"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." -- Leonardo Da Vinci
Remember that old episode from "I Love Lucy" where Lucy and Ethel are working at the candy factory? The candies slowly come down the conveyor belt. They pick up each piece, wrap it and place it back down. Easy peasy.
They do such a good job, the boss speeds up the conveyor belt and everything goes bananas. The machine shoots out the candy so fast, that there is no way Lucy and Ethel can process it, a candy conundrum. Some pieces get wrapped, some fall on the floor, some are eaten, some are stuffed in pockets. With much frantic hilarity, it all goes sideways.
Sometimes, I feel like Lucy on that conveyor belt. So much information, so much input, so much stimulus getting shot at me from that damn candy machine of life. Too many bon-bons to wrap. Too much information to process.
We all know the usual culprits that overwhelm our senses and drive us to distraction: chain smoking our Facebook Feed, being tethered to work 24/7 by e-mail, the incessant drum beat of news, stock quotes and amazing YouTube Cat Videos. Much has been written about how to effectively manage those exterior culprits.
But, I'd like to briefly discuss three hidden, far more dangerous villains who attack us from the inside. These nefarious thieves love to overwhelm our senses, disempower our spirits and prevent us from reaching our potential: Comparison which steals happiness, Fear which steals time and Shame which steals energy. For short, I refer to them as the "CFS" (pronounced "Cuffs") as they keep us in chains.
Comparison Steals Happiness
"Comparison is the thief of joy." -- Theodore Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt was really right about this one. Comparing yourself to others is the quickest, easiest and most effective way to torpedo any sense of pride and self-worth.
You just made a million dollars! Big deal, Mark Zuckerberg has 35 thousand of those.
You lost 10 pounds! Big deal, the dude on the cover of "Health and Fitness" has a 12 pack. Do you have one of those?
You just leased a sweet Lexus! Big deal, your next door neighbor just got a platinum plated Tesla. The car stops, but the rims keep spinning...
Comparison is a challenging adversary because we are wired to be hyper-sensitive to status threats. Scientists have done experiments showing that our brains register threats to our status much in the same way that we register physical pain. An evolutionary theory on this relates back to the caveman days. In those times, if you had low status in the tribe you were the last one in line to eat. If the hunt comes up short and you are not a prodigious warrior or fertile female, no Sabretooth Sandwich for you. Having low status could be harmful to your health.
Our consumer culture has utilized this status threat impulse for maximum effect and profit. As the great Mick Jagger sang:
"When I'm watchin' my TV
And the man comes to tell me
How white my shirts can be
But he can't be a man 'cause he don't smoke
The same cigarettes as me" - (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
The Solution: Replace a Scarcity Mentality with an Abundance Mentality
"If you look at what you have in life, you'll always have more. If you look at what you don't have in life, you'll never have enough." -- Oprah Winfrey
When you observe the world around you, ask yourself, "Do I have a scarcity mentality or an abundance mentality?" A person with a scarcity mentality views the world as if it is a "zero sum game." If a competitor makes money, then there is less money for them to make. Having an abundance mentality allows you to flip the script. A person with an abundance mentality views the same piece of information and says "Wow, my competitor made a lot of money with that deal. The market is really growing. I should be on the lookout for opportunities in that space." Let's all get rich together, yo!
Having an abundance mentality instead of a scarcity mentality as your default, allows one to see opportunities and blocks Comparison from stealing your hard earned happiness. It shifts your energy away from what others are doing and toward what you are doing, a far superior use of your resources.
Fear Steals Time
"Courage is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it." -- Mark Twain
What if I fail? What if they say no? What if I look ridiculous? What if... What if... What if....
Fear is like a balloon that never pops. The horrors we experience in our mind's eye are infinite. We can put everything into our fear balloon and it just gets bigger and bigger, casting a shadow over us wherever we go. But, as our ancient Roman pal Seneca said, "There are more things...that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality."
Why does fear have such power over us? Again, let us look to our biological past. We are wired for fear evolutionarily. According to the Review of General Psychology article Bad is Stronger Than Good:
"Bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good...organisms that were better attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased probability of passing along their genes."
Fear can keep us safe, but if not kept in check it can keep us stagnant and miserable as well. Often we freeze up in the face of fear, the proverbial deer in the headlights. But, not making a move is a move in itself. We are still, but time marches on. The world revolves and evolves around us while we remain paralyzed. Time, the invisible jewel, is "at once the most valuable and the most perishable of all our possessions." (1) How then can we stop fear from wasting time, our most precious resource?
The Solution: Quiet the Soul? Give it a Goal!
"Nothing contributes so much to tranquilize the mind as a steady purpose - a point on which the soul can fix its intellectual eye." -- Mary Shelley
What do you want? What is your goal? Something concrete, something achievable. Something that excites you.
Goals reroute that mental energy filling up the fear balloon and uses it to propel us to act. Goals free us from the shadowy prison of fear in our mind. They save us from "Why?" and "What if?" They bring us into the light of the world. The here and now. Goals are movement, progress, action, growth, evolution. And evolution is life.
Shame Steals Energy
"If you want to succeed, you'd better not care too much what other people think about what you're doing." -- David Geffen
I make a distinction between comparison and shame although they are related. Comparison is how you feel you stack up against others. Shame is how you think others think they stack up against you. Pretty convoluted right?
How can you know what someone else really thinks about you? It's hard enough to figure out what you think about you! The best person to judge a situation is the one who has the most information. Who has more information about you than you? Who cares if someone else disapproves of your choices or laughs at your foibles? Your most embarrassing moment blasted out to the world wide inter-web via TMZ is merely a momentary distraction, a slight chuckle to the stranger reading the headline.
And yet this fear of being judged unfavorably by others, being shamed, can sap our energy. Why do anything? Why make any effort to do something extraordinary. If we don't stick that perfect 10 landing, the cold blooded critics will point, laugh, disapprove. Remember when you screwed up last time? The embarrassment? The shame?
Rehashing prior failures in our mind can be exhausting business, not a great use of our finite mental and physical energy. Given our biological proclivity towards comparison, status threats and fear, shame is a natural byproduct. Humans are pack animals after all.
Indeed, there is really only one surefire way to avoid the judgement of others: "To escape criticism: Do nothing, say nothing, be nothing." 2(
Solution: What Others Think About Me is None of My Business
"You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do." -- Eleanor Roosevelt
There is a school of thought that we should not worry about what others think of us because it is none of our business. (3) I love that idea. I find it empowering. People should have the right to the privacy of their own thoughts. Others have the right to think whatever the hell they want; about me, about themselves, about the world. It's actually none of my damn business.
Of course, we must make the distinction about what strangers think of us versus what those close to us think. But in truth, if those close to us spend more time laughing at us than laughing with us, perhaps their judgement doesn't matter so much either.
Actually, many times throughout history being judged harshly meant you were on to something. Jesus was crucified. Galileo was condemned for arguing that the Earth was not the center of the Universe. Darwin was vilified for putting forth his theory of evolution. At one point, Steve Jobs was fired by Apple.
Comparison, Fear and Shame, the CFS. They are powerful jailers indeed. They cage us, trap us inside our own minds. When we liberate ourselves from these physic chains we are free to unleash our talents and share them with the world. As always, Abraham Lincoln said it best:
"If I were try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me. This shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what's said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference."
Comparison steals joy. Fear steals time. Shame steals energy. Ditch the CFS, we have nothing to lose but our chains!
In the end, our work and our lives stand on their own.
1 - Quote from John Randolph
2 - Quote from Elbert Hubbard
3 - Martha Graham discusses more fully