Switching from fight mode: Life Hacks by Charles Assisi
Too many of us set out viewing each day as a fresh challenge, when the real battle is within. Can we find the strength to stay vulnerable?
I usually wince when I encounter well-meaning bits of advice such as “maintain a gratitude journal”, “say hello to strangers” and “talk through the pain”. A gratitude journal feels cheesy to me. As a journalist and writer who listens to people share their stories for a living, I’ve always felt I get my fair share of interaction with strangers.
But after a close childhood friend recently told me that I “look like a train wreck” and should “really do something about it”, I realised that perhaps it was time to try something different.
That’s how I ended up talking to a psychologist, who had a lot of preliminary questions to ask after a test. The final question was: “Do you want to investigate some more, or let things slide?” Phrased like that, it was clearly rhetorical. I needed more conversations with him, and deeper introspection.
Through our conversations, I am now seeing how I had crafted, over the years, a mental image of myself based on the ideal of “being brave”. The metaphorical hero I had picked was the captain on a burning deck; the man who knows how to steer a ship even when everything appears hopeless. My ideal of bravery involved always stepping up, placing a lid on emotions, denying all vulnerability.
How flawed this narrative is became apparent when my psychologist suggested I attend a social event full of strangers, and just talk to people who looked interesting to me. There was a caveat: I should try to not ask for their professional credentials, nor give them mine.
But who would I even be in such a scenario, I wondered? The import of the caveat is clear: Respect people for who they are; not what they do. It’s a principle we all start out with, as children. It’s why friendships are forged so easily, over an interesting bug or a shared love of flat stones.
But in adulthood, the prospect of trying to connect with a stranger at this kind of personal level felt deeply uncomfortable. I was reminded of the Simon & Garfunkel song, The Boxer.
When I left my home and family /
I was no more than a boy /
In the company of strangers /
In the quiet of the railway station /
Running scared /
Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters /
Where the ragged people go /
Looking for the places only they would know…
Isn’t this how most people’s working lives begin? Everyone is just a youngster in the company of strangers, struggling and aspiring to “be someone”. As life unfolds, the work and world takes their toll and the boy is turned into a fighter.
In the clearing stands a boxer /
And a fighter by his trade…
as the song goes; a fighter who has had to box to build a life built around a pillar of work. Professional credentials become the pivot that determines the rules of the game, including whom to engage with and how.
Amid it all, we lose the simple curiosity that helped us make friends as children. We shut down the candid parts of our nature that enable us to walk up to a stranger and simply ask them what their interests are. At some point in our adulthood, we quietly make peace with the fact that most relationships will henceforth be transactional.
I am starting to see that all this, the entire “captain on the burning deck” ideal, is a hopeless narrative. All our ships will eventually sink. Do we really want to “go down fighting”?
What if we turned to hope instead? That’s a question psychologist Dan Tomasulo asks in his book, Learned Hopefulness (2020). Embracing hope means embracing new heroes who feel their emotions, are curious about people, and accept others for who they are. It takes a lot of bravery, because this approach involves what Tomasulo calls a “radical acceptance” of tomorrow. But it’s a path of action. As Angela Duckworth, co-founder of the research-focused nonprofit Character Lab and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016), puts it in her book: “‘I have a feeling tomorrow will be better’ is different from ‘I resolve to make tomorrow better.’”
As much as this next sentence would have once made me grimace, I am now saying yes more, staying open to new experiences. Maintaining a gratitude journal isn’t as cheesy as I’d imagined. Smiling at strangers in a non-professional setting is tough, but it’s beginning to get interesting. I’m excited to see what may come of it all.
(Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)