Do you ever think about the unwritten rules that run your life? It seems I discover a new one every day – an most of them are not of my making. I’m following someone else’s rules as if they are some kind of unbreakable law. The punishment? I never wanted to find out.
Until I started working on my personal capabilities and discovered that these rules were like a personal glass ceiling.
I could see through the barrier to the thing I wanted – but couldn’t get there with shattering those unbreakable rules. My rules about work and life calcified into a virtual dictator, governing my every move.
I spent the first half of my career “going to the office” every day. Having a defined place and time to do work was both freeing and limiting at the same time. This was an ancient era with no laptop and cell phone to keep me working, so when I was at home, it was NOT work time. When I was at work, it was work time. Easy.
Then I joined a small leadership firm with a distributed, virtual team. By now, computers and cell phones (not smart phones) were the norm and I worked from home. We converted my empty living room into an office, with a desk, computer station, file cabinets and all the things that recreated the office environment of my previous experience.
Along with the office environment came the rules.
Every day, I would sit down at 8:00 and work until lunch. After my very official lunch break, I worked in the afternoon until 5:00 or 6:00 and then be off. When I didn’t have anything pressing to do, I did a great job of looking busy and productive. After all, I wanted my boss, who lived 1500 miles and two time zones away, to see that he was getting his money worth. Could he see me working? No, although you would have thought there was a livestream camera in the corner watching my every move. What did my boss actually want? Results. As long as I delivered on the promises I made and got the outcomes we agreed to, he really, really, really did not care when I was at my desk or how “workish” I looked while working.
The rule I had invented for such circumstances was “look busy no matter what”. I’m sure it came from a previous job and it was completely irrelevant in this circumstance.
Actually, this rule was more than irrelevant. It was limiting.
Why? Much of this virtual job required me to develop insights and be creative. What I needed instead of chaining myself to a desk in an office was to set the conditions for me to deliver on my promises. For me, walking is the most powerful way I’ve found to prime my creativity and put things together in new ways.
Would I have dare take a walk in those days? Not on your life.
One day it dawned on me that my decisions were more often than not based on some stupid rule that I had been taught for different circumstances and then carried forward. Examples:
I didn’t just all of the sudden uncover these rules (and there are many, many more). They were much more invisible and embedded than that. They were more like the dirty film on the window that you don’t notice until after the window gets washed or the dirt that becomes part of the carpet until a good shampoo.
Once I started working from the inside out, I began to look at my decisions differently. What rule is driving this decision? Is it relevant for today? Is it serving me and this situation?
Some rules are easier to change than others. Working with a coach has helped me through some of the deeper work of self-awareness – these rules can turn into beliefs that seem like truth. It takes another person to challenge your mindset. In fact, that’s the best reason to have a coach.
You can’t reach new levels with the rules designed for your past. The inner tyrant is quite convincing – and will keep your glass ceiling in place until you decide to change it.
What is on the other side of your glass ceiling? What is keeping you from living over there? What rules are running you? What would serve you now, in this place and time?
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“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” Epictetus, Discourses
I ran across this quote from Epictetus the other day and reflected on how my awareness of it has grown over the years. I’ve been slower in the application of this quote – yet I’ve also come to realize that JUST following this principle dramatically increases personal freedom and contentment.
One of my major moments of truth happened on a dark and rainy night, in the parking lot of the neighborhood Harris Teeter after a LONG day of work. In my usual rush, I was storming out of the store trying to get home to make dinner, make sure homework was done and maybe, just maybe, have a minute to myself before I collapsed in bed. Rather go slightly out of my way to go down the ramp, I pushed my cart over the curb. I also tried to turn towards my car at the same time – because maybe if I cut the corners, I could save time. Right.
It was a big curb. Grocery carts are not built to be turned at full speed over a big curb. Before I knew it, my groceries were strewn all over the parking lot and I was on my knees putting groceries back into torn bags, tears streaming down my face, raining soaking my hair. And I was really, really pissed off. At the grocery store. For having a curb that big. All that time I expected to shave off with my little “let’s go straight to the car at Mach 1” turned into a huge delay and a worse mood than ever.
As I gathered up the mess – blocking traffic and making a lot of other tired people mad – I visualized the incendiary conversation I was going to have with the store manager about their damn curb. How dare they let this happen?
Then suddenly, for a moment, I was outside myself. I could see the ridiculousness of my thoughts, my actions, the whole thing. I CHOSE to go over that curb. Cleaning up my spilled groceries was a predictable consequence of MY choice.
It was a baby step in understanding that my response to what happens to me is a better source of power than blaming others.
In calling this a moment of truth, I would like to say the light bulb went off and forever more I lived in the “light”: The only person responsible for my response is ME! Nope. Wish it were so. I would have saved myself some serious headaches.
The truth of how we can learn to run our own lives is much more subtle. We have had a LOT of training in letting others run our lives. That is how we are brought into the world as children. Until adulthood, our lives are more like tubing on the water vs skiing.
This is an insight I got from a fellow skier, who is quite adamant that kids should learn to ski (or wakeboard) instead of being passive riders on a tube. Tubing is a ton of fun and doesn’t require a lot of skill. That’s why so many people make that their easy choice. In the case of tubing, the experience of the rider mostly depends on the boat driver. There is not much you can do on a tube to control what’s happening.
On the other hand, in water skiing, the boat goes straight and the skier carves their path. While there are parameters, like the length of the rope and speed of the boat, it’s the skier’s skill that determines the quality of the ride.
This subtle, yet very real difference carries through in our lives. We can either let others drive the boat (and decide our experience), or we can cooperate with others while carving our own experience. The choice is ours.
When we are kids, we don’t get many choices. In my house growing up, if Mom was cooking okra and beef tongue, that’s what I was going to eat or go to bed hungry. Most of the time the food was really good, so I’m not saying I suffered or anything. Ok, I did suffer when my parents insisted that I eat canned asparagus. That came right back up onto the table.
The point is this: we spend a good 20 years of our lives being trained and domesticated to live with others on this planet. It’s easy to forget where we have choices. We are told to always have a number 2 pencil for tests and the rest of our lives, that’s the only pencil we buy. Because it’s the “right one.”
This training turns into the rules that run my life – usually outside of my awareness.
One of these rules hit me square in the face while buying pencils in an art store. All the artsy pencils were either super hard or super soft. Art stores aren’t in the business of selling old-fashioned test-taking pencils. But those were the only ones I knew. It felt like I had a teacher standing over me, whispering in my ear saying “Get the Number 2 or I will fail you.” This stupid dilemma reflects the power of our unwritten rules. In this case, I had to say to myself “I’m a grown ass woman – I can buy whatever pencils I want!” in order to get myself to be ok with buying a different kind of pencil.
Over the years, I’ve discovered thousands of “rules” like that buried in my subconscious.
There are thousands more undiscovered. When I am present, the real Lynn shows up to deal with whatever is happening right now, in this moment. At my best, the old rules don’t have the power to determine my experience; only I have that power.
Anytime I feel stuck, I pause and ask myself if I’m getting gripped by an old rule. Often, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Where are your choices? Where are you letting the externals drive your internal experience? What rules are running your life? Where did they come from? Whose “voices from the past” come back to tell you what to do and who to be?
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When I worked in Corporate America, the harshest feedback I got was around my competitiveness. All too often people told me that I was “not a team player” and that I was “too competitive”. Along with the feedback came the promise (threat) that I would not be promoted with this approach. So I did what any ambitious person would do: I got very competitive about not being competitive. In my world, competitive became a “bad thing”. The feedback went the other way and I was seen as successful.
Then I became an athlete where competition is the name of the game. Yet I was operating under a that rule called “competition = bad”. Now what? I’ve struggled reconciling this until recently.
My “competitiveness” had an unhealthy facet to it. It was really “comparativeness”. In those days, what I was doing was saying something like “look at me – I’m better than my co-worker, right?” It many ways, it was the oldest game on the planet - sibling rivalry – in full bloom.
It has taken some deep self-awareness work to understand that my pattern of comparativeness doesn’t serve me in almost any venue. Except maybe in comparing products in the store. Do I want the red shorts or the blue shorts?
To some degree, today’s transparent world of social media helped me see my own tendency to compare. You see it every day, both blatantly and subtly on every outlet from Facebook to Instagram. We compare ourselves to others: Who’s having the best weekend? Who has the coolest pet? Took the most exotic vacation? Has the most likes?
What’s underneath the game is that age old question that every human asks in one form or another: Am I enough? With our personal window into the inner voices, doubts, and failures we carry, it’s easy to look at others and think they might have one over on us. We can’t ever know what it really going on inside someone else. So we compare apples to oranges.
The most put together person you have ever seen might have left a house that is a complete mess or just had the worst fight with a loved one ever. Yet here I am comparing her awesome presentation to my pitiful attempt at graphic design and then linking my ability to make pretty pictures to my value in the world. I leap to these crazy conclusions with the tiniest bit of data.
Comparing confuses my value as a human to my skills. It truly is apples and oranges.
Comparative asks the question: where do I as a human being measure up? Am I enough? Or at least, am I better than you? For many, it comes from that childlike question to mommy – who do you love more? In school, we ask the question of the teacher (sometimes non-verbally – but believe me we ask it): do you like me better than little Johnny over there?
Competitive tests my skills: how do my skills stack up? Am I faster? Or stronger? Or where do my skills fit in whatever the measuring stick of the competition decides?
When we operate from comparatives, it’s not for the win, although it feels like that. It’s actually for validation. Do I belong here? Am I enough? In its most evil form, comparative actions go to great lengths to put others down so that I can fare well in the comparison. “At least I’m not lazy, dumb, late, slow…fill in blank.”
Taking my comparativeness off the table while allowing my competitiveness to flourish is not easy. It will be a struggle for the rest of my life – yet one worth tackling.
Where do you confuse your value as a human to your ability to do something? Where do you put someone’s economic value above their human value? What makes you decide someone is “better than” someone else?
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