Most of us have a hidden instruction manual for ourselves and others. Our parents and key childhood figures wrote the outline for the manual, most of which they got from their parents. In words and deeds, they told us what was expected. The instructions were designed not only to keep us safe but to ensure we reflected well on them.
We learned not to talk to strangers and to wash our hands. We were told not to interrupt and to be polite. To practice the piano and do our homework. But we also learned what to think. Rich people are greedy. You can’t trust the government. You have to work hard to get ahead. You must be the best.
We create new chapters in our manual throughout our lives.
As we mature, we fill in the rest of the chapters on how we should look, act, who our friends should be, how much money we should make, and everything else. Entrepreneurs have additional instructions in our manual. Whole sections that warn us that we should not trust our competitors: Watch out, they will steal your clients; rules for employees: They should work like I do; instructions for how to act: Always be confident – never let anyone know you are worried.
As business owners, we are high achievers by nature. Achievers value hard work and persistence. We believe we can always improve, and we think this is a good thing. Therefore, we have even more rules for ourselves (and everyone else). We’re wired to do whatever it takes to succeed; we don’t give up; when confronted with obstacles, we work harder. These same characteristics that help us succeed in business compel us to create instructions in the manual like This is not the best you can do – you must try harder, and You must set an example for your staff by working more hours than they do. Our manual tells us there is always something else we could or should be doing.
Over time, our manual becomes longer than War and Peace. It contains rigid rules and impossible standards. We must be smart and beautiful, assertive but patient, strong but feminine, great at business and a decent cook, a mother and a leader. Wash your hands is joined by Pluck your eyebrows. Eat your carrots is joined by Avoid late-night milkshakes. Don’t talk back to your elders is joined by Make a lot of money. You get the picture.
Most of the time we are blind to the manual’s existence, but it guides our actions.
When we don’t follow these instructions, we experience the uncomfortable feeling that we’re doing something wrong. Like when we say, “I just need to take a break from work and relax,” but then immediately think, “I can’t do that! That’s lazy. There are a million things I need to do.” When we override our instruction manual, we feel bad and beat ourselves up for doing it. When others don’t follow the manual we created for them, we think they’re wrong, we feel frustrated and beat them up (with outward criticism or internal resentment).
Most of the time our manuals are a recipe for a mythical perfect life that a perfect person would live. It’s not possible to follow this recipe, but you try. You may even start to believe something is wrong with you because you can’t seem to follow all the rules. Or you double-down on your efforts to do everything exactly “right.” This is both exhausting and unfulfilling. It plants us in a garden of inadequacy, stress, and failure. On the rare occasion when you reach perfection, the goalpost moves—now perfection is over there. You are not satisfied for long. Instead, you raise the standard and strive harder for another level. You can’t relax. You always feel stressed.
When things fall apart, we can’t show it. This is what we’ve been taught, and we’ve adopted these rules in our hidden instruction manual. To be successful in the first place, we must project confidence. We must convince ourselves we can succeed and act with certainty so that other people believe in us too. After all, people quit their jobs to work for us. Clients pay us to solve their problems. Our spouse accepts the risk of lean years. Banks loan us money to fund our line of credit. So when things go wrong, as they do with any business, we can’t show we’re worried. We keep the stress inside and work harder. We tell ourselves this is the price we must pay if we want to be a successful business owner.
But eventually, we can’t take it anymore.
The constant stress robs us of peace, and in moments of weakness, we escape into activities such as overeating, overdrinking, overworking, overspending, and binging on TV or social media. We call this “buffering” – it’s an unhealthy way to escape and create distance between us and what we are trying to avoid. We tell ourselves we deserve a break. We say our escapes are harmless, and sometimes they are – when it’s just hunkering down for a Netflix marathon on a rainy day.
But when it snowballs into watching TV and drinking a whole bottle of wine and eating an entire pizza and a pint of ice cream, you know you’re trying to escape. The next day, you’re bloated and hungover, and you’re so appalled with yourself for buffering that you will want to escape by – you got it: buffering all over again, just maybe a different flavor of it.
So, you decide it’s time to declare a “distribution” and go shopping – usually for things you don’t need, and which really don’t make you feel better anyway.
Escapes like these don’t solve anything, and afterward, we typically beat ourselves up for them. The pressures we face in business are real, but they are exacerbated by the invisible instruction manual that tells us we need to be perfect in every way. We tough it out as long as we can, but inevitably we decide we have to escape.
Acknowledging that this hidden instruction manual exists is tremendously freeing, because once you realize that it’s your manual, not an invisible perpetrator called “the company” that is causing you to feel the way you do, it means you aren’t stuck or trapped.
When you discover that your relationships—including the one with your business—are influenced by beliefs you’ve inherited and then developed over a lifetime, you have a choice. You can decide whether you want to keep these beliefs or change them. You’ve developed habits of thought, habits of relating, and habits of work that reflect the instructions in your manual, but these should be questioned and can be changed.
Uncover what’s in your hidden instruction manual.
Start by filling in the blanks and then notice the price you pay for those things you “must” do:
- In order to make a lot of money, I must:
- In order to be successful, I must:
- In order to have employees, I must:
- In order to look good, I must:
- In order to grow my business, I must:
Your manual was “written” to describe how you should operate in one model of the world. The model you believe keeps you safe. But it’s only a model, and models can change. In fact, your models must change in order to transform your relationship with your business. It’s worth the effort. The work you put into uncovering and rewriting the rules in your manual will give you real results—in all aspects of your life.