What Else Can You Do?


This bit of linguistic gymnastics circulated the internet a few years ago. There’s some debate as to whether there was ever research done on this topic at Cambridge (they say there wasn’t), but it’s valuable nonetheless.

Isn’t it amazing that our brain can decipher those words, even though most of the letters are out of order. Researchers argue about why it is. The first and last letters have something to do with it. So does context, both within the words and within the paragraph as a whole. Notice many of the articles – the, and, a – are correct. These give the sentences a sense of continuity and add context that helps us anticipate the next word.

But I’m not writing this post to discuss how your brain makes sense those letters and allows you to read the paragraph. Instead, I want to point out a couple of things we can learn from it.

You can do more than you think you can

We all have a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. It’s the narrative that gives us identity. That can be a good thing many times. If we identify ourselves in a positive light as someone who is worthy, capable, honest or creative that story can be an effective tool to push us forward in our lives. If that same story is one of failure, fear, and regret it can limit us and hold us back from all that is on our horizon.

If someone were to ask you, “I’m going to mix up all the letters in a paragraph, do you think you’ll be able to read it?” I’m sure the answer would be no. Your experience in this world – your story – told you that’s impossible. But you did. What you didn’t think possible was indeed possible.

So how many other opportunities or challenges have you summarily dismissed because you thought they were impossible? Write a book? I’m not smart enough. Start a business? I’m not savvy enough. Publish a blog? I don’t know how. How many times have you made an excuse simply because you thought you were not qualified? How many times have you been afraid to speak because you thought you were not worthy?

Life is an endless menu of possibilities. How many do we miss because we count ourselves out before we even try? We instantly assume we are incapable of deciphering the letters. That’s the story we’ve told ourselves about ourselves. And unfortunately we often tell ourselves we know the end of the story before we begin writing it.

You don’t have to have everything in order to start

You read that paragraph with the letters jumbled. You didn’t have to straighten out each word and make it perfectly correct before you were able to begin reading. Your brain got you through it even though it wasn’t perfect.

Have you been holding back from your masterpiece because you think everything must be in order first? In most cases that perfectionism is just a manifestation of your fear. Nothing will ever be perfect. Circumstances will never be ideal. And if I wait for everything to be perfect then I don’t have to begin. It’s my safety zone. I can’t fail if I don’t start.

But just like you looked at that paragraph, and the words began falling into place for you, so it will be in life. Just begin, and you’ll be amazed at how things will begin to make sense. Not instantly, not necessarily easily, but eventually the details begin to become clear. The world seems to align itself for those who are willing to move forward in the face of their fear.

So what does your story say?

Scientists have identified something they call the “default mode network” in our brain, the DMN. It’s the self-talk and internal narrative we use to define our lives. It’s our default mode of thinking about ourselves and our world. It’s our story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

What does your DMN say about you? Do you even know? The first step in starting to redefine our story is to know what it says. That’s where the practice of mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is the ability to be in the present moment, observing our thoughts and emotions without judgment.

Let’s get mindful right now. What does your internal narrative say about you? Does it tell you how capable, intelligent and able you are to handle challenges? Does it say you are creative, courageous and worthy of success? Or does that voice in your head remind you of all your failures, faux pas, and foibles? Does it tell you not to try new things because you might fail? Does it call you stupid or incapable?

Allow yourself the freedom to admit who you are without judgment. Beating yourself up for beating yourself up isn’t very productive. Your brain is not your enemy; it’s trying to help you. By defining certain generalities and default modes, you are more capable of easily navigating the complexities of life. But those generalities are often built on the foundation of half-truths and insufficient information.

Here’s the truth: even successful people struggle with doubts. They are part of our human experience, part of that DMN. The difference between us “down here” and them “up there” is they have learned to disregard the DMN and replace it with a new story. In the beginning, the story sounds like a lie like you are just fooling yourself. And perhaps you are. But eventually the lie will begin to feel more like truth as your DMN begins to develop new neural pathways and rewrite your story.

Just remember this: you read that paragraph. Full of mixed up letters that, on first glance, looked like gibberish. But you surprised yourself and read the paragraph. Your DMN told you it’s impossible to read words when the letters are out of order, but you did. That narrative was wrong. And if that narrative was wrong, what other stories you tell yourself about yourself are also wrong.

You won’t know by sitting still. The world has a way of aligning itself for those who are willing to step forward in the face of their fears.

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