The question I’m going to ask you about the four lines in the diagram above will seem insignificant — but actually it is a question about how each one of us runs our life. It’s about the hidden forces that pull us away from our passions, our purpose, and our true selves. Ready?
Which one of the lines on the right, A, B, or C, is the same length as the test line X on the left?
It’s a simple task, and you’ve probably made your choice by now. In fact, it should be obvious. But would you be surprised to know that in an experiment, when researchers showed a picture like this to participants and asked them the same question, 75% of participants in a trial group did not pick B?
Let me describe the experiment to you. There were two kinds of groups: control groups and trial groups. The control groups, like you, were simply asked the question, which two lines are the same. Ninety-nine percent of those participants answered correctly. Now let’s look at the trial groups. In each of the trial groups, there was only one real participant. The rest of the group members were actors, coached by the researchers to unanimously select a wrong answer. In these trial groups, three out of four real participants changed their answers to match the answer of the actors.
What does this tell us? When we are in a minority position, many of us are prone to conform to the group. And we don’t even realize we are doing it. The experiment was one of many that show us how groups distort judgment. And if we can be made to doubt ourselves or sway our thinking about something so obvious, imagine how much we’re conforming in areas of life that are obscure or vague. Things like being true to who we are, living our purpose, or finding our calling. And the worst part is we’re not even aware of it. We actually think the decisions and choices we make are ours.
In the book Strangers to Ourselves, psychologist Timothy Wilson summarizes decades of research on what he calls our adaptive unconscious, showing us just how much of what we do during every moment of every day — what we think, how we feel, the goals we pursue and the actions we take — is happening below our conscious awareness. The limited, small insight we have about ourselves is often imposed on us or heavily influenced by our parents, peers, and media. We are the product of the influences and pressures from society to be and act a certain way so we can land the higher paying jobs, impress others, or live up to family expectations yet we desperately long to live a life of passion and purpose that is true to who we are.
Have you ever asked yourself whether how you are living your life truly matches your true self? How much of who you are and what you do is based on outside influences and expectations, versus how much is driven by your authentic self? Whether your decisions have really placed you on a path that satisfies your passions, your talents, and your life goals?
I did. That’s because I always experienced life as a struggle, within myself, and with the world around me. Throughout my childhood I was a big mystery to myself and I didn’t know who I was. My identity was clouded by my long struggle with a severe social anxiety disorder called selective mutism. Until I was 12 years old the only adults I would speak to were my parents. My voice became a deadweight in social settings, refusing to come out and I often felt disconnected from everyone and myself. I never received diagnosis or treatment since the adults in my life thought I was just shy and would probably grow out of it. So at the age of 12 I realized if I was to have a chance at a normal, productive, and independent life that it was up to me to rescue myself. Speaking became my goal and I started my long journey of finding my voice. Although progress was slow, eventually after a few years I was able to manage my anxiety enough to make space for my voice to come out. Two years ago, in my mid 30’s, out of sheer frustration with my years of muteness that led to isolation and not knowing who I was I made the decision to do an intensive investigation of myself as a person, and to to overcome a few personal traits that were continuing to make my adult life a struggle.
I embarked on a self-discovery experiment to reflect on and understand myself through examining my past. I looked for recurring patterns, themes and dots that connected. As children, we make meaning out of the events that we see and experience. To help us cope, we take what happens to us and create an internal image to interpret the world around us. The problem with this is that our coping mechanisms that help us avoid stress and anxiety when we’re young are not suitable for adulthood. If we don’t change that internal image as we grow up, we are unable to shed our flawed views of the world and function efficiently as adults. Deep reflections into my childhood allowed me to discover the source of my social anxiety, inhibited temperament, anger, rage and other character flaws that have impacted my adult life.
Not only that, I also realized that the lack of awareness I had about myself gave me a skewed perception of my interests, abilities, and skills. In fact, most of us have interests we haven’t explored and dormant talents we haven’t tapped into because we are not aware of their existence. It’s easy to say ‘follow your gut.’ But, in a world full of demands and distractions pulling our energy and attention, we’re often left out of touch with ourselves and our guts. By the time we’re adults we’ve been pushed and pulled and pressured by visible and invisible social forces for so long that we can’t necessarily trust our gut anymore.
We’ve all had moments in our lives, be it at our jobs, or in our hobbies, or during certain moments with specific people, when we feel the simple, totally satisfying kind of joy that comes from being truly in line with ourselves. Imagine if your whole life was filled with those moments. Well, the experiences of true authenticity that we have had can be our guide. They were for me.
One of the fruits of this discovery work led me to give my first TEDx talk that was about the power of small wins and I published my self-discovery work in a book called Approaching Midnight. Today I help individuals and companies achieve success by cutting through all the nonsense about overnight success. I’ve been offered opportunities that I didn’t think were even a possibility in my mind when I was a mute and struggling to speak.
The type of work and life that makes us happy is ingrained in who we are and our story. Too often we separate work and life as if they are two distinct entities, but it’s only when our work is connected deeply to who we are that we find our life’s work. Digging into our childhood helps us peel off other’s influences and unravel the spark to light up the path to our true selves. If we can tie ourselves and our work to the core of who we are and the activities we were connected to as a kid, we will find ourselves and our life’s work.
The more I communicated with others what I found out, the more it turns out that my discoveries are valuable to many people, and possibly to you. So if you’re interested in reading about my journey of self-discovery, grab a copy of my book Approaching Midnight or get in touch with me. I hope you will find the courage to embark on your own self-discovery. I promise you, it’s worth it.