Sunday, 3 March 2013

Blueberry muffins and coffee - A story of breaking negative patterns

A few days ago, when I was travelling I ran into an old acquaintance. His story is worth telling.  

Neel, was a teenaged boy who stood at the juice and snacks counter in my office canteen. A cheerful boy with a sunny disposition he was at ease making small conversations with his customers and did a good job of the food he served and of salesmanship. Observing him  behind the counter for a few days it was apparent that he deserved to be some place better and was greatly underplaying himself. As we chatted over the next few days he told us that his aspiration was to be a chef and he was very passionate about food. A few days later he disappeared and that was the last we saw of him in the canteen.

Eight years later, in another city, I saw a familiar face that I could not place, in a cafe. He came up to my table and stood there beaming and asked me if I recognized him. Just when I was beginning to panic at the embarassment to follow, my memory came back to me and told me it was Neel. He owned the cafe and my coffee was on the house. The conversation that followed left me with a lot to think and reflect about

What he told me is applicable to anyone and I have often found myself in the same traps.

The "Past Experience Trap":  Past experiences can serve as deterrents to honest attempts or they can serve as avenues to learn from what worked and what did not. The difference between the two is just how we choose to view them.

Among his siblings, Neel was the "different" one, while they thrived in the conventional schooling model, he struggled with it. He was always full of new ideas, but whenever he undertook something new as a child his confidence would sag mid-way, for lack of encouragement. Often he would stop working on something just when he was about to take it to completion. This continued as a negative pattern till his early adulthood. He would take a cooking course, work hard at it and then stop just short of cooking for the judges for being certified for it.

This continued till he recognized it as a negative pattern, the "past experience trap". Identifying it was the first step towards finding the remedy for it. He actively put in place measures to ensure that he did not give up till he finished what he had started. That was how he got his pastry making and baking certifications.

The "Caught in Current Trap" : "I identified the areas of my life that I was deeply unhappy and dissatisfied with and I was determined to change them. I gave myself a time frame for progress rather than a deadline for results. Outcomes are often beyond your control."

This was Neel's second message that struck home. It is so easy to get "caught in the current trap" that identifying this negative pattern takes a concerted effort. There are so many people who are caught up in dysfunctional relationships, bad and stressful jobs or no jobs, shelving dreams and ambitions for later; all stuck in the current trap. The current circumstances take so much energy and time that there is little left for thoughts of change. Hence the thoughts of change are avoided. This avoidance however creates a lot of unrelenting stress, besides leading to a lot of lost time.

Here it is all about determining to change and taking a first step. So after he had stood at the juice counter day after day, he was determined to change and left the city with a few leads in mind. When he ran out of all of them, he created more. That was his idea of progress. He finally got a favorable outcome after multiple attempts and found himself in a bakers kitchen and got the first sweet taste of success.

The "Image Trap": The voice in his head kept telling him that he could do better. But the self-assurance that he had when he was taking his first set of risks eluded him when he was trying to go further. It was then that he identified the third negative pattern; the "image trap". The people who knew him had a certain image of him. He was always making incremental changes in his condition, but he was fearful of making a quantum leap. He had always been the average performer and never the star of a show.

Conformance to others image of you and thoughts about their reactions to your attempts can be bigger deterrents than even past experiences. Often the easiest way to overcome this is a change of scene. Leaving behind the familiar and exploring new worlds where the image is only being created can help avoid this trap completely. But if that is not possible then minimizing contact, creating written plans and using negative talk by others to make yourself more determined is way to get out of this trap.

Neel figured out what he needed to do to set up his own enterprise and three and a half years of hard work later he reached his goal. The fact that he had a goal fuelled him on and kept him from falling into the current trap or the past experiences trap again.


Biting into the delicious blueberry mufffins and sipping my cappucchino, I reflected on what he had narrated as a story and brought out these three traps as something to learn and remember. It sounded like a fluke rags to riches story. But there was a method to how it was brought about. There was of course an element of luck, but the hard work and persistence that went into were what made it possible to get those muffins and coffee to the table.