All posts by Maria Boicova-Wynants

Family Life CEO: Mother of two, mediator, personal buddy: wise friend for rent (check out my website for more info), gardener, golfer & creative chef. One day will have my own coffee bar & vineyards

The trap of rehearsing

Remember that story when you were still a toddler playing in a sandbox in the park, and a bigger kid came over to you and took your toy away? You were so angry and frustrated, and felt helpless… Remember? But are you sure you actually remember this exact moment? Are you convinced that all the details were right? Are you even confident it actually happened in reality and not in your childhood nightmare?

Our memory is horribly unreliable. What is more, we frequently confuse reality and imagination when it comes to something which happened in the past. Memory not rehearsed fades away. On the other hand, memory rehearsed over and over again becomes less of an accurate account of what happened, but rather a story we decided to tell ourselves.

The trap is: it is the story we tell ourselves which is the most powerful.

Any situation which happens affects us not directly, but through the emotions, it causes in us. The curious thing is that the initial emotion as a reaction to a particular situation or event is rather quick and also rapidly disappearing, unless…

Here is an important caveat — unless! Unless we start rehearsing the situation in our heads.

After a very short while it is no longer the fact that causes our emotion, but our interpretation of the fact.

Look, your boss calls you into the office and tells you that the report you made is total crap. You are insulted, you might disagree, but anyway — you feel embarrassed, sad and… (add whatever is applicable) After the incident, you keep on replaying in your head the whole situation, you start inventing dialogues, which never actually took place in reality and you start thinking about yourself as a total failure not able to complete even the simple task. Or… Maybe you just accept the fact that the report is a crap, ask what needs to be improved, brainstorm what else can be done and just get down to fixing the problem. The choice is yours.

The choice to get into the trap of rehearsing and a downward spiral of negative emotions versus focusing on the fact and how to fix the fact.

They say that time heals. It does, but this comes with a small print. Time heals if you don’t fall into the trap of rehearsing. I do have some painful memories, memories of a loss, which still haunts me from time to time. However, luckily I decided relatively early on that details, accusations, “what ifs” and “why oh whys” are not going to change anything. So I moved on. Some years later I don’t remember the details. I know the fact, it is not going anywhere, but the web of storytelling around it is just not the baggage I want to carry.

To draw the line, we cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose our reaction. We are not able to choose our emotions, but we can avoid stimulating our emotions by unnecessary rehearsing of (perhaps already partially, or even completely invented) stories.

The power of a streak

One very intensive day of language training can teach you something, but in general, it will not improve your knowledge significantly. However, consistent 15-minutes a day is sure to bring results.

One very intensive day of sports training can teach you something, but the same as with a language, it will neither significantly improve your sporting abilities, nor your condition. However,… you guessed it right! Consistent even only 15-minutes a day exercises will render much more sustainable results.

I have been talking about the power of small steps for a while, but here is an important add-on to it —

coupled with the power of a streak, you will be surprised how far you can get.

The most important caveat here is consistency. When I say “every day”, that means “EVERY day!”. With all capitals in “every” and an exclamation point at the end. 🙂

No excuses like “I will skip today because I am so tired…” or “I will have to skip today because we are going to that party”. Nope. That doesn’t work like that. If one day is lost, the streak is lost. As simple as that.

In the language app I am using (Duolingo), my streak recently crossed 200 days mark. That means that for more than 200 hundred days EVERY single day I spent at least 15 minutes doing exercises in Dutch. I can tell you, it got me far! As far as being able to have a fluent conversation in Dutch at a party we attended last month. For the record, Duolingo is of course not the only source of learning for me, as the app is more for practicing and — which is probably the most important — for streak-keeping.

Now, the last part is actually very important.

It is a pure psychological trick — a “satisfaction-banana” for our “monkey-brain”. If we see the counter and it is consistently increasing, after a very short while it is kind of sad to lose this streak. For instance, you have already the proverbial 21-days (needed to form a habit), you would not want to go back to zero and start all over, would you?

(Even more, if you do, there is a big chance that you will not pick it up again).

Keeping streak helped me make the learning of Dutch into a daily habit, but it likewise worked for 5 minutes of meditation, a daily plank, and some other small habits – my small steps – of improving my life. Thus I wholeheartedly believe that streak-keeping is an important power working together with the power of small steps towards getting to any big hairy audacious goals you can come up with.

Don’t mistake possibilities for probabilities

Anything is possible — that’s inspiring and in a way assuring phrase. Indeed, anything can become possible with the right targeted effort and… with the right conditions. Now, this is a tricky one. The right conditions can be just there or they can be created. How probable is that both the effort and conditions will materialize is a completely different question.

To give some examples, it is perfectly possible for me to learn Chinese. If someone else has ever succeeded in doing so, why wouldn’t I? Well, what is the probability that I will learn Chinese? Pretty low. It is not one of my goals nor even dreams. Therefore, despite the theoretical possibility, it will remain impossible for me, or better — it is improbable.

It is theoretically possible for me to become an athlete. Even now in my thirties, if I put all my efforts into reaching this goal, I am convinced I will get myself there. At the expense of what? Pretty much everything I guess, so the probability of this event is likewise pretty low.

If I would put percentages, practically everything where there is at least a tiny chance of occurrence is possible. There are examples of successes that defy all odds. Like a million to one, and still… a possibility is a possibility. However, the probability is a likelihood of occurrence, which can easily be close to zero for this or that reason.

This difference sounds pretty obvious, yet the problem arises when a person mistakes a possibility for probability. If someone says: “It is impossible!”, what is meant on many counts is not that it is impossible, but rather that: “It is improbable!”. Slight nuance, but a huge difference in meaning.

In his book “Principles” Ray Dalio explicitly stressed: “anything is possible. It’s probabilities that matter.” and I cannot agree more.

The price of getting what you want…

There is a phrase which is literally haunting me recently.

I was following a course on writing and, when studying about Neil Gaiman, I came across a quote from one of his books:

But he did not understand the price. Mortals never do. They only see the prize, their heart’s desire, their dream… But the price of getting what you want is getting what you once wanted.”

Reminiscent of the classic “be careful what you wish for”, Gaiman’s version makes the idea sound much more powerful. Imagine that your dreams of, say, ten years ago suddenly realized? It could very well be that some of your wishes you still cherish and long for, but in ten years people tend to change. At least I did. Ten years ago I had a different life, different wishes, different dreams, and desires. Lots of things changed since then and by “lots of things” I mean — everything!

It could be that you cannot relate to the ten-year span. Take 20. Or 15. Maybe 30. You see, the number does not really matter. The truth is, that we tend to change, so do our dreams. Sometimes we realize that we have misunderstood ourselves; sometimes we better understand the price we need to pay, the opportunity costs if you will.

Be careful what you wish for.

I try. I have always tried. However, having heard that phrase of Gaiman I suddenly felt a cold shiver down my spine. There are things I wanted, which by no means would I want now. They would cost me too much. I would even accept never to have things that I do want at this moment if the price for them is… having those old dreams realize.

“The price of getting what you want is getting what you once wanted.” — a scary thought.

On the other hand, would that mean that we should not dream at all out of the fear of dreaming “wrong”? I don’t think so either. I believe in the power of dreams, and in the power of dreaming. I wouldn’t want to forgo it. However, some of our dreams take hold of us and we give them all our energy. Those dreams can become our obsessions and that is where the trouble might be lurking. Even though it is impossible to predict what kind of people we will become in the future, what would our situations be, and what new dreams will arise in us, we are able to learn to understand ourselves now, in this very moment. We are able to understand what is it we are actually dreaming of. Moreover, with some reflection, we are also perfectly capable of understanding the opportunity costs.

In my work as a mediator and as a personal buddy (“wise friend for rent”) I have seen many situations when a person thinks s/he wants something, but s/he actually hasn’t reflected on that wish good enough. By “good enough” I mean understanding (1) why? and (2) what is s/he willing to pay?

You might have heard of the psychological exercise the “five why’s”. In essence for any dream or ardent wish, you have to ask yourself “why?” five times (or at least as many as needed to get to the core).

Let’s take the following hypothetical example: I want to travel around the world.

  • because I like exploring new cultures and new places;
  • because it enriches my life with experiences;
  • because I see differences and reflect on them, and that makes me question things I am accustomed to;
  • because in that way I can improve my life;
  • because I believe in progress and making progress makes me happy.

Note that for every subsequent answer there are also options other than traveling around the world. Basically every “because” comes with a set of assumptions. You assume that traveling around the world would allow you to explore new cultures for example. Maybe it will, but that largely depends on the way you intend to travel and things you are planning to do while traveling. However, maybe your underlying wish of exploring new cultures could be realized by being active in the local expat community. It might very well be that traveling around the world still is the right way for you. Nevertheless, it is good to understand that there are also other ways to cater to your underlying needs. Be it as it may, every dream comes with a price; and before vesting too much energy in that dream, it is best to understand its price.

Unconscious habits passed through generations

One of my habits which my husband finds annoying is that I never finish my tea. Usually, I would leave a teabag in to get my tea strong enough, yet by the moment I reach the very bottom of the cup, those last drops are already way too strong and no longer tasty. So I leave them. It actually never occurred to me that it was something weird. Moreover, before recently I had no idea why do I actually do it like I do. It dawned on me, when my mother was visiting us recently and I made her a cup of tea. The puzzle pieces fell in place… 

There is a story I heard in several iterations, where a kid is asking her mother why does she always cut off the ends of the sausage before baking. The mother couldn’t answer anything else, but that her own mother was doing it like that as well. So the kid goes to her granny, who is likewise ignorant of the reasons and encourages to ask the great-granny. The old lady three generations up replies with the question: ”Oh, you are not still frying on that small pan, do you?”.

That story and revelation about my tea drinking habit origins made me think about habits in general, or better about unconscious habits passed through generations. The way we do laundry, brush our teeth, fold clothes, or boil eggs (I had a separate post on the last one – check it out here: Understanding people and what hard-boiled eggs have to do with it ) is something we probably do without much thinking. We learned it by mimicking our parents, who probably learned it from theirs and so on. Nevertheless, the “pan” we use might already be significantly different. I wonder how many other habits have we acquired unconsciously? What if we ask a question of whether they are still relevant? What if we ask the proverbial “why”? What if the underlying assumptions no longer hold? 

Another facet is, of course, to which extent should we go in our questioning spree? The beauty of a habit is that it saves us, let’s call it, brain battery. If we would do absolutely all things consciously by the end of the day we would probably just be depleted. Nevertheless, some degree (and I am still convinced that higher is better than lower) of consciousness and inquisitiveness is good to have. At least then we would be able to spot the “changed pan” situations and make timely changes.

What do you think? Do you have habits it is time to question?