One of the most popular articles I wrote last year was You’re in a jail cell of your own making.
The basic idea is simple: Many of us live in jail cells we constructed for ourselves. We’re the master architects of our prisons—the constraints, the habits, the routines that form the chains that hold us back and the iron bars that keep us captive.
We are the jailor. And we are the jailee.
My life has been filled with jail cells of my own making—the job applications I didn’t submit because I assumed I didn’t have the chops, the questions I didn’t ask because they seemed too dumb, the people I didn’t ask for help for fear of hearing “no.”
Walking out of our self-constructed jails isn’t easy. Often, we don’t even notice that we’re living in a jail cell. Over time, the iron bars become invisible to us. We keep pacing the same confined space, unaware that there’s a way out.
The first article in this series explained the problem. This one offers four tactics you can use to solve it.
- Do you own your assumptions? Or do your assumptions own you?
For years, I’d start my day by checking my email. It seemed like a sensible thing to do—clearing my inbox before turning to my writing.
I didn’t realize at the time, but this particular jail cell destroyed my effectiveness. The moment I opened my inbox, I’d inevitably get caught in an onslaught of messages and notifications. The more emails I sent, the more I received. By the time I cleared my inbox, I had nothing to show for my morning—except a bunch of emails in my sent folder of little consequence. When I finally turned my attention to the article I had been meaning to write, concentration would prove elusive as my attention would keep drifting back to the emails I had been writing all morning.
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world,” said Alan Alda. “Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
In one research study of customer service agents, the agents who used Chrome and Firefox performed better at their jobs than those who used Safari or Internet Explorer (which were the default, pre-installed browsers). No, Chrome or Safari didn’t magically turn them into better employees. Rather, the browser choice signaled how they approached their work. Instead of remaining in their jail cells by using the default browsers, these employees questioned the default, took action, and found a better way. They then applied the same mindset to other parts of their jobs, as Adam Grant explains in Originals.
Instead of accepting the default, they questioned it.
For me, questioning the default meant spending a week challenging my assumptions. For example, looking at my daily routine, I asked, “Why do I check email every morning?” There was no good reason for it. My concentration in the morning is far better spent writing articles and book chapters. Emails can wait until the afternoon. I now rarely check email before noon. And whenever I do—whenever I decide to walk back into that jail cell—it’s to my detriment.
To wipe the mist collected on your mental windshield, adopt first-principles thinking (to which I dedicate an entire chapter in my forthcoming book). Ask yourself, “Do I own my assumptions? Or do my assumptions own me?”
With each commitment, each presumption, each budget item, ask, “Why am I doing it this way? Can I get rid of this or replace it with something better?”
- Ask other people
In one of my favorite commencement speeches of all time, David Foster Wallace tells the story of two young fish. The fish are swimming along, “and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’” The two young fish swim on, “and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
There are several morals to this story, but I’ll focus on one here: Everything we observe in the world is through our own eyes.
What may be obvious to others—we’re swimming in water—isn’t obvious to us. Others have that seemingly freakish ability to see the jail cells we miss and to right what’s wrong with our thinking. “The road to self-insight,” as psychologist David Dunning put it, “runs through other people.”
This is why a guide—a coach, a mentor, a therapist—can be so useful. “Whoever travels without a guide needs two hundred years for a two-day journey,” Rumi wrote. People who don’t live in our own jail cell are great at asking those seemingly “dumb questions” (which aren’t dumb at all) that jolt us out of our current perspective and expose the iron bars constraining our thinking.
This is why outsiders are particularly good at disrupting established industries. Take, for example, the founding of Netflix. Reed Hastings, the CEO and co-founder of Netflix, was upset for incurring a bunch of late fees for renting Apollo 13. One day, he was working out at his gym and realized you could pay $30 or $40 a month and work out as little or as much as you wanted. He decided to apply the same idea to the video rental business to create Netflix.
At the time, Hastings was a software developer—an outsider to the video industry. As a result, he was able to see the jail cell that confined the video-rental businesses to outdated assumptions like physical stores and late fees.
- Aim higher
What you strive for—the ceiling you set for yourself—becomes your jail cell. Go for mediocrity, and mediocrity is what you’ll get—at best.
We often make things worse by defending our jail cells and self-imposed limitations. We could do things differently, we say, but our supply chain, our software, our budget, our skillset, our education, our this-or-that doesn’t allow it.
As the saying goes, argue for your limitations, and you get to keep them.
You can’t always get what you want, as the Rolling Stones remind us, but by expanding (instead of contracting) your vision, you’ll also expand the boundaries of your jail cell. And even if you fail, you’ll fail above your previous success—and in so doing, alter the boundaries of what you thought was possible.
- Break some rules
Elizabeth Gilbert tells the fable of a great saint who would lead his followers in meditation. There was a slight problem. Just as the followers were dropping into their zen moment, they would get disrupted by a cat who would “walk through the temple meowing and purring and bothering everyone.”
The saint came up with a simple solution: He began to tie the cat to a pole during meditation sessions. This solution quickly developed into a ritual: Tie the cat to the pole first, meditate second.
When the cat eventually died (of natural causes), a religious crisis ensued. What were the followers supposed to do? How could they possibly meditate without tying the cat to the pole?
Many of the rules in your own life were developed in response to problems that no longer exist (like the cat in the meditation fable). But the conditioning remains long after the problem leaves.
Ask yourself: Why does this rule exist? Who benefits from this rule? What would happen if I broke the rule?
Keep in mind: The rules were set by people no smarter than you.
When you question the rules, you may find that it is possible to meditate without the cat.
P.S. Keep in mind that you’re the master architect of your jail cell. Life offers more of itself when you treat your world as a playground, not as a jail. For seldom-discussed ways on how to implement that mindset, see Chapter 3 (“Mind at Play”) of my forthcoming book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist
I’ve been ecstatic about the early reviews. The book is Adam Grant’s # 1 pick among his top 20 books of 2020. It was named a “must read” by Susan Cain (NYT Bestselling Author of Quiet), “endlessly fascinating” by Daniel Pink (NYT Bestselling Author of Drive and A Whole New Mind), and “bursting with practical insights” by Adam Grant (NYT Bestselling Author of Originals).
If you haven’t pre-ordered the book yet, you can get digital access to it within seven days of your pre-order (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound). That means you can start reading it NOW, months before the book is published.
After you pre-order the book, please send your receipt to [email protected]. You’ll also get pre-order bonuses worth at least 10 times the cost of the book. You can head over to this link to learn more: rocketsciencebook.com.