In her famous Ted Talk on being wrong Kathryn Schulz used the metaphor of the roadrunner who, chased by the coyote, runs off a cliff and keeps on running on air until the moment he realizes he is not on solid ground. Of course at this point he finds himself too far gone, too far from the edge to turn around and has no other choice but to fall. It’s when he realized he is wrong, despite being convinced he was right. Only then does the roadrunner fall.
For months now, I have deconstructed and analyzed my pursuing a PhD with the intention of working in academia; how is it going, how is it not going, the various contradictory feelings and thoughts swirling in my head, all fueled by one single question “Was I wrong?”
The story of the roadrunner has profound meaning, not only for our individual lives but also for the current political state we find ourselves in. As I think about it, I have one nagging thought: How will anyone ever grant a PhD to someone who has to google “how to spell kayotee?!” I am referring to myself. The obsessive self-referring, self-concern, self-promotion, self-protection that we all have, day and night, even in our sleep, never ceases to the detriment of our own happiness and the future of the entire human race.
That’s not an exaggeration.
I entered a PhD program in Counseling 3 years ago with the intention to teach at a university level. At the time, I stopped writing on this blog, stopped running, stopped eating well, sleeping and basically stopped having a semi-normal human existence. Out of frustration and exhaustion, Homeless Jesus was born. I was craving meaning and purpose so much I wanted to be a homeless vegan, visit Canada, grow my own food, go on a climate march (although that came later), the list is long. I actually did some of these things. I have proof.
Except for the homeless part. I now have not one, but two peaceful, beautiful, and blessed homes and I have a feeling I will never be homeless, lonely or hungry ever again.
Was I wrong? To change my life completely in pursuit of a degree in academia? Three years later, looking forward to one more year before graduation, I have come to a conclusion.
I was painfully, utterly, and irrevocably wrong. For the past three years of my life I stubbornly denied this truth but the truth has a way of always shining through.
I viciously bullied the truth about how much I failed but at least now I can humbly accept the truth and honor it by sharing it.
Yes. I just created a paragraph that contains only one sentence. I hope that doesn’t bother you.
I was wrong to think I am a good teacher and people would respect me or get something from my teachings. I am apparently not good enough. Being likable helps. NOT being a pompous a** is essential.
I was wrong. I’m not that good of a writer. I believe there is an expiry date on blaming your poor writing on English as a Second Language. Research is harder than I thought, especially if you want to get published. Scientific rigor is no joke. You can’t take your information from any Joe Schmo on some blog on the internet!
I was wrong. I underestimated the timeline, the fierceness of competition, the jealousy, the inequality, the meaningless, petty drama, even. I have yet to process all of that but I am more interested in learning something wise from it. Like, patience is a virtue, our success depends upon the success of others, rejoicing in other’s good qualities makes our mind peaceful whereas comparison is the killer of joy, the law of karma says no action is wasted, we experience results similar to the cause, and so on. Wisdom is far more valuable than education.
I was wrong about the physical, emotional, financial and relational effects such an endeavor would have on a single woman in her 30’s with no outside support and no family to turn to on days when all she wanted to do was hide under mom’s dirty laundry (it smells extra mommy-ish in there). Not to mention, there is never enough coffee. *On a side note, I found a Greek cafe in walking distance from my house that makes excellent Turkish coffee. Of course, they call it Greek coffee and I have to remember to order it that way, but let’s face it. It is definitely Turkish, through and through.
It is difficult to look at all the things I have been wrong about and not conclude that I have failed. Jay Shetty once said “failure is just a sign that we need to widen our scope.” As luck would have it, I happen to be a great teacher in some other circles. And I enjoy it more.
Maybe the goal should be revised. Maybe there is no goal, only experiences that prepare us for our ultimate life purpose. I am sometimes arrogant enough to think that I choose my purpose. I believe we all have choice but we don’t always have an accurate view of reality or of ourselves therefore our choices are ignorant and blind.
So why get so attached to our own choice, view, personality, talents, identities, opinions, goals, dreams, plans and those of others? We could be very wrong. We do not need to grasp at any man-made reality because we can rest assured we are not capable of seeing all the intricacies of luck, chance, intention, causes, conditions, consequences, opportunity, timing, and so on.
I know I’m right about this. Fantastically right.
The key to our happiness and the happiness of others is letting go and opening ourselves up to whatever comes next, embracing everything fully, no matter what.
Everything that appears, positive or negative, can be an opportunity to become a better person. Maybe becoming the best you can be is a good enough goal. Maybe better than good enough; the ultimate goal.
It’s September and the Red Sox are losing as usual for this time of year. Did you know that in major league baseball, a hitter could have a long and productive career by maintaining a .300 average—that is, by getting a base hit 30% of the time? A great deal of money could be earned and fame accrued. Yet the other 70% of the time, this player would have failed. I wonder what 30% success rate does to your Ego.
In the past month I have had two couples not return to therapy after their first session. Two. Granted, one I think it’s simply a scheduling issue. Truthfully, I know it’s my fault for possibly having challenged them too early. I actually have no doubt about it. Therapy is not a precise science. There are no absolute measures for success but there are some. And one of them requires that the client physically returns to see you.
Before I get all caught up in telling you how unhappy I am about this turn of events, let me focus on the subject matter at hand.
Like major league baseball players, people face failures and self-threats. These include substandard performance on the job or in class, frustrated goals or aspirations, information challenging the validity of long-held beliefs, illness, scientific evidence suggesting that one is engaging in risky health behavior, negative feedback, rejection in relationships and so on. In order to face these challenges we develop what is called a psychological immune system which initiates protective adaptations when an actual or impending threat is perceived (Gilbert, 1998). Psychological adaptations to threats include the various cognitive strategies and even distortions whereby people come to construe a situation in a manner that renders it less threatening to personal worth and well-being.
For example, in my case, I would have told myself that my clients were not ready to change and them dropping out had more to do with their lack of motivation or (even worse) resistance. This is precisely what we call being defensive.
Self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988; Aronson et al., 1999; Sherman & Cohen,2002) begins with the premise that people are motivated to maintain the integrity of the self. Integrity can be defined as the sense that, on the whole, one is a good and appropriate person. Here are the four basic tenets of self-affirmation theory:
1. People are motivated to protect the perceived integrity and worth of the self. The purpose of self-esteem is to “maintain a phenomenal experience of the self … as adaptively and morally adequate, that is, competent, good, coherent, unitary, stable, capable of free choice, capable of controlling important outcomes…” (Steele 1988).
2. Motivations to protect self-integrity can result in defensive responses. When self-integrity is threatened, people are motivated to repair it, and this motivation can lead to defensive responses.
3. The self-system is flexible. People often compensate for failures in one aspect of their lives by emphasizing successes in other domains.
4. People can be affirmed by engaging in activities that remind them of “who they are” (and doing so reduces the implications for self-integrity of threatening events). Bummer for whomever is encouraging you to change. They will be out of luck.
Why is this helpful to you?
A great deal of research has used self-affirmation theory to address a wide range of social psychological phenomena, including biased information processing, causal attributions, cognitive dissonance, prejudice and stereotyping, stress and rumination.
People often interpret new information in a way that reinforces their beliefs and desires. In other words, people believe what they want to believe.
To take it one step further…
Defensive processing of new information can be particularly costly when it leads people to reject important health information. Think about that next time your doctor talks about you smoking, drinking too much or eating fat, salt and sugar…and not exercising.
Interestingly, high self-esteem individuals have greater affirmational resources, and are thus more resilient to threatening events than low self-esteem individuals as well as less likely to rationalize a choice they have made.
So next time someone challenges you (even if it is too early) think about why that’s bothering you. Is it because it goes against what you believe or what you want to believe about yourself? Or is it because it’s really untrue and unfair? And most importantly how do you know the difference?
How do you process personal failure? How do you self-affirm?
As for my failures, don’t fret my friends. Through meditation, self-awareness and humility, my big, defensive Ego has shriveled up to the size of a mango…OK I know I still have work to do.
So I leave you with some tea Tao wisdom.
“You are infinite.”
~ Yogi Tea