mirror and the window
Karl Pillemer is a US Sociologist that specializes in studying senior citizens. He led a team of researchers conducting a survey of 1,000 Americans. The youngest contributor was seventy years old and the oldest exceeded one hundred years. The participants in the survey had earned their wisdom with years of living through some impactful moments of history. They were asked a number of questions about life. Pillemer and his team distilled the mountains of information collected into several buckets of life advice. Besides their age, the participants had little else in common. They came from varied backgrounds. Some were immigrants, some born in the US, some had worked in blue collar jobs, some white collar, and some struggled to keep jobs. Some had met with success while some had seen economic hardship. These elders had come from all corners of the US. The life advice consolidated from the conversations came from normal, regular folk who had been through and seen a lot. It wasn’t tips and tactics from sport or business superstars.
Much of the research results were pulled together into a book Pillemer wrote titled, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True advice from the Wisest Americans. Interviewee insights were sorted into five areas of life we each experience. One of these included the workplace. A common element offered by the seniors associated with having a fruitful career was the ability to get along with others. Much of the mental grief we experience is the result of getting stuck in our own minds. Our personal perspective shapes so much of our action and response to the actions of others. We think our perspective is accurate and wonder why others can’t see the world the way we do. This can become a bigger problem the more successful we become. Our progress in life may reinforce the belief that our perspective is accurate. This is a mental bias by which we’re all afflicted. It’s something we should work to guard against. It’s the heart of the message of Chapter 10 in Earn Everything, Toil to TOYL. Working to think of yourself less is the idea of shifting our view from our selfish interests to considering that of others.
One of Pillemer’s contributors, a Jesuit Priest who was seventy seven years old does an excellent job of captured this concept. Father Jim as he’s referred to in Pillemer’s book offered, “I was brought up in a family where we were taught to focus, not on ourselves, but on other people. To focus outward rather than inward. I have put this to good use in my work. A young man heading off into his profession asked me recently, ‘What lesson do you have for me before I go?’ I said, ‘It’s very simple. No matter whom you meet, no matter where you meet them, always presume they’re much better than you are. Presume that they’re head and shoulders above you, and you’ll have no problem.’ When I look around, the most devastating Achilles heel that I see people suffering from is that they take themselves too seriously. While it’s very important to take others seriously, don’t take yourself that seriously. If you do, then you’ve really got a problem.”
Father Jim’s advice is very similar to that of Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield’s encouragement to work to “Be a Zero”. We’re encouraged to minimize our impact in a group setting as opposed to trying to outshine others. The way that we work well with others is to aim not to advance but to serve. We want to focus on the needs of others in order to be seen as a valuable contributor. A sure way to get along better with others is to avoid being consumed with ourselves. Father Jim’s advice gets even clearer as he presents a metaphor which nails the perspective we’re after.
‘Stop looking at yourself. Because when you do, you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, and you know exactly what you look like. Go over to the window and look outside and see..’ For someone used to being in charge, their ego can be so heavily on the line. Because people so often struggle to keep their self-esteem up and compare themselves with other people. It clouds their judgment. In that case, you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and you’ve go to get out of it and look out the window.”
Father Jim’s metaphor of the mirror versus the window is meaningful. Too often we’re consumed by our own thoughts and experiences. It’s like we’re looking in the mirror and all we see is me, me, me, my, my, my, I, I, I. Our thoughts spiral to “woe is me, nobody understands my problems. Why won’t people do what I want them to do?” Drawing on the metaphor as a reminder to shift our sense from self to others by moving from the mirror to the window is a great resource upon which we can draw. As soon as we move our mind from our view, we can start to let light from other interpretations in which may adjust our thinking. Alternately, we can begin to focus not on what our desires are in this situation but what we can do to help out others. In either case we’re improved by either being better informed or helping out. This definitely isn’t an easy thing to do. We have years of our own perspective burned into our brains. When you feel your thoughts focused internally cue yourself to consider our metaphor prior to proceeding. We hope that shifting your sight from mirror to window helps in your efforts to think of yourself less.