This essay begins a series about self-improvement that began by discussing motivation and changing habits.
In some ways it relates to my essays about Appropriate Masculinity. An important part of masculinity is being a chooser even when you are currently reactive. But please do not misunderstand this essay. Do not imagine it recommends that men be Brave Little Tailors and women be Damsels in Distress. No one wants the role of Damsel in Distress. Being trapped with despair is miserable! Ideally, everyone would be Brave Little Tailors.
All that makes the role of Brave Little Tailor somewhat masculine is that women can effectively also use the role of Damsel in Distress. Society habituates people to notice women in trouble and offer help. Men needing help must ask because they seldom get noticed. They fall between the cracks unless they seek out someone paid to help everyone who come to their desk (conselors, tutors in a tutoring center, etc.)
Many of the ideas in this essay were taken from the second and eighth chapter of Skip Downing's book On Course (PDF).
My essays about appropriate masculinity and self-improvement are written primarily for my sons. So I acknowledge that what they discuss can be beneficial to both men and women, but may use male pronouns inclusively.
No one would call the Brave Little Tailor proactive. He has no long-term goals. He does nothing to arrange his schedule, habits, or ways of thinking to help himself be successful. He simply goes on an adventure and reacts to whatever circumstances he meets.
Yet he is a "super-conqueror" in the sense of the word hypernikõmen in Romans 8:35-39. A conqueror is concerned about winning. A super-conqueror is not. The super-conqueror trusts the winning will eventually happen. Victory is certain. There is only a comparatively minor concern about what to do next.
The Brave Little Tailor teaches us that a person can be reactive yet still be choosing what he or she reacts to, and how he or she reacts.
When a reactive chooser is in a difficult situation, he or she focuses on making personal choices. How was the behavior I chose to try insufficient? What else could be tried? What is my new plan?
The Internal Dialogue of a Reactive Chooser
"Ouch! I know this is possible. But that attempt was terrible. What did I do wrong? What else can I try? What other resources can I use? Maybe this will work..."
In the life of a reactive choser, momentum keeps going because a new plan is attempted promptly. If failure does repeat, it feels like someone learning to drive. Oops! That did not work. I need more practice. Try again!
Rapunzel and Zelda are quintissential Damsels in Distress. They are reactive. But unlike the Brave Little Tailor, they do not make plans or choices. Instead, they bewail their fate, moan in anguish, and dream of someone helping them.
When a reactive avoider is in a difficult situation, he or she rationalizes the predicament by making excuses about external influences. A situation is blamed. Failure happened because of other people, fate, or "the system".
The Internal Dialogue of Reactive Avoidance
"Ouch! That hurt. I do not want to suffer in that way again. What a terrible place I am in! How can I succed when I am not good at this kind of thing? The system that makes me do this is stupid and unfair. But I am required to do this, so I will pull myself together and try again."
In the life of a reactive avoider, momentum stalls because a time out is taken to recover. The next attempt usually repeats the same behavior. Failure usually repeats. It feels like being a passenger in a vehicle someone else is driving into crashes.
Everyone is reactive sometimes. It is easy to become reactive when required to do a task that appears a waste of time or too difficult.
So assume we are currently reactive. We still get to pick what to react to. We still get to pick how we react.
Just because we are stuck being reactive does not mean we have no choice about how to be reactive. Responsibiilty is literally response-ability. We are able to pick what we respond to and how we respond.
This may sound difficult if it is a new or unpracticed insight. But it is a very learnable skill. There are there tricks to doing it well.
Here are a dozen tips to help someone currently reactive change from reactive avoidance to reactive choosing.
For these tips I will provide examples about taking a class that is intimidating, boring, or otherwise unpleasant.
Consider what your body was actually doing the last time you were frightened. Perhaps you had a tight chest, a quick heartbeat, sweaty hands, etc. These were you actual feelings. Fright was only an interpretation. The biological sensations were simply shouting "Careful here! This situation is important!" You may have been conditioned to unthinkingly interpret those biological sensations as fear, but that is a lie. The same biological sensations could also have been excitement or suspense.
When you immediately think I am feeling afraid! or I am feeling overwhelmed! you are jumping to conclusions. With practice you can retrain yourself to treat your biological sensations as a "sixth sense" no more or less meaningful or reliable than your sight, hearing, touch, smell, or taste. How polite that our bodies warns us to be careful! This must be a significant growth opportunity. How exciting!
Example: I am feeling "test anxiety". My breathing is shallow and my heartbeat is racing. But I need not be anxous. I can be excited instead. I am excited to have the chance to prove myself. I am excited to learn what topics I need to study more.
If appropriate, claim some time or space to calm down. Do not make important or tricky choices until the drama is over. Use behaviors that calm your body's hormonal triggers (exercise, deep breathing, relaxing to music, laughing or smiling, forgiving, being helpful, etc.).
Example: I just got back my first midterm of the class. I failed it. I want to cry and drop the class. But I know I need to calm down before I do anything. I am not even sure how much this test score will affect my overall class grade. I think I need to go for a run to calm down. Then I should look at the syllabus and e-mail my instructor to find out how bad my situation really is.
Since you are currently reactive, look at the big picture. The immediate circumstances might be dreadful and not where you want to be. But the long-term goals are great things, and where you do want to be. They make your fortitude worthwile.
Example: This instructor is so boring! But I need this class to get my cuilinary degree. And I am very much looking forward to being a chef. So I will think about my future to help me put up with these boring lectures.
At LCC there are very few situations about absolute success or failure. Challenges are opportunities to experiment, learn, and grow. This is confidence.
Usually there is usually no chance of utter catastrophe, and no such thing as pure success. Life goes on. One challenge leads to the next.
Example: I bombed a quiz. For an hour I was really upset. Then I figured out it could only hurt my overall grade by 2%. That is not much. I can still pass the class. In fact, the quiz score does not really change anything. I already knew I needed to study that topic more. Everyone still has to do the same bunch of assignments whether they pass or fail ths quiz. As long as I pass this class, no one will ever know or care that my overall grade is 2% lower. All the bombing the quiz really does is make me want to study 2% harder, which I suppose a good thing!
Those voices are actually external. Perhaps you can even identify which parent, friend, or teacher implanted certain phrases of self-doubt or self-depreciation.
You are currently reactive, and those voices are not the lead you want to follow. They resemble a groping stalker more than a welcoming dance lead. Be angry with them. Rebuke them if you cannot ignore them. Refuse to let these voices touch you.
Example: One of my elementary school teachers used to tell her students, "You are not great at math but the calculator will help you." I cannot even remember if she said that to me, but it really stuck. Now I am starting Algebra and the calculator is no help and I was scared. But then a classmate taught me a trick. I should think of that teacher like a mean ghost. Why is she still haunting me? By now she is probaby old and ugly and miserable. And she was someone only great at math with a calculator. I should feel some anger and some pity. "Go away, mean ghost! Wail about your own problems somewhere else! I am not the little kid you once knew. I am older and smarter now. Go away! And in a few weeks, after I do well on the final exam, I'll invite you back one last time to laugh and show you that I've broken your curse so you can rest in peace."
Those voices resemble blind guides about to lead you into a pit. The difficulties are parameters, not choice-makers. You are the choice-maker. Consider the parameters and make a choice. Recognize that parameters are not powerful enough to be choice-makers (but you are!).
Be frustrated wth lousy parameters. But spend your energy on pulling together options and choosing.
Example: This class requires essays in a confusing and absurd format, and it seems like the teacher grades them by throwing them down a staircase to see how far they flutter. I spent hours on each of the first two and failed with the first and barely passes with the second. After the first essay I talked to the teacher about what he was looking for when he graded them, but either he did not explain it well or I misunderstood. I asked for a written rubric that listed criteria but he had none. Today I almost lost my temper and yelled at the teacher after class. Maybe I should do that during office hours, just to get out this frustration. But that would be immature. I know that some classmates are earning high grades on the essays. I should ask them for advice, and maybe borrow their essays to look at. Or maybe check if I can switch my schedule around to take this class from a different teacher whose grading is understandable to me. Hm. Maybe the teacher I liked who taught the prerequisite class from last term would be willing to look at my essays and pretend to grade them? If I could be writing the essays for someone I liked, who gave me feedback that helped me improve, I might actually like the class because the discussions are interesting. This brainstorming is giving me some hope and nice ideas.
Most reactive thoughts that use the word must are negative and lies. They resmemble a needy child jumping around to inappropriately demand attention. Options will not be seen by people who cannot see past the false musts.
Example: I thought I must pass every midterm in this class to graduate this term. But when I talked to the teacher, I was given the opportunity to let the corresponding part of my final exam replace that midterm grade in the instructor's gradebook. Now I have another chance. I better study hard!
No one is a perfect student—especially in classes where they are reactive. Be alert! Each study skill weakness is like a tear in a shirt. These will eventually get bigger, and could wreck the whole thing. When you notice a weakness, patch that tear with a small plan.
Example: I hate studying alone. It takes me so long just to motivate myself and get started. I should join a study group, or ask a classmate to call you at a specific time to check that I am doing homework.
Example: I know I should read the notes for each lecture before class as well as after, but I never do. I should ask a classmate to ask me a few questions during the few minutes before class starts. Knowing someone would be checking (and maybe even helped by my answers!) would get me to do it.
In some situations it is easy to see the reason why you are not being as good a student as you usually are. There is some problematic parameter you cannot change. Clever planning can minimize the impact of that parameter. Do not hesitate to ask for help with clever brainstorming if you need it (especially from people who have succeeded in that situation before—they probably know a trick you do not).
Example: I normally pay attention to lectures. No problem. But this instructor is so incredibly boring! And the class is right after lunch. Every day I almost fall asleep in class. I need to do something. Maybe I should volunteer to take super-good notes to share with a classmate who I suspect needs them. Maybe I should learn to cross-stitch. Heh. I could cross-stitch poetry to give my relatives as holiday presents, but give the last one to my teacher: Roses are red / Violets are blue / Your lectures are boring / This is for you.
Example: The financial aid office has long waits at lunch time. I think I will give up trying to visit at that time. I will have to ask for a few hours off work next week so I can go there a different time of day.
Sometimes, when we are grumpy, our ignorance is the only thing blocking our motivation. Asking the right question can fix the circumstance.
Example: I do not understand why I should care about this topic. I should ask why it matters in real life. If it actually seemed helpful I would have more motivation.
Example: Why does the teacher require us to turn in notes? I do not want my notes graded. If they help me they are good enough. But the teacher must have some reason. No teacher does extra grading that could be avoided. I should ask why notes are graded. I wonder what the teacher is hoping we will learn from having our notes graded?
Yes, anything new can be hard. But most things are not actually hard things once they are no longer new. Practice more! Most skill are like riding a bicycle: once you "get it" then it is not hard any more.
Example: The first test is next week. The teacher has not said anything about a practice test. When class ends I will ask for copies of this test from past terms, to use as practice tests.
Example: In my math class I know one topic is my nemesis. I can do all the other topics in the chapter, but not that one kind of problem. I should visit the teacher's office hours and ask for a bunch of practice problems from that topic to try while the teacher watches me. Maybe personalized feedback will help me.
Neither jealousy nor competitiveness helps you learn. Most people are not any more brilliant or gifted than you—they just know something you do not, or have had more practice than you. So treat people who succeed more than you as an inspiration or resource. As an inspiration, think, "I know they used to be down where I am. They became successful. So I can also get to up where they are". As a resource, think, "They are better at this than I am. I wonder what they know that I have not learned yet? I wonder how they practiced to become so skilled? Perhaps finding what worked for them will be a quick way to get what works for me."
Example: I thought I would never solve this kind of problem as well as that classmate. But after I gave a compliment, she laughed and said it was her third time taking our class. That made me feel better! And she taught me a neat trick for that kind of problem, which she learned last term from a different teacher.