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New Year’s Resolutions and Deficit Thinking

New Year’s Resolutions and Deficit Thinking

As we approach the New Year, many of you may be starting to consider one or more New Year’s resolutions. Okay, you’ve done it before—probably many, many times—and the results have not been spectacular in terms of success. In fact, most of your past resolutions have lasted maybe a week or two. Don’t despair. Exactly the same thing happens to most people, and for the same reason: the deadly habit of deficit thinking.

Deficit thinking is an ingrained habit of focusing on gaps and weaknesses (the deficit) instead of what’s working (and can be made to work still better). It’s focusing on what you can’t do, not what you can. Instead of your dreams and ambitions propelling you forward, you let the gap between your current state and your desires become a source of frustration and depression. It’s the old business of seeing the glass as half empty.

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People who suffer from ingrained deficit thinking (and that’s just about all of us, since it’s drummed into us from school onwards) spend their whole time checking up on their failings, limitations, weaknesses, and the gaps in their knowledge. Then, armed with a mental list of all the things that are wrong with them, they start trying to put them right, usually by applying willpower. It rarely, if ever, works. Why? Because many of the “problems” are part of their basic make-up, so that’s like deciding to will yourself to be six inches taller, or to have blue eyes instead of brown ones. Go at it all you like, but nothing will change.

Most of the other “gaps” are there because, deep down, it isn’t you who wants to be different or “better” in that precise way: it’s other people who tell you that you ought to be so. They want you to change to suit their agendas. And you go along—on the surface—because it’s polite, or socially desirable, or you wish that you could agree with them (only you don’t). This gives you almost zero real motivation to change. Result: you talk a great talk about whatever it is, yet never quite seem to be able to turn the talk into effective action. If you truly wanted to change—or give up whatever it is—you would find a way to do it, believe me.

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Deficit thinking is a waste of time, promoting misery, guilt, and frustration for no good reason. Here’s how to get rid of it:

  • Don’t waste energy looking for gaps and deficiencies. Sure, you have some. Everyone does. Try using that energy to celebrate and build on what you do well. It’ll give you a far better payback.
  • Don’t assume the glass is half empty, when it’s simply half a glassful. Be grateful and enjoy what you have and who you are, instead of ignoring both in favor of worrying about what you don’t have and aren’t likely to become, however much you obsess about it.
  • Don’t take fears for reality, commonplace thoughts for truth, and worries for real problems. Nearly all such opinions and thoughts are wrong. Most of the gaps you’ve been encouraged to fret about don’t exist outside the minds of those others who want you to change to fit in with their ideas. The “gaps” are only in your mind because you allowed someone else to put them there.
  • Don’t accept judgments by others without looking at whatever they tell you very, very closely. If you saw a slice of pizza lying on the sidewalk, would you pick it up and eat it? No? Then why do so many people accept judgments and assessments from just about anyone and swallow them down without a moment’s hesitation? Judgments like that are even more likely to contain something toxic than the pizza. What you put in your head can poison you as easily as something you put in your mouth. When someone passes judgment, or tries to put some guilt feeling onto you, tell them to go poison someone else’s mind.
  • Stop focusing on life’s negatives. The world is uncertain and difficult enough without you adding to the pile of problems you have to deal with.
  • Don’t buy the foolish idea you have a right to be happy. There’s no such right. The best way to be happy is to give up being miserable. Let it go. Sometimes you’ll feel happy, sometimes sad, and very often neither. That’s the way life is. Smile and enjoy it.
  • Stop watching your emotions. They’re not worth it. They go up, then down, then up again like the stockmarket. No one really knows why, whatever they try to tell you—not even mental health professionals. You can’t will your emotions go or stay where you want, so quit driving yourself nuts by trying. Best of all, treat them like the weather: sometimes an inconvenience, sometimes a pain, and sometimes full of joyous sunshine. Many of them are probably due more to what you ate or drank yesterday than anything meaningful.

The commonest source of the fears that weigh us down is some belief about what is “normal” or “standard.” Here’s an example. One company that I worked in had a common belief that anyone who hadn’t been promoted to a significant management position by the age of 30 was never going to be promoted. There was no basis for this belief, but it persisted. The results were predictable. People of 29 lived in constant fear of being “passed over.” By age 31, anyone not promoted had already left to find another job.

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A good way to start clearing up the problems in your life this New Year is by throwing away all your old, wrongheaded beliefs and assumptions. Many of them will be plain wrong; others will be long out of date. Most people carry around a heavy load of such mistaken beliefs about the world, themselves and others: beliefs that stir up negative emotions and behaviors; assumptions that cause deficit thinking; and a host of other habitual ways of seeing the world that are virtually guaranteed to limit their achievements and cause them unnecessary suffering.

Take them out and question them mercilessly. If they’re still true and sound, you have nothing to lose. If they aren’t—and many, many won’t be—drop them immediately. Then make sure you repeat the process often. Today’s knowledge quickly gets stale. Yesterday’s beliefs soon become moldy. Don’t let them fill your mind with outdated worries, useless guilt, and idiotic deficit thinking for one moment longer.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available through all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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