Jay Shirley

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The Daily Practice

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Protecting Misconceptions

Published: 11 Jul 2011

When I was young I would run through the kitchen at lightning speed. As fast as my little legs would take me. Part of my racing circuit included a section where there was a pull-out cupboard. For my whole life I was shorter and ran under it. This was my reality. This was my perception.

One day in full sprint I suddenly wasn’t shorter.

I then learned and (involuntarily) adjusted my perceptions of self.

Recently I took my wife to an MLS game. Landon Donovan goes tearing off in front of us and I say, “I would love to race him.” I think I could beat him. I’m pretty swift. She then said she could beat him and then she would beat me. Our perceptions are likely both very, very wrong. I could totally outrun her and Landon Donovan would embarrass both of us.

I don’t want to let go of my perception. I like this perception that I’m still very fast. Even if it isn’t true I still like it. I want to continue to believe this notion.

I would never utter these things out loud. Except to my wife. Oh, and writing here but it’s only to illustrate my learning exercises. However, if Landon Donovan or his agent does ever read this I will totally race him. $1000 for charity over the length of the pitch. I’ll even drive to LA.

Why do I want to keep this perception? Why do I want to maintain a belief that is likely no longer true? There is some distinct and isolated drive to persist in this foolish behavior.

What frightens me is that there is some fervent belief that I don’t recognize as foolish. That I truly believe. I know there has to be some aspect of my being that I perceive incorrectly. I wish I knew what it was.

This lead me to the conclusion that it’s impossible to discover myself independently. The best solution was to look at how people say things to me. Usually it’s just some comments about being unpleasantly acerbic, which is fine. I know all about that. I’m good there. This isn’t the right path and doesn’t feel correct. It’s a frustrating conundrum.

I think about the other people then. Who is providing me with feedback? The signal I desperately try to process. Maybe that’s flawed. I know a lot of people who seemingly glaze over important messages, missing all hints and missing the actual point. The point that the story is to be a cautionary tale, stop being like this person in the story. Missing the hint is worse than being guilty of the bad trait in question.

I think this level of obliviousness reduces a lot of opportunities in life. That’s a different writing, but being aware produces opportunity. People who are oblivious are not given the same level of respect or trust.

My self-doubt kicks in. Do I catch the points? Maybe I’m just as bad? I hope not. That would be really terrible.

My childhood neighbors were truly awful people. One day when I was probably 7 or 8 years old, they came over and were telling me about their cousin who did something (I can’t remember now) and cried and how he was a big baby. He was guilty of being all sorts of mean things. I was thinking, “I don’t want to agree with them, I would have cried, too.” I remember this event clearly. I was proud of myself for making this connection.

That’s the last time I ever felt certain the story was really about me. I knew even then that there was no cousin.

Two decades (at least) is a long time to go without that feeling of certainty. It seems unlikely that nobody has told a story with me as the veiled subject to try to deliver a jarring message more gently.

Years later in life I ran into a friend I worked with. She was sitting in a cafe with a friend of hers picking out paint colors. I don’t know how the conversation really went, but abruptly the friend of my friend said, “You have a habit of bringing the conversation to being about you and right now we’re trying to pick paint colors.”

Without merciful honesty nobody will be sure of their own attributes.

I have profound respect and admiration for that person. That was fabulous advice. Whether it was or wasn’t, that was the perception. I probably was. I maybe still do, but I try to be mindful. Back then I probably wasn’t an enjoyable person.

I like to tell stories. I think it’s fun. My stories are true (as best as I can recollect) and I generally get laughs. My favorite times in life are sitting around taking turns telling amusing stories. Usually about being stupid, like running into cutting boards.

I try to be what I would call a good conversationalist. I can’t gauge success and have only my perception of telling amusing stories. That perception could be completely wrong for some people. The final problem to judging perceptions is that it’s only for some people. It’s entirely subjective.

This is a most unfortunate conundrum. Anybody who feels comfortable with me enough to be honest will be biased. Those who don’t will be distrusted (usually).

Even so, if someone I didn’t know well said something to me I didn’t agree with I may be protective of my potential misconception.

A girl I was dating once said, “I know you think you’re funny. You aren’t. You should stop trying to be funny.” We broke up. My wife thinks I’m hilarious. I think she’s just easily entertained because I can’t be that funny.

People have different perceptions, too. Who can be trusted? My mom raised me to believe there were 3 sides to every story. It seems there are 3 sides to every personality trait. How I perceive it, how the other person perceives it, and what it really is. I think every person will have a different perception. So, now instead of 3 sides we have my perception, reality and every person who interacts with me.

Oh my.

I can’t stand some people and really enjoy others’ company. Some people I like very well also like people I can’t stand. We see different things.

And now I’ve written all these words and I am no closer to any answer. I haven’t even clarified my thoughts sufficiently

It’s impossible to gauge your own traits. It’s impossible to trust others’, because they are biased or having varying perceptions themselves.

Maybe it’s not important. The only conclusion I can come to is that what really matters is not that my perceptions are correct. What matters is that I improve myself and improve others. That I’m a positive influence and am not negative matters more. If I’m positive, who cares if some people don’t like me. It’s more important that those who do like me benefit from me.