“Argue for your limitations and sure enough they are yours.” ~ Richard Bach
Our beliefs define what is possible for us. They act as a lens through which we view and relate to the world. Our beliefs write manuals, curriculum and the news. They mark papers, define job descriptions, design policies and procedures, and outline meeting agendas. They decide how we should behave, what kind of person would make a good partner, and what really matters in the world. They determine what is right or wrong, good or bad based on what we experienced in the past. If we believe that silliness or messiness is bad, or that there is a “right” way to conduct business according to company policies, there is a good chance that we will pass our beliefs onto others, often unwittingly. They will inherit our beliefs, and take on what was never theirs in the first place.
“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” ~ Peggy O’Mara
Questioning our beliefs is vital if we wish to expand our field of possibilities, and what’s possible for others. Until we question our beliefs they will run the show, and mostly from the shadows. But the moment we shine light on them through inquiry, we open a door to a new world.
Swanson Primary School in Auckland, New Zealand, chose to question existing rules and regulations by ripping up the playground rulebook. According to this article, this decision is having incredible effects on children. “Chaos may reign…with children climbing trees, riding skateboards and playing bullrush during playtime, but surprisingly the students don’t cause bedlam, the principal says. The school is actually seeing a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing.” The principal went on to say, “We want kids to be safe and to look after them, but we end up wrapping them in cotton wool when in fact they should be able to fall over.”
“Don’t believe everything you think.” ~ Byron Katie
This story is a good example of what’s possible if we examine beliefs and their associated rules or systems. I can imagine that prior to the changes at Swanson Primary School many teachers and parents believed that bullrush, riding skateboards and climbing tress would cause more harm than good to student health and study habits. They were projecting their limiting beliefs onto the system, defining its parameters, and in fact creating the opposite outcome of what they intended—they were negatively impacting student learning, development and wellbeing. It was not until the principal, and perhaps other teachers and parents, courageously questioned what they believed should happen in the playground that positive change began to happen; that the field of possibilities expanded!
Discern between real and perceived limits
“What we can or cannot do, what we consider possible or impossible, is rarely a function of our true capability. It is more likely a function of our beliefs about who we are.” ~ Tony Robbins
Teams that I work with get quite excited the moment they realize they can choose their beliefs, and transform their organization and relationship systems in the process. They feel empowered determining what needs to happen and what actually doesn’t; in discerning between what they really would love to do, what absolutely needs to get done, and what is unnecessary and stressful. In other words, they feel empowered when they discern between real and perceived limits.
Real limits are limits based in fact or common sense: Children should line up and go outside when the fire bell goes off; my car needs oil if it is going to run; if I don’t clean my teeth my gums will suffer. Real limits support practicalities such as health and safety needs. Perceived limits, on the other hand, are limits based in fiction—we think they are real, but in fact they are not: I have to put other people first; I don’t have a creative bone in my body; this paper work needs to be completed by this afternoon—maybe it doesn’t and you have just made that up!
When we no longer collapse real and perceived limits together, and make what’s actually false fact, possibilities for ourselves and others expand. Knowing the facts is liberating!
A social services agency that hired me for leadership development training discovered that many of the beliefs that they held were causing stress, and negatively impacting productivity. We spent a day clarifying what is real and perceived—what they wanted to do, had to do, and what they thought they should be doing, but in fact, didn’t have to do. We outlined and examined limits in three categories:
- Their job duties
- Their relationship with clients
- Their relationship with the Ministry—the government body that defines measures and allocates funding
After about eight hours of examining their beliefs, they discovered that so much of what they thought was essential and important to their jobs was in fact unnecessary; their perceived limits made their jobs more complex and stressful than they needed to be. The executive director, Denise, in particular realized how much this is true. About 90% of her daily tasks were found to be superfluous. So she whittled her job duties down to the bare essentials, keeping only those tasks that absolutely needed to get done, and those that she wanted to do. When I phoned her two weeks after the training and asked her how long her workday is, she replied, “Vince, I work less than one hour a day!”
In examining beliefs in respect to their relationship with the Ministry, Denise and her team made further significant discoveries and changes. A bit of context first: Prior to the training they were tired of feeling under the thumb of the Ministry’s policies and procedures, and frustrated at how funding was solely based on how well those measures are implemented. “I bought into the expectations of the system we are a part of”, Denise said. “The government defines these expectations as ‘accountability to tax payers’. So it had become all about covering their butts rather than the human part of the services they pay for. So as a contractor we would fight to keep the human part in the human service delivery. What I’ve learned is that I was being a good soldier by trying to contort myself to make that idea work. And in that contortion we lost ourselves, and our clients were being negatively impacted as well. So I let go of the belief that the government’s way was the ‘right way’, and understood that our way was enough—our way of respecting and honoring the uniqueness of each person rather than trying to box them in was enough. I as a service provider was enough! I stopped being afraid of ‘what if’, and instead embraced the excitement of who I was, what I believed in, and how I could best serve from integrity.”
Denise and her team challenged existing assumptions and beliefs, and in doing so, achieved some unexpected outcomes. “When we stopped believing that their way was right, when we released ourselves from the boxes given to us by the government, only then did we realize that we made those boxes more daunting than they actually were. When it was time to write proposals, we told the government what we would be willing and not willing to do within their boxes at a risk of losing funding. To our surprise, they accepted our ‘proposal’, and we actually got more funding.”
Denise and her team experienced even more unexpected affirmations, this time from private funders. “Just recently we said to a funder, ‘Take your $15,000 back because we don’t have the capacity to do what you’re asking’. When we had a further phone call with them, and told them what we were doing and why it was important to us, they actually made what we were doing fit into their boxes. So the reverse actually happened; the ‘power’ shifted to us, and it was more collaboration than we had felt.”
By taking the risk to honor their personal integrity and bring the human back into the business, they received more funding, experienced greater collaboration, had happier staff, felt less stress in meeting clients’ needs, while providing a more compassionate and caring service to their clients. They challenged their beliefs, changed their system, and expanded their playground!
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” ~ Albert Einstein
To the extent that our perception of reality is filtered through old limiting paradigms—inter-generational beliefs and societal expectations—we fail to discern between real and perceived limits. We lose sight on what really matters, and can easily compromise our services and discount the human spirit in business and life. Trust and love can easily give way to fear.
F.E.A.R. = False Evidence Appearing Real
So many of our beliefs are rooted in fear and our need to unnecessarily control our existence. They are based in perceived and limiting ideas of what will create happiness, safety and success; and in ideas of how to best avoid liabilities, mitigate failure, and avert perceived chaos. Swanson Primary School’s attempt to control playground behavior came from such a mindset. Its intent to implement measures and ensure safety was ultimately good, but nonetheless it created a controlled experience for children that limited their development and playful spirit. By questioning their beliefs, they learned to place greater faith in the human spirit than in the shoulds of their perceived limits. They no longer allowed fear and what had always been done to shroud reality and overlook what truly counts.
Just because you are doing what you have always done doesn’t mean it works. Question everything! Open to the unexpected!
Is it the truth?
“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” ~Eugene Ionesco
When I work with daycare teams on discerning between real and perceive limits, we find quite a list of beliefs that deserve attention. Here are a few:
- Children should participate in Circle Time even if they are happily coloring in the corner.
- Children should only go down the slide, not up.
- During mandatory rest periods children should lay in silence, not read or draw.
- Children should not be able to bring their own toys from home to daycare.
- Boys should not participate in roughhouse play.
- I shouldn’t assert myself to parents.
- Children should learn ABC.
- I need to teach XYZ in this particular way.
The question is, is it the truth?
Is it the truth that children should only go down the slide, not up? Is it the truth that children should participate in Circle Time even if they are happily coloring in the corner? Or is this simply your perception, your fears, your perceived limits?
“Is it the truth?” is the empowering question that helps discern between what is real and perceived; between what is yours and what is mine. It reveals reality, and opens the door to another way; and it invites us to examine who we are, why we hold a particular belief and where it came from.
If you decide that the two aforementioned childcare beliefs are perceived limits that you have held quite strongly, it would be wise to consider where they come from. Perhaps they come from your own lack of comfort with letting go, getting messy, being unstructured, wild and free. If you grew up in a controlled way, and/or were afraid to take risks as a child, you may struggle to create space for children to “break the rules”, or act outside the box of conventions. Without knowing it, you may control their experience in the same way your experience was and continues to be controlled. Self-awareness and self-examination is thus vital if you want to see life with greater clarity, and meet others in their world.
“The more risks you allow your children to make, the better they learn to look after themselves.” ~ Roald Dahl
Our beliefs create the parameters for a child’s learning and development. Without questioning them, we limit how well children express themselves, relate to others, problem solve, explore their creativity, and more. We shrink their playground of learning and life to the edges of our mental constraints…that is until we question our beliefs; until we examine what is true versus make-believe. The moment we question our beliefs, we take greater responsibility for our lives, and the impact we have on others. We take ownership for our past, and how it impacts the present.
“Questioning our thoughts is the kinder way. Inquiry always leaves us as more loving human beings.” ~ Byron Katie
Here are some common beliefs worth questioning:
- I should go out with my friends tonight even though I’d rather stay at home and have a bath. Is it the truth?
- I need to get the report done by this afternoon. Is it the truth?
- I need to get the report done. Is it the truth?
- I shouldn’t be silly at work. Is it the truth?
- This is the way we’ve always done it and it works. Is it the truth?
- No one wants to hear my creative ideas. Is it the truth?
- I shouldn’t say “No.” Is it the truth?
- It’s bad or selfish to put myself first. Is it the truth?
- It’s inappropriate to be angry. Is it the truth?
- I don’t have a creative bone in my body. Is it the truth?
- My child needs to grow up. Is it the truth?
- I should work first, play later. Is it the truth?
- Idle hands are the work of the devil. Is it the truth?
- He needs my help. Is it the truth?
- What they are learning now will serve them later in life. Is it the truth?
- If I act on my intuition, chaos will ensue. Is it the truth?
- I need to stay in this relationship, because if I leave I will never find another. Is it the truth?
- I need to stay in this job. Is it the truth?
- I know what is best for them. Is it the truth?
- If I let my students lead, chaos will ensue. Is it the truth?
- What I am teaching them is what they need to learn. Is it the truth?
- How I teach them is how they will learn best. Is it the truth?
What beliefs stand out to you? Are they perceived or real limits? What other beliefs are you willing to question? Make a list, and for each one ask, is it the truth?
“Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore
The etymology of “education” comes from the Latin “educere”: e-(out of) + ducere-(to draw). Education literally means to draw out! And yet, for the most part, education has been more of a practice of putting information in. We believe, and thus have acted as if education begins with the teacher and the school’s agenda, when in fact it begins in the child’s heart.
We give children more information than they actually need; and without enough room for them to listen to their heart’s wisdom and cultivate curiosity, they will struggle to discern what is real versus perceived. They are more likely to simply accept what is being taught—the belief-based curriculum handed down to them—versus develop critical thinking skills.
If students do not learn to question in school, they will struggle to question their life. If the teacher does not learn to question her life, she will struggle to question at school, and will be less inclined to invite questioning from her students.
It begins with perspective. How do you see children—as empty vessels waiting to be filled, or as vessels of infinite love and wisdom ready to be expressed? So long as we don’t believe that children are born naturally creative, resourceful and whole—with innate wisdom and a purpose for being here—we will not trust ourselves to invite their curiosity and follow their lead. Our agenda will supersede theirs. Putting in will far exceed drawing out.
This is my belief, and I’m happy to hold onto it.
“The moment I decided to follow instead of lead, I discovered the joys of becoming part of a small child’s world.” ~ Janet Gonzalez-Mena
Question your beliefs and re-write humanity’s story
“You could be rich with ten dollars or poor with a billion dollars. It’s just your story about money that strikes terror in your heart.” ~ Byron Katie
Regularly question your beliefs and discover how many are actually make-believe. You will then catch on to the larger reality—that a great deal of the world is working within imaginary ideologies; that so much of our workplaces, school systems and relationships are built and operated from old tattered beliefs that humanity perpetuates.
The beliefs that were passed down through the generations were rarely, if ever, questioned. It was not right or safe to do so. But we live in a different era now. We are freer to think for ourselves, and to write the story of our life based on who we are and what we authentically believe. We can change the world one belief at a time. This is empowerment. This is freedom. Change our beliefs and we awaken to how powerful we are, and to how big our playground of life can be.
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Two extra tips:
- Discern between What and How: Just because you have to do something (a real limit) doesn’t mean you have to do it in a certain way. For example, children need to learn math—a real limit. But how they learn may not necessarily need to happen in the traditional standardized way. Maybe you can take them outside and count tree branches or stones with them. Maybe how you teach math can be much more fun and creative than you think! Discern what from how and you open new possibilities!
- Notice your language: Perceived limits usually have the words “should”, “ought”, “need”, “must”, and “have to”, attached. And they usually cause stress and unhappiness for you and others. If you sense stress and unhappiness, and find yourself using these words, question your belief.
“Whenever you say the words, ‘I should’, substitute ‘I don’t want to.’” ~ Lynda Austin — “I don’t want to” is the truth!
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2 bonus questions:
Since writing this article, a few playshop participants (early childhood educators) gave me two more questions to ask when examining beliefs that I felt called to share with you:
1. What if?
2. Why not?
Simple, but powerful. They said that since asking these questions and challenging their beliefs at their daycare, work has felt more like play, and they have remembered why they got into the field in the first place! Inspiring! Play on!!
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Check out Vince’s book: Wild Empty Spaces ~ Poems for the Opening Heart