The other day I ducked into a glade while snowboarding and immediately felt a sense of panic. There were a lot of trees on this particular trail, and it was my first time this year trying out the woods, so of course I handled it with aplomb:
Luckily (or stupidly) I was by myself. After scraping my way into a few trees, I had a minor epiphany about what was getting in the way of my ability to navigate my way down this narrow trail:
My focus was only the trees, and I wasn’t even looking at the path. It made me think of something I once read as a teenager in a AAA manual that went something like this:
If all I focus on are the trees, then it should be no surprise that I end up hitting them. As soon as I changed my focus to the path itself, I was able to navigate confidently down the mountain.
This has some relation to how our brains work (or don’t work) during times of stress. Dan Siegel talks about hijacking in his book Mindsight, and Daniel Goleman wrote about how the brain can work for you when you keep your mind open and clear in his book Focus. Oliver Sacks probably has some of this in his work as well. The point is that when we put our attention only on the problem, we can only see the obstacles and not the possibilities.
Anne Bogart, the famed theater director who invented the style of theatre called “viewpoints” chooses to look at all obstacles as opportunities to change the way that she approaches a play. In her book A Director Prepares, Anne says that “Ultimately the quality of any work is reflected in the size of obstacles encountered. If one’s attitude is right, joy, vigour (sp) and breakthroughs will be the results of resistance met rather than avoided.”
(For those interested, here she is talking about being a director)
Even so, many of us who are trying to accomplish big things like run a large organization, create a start-up or navigate our family through a complicated vacation are unlikely to greet the obstacles in our way with the same welcome and excitement that she does. So what can we do?
1. It Was A Choice – What helps me when I find myself in a particularly difficult moment (like that one on the mountain) is that I chose this path. While I may not have bargained for the challenges, it is naive to think that there won’t be obstacles in any path we take. In fact, part of the reason I chose it was for the challenge. When you realize that you have agency and that you are not a victim of circumstances, it is far easier to respond to the situation with creativity and confidence. The acceptance that all choices will reveal challenges that we may not be able to predict will free us to meet those challenges with more of our true selves.
(this is my true self)
2. Give Up Perfection – When we bring the expectation that we must do everything perfectly, it can make us tight, judgmental of ourselves and less flexible in our thinking and our bodies. The belief that it is possible to navigate through challenging situations without getting scraped up a little or making a mess is what keeps us from either making bolder choices or what makes us shut down in the process. Be brave enough to let go of the expectation that you have to be perfect.
Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier (something that few thought was even physically possible) with a broken shoulder. He had to convince a mechanic to help him jury rig a broom handle to help him close the hatch just so that he wouldn’t have to tell anyone that he was injured. Once we accept that this is what we want, the obstacles don’t seem so bad.
3. Know Yourself – To be clear, unless you have a good sense of this one, the first two are not that helpful. No matter how much I do one and two, it won’t help me step out onto a tightrope 100 feet in the air.
The better you know your weaknesses and strengths, the better you understand what lights you up and why you like certain challenges, the more prepared you will be to meet the obstacles in your path, and the more empowered you are to find your way through the trees.
Knowing ourselves is the same as being authentic. Try to avoid the story you might have about who you think you are and pay instead to what you like. Try to discern what is fear and what is excitement for you, and stop telling yourself the story that you are scared of everything. The clearer you are in your self-knowledge, the easier it is to see yourself finding your way, even when the way is obscured.
Good luck and remember to focus your attention on that path and let the obstacles slide by.