The one change everyone needed – a question of perception

I had an interesting evening a while back with Marshal Goldsmith – a lecture that he gave to a group of professionals. He challenged us to think about what we might change in our life and question what was holding us back. 

His point was focused on finding advice and getting support, but I saw something else. It occurred to me as we talked that what was holding us all back was the same thing – we faced the same challenge of perception. 

A question of perception.

My partner’s name was Sandra, and she was stressed out

We talked in pairs first about what we wanted to change. Sandra wanted to be less stressed. When I asked her why she was stressed, she explained that all of the people around her were stressing her out. 

It was their fault. 

She didn’t say those words, it is their fault, but that was buried in what she was saying. She recognized that she wanted to change herself so that they didn’t bother her, but what she really wanted was for them to stop stressing her out. 

Worse, the reason she would fail is that they wouldn’t stop. She was already setting herself up for the excuse. 

I am not picking on Sandra, I wasn’t any better. What did I want? To write more, to get my ideas on paper, to be more authentically expressed. 

Why don’t I express more? We can probably boil all os the excuses down to concern about judgment. If all of those judgmental people would all just go away, then life would be great! 

And, as long as those judgmental people are out there, I have a great excuse. 

The pattern repeated over and over again, every personal challenge had an external component that was holding us back. In the story structure that I use, I’d call this the villain, someone out there keeping us from being complete. 

The advice we gave each other was things like: 

  • take a vacation (to reduce stress, remove yourself from the stressful people). 
  • make time every morning to write (to get more words out). 
  • prioritize your work (to get more done). 

The advice was fine, but it always involved either removing the person from the situation or putting a system in place to help them deal with it/manage time better. 

Consider this: the villains we imagine are not actually standing in our way. In fact, stress doesn’t exist. Judgment doesn’t exist. If you were to open a stressed judged person and look inside, you would find no stress and no judgment. 

Our villains are figments of your perception. 

How do you describe a mango.

In the introduction to his translation of the Bhagavad Gita, Eknath Easwaran talks about eating a delicious Mango for breakfast. The skin of the fruit is a beautiful red color, it is soft, the pulp is an inviting orange with a fresh, tangy mango aroma, and the taste is sweet.

A mango isn’t ripe, red or sweet

None of these characteristics actually pertain to the mango. The mango is not red, soft, sweet… these characteristics are attributed by the person perceiving the mango. 

They are created by perception. 

There is a simple proof for this: take that same mango to a person who does not like mangos. They’d not be so excited; the red may appear rotten, the flesh stringy, its taste tangy and repulsive. 

Or think of the color: it is entirely dependent on the spectrum of light we see. Evolution has tuned our brains, and that mango to agree on what delicious and ripe are because we depend on each other for survival. 

Depending on who we are and what we see, we would perceive the fruit differently, but the fruit would be the same. 

Data come in through our senses and we, in our minds, turn the raw, simple data into meaning. We attribute characteristics. We explain it. We react according to that meaning we attribute. 

Everything is perception. 

Much of the advice that we gave each other missed the mark. 

The advice in this meeting was fine advice, there is nothing wrong and a lot positive in taking a vacation, setting goals, and prioritizing. 

It assumes, though, that the perception of the situation is real. They assume that Sandra really is stressed, or that judgment is holding me back. 

You take a vacation to recharge away from the stress so that you can return to the stress with more mental fortitude. You schedule and force yourself to write, regardless of the judgment. 

That is great, but what if you remove the stress and the judgment altogether. 

The opportunity was (is) to change perception

What I realized is that since judgment and perception are nothing more than figments of perception and perception is in our minds, we have the most power over perception itself. 

Wu e can’t change others so that they are less stress causing or less judgmental, more accommodating, nicer, or more responsible. But, we can absolutely change our perception of the situation. 

Changing perception is simple. When the thing pops up that causes stress, take a breath and remind yourself that everything is fine right now where you are. Your boss moves the deadline for a big project up a week, now you have two days to do it. Take a breath, acknowledge that the deadline, the project, and even the result have nothing to do with you: you are alive, and breathing and life will go on regardless of what happens with the report. In the scheme of the universe where that project is irrelevant. 

Of course, you still have to get the project done, I get that. You may even need to work quickly, I get that too. 

But what if that isn’t stressful. What if it is just work. I suspect two things happen: 

  1. You end up less stressed. 
  2. You do a better job, which leads to better outcomes, which leads to fewer external distractions. 

Judgment is the same thing. I can worry about judgment, or I can let it go. They may still judge. YOU may still judge. But I will choose to see that as something other than judgment. 

Simple, not easy

Being simple doesn’t make something easy. I think changing perception is very simple. But it is hard to do. 

Changing perspective takes practice and effort, and you will not succeed always. But an occasional victory can turn into a habit that can eventually have a profound impact. 

So my question to you: 

What is one thing you could change that would have a dramatic impact on your life? 

And, what perception is holding you back?

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