No Margin In Your Life Means No Room For The Unexpected.

Many a driver unwillingly experiences this on the road. A narrow road, that involves another object (like a sudden crossing goat) would leave you with no choice but to plough off the road into the gravel, or the bush, and now have an unwanted offroad experience. Little roads are not made for any imperfection of experience. They have no margin for mistakes or the unexpected. 

Welcome back to our short blog series on mental fitness. The big thought of this blog is captured in this anchoring question, ‘how much margin do I create in my thinking?’

To be mentally fit requires the capability to think less rigidly and find freedom in open spaces. It’s the ability to have space in our neuro pathways for the unexpected goat. 

Margin, or open space, is a desirable condition in almost every aspect of life. Margin in your finances means you can accommodate unexpected expenses. When there is no margin, even a small, unexpected expense creates huge stress. Take margin in something like time. Have you ever experienced a day where there isn’t even time for even a sandwich, and even going to the bathroom is a luxury? We are dealing with a simple equation where decreased margin in your life = increased stress. 

No margin in your life means no room for the unexpected.

The Sign of a Strong Mind Is the Willingness to Change Ones’ Mind.

I love the Karoo. When I was younger, the Karoo was a necessary boredom enroute to a holiday in the Western Cape. Now, how my thinking has changed. The Karoo is part of the holiday, a place to be savored and a place to lavish in. I am mesmerized and ‘saved’ by those open spaces. 

It’s as if my mind has space to think and to notice. Where vastness is beautiful, and the roughness of the koppies and barrenness of the land is provoking. It makes me wonder – is my mind an urban mess of city skyscrapers, overpopulated with activity and rush, or is it like the Karoo, open for adventure, and amazement? I want a Karoo mind. 

Sometimes our thoughts become so fixed and rigid that there is no space for any contemplation, doubt or adventure. I used to accolade myself for being consistent in thought, in never changing my mind. But I have learnt that a sign of a strong mind is the willingness to change one’s mind. 

I am learning that structures of thinking should not be stuck, static building blocks but rather, scaffoldings that are temporary, pliable and malleable. Using phrases like ‘hey I’m seeing that differently’ or ‘I’m changing my mind on that,’ should be more common utterances than less. 

To support the creation of margin, consider the following 5 statements. 

1. The goal of learning is not to re-enforce my thinking but to evolve my thinking.

All too often, life is a formula of ‘gain knowledge and then reinforce that knowledge’ by engaging with material or people who see it your way, think your way, and do it your way. This leads to static buildings and closed fences in our minds. 

There is a story of Steve Jobs and Bono discussing why long haired, barefoot, non-deodorant wearing hippies revolutionized our world in the mid 1970’s. Their conclusion was that this phenomenon can be explained by the counterculture posture of the hippies. 

They were not attached to the negative preached outcomes of advancement. To them, the computer was not taking away freedom. It was bringing freedom. They had the capacity to incorporate new thinking into their worlds. How essential is such a posture in today’s rapidly changing technological landscape?

Create margin in your life by hearing not only your viewpoint but those of others around you. 

No margin in your life means no room for the unexpected.

2. Better to be right now than to be perceived as being right all along.

As humans, we tend to value the notion of being consistently right all along, regardless of what evidence is in front of us now. This leads us to passionately defend our early viewpoints. But as per last month’s blog, more often than we might admit, we are wrong. 

The need to appear right closes the door to open spaces, channeling energy into defending viewpoints rather than dancing with increasing perspectives. Here, we might fall into the trap of presenting a consistent argument rather than a factual one. Can we embrace and celebrate the notion that what we thought last year, may not be what we believe this year?

The terms ‘escalation of commitment’ describes the condition where somebody starts something, and then refuses to stop –  even if logic or wisdom says otherwise. If you are in a hole, stop digging.

Create margin in your life by reconsidering your viewpoints based on new knowledge and new insights. 

3. Notice and resist the posture of denialism.

There are many things in life that need to be questioned. Often, following is not the pathway. We don’t need to be open minded about everything. Some principles are abiding and unchanging. But be careful of the posture of the denialist. For denialists there is no room for any negotiation.

Skepticism is a much better stance. The considerate sceptic continually asks questions and knows what it takes to have a deeper conversation. They might not be easily persuaded, but there is a willingness to engage when considerate insights and arguments are presented. I like what Seth Godin says….

"If you’re not having any second thoughts at all, it’s probably because you’re not thinking it through enough. The hallmark of the true believer is that there’s no room for judgment. For everyone else, misgivings are a sign that you’re carefully considering the problem at hand."

When you find yourself adamant about something, ask yourself, ‘what would need to be presented for me to engage in conversation here?’ If you can’t think of anything, you are probably posturing as a denialist. 

Create margin  in your life by avoiding the mindset of the denialist.

No margin in your life means no room for the unexpected.

4. The goal of life is to grow wiser as we grow older.

How good is that line. The wisdom tradition does not see wisdom as an outcome. Rather, wisdom is something that is continually gained through the process of living. Where there is always an abundance for more.

Arrogance, on the other hand, is passion with ignorance. Ignorance can be described as the flawed state of believing you are undeniably ‘right.’ In his book Will, Will Smith shares this interesting line of thought:

“We beat on ourselves for being so stupid, regretting our choices, and lamenting the horrible decisions we make. But here’s the reality. That’s what life is. Living is the journey from not knowing to knowing, from not understanding to understanding, from confusion to clarity. You have one job as a human. Figure this shit out. Life is learning – period. Overcoming ignorance is the whole point of the journey. You are not supposed to know at the beginning.”

Create margin in your life  by embracing the realization that we have never ‘arrived’ at the end conclusion.

5. We live in a world of wonder and mystery.

Not everything needs explanation or sharp lines. Making room in our lives for paradox and discomfort can be empowering. This line is not good news for the analytics amongst us, where proof is needed. But how can we know everything? The universe in which we live continually amazes us with wonder and awe. This concept is beautifully captured by Einstein who in a letter to a friend wrote…

“You and I never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born. We must be careful to never outgrow our wonder years or to let our children do so.”

The notion of Einstein himself being comfortable with mystery and childlike wonder is most comforting. It reminds us that in our quest for answers can we remain in ‘wonder.’ This notion is also powerfully captured by Brene Brown who reminds us of that margin in our minds is the refusal to be boxed by absolutes or philosophies. She says…

Why do we have to choose evidence over experience, reason over faith, science over art, data over story?

Create margin by learning to dance with paradox and mystery. It enlarges the dimensions of the road we travel.   

There Is Beauty and Power in Creating Margin.

I need to create margin for my thoughts and my thinking. The above 5 statements support the creation of such margin. I often use the metaphor of the Karoo I shared earlier to help me with this. It reminds me to not make unmovable buildings around my thought processes, but to rather have space for the beauty of deliberate, adventurous thinking, where thoughts are given room to breathe. 

We don’t need open mindedness around everything. But all of us can and will benefit from more margin than less. In the next blog we will get practical around some things we can do that enable this. I can’t wait to share it with you all. 


Feeling First: Emotions Drive Our Choices, Not Facts.

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