Taking a Lesson From Children to Optimize Personal Growth
How to overcome pesky cognitive blocks so you can live and work authentically.
When is the last time you felt mentally paralyzed?
It is an unfortunate and common feeling: You want to reach out to a friend but don’t know where to start. You are assigned a daunting project at work and consider faking an illness to avoid the responsibility. Instead of going on a first date, you cancel, slip into your sweats, and re-watch Gossip girl over a bag of Cheetos.
Where is your mental block coming from? I have an answer for you, and it’s not general anxiety.
The culprit here is self-monitoring.
Mark Snyder introduced the concept of self-monitoring to the field of Psychology in the 1970s. It is a personality trait, and some people are believed to "have it worse” than others.
Self-monitoring is the tendency to regulate one’s own self-expression and behavior to control their perceived identity. In other words, it means caring what other people think and acting accordingly.
Those who score lower in self-monitoring are thought to consult their inner beliefs and values when choosing how to behave, but those who score higher look to their surroundings for cues on how to act.
Think of your friend Sally the social chameleon, who can switch from comedy genius to quiet, thoughtful empath in the span of a single conversation. She presents herself however is necessary to fit in, and it works. Everyone sees her as a friend, even practical strangers. You might feel uneasy as you question the integrity of your own friendship with her.
Who is Sally, really? Just a series of characters? Does she actually like you, or does she just want you to like her?
I have rolled my eyes at my best friend for laughing at jokes she clearly doesn’t find funny, downplaying her emotions, or exaggerating her political opinions at a party. But I am guilty of the same. We all do it to an extent. Self-monitoring is a necessary survival skill in many situations - with family, at work, on social media, and even when we’re alone.
So what does this have to do with breaking through mental paralysis?
Think about it. If you didn’t worry about coming off clingy or being rejected, you wouldn’t think twice about reaching out. If you weren’t afraid of being seen as a failure, there would be no reason not to start your project immediately. If you weren’t afraid of a bad or awkward date, you’d ditch the sweatpants and grab some eyeliner.
Here’s my question for Sally the social chameleon: How do you benefit from interacting this way, other than logging a hefty session at the people-pleaser gym? What are you missing out on?
Allow me to share a personal story.
Early in college, I went through a period of low self-esteem. I was a freshman studying acting at NYU, and I had lost my sense of creative purpose. I had a number of reasons to feel detached. I had just moved across the country, for one. And I had just embarked on a long-distance relationship, an effective way to lower one’s morale.
Each day was a blur, like riding a turbo-speed carousel and watching the colors of the world blur together. I could not pick out one day from the next. Nothing I did seemed to connect meaningfully to anything else. One minute, I was attending a lofty, non-persuasive lecture about the importance of art in society. The next, I was sitting in my acting studio, panicked because I still hadn’t learned my lines and my scene was up next.
There was one day in particular that jolted the carousel to a stop. I had been drilling a difficult scene with my acting partner for a month, and nothing was clicking. We had put in the work just as our instructor suggested, but at the end of the day, we couldn’t reach the characters. The story was too far off, too inaccessible. My frustration had become unbearable. Why couldn’t my hard work even lead me to a decent performance?
Once again, it was our turn to perform for the class. I was nauseous with anticipation. I just wanted to get it done right so I could never do it again.
Spoiler alert, it didn’t land. I broke down crying during the scene. Not because I was invested in acting, but because I just couldn’t take it anymore. My professor noticed and pointed out all the flaws with our work as if we didn’t already see them.
I plopped back down in my seat, utterly defeated. Why am I even studying acting? I thought. I made a silent vow to leave the program at the end of the semester.
Soon after that fateful day, a friend saved me by sharing this quote by Don Hertzfeldt:
"You need to try to return to the time when you were a little kid, creating things on a big sheet of paper in a beautiful sunbeam, and not having any cares at all about how it might one day be received. It's when children learn to think, "Is this any good?" that they start to become paralyzed creatively. And this is why most adults don't draw, don't write, don't sing, don't dance, and are terrified in front of audiences.”
These words slapped me across the face. I could finally see the problem: I was self-monitoring while I worked. In my acting class, I had pushed myself to elicit a positive review from my peers and professor. I tried so hard to care about the scene so I looked like a good actor. But I hadn’t allowed myself to genuinely think about the story at all or find a convincing reason to perform it. My anxiety about doing well did not inspire me. It had paralyzed me.
That’s the irony. We put our work out into the world to be perceived. We interact with others to be liked and accepted. But that very goal dampens the integrity of the process, and ultimately the final result.
Following my freshman year, I taught drama at a summer camp, and the experience really solidified this concept for me. Watching the kids explore their characters with so much joy and authenticity moved me more than any Oscar-winning performance ever could.
The key is that they didn’t care how moved I was. They were not focused on my approval.
Let’s take a lesson from them.
Children are so wonderful at learning, creating, and making friends because they don’t know what to expect yet. They don’t have enough experience to dig themselves into a psychological rut.
Unfortunately, adults do. So how do we train our brains to behave more like those of children?
First, do not underestimate the power of your own natural curiosity. Children are constantly questioning, exploring new ideas, and most importantly, doing so with enthusiasm. As a result, every situation they encounter is primed for learning. Like a child, optimize the potential of every situation by staying curious. The most meaningful and pivotal experiences I’ve had emerged by surprise - somewhere I felt I wasn’t supposed to be, where I thought I couldn’t grow. It is tempting to predict what you’ll learn or gain from any given situation, but that in itself will limit the potential of what you might discover.
Second, put less weight on the end goal. If you look at your life from an existential perspective, what matters most to you? Success? Status? Money? Impact? Relationships? Goals are necessary. They motivate us and keep us on track. There is only one problem with putting too much emphasis on the end goal: you miss out.
If your goal is scoring a relationship, you’ll forget to enjoy the unpredictability of each first date and the limitless potential of making new connections. If you’re hard-set on moving on from a recent breakup, you'll lose curiosity about where you’re at. And let me tell you, there is a lot to be learned from sitting with grief. If you only focus on climbing the ladder at your company, you’ll expend so much effort making your work visible and being at the right place at the right time that you might miss out on smaller, nuanced opportunities for learning and connection.
And Sally, if you spend the whole party getting everyone to like you, you might miss out on the opportunity to connect with someone who could authentically fulfill your social needs.
Simply put, the key is to focus on process instead of perception, the experience over the end result. After all, life is short. What’s the point if you don’t have fun?
There will always be a list of things you have to do. Always. The list may be daunting, overwhelming, or simply a bummer. I know mine is. So why not leave room for life to surprise you? It can be scary to release the illusion of control, but it is imperative to optimize growth. When we release our inhibitions, life begins to manifest in all of its mysterious and nuanced ways, completely defying our expectations and leaving us in awe.
Let me leave you with this: I had fun writing this article. Now please excuse me while I retreat into the void and relinquish all control and expectations about how it will be perceived.