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What's in your bag? How your beliefs lead to success (or frustration)



“We do not see the world as it is, we see it as we are.” Anais Nin

Joan* and I had just walked out of a quaint French bistro in town. My meal was delicious, the wine was chilled and refreshing, the conversation was stimulating, and the service was fine. To me, it had been a very enjoyable evening catching up with an old friend. However, it was clear that Joan did not feel the same way. As we walked to the car, she railed about the “terrible” service our waiter had provided and insisted on going over each and every breach of wait service protocol. It was clear that Joan and I had very different expectations of what constituted a successful dining experience.


My guess is that you’ve experienced something similar when you and a friend, spouse or colleague witnessed what seemed to be the same situation only to come away with radically different judgments about what happened. Perhaps you’ve wondered why that is?

The simple answer is that you and your companion perceived what was happening differently, because you had different beliefs about what you expected from that situation.

Based on your life experiences, you developed a unique perspective – the “lens” through which you see the world.

And why is that, you may ask… and again, the simple answer is that you and your companion have lived two different lives. You’ve had different experiences and subscribe to different values. Based on your own life experiences, each of you developed your own unique perspectives – the “lenses” through which you see the world.


One of the reasons we can get into disagreements is because we don’t realize that our perception is different than someone else’s. We may believe that others see the world the exact same way that we do, and are simply choosing to do something “wrong” or “offensive” or against the “rules.” However, most of the time, others don’t believe the same things we do and therefore don’t think there’s anything wrong or offensive with what they are doing. They simply don’t ascribe to the same “rules” that we do, and in fact, their “rules” may be the exact opposite of ours – for reasons that make total sense to them.

There’s no objective "good" or "bad", or "right" or "wrong" in life, despite what you may have been told growing up.

There’s no objective "good" or "bad", or "right" or "wrong" in life, despite what you may have been told growing up. As you go through life, you develop coping mechanisms to deal with your experiences and through these experiences you create “rules.” Based on the environment in which you were raised, these rules helped you to navigate your world successfully. For example, if your parents expected you to ask to be excused from the table, you did it or risked punishment. It may seem rude to you to witness someone who grew up in a more casual family, and wasn’t required to do that, not using “good manners” when they abruptly leave the table. However, based on their upbringing, they may view asking to be excused from the table as silly and unnecessary.

We pick up these rules and expectations and throw them in a metaphorical bag that we carry with us everywhere we go.

As we go through life, we pick up these rules and expectations and throw them in a metaphorical bag that we carry with us everywhere we go. We carry this "bag" because we believe it will help us to be successful and cope with situations that may arise (based on our past experience). However, the bag can get a little heavy at times, especially when we have rules that contradict each other or no longer serve us well. (An example of rules that could contradict each other: “listen to your mother” and “think for yourself.” An example of a rule that may have served you well as a child but not as an adult: “be seen and not heard.”)


We are aware of some of the rules we adhere to and they surface through comments such, “that’s just the way I was raised” or “our family has always done it that way.” However, there are other rules that were instilled in us at such a young age or so consistently that we don’t even realize that we’re following them and therefore never question them. They are almost like the air -- we don't even think about them. They are essentially invisible to us.


These rules could be something like, “mother knows best” or “listen to brother because he’s the smart one.” These invisible “rules” can really trip us up sometimes because we may follow them blindly even to the point that they begin to hurt us. When we’re unaware of “what’s in our bag” it can be very confusing when we chronically trip over the same self-imposed stumbling block. You may say to yourself with true anguish, "why is this happening, again?!"

These “rules” can really trip us up sometimes because we may follow them blindly even to the point that they begin to hurt us.

When these rules are violated or our expectations aren’t met, we can sometimes get upset by this (and maybe not even realize why!). After all, these are the “rules” and someone is not living up to them! The reality is that it’s the stuff in our bag that is creating the lens through which we view our lives and experiences. Because we each have different lenses, we’re each going to see the world differently, and that may lead to conflict or pain.


Let’s revisit my dinner with Joan. I eat out pretty frequently and I was looking at the evening out as a great opportunity to spend time catching up with my friend. I was much more focused on our conversation than the meal. I had been a waitress in college and I was giving our waiter the benefit of the doubt as he struggled. He seemed like a nervous newbie to me. Joan, on the other hand, had very high expectations for the evening. With three youngsters at home, she didn’t get out often without the kids. She was looking forward to treating herself to a wonderful meal at a highly rated restaurant. In addition, she had once studied to become a sommelier and took proper wine service very seriously. To Joan, the rookie mistakes that our waiter made during the dinner were serious violations of wine etiquette and didn't align well with her expectations for the evening.

To Joan, the rookie mistakes that our waiter made during the dinner were serious violations of wine etiquette.

Often, a similar dynamic happens in the workplace. You may have certain expectations about how quickly you’ll advance in your career, what projects you'll work on, or how you’ll be rated. Your beliefs may be formed by any number of factors – your compensation in relation to that of friends or peers, how quickly dear old dad advanced in his career, what your business school advisor told you to expect, what you've read in magazines, your own self-perception, etc., etc.


When your expectations are not met, it can be very disappointing – it can even sap your motivation and enthusiasm for the job – moving your further from your goal of career success. It's important when this happens, not to give in to the temptation to feel sorry for yourself.


To set yourself up for advancement, recognize that there's probably a misalignment of your expectations and what's actually required in the job. Once you recognize this trap, get very clear on what your boss expects of you, and to get regular feedback on where you’re meeting those expectations and where you're not. If you are falling short, remain humble, believe in yourself, and ask for the support you need to succeed.

It may be time to clean out the bag so that you see the world through a clearer lens.

And if you find yourself getting emotional about things and you’re not sure why, open up your bag to see what assumptions, beliefs and self-sabotaging messages you may be carrying around with you. It may be time to clean out the bag so that you see the world through a clearer lens.


*Not her real name.

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© 2018 Terry B. McDougall