection don’t necessarily have high external self-awareness. In fact, there’s often an inverse correlation because, in asking “why” our interactions go wrong, we make up answers that aren’t true.

The life skill to work on here is having the temerity and humility to ask others specific questions about how they perceive you. Life isn’t all about you, but you still need accurate knowledge of how you’re perceived. Eurich recommends selecting as many as five “loving critics” who’ll give you a good read, including friends as well as coworkers or employees. Ask them questions like, What am I doing that I should keep doing? What should I stop doing? What about me annoys you? The knowledge can shake up your sense of reality, Eurich warns. “Afterward, take a break. Then process the information.”

6: Staying true to your own values despite what others expect of you.

Your own needs and values matter. If you don’t reasonably accommodate them in all that you do, you will be setting yourself up for a life of regret or resentment. A life of meaning requires the thoughtful exercise of your passions and skills. That, of course, obliges you to discover what they are and equip yourself to deploy them.

Knowing how others see you, or what they expect you to be, doesn’t mean you have to change anything, adds Eurich. “You’re in control.” The challenge, she admits, is that what we want for ourselves (again, internal self-awareness) and what others expect of us (external self-awareness) aren’t always well defined. “It’s a balance, a tug-of-war,” Eurich says, “and you need enough internal self-awareness to pull back.” When everyone expects you to take over the family business, can you be confident that what you really want is to join the Peace Corps in rural Malaysia? Or that you don’t want to have children—ever?

The skill here involves reconciling two concepts of selfhood: the part of us that knows its own desires and passions and remains essentially stable over time and the part that derives meaning and identity from a social context which by definition is in flux.

They are, of course, not entirely separate. Unconsciously, we tend to try to live up to the expectations of others, including parents, teachers, and romantic prospects. The weaker our internal self-awareness is, the more we may care only about how we appear to others and struggle to discern what we want for ourselves from what they want of us. We become pleasers.

People high in both internal and external self-awareness are best at navigating the dueling expectations, Eurich says. They value authenticity and integrity, know what they want to do, and illuminate it with other perspectives. When soliciting feedback, they’re “very, very picky,” she says, singling out just those they trust. When it comes to their desires and aspirations, they may confide in only a select few who want them to succeed.

Eurich points out that self-knowledge is acquired by taking in overall trends and patterns, not the input of any one person. What do you really want for yourself? When introspecting, she recommends sidestepping emotionally charged Why? questions to instead ask productive What? questions: What don’t I know that I’d like to know? What am I not doing that I should be doing? As the philosopher Lao Tzu said, “At the center of your being you have the answer.”

7: Being open to new information or revised thinking.

The world doesn’t stand still. Situations change. Available information changes. However much we get emotionally attached to our own decisions, however much our opinions and perspectives may have once served us, there comes a point at which constancy can curdle into rigidity. 

Whatever you find at the center of your being, you don’t want rigidity. But that happens to many of us over time, reports University of California Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik. She conducted an experiment in which preschool-age kids and grown-ups encountered a toy they’d never seen before. Both age groups were taught how to turn the toy on and make music, either by using a single block or a combination of blocks. Later, everyone got a chance to try to make the toy work with a new set of blocks—but only the little kids were able to disregard their existing knowledge and tinker with new combinations to make the toy turn on. The grown-ups tended to doggedly adhere to their original instructions, even if they no longer worked. They didn’t revise their thinking.

As we get older and accumulate knowledge, we tend to become procrustean. We learn a principle and then become constrained by it. New information that conflicts with existing knowledge is harder to take in. Unless we can find a way to make it conform to our preconceptions, we may reject it (known in the psych biz as “confirmation bias“). That’s how our political views become so fixed. We fail to readily adapt to strange environments and new technologies. With age, neural flexibility cedes ground to efficiency.

Yet cognitive flexibility can be trained, and even regained, with exercise. For starters, there’s physical activity; it increases blood-oxygen levels, which may lead to synaptic plasticity. Then there’s the mental training that Gopnik recommends—working on how to face new problems like a novice. “It’s not only about trying new things,” she points out, but making forays into areas that are far from your base of expertise. (Psychologists, try coding. Coders, try fiction writing. Everyone, study or work abroad for a bit, if you are able to do so.) Curiosity should prevail over mastery. “Ironically,” Gopnik notes, “not caring about the outcome can actually make you more exploratory and ultimately more effective.” For a proper demonstration of cognitive flexibility in action, she recommends hanging out with 4-year-olds.

Mental flexibility also has a very situational side. Studies show that people are more apt to change their minds when they feel good about themselves. At the same time, the more people feel threatened in any way, the more likely they are to cling to their beliefs, especially if those views align with those of groups with which they identify.

8: Mastering a fail-safe way to motivate yourself, one that works when interest flags.

Remember how Tom Sawyer got his friends to paint his aunt’s white fence? He made the chore seem like so much fun that they bribed him to let them do it. The internal drive that little kids have, the one that makes them want to do what they do—not out of necessity but from pure interest—is called “intrinsic motivation.” It’s the gold standard of prods.

But when our interest or our efforts at motivational whitewashing fall short, we struggle to get ourselves to do what we need to do. Money is scarcely a universal motivator; ask anyone suffering from burnout. The link between compensation and motivation is complicated, but studies show that money often robs people of satisfaction, turning once enjoyable activities into downright chores. Money does not buy engagement.

The act of writing down how the drudgery will end with a success (say, a raise and a promotion) or of visualizing the triumph in all its detail, have been shown to activate areas of the brain linked to reward. Some people can incentivize themselves just with thoughts of competition: They gamify a task, have peers hold them accountable, or imagine an opponent succeeding. Second-person self-talk, the “coach in the head,” has its value, too. You can crush this, Ted! Some studies find the phrasing is even more potent as a question: Can you crush it, Ted? The idea is to recast the task as an interesting challenge, which, if all goes well, taps into intrinsic motivation.

But for many of us, the most useful skill is to get the proverbial ball rolling, and for that you need to rely on habit. You wake up at 6:00 A.M. to work out, not out of passion but habit. You dive into a document not always because it’s riveting but because it’s routine. Just 20 minutes, you tell yourself, and you’ll move on to something else. Then, more often than not, a magical momentum takes over. This is not about carrot-and-stick. It’s about the mulish determination to take a step, then another, and another, until you hit your stride.

Sometimes the pleasure is in the process. People who know how to make their inspiration—rather than waiting for it to come to them—connect even the most onerous tasks to a greater purpose. For the least inspiring items on their checklist, they set microgoals: Put in 20 minutes for a sense of progress and momentum. They learn to value the succession of nitty-gritty steps, not just the triumphant outcome.

9: Zoning in on your purpose in a zoned-out world.

As Mark Twain said, “The two most important days in life are the day you are born and the day you discover the reason why.”

Purpose, however, hinges on self-regulation, the ability to resist impulses in the service of long-term goals. Unfortunately, an entire generation is coming of age absorbed in Facebook and other media that undermine self-regulation, says Larry Rosen, a professor emeritus at California State University and a coauthor of The Distracted Brain. Fully grown adults are no less immune to the dings and pings of feedback that make smartphones so compelling. “You may want big ideas, but if your attention is jerked away constantly, they won’t come. There’s no time to process anything on a deeper level,” Rosen says. Nor, he adds, is there time for creative daydreaming, because the brain is often overstimulated.

Rosen has found that young adult students can maintain focus on important work only for two to four minutes on average before checking emails, texts, and social media (older adults are not much better)—and it can take up to 20 minutes to get back on task. The more hours students spend media-multitasking, the lower their grade point average. Even a single check-in on Facebook during focus sessions predicted a lower grade.

Beyond the Likes and the sounds aimed at activating the reward circuitry of the brain lies an even stronger motive for constant check-ins, Rosen finds: They reduce the nagging anxiety about missing out (FOMO). Traditional ways to free the brain from an obsessive rut—10-minute nature walks, exercise, meditation, showers—still work, but deliberate tech breaks are now almost necessary. Rosen recommends breaks of 30 minutes each, especially at focus times.

Practice, Rosen says, can foster the development of executive control. Turning away from the small screen can reorient us to the big picture.

10: Tolerating ambiguity.

You’ll never know exactly what you’re missing out on. You can’t know for sure what the other side is thinking during a negotiation or what your date or partner really thinks of you. You’ll never know whether the decisions you make today are the best ones, or what you may have sacrificed in making them—or, for that matter, where they will lead.

What’s more, the speed of events today increasingly demands that we make decisions in the absence of definitive information. Nor will you ever know everything about your partner. Despite being a sure-fire fuel of anxiety, uncertainty is a condition of life.

Tolerance for ambiguity comes at the expense of clarity. But the rewards are rich. We’re more able to shift gears, experiment, be more flexible, take in new information that we’d otherwise reject, and let a situation develop before pulling the proverbial trigger. We’re better able to handle risk and to make decisions without deluding ourselves into thinking we know everything there is to know. In the end, we’re less anxious. Total certainty is, at best, an illusion.

The most effective strategies for increasing comfort with uncertainty (especially when a decision must be made) would have us look beyond the here and now. Ask a person who made a hasty decision to explain or write about the consequences and her desire for clear-cut closure diminishes.

Clarity, we come to realize, develops best over time. Perhaps this explains the finding that a tolerance for ambiguity increases after reading fiction. Stories pull us out of the present moment—as well as out of our own minds and mindsets. It was a novelist, Margaret Drabble, who memorably observed, “When nothing is sure, everything is possible.”

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com



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