Get out of jail free: break free from habits that don’t serve you

How much of your real self are you keeping behind bars?

I heard a fascinating interview today on BBC Radio 4 with a former prisoner, Jermaine James who enrolled on a groundbreaking scheme to study for a university degree. The  scheme called Inside Out and reported in an article by The Independent, is run by Durham University and offers a chance for third-year criminology students to work with a group of inmates for a 10-week module that counts towards their degree.

That the prisoners are scoring better on parts of the course than their university counterparts is not particularly remarkable in my view. But what Jermaine and his peers noticed about how differently he and many of his fellow prisoners approached the studying, I believe is. While most of the mainstream undergraduates took copious notes during the lectures, the prisoners tended to just listen and then process the information later back in their cells. It’s likely that some would write, and others would create images, maybe mindmaps or pictures. The point is that often at school we are led to believe that you are only paying attention if you make notes. For some this makes sense as deploying hand-eye coordination to write at the same time as absorbing information can create useful neural pathways that aid understanding.

However this is certainly not the case for everyone. If, for example, your brain wiring is atypical in relation to attention, this approach could be a disaster: simultaneous listening, writing and understanding can result in major overload and actually prevent learning. Your brain can produces a great deal of electro-chemical resistance and tire easily. What these inmates have worked out for themselves is where their sweetspots are and what they, as individuals, need to do to ‘get in the zone’. They recognized the need to find a different operating system. Just because a PC is not running Windows doesn’t mean that it’s broken!

The big question is, what else are we doing because we have been brought up to believe is the right thing to do, but which may not serve us? What are we doing that is effectively keeping much of our true selves under lock and key?

A few examples that spring to mind:

  • A client of mine who was reluctant to accept speaking engagements because she was afraid she may not have all the answers. “Who am I to stand up in front of all these people, many of whom have been working in the industry far longer than me?” she asked. Together we shifted that mindset. Now she is confident to explain that her knowledge and research enables her to ask most of the right questions. She has both reduced her anxiety and increased her approachability.
  • The worry around appearing emotional. In many cultures it is drummed into us that showing feeling in formal situations will undermine our credibility and impact. For this particular man we deduced that he was actually more influential, not less, when he showed his passion for the changes he was advocating.
  • Even an activity as straightforward as how to organize your workspace can take on an air of certainty which on closer scrutiny may not be deserved. How often have you heard the advice ‘arrange everything you need within arm’s length’. Just Google something like ‘efficient office’ and you will get the gist of the accepted norms. Often the advice is spot on, but for somebody else, not you! For instance I absolutely need to get up to the printer because my brain needs constant stimulation, not to mention oxygen.

The principle applies to a whole host of areas  – leadership, communication, engagement for example – and it’s all about authenticity. Shakespeare’s phrase “To thy own self be true” reaches down the centuries and is echoed in many contemporary works, including The Go-Giver by Bob Burg and John David Mann. For me the powerful lesson here is that in order to be influential over the long haul and engage others in what is important to you, they need to be heard and they need to trust you. So in nurturing and acknowledging your own authenticity you become more aware of what is true for others.

I, like the undergraduates on the ‘outside’ in the Durham University scheme,  used to write extensive notes each time I wanted to learn something new. And then ages trying to find where I had put them! Now you are more likely to see me drawing a picture or making a collage. It works for me. This is all about breaking free from behaviours that hold us back. And these can show up in how we lead others, in our approach to securing the next promotion, in how we handle a conversation with a prospective client and how we communicate with our loved ones.

Over to you now:

  • What might you need to do differently to work with more ease and with more impact?
  • To what extent do you truly know yourself?
  • What is your ‘get out of jail free’ card?

Find out more about the work Clare McNamara does with leaders and their teams on influence and authenticity.

© Move Ahead Global 2016


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  • Susan Cullen
    Posted at 19:26h, 27 January Reply

    Great article Clare! What immediately came up for me was ‘Know Thyself”, which is the aphorism that was inscribed in the entry of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece. It is so important to first of all know what works best for us, and then to honour that and not be distracted by others’ opinions of how we ‘should’ do something. Thanks for the insight!

  • Clare McNamara
    Posted at 14:55h, 28 January Reply

    You are welcome Susan and I am glad this posting struck a chord. Here’s to avoiding ‘shoulds’ at all times!

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