Three False Maps

I often have “aha” moments, epiphanies, throughout the day. They aren’t always the kind that make you reevaluate your life, drop your current job to start your own company or become a monk, but I have had to get into the habit of carrying a small book around to record my thoughts.

Today at work, I was thinking of small moments in my life and finding a few common themes. I thought that they could be strung together using a concept found in Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey uses the term map or paradigm to mean ‘the way we “see” the world—not in terms of our visual sight, but in terms of perceiving, understanding and interpreting. A paradigm shift is when that changes. He illustrates it with the following example:

I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced on Sunday morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly—some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.

Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.

The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.

It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”

The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly, I saw thing differently, and because I saw things differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. “You’re wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry. Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?” Everything changed in an instant.

That small moment helped give the narrator empathy to the man suffering. It changed the immediate situation. But I think that it taught more, a life lesson. I have learned some of the same lessons through my own experience—such as you cannot judge someone’s intentions or their heart based on their outward actions alone. Judgment can cause unneeded harsh feelings and drive you away from people who need you most. Seek to find ways to connect and help others rather than drive yourself away emotionally. There are many such maps that can change our lives, because how we see affects who we are. And we are able to change the lens ourselves.

I wanted to describe a three paradigm shifts that I encountered recently at work, and what I have learned about them over time. They will be brief, but they are important to me.

False Map 1: Doing something half-heartedly yields the same results as doing it with focus.

Being an intern with a fluctuating schedule during semesters, I will often find myself with large quantities of time on my hands at work. During the summer, I have a large load of tests to perform and I feel very productive. But when school rolls around, I often have little, if any, assignments given to me. It’s just the way things work, and it’s understandable. When you have all that time, you can find yourself always checking the clock. “Am I done yet? Is it time to go home?” You find yourself checking your phone a lot or getting on Facebook. And you can waste a lot of time just being at your desk. This didn’t feel right. And why had a job that I had enjoyed so thoroughly turned into something I had dreaded?

I realized that I had a false map. I was looking at the extra time as a burden. This was actually an opportunity! While my coworkers had to focus on the immediate assignments that were coming due, I was able to focus on things they weren’t able to do. I had noticed that things started to get run down, because other scientists weren’t able to do them. I started with small tasks like disposing of expired materials that were building up in corners and on shelves. There were solvents that we used regularly like methanol and ethyl acetate. I filled them up and made a color coding system so they were easily identifiable when needed. I knew that many scientists had paperwork to review, and those could build up quickly. I was trained to review, so I asked some scientists if I could take some of their load. I looked for tasks that had to be done on a regular basis, and did them promptly—like performing monthly maintenance or calibrating equipment as needed. Where I had once felt a great burden, I now felt an opportunity for creativity. I was thinking of ways that I could help make the lab run smoother that it already was. And it felt good! I felt like I had an important task.

I thought about how this applied to other aspects of my life. I thought about homework assignments. It’s easy to view homework assignments as boring or tedious. I will admit, some of them are. But if you can find a way to make them your own and to put some creativity into it, you become invested in it. It is no longer an arduous assignment from your teacher, but your own brainchild! You take ownership of it. I thought about making the most of family parties. Especially as a teenager, they were difficult for me, because it was a big time investment that I could be using, say, reading a book (I know, I was a terrible teenager). I would bring books with me to read instead of getting to know my cousins and aunts and uncles. If I thought of that time as a chance to get to know them, to find common interests and to build lasting friendships, I would be a lot farther than I am know. I now know that that time is valuable, and I try to use it.

False Map 2: What will other people think?

This can be a really dangerous one. I realized it at work that I was letting it determine my actions to a small extent. Remember I mentioned getting on Facebook? Well, I sit right next to a door. Whenever people walk in, I would try to hide the fact that I had nothing to do and was getting on Facebook, and would feel a deep sense of shame. And rightly so. But I was letting my conscience be determined by what people saw! That is despicable! Those are the people who end up as self-serving sycophants in movies, like the annoying secretary to the emperor in Mulan. I made a resolution that I would acct on what I knew what was right and wrong and not make compromises just because no one was looking.

This has always been a difficult one for me, and one that really showed on my mission. I was so scared to talk to people. I was scared to go out on the streets or even make eye contact with people. I wasn’t proud of my missionary nametag, because I thought the moment people saw it, they would immediately look away or try to avoid eye contact. It took a lot for me to learn to “not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” But to the last day of my mission, it hadn’t fully worn off. It’s still a weakness of mine.

But I take the small successes as they come. For Christmas, my wife asked for a gym membership. We both got one, and we planned on going as often as we could. But there was a reason I never went to the gym. And it wasn’t just for the reason I told myself in my head: “I’m not a sporty person.” It’s because I worried what other people would think! The moment we walked in, I felt all the same insecurities from junior high gym come flooding back. “I can’t get on that machine. Everyone will know I don’t know what I’m doing.” “The 30-pound weights? That guy’s going to think I’m nothing!” It sounds silly, but it’s true. I walked in, looking at the ground. After a while, I realized how small I was making myself. Then next time, I went in with a workout plan in mind. I forced myself to look up and not at the ground. And it felt a lot better! Small steps, small steps.

False Map 3: Worrying about it will make it get done faster

Another difficult thing about working at my internship over the school year is I go into the lab every day with everything from school weighing on my mind. I have homework assignments coming due. I have graduate school applications to fill out. I have grades that I need to spend quality time worrying about! I have a busy worry schedule! I need to worry all the time! I was driving myself crazy. Today, I felt the old pattern coming back, and school hasn’t even started yet. This time, it was some flight arrangements I had yet to figure out. I caught myself in the worrying game, so I decided to text myself all the things I needed to do that day and I set it aside. I was able to work just fine the rest of the day.

I constantly have to come back to this one and remind myself not to worry. On my mission, my daily planner was a life-saver. My mission president gave me some wise advice that I will always remember: “If you write it down, you have the right not to remember it anymore. It’s written down.” I tried to carry that habit back with my when I got home, but I made it into a bigger mess than I should have—my wife felt like I had to plan her into my schedule! Not a healthy habit! Now I sit down with a blank sheet of paper every Sunday and plan out the things I need to do during the week. And that’s enough for me. Once I have something written down, I don’t need to carry around the to-do list in my head anymore. Worrying doesn’t work.

The little lessons you learn in everyday experiences are important. They define who we are, and we build our character up in small moments like these. It is important to record them and remember them. We slip into bad habits and false maps all the time. But if we write them down, we don’t lose them to the past. We can remind ourselves of where we’ve been.

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