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Joe Eames for Thinkster

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Let's talk about the Environment

Hollywood likes to portray heroes as people who, no matter the odds, no matter the situation, unerringly pursue their goal. Think Jason Bourne, Captain America, or Rudy. Never doubting, never faltering, their character is as constant as the north star. This implies the fact that "great people" have constant behavior no matter the circumstances.

This is all a lie. Our behavior is so profoundly affected by our environment, that they might as well make movies about places and not people. The list of ways that our environment affects our behavior is simply astounding.

Photos by Derek Howard

As just one example: In one of my favorite experiments, a researcher discovered that the lingering smell of "fart spray" will cause people to be harsher of their moral judgments of others.

The environment affects so many things. Is your boss really short with you? You're more likely to write bugs. Is your spouse unappreciative of something you've done? You're more likely to be short with your kids. Someone gives you an unexpected and genuine compliment? You're more likely to be confident, outgoing, and take risks. Got middle child syndrome? Studies show that you pretty much have that with your family, but elsewhere in life, it mostly goes away. The most confident CEO in the world might actually be very passive at home with her spouse.

So much of our behavior is determined by our environment. The place we are, the people we surround ourselves with, they make all the difference in how we treat ourselves and others, and how we perform. Surround yourself with people who believe in you and your performance will improve.

We focus so much on how we act when we are trying to change our behavior, but we rarely consider our environment enough. Want to lose weight? Change your kitchen from a hidey-hole of refined sugar to a cornucopia of veggies and lean meat (or vegan delicacies).

Controlling our environment is a powerful way to control our behavior. And there are three very effective ways to exert this control.

First is the obvious solution: Move yourself. Go to a new environment. If the environment you're in isn't giving you the results you want, find a new environment.

Find a new hobby and spend time there. Get a new job. Move to a new part of town or a new city.

This can be a tough thing to do, but it's often clean and straightforward to do.

Second, change your environment. Want more friendly coworkers? Start being friendlier to them. In the book "Win Bigly" by Scott Adams, he relates a rather entertaining story of how he spent a lot of time using marijuana and noticed that people were much nicer to him in general. He thought it was the effects of the drug that changed his perception, but later on discovered it was actually because he was much nicer to others while he was high. (Please don't use this as an excuse to self-medicate. That leads to different but far more serious complications than people not being as nice to you). The effect his own behavior had on others was palpable. And so it can be with you. Increase your compliments to others. Be more empathetic and vulnerable. Be more encouraging and supportive. And watch the same happen to you in return.

This can be the most difficult of the three methods. Making lasting changes to your environment that truly affect or improve your situation takes diligence and discipline. But it's worth it. 

Finally, change your perception of your environment.

Too much negativity? Start looking for the good in others. Boss an a-hole? Start looking for their good traits and focus on those. Does work suck? Focus on all the things that are great about it.

I have two suggestions here to make this more effective:

Volunteer - nothing makes your life seem better, and also more meaningful, than serving others who are in need.

Count your Blessings - it may sound trite, but seriously, sit down and write a list of all the good things about something you are frustrated with. Give it some serious time and effort and you'll be amazed at all the things you can come up with. Then keep that list handy for a while, and refer to it often.

I'd like to wrap up with a personal story. I once had a job I thought was basically a dream job. I got my first serious management responsibility, the path I thought I wanted to be on. I was the lead developer for twenty developers across three time zones and on two continents. On the surface, it was basically perfect. But I hated that job. I'd never used so much foul language in anger and frustration in my life. I dropped f-bombs in anger like they were going out of style. That wasn't me. And yet it was. It just wasn't who I wanted to be.

I was constantly angry and frustrated. I tried hard to make the best of a bad situation, tried to "be my best self", but it wasn't until I quit that job that things got better.

Ultimately my behavior was a product of the environment I'd put myself in. I was fortunate that I could leave that job. Not everyone has that ability. But for me, no matter how I struggled against it, I just wasn't the person I wanted to be at that job.

The old saying that we are products of our environment is really quite true, but that doesn't mean that we don't have control. We just need to choose our environment carefully.

What part of your environment is dragging you down? Turning you into someone you don't want to be? What changes can you make to improve your situation, your mindset, and the joy you experience in life?

Happy Coding!

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