The other day I was enjoying a leisurely and extended coffee break in a nearby restaurant with a long time colleague when I became aware of someone approaching our table.
This someone turned out to be a person I had not had any contact with for several years and he had come over to reacquaint himself.
He stayed and chatted with us for some twenty minutes before excusing himself to run off to a meeting promising to get together real soon and to never again allow the years to pass us by without contact.
As soon as he left my coffee companion leaned across the table with a broad smile and proclaimed, “What a charming man. I really enjoyed meeting him. He is very engaging and clearly very bright. How have you allowed all these years to go by without staying in touch?”
My experience of that meeting had been very different from hers.
The moment I had seen him walking towards the table I had felt a strong urge to hurriedly leave the restaurant. When I realized that a sudden departure was not possible I had briefly thought of other means of escape. I even thought of pretending to be my own twin and claim no knowledge of any prior relationship in the hope that he would apologize for mistaking me for someone else, tell me to say “hi” to my “brother” and leave.
See, there was a valid reason why I had allowed all those years to go by without staying in touch. To me, this man is an unpleasant, egotistical, self serving boor who loves nothing more than the sound of his own voice and who will spend as much time as possible regaling all those around him with stories of his own great achievements – all of which, I am convinced, have taken place only in his head. [There are, of course, many of you who would say that that is a fitting description of me. You would all, naturally, be dead wrong].
So when I saw him getting closer and closer to our table I immediately expected history to repeat itself and I would be subjected to yet another never-ending monologue.
Of course, I was not disappointed. That is exactly what happened.
So you can imagine my surprise when my companion expressed how much she had enjoyed the brief encounter and used words like “engaging, bright and fascinating” to describe him.
As I listened to her I found myself quite shocked at her reaction to this meeting. I had found the 20 minutes to be long, drawn out and quite unpleasant.
Later the following afternoon as my wife, Gimalle, was dragging me reluctantly through a mall in search of a new duvet [see 84. Duvet. Oy Vey] she suggested that we swing by the food court and stop for a coffee.
Knowing resistance to be futile I agreed even though I find food courts to be noisy and unpleasant places and I tend to avoid them at all costs.
We bought our coffees and found a table to sit at and I was just reflecting on how noisy and unpleasant this particular food court was when Gimalle remarked how nice it was to see people around sitting in the food court enjoying themselves and the company of their friends and family.
So how is it that my coffee companion and I, having been exposed to that identical experience in sitting and talking with “him,” for those 20 minutes, and then Gimalle and I sitting in the same food court could each have reached such differing conclusions regarding those experiences?
And here’s the answer. We have all been blessed with this wonderful gift called the power of choice which allows us to place any meaning that we choose on any and every experience that we have, including choosing whether the old acquaintance who stops by to say “hi” is intruding on our privacy or adding to our enjoyment and whether the food court in which we choose to sit and have a cup of coffee is noisy and unpleasant or is a welcoming environment in which we can observe people enjoying themselves and the company of their friends and family.
In other words our experience has nothing at all to do with the person coming to our table or the location where we have coffee. Those are just the props. We choose the quality of the experience.
And the quality of that experience is heavily influenced by something that is called “Confirmation Bias.”
This is a process that influences our thinking by causing us to look for evidence that will confirm what we already believe to be true and not allow us – or makes it very difficult for us – to accept anything else.
In fact, sometimes our bias is so strong that any attempt to examine any evidence to the contrary causes us a sensation of tension and discomfort. Even this has a name. It’s called cognitive dissonance.
But essentially all of these things mean the same thing. It means that I expected any time spent with “him” to be painful and unpleasant and when he sat and joined us, I set out to prove myself right by finding fault with everything he said.
Naturally, I achievedthat goal.
So the point of all of this is really quite simple. Most of us have mastered the remarkable, and seemingly impossible, skill of accurately predicting the future time after time after time.
Think of those people you have labelled negatively. What happens when you run into them? The stupid ones do stupid things; the morons ones do moronic things and the idiots well, they act like, um, idiots.
Or think of that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when your wife tells you that the two of you are off to see some chick flick and, sure enough, you hate every moment of it.
The great joy for all of us in understanding this is that regardless of where we find ourselves, even in the most negative and unpleasant circumstances, we can adjust our confirmation bias to give ourselves any experience we desire.
We not only create our own reality, we accurately predict our own future.
We may not have control over what happens to us but we always own how it impacts us.
There’s only one challenge in buying into this: if we accept as self-evident the fact that we always choose the meaning of what happens to us, we have to abdicate all segments of victimhood and accept responsibility for how things impact us, in essence, for the state of our own happiness.
We can’t point fingers of blame at anyone else.
I’m not going to like that.
Till we read again.
P.S. A large number of people wrote to share their horror stories of customer service after reading last week’s blog, 84. Duvet. Oy Vey. Sadly, with only a small nod to poetic license, our experience in buying a duvet was exactly as I described. At its present rate of decline, I shudder to think of what our experiences will be like 10 years from now. I can only hope that the pendulum begins to swing in the other direction sooner rather than later.
P.P.S. Every single day I receive one or more emails from people who have read my book, Life Sinks or Soars – the choice is yours, telling me how much the story of Hugh and Earl has impacted their lives. If you would like to purchase your own copy please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or click here and my friends at Self Connection will gladly rush one to you.