“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
There’s a lot of articles out there telling you how to be the best person you can be: the most productive, the most creative, the best listener, the smartest self-marketer. It’s natural.
We all want to be the best we can and will do anything to be that 1 or 2% better than the competition. We read and experiment and try to learn from the past. There’s so much time spent worrying about those few extra percent that it blinds us from seeing the potential for bigger change. So here’s a different idea. Why not instead of trying to push that extra bit we tear it all down and start from scratch? Why you should lose it all I’m a firm believer that most of life’s great lessons can be learned from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club:
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
You may feel like you’re pretty free in your current situation but I think it’s fair to say we’re all a little bit trapped. Trapped not only by the financial and social burdens we put on ourselves, but by the mental walls and biases we unconsciously build up.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes ‘the old South Indian Monkey Trap‘ — a hollowed-out coconut chained to a stake with some rice inside that can only be reached through a very small hole. When the monkey grabs the rice his clenched fist won’t fit back through the hole and he’s trapped — not by anything physical, but because he just won’t let go.
In our lives, we’re all guilty of holding onto the rice — whether it’s ideas, emotions or beliefs — even if we know it won’t benefit us. We feel trapped by our experiences when all we have to do is let go.
A more scientific name for this is the Einstellung effect — the idea that preconceptions and past experiences can blind us, literally, to the point of not being able to see better options.
To prove the extent of the effect Austrian psychologist Merim Bilalic ran a series of experiments where she presented chess masters with boards arranged to offer them two paths to victory: a well-known five-move option, and a more obscure one, requiring only three moves.
Almost every single master went for the more well-known, but ultimately slower route to victory.
As Bilalic puts it:
“Even these masters couldn’t see the best way to win because the one they knew so well colonised their mind.”
Experience can blind just as much as illuminate.
How to take off the blinders The hardest thing about all of this is that it’s almost nearly impossible to see. We create our worldview through our past experiences and hardwire our brains to assume that future events will mirror the past.
In this way our experiences can easily become blinders, blocking us from seeing the endless (and often better) options just out of sight.
So how can we train ourselves to see again?
Forget about your ego It may be an unlikely place, but Buddhism offers some key insights into how to let go of the ‘self’ or the ego you’ve built up through years of experience.
A core principle of Buddhism is to let go of our desires and attachments to material things and unhealthy relationships (both work and personal). The problem is that we become addicted to these relationships out of fear of the emptiness that will replace them if we push them from our minds.
“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar” Thich Nhat Hanh
But, like so many great authors have told us, that emptiness isn’t something to be afraid of, but rather an opportunity to face the world with fresh eyes and without the limitations of your past experiences.
“There was nowhere to go but everywhere. So just keep on rolling under the stars.” Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Leo Babuta’s Zen Habits blog offers some great advice on facing the emptiness and how to use it to your advantage. Check out this article on the Empty Container and this one on Letting Go to get you started.
Get rid of your judgments When we create our unique worldview we fill it full of our likes, dislikes, opinions, morals and ethics and while these are important, they also are a huge part of what blinds us. The way we unconsciously judge people before meeting them is the easiest way for us to reaffirm who we are instead of opening us up to new ideas. We draw from our past experiences and judge rather than allowing for the randomness and chaos of life.
It’s in this chaos where we become the most creative. As Maria Popova, the founder of BrainPickings.org, says, creativity is the ability to connect the unconnected.
Get rid of your judgements and let yourself be open to random ideas and connections . Be a beginner again “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Shunryu Suzuki
The zen principle of ‘Beginner’s mind’ talks about the advantages of experiencing life as a beginner again.
Think about if you’ve ever seen a toddler learn to walk: They stand, wobble and then fall time and time again but continue to get up with determination.
When you’re first learning a new skill you become absorbed in the basics. You experience each moment fully and live in a state of concentration and determination. Once we become an expert in anything, we lose that ability to see so clearly what we are doing and go into a sort of mental autopilot.
Acting like a beginner means not throwing your experiences away and being naive, but rather looking at them as tools you can use when it’s to your advantage.
“Beginner’s Mind doesn’t mean negating experience; it means keeping an open mind on how to apply our experience to each new circumstance.” Mary Jaksch
Wander Let your mind wander. Not just for an afternoon or a weekend, but for a week, or a month.
Mind wandering has been shown to not only help us plan for our own future, but also to boost creative problem solving by allowing ideas space to float freely and associate. It’s why so many solutions seem to ‘appear’ out of thin air (think Isaac Newton and the apple tree).
What you might ‘miss out on’ in the meantime will be more than made up for when you experiment and go down a different path.
Reflect on the hard stuff Reflection is one of the most important tools we have for learning from our past, but it becomes even more powerful when we do it objectively.
Think of yourself as an outsider watching the actions and choices you made in the past. Why did you do that? What made you make the choices you did?
This can also have a powerful impact on our ability to learn new things. A Harvard study recently showed that those who take part in a dual-process of learning and ‘deliberately focusing on thinking about what one has been doing’ improved their score in both lab and real-world experiments by nearly 23% over those who don’t.
Reflect on your biases. Reflect on the things that hurt you and ask why. Don’t just reflect to say you did the right thing. Use reflection as a means to really dig deep and discover what unconsciously causes you to act the way you do.
If there’s one major lesson to take away from this it’s that our past experiences can color how we see the future and blind us from the multitude of opportunities out there. The weight we give to our past might help us react quickly and make decisions, but it also can trap us into going around and around in the same circle.
Break the cycle. Step back and give yourself a chance to look at things objectively without biases, preconceptions or judgments. When you stop defining your future by your past you’ll be amazed at what you see.