When people ask me for my best advice, I typically reply, “Stop believing everything you think.”
There was a time when I was helping teach social psychology at a local university, and our topic was how the ego works over time to project its filter onto the world. So, at the beginning of class, I placed a little speck of paper on the lens—not the screen—of the projector. As I started class, I pretended to suddenly notice an object up on the screen that was blocking and distorting a clear view. Without pointing to the screen, I asked a couple of students, “Could you go up and make sure we have a better view of the work and make sure that projection is clearly coming through? It looks like there’s something that is blotting out part of the screen.”
I did this experiment multiple times with several groups, and each time the students would immediately go to the screen to see what was there, when, in fact, the little piece of paper I had planted was on the lens of the projector. It took a while for people to figure out that it was the lens, and not the screen, that was obstructing the view.
The lesson in all of this is that most of the time when the life we’re living feels stressful—when what we’re experiencing in our lives is disturbing our peace—it is not necessarily reality. It’s not the screen that needs to be fixed or cleaned up; it’s actually the lens with which you’re viewing the situation. This is more than just positive thinking; it’s getting clear about the facts so that you can separate your self-imposed stress and suffering from your reality.
Your ego is not your amigo.
Your ego is a filter on the world. It’s constantly narrating your reality, and if you believe everything you think, you’ll perceive a very distorted view of it. The ego distorts your world by acting like a pair of glasses with the wrong prescription. So, instead of having a quality view of reality, the ego is always filtering and warping your circumstances, creating thoughts that our bosses are incompetent, our co-workers are lazy and toxic cultures are preventing our success. The behaviors and actions you take as a result of these thoughts are based on corrupted data.
One of the best things that you can do after you become aware of this filter is to question your thoughts and make a choice as to whether you should believe the narrator in your mind. While the ego is working hard to paint us as a victim of our circumstances, trying to assure us success would come if only those circumstances were different, there are ways to bypass the ego and stand out as a true leader.
Here are three ways to refocus for success:
1. Separate your stress from your reality.
One of the most priceless things that’s ever happened to me was noticing that I am not that voice inside my head, and that the ego is different than the confidence required to fuel my abilities. Once you discover the difference between ego and confidence, you too can start to tune in and listen to what that ego narrator is saying, giving you the most wonderful choice in the world: whether or not to believe the information it’s giving you. That’s where incredible freedom comes from.
2. Know that your success and happiness is not dependent on your circumstances.
When you wake up in the morning, you probably don’t say, Let me start thinking. Instead, you wake up already inundated with thoughts—often frustrating ones—about your abilities, your workday and any circumstances you feel are getting in your way. To achieve higher levels of success, you must accept the core belief that your circumstances are not the reason you can’t succeed; they are the reality in which you must succeed.
3. Edit your story.
Before you question all your thoughts, stop to ask, What do I know for sure? or What are the facts? This allows you to exercise mental flexibility. When I take my ego’s word for it, there’s only one distorted explanation for why things happen to me. Mental flexibility allows me to get clear about the facts and consider that things happen for the greater good. Given what I know for sure, I can come up with 100 different ways why this could be happening, each of which will potentially benefit me. In short, mental flexibility empowers you to step into the power you already have.
Are you ready for more happiness and success at work? Here’s an assignment for self-reflection: Close your eyes for a minute and really take the time to tune into that voice in your head. It has a whole storyline, whether it be that your culture is toxic, that you’re the only one that does everything at the office or that your life would be better if you just had just a different boss, co-workers or clients. Challenge yourself to get clear about what you know for sure. Write down only the facts you hear on a piece of paper. That’s your reality. Now you can ask, Why am I stressed and suffering? It’s often due to the stories we’ve made up about our reality.
Our value as employees and leaders is not what we can deliver in perfect circumstances with a perfect boss or impeccable co-workers. Our value is distinguished by how quickly we can accept the reality of our situation, say yes to what’s next and contribute amazing results in less than perfect circumstances.
This article was published in December 2017 and has been updated. Photo by andresr/IStock