What do you notice?

Every person or situation appears ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on how you look at it

woman looking through a magnifying glass

Here is something that most people do and unfortunately never realise it. Sometimes the consequences are painful. It leads to ruptured relationships and even divorce. It holds you back from a promotion and could even cause you to be fired. It prevents you from achieving the goals you set for yourself—being a better parent, losing weight, quitting smoking, becoming a star at work. The really funny thing is that despite the many ways you become frustrated by the results of this single habit, you almost never recognise that you played a central role in creating your misfortune.

Sometimes this habit works in your favour. More often it does not, and the result can be very sad, even traumatic. It is probably the single most important factor in the estrangement between parents and children and between spouses. It has an equally powerful effect on business relationships with subordinates, peers, and bosses.

Are you curious about what this habit is? I thought you might be!

How we see the world

We all think we see the world as it is. We’re wrong.
We see the world as we are. Let me repeat that: We never see the world as it is. We always see it as we are.

Poonam woke up early, as was her wont, and went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea. She relished this first cup in the solitude of the early morning. She noticed that there was a plate, as well as a knife and fork, in the sink. Her husband had had a late-night snack. “Why doesn’t he rinse them off and put them in the dishwasher?” she thought angrily. “He knows how much I hate a dirty sink. He just doesn’t care.” All of her husband’s manifest faults, from failing to sort his laundry to watching all the cricket games, flooded into her head, and she picked up the plate with such force that it struck the faucet and broke. “He just doesn’t care,” she muttered to herself, and her morning tea did not bring any comfort.

We never see the world as it is. We always see it as we are

There were still anger lines on her face when she went to work, and she noticed that her assistant had left the draft of a new proposal on her desk. Pages two and three were transposed. She pried the staple loose, rearranged the disordered pages, and stapled it again.

“Why don’t people care?”

“Why doesn’t he care enough to do a good job?” she fumed, and called him in to berate him. He was sullen and left work early. When she needed an explanation of an intricate calculation, he was not there, and her boss tartly told her to find out and report back. She worked late and was just turning into her driveway when she noticed that her neighbour was leaving her front door. He was walking across the lawn to his house, and she scowled. She did not like people walking on the grass, especially not now when the yard was freshly seeded. “Why don’t people care?” she seethed. Poonam was a good worker and very diligent, but so many of her colleagues were complaining about her that her boss made her sit down with an executive coach he engaged for her. It was either that or a pink slip.

She accepted with ill humour. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” she stated flatly. “It’s just that I really care about things and they don’t.” She looked at the coach defiantly. He took detailed notes and said little.

She did not like people walking on the grass, especially not now when the yard was freshly seeded

When they met again, the coach had done his homework. “Did you know that your husband has taken on another job?” he queried. “He has a consulting gig with a start-up and hopes to save enough so you can take the Antarctic cruise you always wanted this December. He didn’t have time for dinner, so he just grabbed what he found in the fridge and went right off to sleep.”

She hadn’t known it. She also hadn’t known that her assistant had put in an all-nighter so that she would have something in writing before her meeting with her boss or that her neighbour had called to drop off fresh tomatoes from the first batch that ripened in his backyard.

“You are too wedded to the idea that you care and they don’t,” the coach told her gently. “What you really mean is that they don’t always do exactly what you want them to do, and you misinterpret this. If you don’t work with me to change your attitude, you may not be with this company much longer.” He debated whether to tell her that she might not be married either but decided against it.

Poonam thought her finicky demands were a sign of her caring and drive for perfection

Context is important

Poonam thought her finicky demands were a sign of her caring and drive for perfection and saw everyone around her through that narrow lens.

So does this mean that she has to let go of her standards and accept work she considers shoddy? Should she reconcile herself to stacks of dirty dishes in the sink, sloppily put-together pre- presentations, and well-worn paths across her front lawn?

Not at all. It does mean that she has to see each occurrence in context. It emphatically means that she cannot label people based on her limited views. It means that she cannot let others’ noncompliance with her demands affect her emotional equanimity. And finally it means that she has to work at achieving a satisfactory compromise with the important people in her life-at home and at work.

The funny thing about life is that the more you expect the best of people and give them room to be themselves without suffocating them with your expectations, the more they will surprise you. The late Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch got it exactly right when he admonished listeners of his “Last Lecture” to never give up on people because, sooner or later, they will astonish you. Just try this and see for yourself.

You see the world as you are, not as it is.

The more you expect the best of people ad give them room to be themselves, the more they will surprise you

What are you noticing?

You observe things about people all the time. Just start recording exactly what you observe. For example, it’s Sunday and your son comes down bleary-eyed after breakfast is over. Do you notice the eagerness in his voice as he tells you about the super movie he saw last night, or do you observe that, once again, he has not made his bed and has come down without brushing his teeth?

You meet a stranger at an office party. Do you try to figure out his ‘importance’ and the strength of his relationships with your boss, or do you notice the genuine twinkle in his eye and his obvious good nature? Do you notice that his shoes are scuffed or that he graciously compliments the waitress and makes her smile? Does your nose turn up because the table settings don’t match, or do you acknowledge the effort your hostess is making to welcome you?

In short, with people and situations, do you focus on their weaknesses and what is ‘wrong,’ or do you appreciate their strengths and what is ‘right’? Most people, including you, do both. What is important is to find out in which direction you are tilting.

Now try this. Pick any person with whom you have an ongoing relationship and do not particularly like. It could be an in-law or a disagreeable co-worker or a pompous parent in the PTA. Look for at least two traits in that person that you like and admire. Persist until you find them. Compliment that person on these traits and be sincere. If you cannot be sincere, don’t do it.

Repeat this with other offensive people in your life.

See what happens to your life and your relationships with these individuals.

Excerpted with permission from Happiness at Work by Srikumar S Rao. Published by Tata McGraw Hill

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Srikumar Rao
Dr Srikumar S Rao, PhD, has conceived the pioneering course, ‘Creativity and Personal Mastery’ which has transformed the lives of thousands of students and executives at many of the world’s leading business schools and corporations. He lives in New York City and frequently travels around the world. For tools and resources created by him visit his website.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here