The lesson plans we give ourselves

Several years ago, I took a class for fun. Afterwards one of my fellow classmates, who was also taking the class for fun, said this to me,

“That one part was the hardest for me. That’s what I should practice.”

Do you do this too? Do you have some kind of experience — personal or professional — and then it’s like an automatic radar system immediately activates in your mind, honing in on the things you didn’t do well? Then you add these things to the list of things you “need to get better at,” while inside wilting a little at the growing list?

That’s what most of us do. But if you could stop (or even do it less), a whole new world would open up to you in terms of fulfillment, success, and belonging.

My classmate’s comment broke my heart. There was so much I wanted to say, starting with, “Even though pretty much everyone thinks like that, it’s not good. It’s old technology, like a cassette tape player.”

Fault-finding and lesson plans to fix what you’re bad at might help you move a D grade in math to a B, but it doesn’t develop brilliance or thriving. And sure, sometimes it’s necessary to get the grade from a D to a B, but when this “fix it” thinking is so automatic we don’t even know we’re doing it, we feel broken and create a kind of self-punishing internal world for ourselves where we’re constantly nudging ourselves to go against our own grain.

We’re not broken, but our thinking is.

“The system” invisibly and ubiquitously encourages us to get better at the things we’re bad at. “Bad at” means broken. The system is really saying, “You could be good at everything if you tried harder.” This falsehood takes root in our minds, and many of us struggle our whole lives to achieve the impossibility — not even knowing we’re doing it — but knowing we feel miserable looking at our long list of things we need to get better at.

Nature teaches us something else: nothing on the planet is good at everything. Fish aren’t good at climbing trees. Bunnies aren’t good at hunting. The bunny is lucky because it doesn’t even occur to her to become a hunter. The bunny is just herself. But us? One class for fun, and immediately let’s find what we don’t do naturally and “fix it” — which doesn’t really work to change us, but it does work to make us feel broken.

For centuries wisdom traditions have been teaching us to go with nature, not against it. Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi master, said it this way, “Let the beauty you love be what you do.”

And yet, when I suggest that it’s better for your health, relationships, and paycheck to shine at a few things and let go of the rest, the cassette tape begins its silent song, and people look at me as if I’m suggesting they jump off of a building to see if they can fly. That’s because the cassette tape is so ingrained in our thinking. Better to improve what’s not working than elevate what is.

Add our brain’s wiring to this cassette tape, and it’s the one-two punch that keeps us down. Our brains are wired to keep us safe. It can feel scary to be “bad at things.” So isn’t it better to be well-rounded and not be bad at anything, than to only be good at a few things? In a word, NO.

Modern research has finally caught up with Rumi and his buds. That research proves that people will see you as a better performer when you invest in the things that light you up and grow those things, instead of trying to be well rounded and not bad at things. And you won’t just be seen as a better performer by a little, but by a LOT (Zenger & Folkman, etc). The research also shows you’ll be twice as likely to be thriving in your life (Gallup).

What about walking out of a class, experience, or the end of a work day and saying,

“That part made my eyes light up. That’s what I should practice.”

That’s what Jane Goodall did.

That’s what Steve Jobs did.

That’s what Katherine Johnson did.

Turn your thinking in this direction and find yourself in a whole new world of fulfillment, success, and belonging.

Trust your hopping, dear bunny, and let go of the swimming lessons.

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