With all we find disagreeable in the world, it’s tempting to only push against what we DON’T want while forgetting what it is we DO want. Our efforts can become just about blaming others instead of focusing on what we want to create.
In this essay, I share some personal experiences about making a shift from focusing on what I don’t want to focusing on what I do want. These learnings are crucial for us all in this age of polarization.
When I first started snowboarding I was terrible. I used to live on the east coast where snow and ice are often the same thing. In other words, falling hurt—especially when I landed on my butt. I was so focused on avoiding going straight down the slopes because I’d pick up too much speed and lose control.
That’s where my attention went: avoid going straight down the hill. And yet it kept happening.
I then received some great advice from a more experienced snowboarder who said, “the trick is to look where you want to go. Wherever you look, the front of the board will follow. Let your eyes be the guide.”
This insight changed everything for me: it turns out that my body would navigate towards what I wanted more easily than navigating away from what I didn’t want.
When I looked straight down the mountain out of concern (the path I did not want to follow) my board took me there and moments later I’d fall. When I looked to the sides of the mountain instead, I could make may way back and forth in a more controlled manner.
Looking where I wanted to go = more enjoyment on the slopes.
Years later, a similar insight appeared while I lived in San Francisco. I was working as a graphic designer and realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore. At first, however, I was so focused on NOT being a graphic designer that I started becoming miserable. I had nothing to replace it with. I only knew that I didn’t want to sit at a computer all day having minimal contact with other people.
I kept looking at what I didn’t want, at the part of my current reality that I now opposed. But until I decided to look for what I did want, I suffered while nothing changed.
Soon after, I became more and more interested in what I saw my men’s group facilitator doing. I observed him guiding conversations to discover what was true for the group members and creating opportunities for conflicts to be explored between us. At the time, I had little skill for facilitation and little language for what was going on in these conversations, but I was highly observant.
I decided that I wanted to do something like he was doing—I wanted to get paid for having conversations. Once I gained that realization, I had something my vision could guide me towards. I could imagine myself doing it. I was able to look in the direction I wanted to go, even if I suspected it might take some time. This goal made my temporary situation as a designer more bearable.
Then, having set my intention in a positive frame (I want this) rather than a negative one (I don’t want this), serendipity began to happen.
While waiting for the men’s group to start one day, I sat in a nearby tea shop on Union Street in San Francisco’s Marina district. A woman with shocking white hair sat nearby writing at a laptop. We noticed one another and exchanged smiles. After some time, she looked at me and said, “you look trustworthy. Can you watch my laptop while I use the restroom?”
I smiled and agreed.
When she returned we talked about work. Patty, a consultant at a company called Interaction Associates, told me how her day had involved facilitating a meeting with a group of doctors and helping them create a vision for their organization. In essence, she got paid for having conversations. Her work sounded amazing to me and I told her as much.
We exchanged cards.
A few weeks later, I started looking for new job opportunities that would help me make a move from being a designer to being a conversations-guy. The seed of serendipity had sprouted: I was looking on Craigslist at an opening for a designer at a company that taught organizations how to work together, based upon a body of work around meeting facilitation—turns out, it was the same place that Patty worked.
I emailed her that day. She told me to send her a resume and she’d hand deliver it to the hiring manager.
After interviewing, I got a call while I was at my current job, a design agency. Interaction Associates offered me the position of Content Production Manager—I would be in charge of the look and feel for Intellectual Property intended to improve conversations in organizations.
I was so excited. And here’s the really crazy part—the same day I was offered that job, only hours later, I was told by my design agency that they were downsizing and had to let me go. I let them know I would be okay.
I’d made my first big leap towards what I wanted.
Meanwhile, my men’s group facilitator, Daniel Ellenberg, was teaching our group about something called Psycho-Cybernetics. Developed in the 60’s by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, this body of work heavily influenced self-help gurus like Tony Robbins.
The term ‘cybernetics’ translates from Greek as, “a helmsman who steers his ship to port.” Maltz’s key principle was that our minds are like airplanes on autopilot and our thoughts create the possibility of reaching a destination.
Like an airplane crossing thousands of miles, there is constant course-correction, always moving back towards the destination, or in the case of our minds, whatever we give our attention to.
He observed that we end up choosing a destination whether we frame our thought as one we want or one we don’t want. When the mind receives a negative framing, it simply removes the “not” part, creating the possibility of the outcome we didn’t want! In other words, I could keep the thought, “I hope I don’t get fired” running in my head and, according to Maltz, increase the chance of getting fired because the subconscious mind only hears the part that is “get fired.” In other words, it doesn’t know what to do with the absence of a destination because it needs something to aim for.
I’ve read something similar about how parents should speak to children about what to do rather than what not to do. For example, saying “close the door gently” is better than “don’t slam the door” simply because we’ve clarified the destination rather than opposing what we don’t want.
This all sounded a lot like a snowboarder who decides where his board will go, based on where his head turns. If he turns his head in the direction he’s trying to avoid, the board will happily oblige by following his gaze, leading to his bumpy wipe-out. Or he can focus his attention where he DOES want to go, and the board will similarly follow suit, leading to a smooth descent.
Eventually, I chose to enroll in a year-long professional coaching course—right in line with my focus to have my work be about conversations. And a few years later, I left graphic design all together and became a full-time consultant and coach in a business I co-founded with a friend.
I’m not saying this to brag—I’m saying this to share my version of suffering while being opposed to my current reality before shifting towards what I wanted to create.
In my experience, staying in opposition to “what is” can be so seductive. The problem is, when we stay there we feel helpless. Complaining and blaming others may give us temporary relief, and a false sense of being part of the solution—after all, if we point a finger, somebody else will do something, right?
That complaining/blaming tactic alone eventually becomes all we have to feel good. We get addicted by those moments of temporary relief. And meanwhile, we’re not playing our part—perhaps ignoring an unrealized desire to be more involved and connected with our community in a meaningful way.
In my career journey, I pointed a lot of fingers at people around me, either out loud or silently. I was constantly making the case for why I wasn’t being given a chance to move beyond graphic design. But that strategy never got me anywhere—it only distracted and delayed me from what I really wanted.
This is a common lesson in the worlds of self-help, spirituality, or psychology, whether you call it the need for:
- Law of Attraction
- Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize
- Positive Psychology
- The Power of Intention
So what does this have to do with “polarization” (my favorite subject these days)?
When we disagree with the actions of those around us, our first impulse may be making them wrong. We get easily distracted from choosing our own purposeful actions, instead getting caught up in a game of pointing fingers without much constructive outcome.
We push against and feed the thing we disagree with, by giving it our attention—much like a troll saps energy in an online chat room. The more we curse at the troll for being awful, the more the troll’s existence is validated—they get what they want, which is to stir people into a frenzy. It turns out, the best way to deal with a troll is to ignore it’s words and get back to actions that support our deeper visions.
In essence, where we put our attention matters.
In the United States, there’s a movement to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. At first glance, you might see this as a movement AGAINST something, making the oil companies wrong and pointing fingers their way. It’s true that the people in the movement are definitely expressing a strong “no” given the likelihood of an oil spill that would pollute a water source in the middle of the country. However, the driving force of the movement is a higher “yes” taking a few forms:
- Yes to clean water as a human right for themselves and others
- Yes to human safety as they express themselves without retaliation in the face of military-grade security forces
- Yes to a more conscious relationship with one another and the earth
These higher yes’s are at the foundation of their thoughts, words, and actions. For example, they call themselves “water protectors”, not protesters. And they forbid anyone coming to join their cause to bring weapons of any kind, because they are a “yes” to peaceful methods given the future they wish to create for future generations.
Were they to lose their connection with those principles, they’d be taking their eyes off the prize and merely treating the event as a way to blow off steam. They might use violent force in retaliation and, as a result, lose their own integrity. Of course, this would only help the security forces make the case for their own violence—that is, if violence were returned in kind by the water protectors, the security guards might be able to justify their methods.
According to Michael Nagler, author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future, when the water protectors remain in peaceful protest, they create an opportunity for the security forces (and the wider public) to see the absurdity of attacking them with tear gas, rubber bullets, dogs, and concussion grenades.
Similarly, thanks to the non-violent teachings of Gandhi, British forces left India after having to face the absurdity of gunning down unarmed civilians. And in 60’s during the civil rights movement, upon seeing photographs in a newspaper, the public could not handle the absurd brutality towards African Americans who simply wanted to eat at the counter of a diner.
Those peaceful protests were successful at creating a leap forward in consciousness because people stayed focused on what they wanted instead of focusing on what was not going their way. Such examples of intentional integrity can serve as inspiration for us, whether at home, at work, or in our communities.
Whenever we begin to lose our balance by focusing too much on what we don’t want (especially if it’s the current reality) we must refocus on what we’re seeking to create instead…
- Snowboarding on the mountain, we might instinctively look where we’re about to fall before re-calibrating towards the trees to find a more gradual way down.
- Fighting with our spouse, we might begin to feel justified in gathering more evidence of their wrongness, before remembering that our intention in the relationship is to help each other get our needs met.
- Watching the news, we might get caught up in the hateful comments that a politician should not be making before returning our attention to how we can create a society that values human rights and dignity.
- Engaging in civil disobedience, we might notice how badly we want to strike the police officer who just pepper-sprayed the person next to us, before remembering that our intention is to have a march for peace.
Keeping our eyes on the prize is a way to avoid getting drawn straight down the snowy mountain and falling on our butts. We want a certain future, so we do our best to act in accordance with that future today.
So however the age of polarization inspires you to create a better world for yourself and others, stay connected to that initial inspiration and let it guide you in the moments when you’re being tested.
Your attention is precious. What you choose to do with your thoughts, words, and actions is a matter of feeding your higher “yes” whatever that may be.
No matter what’s going on around you, you’re always the one steering your own ship.
Where would you like to go?
PS: I’ve created a page of resources for those curious about how to communicate with others while steering your own ship.