Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Values and Self-Limiting Beliefs

When I was prompted to start thinking about my personal values a few months ago, “self-reliance” spring to mind quickly. The drive to prove that I can “do it myself,” that I can “go it alone,” that I can figure out how to do things without assistance from others, has been important to me throughout my life. It may be what got me into Harvard, what makes me good at school work in general.

But I wonder if this determination to shun the assistance of others has limited me as much as it has helped me. I am reluctant to ask for advice or assistance. When things become difficult, I tend to retreat inside my head – to figure things out and move on, in the best of cases, but just as often to stew, to simmer, to sit still, to justify inaction with the thought that I need to figure this out.

I know that when I graduated from college, I was particularly reluctant to let anyone help me – the idea of using my Harvard “connections” was anathema to me. I needed to feel that I was going to get somewhere “on my own merits.” What I neglected at the time – and what I still neglect to a large degree, is that the connections I have made, the network I have built, is available to me when I need help.

Recently, I have talked to my wife a little bit about this tendency of mine. She knows it well, having been shut out of my thoughts for more than 22 years now. She has learned to retreat when she sees me enter that “private” space, when I don’t want anyone to offer advice or assistance.

Yes, I have figured many things out this way. I am a reasonably successful person by all of the measurable standards. But how much more successful could I be – at whatever I want to do – if I were willing to reach out and ask for help when I need it?

Is my belief that I need to “go it alone” limiting me rather than supporting me? Is my retreat into my mind a “safe place” that allows me to justify inaction rather than supporting my efforts to move ahead?

This is a lot for me to think about. It’s going to be even harder for me to do something about, given how long and how aggressively I have nurtured this tendency. But do something about it I will – at least when I recognize it and see someone that I can ask for assistance. This is my new commitment: When I feel trapped by a problem, I will think of the person most likely to have an answer or be in a position to offer aid, and I will ask that person for help.

What a novel concept. It means admitting to myself that I can’t do something. It means acknowledging that others may have expertise or experience that outweighs my own. It means being vulnerable to criticism.

I think it’s the fear of criticism that has sent me off into the limited world of “self-reliance” in the first place. Somewhere early on, from my family, whose criticisms I remain keenly aware of, I learned that it is dangerous to ask for help. I learned that I might be accused of being stupid or incompetent. I also learned that I am pretty good at figuring things out on my own. That made it both easy and comfortable for me to retreat, and to believe that I was doing something productive. “Go figure it out yourself” is not always bad advice – but I need to recognize that sometimes it is a recipe for sustained frustration. Working through frustrations and getting to an answer can be a very good thing, but so can the recognition that others can help you get there move quickly and more effectively.

Somehow, I think this all goes back to my lack of self-confident, my inability to believe that people could love or respect the real me. I have often thought of myself as an imposter – have often believed that I am loved and respected only to the extent that I can keep up the act of who I am.

This has got to change. I will be 50 years old next month. I need to be able to seek help. I need to be able to express my desires, my needs, my wants, my fears and my frustrations and to seek the help I need in resolving them.

The fact that I have become pretty good at doing things myself should become part of an arsenal of tools, not my only tool.

The fact that I enjoyed myself so much on Sunday, in a woodworking class with a group of strangers (all men, no less) should tell me something. It’s okay to admit you don’t know something. It’s okay to seek to learn, to seek improvement, and to ask others for help getting there.

I think that in this area, like so many others, the only solution is to force myself to change the pattern. I need to find those areas – particularly at work, where I am extremely frustrated at the moment – where I need help and I need to openly and aggressively seek it. Others do this and survive. I see it, I know it can work.

It means taking a chance.

It means risking the perception of incompetence.

It means acknowledging imperfection.

It means letting the world know that Icannot do everything alone.

It means being part of a community.

It means engaging with life.

It means stepping away from my private space and into public.

How odd that I live so much of my life in public, and yet retreat so completely into my own thoughts when things become difficult. Being needy is such a scary thing for me. Look at how this has shown up for me. I have set up a world where I have – or think I have – very little “wiggle room.”

I’m not happy right now, and I don’t know how to change it without making sacrifices that I’m not sure I’m ready to make. Way back when I first met my wife, I thought about the possibility that I might be able to survive without working for a living. But when I tried it – quitting my job and going back to school – I found that I couldn’t live with the lack of control over my own destiny. The idea that I was dependent on my wife became odious to me. I had to prove I could make it on my own, earn a living, have a career. Well, I’ve done that. I’ve proven I can have a career, that I can earn money and be successful. And I’m not satisfied with the result because I’m not doing anything I love.

So what’s the answer? I need to get to a point in my life where I can spend time doing things I love. What do I love doing?

I’m never so happy as when I am in some kind of creative pursuit, whether music, woodworking, art, writing, or whatever. That’s when I feel fulfilled. That’s what makes me tick. There’s some creativity in the work I do, but it’s limited. How do I get to the point where I can spend my time being creative?

I can’t do it alone. I need Eliza. I need the support of the people who love me and believe in me. I need to trust that they will love and believe in me even if I am taking huge risks of failure.I need to devote time to the things I love doing.

I need to stop avoiding failure in the creative arts – which I tend to do by filling my time with other things, including the damned television. I haven’t done a lot of reading lately, and I do love reading, but reading about things rather than doing them is a trap as well.

I need to structure my life so that I prioritize the act of creation.

Creativity really is what I value. It’s what makes me feel worthwhile. It’s what seems riskiest to me, because if I fail, I fail at what’s most important to me. That’s exactly why I need to prioritize it in ways I never have.

What can I do when I am traveling, when I am on business, to support my need to create?
Writing is the most portable of the creative pursuits I love. I should focus on that when I am on the road. Music is more difficult. Art and woodworking are the most difficult of all – the least portable.

I also need to prioritize staying at home. I’m tired of traveling. I want to live in my house and surround myself with the things I love. To do that, Eliza and I need to focus on financial independence. I may have to give up my mountain retreat, but since I haven’t been able to stay in retreat there, that’s not such a sacrifice. There may even be a way I can retain it. I need to be willing to let Eliza be in the driver’s seat with financial decisions – which she most often is anyway. I pay the household bills, but I also contribute to running them up. Can we re-structure our lives to be more financially independent, less reliant on a paycheck? I won’t know unless I talk to her about it.

This is another thing I need to force myself to do. I need to sit down with Eliza and be honest with her about what I want and the kind of life I want to live. I did that to some extent in August when I was considering a change in jobs. Now I’ve done that, and I know that the job isn’t going to fulfill me. So how do I get what is going to fulfill me?
We need to talk about that. Eliza is the best and strongest relationship I have – troubled as ours is – and I need to rely on that. I need to tell her that I am unhappy in my career, and that the specific company I work for isn’t making a difference.