A small manufacturer who has struggled for three years hears from a friend who suggests that there is a market for his product in another country. His friend is high-spirited and optimistic; he lived in that country as a graduate student, speaks the language and knows the business culture. He offers to help put a plan together. The opportunity might work, but the manufacturer is afraid. He thinks immediately of things that have gone wrong and how financially strapped he is, and he tells his friend he can’t bring himself to take such a big risk; he feels battered by his recent business decline and just hopes to survive doing what he knows. When he gets off the phone, he decides his friend isn’t realistic. “There’s no way I could start something new in this economy!” he mutters. But he is nagged by his friend’s confidence. What does he know? Why isn’t he discouraged and downtrodden?
As a leadership and business consultant for more than 20 years, I have seen these situations again and again. People don’t want to be negative, but they get caught in the spiral and lose their connection to their capacity to break free from the prison of their own worst thinking.
The manufacturer in this example is at a crossroad. Like thousands of others who feel trapped by their circumstances, he lives in a habitually distressed state of mind. People in that state continually create scenarios that play across the screen of their mind as reality and keep them feeling hopeless, fearful or upset. They find plenty of reasons for why they feel so low; they become resigned to their chronic low moods; and they innocently bypass opportunities because they don’t question their own thinking. They believe that circumstances must change to lift their spirits again.
This “victim of circumstances” view makes perfect sense to them, the same way it makes perfect sense to someone who knows nothing about engines that it would be foolish to take an old car on less-traveled roads. If something goes wrong, there’s no way to fix it. To a mechanic with a complete understanding of the car and essential tools in the trunk, there’s no limit on travel, even in a clunker. The mechanic understands what to do, no matter what.
When it comes to our own lives, we are born mechanics, but we don’t always recognize that intrinsic skill. We take it for granted as babies (babies bounce right back from negative events), and then we sometimes forget it as we “learn” our way through life. We start taking all kinds of ideas to heart and making something of them in our own minds.
Here’s an example: Until eighth grade, I never differentiated one subject from another; I assumed I could learn anything. On the first day of Algebra I, the teacher remarked, “This is the subject that separates the boys from the girls.” I immediately panicked. I was a girl. Did that mean I was going to fail? I struggled in that class until it dawned on me mid-year, “Wait a minute! The teacher is a woman. Maybe she was telling us that girls excel at algebra?” I was saved from failure by that insight, but I could have spent the rest of my life building the case that girls can’t succeed at things boys do well.
It would be easy to blame the teacher and think she should not make such comments. But in fact, it wasn’t what she said that created my world of pain. It was what I made up in my own mind about what she said. I could have thought, “Well, I’ll show her!” Or I could have ignored the comment. We unwittingly make our own choice of how seriously to take certain thoughts, depending on our state of mind at the time. As an emergent teenage girl, I was insecure.
In a vulnerable state of mind, I made a big deal out of a
Think back. We all have many such stories. Over time, we can forget how to fix our own engine of life, our psychological well-being. As a result, we lose touch with the universal qualities that allow each and every person to take leadership of their own lives and rise to occasions of leadership in life situations. We lose the realization that each one of our life experiences is created from the inside-out, not from the outside-in.
We all come to life as thinkers. Our minds are the engine of our thinking. Our thinking is a natural gift of life, just like breathing. It is the gift that allows us to create our own particular life experiences, moment-to-moment. And we have the innate capacity of consciousness, which allows us to see and feel our thoughts come to life as “reality.” Nothing is “real” to us unless we think of it and become conscious of that thinking.
Consider it. If your mind is consumed with making plans for your upcoming vacation as you pull out of a driveway, you might end up telling the officer, “I never saw that car.” It didn’t exist to you because your thinking was elsewhere, on vacation. If your head is reeling with bad memories about a mistake you made as you encounter a challenge, you might tell your colleagues, “I can’t see a way out of this.” You are simply describing the way the human mind works: When our minds are busy with projections about the future or memories from the past, we can’t bring the present moment to mind and we “miss” the obvious. When our state of mind is troubled or insecure, we tend to take the most upsetting, distracting thoughts most seriously, without recognition that our feeling state is the barometer of the quality of our thinking, and we are temporarily using our thinking against ourselves.
The extent to which we take what we think to heart depends not on what the thoughts are, but on how well we understand the workings of the engine, our thinking and our consciousness working with our feeling state to create our ever-shifting “reality.” We all know how hard it is when someone says to us, “Well, just get it off your mind!” As much as we know that’s a good idea, we need understanding to do it.
As people reconnect with the fundamental understanding that we are the thinkers of our own thoughts, always creating our moment-to-moment realities, the content of our least helpful thinking loses its power over us. When we understand how we think and that we are always thinking, we know we can allow thoughts to come and go and use our state of mind as a guide to what to take seriously and what to leave alone. With that understanding, we regain our power to bounce back from self-defeating thinking and free our minds to entertain fresh ideas.
Understanding comes through insight, which is an unexpected wise or commonsense realization. The manufacturer in the example had such an insight when he began to wonder about his friend’s confidence in the face of his own discouragement. The key to reinvention and change is recognizing insights, and understanding how to avoid second-guessing ourselves and evolve our thinking, rather than living at the mercy of it.
Judith A. Sedgeman, Ed.D., is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Leadership at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. She has been an award-winning newspaper writer and editor, an entrepreneur, consultant, and faculty member at The West Virginia University School of Medicine, where she taught in the Master’s Program in Public Health and directed an institute to support leadership and well-being.
“Reinvention” Kicks Off April 27
Biz941, Sarasota Magazine and the Institute for Public Policy and Leadership will present “Reinvention,” a series about recreating ourselves and our community on April 27, 4-5:30 p.m., Selby Auditorium on the USF campus, 8350 N. Tamiami Trail. Part one is “Creative Leadership From Within,” led by leadership experts Sedgeman and Richard M. Bozoian, former director of training and organizational development at BAE Systems, a global defense company. On April 28, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sedgeman and Bozoian will be offering a workshop for business and community leaders interested in understanding how to tap into creativity, innovation and optimism for the future. Continuing education (CE) credits provided. To register for the April program, the workshop and/or the series go to sarasota.usf.edu/reinvent or call (941) 359-4602.