Life is a process of selecting which stories we listen to, which stories we edit, and which we choose to rewrite. When it comes to the stories of our lives, you should be aiming for your own personal Pulitzer prize - Lori Gottlieb

We don't choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences. We think about the future as anticipated memories. - Daniel Kahneman

These quotes by Lori Gottlieb and Daniel Kahneman are answers to questions haunting me for over twenty years. What drives my behavior? Can I become a different person? How do I break these patterns that are so deeply embedded in my life?

Since this article is about my personality, let me summarize it for you.

  • Serial Quitter – I pick up a hobby, became competent, and abandon it when I could have excelled by putting in more hard work.
  • Knowledge Hoarder – I read a lot on a variety of subjects and do nothing with the information.
  • People Pleaser – I spend too much time trying to keep people happy.

I spent years trying to find answers to what shaped my personality. I read books on spirituality, psychology, behavioral economics, and everything in between. I found multiple answers, and today I will explain my findings using the answers found in the work of Dr. Daniel Kahneman and Dr. Lori Gottlieb. They are psychologists, and their work focuses on how the stories we tell ourselves cannot always be trusted and need to be edited.

The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory – Daniel Kahneman

Dr. Daniel Kahneman observes that every human being is made of two selves – the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self is about the present moment. When a doctor pokes your stomach and asks if it hurts, your experiencing self gives the answer. The experiencing self is only responsible for the individual moments of our life. Each moment is defined as approximately three seconds. Hence, we have roughly 600,000 moments every month. These moments are relevant to the experiencing self but are disregarded by the remembering self.

After poking your stomach, what happens when the doctor asks you to describe your problem. The remembering self takes over and starts telling a story. You describe how you had for dinner, when you first felt the pain, how unbearable it was, how your spouse made a few home remedies, and finally how your best friend recommended the doctor. Our remembering self is the storyteller.

Every time we query our memory, we get a story in response. The brain is a con artist, and we are the victims. Think about the last time someone hurt you. Every time you recall that event, don’t you feel you add extra details to the story. We create mountains out of molehills by the time we are on our tenth narration. That’s why spiritual texts emphasize so much on staying in the present moment? They are telling us to avoid the trappings of the remembering self.

The Tyranny of the Remembering Self

Why is it dangerous to trust the stories told by our remembering self? Dr. Lori Gottlieb tells us that we use stories to make sense of our lives. We assume that our circumstances shape our stories. Dr. Gottlieb proposes that our stories shape our circumstances. Her job − she emphasized − was to help people edit their stories. She discovered that most of the stories people told her had two key themes − Freedom and Change.

We believe we have enormous freedom except when we are dealing with our current problem, where we are constrained. Freedom comes with responsibility. If we take responsibility for our role in the story, we might have to change. We don’t like change and hence don’t challenge our stories.

Applying The Research to Examine My Personality

If we trust the research of these psychologists, then most of our lives are being shaped by stories that are partially true and need to be edited.

To edit my stories, I would examine each personality trait based on:

  • Past Experience: How did my past experience shape my personality?
  • Story: What is the story that I created around this experience?
  • Editing: How I can edit that story and influence future events

Deconstructing The Serial Quitter

Summary: I begin things, get to a reasonable level of competence, and then quit.

Past Experience: I have always been smart and learned basic concepts quickly. This helped me keep my head afloat until the class ten examinations. As subjects got tougher and demanded more attention, I withdrew. That’s why, despite having good teachers and taking engineering coaching, I ended up in a mediocre engineering college. The same pattern followed me there. I scraped through subjects that needed minimal application and struggled wherever there was a need to apply concepts. I barely graduated and ended up working in the content domain. Suddenly my ability to embrace a breadth of topics without going deeper became a strength. We had to write on about diverse domains and engage subject matter experts to provide depth. Competence bred confidence, which led to pride, and this propelled me forward in my career. Years of experience and some leadership development programs helped me become more conscious of this personality trait. I learned how to gather the emotional energy required to tackle situations that needed depth. Collaboration with colleagues who enjoyed depth also ensured this never became a handicap.

Story: “You are really talented. You just need to apply yourself a little more to perform a lot better.” I have been told this by every teacher in my school and some teachers in college. My tennis coach and my cricket coach also gave me versions of this speech. Some colleagues at work also tell me I can do a lot more with my career if I want to, which is a variant of the same speech. I realized that every time I quit something, I have told myself  the following story:

“You are brilliant. If you work a little harder, you can master it. Do you really want to? You already know the basics. You are not quitting because you are afraid of hard work − Its no longer interesting.”

Editing: Why is it necessary to edit this story? There are two critical reasons. First, my son is exactly like me. He reads voraciously, runs like the wind, and plays badminton with great gusto. I cannot influence him to get the best out of himself if I don’t set the right example. Second, my guru – Om Swami − has a straightforward philosophy. The purpose of human life is to get the best out of yourself and contribute to society. My guru embodies this every second of his life. He has emphasized the importance of meditation, and after using the Black Lotus application, I have realized that meditation cannot be mastered half-heartedly. It requires immense commitment and dedication. So I have decided to edit my story.

“You are reasonably sharp and gifted. However, mastery needs significant effort. Be selective about goals, but be completely committed to it. It’s going to take a lifetime of work.”

Probing the Knowledge Hoarder

Summary: I read about everything under the sun and do nothing with the information.

Past Experience: By 2007, I had spent three years working in large software organizations and met brilliant people. They embodied what I could have made of myself. I traveled to the United States, and my boss drove me to Stanford University. As we drove down the tree-lined avenue dotted with sprawling book stores and coffee shops, I felt a deep sense of regret seeping through every pore in my body. My parents had done everything they could to get me a good education, and I had wasted that opportunity. The open grounds, the beautiful church, the spacious classrooms all seemed to mock me as I gazed adoringly at them. I knew I was not cut out for formal education, but the urge to learn something new blazed through me.

I returned to India and chanced upon Ted.com. Ted invited experts from around the world to explain their research in 18 minutes. I devoted myself to learning about behavioral economics, psychology, decision making, leadership, neuroscience, and art. Pride and ego accompanied knowledge, and showing off became a habit. A tryst with depression and a return to spirituality calmed me down, but the thirst for knowledge never abandoned me. However, I never applied my knowledge. I subconsciously believed that I had wasted four precious years in college, and god had been kind enough to give me a stable life. Asking for anything more is unfair. Every time I get a salary hike, I wonder when my colleagues would discover that I am just pretending to be smart. It’s called Impostor Syndrome.

Story: You wasted six years of your life during coaching and engineering. You are lucky to be where you are. Don’t even dream about anything more, or else even this may be taken away from you.

Editing: Your job is to develop the skills to do what you really want. Gather the skills and walk the path. One of the best things about finding Swamiji is that I outsource my anxiety. I will do my job, he will do his work, and I will welcome the result.

Examining the People Pleaser

Past Experience: I have always wanted to keep other people happy. This is a good trait but can be very self-sabotaging. I had a lot of friends in school, but occasionally they would be puzzled because I could understand and agree with both sides of any argument. They were frustrated that I could not take sides. It could not say no to friends, and conflict avoidance was my first instinct. This trait continued at the workplace and got highlighted when my team and manager had a conflict. Since I understood both sides of the argument and agreed with them, I was naturally seen as a hypocrite who refused to take sides. It took me years to realize that you need to have a point of view and express it.

Story: It’s essential that people like you and thinks of you as a good human being. If you try hard enough, you can keep everyone happy.

Editing: You should have a point of view and gently express it. Do the right thing, and don’t worry about pleasing anyone.

Summary

Writing this article has been a cathartic and rewarding experience. The Mindfulness meditation in Black Lotus and my guru’s grace are the only reason you are reading these words. Please take a moment and think about your stories. You can use the steps outlined in this article to figure out patterns and edit your stories. It’s the greatest gift you can give yourself.

If you don’t want to use psychology, you can read the following books that blend science and spirituality:

  • Destructive Emotions – Daniel Goleman – Buddhist wisdom meets western psychology
  • Understanding Our Mind – Thich Nhat Hanh – Buddhist wisdom about how the mind works
  • The Art of Happiness – Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler – Buddhist wisdom meets western psychology
  • The Monk and the Philosopher – Matthieu Ricard – Buddhist wisdom meets western philosophy

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Akshay Iyer

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