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Don’t Box Yourself In

There is an inspirational children’s book written by Dr. Seuss called Fish Out of Water. In the book, a young boy receives a goldfish named Otto. The pet store owner advises the young boy not to overfeed the fish.


“Never feed him a lot.
Never more than a spot!
Or something may happen.
You never know what.”


Of course, the young boy ignores the advice and the results are amusing as the small fish grows to extraordinary dimensions, bursting from the container and even outgrowing the house. In typical Dr. Seuss fashion, the misadventure ends in lessons learned for the boy.


As absurd as the idea of a goldfish growing bigger than a house sounds, it does spark the imagination. And there’s actual truth to the characteristic of an animal’s tendency to grow to the size of the container they are put in. Iguanas, for example, will usually grow to about half the size of their container.


Obviously, there is a limit to this growth otherwise we would have gigantice Iguanas roaming the wild like some sort of 50’s B-movie. Fish, such as the goldfish in this story will do the same. Put them in a smaller bowl and they will remain small, put them in a larger bowl and they grow bigger. Even plants have the same tendency. Many studies have shown that pot size determines, to a degree, the size of the plant.


I believe the same effect exists for humans. Now, I don’t mean that if you put a person in a cage they will end up being smaller. What I am referring to is a person’s vision of their purpose. The size and scale of a person’s vision of their purpose will determine how committed they will be to the process and ultimately how successful they will be. If their vision is grand then they will be much more successful than someone whose vision is small.

Getting Out of The Box

The self-improvement industry is a $10 billion industry that is expected to increase in the years ahead. The psychologists market is estimated to be four times that. Depression medication sales alone was $14.11 billion dollars in 2017. That is a lot of people in the world spending a lot of money because they are dissatisfied with who they are and their current situation.


A scroll down the self-improvement section of Amazon provides a large assortment of different areas to focus. Sculpting a better body, improving your financial situation, becoming more skilled, improving mental agility, becoming a better communicator, or building confidence. There are so many ways to improve that it is difficult to know where to start. Yet, people will spend thousands to improve themselves and can’t answer the simple question of: Who am I?


Where we focus our efforts will determine the potential for our growth. Typically we focus on the following areas of improvement:

Skills and Abilities—Generally, when someone thinks about their value, they revert back to their skills and abilities. You might remember back in grammar school having talent shows, where classmates showed off their particular skills and abilities. Athletes strut the hall having their letterman jackets displaying their achievements. When you apply for a job, you present resumes, portfolios, or, if you’re more experienced, a curriculum vitae (CV) that outlines all of your skills and achievements from your life of work. It is no secret that our society focuses a lot on skills and abilities.


Physical Looks—Every supermarket, gas station, and newsstand is plastered with magazines with attractive faces and bodies. Brands use beautiful models to sell products and Hollywood parades around the most physically appealing individuals from our society. It is easy to blame those industries for making unreasonable beauty standards, but these marketing tactics wouldn’t be used if they didn’t work. The fact is, we are drawn by some primal compulsion to attractive people.

I don’t know what the evolutionary mechanisms are that drive these behaviors or how they work, but there has always been a magnetic draw toward the idea of beauty. It is no wonder that starting from puberty, there is a strong focus on this aspect of self-improvement.


Personal Smarts—From senior school on, we sit in an endless array of classes and seminars, where we take in the small sliver of society’s collective knowledge. It is very enticing for those who show an aptitude for learning and retaining knowledge to focus on this path of self-improvement. They consume endless amounts of knowledge from books and research, and then write their own contributions to the collective knowledge. All other aspects of life are pushed aside for that pursuit of ‘the answer.’


Ability to Articulate Well—While physical looks are enough to draw the gaze, there is another kind of magnetism that is far more mesmerizing to a crowd. Charisma, or the ability to articulate well, becomes its own kind of pursuit. Whether it is the awkward individual who just wants to make it through a dinner party or a career politician who is facing reelection, the ability to articulate can be the difference between success and failure. It can win you the hearts of a nation or the phone number of that attractive someone at the pub.


Confidence (a feeling)—Ultimately, our efforts toward self-improvement is to increase our confidence. The reason individuals feel the need to improve themselves in some way is because they lack confidence in that particular aspect. Like every drive we have, confidence or the lack of it is an emotional response to something outside of ourselves. A skilled person working among amateurs has great confidence in their ability until made to work with those who are more skilled than them. This feeling of confidence or inadequacy is brought on by comparisons that we make of our value versus another. Although they do not represent any true value, they still can affect our self-esteem.


Core Identity—Rather than basing our value on comparisons and feelings of adequacy, a better way is to explore one’s own core identity. This is the thing that makes you who you are. It is unique and is therefore beyond comparison. It isn’t determined by your material nature and does not require improvement. It is your personal vision for yourself. It simply needs better expression and room to grow.


I find that the size of our personal vision for ourselves is determined by where we put our focus. If we focus on those aspects of ourselves that are superficial then our vision will remain small, and as a result, our growth will be minimal. However, if our focus is on things more deeply entrenched in our core identity then our potential growth as individuals is exponentially greater. When it comes to self-improvement, people tend to focus on a small aspect of themselves, which can often stunt their potential for growth. By focusing on our core identity we can expand our vision without limiting our growth.


Life Outside The Box


On one occasion, I had the parents of a troubled youth reach out to me. Their son was serving his third time in prison and they felt that I might be able to help him break this cycle of criminal behavior. This was the third time he had served time in prison. When I sat down with him in prison, I asked him,


“What’s the score? Do you like being in prison?”


“No,” he objected, “I hate it.”


“Then why do you keep committing crimes?”


The young man shrugged, “I don’t know.”


I probed further, trying to discover what might trigger this behavior.


Upon reflection, the young lad said to me, “Ever since I was 10 or 11 years old, I just knew I was going to be a criminal. And my Mom told me, if I kept going the way I was going that I would end up in prison.”


“That’s quite ironic,” I replied. “You being here in prison, a criminal.”


“Yeah well, I think this is just how I am always going to be.”


For years this young man had told himself he was a criminal. He likely had run in with authorities at different levels in the past—each reaffirming his conviction that he would one day be a criminal. He probably associated with others who had the same inclination. Perhaps he glorified the lifestyle, watching movies where the criminal was the protagonist or listening to music that glamorized the so-called ‘thug life.’ Layer by layer he created a box for himself.


In time, the mindset was set that he was a criminal by nature and that is all he would ever be. Actions follow beliefs, and so he ended up being exactly what he set out to be. This is common for anyone who creates a box for themselves. It is easy to say that the box is imposed on us, but the truth is, we must accept the box. There are many stories of individuals, like this youth, who seemingly had the box of ‘criminal’ imposed on them, but they refused the box and went on to do different things. In the end, we choose the box.


I asked him, “If you could somehow take away that idea of being a criminal, look at it as simply the mistakes of someone trying to figure things out; if it was no longer a part of who you were, and you could be something else, what would you be?”


He thought for a moment. “I would like to be a professional person,” he replied. “Like someone who is a real expert at something.”


“Then why don’t you define yourself as that,” I replied. “Define yourself as a professional or an expert. Then over the next few years, instead of committing crimes, commit to becoming an expert at something.”


The youth was silent as he sat and thought. I suspect that this was the first time in his life that he ever considered being something other than a criminal.
“Yeah,” he said, “I suppose I could do that.”


As he spoke of that vision for himself, his features took on a new expression of life. No longer was he the trodden down criminal that society had always seen. He was now something much more. He was a creator, a contributor, a person of value. His situation hadn’t changed, merely the box he had placed himself in.


Individuals stuck in a box desperately want to get out of it, but the box is all they know. They are like a goldfish in a fishbowl. They catch glimpses of the outside world, but can’t truly comprehend what that means. The idea of an ocean is foreign to them because all they know is the fishbowl. All this young man knew was his box of a criminal. But until someone came along and opened up that box, the idea that he could be something else never occurred to him.


As I followed up with him years later, he had left prison and started his own enterprise. A charitable organization that gives back to the community. He had found a life outside of the box, full of new possibilities. When we leave our boxes and open ourselves up to new possibilities, our growth is no longer determined by the size of the box we are in. We can grow to reach our full potential. We can become more than just a label, we can become who we were truly meant to be.


Examine your own life. What boxes have you constructed for yourself? Perhaps it is a labyrinth of boxes that you are lost in. Stuck inside these boxes, you are unable to move forward in your life. And so you continue to wander, never quite getting anywhere. My invitation to you is to examine your life and look for the boxes you have placed yourself in. Then ask yourself, “If I were to put aside this box and really expand my possibilities to the endless possibilities that surround me, what would I do?” Then, go do it.