Years Old Reminder to Self: Get Out of Your Own Way

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What do I see when I look at the mirror? My best friend? My worst enemy? My cheerleader? My fiercest critic? A reliable ally or a redoubtable foe? How about all of the above?

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January 1, 2010: I was lying on my bed, exhausted from a trying year and wondering what the new year would hold. I was in debt, owing more than a third of what I was making yearly. I was sick, the exact cause unknown to both me and my doctors. My graduate studies were going nowhere. My PhD advisor was rightfully not happy with my work. I could not spiritually, physically, financially, or academically survive another messy year like 2009. I needed a turnaround, and although my life depended on it, I didn’t know what I needed to change in order to keep my head above water.

I picked up a book by Peter Senge to distract myself. Published in 1990 and titled The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, the book is chockful of proven ways a company can sustainably grow in the face of unprecedented change and intense competition. I don’t think a broke grad student is the intended audience for the book, but both the title and the first few pages were intriguing enough that I kept reading. What else was there to do anyway? Watch another Netflix movie? 

About halfway through the book, I came across this line: “Don’t push growth, remove the factors limiting growth.” The author expands on this point for a few pages. The gist is that, instead of asking, How can I grow?, ask, What’s hindering me? In other words, think less about what you need to start doing and more about what you need to stop doing.  It wasn’t like a lightbulb went off in my head after reading the statement, but the more I reflected on it, the more I started to see the application to my own life.

I had hindered myself with wrong thoughts and false beliefs. For instance, I had resisted asking for help in areas where I was failing because I thought no one really cared. It wasn’t true. People did care. I just needed to get over myself and reach out. The biggest hurdle was me, not people’s perceived indifference. Also, I had developed a self-inhibiting habit of counting myself out before anyone else could. Often, I would tell myself, “I can’t apply for that, I would be denied!” or “It is not people like me they want there” or “I would make a fool of myself if I asked.” I did this, forgetting the obvious fact that I would miss 100% of the shots I failed to take.  As I meditated on what I needed to change, I started to make a list: poor thoughts, bad beliefs, tepidity, etc. I titled the list, “Self-Inflicted Injuries.”

Inspired, I came up with a goal for my new year. In my diary, I wrote these words: My goal for year 2010 is absolutely zero self-inflicted injuries. If I was to grow, I had to remove what was limiting me. Self-inflicted injuries had limited my growth, so they had to go. To be sure, there were other adverse factors responsible for the low I found myself in, but, to be frank, I had a hand in it too. In fact, if I was being brutally honest, I could say that, although there were many conspirators, I was the chief accomplice in my own impending demise. My 2010 goal was simply committing to stopping aiding and abetting anything that brings me down. I didn’t need any grand undertaking; I just needed to stop being foolish. I needed to live life as it is meant to be lived.

Getting out of my own way, step by step

I resolved to get out of my own way. If I could just get out of my own way, I would make much progress. Every morning, I told myself: don’t tell yourself lies, don’t shoot yourself in the foot, and don’t do things that weaken you. You don’t have to necessarily build strength, just avoid things that weaken you. Don’t tell yourself people don’t care when you know they do. Be bold and go for your goal, even if it is a long shot. A long shot is better than no shot. No shot is what you get by not asking at all. I wish I could say I was 100% successful. I was not. The only consistent set of people are the dead. I failed on some days, and I still fail on some days, but my 2010 goal has become a guiding principle in my life, a North Star. By and large, I have managed to stay true to my goal of no self-inflicted injuries.

Restoration takes time, but if we keep the weeds out, the plant will grow beautifully and fruitfully. I stopped buying things I didn’t need with money I didn’t have. That was more than enough to turn my finances around. I stopped eating like there would be famine tomorrow. I found out my body worked better on less food. The ailments disappeared the more I fasted. I saw why the ancient Egyptians believed that, “One-quarter of what you eat keeps you alive. The other three-quarters keeps your doctor alive.” It was certainly true in my case. I stopped getting in my own head at school. I just followed where the facts led, and my research took shape, almost without effort. In short, I got out of my own way. I stopped each practice that was limiting my growth. I did not self-injure. And growth came. One of the characteristics of life is growth. But growth is non-discriminatory. Rain falls on weeds and plants alike. Food feeds both healthy and cancerous cells. This is why stopping the growth of the bad helps the good to blossom.

I will tell you what I often tell myself. You have many enemies, but they can do you no harm as long as you don’t side with them. Don’t be complicit in your own downfall. Remove impurities in your life. Eliminate the unnecessary. Cut out the bad. Remove whatever limits growth. And you will flourish.  

Have you had moments where you realized that you were getting in your own way? What did you do about it?