Why? It starts when she is young. She is first tied down when she is small and not yet strong enough to break the rope. She'll try at first, try as hard as she can to break free, and try and try, but eventually realize she can't.
Suddenly, something attaches itself to her that is stronger than any rope or chain or fence. It's the belief that she can't break free. It's this belief that holds her back – despite her ability.
I've had these same beliefs – you may have too – beliefs that held me back, beliefs that led me to feel unfulfilled in my work, to struggle in my relationships and to live a life that was far from the one I am living now.
It was only when I became aware of my ropes and actively pulled against them that I found myself in a different reality. How do you break the ropes that tie you down? Don't believe everything you think.
When I was six years old, I had a favorite baby sitter, Amber. One morning, my mother told me we couldn't have her babysit because she didn't have enough money to pay her. So that afternoon, I started my first company.
I gathered rocks from around the neighborhood, painted them with my art set, and went door to door, selling them to our neighbors. That night, it was Amber and I on the couch together. When I was young, I was bold, outgoing and fearless.
I wore what I wanted or didn’t want to wear, guided by my own voice that told me what would make me happy. I was also in love. His name was Fernando, and he was wonderful. As with everything else, I wasn’t afraid to grab him with both hands.
As I grew older, this picture started to fade. My exuberance was replaced with timidness, my leadership with conformity, my boldness with fear. I don’t think any of us leave childhood without some ropes despite our parents’ best intentions.
I grew up with a mother who was determined to give me the perfect life. Armed with love and good intentions, she did everything for me to help me be perfect. I'd pack a suitcase to go on a school trip, and she'd unpack it and repack it in a more perfect way.
I'd be ready to turn in a school art project, and then she'd add her own brush strokes to make it better. Later she told me when my choice of boyfriend or apartment wasn't good enough. Although she just wanted what was best for me, I stopped knowing what was best for me.
An unconscious rope was formed. I shouldn't trust my own voice and my own ability, and I feared not being perfect. Other ropes attached themselves too. I grew up in a family filled with yelling, loud voices and strong opinions.
To keep the peace, I learned to stay quiet, to not rock the boat, to become invisible. In school, I came to believe it's more important to blend in than stand out. And the pain of an early heartbreak led me to hold back in my relationships so I could avoid getting hurt.
I'm not good enough. Don't speak up. Don't stand out. Fear failure. These were my ropes. This isn't just my story. Like the elephant, we all come to believe certain things in childhood that weren't true – or at least are no longer true.
But we still live with them as if they are. If you've ever felt not good enough, alone, unwanted, unloved, invisible, powerless, like you don't belong – these are your ropes. If you've ever felt you can't trust yourself, trust others, speak up, stand out, ask for help, let others in, be accepted as you are – these are your ropes.
These ropes hold us back. I found myself defaulting to others' opinions when I should have been trusting my own, staying quiet when it would have benefited me to speak up, and blending in when I would have been happier if I had to courage to stand out.
This led me into a series of jobs that ranged from tolerable to miserable. In one, I hoped I'd get sick so I could stay home from work. It led me into a series of relationships in which I lacked confidence in myself, the other person and the relationship.
These never worked out. My beliefs affected the way I perceived the world, which changed how I acted, which led to a self-fulfilling prophecy. I felt small, and my world became smaller. What we believe has powerful effects.
Decades of social psychology research backs this up. In a study performed at Dartmouth College, an ugly scar was placed on participants' faces with makeup. They were then sent into a room for a conversation and asked to report how people responded to them with this ugly scar.
But here is the twist. Right before they left, the experimenter said, "Hold on a minute! We just want to touch up your scar a bit." Rather than touch it up, they removed it entirely. So unbeknownst to them, the participants went into their conversations, looking completely normal.
Despite this, they came back and reported how awkward their conversations were, how people avoided looking at their scar, had trouble making eye contact, and were tense and uncomfortable in the conversation.
Their beliefs about their scar led them to see things that weren't really there and to make meaning of innocent behavior. What could have been a perfectly normal conversation instead became an awkward one.
Their beliefs created their reality. Other studies show the same effect. Highlight an Asian woman's Asian identity before a math test, she'll perform better. Highlight her female identity, she'll perform worse.
Lead a group of men to believe an athletic task is diagnostic of sports intelligence, white men perform better. Lead them to believe it'd diagnostic of natural athletic ability, black men do. Give someone a white coat and tell them it's a doctor's lab coat, they'll perform better on an attention task than when told it's a painter's coat.
In all of these cases, same people, same abilities, same tasks – different beliefs. And in each case, it was their belief that raised or lowered their performance. How you see yourself and your circumstances will affect what you see, how you act, and what occurs as a result.
It’s almost as if our beliefs place a virtual reality headset on us, a headset that allows us to see things that aren’t really there and sends us into a false reality. We have these headsets even when they’re miles from the truth.
I remember hearing the top model Cameron Russell share how models, despite having the shiniest hair and the longest legs, are some of the most physically insecure people on the planet. And award-winning author Lidia Yuknavitch shared how she didn't follow up on the literary representation she was offered early in her career.
The reason in her words: “We don’t always know how to hope or say yes or choose the big thing, even when it’s right in front of us. It’s the shame we carry. The shame of not believing we deserve it.”
Our headsets have us living into a false reality. They also cause us to bump into each other. Once, I’d been dating someone for a few weeks. We’ll call him Ben. We talked every day. Then he went on a work trip.
For four days, silence. I didn't hear a word. How would you interpret this? What's the first thought that pops in your head? My beliefs led me to wonder what I had done or said to make this once enthusiastic person change his mind about me.
I shared his silence with friends. One, who admits she has trouble trusting people, was sure he was on this trip with another woman. Another, who admits she’s afraid of rejection, guessed he was probably upset because I hadn’t invited him as my date to an upcoming wedding.
And a third, who has trouble with commitment, guessed he probably thought we were moving too fast and was taking some space. Each person saw the same situation through the lens of their own headset. Who was right? How should I respond? Each of these assumptions leads to a different response.
Moving too fast? – I should pull back. But if he's feeling rejected, this would just hurt him more. Feeling rejected? – I should up my calls and invite him to the wedding. But if he thinks we're moving too fast, this will just push him away further.
I was so confused. As I was ping-ponging around in my own headset while briefly borrowing some of my friends' headsets, this relationship died a slow death. Are you ready for what was going on in Ben's headset? He'd been deeply hurt by a past relationship, was afraid of getting hurt again, and pulled away when his insecurities got the best of him.
It was none of the things anyone had guessed. Sometimes our headsets get in the way of our relationships. It took me a long time to learn this. Just as our beliefs can hold us back, they can also propel us forward.
Let's go back to the scar study for a moment. Imagine the opposite. Imagine the researchers place something on the participants' faces that leads them to believe they look beautiful and then remove it before they go into the social setting.
Now, what do you think they believe about others' responses? How do you think they show up differently? What difference does it make if you believe you're ugly or gorgeous, good at math or terrible at it, good at sports or not? It seems, a big one.
I finally learned this lesson. My headset led me to law school. There my long-held false beliefs were reinforced: aim for perfection, follow the crowd, fear failure. This was a familiar path. Then one day, without thinking much about it, I signed up for a class outside the law school, called Design Thinking Boot Camp, a class that promised to unleash my creative potential.
I had to design innovative products and experiences, or more accurately, pull on almost every single one of my ropes. I had to trust my own voice because when it comes to innovation, there is by definition no one to look to for the answers.
I had to put myself out there because innovation doesn't come from playing it safe. And perhaps most importantly, I had to be willing to fail, to be willing to not be perfect. The best designs came only after multiple failed attempts.
If I wanted to get it right, I first had to be willing to get it wrong. I struggled in this class because all of the things that would help me succeed were the same things I believed for so many years I shouldn't do.
I finally gave in to their crazy approach, and the most amazing thing happened. I was free to go, play, try things, experiment – to live as I had before my ropes. I felt free in a way I hadn't since I was six years old, and I accomplished things I never would have imagined possible.
I was astounded, proud, liberated – and confused. I wondered if the beliefs that held me back in this class were the same ones holding me back in other parts of my life. The seed had been planted. Maybe I shouldn't believe everything I think.
Headset off. To take it off, I just had to realize I had it on. Ropes broken. New beliefs lead to new actions. In my first bold move since I was six, I turned down my offer to work at a law firm and placed myself in a different reality.
I experimented with different jobs and took on various side projects, saying yes to ones I previously would have said no to due to lack of experience, trusting I could figure it out. I was still afraid of failure and taking wrong turns, and sometimes I did.
I just no longer let this stop me. Then one day, I took on a 10-week part-time position, coaching speakers. I fell in love with this work. We’re talking Fernando-level love. No longer afraid to grab things with both hands, I went on to start my own company, helping leaders become more powerful speakers and to teach a communication class at Stanford.
Particularly meaningful for me is that I now get to give others what I'd lost for so long – a more powerful voice. I broke other ropes too. When I was self-conscious and shy, I never could have imagined revealing my insecurities to you on a TED stage.
That would have sounded more like a bad dream. Yet somehow, here I am. This process didn’t happen overnight. Each new thought, each new action built on the one before it until I found myself in a new reality.
I still have ropes I'm working to break. My goal is fewer over time. To get there, I remind myself of the marshmallow challenge. Teams of four are given 20 sticks of spaghetti, a yard of string, a yard of tape and a marshmallow.
The winning team is the one that can build the tallest freestanding tower they can in 18 minutes. The marshmallow has to be on top. This challenge has been given all over the world to business-school students, lawyers, CEOs, CTOs, engineers.
Who do you think are among the top performers? Recent graduates of kindergarten. Here’s why. The other groups will take what they think they know, what they think is the single right answer, and end up executing in the wrong direction.
In contrast, kindergarteners stay open to multiple possibilities. They test out different options, they gather information by experimenting until they find the best way forward. They have fun. What makes us so amazing as children is we live in a world before ropes.
In a world before "what's known," when there is "what's possible." In a world before "I can't," when there is "how could I?" In a world before falling and staying down, when we fall and get right back up again – undeterred.
In a world in which nothing is holding us back from our full capacity. What the design class was for me, I hope this talk is for you – a seed that gets you to question what you've previously accepted as true, that makes you more aware of your ropes, that helps you see they were always yours to break.
No matter who you are or where you are, in this moment, there is the life that you can be living if you break your ropes. You get there one new thought at a time, one new action at a time until one day, you find yourself in a new reality.