Reality is never this obvious
We’re told by the motivation mavens that our attitude is a critical factor in how successful we are in life. Zig Ziglar tells us that, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” They go on to say that we can choose our attitude, and the right choice makes all the difference. I certainly can’t disagree with that sentiment, but what influences our attitude?
In this post, I will explain that your perception is a powerful hidden factor influencing your attitude, and that you can choose your perceptions.
I’ll begin with an example of something that happened to me years ago. I used to take my clothes to a dry cleaner that was conveniently located on the way to our kids’ school. If it wasn’t convenient I probably would have switched, because the woman who worked there most days had a surly demeanor which made it one of the lowlights of my day to stop in. One day, there was a new face behind the counter and I greeted her with a cheerful hello which was returned in kind. It was only after about a minute of pleasant banter that I realized it was the same person, but she had done something so different with her hair that I didn’t recognize her at first!
This story illustrates the importance of perception in determining attitude. Attitude is a choice, and we can consciously choose the attitude we want to bring to certain situations. I could have made a choice before going into the dry cleaner to have a positive and friendly attitude toward the woman. I might have told myself that it would be a challenge and I would be a better person for rising to it and being the bigger person. That would have been an example of choosing a positive attitude rather than a negative one.
But we usually go through life without making those conscious choices. We carry a default attitude that runs like a script in our brains depending on the situation we perceive. What we see activates the default attitude, unless we consciously override it. I didn’t have to choose a positive attitude when I went in to the dry cleaner that day because my default attitude when I meet someone new—thankfully—is to feel positive and pleasant about the person until they give me a reason not to. I guess you could say they’re innocent until proven guilty. (Except in traffic situations, unfortunately.)
So, if you perceive something as positive, you don’t need to make the conscious choice to apply a positive attitude. It’s easy to be positive when all you see around you is positive.
But it also works in reverse, as illustrated by this incident that happened almost twenty years ago. My wife used to volunteer her time at Dan Marino’s annual charity golf tournament, and one year I decided to go along with my two young children. My kids knew nothing at all about golf, so I had to answer a lot of questions. We came across a golf ball washer, and I tried to explain how a golfer would put the ball in the little hole and plunge the handle several times, but they seemed confused. Just then, probably the largest and baddest human being I’ve ever seen up close, Warren Sapp, drove up. He barely glanced at us as he moved his enormous bulk from the relieved golf cart and went over to wash his golf ball. I said, “Now you know how it works.”
He froze, drilled his eyes straight into mine, and said, “Now you know how it works. What’s that supposed to mean?”
You have to realize that Sapp literally weighs twice what I do and was known for being extremely good at chasing down and hurting large men who are fully padded, so part of my mind was rapidly looking for escape routes and calculating whether a three-yard head start would be enough, but instead I said, “Actually, I was talking to my kids. They’ve never seen one of those before.” When he heard that, his whole demeanor changed. He flashed that big smile he’s known for on TV, and then gave the kids each a ball and hoisted them up to stick it into the washer.
That’s why perception is so important an influence on attitude. When Sapp perceived an insult, it activated a script in his mind. When he saw the situation differently, it activated a totally different script.
Observation, then Perception, then Attitude
But here’s the part that I didn’t fully understand until I read Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. Perceptions, even though they occur almost instantaneously, are also choices we make. Perception is actually a two-step process that happens in our animal brain: we see the situation and then we apply a judgment. It happens so fast that we don’t realize we’re actually doing two things. It’s a natural adaptation stemming from our evolutionary history because our long-ago ancestors needed to make quick decisions in order to stay alive long enough to pass their genes down to us.
To put it simply, you make an objective observation and then apply a subjective judgment to it. You see, and then decide what it means. If you’re walking in the woods and see something long and curvy on the trail ahead, your attitude toward will differ depending on whether you perceive it as a snake or a stick.
Why should this matter? Because here’s the kicker: our perceptions are often, maybe even mostly, wrong. They may be wrong because of confirmation bias, so you see what you expect to see; because of the fundamental attribution error, so you assume someone else’s action shows their character; mostly it’s because bad is stronger than good, and the negative explanation is the first that springs to mind, so you see far many more snakes than actually exist. As a result you worry more than you need to, your personal relationships may suffer, and you miss innumerable opportunities. As Holiday says, many of life’s problems stem from needless and false judgments that don’t have to be made.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can train yourself to perceive objectively, to just view the situation for what it is, without automatically assigning meaning.
Be aware of your perceptions
To take control of your perceptions, you first must practice awareness—actively perceive your own perceptions. When you look for it, you can easily see how you apply a judgment to observations. I’ve been consciously paying attention to the rapid judgments I make. In public, I glance at someone and find myself judging something about them; I note that a potential client has not replied to an email yet and I assume the worst; I feel a raindrop and think it will ruin my plans for the afternoon. I estimate that I make hundreds of judgments every day—maybe even every hour. I choose between snakes and sticks constantly.
Take control of your perceptions
After a couple of weeks, I’ve noted that the mere fact of becoming actively aware that I am making judgments helps me keep them in check. But you can take a further step: objectively examine what you perceived—what judgment did you form? Your aim is to give yourself clarity not sympathy, as Holiday puts it, which is easier if you pretend it’s not happening to you but to someone else. When something transpires that blocks your progress toward a goal, you could perceive it as an obstacle, which is a negative judgment; you could see it as a stepping-stone to a better path, which is a positive judgment; or you could simply see it as information, which is no judgment at all, but just may allow you to appraise your options more intelligently and dispassionately.
When you are aware of the judgment you formed, you can then think of alternative meanings. Was that a purposeful brush-off, or was the other person distracted by her own problems? Is the situation 100% disadvantageous, or is there a hidden opportunity? When confronted with an either/or, is there a third way? If you look at the bigger picture or the longer view, does your perception change; is it worth getting that worked up over?
Holiday takes his ideas from the Greek and Roman stoics, so the importance of perceptions is certainly not a new revelation, but I’ve found so far that it’s extraordinarily helpful in facilitating the right attitude for the situation. And it gets easier with time: with enough awareness and discipline, you can substitute a new habit of detached observation for the old one of knee-jerk judgment.
It has been tough enough to practice in the small challenges of daily living, so who knows if the new habit will be strong enough in truly challenging situations, but that applies to any sort of training that you put yourself through. I’m confident that having a better understanding and awareness of the importance of perception will make it much easier for me to apply the right attitude when it really counts.