Many people ponder the question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” However, this isn’t always the most revealing question we can ask ourselves when considering alternatives in our life. Fear isn’t the most common condition holding us back — it’s both complacency and a lack of imagination.
Most people aren’t afraid to make a movie — but that requires coming up with a compelling story and learning new skills.
Most people aren’t afraid to take a round the world trip — but that requires lots of planning and preparation.
Most people aren’t afraid to take on a new job — but it’s just so easy to stay put instead of exploring the alternatives.
Inertia is a strong force — it holds us in place, even when there is a world of other possibilities to consider.
Essentially, most of us need a kick in the pants to do something different. In some cases an external force comes in the form of gentle nudge, and in other cases we get thrown across the room by something dramatic in our life that commands us to rethink everything.
So, how do we give ourselves the kick in the pants we need to do something different, as opposed to waiting for someone or something else to do it?
The principle of inertia, as first defined by Isaac Newton, states that an object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an external force. Therefore, if you continue to try new things, that becomes your normal state. You don’t get complacent because you’re always changing things up. Inertia keeps you moving forward.
And, how do you come up with ideas for shaking things up in your life?
One of my favorite exercises involves unpacking all the assumptions you have and then turning them upside down to reveal alternatives.
In my creativity course, I use a Harvard case study about Cirque du Soleil that gives students a chance to hone their skills at challenging assumptions. The backdrop is the 1980s, when the circus industry was in trouble. Performances were predictable and stale, the number of customers was diminishing, and animal treatment was under attack. It didn’t seem like a good time to start a new circus. But, that is exactly what Guy Laliberté, a street performer in Canada, did by challenging every assumption about what a circus could be.
After showing a video clip from the 1939 Marx Brothers movie, At the Circus, I ask the students to list all the assumptions we have for a traditional circus: a big tent, animals, cheap tickets, barkers selling souvenirs, several acts performing at once, clowns, popcorn, strong men, flaming hoops, etc.
I then ask them to turn these things upside down — to imagine the exact opposite of each one.
For example, the new list would include a small tent, no animals, expensive seats, no barkers, one act performing at a time, and no clowns or popcorn. They then pick the things they want to keep from the traditional circus and the things they want to change. The result is a brand-new type of circus, a la Cirque du Soleil. And, we all know that Cirque du Soleil is thriving, while the traditional circus is essentially gone.
Once we do this exercise with the circus industry, it’s easy to apply to other industries and institutions that are ripe for change, including fast food restaurants, hotels, airlines, education, and even courtship and marriage. When you get the hang of it, this is an easy, back-of-the-envelope exercise you can use to reevaluate all aspects of your life and career. The key is to take the time to clearly identify every assumption. This is usually the hardest part, since assumptions are often so integrated into our view of the world that it’s hard to see them. However, with a little practice, it becomes a useful way to look at your options in a fresh light.
I encourage you to try this to rethink your own life.
Make a “before” list with all your assumptions about your life, including the time you wake up each morning, the specific days and hours you work each week, the length of your commute, the type of work you do, the people with whom you work, the amount of time you exercise, with whom you spend your free time, what you eat for dinner, what you do in the evening and on the weekends, where you go for vacation, how much money you save each paycheck, how you feel at the end of the day, when you go to sleep, etc, etc. Make the list as long as possible, unpacking as many assumptions about your life as you can.
Then, consider alternatives for all of these by creating an “after” list. The items on this list are the opposite or an exaggeration of the things on the “before” list. For example, if you exercise by yourself for 20 minutes each day, the alternatives would include no exercise at all, taking an exercise class at a gym, or running with a buddy. And, if you spend your free time hosting dinner parties, then alternatives might be volunteering at a soup kitchen, learning how to skydive, or taking an improvisation class.
Once you have your lists, mix and match from the “before” and “after” lists to craft a brand new set of scenarios. Switching even one of the assumptions might be enough to shake up your life in an interesting way.
I did this myself today... One of my assumptions is that I teach courses. The opposite of teaching is learning. This sparked an idea! What if in addition to teaching, I also take one course each quarter, picking a topic outside my area of expertise as a way to stretch my thinking. This one change would dramatically expand my knowledge, expose me to lots of new people, and who knows what new ideas and opportunities it will ultimately trigger.
Remember, there are boundless options to explore if you are willing to identify and challenge your assumptions. To quote Alan Alda:
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won’t come in.”