Summer is here! I hope you are taking some time to enjoy it in whatever way feels most rejuvenating to you. I've been enjoying lazing in the sun (when it's out in Seascape!), reading, and taking a well-needed "thinking break."
In 17 years of helping teenagers navigate the SAT and ACT exams, I have seen many patterns, one of which is so disempowering that it warrants its own newsletter: The over-reliance on "I don't know."
During the course of a lifetime, we encounter many problems which need a solution. Some of these problems are easy to solve, but many are not. There are a multitude of responses to a difficult problem, and if we default to not knowing ("giving up") before we've given ourselves a chance to carefully consider and possibly solve a problem, we develop a debilitating habit, one that could limit our choices and hold us back from creating the life we truly want to live
When one of my student looks at a math problem and quickly declares that they have no idea how to do it, I don't spoon-feed them the answer. We start to break down the question into bite-sized pieces that are easier to handle. I ask them, "What would you do with this one piece of information?" and more likely than not, they will have an answer. They may not be 100% sure that it's correct, but when asked directly, most will draw on whatever resources they have to answer the question. And you know what? Three out of four times, they're right! And if they truly don't know, then it's time for a lesson
Don't get me wrong. I actually believe that "living in the I don't know" can be a beautiful lesson in humility and release. In fact, I think I'll make my next newsletter about the upside of "I don't know." The problem is that when "I don't know" becomes a strategy to avoid life's challenges, it can seriously deflate your self-esteem and deprive you of life’s great joys
In my SAT/ACT prep business, Higher Standards Academy, I've worked with many teenagers who react to a difficult problem by immediately saying "I don't know how to do this," often accompanied by an upturned palm, as if to say, "I give up." Of course, it's true that in that very moment, they have not yet come up with an answer. But, it's also true that they are missing an opportunity to play with what it means to "not know" and to turn it from something embarrassing and uncomfortable into a personal victory
This principle applies, of course, to all of us, not just college-bound teenagers. Most of us have felt the sting of frustration upon encountering a situation or problem we just couldn't figure out. Some of us meet problems with interest, curiosity, and a persistence that will lead us to an answer. Some of us get angry, feel bad about ourselves, and give up in a fit of embarrassment or aggravation. I myself am someone who has fallen prey many times to this self-destructive habit
In my early life, I tended to become frustrated easily and would often give up an activity if it wasn't immediately fulfilling. My parents were lenient and never made me continue any activity I didn't want to continue. They did it out of love ("Of course you don't have to do it if you don't want to!") but the downside was that I didn't learn to value persistence
Over the years, I have had many opportunities to learn to be more patient and let a situation unfold. To make room for enjoyment and understanding instead of expecting it at the outset. That said, I still tend to work on things that are challenging in small, less frustrating bits. In other words, I have learned to compensate for my tendency get frustrated and give up
So, that's one way to handle the tendency to give up. What else can we do to counteract the over-reliance on "I don't know?" Here's an idea
Before you decide you have no idea how to do something, give yourself a moment. Just stop, relax, breathe, and let your mind go blank. Don't try to figure it out. Allow your brain some time to process the problem. Trust that you have the brain power and internal resources to work it through
And if that doesn't work, ask for help. None of us get through this life without help from others. There's a fine balance between relying too much on others and being too independent. But that's a subject for another newsletter. For now, practice relaxing when you feel frustrated, letting go of your emotions, and allowing your natural brilliance to move you forward through the problem. Good luck!
How to Counteract the Tendency to Give Up
▪ Take a frustrating or difficult problem and break it down into smaller, more manageable pieces.
▪ When you encounter a difficult problem, stop, breathe, and let your mind go blank. Allow yourself some time to figure it out without need or expectation.
▪ Ask for help.
My husband Mathew and I often work on jigsaw puzzles together. We enjoy the quiet time we share when we're puzzling, and our pastime seems to bring out the philosopher in me. Of course, I've always been one for a good metaphor. "See how the water flows so easily around that rock? I guess I could be loosen up and go with the flow more when I see Mary next time." Ever do that? For me, it often comes in nature, but it seems to happen when I'm poring over a puzzle as well. Here are a few metaphors I've come up with during puzzle time.
1) You can't tell how hard the puzzle is by looking at the picture
When I opened up this box, all I saw were a thousand pieces of random, mixed colors, and I thought, "There's no way we're ever going to be able to do this. This is ridiculous!" But then I looked at the box and noticed there was a big swath of green and another two of red. So I started there. And that part wasn't bad.
Even the most daunting task has portions that are relatively easy. Start there.
2) Sometimes you look at the pattern; other times you look at the shape
Usually when I start a puzzle, I look for clear and obvious color patterns. There are typically several that stand out, so I begin collecting those pieces and organizing them. But after a while, on difficult puzzles, those pieces run out and what's left seems like a jumble of randomness.
That's when I shift my perspective. When the first strategy stops working, I change my approach. I start dividing the pieces into various shape categories: three-headed pieces, two-headed pieces, no-headed pieces. You get the idea.
When the way you're doing it no longer works, try another way.
3) Sometimes you just have to walk away
Working on a puzzle at the table hurts my back after a while. Eventually, I wake from my puzzle trance and realize I can't move. I feel permanently hunched, neck craning out like, well, a crane. I've got to get up, stretch my body, and realize there's a world beyond this crazy peacock jigsaw puzzle.
When I go back to the puzzle, I often see something I didn't see before. Ah ha! This section goes here, not over there! How could I have missed that? It's so obvious!
Persistence at all costs isn't always the solution. Sometimes taking a break to clear your head and relax your body - is.
Working on a puzzle adds a lot to my life: a welcome distraction, an engaging activity, an often beautiful image that gets pride of place on my coffee table for a while, a different way to relate to my husband, and some good reminders of how to make choices that keep me healthy and happy.
In my last post, I wrote about taking small, easily achievable steps when you're trying to reach a new goal. Setting yourself up for success in the early stages increases your confidence and feeds your love and desire for bringing that dream fully fledged into your life. A wonderful way to start a new adventure.
In this post, I'd like to move us down the road toward our dream a bit and talk about celebration. Perhaps we've taken a few initial steps and made some headway toward our goal. Or maybe we've taken the tiniest, most tentative step, reaching beyond our fear in spite of ourselves. If so, it's time to celebrate!
Many of us think of celebration as something we do when a big goal is completed and fully realized. But I've come to realize how important it is to celebrate the small steps along the way.
Celebration isn't necessarily about having a big party or spending a lot of money. It could be a quiet moment of acknowledgement within yourself, or between you and someone close to you. Just be sure to choose someone who wants your dreams to come true and can be present while you share your successes with them without being jealous or needing to interrupt you to talk about their own lives.
Here’s an example.
Recently, I celebrated my commitment to stretching my hamstring muscles. It may sound like a strange thing to celebrate, but years ago, I hurt my low back pretty seriously, and my hamstrings tightened up in response and stayed that way for a long time. But a few weeks ago, I started a campaign to turn that around and began doing a particular leg stretch a few times a day. I started seeing some improvement after a few days, and I now feel excited about becoming more flexible, like I was when I was a kid.
When I shared my excitement with a friend, I started by saying, “This is just a little thing, but…” I stopped myself, realizing that to me, it was most definitely NOT a little thing. My effort to improve my posture, mobility, stability, and flexibility is very important to me, and it didn’t feel good to diminish those efforts. So I self-corrected and stated how great it is that I’ve committed to this activity and that I’m starting to see real results.
That counts as a celebration. It wasn't loud or flashy. Like most things that are real and important, this was quiet, grounded, and straight from the heart. And you know what? It felt great. Acknowledging the little improvement I had made in my flexibility filled me with excitement about how flexible I could be a year from now. I can't wait to see what happens!
Most of us have some habit or goal we think would be a great addition to our lives - getting more exercise, eating more healthfully, meditating, being nicer to people, that sort of thing. Especially after the excesses of the holidays and the ensuing desire to "get better." Thus, the New Year's Resolution.
But achieving our goals can be daunting. We want to change, but it can be difficult to sustain the new behaviors needed to manifest that change. One reason is that we fail to make it easy for ourselves to succeed.
I'm a big believer in the importance of setting yourself up for success, no matter where you are on your journey. One key to affecting real change is setting the right size goal.
Setting The Right Size Goal
When I first started my SAT prep business back in 2001, I was starting from scratch: no customers, no experience, no office, no nothing (just exceptional training). And I had no idea what my first-year revenue goal should be. I was clueless about how much business I could bring in, so I decided to set my goal for my first year at $10,000. For the whole year. Yes, I know. Pretty low but also, pretty doable. That's the point. I figured I could find a way to pull in at least $10,000. I set myself up for success that first year, and I more than achieved my goal. Yay!
Common wisdom would dictate that I continue to increase my revenue goals. And I did. But I made a fatal error - having achieved success my first year, I then set my sights too high. I should have continued on the same trajectory of setting highly achievable goals until I got my footing and felt more confident, but alas, I got too ambitious. I increased my revenue goals to a level that was impossible for me to achieve at that early stage in my career.
In other words, I set myself up for failure. And the discouragement and disappointment I felt in myself was entirely self-induced - and completely avoidable.
If I had been 10 years into my business, I would have created higher level goals. But for a budding entrepreneur not yet ready for prime time, I needed to take baby steps at first.
Sometimes when you're first starting out on a new adventure, you need to walk slowly, hold your hand through the scary stuff, and be very kind to yourself along the way. I could have set my 2nd year revenue goal at $25,000 - another doable goal - achieved it, and felt the success of another year's work. Instead, I thought, "Wow! That was easy. Let's do 400% better next year. No problem!"
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have big dreams. But we can’t go from Point A to Point Z in one step. By setting incremental goals, we set ourselves up for little successes that keep us moving toward the big goal.
Moral of the Story
When you create a goal, start small and allow yourself the pleasure of initial success. You can take larger steps as you go, but don't sabotage your journey by aiming too high too quickly.