For everything in life that we find easy, we will know, and be baffled by, someone who struggles with it. For every thing we are rubbish at, we know someone who does it effortlessly. On both sides of that relationship, it can be hugely frustrating. Especially so if people need or want to change, but seem to be unable. I believe that the key to forgiving ourselves (and others), and moving forward with our personal growth, is to understand how the people who can, do.
It’s presented as a moral issue a lot of the time. Discussions about willpower and determination often dominate conversations around fitness, weight loss and health, for example. ‘Just do it’ isn’t only a sales slogan, it’s an expectation. I’ve been told in the past that I “just need to be more organised”. Astonishingly, this advice didn’t work. My friend was told her seven-year-old child “just needed to be more resilient”. Students I worked with used to say “I just need more confidence”. There’s no ‘just’ about it. The attributes we aspire to have the most, are valuable because they’re hard for us, and we don’t understand why they’re easier for other people.
Why can’t you do magic?
The science writer Arthur C Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. I think that any trait we don’t have ourselves, and that other people demonstrate without visible effort, feels just as impossible as magic.
This analogy is helpful too, in understanding why it’s so hard to deal with the challenge. I don’t imagine that Harry Potter actually knew how he was manipulating the fabric of the universe when he waved his wand. He could practice and refine, swish and flick, but he probably couldn’t tell us how he was able to do magic in the first place. He just could. In the same way, observing people who are naturally good at something like organisation, or are super-confident, doesn’t seem to help the rest of us much. Asking them doesn’t help either. If something is so innate that we view it as a personality trait rather than an action, the chances are we’ve never even considered that there’s a method to how we do it.
None of this makes me feel hopeless though. I see valuable parallels in problems I’ve worked on in my professional life, and I believe there is a method to be found behind the magic.
In my work (in rehabilitation healthcare), we helped people regain physical and practical abilities they had lost. Balance and coordination are often major losses after physical and neurological injury. We all really need balance and coordination, for pretty much everything we want to do in life, so we spent a lot of time and effort on restoring them.
To illustrate how I think this is relevant, let’s look at Mary, a fictional woman who is recovering from brain surgery. Mary is very unsteady and can only walk if she leans on a helper. This no use to Mary, as she has a life she really needs to get on with. She’s thinking clearly, and understands that this is her major problem.
Mary is a ‘good person’, but she can’t make her walking better just by being motivated or determined, although it will help. She can’t copy someone with good mobility, thought she happily would if it would get her to her goal. Mary doesn’t have any idea exactly how people walk, and never gave it a thought until she couldn’t do it anymore. If she asked a person with normal mobility, they probably couldn’t tell her anything useful about how they do it either.
So Mary is like all of us with ‘personal development goals’ (don’t like that phrase, can’t currently think of a better one). We have awareness of a clear and meaningful need to change. Our goals are well defined and we have hope and determination. We can identify role models who we could observe, question and copy. Unfortunately, none of that is enough to put things right for Mary. Nor do I think it automatically helps us to become more decisive, more disciplined or more confident than we naturally are.
We all need a better plan. It’s time to get systematic.
Back in healthcare world, I would ask a student who was practising their assessment of movement problems: “Why is Mary having trouble walking without help?” and the answer would come back, “Her balance isn’t good”. Right, but that doesn’t move us forward much. Because the next question is harder. Mary’s goal is to walk independently, over all kinds of terrain. So, how are you going to help her fix her balance so she can do that? Mostly what I’d hear in response was,”erm…”, and then eventually “balance exercises” and “walking aids”.
I will confess, I’m a bit of a tough teacher, so I never considered ‘balance exercises and walking aids’ to be a good enough solution. While it isn’t wrong, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Which balance exercises? What exactly are you treating? What if walking aids aren’t acceptable to Mary with the lifestyle she has in mind?
Drilling down to the absolute core of the problem, what is happening with Mary’s movement? Why can’t she balance?
At this point, the student might look a bit stressed, and it would be time for a coffee break…
I would wonder then if I was making it all more complicated than it needed to be. Perhaps I should let the student copy what they’ve seen the rest of us do, to build their skills. I don’t think so though. We owe people the best help that we can offer them. We owe ourselves the best chance of success too. Although simple can be beautiful, over-simplified is often useless.
Like I said: Mary, and the rest of us, need a much better plan.
Real solutions, not band aids
If we give Mary generic exercises (there are loads to be found on the internet), she might improve. If we give her a walking aid, she can compensate for her limitations by leaning on some kind of external prop. So a simple and basic approach sounds like it will do the job. It’s a variation on ‘fake it til you make it’, which is a common way of encouraging people with all kinds self-improvement.
Why don’t I think it goes far enough? Well, Mary needs sustained and significant improvement in her problem, to be able to pursue her life goals. She needs awareness and adaptability, to keep overcoming new hurdles as they emerge. Maybe even literal ones, if she’s really ambitious. You can’t jump hurdles if you’re dependent on a walking frame as a substitute for good balance.
A broad or simplistic understanding of a problem only provides you with an equally simplistic solution. Mimicking the actions of a high-achiever (‘fake it til you make it’ again), without really understanding how they do their thing, lacks depth and robustness so your performance will fall apart under pressure. Relying on external props instead of knowing your own process undermines your self-reliance.
Plus, we’d have no idea what’s really helping and what’s a waste of precious time and energy.
Positives and negatives
To treat a physical problem really successfully, you must first assess thoroughly, and understand what you have found out. To know why Mary can’t balance, you need to get out your textbooks and grasp in detail how other people can. Her treatment plan then needs to be based on an understanding of what is missing from her way of moving, that would be present in the ‘healthy’ or fully functioning body, and what is present when it shouldn’t be. These are described respectively as negative and positive features, FYI. We love technical jargon in healthcare.
You’d need to prioritise the impact of these issues. Take your best educated guess at which one has the most effect on performance or outcome. If progress isn’t as good as you hoped, this is the thing to review first: your sense of priorities might have been wrong.
Next, you lay out a step by step (excuse the pun) list of activities to address all those negatives and positives. That is, make a plan to deal with things that aren’t happening, that need to be. Do the same for things that are happening, that get in the way.
Where novice practitioners get stuck (and sometimes those of us with lots of experience, too), is in thinking of balance or coordination as a single action. They’re not single actions, they’re end products. They are activities which can be performed because of a long list of abilities and processes in the body. We do them actively, in the same way that we perform walking, or writing. Strength, control, endurance, perception, understanding, feedback and timing all play really important roles.
It seems to me, this is no different from how we would perform decisiveness, resilience, confidence, discipline or organisation.
Don’t ‘fake it til you make it’, find a recipe and bake it.
How would this concept help us to acquire a new ‘trait’? My theory is, we need to compare the fine details of how we are now, with how we want to be. It’s essential to go beyond the superficial, and try to figure out the mechanics of how a behaviour works. There will be an underlying structure and process. If it can be described, hopefully it can be practised and mastered.
Confidence is a behaviour that I have thought a lot about. As I said, I had many students tell me in their self-assessments that what they needed, was to be more confident. There’s a snarky voice in my head that always piped up in that moment, to mutter Only if you know what you’re doing…
What a bitch (though I don’t think I ever said it out loud), but there’s something important there. Do you want to act confident? Or do you want to be certain enough you’re doing the right things, that you are confident? Sure, positive, assured, convinced (thank you, thesaurus). Real confidence, surely, is founded on recognising that you have relevant abilities.
I have lots of personal experience dealing with shyness. People who’ve met me recently would probably choke on their drink at the suggestion that I’m shy, since I struggle to shut up. The person I was in my early twenties would have begged to differ, if she’d been less reluctant to speak up.
I’ve noticed that my level of comfort (confidence) in talking to strangers, changes depending on the circumstances. At work, I had a reason to go and talk to people. It’s one of the things I was being paid for, and it would be impossible to do my job without it. So I’d focus on what needed to be said, or what I needed to find out, then suck it up and go talk to people. I did it for so long and got so accustomed to it, I even ended up getting a job where I stood up and taught groups of strangers. The stuff of nightmares for shy people, and I really quite enjoyed it. Why was it so much harder to talk to new people in other situations?
Cool, calm and collected. Mostly.
I thought about that, and realised a couple of valuable things. My outward confidence at work lay in knowing the need and the purpose for the conversation, doing that mental preparation for what I’d say, and being aware of how much I knew. As in, most of the time I knew what I was talking about in some depth, but if I didn’t know something, then it was safer and more appropriate to admit it than to pretend.
I was reassured by good experiences of building rapport with people, and of meeting with acceptance at times I didn’t know all the answers. I had plenty of exposure to the general goodness of humankind. Yes, that is actually still a thing, and it’s everywhere if you’re looking for it.
I also realised that my outward confidence was part of my uniform. Something that I put on to protect and prepare me. I didn’t always feel certain of the outcome of interactions I’d have with people. Sometimes I was pretty sure I did know how it would go, and there was nothing to look forward to. But in that setting, I knew I needed to behave professionally. Part of that is being measured and under control (except in the safe venting space of your team’s shared office, maybe?), and choosing your words with care. It’s about showing everyone respect, and being prepared to account for what you’re doing. It looks, on the outside, a lot like confidence, and eventually they kind of blend together.
Understanding all of this nuance has helped me out, because it’s all transferable to other places. I still feel nervy before I go to talk to someone at my kids’ school. I’d rather not have to phone utility companies with a problem, and not only because life is short and I hate Hold Music. People in shops who try to sell me stuff are a whole other story in themselves. I like it at home in the quiet, and making new friends is still quite scary. But I don’t want to avoid any of it.
So I can focus on purpose, mental preparation, and faith in myself and humanity (aw!), just like at work. I can try to be honest, polite and respectful, and to get my point across as well as possible, just like at work. I can continue to practice being open about what I don’t know.
Then, I can be happy and proud of the things I’ve done that scared me. Particularly proud if other people didn’t know I was scared. Even if (when) I stuff up, I can cringe, reflect and try to do better next time, and know that that’s OK.
Refine the process, and repeat
It will not surprise anyone who knows me, that I haven’t done all my homework yet on how to fix my flaws. But in reflecting on how I coached myself to be more confident, I can also see that I’ve learned some things about the nature of self-discipline and organisation. Once you start to deconstruct things in that way, you begin to see patterns in everything.
I have so much more to learn, and I’m excited about that because more knowledge means having more control over my own happiness. I have plenty of amazing role models to study. To get to the truth takes the brain-melting tenacity of a four year old, and I plan to ask ‘why’ and ‘how’ until there aren’t any answers left.
I might be a bit of a witch sometimes, but my letter for wizard school never arrived. So I’m finding a way to teach myself some magic instead.
What behaviour are you hoping to teach yourself? What secrets have you figured out so far? I’d love to see your comments below.