The human mind is a masterpiece of evolution, not only because of its intelligence but even more so because of the ability of its owners to rewire themselves through conscious discipline. Despite our predisposition (genetic, environmental, or otherwise), the human brain has amazing plasticity. That simply means we can rewire ourselves if we put in the effort to do so. That's the good news. The bad news is that as our neural pathways become trained to do things one way we find it increasingly harder to change these pathways. You can still learn to play piano or speak Mandarin at 50, but it may take you 10 times as long as a 5-year-old.
But learning how to play the piano or speak a new language is relatively easy when compared with the rewiring of basic behaviors that are far more impactful and form the bedrock of our happiness and success. Inevitably, we don't even question these behaviors because they seem to come so naturally--they feel almost intuitive. Furthermore, we rarely think of rewiring ourselves to change these behaviors since they are consistently reinforced in our interactions with colleagues, peers, and media.
"I've come to realize that behavioral rewiring is the core discipline of success."
In working with hundreds of very successful individuals, from Fortune 100 CEOs to celebrities and top athletes to emerging entrepreneurs, I've come to realize that behavioral rewiring is the core discipline of success. Often that means resisting the draw of what are commonly accepted social behaviors. And five of these common behaviors account for what I believe to be the overwhelming majority of impediments and obstacles to our success and happiness.
"What we need to do is always lean into the future; when the world changes around you and when it changes against you--what used to be a tailwind is now a headwind--you have to lean into that and figure out what to do because complaining isn't a strategy." --Jeff Bezos
If I had to pick one behavior that is the most toxic to success and happiness, it would be this one. Complaining plays to our deepest insecurities, that the world conspires against us. It reinforces a mistaken belief that is ingrained in us as children, namely, that if we cry long and hard enough, some force outside of ourselves will intervene and save us from our plight.
Complaining is not only futile but also comes with dire consequences for your self-esteem, confidence, your mental, emotional, and physical well-being. As Jessica Stillman wrote in a previous Inc.com article, "Complaining Rewires Your Brain for Negativity," regular complaining actually causes your brain to feed on negativity and to become addicted to it.
Instead of complaining, what if you simply focused on solving the problem you're complaining about?
For example, instead of "This process is so messed up that it's impossible to work in this company! I just can't take it anymore! I've had it!" how about "This process would work so much better if we did X. How do we go about implementing X?"
Oh, wait. The second approach requires some work, doesn't it? Yeah, and there's why complaining is so much easier: No solution or effort needed!
"Remember, you and you alone are responsible for maintaining your energy. Give up blaming, complaining, and excuse making, and keep taking action in the direction of your goals--however mundane or lofty they may be." --Jack Canfield
Once you establish a steady diet of complaints, the natural progression is to go on to blaming--everyone and everything other than yourself. And here's the greatest irony. The smarter you are, the better your ability to construct scenarios under which there are bulletproof reasons why you are the only one who should not take responsibility for your actions or your outcomes.
"If you accepted that it was always your responsibility to find the best path forward, then everything that happens to you would be at worst an opportunity to learn and grow."
I know what you're thinking: "But, wait. There are things I have no control over!" Granted, but what if you chose the simple behavior of taking accountability for how you respond to everything that happens to you, good or bad? If you accepted that it was always your responsibility to find the best path forward, then everything that happens to you would be at worst an opportunity to learn and grow.
And that's the real price of blaming others or external factors: You squelch your chances to grow, and that's never a good idea if success is the goal. On the other hand, if the goal is to remain stuck in the muck of the past, then keep on blaming.
"Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold." --Helen Keller
The 20th-century father of management theory, Peter Drucker, once said to me that the greatest risk is taking no risk. His point was that in trying to protect ourselves from danger we are actually creating the greatest danger of all: shutting out opportunity. The safest plane is the one that does not fly. The safest ship is the one that never leaves port. You get the idea. If you want to play it safe, you picked the wrong planet to be born on.
"When I look at my own life, it is those things that I was once most fearful of, which, when overcome and ultimately mastered, were the greatest contributors to my success and happiness."
So, rather than be ruled by the behavior of avoidance, what if you regarded the fear of what you are trying to avoid as a compass setting for what you need to overcome? When I look at my own life, it is those things that I was once most fearful of, which, when overcome and ultimately mastered, were the greatest contributors to my success and happiness. Funny how that works!
"You will find peace not by trying to escape your problems, but by confronting them courageously. You will find peace not in denial, but in victory." --J. Donald Walters
If you practice avoidance long enough, you get really good at actually denying that there is anything to avoid to begin with! Living in the state of denial is perhaps the sorriest place of all to take up residence, because now the thing you most need to overcome has become invisible to you.
Getting around this one is tough. In fact, people who live in denial will do almost anything to reinforce their belief that there is no obstacle. It's sort of like a child closing his or her eyes to pretend something frightening doesn't really exist. Yeah, that works well.
"Living in the state of denial is perhaps the sorriest place of all to take up residence."
So, if we regard the behavior as childish, then let's deal with it the way we would with a child. Many of us learned when we were much younger that the best way to deal with nightmares involving terrifying situations or entities was to take them on and confront the source of our fear rather than try to hide from it. What if you did the same in real life? Rather than deny the existence of an obstacle, take it on at full throttle. Embrace it. Own it, until the only option is to say you've dealt with it.
"The past is a great place, and I don't want to erase it or to regret it, but I don't want to be its prisoner either." --Mick Jagger
Ah, yes. The most seductive and counterproductive behavior of all, regret. But, wait. You want to learn from your mistakes, right? So, isn't a bit of contemplation about what went wrong required to make sure you've learned the lessons of the past? Well, here's a radical idea: What if nothing went wrong? What if it all happened exactly as it was supposed to happen, for a reason that can only be understood by moving forward rather than looking backward?
Better yet, subscribe to the school of thought summed up in this quote from Sydney J. Harris: "Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable."
In other words, if you've tried but have not yet succeeded, then congratulate yourself for having had the courage to try--thereby extinguishing the word regret from your vocabulary.
So, now that you know what not to do, the question still remains, how do you not do it? Well, I have a suggestion for your first resolution of 2017--if you're up to the challenge. It's called the seven-day behavioral cleanse--only this one won't have you running to the john every 15 minutes.
What I'd like you to do is commit for just the first seven days of 2017 to eliminating each of these five behaviors from your behavioral repertoire. No complaining, blaming, avoiding, denying, or regretting. Adopt a zero-tolerance rule. If you catch yourself doing any of them, just stop!
Instead of complaining, solve.
Instead of blaming, take responsibility.
Instead of avoiding, face your fear.
Instead of denying a problem, embrace it.
Instead of regretting, celebrate having tried.
Go ahead. It's only seven days out of 365. Who knows, maybe you'll find that after losing a few pounds of negativity and rewiring your brain, you'll take up piano and learn Mandarin as well.