“I can’t go back to school; I just don’t have time.”

“That market is too saturated.  If I try to start this business, I’ll get wiped out.”

“What will my family and friends think of me?”

“I’m not good enough.”

“I have to work here for a few years before I can leave this job, even though I hate it.  Or else it will look bad on my resume.”

One of the funniest things about the human race is that we have such diverse opinions on just about everything: especially issues we really don’t know or haven’t thought much about!

This sort of thinking is the stuff of presidential elections and political gossip.  How many people do you think actually have an informed opinion about why they are voting for their candidate?  Do you think they researched their platform thoroughly, and decided that Romney’s stances on foreign policy and government infrastructure were better than Santorum’s?  Or do you think it’s because Bill O’Reily or some negative ad told them how to vote?

Uninformed assumptions and opinions can be comical and are expected for things like presidential elections (and profitable for FOX News and Stephen Colbert).

But when it comes to making decisions that affect your health and happiness, it’s not so funny anymore.  And if the reason you are not happy is because of assumptions you’ve made, that’s downright debilitating; essentially a figment of your uninformed imagination.

I define “assumptions”, in terms of this article, as something you think about yourself or hold as true–although you haven’t really put much thought into it– that holds a strong negative influence over you, your confidence, and the course of action you take.  They usually entail things you think you can’t do, or negative outcomes you are certain of.  They’re just like the examples at the beginning of this article.

I had this problem all of the time when I was younger.  For the most part, I got rid of it, and I’ve been a lot more successful (and a helluva lot happier) as a result.  Looking back on my experience, these steps were what helped me the most:

  • Change starts with identifying the assumptions you make now.  Look closely.  Maybe you believe them to such a strong degree that you don’t realize they’re assumptions.

In concept, this seems easy: do some introspection, write a list of your assumptions, and start de-assuming them!  If only it was that easy for most of us.  It wasn’t easy for me.

The problem with assumptions is that we’re so used to making them: we’re so comfortable with the idea of taking anecdotes and unfounded assertions, and integrating them as truth into our lives.  We’ve been told these assumptions by people ever since we were kids (did your mom tell you “don’t go swimming within 1/2 hour of eating?  Yep, there’s nothing wrong with that).  So we’re used to them and comfortable with them.

A perfect example for me is what I see in my accounting classes every day.  My peers are constantly told “the way” that their career paths “should” develop: you have to work in public accounting for a few years (at least), and then go into industry if you want; find a good firm you want to stay in; don’t specialize too early…etc.  I believed so strongly that this was right, I was paralyzed to do something else.  I sadly shelved my entrepreneurial ambitions for years to try to pursue a career in public accounting, thinking “maybe, someday, I’ll try”.  Believe me, I had been taking my advice here for a long time and challenging my own assumptions.  I had made a lot of positive change in my life by challenging my assumptions about multiculturalism, politics, and social norms.  But it took me the longest to challenge my final debilitating assumption: that I wasn’t good enough to do what I wanted.

If it was so hard for me to challenge my deepest-held assumptions, how do you think you can do it without thinking deeply yourself?  As an exercise, I recommend challenging everything you hold true, even (and especially) those things you hold to be the most true.  If you feel like you have trouble justifying one of those ideas (even though you “feel” like it is right), and especially if it is an idea that holds you back, you may have found an unwarranted assumption.

  • The best way to overcome assumptions is to find out why you have them, and to challenge them.  Negotiating with yourself is ineffective.

Ultimately, it’s rather ineffective to try to negotiate with yourself to change your assumption.  Telling yourself you are wrong is like asking a doctor to give you pain medicine, rather than asking him to fix your medical condition.  Telling yourself “come on man, you don’t have to be shy” in of itself is futile, and emotionally draining.  I think there’s really only two ways to effectively challenge your assumption: 1.) find out what causes your assumptions, and 2.) challenging them directly.

  1. Find out why you make the assumptions that you do.  Cure the cause rather than the symptom.

I used to be a very shy guy, and especially afraid of being perceived by others in a negative manner.  I always took a “cure the symptom” approach by trying to negotiate with myself to just feel more confident.  But it never worked, and I usually just felt better for failing again and again.

One afternoon when I was in college, I was standing in line at McDonalds.  Behind me came in a big group of 12-16 year old kids.  They were doing all of the things you’d expect most kids that age to do: being loud, trying to impress everyone else, and so on.

And I noticed something…suddenly felt very scared.  Why was I scared?  I stood there, petrified, trying to keep my wits about me.

Then I realized…it was because of the kids.  But why would I, an 18 year old RC, be afraid of a group of teenagers?  Then it became clear in an instant:

When I was that age (especially around 12-13) , I was especially picked on by my peers.  Though those years had long passed and I was much older, the pain and fear still lingered within my subconscious.  As I thought about it more, my experiences at that age were actually the cause of my shyness and lack of confidence.  Since I had it rough at age 12, I simply continued to assume that I was bad at talking with others, and that I shouldn’t even try.

I am so grateful for that day, because it was a great revelation.  I realized how silly it was that I allowed events from years ago (albeit subconsciously) to continue to influence me.    So my assumption was challenged: it wasn’t that I couldn’t be good enough.  It was something entirely related!

Look at your own life, and wonder: why do you hold these assumptions that hold you back?  Was it your upbringing?  Was it your peer group?  These things that happened long ago are the cause of your assumptions.  When you realize that it’s unreasonable to allow that cause to continue to affect you, then you can treat the symptom.

2.) Challenge your assumptions directly.

Sometime’s there’s just no outwitting a long-held assumption.  Sometimes it just takes trying something differently in spite of our assumptions, because we really just fear fear itself!

Think of taking a child to get a flu shot for the first time.  They are so worried that it will hurt, that they break down into tears, and go into the doctor’s office kicking and screaming.  So then they get their shot.  What will they say when it was done?  ”It wasn’t that bad after all”.

In this sense, we’re really no different from small children.  We just need to go through the experience, and the experience itself will kick us into shape.  But we are adults now, and we don’t have our parents telling us to do things anymore (well, at least not as much as when we were five, hopefully).

So if you made your five-year old son or daughter go get a shot even though they thought it would be terrible, why not hold yourself to the same standard?  If you have the inkling that you could be doing something better another way but can’t quite convince yourself…why not just force yourself to try?

  • Counter assumptions with knowledge.

An assumption inherently exists because of the lack of knowledge.  If you had a crystal ball and knew exactly what would happen next, there would be no need for assumptions, would there?  Therefore, fear created by uninformed assumptions is nothing more than fear of the unknown (see my article Understanding failure for more information on fear of the unknown).

Luckily, a lack of knowledge has an easy cure called education, either formally or though experience.  This goes back to the politics example at the beginning of this article: if you actually understand the issues that the candidates are advocating for, you can jettison your assumptions and stereotypes of their positions, and have an informed decision.

I personally recommend extensive reading, intellectual exploration, and having an unbiased mindset.  If you don’t have an agenda, you can better neutrally evaluate points of view, and choose the course of action that seems to be the best logical, rather than emotional fit.

So if you know what an outcome will be (or have a good idea about it), there’s no need to assume an outcome.  If you know the best way to drive a car, why try to come up with a new way?  If you know how to accomplish your goal, why worry about making assumptions about other ways to do it?

In closing

The assumptions we make structure the way you act and what we value.  If those assumptions are wrong, they hold us back…way back.  Luckily, we are the easiest thing we can change.  Challenge your assumptions, and see the world for the way it is, rather than through your biases and other predispositions.