Stop It Or Else

Or else what? Bad choices come with real consequences and it’s smart to avoid them when we can. But imaginary consequences often block good changes too. Maybe it’s time to update a few beliefs.

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - Stop It Or Else

Photo by Chance Agrella, courtesy of

After some narrow escapes, I’m happy to take their word for it when people say never light matches around gasoline, always grab sharp things by the handle or wait until the tram comes to a full and complete stop before exiting. I also give those voices on airport trains the benefit of the doubt when they say “stand back – doors closing!”

Not all dark predictions come true.

Some warnings are meant to keep us safe. They’re intended to protect us from bad things that really happen to other people. Other times, though, fear is the quickest way to stop us from doing things that aren’t especially dangerous, but DO annoy the person giving the warning. Happily, not one of these things I heard as a kid ever happened:

  • You’ll fall and break your neck.
  • You’ll put somebody’s eye out.
  • You’ll crack your head open.
  • Your eyes will stay crossed.
  • Your face is going to stick like that.

I think comedian Bill Cosby captured it best. Quarreling siblings often bring grievances to parents under the illusion that justice will be dispensed, when all grownups really want is quiet. Some warnings have nothing to do with real outcomes – their only purpose is to gain momentary compliance. Sadly, this kind of behavioral conditioning never really goes away as we get older. It just gets more subtle.

  • Are you going out like that? (okay, maybe this one is valid)
  • Being a (you name it) is really competitive – better try something safer.
  • Sure, go ahead and pursue (whatever) but get a real trade to fall back on.
  • Speak up for that and people will think you’re a (fill in the religious or political label).
  • Immediate doom is certain for all of us when Y2K comes, the Mayan calendar ends or the candidate you happen to like best gets elected to public office.

Most of these come sugar coated with benevolent humor, but every so often you get one that masks an ever-so-slight threat of abandonment if you don’t conform. That makes me stop to consider how my words affect the beliefs of others.

My mentor Bill once said something that challenged my beliefs in a positive way. In addition to being pretty high up in the radio business, he also owned race horses. One day he invited me to the track to watch his new thoroughbred run. I can’t remember now why I was afraid to leave the studio, but I looked around and said, “oh, I can’t go right now.”

“Tim, you can do a LOT of things you think you can’t do.”

I didn’t believe him at the time – or for years afterwards. What got my attention was that HE believed it. The words stuck, and later in life I started using them as a test to see if my assumptions were based on real dangers or imaginary ones. In books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the late Stephen Covey described the path to maturity as a journey from dependence through independence to interdependence. My sense is that part of that process is developing the discernment to validate beliefs for ourselves.

Let’s hold on to the few that protect us, and release the many that hold us back.

People once “knew” for certain that the sun revolved around the earth. When others use fear to knock us off our paths and keep us in line, there’s no percentage in trying to judge whether they mean to hurt us or help us. However, it IS useful to consciously replace beliefs that no longer work. Gregg Braden offers concrete tips on how to do this in The Spontaneous Healing of Belief: Shattering the Paradigm of False Limits.

I don’t know where Bill is now and I never went to the track with him, but I do know this. It was a perfect spring afternoon and the horses would have been amazing to watch.

Questions: What belief turned out to be a paper tiger when you challenged it? How would you rate the length of my posts? A bit long? Way too long? About right? I’d like to improve my offerings here to make them more readable and useful. Thanks!

  • Karen Dickens Emerson

    Oh, this one is way too true, except for the part about your face not actually sticking like that. Mine did. That aside, my mother’s mantra, “You can’t do that, it’s too competitive” has taken a good long life to overcome, and I am still not sure I have gotten over it. I have always been one to shoot for the stars, not seeing why not until BOOM! Mom’s bazooka, loaded with her fears shot it down again and again, even when I was well on the path and already attaining some level of success. I don’t know why I bought into it, but I still get shaky approaching my dreams, and have a hard time believing them when they are realizing. I have ways of diminishing the success by taking myself for granted. “Oh if I could do that, anyone could. It’s no big deal.” But when I can step out and look at those things more objectively, I see that I have a set of uncommon and special qualities. Little by little, I am learning to trust myself and keep my eye on those stars they way you keep your eye on the ball. I appreciate your words which add strength and courage, making things appear perhaps a little less daunting.

  • Russ Packham

    All I know about parenting, I learned from Bill Cosby. Some day, if I ever have kids, I’m prepared…maybe. I’m slowly overcoming the “You don’t want to do that. There’s no future in that…” statements I heard growing up. This usually occurred when I announced my latest future profession that wasn’t in the medical or legal field. I didn’t write those two off, I spent a summer working at a hospital as a volunteer and learned enought to know that a career there wasn’t for me. A quick glance at the tomes of legal reference works were enough to put me off the legal path.

    I had an accounting instructor in college that really used to make us think. He would give us a simple business transaction and ask us for the book entries for that transaction. As soon as one student gave an answer, his response would be, “That’s correct. Now, give me another set of entries.” What he was demonstrating is that accounting entries are not exactly carved in stone. There is no single correct set of entries for any transaction. Some people think “creative accounting” is an oxymoron, but after over 20 years in the profession, I can tell you it’s the rule rather than the exception.

    Now when I’m faced with a challenge, I look at an outcome of just one of many possiblilities. I find I have more options than I thought at first sight.

    Great post, Tim. And I find the posts just right in length. As Mozart once said when his work was criticized as having “too many notes,” he said, “I used exactly as many notes as I needed. No more and no fewer.”