Give up Survival Skills for Living Skills


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The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life is a book about how a change in your perception can change what you experience in the world. Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander, who take turns talking about how they have helped people open up to possibility, write about how changing your mind can change your world.

The authors spend a lot of time talking about what they call the calculating self. The roots of our calculating self come from childhood, from what we learn about how to survive and get the attention and other things we need from the adults around us and the world at large.

In the book, the Zanders quote Frank Sulloway, a former research scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, who suggests that we think of “personality” as a strategy for “getting out of childhood alive.” You learn useful life lessons such as “crying gets me attention,” “If you don’t fight back, they’ll torment you forever,” or “It’s always my fault.”

The rules and reactions that work get incorporated into our personality; the ones that fail are rejected. Eventually, the Zanders write, “A child comes to think of himself as the personality he gets recognition for or, in other words, as the set of patterns of action and habits of thought that get him out of childhood in one piece. That set, raised to adulthood, is what we are calling the calculating self.”

The calculating self is all about getting what is due, finding (and keeping) our place in the hierarchy, surviving and gaining control. Our inner child still thinks of these skills as survival skill, which explains why power struggle, rejection and thwarted ambition can feel like life of death issues.

This world view can be costly to our relationships, and can cause us unnecessary heartache and stress. It limits us to scarcity thinking and pushes us to win/lose approaches to conflict. The Zanders write: “We portray the calculating self as a ladder with a downward spiral… The downward spiral represents, among other things, the slippage that occurs when we try to control people and circumstances to give ourselves a boost… Inevitably our relationships spiral downward.”

Rosamund Zander incorporates a practice in her therapy in the form of a game. She challenges clients to “Have the best _____ever.” The client fills in the blank: have the best meal ever, the best Saturday ever, the best meeting ever – it’s up to them. Zander says: “[the game] does not say “Do the things that you think are the most likely to get you to your goal.” The instructions say, “Have it. Be fulfilled.” Often, that means becoming aware of the fears, opinions, and positions your calculating self has adopted that stand in the way of simple fulfillment.”

She asks the question: What would have to change in order for me to be fulfilled and reach this goal? Most often, we tell ourselves the story that someone or something else would have to change (usually someone or something that is Wrong, with a capital W.) But Zander’s clients learn to look deep and make changes in themselves (the only person they actually have power over) and get past the blockage that keeps them from being fulfilled.

We can choose to tell ourselves another story and choose to believe there are options and possibilities we simply haven’t seen. Our calculating self creates a narrative that labels people and situations as toxic and wrong in order to justify what we’re feeling and doing. We survive, but we may not be fully alive.

Scarcity thinking is win/lose; people who think this way think there’s a finite amount of everything in the world: money, fame, love, success. When someone wins, achieves, or is given something valuable, there is less remaining for the rest of us.

Abundance thinking says that there’s enough of everything in the world, and that we can always create more. Abundance thinking empowers us to find ways to make more of whatever we need. We see evidence of this all around us if we’re willing to look. A parent thinks she loves her only child more than anything in the world – until she has her second. Suddenly, her capacity to love is doubled.

We think the market is completely saturated – there are no more customers available – until someone creates a new product and opens up huge new markets. You may believe you’ll never get a promotion or raise at your current company, so you start your own company and create your own success.

How is your calculating self keeping you alive, but preventing you from living fully? What story could you give up in order to open up new possibilities?

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