The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward. – Amelia Earhart
In 1965, an American psychologist named Martin Seligman did some experiments with dogs on conditioning, administering light shocks to dogs right after ringing a bell. After a few times, the dogs reacted once the bell had been rung, even though they had not been shocked yet. In a second experiment, the dogs were placed in a crate with a low fence in the middle. The side of the crate the dogs were on was electrified, the other was not. Seligman administered another light shock expecting the dogs to jump over to the other side. To his surprise, the dogs simply laid down. They had been conditioned that there was nothing they could do about the shocks but simply bear it.
This is the story of learned helplessness. I’ve talked about it before – the story of the monkeys in the cage in the Zoo. In this case the monkeys are not shocked, they simply live in the zoo getting everything done for them. The first time they land in there, they try all kinds of things to escape, eventually they give up and end up sitting around or swinging around all day. At set times each day, their food gets dropped in to the cage. Their needs are taken care of. What happens when one of these monkeys escapes to the wild and is finally free to roam the jungle as it was evolved to. It dies quickly enough. It does not know how to fend for itself. It learned, it was conditioned to be helpless and dependent on the zoo keepers.
The idea here is to illustrate that in many ways, we have also been conditioned by society, media and our upbringing in subtle ways to be helpless. Life is a wonderful thing, but life can also be tough. We are filled with such longing and desire, to do, to have, to be more. And this is the thing that drives us forward as agents of life. But it can also feel frustrating. There are many things you want to do and achieve. And there are also all these reasons you can’t get it. You made a mistake that cost you. Your gender or skin color makes it difficult to navigate certain spaces. The economy is in the tank and you can’t seem to find a job no matter how hard you try. Life can be full of obstacles.
But you have more control than you think. It is easier to sit back and hope that something happens. It is easier to wait to be saved, for someone else to come to the rescue and lift you from this insurmountable obstacle. We deplore our leaders, we decry the poor state of infrastructure or delivery, we deride the harsh living and business conditions we exist in. But in the back of our minds, we are always waiting for someone else to step up and do something about it. And sometimes that happens, heroes and angels walk amongst us. Sometimes revolutions happen, someone fights for us, someone comes with the solution that turns the whole thing around.
But what if your hero was you?
There is a lot you can’t control sure enough. You can’t control completely what other people do? You can’t control the weather, you can’t control the economy. You can’t even control the things that happen to you. So, when things go awry, or things are a little difficult, it is easy to blame something else. And the fucked-up thing about it all is that, it is true. Your excuse is true. But you do have control over one thing – your reaction. And that is all you need. Control how you process your emotion and control the action you take.
When nice things happen to us, they make us happy, even if it’s for a moment. When bad things happen, they make us feel terrible, a feeling that sometimes seems to last even longer. But things are just things, they are neither good or bad. We do not have enough context or knowledge of all the factors to outright judge a thing as good or bad. Who knows, maybe that accident you had that wrote off your car but miraculously left you alive is the wake-up call that sparks you towards your destiny. Maybe that spilled coffee on your white blouse on the same freaking morning you had to give that important presentation which you then missed because you had to go change, maybe that was the thing that kept you from being hit by a bus. We never know, we can never tell. Things aren’t good or bad, they are just things. It is our perception, the story we weave around the facts that give us the meaning.
On a long enough timeline, you can innovate your way out of any problem.
Imagine that insurmountable problem, that one that is at the edge of your ability. You have no idea how you will get over it, you don’t know what to do. Now accept it, embrace it, stop fighting it. You are here, there is a problem, so what?
What if you stopped wishing for better cards, and just focused on playing the hell out of the ones you were dealt?
What is truly going on around you? I’m sure if you really sat down, quieten your fear / intimidation of the problem, you can begin to get creative again. With focused attention, you could generate at least 5 different ways to tackle that seemingly insurmountable problem. Fear creates noise in your head and in your spirit, it clouds your vision and makes it hard to access the creative potential in your spirit, the one who will lead you to the right answer.
Connect with the brave core inside yourself. How can you turn your present situation around to your advantage? What opportunities lie around you in plain sight? Who are the people you can engage with? Who can you serve? What can you give? What action can you take?
If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door – Milton Berle
You not getting a job. Send out 10X more CVs. Learn to craft better CVs and interview better. Email 100 people who have jobs that you have now and ask them how they got into that field, and what it takes to get there. Focus on getting better.
You couldn’t go to school because you had no funds? Get a laptop, get some internet connection, sign up for free courses. It is never been easier to learn, there is an entire world of information out there. Start a side hustle. Build a blog, share your learning, volunteer, intern, provide value. Very soon all of that will compound and lead you to some interesting opportunities.
You don’t know stuff or have skills? Learn. Learn. Everything is learnable. Anyone who is human like you and doing something you find so incredibly awesome and out of your reach, know that they had to learn it too. No one comes out the womb finished. Sure, you might have predilections, your genetics may favor certain activities, but most things are more learnable than you think. You can learn to be an entrepreneur, a manager, a designer, a coder. You can learn to think big, to love yourself, to nurture your relationships, to change. You are a living breathing adaptation machine.
At the end of the day, it really comes down to you. Life is hard, and full of obstacles. But they make us better, they make us strong, they help us become happy. So, don’t give in to excuses. Don’t give in to learned helplessness. Be proactive and do something. You have more control than you think.