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Mind Traps – You Can Think Differently

By Louise O’Rourke, ACMA (since 2002), CGMA, is a Management Consultant and EMCC Accredited Executive and Leadership Coach.

Whether you think you can, or you think you can't - you're right.” Henry Ford

At 19, I was told cants ‘You can’t get promoted, you’re too young’ and ‘You can’t work and study at the same time, it would be too much’. This was most likely meant with good intention to protect me from disappointment, whereas my youthful response was ‘I can’, with a silent just watch me! I was ambitious with a ‘can do’ attitude and a bit of stubbornness. I was eager to learn, gain experience, discover what I had to offer and with my social conscience see how I could best contribute.       

As management accountants we face many challenges in our daily work. But sometimes we forget that the same scrupulousness that helps us take hard business decisions can also help us when we face personal challenges. The biggest obstacles are often inside us and thinking ‘you can't’ is one of them.

While, I have my ‘can do’ and positive attitude, I do have my doubts, just like you. I have asked ‘Can I?’ – ‘Can I really get this promotion?’, ‘Can I really climb Kilimanjaro?’, ‘Can I really travel the world and reach all continents and 100 countries by aged 40?’ – yes, yes and surprisingly to me too, yes!  It took time, commitment and creativity to overcome setbacks and plenty of steps as well as trusting myself and others along the way.  

If you think you can’t’ is a heavy burden to bear, stifling in so many ways, for you’ll miss out on so much in your life. Your ‘can’t’ and the fear behind that is a mind trap, and it will be to the detriment of your personal and professional growth and may adversely affect your relationships, including that with yourself. 

Before I continue, I want to be clear, this piece isn’t telling you what to do or what to think, it is intended to give you something to think about and ultimately act on in your way, on your terms to improve your unique wellbeing.  You might not yet realise this but we don’t see the world as it is but as we are.  If you sometimes doubt yourself or endure negative thoughts that adversely impact you, then you may find this piece interesting. You deserve to be healthy and happy and to go after your dream. You have the power to change how you feel and how you see the world by changing your thoughts.  Thoughts aren’t facts!

Let a man radically alter his thoughts, and he will be astonished at the rapid transformation in his life (James Allen, As a Man Thinketh, 1903)

Our mindset is an integral part of our overall wellbeing and how our minds think determines the quality of the life we live. If we are open minded and trustful, we are less likely to fall into the various mind traps such as the unhelpful stories we tell ourselves that may never happen yet worry us (see box). Mind traps include negative thinking or unhelpful assumptions about ourselves and others which can lead to unhappiness, discontent and limits to our fulfilling our full potential and living our dreams.  What stories are you attached to that you need to let go of?

Mind Traps
  • I must be strong.  Everyone relies on me.
  • I’m the only one who can do this.
  • I don’t have time.
  • There must be something wrong with me.
  • Everything will fall apart without me.
  • I can’t do this (fear)
  • I can’t enjoy myself without thinking about what needs to be done.

At 27, when I went to Africa for the first time to work as a volunteer, my mother asked me ‘How are you not afraid?’ and I replied ‘Isn’t it exciting?’ One situation with very different perspectives. I was optimistic, open to learning from new experiences and I trusted myself to handle whatever might happen.   I could have stayed in my safe permanent pensionable government job but I didn’t. The idea briefly lingered, but I escaped that mind trap of fear of the unknown and all the things that could go wrong. And guess what? Some things DID go wrong and I handled them, and I came away with some great stories to tell around the fire.

I’m a fan of Edison’s response to a journalist who asked him what it felt like to fail 1000 times and his response was ‘I didn’t fail 1000 times, the light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps’

At 23, I was very focused on our deliverables, most of my team were new to their roles and so I was feeling the weight of responsibility. I thought I had to do everything. One day my manager told me ‘Louise, you are driving the train and pulling out of the station but not everyone is on board, some are still on the platform and some are hanging off’. I didn’t react immediately and in time realised that what I thought wasn’t what everyone else was thinking, my pace wasn’t everyone else’s pace and my way wasn’t everyone else’s way. And I didn’t know that because I was too busy pulling out of the station to see if everyone was on board the train behind me!

It was time to begin again! My response was not to see this as a failing, but to look for the learning in it to act more skilfully after that and I was grateful. I realised ‘I can do it’ with my team and achieve even better results.  I tried to be more open, consulted my team, listened more, assumed less, elicited feedback and built trust – I realised that I didn’t need to do or know everything. I had an entire team of 16 people and I could mentor and train the new staff. 

While it took years for me to improve and get better (and I’m still on the journey), this more open, trustful and curious approach worked well with all my overseas work in various countries and cultures.  My belief in myself led me to believe in other people. It meant that I fell less often into mind traps. You can choose the meaning of a tough experience, choose to move towards it and engage with others, to learn and to grow, and not move away from it dwelling on the mistake or failure.  You can dispel the negative thoughts ‘I must do it alone’ or ‘I must never fail’.  Reach out, be vulnerable and do something different to get the outcome you want.

Walt Disney was rejected 300 times by bankers who thought his Mickey Mouse idea was absurd and now he will forever be remembered as a visionary who shapes our reality long after he has passed. To think ‘you can’t’ is a story in your mind, but it’s not true. I also learned not to let others put stories in my mind, it was and is challenging to remember that their thoughts aren’t facts either!   

The biggest Mind Trap is thinking that you are not in control of your mind and that it controls you, so you are more reactive than responsive, with negative thoughts flooding in. When you pause to take a breath, to observe, pay attention, question and decipher between your helpful thoughts and your unhelpful critical self-talk, the more aware you become. You can build the mindful muscle, and just like going to the gym it takes time and practice.   I build my mindful muscle with things I like to do; yoga, meditation, read, walks in nature and travel to broaden my mind. 

What one thing could you do to bring more calm to your mind, so that ‘you can’ focus on the most important things and people in your life?

As Management Accountants perhaps our skills can be useful in helping us to avoid mind traps by being curious and asking ‘what are the facts here’? Is there any evidence substantiating this thought? It takes practice and with a step-by-step approach it will ultimately build your confidence, self-trust and diminish the fear of failure, freeing you from some of these mind traps.  When you trust and believe in yourself, there is magic in it. The world is abundant and almost anything is possible. 


About Louise:

Louise O’Rourke, ACMA (since 2002), CGMA, is a Management Consultant and EMCC Accredited Executive and Leadership Coach.  Louise has worked in leadership roles initially in Local Government (8 years) and then internationally in the non-profit sector across the world for over 17 years. She qualified as a Leadership & Executive Coach in 2016 and as a Youth Coach (13-25 years) in 2021.

If you would like to change your thinking and explore your true potential through coaching or mentoring, please contact her through her LinkedIn profile Louise O'Rourke | LinkedIn.

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