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Nobody grew without addressing these artificial constraints

Artificial constraints are irrational conditions that we put on ourselves.

It’s amusing. They start really early. “Daddy…! I was really good this year and look… Santa got me two monster trucks! Santa also ate cookies!!”. My 4 year old cheered with joy. Just so you know, I did not condition him to believe that “being good” was a prerequisite for Santa’s gifts.

Incentives and punishments fuel artificial constraints

American psychologist Alfie Kohn suggests that conditional parenting is one of the worst thing you can do to your children. The method of incentives and punishments for controlling behaviours has long-term adverse effects. Children grow up believing that everything including love is conditional. Their self-worth also becomes conditional. For instance, if they don’t meet their own expectations, they think there is something wrong with them. Think about it, children are sentient, intelligent beings. They understand logic, reasoning and with a little love, they can learn to differentiate good and bad on their own.

I was fortunate to have parents that seldom offered any incentives but there were lots of punishments 😀. People of my generation will relate. For instance, when I was 14, I asked my father for a computer, and he didn’t put an artificial constraint on getting it. He didn’t say, you will get it on your birthday or when you ace your mathematics grade. He got it anyway! I realised later, that it was really hard for him, juggling a middle class income. The unconstrained gadget turned out to be a lifetime of passion and subsequently a vocation!

It is helpful to appreciate that our self-worth is affected by regular conditioning with punishments & incentives. This makes us all vulnerable to artificial constraints.

I have bumped into artificial constraints many times

2017 was a challenging year for me. Late 2016, my son Anik, was born. My wife and I made a conscious decision to move back from the UK to India. A few weeks of preparation and job hunt followed. It was very stressful. First, there were range of opinions about whether it was the right decision. Second, I had many irrational expectations in my mind about what a return should look like. I wanted to be safe and comfortable. Also, I also wanted to compensate for every negative comment I received on my decision to move back. I dreamed of having the perfect job offer, the perfect house and everything else waiting for me.

I was obviously mistaken, I had to go back to India first, and then figure it all out. Expecting stability when I go back was not wrong, but expecting perfection was only holding me back. It was an artificial constraint.

Let serendipity do some work

I recently took an online professional certification exam. At first, I told myself, “I will book my exams once I get a decent practice score and complete every module of training”. You see, I had this artificial constraint in my mind that I must meet these conditions in order to “book an exam”. In reality, booking an exam is not dependent on any of it at all. Result was procrastination worth weeks and months. I had let an artificial constraint manipulate me into inaction. One day, I realised that I was holding myself back. I finally booked the exam. Dedicated preparation followed, and I was able to complete the professional certification in a week!

Artificial constraints are universal

A significant proportion of people regret waiting too long to have kids. They realise (late) that ideal conditions are a myth. It’s important for instance to be able be ready to have children. However, deciding that you need to wait for your next promotion is an artificial constraint. Imagine you want to buy a dream house. It is likely that the house is somewhat beyond your budget and it still does not tick all the boxes. Naive homebuyers delay the process. Often a rushed and more expensive outcome follows if you don’t decide soon enough. Experienced homeowners will tell you to get on that property ladder sooner, rather than later!

It’s important to have the freedom of choice, but chasing the perfect is an artificial constraint.

In the business world, founders of successful startups never feel “ready” to take the plunge. They did it anyway. Heck, we are even used to put artificial constraints on our education. Especially in an Indian family, talented youngsters feel like they are missing a trick if they are not acing GRE or GMAT. We have successfully put an irrational constraint on ourselves that we must get an MBA to be successful.

Many people who want to sell stuff think they must have an amazing website, whereas that is not necessary at all. I have seen sellers in rural India selling literally thousands of dollars worth merchandise on Facebook video alone… so spending months creating your website when you could be selling is an artificial constraint.

Based on my experience, I would say that rather than taking lessons in how to become an entrepreneur, you should jump into the pool and start swimming

Travis Kalanick

At workplaces, artificial constraints manifest everyday. You have an excellent idea, you do not pitch it to your boss because you are afraid of the negative feedback. Perhaps you have had this experience before when you suggested something, and it was ignored. You feel frustrated, and you go back to your shell so that you do not have to go through it again. You come across a job, you know you can do better than many other people. However you tell yourself that before reaching that job level, you must complete at least few years in lower grades. You tell yourself you do not have the qualifications. You think that there many older, wiser people better suited than yourself. All in an attempt to avoid uncomfortable rejection.

To conclude, artificial constraints are omnipresent. If you know about them, you can avoid them and lead a more productive life and realise your true potential.

3 potential solutions

Deploy these methods to counteract any incorrigible instances of artificial constraints.

1. Bias for action

Start just before you think you are ready. When in doubt take a small positive step. Action is an incredible debate killer. Imagine that you are trying to create a product roadmap. You have convinced yourself that you need a super-template before you begin. Now that is an artificial constraint! If you just started listing your roadmap items, you are much more likely to have a materially better result as now you have on your way to complete the core task, and a super-template can be an afterthought.

2. Run an artificial constraint test every time you hold yourself back

Imagine that you love helping people grow. You want to become a professional coach. However, you have been waiting to get your coaching qualification before you get yourself out there. While that would certainly make a difference to your credential, there is nothing in the world that will actually replace you speaking with people and trying to solve their problems. Apply a simple test whether what you are waiting for is actually rational.

3. Surrender to Mindfulness

Repair your sense of self-worth by resorting to mindfulness as a discipline. My blog has a number of resources on this, however, there are a number of books I would recommend too. Mindfulness will not only help you focus on things that matter, but also help you clear your head from things that don’t!

How do you deal with artificial constraints?

I'd be excited to know what you think?