Or… Present You taking a hit, to help out Future You.

When I first read the blog entitled ‘Self Control is Just Empathy With Your Future Self’ by Ed Yong, it got all sorts of ideas buzzing around in my head.  Just the title itself is enough to inspire a book!  I’ve delayed doing anything with it for months and just let the idea simmer.  To read the full blog for yourself, and I’d highly recommend it, click here.  For now, I’ll share my topline thoughts on the implications as I see them, for the kind of work we do at Spring on Management, Leadership & Performance Coaching.  If you’re reading this blog then you’ll already be interested in these kind of matters so I hope you’ll find ways to apply what you pick up from this.

I’m sure I won’t do this subject any real justice in my blog here but I feel compelled to share it far and wide regardless – because in the process I’ll force myself to get my head around it more!  It’s a big old subject after all.  In fact I’ve delayed writing about it in order to feel confident enough that I give it a fair representation – what a mistake.  It’s me falling foul of The Paradox of the Flawless Record.  Doh.  So I’ve just got stuck in regardless.  Enough faffing.

Definitions of Self Control?  The quality that allows you to stop yourself from doing things you want to but that might not be in your best interest OR Restraint exercised over one’s own impulses, emotions or desires.

Definitions of Empathy?  The ability to understand and share the feelings of another OR the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another.

Now I’m well aware that some people will argue that we’re all predisposed to be more or less controlled and/or empathic according to our genetic make, the traits we’re born with and our chemical balance at any given time.  There’s lots of evidence to support this and of course your social conditioning – I agree with all that.   So we could give a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders and just see what happens?  And, in my opinion, personal accountability remains present in life whether you personally take ownership for things or not – so on the basis that you’re interested in self-development and being able to change things in yourself and the world around you, then read on!

It took a moment or two to sink in at first.

I re-read the blog title several times.  Self control…. is just empathy… with your future self.  What a fantastically elegant and simple insight, that has so many ramifications – especially since our brains appear to be connecting these two aspects automatically.  The first few that sprang to mind for me are these:

  • Setting long term organisational or team strategy as a leader plus day to day management decision making
  • Maintenance of resilience and well being
  • Organisational politics and influencing
  • Trump, North Korea & future world peace!!
  • Performance coaching
  • Adopting new habits or routines as a result of new learning

You’ll no doubt have a lot of other ideas yourself.   Here is a summary taken directly from the blog that sums up how this idea can bring with it some searching questions:

“This tells us that impulsivity and selfishness are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites restraint and empathy….Perhaps it’s why impulsivity correlates with slips among recovering addicts, while empathy correlates with longer bouts of abstinence. These qualities represent our successes and failures at escaping our own egocentric bubbles, and understanding the lives of others—even when those others wear our own older faces.”

So let’s take a step back first.  Why am I excited about this notion in the first place?  It’s because it has such a direct and immediate impact on every decision I make all day every day.  So is therefore relevant to every client I ever work with.  Collections of individuals all displaying varying degrees of empathy and self-control; interacting with each other, based upon individual reactions to their circumstances, that all have a knock on effect to everyone else.  Gulp.  It’s a big deal.

Choices.  Decisions.  Every moment of our waking hours we are making choices.  The outside world is filtering in through our various senses and we’re reacting to it internally with chemical and electrical impulses followed by making choices.  Eat this, eat that.  Stay here, go there.  Do this or do that.  Now I’m not going to take a moral or values based position on the ‘right or wrong’ of choices.  That’s your call on what you deem to be in yours or someone else’s best interests.  The place I’m coming from here is one of a coach and trainer who is continually looking for ways of unlocking potential and performance in others… so that they can do the same for their teams, customers, organisations and most importantly… loved ones and families.

So if we are better able to empathise with our future self… by noticing now the impact that our actions now, will have on us and others tomorrow, next week or next year… then we are far better placed to be making choices that are inline with being helpful not harmful.

The Empathy Museum – “Never judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.” Native American Proverb  Last year I went to the Meaning Conference in Brighton, it’s on again this November.  The most memorable session there that stuck with me, was experiencing the Empathy Museum installation – especially since a chunk of my early career was spent in footwear.  You’ll see from clicking the link above that you can choose from a massively varied collection of shoes, then put them on along with some headphones and wander around listening to the voice of the shoes’ owner telling their story.  The stories range from Syrian Refugees to Sex Workers and open up a level of personal connection that is very powerful.  It’s an awakener that I found stretches your belief around just how often we all really even attempt to empathise let alone get more practised at it.  More on this below in the Taking Action section.

Taking things a little deeper then… Delayed (or deferred) gratification.  This is a concept that I’ve been fascinated with ever since I first read about it as ‘a thing’ in The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck.  It’s the ability to resist the temptation of an immediate often smaller reward, and wait for a later but often larger or more enduring reward.  Most folk these days will have heard about the Marshmallow Test with children.  Another simplified example might be… Don’t whack something on your credit card that you can’t afford even if you really really want it right now because you’ll then be hit with interest costs of far more in the longer term.. but instead, wait, save and buy it when you can afford it and spend a load less money which in turn means you can buy more stuff you do want.  It’s not that easy or rational though of course.  We all do stuff we know will harm, hinder or disadvantage us, and yet often can’t explain why, or maybe choose to ignore confronting why because life is busy and complicated enough already.  Or just because it’s more fun, comforting or exciting to do it NOW instead of waiting.

Discipline – it’s tough, but sometimes, it’s all we’ve got.  We can work on our environment (turn off our wifi so the email stops pinging and we can concentrate).  We can create routines (Keep in touch with our team and stakeholders on a rolling daily, weekly and monthly basis with some kind of contact strategy.)  We can commit to others through external contracting and social pressure (Telling everyone on Facebook that we’re doing a charity bike ride so we have to train for it even if it’s cold and raining outside) . And so on, and so on, yet at each step with our free will we have to muster some degree of discipline to act on things we believe or feel are the best thing to do.  Defining therefore, what we would class as the ‘best thing to do’ becomes increasingly relevant.  See Point 1 below.

Taking Action – 4 focused ideas

  1. Committing Yourself to Clarity – Defining what you want in the future.  In order to develop more self control or channel your energies better in the way you’d like them today… then you could get clearer on where you’re heading tomorrow and beyond.  Your direction of travel.  The future self you actually want.  In NLP terms this could be a ‘Well Formed Outcome.‘ In everyday language… having a very clear plan!  Something I’ve used a lot with clients, and for the past 10 years personally, is a Being Doing Having sheet – often partnered with a Vision Board.  I won’t go into these much here – call or email me if you’d like to chat about them further.  For now, it’s just worth flagging that by having strategies like these, you drastically increase your chances of succeeding with things you want and avoiding things you don’t.  Why?  Because if you can see, hear, feel, measure and articulate what you want and where you’re heading, you have far more chance of discernment in the moment.  You can say no to the stuff that won’t serve your purpose and yes to the stuff that will because you are better placed to make a sound judgement (that serves yours or someone else’s purpose).  An example of this for me, is having a very clear profile of which clients and projects to work with, and which to avoid.  I can judge whether they will create more freedom, enjoyment and contribution to communities for myself and indirectly my family/others… or whether they’ll restrict, damage or derail the future plans I’ve committed to.  It would be easy to accept every piece of work that came Spring’s way to push sales and profit growth upwards.  Lazily I could think that more and more money is only a good thing.  Yet it’s counter intuitive.  By defining the sweet spot I want the business and myself/those around me to be in… I have actively slowed growth in the past 2 years and yet derived more precious value personally and been able to contribute/give more to others.
  2. Increasing your well being and resilience.  A good friend and colleague has just released the book Don’t Strain LittleBrain.  It’s a practical, straightforward guide to understanding your brain better to become less frazzled by everyday life and more resilient.  It summarises and simplifies a wealth of current writing and research from neuroscience and related fields to present a compelling picture of what we do to ourselves on a daily, and sometimes hourly basis, and what we could do instead.  It is in itself a fantastic way of developing more empathy with your future self.  Get your copy here.
  3. Self Awareness.  Make the conscious decision to become more aware of when you’re acting inline with an idea of your future self, and when you’re habitually ticking along on autopilot.  Share with a couple of people what you’re wanting to act upon more and act upon less.  Catch up with them at least weekly – and diarise it.  Might only be a text message – a quick phone chat or face to face would be even better.  This alone might increase your awareness and spark stronger resolve to do more of what you want, and less of what you don’t.
  4. Practise Empathy – A mile or minute in their shoes.  Determine to understand other people’s perspective, opinion, feelings or position at least twice as much as usual.  Ask twice as many questions than usual – deliberately.  Tell the other person that’s your aim if it helps.  Show that extra bit of interest in uncovering how and why they are seeing a situation the way they are… or feeling a way they feel.  Resist the urge to jump in and talk more or comment on something.  THEN… and this is the more relevant angle I think, in relation to this particular blog… Do the same for yourself as a reflective method of continuous improvement.  Force more time into your diary to stop and consider what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and whether it’s in your best interests in 3 months time or next year.

So some parting thoughts.

There’s a whole lot more to uncover from this concept of self-control and empathy than I’ve got close to touching upon.

It’s complicated and yet in the moment when faced with making a choice about something to do or not do, it’s actually annoyingly simple – if not always easy.

Choosing to understand others better and also what you as an individual want to ‘be’ both now and in the future is possible for us all.

Recognising that our brains are connecting empathy and self-control whether we like it or not is kind of sobering!!

Let me know how you get on…