Don’t let limiting beliefs undermine what you can do. Find a way to think outside the box. That’s where the magic happens.
First, a couple of stories
Let’s begin with the stories of two people. The two stories seem unrelated in many aspects, but there’s a common thread between these two that we’ll analyze later.
Mark the developer
Mark is a thirty-something software developer working for a large corporation. He’s been at the same company for 9 years – an eternity in his industry. He has, what many would consider, a dream job. Great compensation, lots of free company perks, a challenging work environment (sometimes a little too challenging), a good retirement plan, fun (sometimes) co-workers.
But Mark isn’t a happy camper. Out of college, he had dreamed of starting his own company after getting some experience in the field. As time progressed, he saw how much more ‘smarter’ some of his colleagues were. Self-doubt started to plague him. He wondered why they were still working in his company even though they seemed way smarter.
This led Mark to conclude that startup founders had to be way smarter than anyone he knew. So, he settled into his job. He rationalized his doubts with a simple theory. He didn’t have the smarts to start and run his own business. It was out of his league. Because, he truly believed, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it!
It did not occur to Mark to Think outside the box.
Raji the Statistician
Raji comes from a solidly middle-class family in India. Growing up she was told how important it was to follow the template: get good grades, apply to good colleges, find a good job, and work very hard to climb the corporate ladder.
Raji constantly heard about the mishaps of various people who did not follow this protocol. She was regaled with horror stories of such folks ending up in deep misery in their adult lives.
A few of those stories were particularly traumatic to young Raji. Such as when she learned aunt Saroja’s neighbor had to be evicted in front of the whole community because they couldn’t pay the rent or the one where her classmate’s dad got sent to jail for a forgery scheme.
There was never a paucity of these stories. The common thread among all these ‘failures’ was how they all had poor grades in school and did not believe in the power of hard work.
Raji, being a rule-follower, quickly learned her ropes and did everything that was expected of her. And more. She’s now a senior Corporate Statistician at a multinational firm. Everyone who knows Raji is proud of her accomplishments.
However, Raji nurtures a secret yearning. In college, she stumbled upon an article about being a traveling digital nomad. Raji would love to backpack around the world providing travel consulting services and publishing travel journals.
Her aspiring traveling lifestyle didn’t seem to require too much ‘hard work’, so obviously, she believed it would fail. Because it went against the grain of everything she was taught. Anything not earned through hard work is short-lived.
What if she ended up not being able to pay rent or put in jail? What would she do with her degree in Statistics? Also, what would people say?
There’s a common thread to Mark and Raji’s story – it’s called Limiting Beliefs. We simply cannot think outside the box when these beliefs hold center stage within us.
Mark believed he didn’t have the smarts to pursue opportunities.
Raji believed that success could only be achieved the traditional way. Other ways are fraught with too much risk.
Every single one of us is chock full of these beliefs. They are beliefs that we have developed about ourselves and the world around us over time that place limitations on what we think we’re capable of.
Limiting beliefs are like circuit breakers that go off every time we try to step outside our Comfort zones.
Why do we need to think outside the box? Why are limiting beliefs so detrimental to progress?
For that, we first need to understand some common belief systems.
Look at the image of the box below. Consider the four belief systems below to each represent a wall of the box.
1. Beliefs about oneself
These are beliefs you have about yourself - what you think you’re capable of doing or more importantly, not doing. This is self-judgment you develop based on all your accomplishments and failure to date.
Examples here include:
- I’m not creative, hence this poorly present dinner mush!
- I’m not good at finances, so I’ll keep all my money in a checking account
- I can never be a salesperson, so I won’t participate in any activities that involve fundraising even for causes I believe in.
- I’m not an organized person, so late library fees are just a fact of life.
2. Observed Beliefs
These are value judgments you accumulate based on observing people around you. Usually, the sample size in these is quite small; all it takes is to see two episodes of corroborating behavior for you to make your mind up.
- I can’t be a salesperson, because I don’t have the gumption that the pushy realtor has
- I can never lose weight because all the women in my family have always been pleasantly plump
- I’ll never be able to run because runners are built a certain way and I’m nothing like that
- I shouldn’t even try for a promotion because look around, there are no women senior managers of my age in this company
3. Indoctrinated beliefs
This is the belief system, your family, society, and culture have ingrained into you from a very young age. These can be many and quite powerful because others around you have similar beliefs, thus reinforcing yours.
- We are a family of accountants. We’ll do terribly as business owners
- Money is not important at all
- Money alone is important
- You can only do XYZ things when you’re a certain age or
- You can’t do XYZ things when you’re beyond this age
4. Prevailing Wisdom
This can range anywhere from old wives’ tales to established customs to just commonly accepted beliefs. These are generally not challenged until someone or something comes along to shake it all to the core.
- Pregnant women shouldn’t raise their hands because the child may get caught in the umbilical cord. (I always wonder how such women would cope when their pantry or kitchen cupboards are always above reach).
- Low fat is the way to go; all forms of carbs are great. (How I wish that were true)!
- You need 10,000 steps a day
- You need to drink 8 glasses of water a day
Why do these belief systems matter and what has the BOX got to do with it?
They matter because they hamper our ability to think outside the box. It is what I refer to as the Box Effect.
The Box Effect
Humor me for an instant and picture yourself inside the colorful box pictured earlier. Like, literally. Since I’m generous, I’ll ensure you can breathe fine while inside. Bonus: you also have space to move around a bit.
Look around you. While you can survive, you realize that’s about all you can do because you are now constrained within these four walls.
Now, answer this question.
Are you happy and content staying within the box? If the answer is yes, you’re welcome to stop reading. There is nothing more you can learn in life. Thank you, it’s an honor you stopped by. But do answer these other questions for me before you go: Who are you? And, why are you even here wasting your time with us mortals?
For those of us still left, hopefully, a majority, I assume you’d like to explore the world a little bit? I hope you’d like to step out and think outside the box. Life is too short not to, right?
To step outside the box, we’ve got to find a way to break down these walls. We do that by challenging our belief systems.
Challenging belief systems
Getting past wall blindness
The first step to breaking down the wall is to acknowledge its existence. Sadly, most of us are wall-blind. (I’m so tempted to add some bad border wall humor here but will resist. For now).
Let’s say I tell you ‘Self-awareness is the cure to wall-blindness. Being self-aware will enlighten us on our belief systems’. I guarantee your response to this will be ‘Okay, Einstein’ (Cue Eye-roll emoji)!
So, instead here's what I'm asking you to do. Pay attention any time you say or think these two phrases for the rest of the day or may be even the week:
- Cannot do
- Should not do
Every time you say ‘Cannot do’, you’re invoking belief systems 1 and 2 – beliefs about yourself and observed beliefs.
Every time you say ‘Should not do’ you invoke belief systems 3 and 4 – indoctrinated beliefs and prevailing wisdom.
By paying attention to when these words crop up either in your thought or speech, you allow yourself to pause and understand what made you think or say it. In itself, this is a huge step in making progress towards breaking down the walls.
At the risk of a bait and switch, I’ll say this: To even pay attention to what comes of out of your mouth or your head, you’ll need some level of mindfulness (aka self-awareness) a practice that can be cultivated through Meditation.
Once you’ve identified what’s holding you back, you get to decide whether it’s worth challenging that belief. This is how you’ll learn to think outside the box. This sounds complicated but it’s a very simple proposition of risk vs reward.
What is the risk you need to take to act against the belief system you have cultivated over so many years and is the reward worth that risk?
The stronger the why, the easier the how becomes - Jim Rohn
To illustrate this in action, let’s use examples from each of the four belief systems.
Belief 1: I’m not good at finances, so I’ll keep all my money in a checking account.
You are forced by your friend to attend an investment webinar. Someone says you are losing principal to inflation in your checking account. This makes you sit up and take notice. Then you hear about the benefits of index fund investing and how you need to get started soon.
Your limiting belief makes an appearance. I cannot do this because I’m not good at finances. At that stage, someone offers to send you free educational material on getting started including resources to answer all your questions along the way. You just need to commit some time.
Do you say yes to the offer? Are you willing to challenge your limiting belief against the risk of losing your hard-earned money?
The point here is not whether you ultimately invest in index funds. Rather it is whether you are willing to look past your inherent fear of finances to get some basic education on that topic. You may well choose not to invest after you’ve read the material but that’s a logical decision rather than one prompted by limiting beliefs.
Belief 2: I can never lose weight because all the women in my family have always been pleasantly plump.
Have you even tried? Or, the corollary – have the women in your family attempted to lose weight? Do you really have a genetic predisposition to carry some added comfort around your waist or is it just a long-running fallacy?
Question the belief. Subject it to a litmus test. What have you got to lose? Hopefully, just a little weight.
Belief 3: We are a family of accountants. We’ll do terribly as business owners.
Again, think like a researcher. Find the counter-argument. Get data. There may well have been business venture failures in the family but that has nothing to do with the family gene pool. Be willing to challenge the status quo. Do it with an open and honest mind. Truly, think outside the box.
A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices – William James
Belief 4: You need 10,000 steps a day
Please see my earlier blog post on Self-sabotage for the myth of 10,000 steps.
The short version is that the number 10,000 is meaningless. It was invented by a Japanese company to sell more pedometers. The Japanese character for a man walking looks like the number 10,000. Using that symbolism, the company gave the pedometer a name that roughly translates to 10,000 steps.
Now, you may have believed that 10,000 is a large number of steps to get through daily. As a result of this limiting belief, you probably completely gave up your walking habit! Now that we’ve established that around 7,000 steps a day or for that matter, any number is better than nothing, are you willing to start walking again?
To use a basketball analogy, you miss all the shots in life you don’t take. Don’t let limiting beliefs undermine what you can do. Find a way to think outside the box.
Do it diligently.
Identify what’s holding you back first and then challenge that belief.
Think outside the box.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool - Richard Feynman”