“Taking responsibility for your beliefs and judgments gives you the power to change them.” ~Byron Katie
“Alright, it’s time to break into groups,” said the professor.
Immediately, I thought, “I hate group work. I can’t trust other students.” Before even meeting the other members of the group, I was sabotaging the opportunity with negativity.
How often do you do this?
The six of us waited, looking at each other with blank faces.
“Okay, now it’s time to pick a group leader,” said the professor. “Each group will be assigned a psychologist to present his or her major contributions to psychology. You all have ten minutes to present, no more. AND NO READING OFF POWERPOINT OR NOTECARDS,” he screamed. “We present in four weeks. Be prepared.”
Without even realizing it, I let out a huge sigh and dug my face into my hands. “Finals, papers, work, and now this?” The moment I realized what I was doing, I was embarrassed, because what kind of body language was I signaling? How automatic was that?
I took a breath. I thought, “Is this how you want to lead by example? How ridiculous are you acting right now? Look back on your principles and follow them.” And so I did: one of my principles in life is learning how to flip negative situations into positive.
Adversity is really a challenge in disguise. And challenges build character, facilitate growth, and teach us important lessons in life.
My professor also said something that motivated me: “Out of all my years of teaching, I have never given a group a 100.”
Be Mindful Of Your Default Setting
David Foster Wallace talked about our “default settings” in his “This Is Water” Kenyon Commencement speech.
Our default setting is how we react to the events in our lives. When we’re bored, we find solace in our phones. When someone cuts us off on the road, we drive up next to their window to see what they look like. And for me, when told that there is group work, I let out huge sighs and roll my eyes.
This is, however, something we ought to overcome; we decide what has meaning in our lives or what doesn’t.
I went home really thinking about this assignment—is this really about getting an A, or is it something more meaningful, like practicing organization, leadership, communication, teamwork, and, most of all, public speaking?
Throughout our lives we will meet people that we don’t like right away or may be in a situation where we feel uncomfortable
Instead of reveling in this negativity, it would be infinitely more rewarding to take a step back and realize what we’re telling ourselves about this particular situation or person. Is this how we really want to look at it or perhaps is there another way?
1. Pause and focus on being mindful.
Take a breath. What are you telling yourself? What do you feel? Getting to the bottom of your feelings, becoming self-aware, is step one; making the conscious decision to change your mind will be tough but necessary.
Once you become aware of what you’re telling yourself, only then can you start changing the inner dialogue.
2. Let go.
Okay, so there was no way of getting out of this presentation, not unless I was okay with failing the class. So now I accept what I cannot change. What can I do to make this moment better? Keep dancing in my discomfort and insecurities or step up and lead?
Our default setting is to complain and whine, but we’ve all done this so many times in our lives that it’s obvious it doesn’t lead to anything fruitful. Probably best to do the more difficult task instead.
Negative Judgment Into Compassion & Humility
We all, to an extent, judge people automatically. We look at their clothing, body language, skin color, and age. This isn’t necessarily bad; this is just how our minds work. We process and organize information in categories to save mental energy, process new information, avoid danger, or approach new friends.
But this automatic prejudging could be self-defeating at times. I automatically judged one of my group members to be the least active because of her demanding medical job and being a mother of two.
And I was dead wrong. They were passionate, organized, and although tired after a long day of work, attentive and committed. I was humbled.
1. Give chances.
This is where empathy plays a big role: How would you want to be treated? Would you want strangers to give you a chance or not? From a leadership standpoint, I had no choice but to remove my negative judgments and exercise compassion and humility.
You will have expectations, sure, but don’t let it cloud your judgment so deeply that you forget you’re working with human beings.
2. Teamwork is also about compassion and humility.
Depending on the way you are, working with others is difficult because your ideas get challenged. People may not agree with you, and the very feeling of friction against what you contribute is enough to put you on the defensive.
The idiosyncratic and often deluded belief that we are the most important and knowledgeable person is something we have to let go. Once I truly embraced the suggestions and feedback from my group members, the presentation evolved in ways I couldn’t have previously imagined.
Choose What Has Meaning
After many weeks of rehearsal, I’ve never felt more confident in my group. I reflected on how I was thinking, feeling, and behaving just weeks ago, and I realized how foolish I acted and how I nearly sabotaged a great opportunity to exercise important, fundamental skills in life.
I learned how to work with other people, how to listen, how to give and take feedback, and how to turn strangers into friends.
We were the last group to present. One by one groups would go up and follow very similar routines, read off their notecards, and hide behind the podium.
“Is this what you were so afraid of?” I thought to myself. My group, during our rehearsal, was the complete opposite: strong eye contact, no words on the PowerPoint, barely any notecards, and lots of engagement. How? A lot of practice.
When it was our turn to present, of course, the fear crept right in; I even saw it in the eyes of my group members. Before we all walked up, I looked at each of them. We didn’t even have to say anything. We all gave each other a little nod, smiled, and walked up to the front of the room.
One by one, each of us presented our section, and by the end the class roared with applause, even a few murmurs like, “That was the best one.”
At the end of the class the professor walked up to us and said, “I have a problem with your presentation. You didn’t read off notecards, you didn’t read off the PowerPoint slide, and you didn’t have blocks of text on it either. I’m going to have to give you all a 100.”
My group jumped with joy, hugging one another and congratulating each other. As I was soaking in the moment I thought, “See? What were you afraid of? Why those negative judgments? Look at what was accomplished and how it was done. Now apply this in other areas of your life.”
To me, this wasn’t so much about the grade, although I originally believed it to be. No, the real joy was the experience of overcoming my fear of public speaking, turning strangers into friends, exercising teamwork, leadership, humility, and compassion.
The challenge, of course, is applying this same mindset to new and upcoming endeavors. It’s easy to fall back on our default setting without being aware of it, but the more we practice mindfulness, the more likely it will become our new default setting.
Just imagine if I stuck to my default setting? Imagine if I let negativity overwhelm me and guide my actions? This experience, this story, would have ceased to exist. So would the lessons that I’ve shared.