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15 lies we tell ourselves (by Marshall Goldsmith)

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As an executive coach who has helped successful leaders for more than 35 years, I believe firmly in the value of honesty, especially with ourselves. Telling the truth to ourselves, about ourselves, is an important first step in changing our behavior for the better. If we can’t take stock of our actions in the present, we’ll have a hard time improving them in the future.

That’s why I immediately agreed to help Thierry Koehrlen in his On the Road To Honesty campaign and Family kit.

Learning to be bright about honesty makes a very big difference in a kid’s future (and an adult’s future, too!), and can make the difference between a life of success or struggle.

marshall and bookWe all know the truth is important, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, as I explain in my new book, “Triggers: Becoming the Person You Want to Be,” (with Mark Reiter, Crown, 2015). Instead of facing our shortcomings head on, we tend to rationalize why we didn’t do what we know we really should.

We invent convenient lies, or “belief triggers,” as I call them, which allow us to avoid the difficult work involved with changing our behavior.

My hope is that identifying some of the most common and pernicious belief triggers will help you recognize them in yourself – and set you on a path to growth and change.

  1. If I understand, I will do.

We often assume that if we understand what to change, we will automatically make that change. In reality, there’s often a deep chasm between understanding and doing.

  1. I have willpower and won’t give in to temptation.

The willpower we assume when we set a goal rarely measures up to the willpower we display in working toward that goal. Underestimating temptation is fatal (as Odysseus knew when he plugged his ears with wax to avoid hearing the seductive, deadly song of the Sirens).

  1. Today is a special day.

When we want to make an excuse for errant behavior, any day can be designated as a “special day.” We yield to impulse because today is the Super Bowl, my birthday or National Cookie Day (Dec. 4, if you don’t already know).

  1. ‘At least I’m better than…’

In a down moment after failure or loss, we tell ourselves, “At least I’m better than _______.” These comparisons are soothing but ultimately unhelpful.

  1. I shouldn’t need help and structure.

One of our most dysfunctional beliefs is our contempt for simplicity and structure. When we presume that we are better than people who need structure, we lack one of the most crucial ingredients for change: humility.

  1. article pictureI won’t get tired and my enthusiasm will not fade.

We seldom recognize that self-control is a limited resource. We should begin with the knowledge that the sheer effort of sticking with a plan will deplete our resources.

  1. I have time, all the time in the world.

We chronically underestimate the time it takes to get anything done. And we believe that time is open-ended and sufficiently spacious for us to get to all our self-improvement goals eventually. (Ha! I’ve been promising myself that this is the year I’ll read “War and Peace” – for 43 consecutive years.)

  1. I won’t get distracted and nothing unexpected will occur.

When we make plans, we expect to live in a perfect world where we’re left alone to focus on our work. Although this has never happened in the past, we plan as if this nirvana-like world will surely exist in the future.

  1. An epiphany will suddenly change my life.

An epiphany implies that change can arise out of a sudden burst of insight and willpower. I’m skeptical of any instant conversion experience. It might produce change in the short run, but nothing meaningful or lasting – because the process is based on impulse rather than strategy, hopes and prayers rather than structure.

  1. My change will be permanent and I will never have to worry again.

We set a goal and mistakenly believe that achieving it will produce lasting happiness – and that we will never regress. If only this were true.  My research involving more than 86,000 respondents around the world, “Leadership is a Contact Sport,” paints a different picture. If we don’t follow up, our positive change doesn’t last. It’s the difference between, say, getting in shape and staying in shape. Even when we get there, we cannot stay there without commitment and discipline. We have to keep going to the gym – forever.

  1. Once my problems are solved, no new problems will crop up.

Even if we appreciate that no change will provide a permanent solution to our problems, we forget that as we usher an old problem out the door, a new problem usually enters.

  1. My efforts will be fairly rewarded.

From childhood we are brought up to believe that life is supposed to be fair. Our noble efforts and good works will be rewarded. When we are not properly rewarded we feel cheated. My take: getting better is its own reward. If we do that, we can never feel cheated.

  1. No one is paying attention to me.

We often believe that we can occasionally lapse back into bad behavior because people aren’t paying close attention. Even worse, it’s only half true. While our slow and steady improvement may not be as obvious to others as it is to us, when we revert to our previous behavior, people always notice.

  1. If I change, I am “inauthentic.”

Many of us have a misguided belief that how we behave today represents our fixed and constant selves, the authentic us forever. If we change, we are somehow not being true to who we really are. We refuse to adapt our behavior to new situations because, “It isn’t me.”

  1. I have the wisdom to assess my own behavior.

We tend to credit ourselves for our victories and blame external forces or other people for our losses. We’re convinced that while other people consistently overrate themselves, our own self-assessment is fair and accurate.

Facing these 15 convenient lies, or belief triggers, can help both kids and adults as they take on the tough task of changing their behavior for the better.

As Thierry Koehrlen points out, this kind of self-accounting isn’t just a good thing to do, it’s also a smart thing to do – because it clears away the misapprehensions and unhelpful behaviors that keep us from a better, brighter future.

Reading (and re-reading) this list often will help you on your personal road to honesty – and toward the wonderful benefits it offers.


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 Dr. Marshall Goldsmith is a renowned business educator and coach  who  was recognized as the most influential leadership thinker in the  world at  the Thinkers50 Conference in London. Worldwide he has sold  more than 2  million books. His latest is “Triggers: Becoming the Person  You Want to Be” (triggersthebook.com) is currently on the New York  Times Best sellers list.

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