What Box Are You In?

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

“People with dull lives often think that their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone chooses more or less what kind of events will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yielding. A student objected to this view by saying, ‘But you don’t choose your life. Sometimes you are at the mercy of people who push you around.’ I said, ‘Do you avoid such people?’ ‘Oh!’ She said, ‘I see what you mean.’” – Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation And The Theater

Our recent posts have focused on psychological freedom and some things you can do to achieve it.

This post focuses on psychological freedom, but from a different perspective. We’ll look at life as a series of boxes. Those boxes influence what we pay attention to. We can stay in the comfortable boxes we know the best, even if they’re not right for us. We can also choose to take a leap of faith by jumping into new, but uncertain, boxes that may help us get closer to what we really want.


A Thought Experiment
One of the things I like to do when I’m caught up in my emotions is to imagine I’m experiencing life from a third-person perspective.

Try it right now for 10 seconds. What do you see?

Most of you probably see yourself, maybe the back of your head, staring at the computer screen reading this blog post. Maybe you’re riding the bus home, reading this post on your smartphone while being squished like a sardine between weary-eyed office zombies.

I find this exercise fascinating because it makes life feel like a video game and the character I’m playing with is Dino. Every day I choose all the things to do with Dino. There are a few things I must do with Dino, like bathe and feed him. Otherwise, the game might end prematurely. But a large number of things are totally up to me to decide: what to dress Dino in, who to have Dino hang out with, what Dino should learn, the places Dino should live, or even when Dino should talk/see his family.

This exercise is useful because it takes us out of our discrete, habitual routines and allows us to see the gestalt.

Seeing the whole of our life helps place things into perspective. We occasionally develop tunnel vision for our current standing in life. We tell ourselves that we have to get that promotion or we have to study a specific subject in order to fit into society. We assume that reaching these end states will give our lives meaning. But how often do we stop to ask ourselves if we truly want that end state? Is it what I want or do I want it because I’m narrowly focused on my environment (i.e. what my peers are doing, what my parents expect, what I think society expects)?

I like to think of this tunnel vision as being stuck in a box. You can think of this box as an identity or a desired identity. It is something that is defined by external factors, but it feels like a part of you.

Examples of boxes could be student, teammate, investor, dancer, investment banker, wife, mother, engineer, or assistant to the regional manager. Those identities can be positive or negative identities. I’m a “good public speaker” or I’m “bad with relationships.” These labels come with a set of internal and external expectations and norms/rules.

Boxes aren’t good or bad. Like almost anything in life, the answer is it depends. The more time we spend in a box, the more we learn about how it works. The goal is to understand how the various emotional, cultural, social, and psychological components of our boxes shape our perception of life. Then we can figure out if a particular box is right for us.

What’s In the Box?
I stole this idea of boxes from a talk by Tobi Lutke, CEO and Co-founder of Shopify (See the bottom of this post for the full video). Tobi uses this box idea to describe his self-development process.

In the talk, Tobi tells a story about being in school and wanting to be popular. He analyzed the situation and came to a conclusion: he needed to buy Air Jordan sneakers. Tobi says he, “was vaguely aware that there was more to the world, but it didn’t truly matter. Within my little world, this school, the most obvious profound thought I had was that I needed Air Jordan sneakers to be a part of the popular kids.”

Tobi is saying that he wasn’t aware of the gestalt. He describes school and the social goal he cared about as “this box I was in and everything I was experiencing could be explained from within this box.” The dynamics of what was going on in his box shaped what he viewed as important. It also veiled him from other rich aspects of life.

It’s funny. I can certainly relate to Tobi’s Air Jordan experience. I bought Ed Hardy clothing in high school to be “cool.” Other times I changed the way I talked to try to fit in with certain groups. And it wasn’t 100% my fault. I was influenced by the boxes I was in!

If you think of a box as your environment, then everything in that environment will influence you: your peers, the titles, the rewards & punishments, and the older people who went through that box and expect you to go through that box the same way. Luckily, life has a way of automatically pushing you into new boxes when you’re young.

The Problem With Getting Older
The problem arises when we get older and it’s up to us to get up and move boxes. We end up like Alice In Wonderland, asking the Cheshire Cat, “Where should I go from here?” The Cheshire Cat responds, “Well that depends a great deal on where you want to get to.” Except we don’t move.

Instead of continuing to play the game of exploring the next box, we develop tunnel vision and linger. We stay in the mediocre job, the shitty relationship, or hang out with people we don’t really like because the certainty of our current box seems to outweigh the uncertainty of exploring the next one.

Life In A Box

Tobi highlights this danger of getting stuck in a box, “There is significant automatic churn in this infinite game. Every time people get comfortable [in a box] some people leave. Everyone has an uncle at some family reunion who has left this process way too early.”

Getting Out Of The Box
Tobi moved on to university and then started working. These next stages became new boxes. Sometime during his first job, Tobi gained a mentor. This mentor was able to operate within the same box Tobi was in, but he could also take events in that box and make sense of them with context from other areas of life. The box that Tobi shared with his mentor was really just a small box within a “much bigger box.”

This situation forced Tobi to realize that the boxes he occupied could be constraining him. He started asking himself several questions to understand these constraints: “what is my world? In which ways is the box I’m currently in constricting me? And how is it stifling my thoughts and ambitions? What are the kind of thoughts that will lead me out of this particular box?”

I think Tobi’s questions are useful to pair with the idea of viewing your world in the third-person. When you combine them, it’s like pausing a video game, going to the menu, and looking at the map. Some parts of the map are gray and blurry because you haven’t explored them yet. You may not have even been aware of those parts until you paused to look around. While you won’t know what lies in those gray areas, you give yourself the option to move in those directions.

Near the end of his talk Tobi summarizes this whole process for us:

Life is this really, really interesting series of entering a box, seeing what it is sort of made of, probing at it, analyzing, seeing how things work, seeing what way gravity is pushing you, and then sort of understanding it and feeling familiar. This is the nice part. Every time you reach there it becomes very comfortable. And then you might learn something that isn’t reconcilable with this world you think exists. That is the very thing that cracks it and you get into the next box. And you start it again. Again and again and again.

Fortunately, like the quote at the beginning tells us, the life you end up with is often the life you choose. It’s your choice to stay in your current box or move on to the next one. If you think your life is dull, it’s probably because you haven’t left a box you find comfortable.

You can leave though. You can start to understand your current box by viewing your life in the third-person and asking the same questions as Tobi. Then you can turn any anxiety you have about exploring a new box into an opportunity for personal growth by reframing the situation. Tobi is living proof that “if you’re ambitious and you’re deliberate about [getting out of your box], you can accomplish very great things.”

Our next post will continue with this idea of life as a game. We’ll consider what it means for life to be an infinite game and look at the series of boxes as individual finite games.

Opportunity Is Abundant… If You Believe It

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes

This week we’re going to explore a habit that can help you make progress towards psychological freedom and help you spot alternate paths to take in life.

Illustrations by Asia Noble. She’s incredible. You can find her here: http://asianoble.co/.

Also, many thanks to Bill Ledley for his usual insightful comments.


“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
Mohandas Gandhi

Two Questions
We recently discussed psychological freedom and the thoughts that prevent you from achieving it. While writing those posts, I was reminded of something my good friend Miguel suggested I do when facing anxious or uncertain situations. He challenged me to ask two simple questions:

  1. What is the opportunity in this situation?
  2. What can I do now to take advantage of this opportunity?

I was skeptical. What the hell could asking these questions do for me?

But then I had an insight. Our thoughts and beliefs are like gravity. You can’t see gravity, but it shapes reality. Likewise, you can’t see your thoughts and beliefs, but they shape your perception of reality.

If you believe the world is scary, that people are untrustworthy, or that you are worthless, you will attract events that confirm these beliefs. You’ll end up noticing and focusing on all the things that can go wrong, the negatives in life, and the ways you aren’t perfect. Then your behavior will follow. You probably won’t meet new people, or travel, or try to learn something new.

Those actions reinforce your thoughts and beliefs and you create a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you don’t trust people, they won’t trust you. If you don’t share your knowledge, people won’t share with you. Those events will then reinforce your beliefs and a stronger, viscous cycle begins.

Humans are wired to seek out information that confirms their beliefs. It’s called confirmation bias. Your mind will seek out information that aligns with your beliefs. So if you have negative beliefs, your mind adapts a mental filter that is primed to focus on negative events. We all know people in our life who act in this way. They aren’t fun to be around.

Some People Can Be Sweet

I don’t think we should all join a happy-go-lucky cult of positivity where everyone receives a gold medal. This isn’t Lake Wobegon. That would be ridiculous.

The Universe is supposed to have problems. Entropy is a property of creation. Life isn’t supposed to be easy. How could we learn without making mistakes? How could we appreciate the harvest without the hard work that went into planting the seeds?

What I’m suggesting is taking responsibility for your reactions and becoming proactive with your life. There are no negative or positive events. There are just events. Nothing is happening to you. Rather, things are just happening.

To remind myself of these facts, I started asking myself the two questions whenever I was feeling anxious, scared, upset, or stuck. They’re great questions to ask if you ever feel like, “I’m falling behind” or “I should be at a certain point by now.”

At a basic level, these questions give you an alternative frame for viewing the events currently happening in your life. If you experience a negative bias, then they give you the space to see the positive.

They offer you the opportunity (see what I did there?) to manage your emotions. It’s really difficult to be both anxious and excited about something at the same time. So, if you can see an opportunity and turn that insight into action, then you can switch your negative mood into excitement.

Getting Into The Habit
To get into the habit, Miguel and I would play a game. One of us would make up scenarios and the other one would shout out the opportunity. If one of us were talking about a problem in our life then the other would burst into how it was really an opportunity. At first I thought this was some woo-woo hippy shit. However, I gave it a chance and over time I realized it really worked for me.

  • Stuck in traffic. Opportunity to practice being patient.
  • Stub your toe. Opportunity to practice resilience.
  • Break up with the person you’re dating. Opportunity to rediscover independence or meet new people.
  • Get fired. Opportunity to travel. Opportunity to go back to school. Opportunity to volunteer.
  • You see a good looking person on the street. Opportunity to practice talking to strangers.
  • You get sick. Opportunity to appreciate life and take care of your health.
Getting Too Excited

Why They Work
Asking yourself those two questions works for a couple reasons.

First, I find that thinking of how to turn negative events into opportunity can be really funny. It adds an element of humor into life. It gives us room for the acceptance of negative events and a chance to move on. When you look at it from that angle, the questions are a form of catharsis that is severely lacking for many of us living in the 21st century.

Second, they turn your focus away from outcomes and onto processes. Seeing opportunities isn’t an outcome, it’s a process. And when you get into that process you throw yourself into the ocean of life and force yourself to swim. You become a participant rather than a spectator.

We live in a rapidly changing and uncertain world. No one is going to tell you what to do. But if you can see opportunity, you can take action. And taking action will get you closer to wherever it is you want to go.

Thoughts That Prevent You From Psychological Freedom

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

We’re not taught how to manage our attention and emotions in school. It’s a topic I find invaluable for the time we live in. If, after reading this, you have any feedback or you would like to provide examples from your life please share them in the comments =)


Reality Distortion Fields
If we’re living in a world where the scarce resource is moving from capital to attention, then learning how to attain psychological freedom is more important than ever.

What we pay attention to affects how we perceive the world. That perception then affects our emotions and our behavior.

Steve Jobs understood this process. While he was famous for the products and companies he helped create, I’ve always been fascinated by what Apple employees called his “reality distortion field.”

The term was coined by Bud Tribble, an employee at Apple in the 1980s, to describe Jobs’ charismatic effect on the Macintosh developers. Tribble said the term came from Star Trek. It was used to describe how the aliens created their own world through mental force.

Like those aliens, each of us has the ability to create our own world through mental force. Our minds create reality distortion fields that are influenced by our attention. For example, take a look at the following image. What do you see?

What is it?

Some people see a vase. Other people see two faces looking at each other. You can switch back and forth between the two images once you realize the trick.

The face vs vase image is emotionally neutral, but some external stimuli elicit strong emotional responses. For example, watching a video of a police officer killing an innocent person on Facebook, is likely to elicit a negative emotional response.

Understanding how the external world affects our emotions is important because we are creatures who rely on our emotions to make decisions, to be motivated, and to find meaning in life.

We live in a world that is informationally abundant (hence attention is scarce). And the amount of data is increasing at an exponential rate:

That’s a lot of data

What information you’re paying attention to matters. The Kardashians, the rich kids of Instagram, police killings, inspirational videos, expert cooking, and cat images will affect your emotional state whether you’re aware of it or not.

You have a choice though. You can choose what to pay attention to and you can choose how you wish to perceive the incoming information.

Take a look at the following image from the book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.

Process of Perception

For external events to have any emotional meaning, you have to give them meaning through your thoughts. Psychologists understand this fact today, but it isn’t new knowledge. Philosophers like Epictetus and Yogis in India understood this process thousands of years ago.

You ALWAYS control how you interpret the outside world even if you can’t control the events happening around you. So you decided how you want to interpret external events, the things you are told, and the feedback to the things you do. This is the reason why one person can dance outside while it’s raining while someone else sits inside and complains.

You Can Create Things
The greatest investment you can make in yourself is learning how to manage your emotions by managing your attention. Doing so will help you rediscover the child-like freedom to explore life and find the right job, go travel, build a company, create art, or start a new hobby.

Once you understand managing your attention and emotions you can take advantage of this fact:

Let that sink in… every thing in our society was created by other humans who were no smarter than you. You can create things that other people will use. You can change the way things are done. You don’t have to accept life as it is.

That’s great new because this is the best time in human history to be alive. It has never been cheaper or easier to create the things you want to create. All the information is sitting right there on the internet.

What is Stopping You?
You might be familiar with some of the following thoughts:

  • “I’m not smart enough.”
  • “I’m lazy.”
  • “I never finish anything.”
  • “If I try it, I won’t be as good as those other people who’ve been doing it for a while.”
  • “I’m too old to do that.”
  • “I need to have a job, so I don’t have time to learn something new.”
  • “I don’t have the right skills.”
  • “I have so much more to learn.”
  • “I feel anxious, so I won’t talk to her/him.”
  • “If I was only better looking, stronger, smarter.”
  • “If I only had more time, then I could learn how to dance.”
  • “I should be better or smarter.”
  • “I can’t do it because my parents/friends/co-workers wouldn’t approve.”
  • “If I only had better people in my life. All these people are dragging me down.”

These are the thoughts that are forming your reality distortion field and they are probably happening automatically, out of habit.

Steve Jobs understood the power of thoughts and how they can cause you to get stuck in life:

Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them.

Learning to Get Unstuck
You can learn how to get out of the grooves. I had to learn how to do it. Hell, I’m still doing it because it became a habit.

Psychologists have categorized the following thoughts patterns, they call them cognitive distortions, through studying patients suffering from depression (These are mostly from the book Feeling Good):

  1. Perfectionism (All-or-Nothing Thinking): You see things in black-and-white categories If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
  2. Overgeneralization: You see a single negative even as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
  3. Mental Filter (Focusing on the Negative): You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that colors the entire beaker of water.
  4. Disqualifying the Positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your every day experiences.
  5. Jumping to Conclusions (Assuming): You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
    • Mind Reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out.
    • The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your predication is an already-established fact.
  6. Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections).
  7. Emotional Reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
  8. Should Statements: You try to motivate yourself with should and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements towards others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
  9. Labeling and Mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him: “He’s a weirdo” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
  10. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.
  11. Blaming: The opposite of personalization. You see everyone else as the cause of negative events in your life.

Even when we’re not depressed, each of us exhibit some of these cognitive distortions from time to time. Which ones we use and how often we use them depends on how we were raised, our culture, our habits, and our experiences. Our habitual use of them turns creates the “scaffolding in your mind.” They create our reality distortion field. Fortunately, we can learn to catch them and change our responses to more productive thoughts and take control of our reality distortion field.

I especially struggled with perfectionism, should statements, emotional reasoning, mental filter(focusing on the negatives), and disqualifying the positives.

I was afraid to start things because I was worried that I wouldn’t do a good job. I was afraid to be playful socially because I thought I would say something stupid and people would think I was weird. I thought I should be able to learn things quickly, so I became impatient. I thought I should be able to talk to all strangers, but wouldn’t because I was scared. I’d look at all the cool things people did and posted on the internet and think “I should be doing that.” I didn’t consider the thousands of hours of hard work that people put in and don’t share online.

The should-ing would make me feel guilty and bad about myself. Then I wouldn’t start things because it felt like a burden. Then the perfectionism would kick in because I didn’t have the right skills to try something new. I started feeling worse about myself. I’d shrink my accomplishments by saying something like “Ah, it wasn’t that difficult. Anyone could do it.” None of this was productive or healthy.

After a period of intense depression I decided that I could change. That decision came from the realization that I could choose to think in more productive ways. All these distortions were mental habits. If I could catch them while they were happening, I could choose to think something else.

It took learning two things:

  1. I learned how to manage my attention in order to catch the cognitive distortions.
  2. I learned how to choose different thoughts to replace the ones that were effecting me negatively.

The reward is infinite. I feel like Neo in the Matrix sometimes. I can see what I’m thinking and change it to a more productive thought, shaping my world to be the way I want it.

Stay tuned and I’ll share with you the processes, habits, and routines I used to catch my cognitive distortions. Until then, I leave you with this quote from Epictetus:

Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.