By Ron Culberson. With a master’s degree in social work, Ron Culberson spent the first part of his career working in a large hospice organization as a clinical social worker, middle manager, and senior leader. As a speaker, humorist, and author of "Do it Well. Make it Fun.The Key to Success in Life, Death, and Almost Everything in Between", he has delivered more than 1,000 presentations to associations, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporations. His mission is to change the workplace culture so that organizations are more productive and staff are more content. He was also the 2012-2013 president of the National Speakers Association and is a recognized expert on the benefits of humor and laughter.
When I mow the yard, I think. And I think. And I think.
Between the repetitive movement across the grass and the loud noise from the mower, there is not much else to do. It’s not like I can call up a neighbor and engage in a pleasant conversation about how his grass is growing.
So, I think.
The problem is, I can think myself into a stressful state of mind if I’m not careful. And this is the problem with overthinking. It can take us to a place where we might not need to go.
Now don’t get me wrong. I suspect most of us are proud of our place at the top of the animal hierarchy and attribute most of our success to the ability to think. I’m sure the lowly beetle who mechanically goes about his daily tasks would love to have our gray matter and might just take issue with the fact that we’re not better at managing the thinking process. It’s like the line in Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
But let’s get back to my yard. The last time I mowed, I kept replaying in my head a conversation I recently had with a friend. Now, before I tell you what I said, let me give you some context about my particular style of communicating with others.
I’m a big believer in asking questions to expand my understanding of people, situations, and the world in general. I learned this technique during my social work training when our professors repeatedly encouraged it. They taught us to explore another person’s experience rather than assuming that we know where the individual is coming from. So, whenever someone has a different life experience than me (which is, by the way, always), I tend to ask questions about their experience.
Over the years, I’ve had candid conversations about sexual orientation, race, religion, politics, and even the highly controversial debate on whether to mow one’s yard horizontally or diagonally—all because I was willing to ask. And surprisingly, no one has ever hit me! Instead, I think it helped me build better relationships and a greater understanding of others.
Now, back to conversation I was replaying in my head as I mowed. My friend is Korean and I was curious about something I had read about status and hierarchy in Asian cultures. Specifically, I wanted to know if it was taboo to challenge authority. I had recently been involved in a situation where I suspected this might have happened and wanted my friend’s perspective.
For what it’s worth, I did mention that I realized this was a generalization but was curious what he thought. He gave me several different insights that all made good sense. So, I thanked him for his input and then asked him whether he mowed his yard horizontally or diagonally. He seemed perplexed by the new line of questioning.
As I headed home that day, I began to wonder if I had inadvertently offended him by asking a potentially stereotypical question. I had explained to him questions like this are my way of gaining a better understanding of others as well as to explore my own biases. He seemed to appreciate my explanation but later, I worried that he was just being nice.
So, as I criss-crossed my yard a few days later, I kept thinking about the conversation and ultimately convinced myself that he thought I was a rude. Then, a couple of days after that, the news media reported several incidences of violence against Asian American people and I was sure my questions now had the potential of being both terribly untimely and outright offensive.
After not being able to get this off my mind, I finally followed up with my friend to see if he thought my questions were insensitive. He said he was surprised that I would even think that. He said that he appreciated the questions and further, that he had enjoyed our conversation. Go figure.
So, the worry bouncing around in my head was way off base. I had created a problem that did not exist. And the culprit was the the solitary act of mowing. OK, the real problem was my thinking. By creating an issue that wasn’t an issue, I worked myself into a frenzy. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Luckily, we can rein in the thinking process the same way we use a bag to catch the grass when we mow. However, before we can address the problem we must first notice that it’s happening.
You see, our reality at any given moment may not resemble the thinking that’s going on in our head. For example, if someone waves at you in a crowded mall and you have no idea who they are, you can easily spend the next hour searching Facebook or scrolling through your address book trying to figure out who the heck it was. But what if they were waving to someone behind you? Your mind created a problem that did not really exist and you lost an hour of your life dealing with it.
I think the most reasonable way to handle our mind’s overactive imagination is to do one of two things. First, we can confirm our suspicions by asking, exploring, and seeking validation of the thinking. This will either confirm or deny our worries.
The second way to handle it is to acknowledge that it’s happening but not allow ourselves to be drawn down the rabbit hole of worry. So, if I was worried that I had offended my friend, I could have asked him in the moment. Or, I could recognize my mind’s tendency to create stress while simultaneously recognizing that I had approached him in a sincere and respectful way, and therefore, he was not likely bothered by it. Either of these techniques would have made my mowing experience so much more relaxing.
So, is this mind taming thing simple to do? Not really. In fact, as you can see, I’ve struggled with it as recently as my last yard mowing experience. Achieving an awareness of how our mind works and mastering the process to manage it can take years of practice. But just like life, and mowing our yards for that matter, it’s an ongoing work in progress.
And just in case you’re wondering, I alternate the direction of my mower each week making sure to cover diagonal, vertical, and horizontal directions.
I know, it’s brilliant!
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