My recent Harvard Business School Working Knowledge column discussed how we’re trapped inside our beliefs. It even got mentioned on the Boston Globe BLOG. I say that “thinking outside the box” means thinking outside your beliefs.

But this is just darned hard to do! It’s not natural to sit around analyzing yourself to figure out what your beliefs are, so you can think outside them. And reading stuff written by people with vastly different beliefs isn’t likely to help you think outside your box unless you can suspend your beliefs pretty deeply. (I know, I was just reading a newspaper editorial, gritting my teeth the whole way through. “I can consider this with an open mind,” I futilely told myself.)

So instead of identifying beliefs by challenging them, let’s take another approach. Here are a bunch of beliefs I’ve encountered in clients and friends that hold people back from doing the things they most need to do. Notice that some of these beliefs are polar opposites. Indeed, the same belief can limit one person while freeing another. It depends on each person’s situation and their other beliefs as well.

Ponder this list. If any of them seem familiar, stop a moment and do a thought experiment. Ask yourself, “what would I be doing, who would I be, how would I act if I didn’t believe this?” Then imagine that different-You going through a typical day. The goal here isn’t to change your beliefs, just to step outside and test the waters.

Beliefs about yourself

  • I’m successful.
  • I’m a failure.
  • I deserve what I’m getting.
  • I don’t deserve what I’m getting.
  • I can do anything I put my mind to.
  • I don’t have the degrees/certifications/recognition to do it.

Beliefs about customers

  • Customers buy the lowest-priced product.
  • Customers buy the highest-quality product.
  • We must give all customers great service.
  • Our customers are [insert your demographic here]

Beliefs about competitors

  • We have no competitors.
  • We have lots of competitors.
  • Company X is our competitor. (Are Google and Microsoft competitors? Why? or Why not? Are they even in the same business?)
  • We are better than competitor X.
  • We are cheaper than competitor X.
  • Competitor X is a threat.
  • Competitor X is not a threat.

Beliefs about who we are and what we’re capable of doing.

  • We can accomplish goal G with resources R. (Often manifests after a layoff, as workforce is reduced but goals aren’t.)
  • We have the capability to do H.
  • We have the best programmers/manufacturers/documentors/operators/logistics in the world.

Beliefs about the future

I’ve chosen some of the hot topics that tend to be argued strongly from belief. Amusingly, most of the below beliefs have measurements and research available, but virtually none of us know about it (except as it is selectively cited by our favorite already-believes-with-us pundit):

  • We’ll have plenty of oil for the coming decades.
  • We’ll run out of oil in X years.
  • Economic health will lead to happier lives for us all.
  • Political party Z will win the next election.
  • We can pollute without having any really bad effects on the world.
  • If we spend more on schools, we’ll have better-educated kids.
  • Fixing education isn’t just a matter of money.

Beliefs about the world

  • Everything is politics. People are motivated by pure self-interest. I have to manipulate them to get what I want.
  • Everything is family. People are motivated by altruism. I can do good and appeal to their better nature to get what I want.
  • We have to see what the trends are, then act.
  • If we act first, we can shape the trends.
  • Life is a meritocracy. Rewards come to those who work hard.
  • Life is all about luck. Rewards have very little to do with working hard.
  • Taxes are bad. Period.
  • Taxes are the contribution we make to live in a country that provides common services.
  • Social problems should be solved by government.
  • Social problems should be solved by markets.

So why does it matter, anyway?

Your beliefs control what you do and don’t attempt in the world. If you believe you’re a bad negotiator, you’ll never put yourself in situations where you have to do difficult negotiations, so you’ll never go up the learning curve. It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Your beliefs also determine the options you generate when you want to try something new. If you truly believe that Wal-mart is an invincible competitor, for example, you won’t even consider business options that would pit you head-to-head against Wal-mart.

And lastly, your beliefs determine what you pay attention to. They determine what you measure. If you believe customers are out to cheat you, you’ll invent things like software activation(1). If you believe customers are honest, you’ll likely create a tighter relationship with your customers because you’ll naturally engage in trust-building activities.

So now that you’ve tried on a few different beliefs. Here’s a final question to ponder: what could you measure or pay attention to that would let you know if the new belief you tried is better, worse, or as effective as your current belief?

Just a thought…

(1) Software activation is a potential disaster for customers, but software companies don’t care.

Finding the beliefs that trap us

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