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How to Read the Label When You're Stuck Inside the Jar
We always have choices about how we view and handle the scenarios that present themselves.
We all know that feeling of struggling with a problem or decision where the solution seemed impossible for us, yet obvious when someone else pointed it out. I know I'm raising my hand.
When you’ve been through that revelation moment many times, you can feel like kicking yourself for not seeing what can afterward appear so simple and clear.
Nearly everyone has moments of getting stuck, where we limit our solutions and literally can't read the label from inside the jar. On an episode of Jonathan Fields Sparked podcast, we discussed examples of these moments where our unconscious patterns, assumptions, and emotions keep us from seeing correctly.
Luckily enough powerful techniques exist that are there to help us question our default perspectives, invert problems to gain fresh insights, and seek input from others, who can serve as mirrors to reflect our blind spots back to us.
But by interrogating paradigms we take for granted, reevaluating the stakes, and shifting our mindset often can reveal potential opportunities we have previously been oblivious to.
You Can't Read the Label from Inside the Jar
“It's hard to read the label when you're stuck inside the jar.” That’s the way I’ve come up with to explain this feeling. In coaching, it arises most often when someone brings up a situation they’re ‘stuck’ in. I begin in coaching with: “Here is what I'm seeing. Here's what you're saying. Here's your body language.”
Having an independent observer who can observe from the outside can create a cascade of epiphanies. These realizations hinge often on a fairly obvious point — one that hasn’t been properly articulated before.
Those of us inside the jar then think: How did I not see that when I've been dealing with this for six months — or six years?
The answer lies in neuroscience, and relates to problem solving. When a problem is local to us, we miss a lot of the details that are obvious to any external person. Why is this? Because we default to unconscious decision-making.
When we think about making decisions, we don’t generally think of ourselves acting unconsciously. We prefer to imagine we are rational people looking at premises, conditions, and factors, considering them all — and then making a decision. But we must also consider our primal urges and emotions and their effect on our decision-making. Here, our unconscious drives us.
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman explains in detail how our unconscious conclusions and assumptions can keep us stuck in the same mental paradigms. It's only when you talk to someone capable of unpacking those repeated, unconscious ways you continuously make the same decision — who can point out what’s absurd in that process — that we start to untie the knot.
When we pull out some of the assumptions affecting our decisions, those assumptions almost always sound absurd. A very common unconscious bias or fear that rules a lot of folks is what I call “van-down-by-the-river catastrophizing.”
Many of us replay in our heads a scenario where if we make one wrong decision, we’re going to lose everything and be left destitute, living in a van down by the river. We get stuck.
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People will turn a low-stakes, reversible decision, into a high-stakes, irreversible decision — all in their heads. When we unpack those catastrophizing tendencies, it’s clear they’re all resting upon this assumption (and the strong emotions it carries): that if you make one bad choice, your life is over, forever. Once you realize, “Oh, well, that's not exactly true,” then you can back up and re-calibrate all the other things you’re thinking about. It opens up a freedom space where you can actually think clearly and make better choices.
Being stuck inside in the jar, in the dark, you don't see the absurd premise that’s predetermining all your decision-making, and that you've been operating in the same way for six years. Here’s an example of my getting out of the jar: Every June, July, and August, I enter my state of summer stupefaction and sloth. I don't know what I'm doing with my life. I regret all the choices that I've made. When I was younger, I’d say, “Maybe something is really wrong. Maybe I do need to question everything.”
Now in my 40s, I realize it's just a pattern. It's just that time of the year for me. I'm outside of that jar and I can see from the outside this person, myself, who’s inside the jar and feels like they don't know what's going on. My outside self can say instead, “You know what? In six weeks, I'll feel differently. I endeavor not to make any major strategic decisions right now.”
Six weeks later I think, “Okay, I know what I'm doing now.”
It’s important to note this isn’t at all a question of how skilled or accomplished you are. In fact I'd push that even further and say you are more likely to fall into these traps if you're super smart and credentialed. You could be the founder of a unicorn startup or the CEO of a global enterprise. You could have had perfect SATs scores. It doesn't matter. We all are wearing certain blinders that stop us from seeing truths about our lives that may be profoundly obvious to people who are not us. (And it’s not just for work, but in our relationships, or in any aspect of life.)
When I’m helping unpack these things for clients, what usually happens is that a person has piled a conceptual layer and a conceptual maze, on top of what they feel they're afraid of or they feel ashamed of. You’ve got to get to the root level.
Two Questions to Ask Yourself
Here I’d like to say a word or two about an important factor in decision-making: courage. Take a problem you're thinking about right now or that you've been vexed by for a while. I’m going to ask you two questions about it.
Question one: What's the smartest next step you could take?
Question two: What's the most courageous next step you can take?
For most people, the first question starts the Rubik's Cube turning and possibilities unfolding. It feels complicated. But with that second question, our minds stop spinning. We almost immediately feel, “Oh, crap, I know exactly what that step is.”
All the overthinking and celebration and modeling and scenario planning that we tend to focus on when trying to answer question one covers up the real emotional decisions that need to be made.
You can't outthink your heart, no matter how hard you try. It's going to catch up with you.
Building this massive mental model is just to keep you from being scared, but it's also preventing you from taking that courageous next step. You're going to end up putting even higher stakes, even more weight, on the decisions you might make and how right they need to be. Because all of that is trying to counter the fear.
If you're worried about looking stupid in front of people, you’ll end up with a pile up of ideas without action, and will then be hypercritical about what you piled up. We end up being perfectionists about concepts, plans, or ideas because we think, “Oh god, I did all this work, I can't have all this work done and still be looking like a fool.”
We all have different fears and different things that drive us. But we have a tendency to believe we are rational creatures who can override the emotional creatures that we also are.
When people put the blinders on, usually what they're covering up is how they really feel about something. And the fear that they have around it. The reality is we're emotional creatures that can use our rational faculties to help navigate things. But at root, it's that beating heart that will drive us forward — and without which, if we don’t consider it, we’ll be stuck.
This is another way to slice the classic saying, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we're spiritual beings having a human experience.” You could also say, “We are not rational beings having an irrational experience. We're irrational beings having a rational experience.” And it’s usually a fleeting one.
People have shame around not being those rational creatures. They sense that if they were stoic and rational, they would be better able to do all sorts of things. If you’re not that, then there’s something wrong with you. Nope. Nothing wrong with you.
The important question is: How do we pull ourselves out of that, out of our default?
People often think what’s needed is our tools of clarity and objectivity. And they believe we have the ability to turn that lens on ourselves, to truly understand what is happening.
That’s not the entire story, and doing that work ourselves is rarely even possible. Mostly because there are all these layers of scripts that are running for all of us, which obscure us from being clear about the reality of our situation. So we need nudges, observations, from outside ourselves, to help us address our unconscious biases, our scripts, our defaults, our beliefs.
Invert the Problem, Invert the Stakes
One of my go-to mental models for addressing some of these fears is: invert the problem. If you're super overwhelmed by the van-down-by-the-river scenario, you can invert that and say, "Well, how might this very problem be the thing that makes you abundant and makes you wealthy and prosperous?"
Whatever the constraint is, turn it on its head. Take that thing you think is the tension point and invert it and see how that problem might change.
If you find it’s mentally tough to think you're not a rational economic actor all the time, and that's what you’re striving for — you're going to end up with a life of a lot of stilted interactions and suffering. If you invert it and say, “What happens if I actually accept that I'm a human being having a human experience, and I have these faults?” You can overcome that. You can probably enjoy being human at the same time.
One trick for inverting the problem is thinking in terms of probabilities instead of absolutes. How likely is it that thing is going to happen? And question, why do you think it's 80% versus 60%? This breaks that mold of "this is absolutely what's going to happen" and that sort of determinism.
The second concept that might help is questioning the stakes of that challenge you're dealing with. If it's felt like really high stakes, you can always say, but is it really high stakes, though? And if it is, why is it so high stakes? What if it's just your fear that you're gonna look stupid in front of your team of four to eight people? All you have to say, probably, is, “Oh, I missed that.” That's the worst that's gonna happen.
And the best that might happen is you have a good idea, or you unveil something that has been a team assumption that no one's ever stated before. If you change the stakes of whatever you're considering, and realize that most of life is experimentation, you can make a low stakes experiment or trial.
Seeing the Label from Inside the Jar in a Team Context
Having trouble reading the label, or being in “I'm inside the jar” mode is often not just an individual experience, but one that can unfold in relationship, in a team or group setting.
When you’re working solo, it's great to consult a coach or an advisor — who can sit across from you, seed questions and prompts, and share some observations that make you, the recipient, wake up and say, “Oh now that you mentioned that, it's clear as day to me that this is actually the reality.”
But what if you don't have easy access to that person? Or you do your work in a team context?
Tap the other members of your team to be those mirrors, to ask the questions that awaken insight and clarify and bring to the surface things that you just can't see, because you're the person inside the jar and having trouble reading the label. And you can do the same for them.
Two books can help with this kind of work in a team setting.
The first is Sparked: Discover Your Unique Imprint for Work that Makes You Come Alive. Once you know your Sparked archetype, you can ally with other people based on their archetype — or you might collaborate with someone specifically who has a different archetype than you, and can see the problem in a different way.
The second is my newest book, Team Habits, in which I ask the question: How do we develop habits of belonging in collaboration? What types of questions actually facilitate belonging and performance and don’t create dysfunction?
Just as when we’re dealing with just our individual selves and we’re stuck inside the jar, we want to lead with compassion for others on our teams who may be facing the same situation — whether in the team context or a personal one.
We’re Never Truly Stuck Inside the Jar
Whether you’re an individual thinking through these questions or a leader or team member, it’s important to remember that we’re never truly stuck. We always have choices about the way we handle whatever scenarios present themselves, or whatever patterns or circumstances we find ourselves in.