Choosing the Right Path

Back in school, I wasn’t the best test taker.  I usually didn’t prepare very well and my technique when I got stuck, which was often, amounted to little more than closing my eyes and selecting whichever answer my pencil landed on.  Fortunately, my studying and test taking habits have gotten much better.

Earlier this week I was taking an exam for work.  I had prepared well and was ready to take the test.  However, about half way into the exam I got stuck on a couple of questions and also noticed that I might be a little behind, based on time and questions remaining.  For a moment, I could sense the beginnings of feeling frazzled.  (I’m very familiar with what this feels like, as it was a regular occurrence in school.)

Suddenly all these non-productive thoughts started to flood my mind:

  • “You’re not going to get the score you need to pass.”
  • “You’re going to have to retake this test.”
  • “Think of all the time you’re going to have to spend re-studying!”
  • “You’re half-way through your allotted time and you still have half the questions left AND several you have to go back and review. You’ll never make it!”
  • “You don’t know this material as well as you thought. Perhaps you weren’t ready to take this exam.”

I felt like I had approached a very real fork in the road.  The path to the left is where I would decide that these thoughts had merit and as a result, I’d allow myself to get sloppy and lazy in how I approached the rest of the exam, knowing that failure was likely where I was heading.  The path to the right is where I would recognize my thoughts for what they were (a distraction and not a prophecy), push them to the side, and double down on doing my very best.

I chose the path to the right.  I also scored a 93%.  Well beyond what was needed to pass.

It’s amazing to me how my own negative thoughts felt like a physical force pushing against me, much like a headwind against a runner or cyclist.  The best way we can combat the negative force of our own thoughts is by replacing them with thoughts of determination and commitment to successfully complete what we’ve set out to do.  (If that feels challenging in the moment, starting with a prayer would be a good way to begin.)

When you face the headwind of your own negative thinking, realize that these thoughts are not prophetic, and you’re not required to agree with them.  Then, immediately challenge them with positive thoughts and actions that support those positive thoughts.

We can control our thoughts and ultimately use them to take us down the path we want to travel.

The Unknown

What are the first thoughts that go through your mind when you hear the phrase, “The Unknown”?  Is it:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Scary
  • Confusing
  • A mystery
  • Something to be avoided

If we think of The Unknown as a destination, it represents somewhere we have never been, and therefore have never had any experience with.  I’d like to introduce the following thought regarding The Unknown:

“Just because you’ve never been somewhere doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go there.”

Think about that for a moment.  What if you never:

  • Traveled to a place you’ve never been before
  • Attempted to learn something new
  • Met people you didn’t already know
  • Undertook something you’ve never done before
  • Exposed yourself to different cultures and surroundings

What kind of impact do you think this would have on us?  What is the price we would pay in terms of the richness and quality of our lives if we always sought to avoid The Unknown?  Although I’m not exactly sure how you’d quantify that, I am certain the price would be quite high.

While The Unknown can be a scary place, and sometimes a place we didn’t choose to go, we shouldn’t be afraid of it simply because it is unknown to us.  For it can also be:

  • Exciting
  • Life changing in a positive way
  • Filled with opportunity
  • Full of adventure
  • Eagerly awaiting your arrival to bestow unimaginable joy and blessings
  • Where you’ll learn more about yourself than you every thought possible
  • An experience you’ll be able to encourage others with

The next time you’re feeling nervous or scared about venturing into The Unknown, seek out someone who has been where you haven’t been or has done what you haven’t done yet.  For them, our destination is not unknown.  Their experience can give us the courage we need as we step into our Unknown.

Here’s a final thought:  Someone else’s scary Unknown is familiar territory for you.  When you come across these people, put an arm around them and encourage them as they step in.

Thousands of People Do It Everyday

When I set out to learn a new skill, there’s a phase in the beginning where I feel stupid because I’m being challenged by something I’ve never done before.  Whether it’s learning to read music, mastering a piece of software, learning to fly, or pumping my own gas ( I live in Oregon where we have laws against me doing that), there’s an initial awkward feeling that raises questions and doubt regarding my ability to grasp and apply what I’m attempting to learn. This is a time when it’s very easy to quit because our doubt is high and our ability is low.

Whenever I feel like this, I reassure myself with the following thought:  “Every day thousands of people are successfully doing what I’m trying learn today”

Now I’ve never been accused of being the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I’m also far from the dullest.  As experience has shown me, I am quite capable of learning new skills and grasping complex topics.  I’ll the same could be said of you.

I think we’re all susceptible to feeling overwhelmed and frustrated when we’re in the beginning stages of learning something new.  However, I also think each one of us is capable of positively resetting our minds by reminding ourselves that several other people, just like us, have pursued and mastered the same thing we’re attempting to learn.  And, just like we are now, they likely struggled doing it.

May we be encouraged by their success.

Start With a Dot

Think about learning a new topic, whether for work, for fun, or for a changing life circumstance.  There is so much you don’t know at the beginning of the learning process that it can feel overwhelming or even hopeless; like you’ll never be able to master the topic.  So how do we overcome this feeling?  What’s the best way to start our learning journey, on our way toward mastery?  I say, “Start with a dot.”

Learning usually starts with a book, a lecture, Googling a topic, or a number of other methods to begin gaining basic information about a topic.  This basic information could be things like, vocabulary or acronyms specific to the topic, names of people in the field, specific dates, places, or events relevant to the history of the topic.  Think of each of these basic pieces of information as unique individual dots.

As you begin your initial discovery, the first piece of information you learn, represents your first dot.  Congratulations!  You now know something about your topic that you didn’t know before.  Now that you have your first dot, continue the discovery process until you learn another piece of information.  Congratulations again!  You’ve discovered your second dot.

So now you have 2 dots.  That’s good, but it’s about to get great!  Here’s where you begin to catapult your learning to a new level.  Take your 2 dots and determine how those 2 pieces of information are connected, in relation to the context of the topic you’re studying.  Begin connecting the dots.

Once we are armed with a couple of dots, we are now able to go to people who are more knowledgeable on the topic  and ask intelligent questions.  Our 2 dots allow us to talk in the language of the topic with someone who can help us:

  • connect the dots we already have, and
  • discover new dots and make connections to those dots from the dots we already have

Here’s an example:  When I was first learning to fly fish I learned that dry flies were flies that imitated bugs floating on top of the water.  I then learned that files called nymphs imitated bugs that moved along the bottom of the river.  With that knowledge, I was able to talk to people who had been fly fishing for many years and ask them about these 2 types of flies and how they were used.

After reading and talking about these types of files with people, I realized that I could use both fly types to represent a significant portion of an aquatic insect’s lifecycle, thus improving my chances of success on the water.  If the bugs weren’t on top of the water, I could switch to fishing with a nymph, and vice versa.  I now had an understanding of the importance of the roll each of these types of flies played in the overall topic of fly fishing.  I had connected my 2 initial dots about fly fishing.

As I explored the connection of my initial 2 dots, my number of additional fly fishing dots (and connections) began to compound.  I was rapidly on my way to increasing and applying my newly found knowledge of fly fishing.

The next time you feel overwhelmed at the beginning of a new learning process, just focus on identifying 2 dots.  Once you have them, look for the connection.  Then, repeat the process of collecting an additional dot and looking for the connections to the dots you already possess.  You’ll be surprised how quickly your number of dots and connections will increase.