It’s become common in business literature to say that entrepreneurs who care about others tend to be more successful. Thus, say business authors, it will profit you to act like a caring person. Say “thank you,” smile, look into people’s left eye, let them do most of the talking, and so on.
I think it’s true that people who are genuinely concerned for others’ wellbeing make better entrepreneurs. But that doesn’t mean we can develop real concern for others simply by imitating caring people — by aping their body language and the words they use.
We can easily see this, I think, when we recall moments when someone flashed a fake smile at us. The corners of their mouth turned up, but their eyes were hard, and fearful or angry. All this did was create unease for us — it certainly didn’t make us want to do business with them.
I’ll bet you can also remember a time when you went into a social event with preconceived notions about how you “should” act — perhaps you thought you needed to look charming, aloof, successful, or something else. Was that enjoyable or miserable? I think the answer is clear — making all that effort to look a certain way is no fun at all.
Ask Yourself Why You Don’t Care
If caring for others isn’t about imitating kind people, how do we do it? In my experience, the first step is to take a close look at what’s going on in moments when we don’t find ourselves caring about people — when our hearts are closed.
My sense is that, when we aren’t feeling concerned for others’ wellbeing, it’s because we’re occupied with protecting ourselves. Consciously or not, we think there’s a threat to our survival. Naturally, we’re focused on avoiding that threat, and others become just a means to that end. We start ignoring people who don’t look like they can give us money or prestige, and manipulating those who do.
So, I think it’s useful to ask ourselves, whenever our hearts are closed, “what’s the threat I’m trying to deal with right now? What danger am I protecting myself from?” The answer you arrive at, if you sincerely ask this question, might be something like this:
“I need to look tough to make sure people don’t hurt me.”
“I must look successful, or no one will work with me.”
“I must be seen talking to the right people, or my social status will be destroyed.”
“I need to get clients at this event or my business is shot.”
Facing The Danger
It makes perfect sense that, when we’re thinking this way, caring about others is impossible. But I think you’ll notice that the question I described helps put the perceived threat into perspective. The closer you look at the supposed danger, the less serious it starts to seem.
Is it really true, for instance, that your business will collapse if you don’t get clients at this event? And even if your business did collapse, what would that really mean for you? Would you disintegrate and never be seen again? Or is it more likely that you’d get up and try something else? Notice how just probing the fear a bit with questions like these can have it start melting away.
My sense is that human beings are naturally compassionate toward one another. Tapping into that compassion, I think, is more a matter of letting go of the ways we protect ourselves against getting hurt than memorizing the right “tips and tricks.”
(You can read Part One of this series here.)
Bookstores and the Internet are overflowing with “tips and tricks” we can supposedly use to get other people to do what we want. Whether you’re looking for advice on what to say in a job interview to make sure you’re hired, how to subtly pressure a potential customer to close that deal, or attractive body language to display on a date, you can be sure there are thousands of lists of techniques out there intended to help you induce others to fulfill your desires.
Many of us, however, get a little uneasy when it comes to actually using tips and tricks like these. This unease stems from our desire for people to appreciate us “for who we are.” We crave to feel that, even if we didn’t use any rehearsed lines or strategies in pursuing our goals, people would still want to give us jobs, money, intimate relationships, and so on, and generally love and respect us. When we use a technique we learned from an outside source to get what we want, we can’t access this feeling, because the technique—not “who we are”—was responsible for our success.
We need others to acknowledge us for “who we are” because we want to get rid of a fear that’s haunted many of us all our lives: the fear that people won’t admire, respect or love us if we “be ourselves” around them. Using a “canned” strategy to get what we want, in a sense, only confirms that our fear is justified. After all, if everyone else thought we were okay “as we are,” we wouldn’t need to follow “Top 100 Ways To Get People To Like You” lists from the Web to gain others’ acceptance and appreciation.
Since we have this fear that people don’t appreciate us “as we are,” and using rehearsed techniques to get what we want only reinforces it, why are books and websites describing these techniques such a huge industry? Why aren’t we all out there simply “being ourselves” and letting the chips fall where they may? It’s partly because, by following someone else’s ideas of what to say and do, we don’t have to risk finding out that, in fact, people don’t want to be with us when we’re “ourselves.”
But at an even deeper and more uncomfortable level, we often gravitate toward tips and tricks for getting what we want because we don’t know how to “be ourselves”—we don’t know “who we are” in our essence. It’s unclear where our contrived strategies for dealing with others end, and the natural expression of our true selves begins. When you follow someone else’s advice on how to behave, you don’t have to face the unsettling concern that you don’t know who you are, or how the “real you” would act in a given situation.
How do we assuage these fears around our identity? I believe the answer is to gain some understanding of who and what we truly are. To get this understanding, as many spiritual traditions advocate, it’s helpful to start by acknowledging what we are not. On an intuitive, instinctive level, we have quite a bit of knowledge of what we are not. For example, we don’t have to investigate any facts, read any books, or meet any spiritual gurus to know the following truths:
We are not our thoughts. We know that our thoughts—such as our memories, desires, and ambitions—are not part of who we are. We experience them, or we have them, but we are not them. For instance, we would say “I have a thought about what to do this weekend”—not “I am a thought about my weekend plans.”
We are not our emotions. Although we sometimes use expressions like “I’m angry,” a statement like this is short for “I’m experiencing anger”—we don’t mean to suggest by this that we actually are anger. Emotions are things we have or perceive—not parts of our being.
We are not our bodies. Our arms, legs, organs and so on are things we have, not who we are. When I see the hands that are typing on my computer right now, for instance, I instinctively think of them as “my hands,” but not as “me.” Even if my hands disappeared, I would still have the sense that I am “me”—not that I had become someone or something else.
We are not our possessions. This is likely the most obvious one. Although we often get attached to things like money, degrees and cars, we understand they aren’t actually part of who we are. No matter how much I may like it or get upset when it doesn’t work properly, my car is something I have or perceive—it isn’t me.
As we expand the list of things we aren’t, we start noticing it’s difficult to think of anything we actually are. As Ken Wilber explains, “[i]f you see something, that is just another object—another feeling, another thought, another sensation, another image. But those are all objects; those are what you are not.” This realization can fill us with a sense of despair and emptiness. It may seem that, not only are we unaware of what we are, but it’s quite possible we might never know.
There is one thing we know for sure, however, which is that we perceive, or are aware of, the objects I listed. If we know we are aware of our possessions, bodies, relationships, jobs and so forth, we must be something capable of awareness, of observation. We know, in other words, that we exist, and that we perceive. As Sri Ramana Maharshi lyrically puts this point, “[a]fter negating all of the above-mentioned as ‘not this, not this,’ that Awareness which alone remains—that I am.”
I’ve found much peace by repeatedly pondering what I am and what I’m not. In moments when I’m aware of what I truly am—awareness, consciousness, perception—I am at my most calm and centered. This is because, in those moments, the fear that I’ll never find out who I am—which for most of my life has nagged me at the edge of my consciousness—simply doesn’t arise.
I can also see, in those instants of clarity, that I don’t need to try or decide to “be myself.” I am always awareness, regardless of what I do and don’t do, and it is impossible for me not to be what I am. And because I am always “myself,” the anxiety that others won’t like me if I “show them who I am” makes no sense.
How does knowing our true selves relate to whether we should use “tips and tricks” to get others to do what we want? They are connected in two ways. First, knowing what you really are relieves the fear that arises from using strategies and tactics to advance yourself in the world—the sense that, by using a strategy to get what you want, you’re confirming that no one wants to “see your true self.” Because you are always awareness, no matter what happens, you are always your true self, and nothing you do can conceal or change that.
Second, and more importantly, when you know your true essence, the thought of using “tips and tricks” to “get ahead” simply doesn’t occur. Because what you are is complete and unchanging, the fears that you won’t get ahead and that you’ll wind up “a failure”—the worries that motivate us to scheme and manipulate each other—don’t influence you anymore. The sense of the world as a hostile and painful place subsides, and is replaced by a deep peace and focus.