Engineer Your Life
This week, I want to explore how we perceive changes and how that perception can affect our outcome.
“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.” — Marcus Aurelius
This topic has deep rooted origins in the philosophy of the Stoics but it also has some more modern research to give it some weight.
This week’s part of the blueprint I’ve chosen to express as a formula.
pi is perception
Ti is things inside of our control
To is things outside of our control
P(Outcome) is the probability of an outcome
What this formula is expressing is that our perception multiplies the objective things inside/outside our control, or it modifies it. For example, if we have poor perception and our p is less than one, even when there are more things inside of control than outside (i.e. a larger number inside the brackets), our perception reduces that number and therefore actually worsens the situation. An example here might be whether or not we achieve the outcome of going to the gym. Unless the gym blew up, there are more things within our control than outside of it. Poor perception would be creating excuses, “I heard the traffic is bad,” “I’m too hungry now for the gym” etc etc.
When there are more things outside of our control than inside, we get a number inside the brackets of less than one. This means many outcomes are simply beyond our control and we have less power to affect the outcome and the result after multiplying by perception is less than our perceptive mindset alone. However, a high perception value will still keep the number large and increase our probability of a positive outcome.
Thus, whatever the situation, perception has a huge part to play in whether we get a positive outcome. When things are beyond our control, it makes everything harder, but ‘embracing the suck’ can give you a much more positive outcome than someone who chooses a different path.
It Begins with the Stoics
This stoic form practice of managing our own perceptions is not merely accepting the reality of the world and how it is, it is more than that. Partly, it is about training our mind’s eye to see every speed bump in our lives as something to be profoundly grateful for, as a new path laid out before us to something bigger and better than our original one. On the face of it, this seems like anti-emotional madness, yet it is something we all instinctively know to be true.
Imagine for a second a spoilt kid who gets whatever they want, they face no obstacle in their life, they get the top education that gets them into a good university and when they finish there’s a job at daddy’s firm for them. As a side bar, we shouldn’t prejudge people who have that kind of backstory, nor for that matter any backstory. I’ve met plenty who’ve had similar childhoods who’re strong, smart, moral and incredibly well put together individuals. I’m talking here about the snotty, ill-mannered idiots. Wealth isn’t always part of it, see the ‘Prince and Pauper’, we all have our obstacles, they’re just different.
I’m talking specifically here about the lack of obstacles. We’ve all met someone like this and we instinctively hate them, even if they’re harmless enough. We hate them because they have faced a lack of hardships and we have some internal alarm system that warns us of these people, they’re not to be trusted. We don’t know how they’ll behave given even the smallest hardship. In fact, we may have seen their tantrums when this is the case. Equally, that person without obstacles often feels insecure about that fact, they know they haven’t and in later life they can become reckless in seeking out opportunities to prove themselves.
Therefore, by reversing the story, we can say hardships create personal growth or that strength comes from adversity. We know it. It doesn’t always feel like it in the moment and there are many a kind of hardship. A story common among us is a tale of heartbreak that led us all to come out of the other side stronger. In the moment we felt like a pathetic weasel and that nothing good could possibly come from what we felt. Now, on the other side of the storm, we can sometimes feel we were a little silly about our thoughts and actions.
We Have a Choice
Going back to our equation then, how we perceive our hardships can affect the outcome. We have a choice about which voice in our head we listen to. We have a choice about how we interact with the world. How quickly we make the choice to perceive a speed bump as a new prospect directly correlates to achieve a positive outcome. It might not have been the outcome we expected at the start of our journey. It might not always be the one we were hoping for given a massive change, but we can at least prevent a negative outcome with the right perception and attitude.
In fact, even perceiving a happening in the world, a change, an inanimate and immutable fact as a speed bump can affect our thought process and therefore our outcome. The fact doesn’t change no matter how we feel about it. It just is. A well-practiced Stoic would not even see ‘hardships’, just facts and the way forward. Ryan Holiday writes solely about this in The Obstacle is the Way –
“Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.”
Let’s Talk About the Brain
And this leads me onto the next part of this, which is that while the ancient Stoics had a good intuitive gasp of this, it is only fairly recently our scientists have been able to provide any hard neuroscientific backing to this philosophy. It comes in the form of CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. For this article, the ideas I want to talk about are expressed rather well by the Cognitive Triangle.
What does this mean? Let’s consider the parts of the equation CI and Co i.e. the things inside our control and the things outside of it. Do we have control over our emotions, thoughts and feelings? I personally don’t feel this is a simple black and white answer, I think we have some control of some of those things, or in certain aspects like emotions we perhaps have no control at all. However, we have a choice of what thoughts and feelings we listen to, and which we do not and some things are easier to control than others.
Perhaps this is different for different people but I find behaviours easier to control than thoughts and thoughts easier than emotions. If we behave a certain way, we start to think and feel a certain way. From the triangle, if for example I behave like a healthy person, i.e. eat a healthy lunch, then I think “hey, that was a healthy thing to do, well done,” and then I feel healthier and that then influences my behaviour and creates even more healthy behaviours.
This, then, reinforces what James Clear talks about in Atomic Habits. If we start with the tiniest behaviour change we can — for example forming the habit of filling the sink but not necessarily washing the dishes — it’s a job done. We inject that behaviour into our cognitive triangle, and it spins. It becomes more of a wheel than a triangle and it picks up speed.
Completing the task creates positive thoughts, those positive thoughts generate more positive emotions and we feel like exhibiting more positive behaviours and so on. Eventually the mere sight of a clear sideboard fills us with pride, relief, and general warm fuzzy feelings such that we’re propelled into the day to do more positive things.
We also know this can happen in reverse. We inject one negative behaviour, let’s say sneaking a doughnut and suddenly the whole day is a write off. We might as well eat a whole tray of doughnuts and then feel like a fat slob and we think about how weak willed we are. Most of us know this as ‘spiralling’. Firstly, being aware of this happening is a useful step, we can acknowledge we somehow need to pump the breaks. We need to influence our thoughts and behaviours to slow the spinning of the wheel, what can we do to feel good about ourselves? It’s different for different people, but creating a behaviour, such as going for a run or sitting down and using a journal could be a good way to inject what we need.
By the way, the sooner you remove motivation or will-power out of your strategy the better. These exist and have a small role but I do not believe these concepts are massively helpful in . The ‘highly motivated’ person we think of has simply built healthy habits over time and it’s no big deal for them to go out on a run on a rainy day. I write about this in point 2 of “5 Tips to Working From Home”.
Firstly then, start small, I talk about this in “The Power of Incremental Change” and you should give it a read. That small injection of positivity compounds quickly in our cognitive process. Whether you choose to influence your behaviours, thoughts or feelings there are different ways to create an injection of positivity.
Use the technique of journaling to start the day with a positive thought, something you’re grateful for. This leverages both behaviour and thought in your cognitive triangle. You can find many different kinds of journals online that can give you the prompts your looking for, including The Five Minute Journal and The Bullet Journal which provides a structured way to organise your thoughts. You may also choose to meditate or start with a positive behaviour like simply ‘make your bed’ as advocated by Admiral McRaven (video).
The second is more difficult, it just comes down to practice and it’s not easy, especially in the moment. But again start small, let your initial emotions, thoughts and feelings manifest themselves. Be a witness to them. Writing, again, is useful in organising your thoughts. I find once they’re out of your head on a piece of paper, your brain can let it go and new thoughts can emerge. Whether you do this 30s after an obstacle appearing or two weeks after, you still increase your chances of a positive outcome. Build a set of questions you can ask yourself that seek the opportunity or the path within the obstacle.
You can also try reading The Obstacle is The Way by Ryan Holiday and Atomic Habits by James Clear. Both of whom talk heavily on these topics. There are also lectures on CBT available on Audible, these are a little dense but worth a listen if you’re interested. There are countless other techniques and habits you can use to break this thinking down, but there’s the start. If you have any questions or your own suggestions please do comment and share your experiences.
I can also testify to everything here in my own recent experience. I am the CEO of Rogue Events Ltd which runs a number of immersive experiences. When the ‘rona hit, the creative events industry was not a good one to be in and we could obviously no longer run those events. I had recently been thinking about how I’d let my fitness go and lost a part of my identity, it used to be a huge part of my life and something I was known for at school. Don’t get me wrong, it took a little while to accept the news and that running events was not on the cards, but eventually I was ready to face the obstacle.
The horrible deadly virus that is plenty an excuse to throw your hands up and curse Hades instead, for me, became an opportunity to push myself into a new market where I’d be able to entrepreneur my ass off, get paid work and would incentivise my fitness goals. The gravity of the situation gave me the impetus to quickly pick up a fitness instructor course and ultimately start Steel Viking. It also gave me the capacity to start Engineer Your Life and further develop my own thinking and theories on mindset. I have big plans for both, as horrible as this virus is, its existence and its impact is an immutable fact we cannot escape nor should we throw up our hands and give up in the face of it. Who knows where I’d be without the kind of mindset that seeks opportunity in every setback? Don’t shrink from it, stare down the obstacle and make it the new path.
Had I not had this drastic push into a new start, who knows where I’d be right now? Instead of running a business I love and getting fit, I might have had to go back into Engineering and miserably slogged away, if I’d have been able to find work at all. It’s easy to blame others but accept the elements outside of your control and actively search for the things you can control. Doing so will drastically improve your chances of a positive outcome.