Things Always Go Your Way, You Just Don’t See It
This is the fourth of a six-part series discussing the mental qualities required from a new generation of innovators
Any act of creation uses goals as a compass to maintain its trajectory. We measure outcomes to deliver a progress report on achievements, and use it to either stay on course or tweak our approach. This of course, is how it would work ideally. What generally happens is we take our goals and latch onto our accomplishments, or lack thereof, to define who we are and give ourselves a sense of self with it. When our efforts yield favorable outcomes, the initial elation can lead to complacency, and eventually to self-importance. We then want to show off our badges of achievements, sometimes obviously and other times not — from the watch we wear, the car we choose to drive or the haircut we sport that resembles the winner we want to become so badly. A lot of times, things just don’t work out. The initial disappointment can turn to grief, self doubt, shame, embarrassment, depression and the downward spiral of emotions can go on.
“There is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” — T.S. Eliot
When we tie our emotional wellbeing so closely to outcomes, we lose control of not just our work but also the quality of our life. Why? Because we simply cannot determine the results we produce. What we can influence is the actions we take. The quality of work you do every single day and the presence of mind with which you fulfill your tasks should be your measure of success. This approach requires you to invest in the process, and not the results — the areas you are actually in control of. Life is full of externalities, mostly unforeseeable, so let’s judge our work by the quality of our implementation.
“When it’s over and you look in the mirror, did you do the best you were capable of? If you did, then the score doesn’t matter, but I suspect that if you did, then the score will be to your liking.” — John Wooden, record breaking NCAA basketball player and coach.
Now that we know where to find the metrics of success, how do we get to the root of how we perceive the eventual outcomes of our work? For this, influential psychologist Albert Ellis devised a method called ‘Cognitive Reframing’. According to him, it is inevitable to find yourself confronting unfavorable circumstances in life. However, the way each of these scenarios impacts you is completely controllable. This involves separating the two realities we experience: the objective — facts — and the subjective — facts tinted by our worldview or belief systems. Distinguishing between the two reveals a roadmap to reframe the scenario and emerge feeling positive and armed with a plan for action.
The ‘ABCDE’ of Cognitive Reframing :
This exercise is generally provided by a therapist, but with some practice anyone can begin using it. The first set (ABC) involves writing out your perspective on an event, the beliefs you hold about it and how it is affecting you. The second part (DE) is the exercise of reframing the scenario by challenging your perspective on the situation and rewriting your new reality.
Activating event — this is the actual circumstance you are dealing with. What is triggering the undesirable emotions?
Example — I spent six months negotiating with a VC. I thought things were going well, and the conversation was progressing, until they pulled the plug on the deal in the last minute!
Belief — to find your beliefs around this triggering event, ask yourself what should happen? What does the situation say about you, your work, the world? Which of these are self defeating and which are the helpful ones?
Example — They should have been clearer with their intentions sooner rather than later, so I wouldn’t have expended so much time and effort in this process. Their organization needs to improve how they communicate internally so entrepreneurs are not led on to thinking that there’s a chance of receiving their capital. This world can be so unfair, especially investors!
Consequence — how is the unfavorable event affecting you? What are the negative emotions that automatically arise? Try to draw out a scale from 0–100 on the severity of each. What actions do these emotions provoke?
Example — Angry (70%), Disappointed (60%), Dejected (50%). I have lost motivation to work and seek out alternative options for investment. I don’t want to go through this and eventually be rejected once again.
Now that you have mapped out your perspective on a scenario, this next part reframes this.
Dispute — This section allows you to decipher between realistic and irrational belief systems. What if a relative/friend was going through the same situation, what advice would you give them? What would your mentor/role model tell you about this situation? How would they deal with it? Is your perspective conducive to a positive or negative outcome? Does it fit with reality?
Example — This situation is more telling of a flawed decision making process in the investment company,. There’s a possibility my business model did not fit their investment thesis and they failed to communicate this with the analysts I was working with. Feeling these negative emotions is irrational because there is nothing I could have done differently for an alternative outcome.
Effect — Given that the rational narrative of the scenario has been revealed, what is a more accurate view? Create an alternative mental model with this new, more realistic set of beliefs and document how you feel about it and your new action plan.
Example — With this experience, I now realize that there must be alignment between my business model and the investment thesis of the VC I am talking to. To prevent such a scenario in the future, I will make it a point to understand what they are looking for and clarify sooner rather than later if our fundamentals match. Now that I know this, it makes me feel better that my rejection had little to do with me, my business or the unfairness of life.
As entrepreneurs/innovators/creators, we live vulnerable lives. Our work produces measurable outcomes and we have to rely on a lot of externalities to go our way in order to see “success”. Our emotional wellbeing is dependent on these same externalities, and therefore the effectiveness of our work.
Most of the time, things will not go our way. In order to prepare for this inevitability, we must understand that the magnitude and meaning of these events are created in our minds. Our subjective experience of failures and successes are tainted by internal belief systems that need to be unraveled to overcome. Opening up to alternative, rational perspectives allows us to have a healthy detachment to the outcomes of our work.