Reason 2: We’re Looking The Wrong Way

“Imagine this. An eight year old boy is playing in the garden one day when he takes a fresh look at the garden wall. It might be fun to walk along the top. ‘Imagine what I could see’, ‘It would be like flying’. He notices too that there is a way up to the top of the wall that he never saw before. It’s an effort but there he is walking along the top of the wall enjoying the view with this arms spread pretending to fly. It’s wonderful.”

“His mother, glancing up from the kitchen shrieks in horror and rushes out into the garden yelling at the top of her voice. ‘Don’t move.’ ‘Stay where you are.’ ‘Get down from there.’ ‘How did you get up there?’ ‘You’ll fall off and kill yourself.’ ‘Don’t ever do that again’.”

“Faced with this wail of contradictory advice and admonishment, faced with the full emotional force of a mother in distress, he begins to realise, perhaps for the first time, that he could indeed be killed, it is dangerous and he will fall off. Suddenly he is no longer stable, he feels unsteady and vulnerable. He gets down. He sees clearly what he does not want to happen and it stays with him.”

‘Weren’t you scared?’ Mum asks. He realises that he should have been scared, that it would please her if he was scared, so he gets scared.

“From now on, whenever he looks at the wall a strong, negative image of the consequences comes to him. He knows clearly what he does not want AND he is afraid of it.”

“Throughout our childhood our parents, motivated by love and safety, reinforce over and over again the negative consequences of acting. ‘Don’t run across the road without looking, you’ll be killed’ We get very good at focusing on the negative, the downside, the consequences. So now when we cross the road we are not thinking ‘How can I get to the other side safely?’ instead we are thinking ‘I’ve got to watch out in case I get killed and get this done as quickly as possible’. Out of love our parents continually reinforce the negative, what you don’t want, what is wrong. ‘Don’t cross the road’, ‘don’t make a risky decision’, ‘don’t skip your homework’. The reinforcement is strong, emotional and repeated. Is it any wonder that we learn to pay attention only to what we don’t want or are afraid of?

“In this way our ability to understand our enjoyable desires is squashed by years of practice at knowing, very clearly what we do not want. The odd inkling of something we actually do want is very feeble and soon atrophies like a wasted limb.”

Focus in the wrong direction

“Simply put, we focus in the wrong direction. I meet very few people who can tell me clearly what they want but almost everyone I meet knows, very clearly, what they do not want. For some people, talking about what they don’t like, don’t want and didn’t enjoy makes up a large part of their conversation. ‘How was your holiday?’ ‘OK but the flight was late, we got locked out of the hotel and I got food poisoning. They didn’t have any English papers.’ Can you hear it? A complete focus on the downside, the negative, what went wrong or what could go wrong.”

The Second Most Powerful Question In The World

“There is no point asking these people what they want. This is why most goal setting schemes and initiatives fail or only appeal to people who are already motivated. How can you understand what you want when most of your focus is somewhere else?”

“It’s like getting in the car in the morning and working out your route to work by a process of elimination ‘I don’t want to got to Scotland, not France today, not to the cinema etc.’ Eventually, by a process of elimination, you will end up at work but the process is long, slow and boring.”

“This, though, is the dominant thought process for many people. They have their attention firmly on the rear view mirror and live by moving away from things that they don’t like. The are living by a process of elimination ‘Nope, I don’t like this job’ ‘Nope, this relationship hasn’t worked’.”

“What they need to do is obvious isn’t it? They need to focus on what they want. The problem is that just because it is obvious doesn’t make it easy to do, does it? Otherwise we would all know what we really wanted and be merrily moving towards it.”

“The easiest way to get to work is to sit in your car and say to yourself ‘I want to go to….’ Engage the gears and go. But if you’ve spent your whole life steering by the rear view mirror and working out things by trying them, deciding you don’t like or don’t want them and then having a go at something else, this switch of focus is too much of a stretch. There is an easier way.”

“If you know what you don’t want then you need to ask yourself the second most powerful question in the world.”

“Go on then” said Mike playing along, “what is the second most powerful question in the world?”

John chuckled, “I’ll tell you about that later. For the moment, though, let’s look at the third reason that we find it hard to figure out what we want.”

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