Flip the Script – Recognize your invisible scripts and challenge your automatic assumptions

Flip the script - My science career rebooted! blog - Heather Fireman JacksonThis post has been adapted from a recent speech I gave. In fact, this was my 10th Toastmasters International speech, which makes me a Competent Communicator. Very proud. -H

“Be more confident! Believe in yourself! Change your attitude! Be positive!”

Does this sound familiar? Sound like any advice you’ve ever been given before for how to find greater happiness and success? How useful has this sort of advice been to you?

You know what it reminds me of? When I was a kid, and my older sister was taunting me or even just looking at me, what do you think my mother told me to do? “Just ignore her.” I always thought, “Thanks, Mom, why didn’t I think of that? Ignore her? How?”

The truth is, “be confident”… “change your attitude”… “ignore your sister”… these are not easy things to do. They don’t come naturally. Yet everyone around us expects us to just figure it out and go do it.

Let’s talk about how we get from here to there. What are some actual concrete things we can do to act with more confidence, be happier, and get the results we want?

The first step to solving a problem is…? Anyone? That’s right: recognizing that a problem exists.

Before I can change my attitude, I have to figure out what my attitude is.

Oh, they go by many names: self-fulfilling prophecy, negative self-talk. You may not realize it, but there are invisible scripts playing out in our heads, guiding the decisions we make in every corner of our lives. Ramit Sethi has drawn attention to this phenomenon in this wonderful post.

In your professional life, have you ever caught yourself thinking:

  • “I have to do it myself – it doesn’t count if someone else helps me.”
  • “I have to respond to that email right away.
  • “I can’t apply for that job, I’m not qualified.”
  • “I never get anything out of networking events.”

Scripts in our personal lives can cause problems (especially when we and our loved ones are not on the same page):

  • “If I don’t go out with my friends every weekend, I’m a lame loser!”
  • “If he really loved me, he’d know why I’m upset. I shouldn’t have to tell him.”

Money is another area where we make all kinds of assumptions:

  • “I have to spend a lot on Christmas gifts for everyone.”
  • “My wedding has to have a string quartet.”
  • “I’m not a grown-up until I own my own house.”

Recognize any of these assumptions? If it doesn’t sound like you, then perhaps someone you know: your friends, your parents, your grandparents?

There are dozens of automatic assumptions we all make about what we’re supposed to do or feel that are so deeply ingrained in us, or in our families, or in the entire culture we grew up in, that we don’t even realize they’re there. What invisible scripts do you have?

Step 2 – Now that we recognize these invisible scripts, flip the script.

What would happen if you challenged those assumptions? What if you could stop that automatic script from running?

Be curious. Try to figure out what is the script you’re working with? What are your assumptions? Swap notes with other people. Type “invisible scripts” into any search engine – I promise you will be surprised by the diversity of what other people assume they are supposed to do.

Be critical. Are your assumptions well-founded? Have you tested them? What would happen if you assumed the opposite? What fear or anxiety is at the heart of your automatic script? In an ideal world, if you had no fear, how would you respond instead?

Step 3 – Replace that automatic script with a mantra

A mantra is a deliberate script that we write ourselves. Instead of giving in to whatever fears and anxieties automatically pop into our heads and trigger those automatic scripts, we’ve planned our ideal reaction ahead of time while we’re cool and rational.

Then when the pressure is on, simply take a breath, and press play. And yes, it’s called a mantra because you may have to play it over and over and over again.

Let me share some examples of how I’ve flipped the script and how you can too.

Case 1 – Fear of flying

I’m not the best flier. I know, shameful. I’ve worked in aerospace. I specialize in metallurgy. And fatigue and fracture and crack growth. Maybe I know too much.

So when the turbulence hits, my automatic script goes like this:

“This is not nice! I don’t like this! I don’t like this!”

Flip the script. Over the years, I’ve drawn on a few different mantras:

  • “It may not be comfortable, but it’s safe. I don’t have to like it, but it’s safe.”
  • Or, there’s the old standby recommended in Flying Without FearWhen paranoid thoughts strike, a firm “Stop!” can halt them.

Case 2 – Grad school

For me, the time I spent doing my PhD was a tough existence. I felt lost. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t always believe I would finish.

Every morning, I’d climb the two flights of stairs to my office, and if I wasn’t careful, with every step, the little voice in my head would go:

“Today is going to suck….today is going to suck.”

But that level of negativity, on a chronic basis, it’s too much! Finally, I said, “Enough!”

I flipped the script and replaced my stair mantra with:

“Today I’m going to kick butt…today I’m going to kick butt!”

When times were tough, I’d tell myself, “The only way out of this is through it.” I’d picture a burning building or that point in a hike when you’re the maximum distance from the parking lot: the only way out is through it.

In fact, this approach works for acute stress, too, like a job interview or a big exam. Anything where my performance is really going to be tested. It’s so easy to tie myself in knots, dwelling on,

“Ooh, this is going to be really hard!”

Instead, I wage war on that test:

“I’m going to whoop the pants off this interview! I’m going to kick this exam’s butt.” 

Case 3 – Fear of failure or rejection

This is so common among talented, capable people, especially when we compare ourselves to our peers, who always seem like they’ve got it all together. We tell ourselves things like:

  • “I’m not good enough.”
  • “I don’t know enough…and sooner or later, they’re all gonna find out.
  • “If I’m not guaranteed to succeed, there’s no point in trying.”

These automatic scripts are insidious. They will sneak in and invade your brain any chance they get, unless you are vigilant and ready with your mantras. Flip the script:

  • “Actually I know a lot of things. And whatever I don’t know, I have the tools I need to figure it out.”
  • “I’m great at quite a few things. Here, I made a list. Why don’t I remind myself of them periodically?”
  • “Nobody has it all together. If it looks like they do, that’s probably a facade. Other people have uncertainties just like me.”
  • “Failure: it’s all part of learning, growing, and mastering something new. My brain is a muscle. It gets stronger the harder I exercise it.” (Carol Dweck’s research demonstrates the effect that a growth mindset can have)

Once, when I was reading up on the peer review process, I came across an article that advised science researchers (to paraphrase): “if you’re not getting rejected 75% of the time, you’re not setting your sights high enough.” Presently, I can’t dig up the source of this advice, but if I find it, I’ll update this bit and add a link.

In research, we publish papers – that’s the performance metric. But ignore the words “paper” and “journal,” and you could apply this advice to any endeavor. If we’re not getting rejected 75% of the time, we’re not aiming high enough? That’s pretty harsh. I don’t know if I can take that much rejection. But all right, I can take a little more than what I’m comfortable with.

The point is, if our efforts are never getting rejected, we’re not setting our sights high enough, and we are selling ourselves short.

You’ll be surprised how much you can achieve when you are challenged to stretch outside your comfort zone and do things that are harder than what you think you can do. That’s going to give you something to be confident about.

There is no magic bullet. Life is hard. You must be harder. Recognize whatever invisible scripts are holding you back, flip the script, and take ownership of your attitude!


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