"Boundaries aren't all bad. That's why there are walls around mental institutions."
Shampoo, and the Effects of the Lie
Think of the last time you went to choose shampoo at a large retail store. Have you ever stood at the beginning of one of those isles and looked down and along the shelves at what is available for dry hair, greasy hair, brown hair, red hair, European hair, black hair, children's hair (no tears!), dog hair! It's like that scene from the film The Matrix where Neo and Trinity go into the construct to choose guns. The isle rushes away into the distance.
I've met people in that isle I used to go to school with "“ they've been there THAT long (joke). Because which one do you choose? If you pick up the keratin enhanced shampoo with extracts of rare poppy (and how rare can the poppy be if they are producing a million bottles a year?) by the time you walk out you've already got buyer's regret thinking about the Botox hair plumper you left behind!
An increase in choice often leads to an increase in indecision. And its consequences are far more serious than shampoo.
The Harvard Business Review reported that the current generation are opting out of committing to careers until their late twenties – and instead are travelling, or floating from job to job, course to course. Such people used to be called "˜eternal students' and it was not a term of endearment. Not choosing potentially leads to lower incomes, not to mention feelings of purposelessness. Why are they doing this?
Forty years ago a man or woman stayed with the same company and possibly the same career path for life. My own father worked for British Rail for 27 years. Moving between careers was hard, university was for the few, money was not available for impulsive changes.
But now (and maybe the recession has temporarily altered this) they are psychologically paralyzed by all the job options they perceive are available to them and end up refusing (or unable) to commit to careers. Instead they opt-out. Perhaps they are afraid of buyer's regret?
Research has indicated that an increase in choice makes decision making more difficult and has not resulted in a net increase in happiness in the Western world.
When I was growing up our local supermarket had two shampoos "“ the one made of water, spit and a bit of flavoring "“ the "˜cheap' option "“ and L'Oreal. You might still regret not being able to afford or have the expensive one "“ but you made your choice and lived with it. You got on with your life.
The limits HELPED me choose. And in that idea is the seed of success.
But first, let's keep building the case FOR limits.
Loving your limits to receive more love
When you "˜limit' yourself to pleasing your partner doesn't the focus you put on him or her reap dividends? Don't you get back more than you put in because of the love you directed towards him or her (or maybe I just have a great wife!).
This is a big part in my view of what occurs in successful relationships and why "˜it is better to give than to receive'. Quoting Thoreau who says "˜the beauty of giving is that a man cannot give without receiving himself'.
However, if you let your eyes (and maybe hands) rove all around you'll eventually find that what you have will be taken away from you.
A good friend of mine who had been married about sixteen years at the time said that sex between he and his wife had just got better and better over the years. Now how's that for a rejection of "˜received' wisdom!
Focused love is like compound interest.
Focus produces results
In books like The Talent Code and Talent is over-rated the authors often quote the 10,000 hour rule to mastery. That's 10,000 hours of practice, focused practice, practice with feedback and the results fed back into improving. That's the result of focus and because this kind of mastery is achieved with sacrifice it's often unpopular.
My wife and I were watching the X-factor auditions last night and if you want an example of people who have not focused on the individual aspects of their art, that's it.
Focusing on certain skills (by limiting one's framing of one's actions) is a central tenant of the strengths approach in personal development. We live in a society where we don't need to be good at everything, indeed we are not paid to be good at everything.
It's not necessarily better to be "˜well-rounded'. It's also true that working a certain skill to the exclusion of all others is not always a good idea. If you've ever watched House or, to a lesser extend, Dr Lightman in Lie to Me, you'll know that their superior skills don't necessarily come with great social skills!
But ultimately if you want skill development you have to focus. And you have to rinse and repeat again and again. One book suggests picking a single skill and working on it every day for 30 days. I tried this and what happened is that I began to experience the joy of increasing skill, increasing mastery. And what you get in the end is, paradoxically, the freedom that comes from focused mastery.
Let's apply this thinking to studying. In the Five Elements of Effective Thinking the authors talk a lot about focusing on single and basic elements of a subject as a key to mastery.
When you are studying advanced concepts they recommend restudying the foundational concepts of your field so that the new insights you gain will enrich your higher level study. Years ago there was a Rock "˜n' Roll school in London and what they proposed to do was "˜break down' your technique and build you back up again from the basics. By limiting your focus you expand your skill. Why do you think body-builders do "˜reps'? Because what you focus on grows "“ literally in this case!
They also talk about how you can solve a difficult problem by picking a sub-aspect of it, and fully mastering that aspect. As everything is connected to everything else this will give you clues to the larger answer. The limits lead to breakthroughs.
Limits are utterly necessary to create new ideas
Have you heard of Edward De Bono? In short, he's the guy that coined and got the phrase "˜lateral thinking' added to the dictionary. He is an expert in teaching people how to formally generate creative ideas. When I was at college in 1992 I read his book Serious Creativity which taught me specific, methodical processes for generating ideas which I then turned into college projects.
Creative thinking is often associated with brainstorming and free associating. These techniques have value. But the big surprise is that the most creative ideas occur because you have defined limits to break out of. In other words, first you create a "˜box' "“ and then you create out of the box ideas! The limits are necessary to give you something to transcend and break out of.
So what's the solution?
I'm not sure there is THE solution. But the following will help:
1) Make a long list of all the things you have achieved by limiting your focus. It may surprise and delight you to think that you great result of your favorite holiday was arranged through focusing. What else?
Pay attention to how you feel at the end of writing the list, and then apply these feelings to your thoughts about focusing. How does applying this to that change the way you feel? Helps, doesn't it.
2) Realise that if you are constantly keeping your options open that is the mindset you have nurtured. The mindset of "˜there might be more' can act like an open loop with no end, an infinity sign, a record on constant play.
Spend a moment just observing your thoughts. Begin to ask yourself:
- What will happen if I keep using this mindset of never choosing?
- What will I miss out on?
- What will it be like getting to the end of my life and looking back at all the things I never achieved because I wouldn't choose?
- How much do I like that my mind is playing me rather than me playing it?
What do I believe about "˜keeping my options open?' Does this serve me?
Using the above questions really think through the consequences of not making decisions. Doing this starts to pump new information into this closed thinking system and can often provide the leverage point for changing it.
If you keep stepping back, and aggressively questioning your thinking you will start to change it. (Albert Ellis's book How to Stubbornly Refuse to Be Miserable Ever Again is a great resource for this.)
In the end, life is short and you can't do everything. This article is short and doesn't say everything. But I hope that by limiting my focus to talking about limits, I can help you see that through them you can actually achieve a great deal.
"In the game of life, we all receive a set of variables and limitations in the field of play. We can either focus on the lack thereof or empower ourselves to create better realities with the pieces we play the game with."