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Third Place Thinking

[Listen to me read this reflection here]

When I take a moment to pause and observe the stimuli behind my choices, I realize that I am often reactive.

Every choice, action or word is part of a chain of cause and effect. I appear to be more the effect than the cause in my life, and that feels disconcerting to say out loud.

For example, I have been on a physical health kick this year, and continue to go strong nearly six months in. I can see now how my choices of what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and even how to eat, are all reactions to either a desire, an insight, a feeling, or even a fear.

Another obvious example, work. If I pause for a moment to observe myself working, I start to see how the majority of my day is spent being reactive. A reaction to an email, a Slack message, a deliverable that is due, or overdue, an arbitrary financial target that I set, a client demand, a team member’s concern, a competitor’s new product, and so forth.

Where did this unconscious habit to always be in a reactive mode originate from?

Like most well ingrained habits, I can only assume it originated during childhood, and specifically from parents. Watching my baby nephew, I can see the tension between his natural bias to react to his own bodily desires and needs, and his trained bias to react to the demands and encouragement from his parents.

From grade school through to university, this conditioning to be reactive was further reinforced. Between assignments, tests and report cards, I was constantly told what to do. I learned that if I followed, I would be rewarded with praise. If I didn’t, I would receive disapproval. This former observation is from direct experience, the latter from second-hand research, of course.

It can feel depressing to acknowledge the reality that I am often in a reactive state.

It is easier to be reactive. I do not have to make any bigger choices or take bigger risks. I can put my head down, and almost blindly trust that if I simply deal with all of the causes thrown my way to the best of my ability, be it from work, family, the weather, etc., no one will be disappointed with me. While this may be a fine strategy for survival in life, it fails as a strategy to feel satisfied in life.

To not get in trouble is not the purpose of life.

For example, I often have told my team ‘I don’t pay you to respond to emails and sit in meetings all day’. It is part of the job but not the job. Just responding to emails and having meetings, while it might feel productive, it does not get the actual job done. The actual job is much bigger, and much more important. (And if I have to tell you what the actual job is, then you are best to find somewhere else to work!)

In mindfulness practices, which I have gone deep into over nearly the past decade, as both a student and a teacher, the common guidance is to learn how to respond instead of react. The teaching being that in the face of an external or internal event, instead of unconsciously reacting, when one can find the tiny space between cause and effect, one can make a choice of how to react, also known as a response.

Upon further reflection, I feel that to learn how to respond versus react, while an admirable and helpful habit that has served me very well, it still is a mere coping mechanism and does not address the root issue.

To be comfortable with being reactive to life, is to play victim to life. It is to believe that things are happening to me. It is not under my control. I take make the step to believe that the only thing under my control is how I choose to react, or respond, to this life that is happening to me. However, that does not feel satisfactory to me anymore.

Third place thinking is to not realize that I am constantly reactive. It is to strive to survive life by not getting in trouble.

Second place thinking is to choose to respond with intentionality, versus to react unconsciously. It is to strive to better cope with my tendency to be reactive.

First place thinking is to pause, so that I can ask myself what I actually think. It is to be truly proactive, not reactive. It is to strive to feel satisfied in life.

It is scary to do this. First place thinking requires me to be vulnerable, as I now have an opinion that I do not know if it will be accepted or not. It requires me to build conviction behind my own thinking, and have the humility to change my position as I learn more. It requires me to take ownership of the consequences of my choices, as I no longer have the convenient excuse of playing victim to life. And there is an emotional toll when my choices have a direct impact on the lives of others.

To move from third place thinking to first place thinking requires crossing a bridge from being reactive to being proactive. It is a bridge to a more intentional, aligned and satisfying life.

It often requires doing less, as being proactive takes a greater investment of mental, emotional, and even sometimes physical, energy.

It often involves disappointing others around me, at least initially, as my choices may be misunderstood until the results speak for themselves.

It requires a deeper connection to myself, which is a source of insight to know what I think, like a well that I continue to dig.

It requires me to build a vision for my life with conviction, one that I feel wholly connected to, and hopefully inspired by.

Third place thinking is safe.

Second place thinking feels slightly better.

First place thinking feels scary, as it is by definition not safe.

There is a good chance that I will not be successful. However, there is also a good chance that I will feel satisfied. And this is true first place thinking. First place, not as evaluated by my environment, but as evaluated by me.

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