If I look around me (former students, relatives, friends, ex colleagues etc.) I see many with low self-esteem who blindly obey, are scared of failure and feel stuck.
The question may have been posed by a young man but this dysfunctional attitude is irrespective of age. I see people in their mid-30s and mid 40s who are bright, qualified and experienced, people who are on the threshold of leadership but unable to step up because they can’t break free of their decades long conditioning.
Why are we not free?
There are two reasons- the external and the internal world.
In the external world, this imprisonment is simply a manifestation of something far more fundamental- the culture. Culture explains everything from parenting to schooling to careers and relationships.
Many of us come from deeply conservative and collectivist cultures that:
1. hugely prizes tradition and conformity,
2. has an astonishingly narrow definition of success (education, job, marriage),
3. keeps everyone scared of what everyone else thinks,
4. over protects and unnecessarily shields you from any failure,
5. distrusts people from other cultures at a level almost bordering on xenophobia,
6. imposes a tough penalty for any kind of failure related to its narrow definition of success,
7. encourages bullying or social embarrassment in front of peers,
8. is constantly insecure about finance and worry about money issues related to education, career, marriage, health, mortgage etc. even though they may be well off and the worry is unnecessary and
9. is typified in a common parenting style that incorporates all of the above 8 points.
Let’s now talk of the internal world.
The internal world is affected by all the above, especially the last point on parenting. Parenting has a huge impact since your brain is absorbing all this nonsense during childhood. This is because the conscious brain hasn’t developed any critical or analytical function and what is heard is simply passed on to (and absorbed faithfully by) the subconscious mind.
This leads to deeply embedded habits, traits, weaknesses etc. that manifest much later in life in the form of (for example) low mental toughness, low self-esteem, introversion, addiction and reduced attention spans.
We can’t wait for the culture to change and that won’t happen to any meaningful extent in our lifetimes. But we can’t also be fatalistic and passive and leave it all to the external forces.
We can change ourselves so that we break free and navigate the world successfully.
So here are my solutions.
# 1: Success
If your metrics of success are different from that of the society you currently live in then it’s much easier to break free.
Society may prize tradition, job security, marriage, kids, family, hierarchy, responsibility etc. and measure success in those terms. As an example, your values may be authenticity, freedom, wellbeing, achievement, creativity etc. which stand in contrast to what society respects.
How do you know?
Look at what kind of activities and successes turn you on. That will give you a clue where you belong and where you don’t.
This also neatly segues to the next tip about benchmarks.
# 2: Benchmarks
Who are you comparing yourself to?
If you’re comparing yourself to everyone who’s successful as per your society’s measures of success, you’ll never break free. You’ll always keep walking the same familiar path that millions before you have walked, a path that you are not meant to be walking on.
Another reason why it’s crucial to think carefully about what you consider as a successful life.
Choose your role models carefully.
# 3: Introspection
Introspection is CRUCIAL to feeling unstuck.
How to introspect:
- – Ask yourself what major view of yours have you changed in the past year. That will give you a good idea of how static or dynamic your thinking is.
- – Step back once in a while and think of how logical or fair your views are. What’s the basis? You may be surprised to find out how conservative, hypocritical, cynical, materialistic etc. you are.
Introspection takes me to Meditation which is an invaluable hack.
# 4: Meditation
I always saw meditation as impractical and unscientific until I read an eye opener of a book recently. I haven’t started meditation but let me give you the most relevant insights from this book:
- a) We are all bound by our habits to an astonishing degree. Research suggests that up to 95% of our daily activities (routines like driving and eating but also harmful behaviors like overeating, complaining, worrying, judging, blaming etc.) are simply habits driven by the subconscious & based on past experiences. We are only conscious for 5% of the time.
- b) In order to change you must access the subconscious mind where all your unwanted habits and behaviors reside to make the real and permanent changes.
- c) To access that you must stop the sensory overload, the continuous flow of information, that keeps the brain distracted especially the pre frontal cortex that is in charge of conscious thought like planning and analyzing.
- d) In daily life we are bound by the Big 3- our body, our environment and our time.
- e) Your environment influences your mind so that your habitat becomes your habit. Nerve cells that wire together fire together and it becomes easier to repeat behaviors.
- f) You feel the way you think and eventually start thinking the way you feel and the body starts controlling the mind and you run on automatic.
- g)So, when you meditate you:
- – Stop being controlled by the Big 3
- – Go from being a doer to being a thinker/doer to doer/observer.
- – Move beyond your analytical mind. Awareness exists outside of analysis.
- – Reassert control over your life that has so far been driven by the subconscious mind.
- – You go from cause and effect (waiting for something outside of you to change something inside you) to causing effect (changing something inside you to produce an effect outside you)
- – You go from thinking to being (without doing or taking any physical action)
# 5: Circle
They say you’re the sum of the five people closest to you.
I don’t know how this works out mathematically (!) but it makes a lot of sense from the psychological perspective. If your close friends, relatives and colleagues are (for example) conservative, complacent and cynical how different do you think you’ll be?
If you marry into a conservative family you’re probably (but not always) also marrying a conservative person. Conversely, in collectivist societies you’re not just marrying an individual you’re also marrying his/her near and extended family. All this may hold you back if you want to change in future.
Change your circle to change your life. Which takes me to….
# 6: Relocation
Often, you’re stuck in some city or town with a homogeneous culture because you were born or grew up there. But you’re like the proverbial frog in the well who doesn’t know anything or anyone else.
Move to a bigger city or to another country. It’ll change your perspective in ways you cannot even imagine.
And if you relocate try not to live in the same neighborhood as others from your country e.g., like the South Asians piled up in Mississauga in Canada, Southall (or Birmingham) in the UK or Karama in Dubai. Because it’ll be more of the same.
# 7: Support
A lot of the time people need emotional or support from others. That’s the big benefit they get. They need that to navigate through life’s many challenges.
The price they pay? Conformity with society’s rules. Support is never free.
Now most people need support so its highly unrealistic to say screw the support I will succeed alone.
The practical approach is to restrict your circle to 4-5 people who will give you their support and not demand conformity to their set of rules.
# 8: Confidence
This is a superpower, the rocket fuel that fuels your journey to freedom.
We can talk for hours on this topic but I will keep it short.
Many grow up thinking that they aren’t good enough. That has a raft of implications on education, career, relationships etc.
There are many ways of developing confidence.
- – Competence often leads to confidence. Start doing stuff and eventually you may discover what you’re good at and that will boost confidence. Yes, your competence may be in a narrow field (e.g., financial analysis) but use these as stepping stones to climb up the ladder of confidence.
- – Track your thoughts. Note when you have negative thoughts and immediately counteract it with a positive thought or action.
- – Dress sharply. Once you look good you will feel good.
- – Watch your body language. Straight back, open arms, smiling face etc. all both portray and create confidence.
- – Get fitter. A workout does wonders not just for your body but your brain as well.
# 9: Belonging
Humans are social animals. We inherently have this craving, this need to belong, to identify with a group or groups.
Now, the extent to which we are social depends- more in collectivist societies like much of Asia and Africa and less in individualistic societies like the US and Western Europe.
The extent to which you need to belong will drive your ability to break free. How much is your identity linked to that of the larger group?
Here’s a tip. Try and slowly forge your own identity, one that’s not so closely linked to your current in group.
How do you do that?
- – Think of how much your group-based identity is holding you back. What you are missing.
- – Explore connections with other groups.
# 10: Mentors
A good mentor will help you break free.
How do I know? Because I have done that many times over the last decade.
Sometimes you just need someone to kick your ass, to point out what you’re missing, to remind you of the essentials while you’re being too busy with the details of life.
A mentor stands out because he not only tells you what to do and why but also how to do it. That’s because he’s been there and done that and that’s invaluable experience talking.
Breaking free is about stepping outside the comfortable prison where you’ve lived all your life so far, tasting freedom and changing your life.
As an executive coach my main job is to get people unstuck, to help senior level execs break free and nail their potential. If you wish to know more just shoot a message to Binod.Shankar@gmail.com.
Onwards and upwards!