9. The Four agreements
Jen: Hello listeners, I hope you are enjoying the clear dulcet tones of my voice. Unfortunately for all of us, the sound's about to get pretty bad on my end. "Why?" you might ask. Because I forgot to plug my mic in when Pete and I were recording the episode you are about to listen to.
Peter: It was bound to happen.
Jen: That being said, we hope you will enjoy it, anyway.
Hello, Peter Shepherd.
Peter: Hello Jen Waldman.
Jen: Have you ever heard of The Four Agreements?
Peter: I don't think so. Please tell me more.
Jen: Well, maybe I'm butchering the origin story here, but I believe Oprah was responsible for bringing them to the masses, and The Four Agreements is a book by a guy named Don Miguel Ruiz, and I would like to rewrite them today.
Peter: Let's do it. Let's take on Oprah.
Jen: This is The Long and The Short Of It.
Peter: Okay, so Jen, I'm worried I have nothing to contribute here because I'm not really sure what these four tenants are - is that what you call them? Tenants?
Jen: The Four Agreements.
Peter: Agreements. See, look, I'm off to a great start.
Jen: I actually think you're going to have a lot to contribute, and the reason I'm excited that you haven't heard of it is because you're going to be coming at this with very fresh eyes, and maybe as I seek to rewrite The Four Agreements, you'll have better ideas than I will.
Peter: Yeah, consider my eyes very fresh. Let's do this.
Jen: Okay, so the Four Agreements are: be impeccable with your word; don't take anything personally; don't make assumptions; and finally, always do your best. So in essence, these are great principles to live your life by, and they make a lot of sense. So what my beef is is with the way the language is actually constructed, because as you know, Mr. Shepherd, I like to speak in affirmative and inclusive language, and two of these four agreements speak in negative, exclusive language - and one of the other two I think has come to be used as an excuse to do the opposite of what the agreement is.
Jen: Shall I explain?
Peter: I think you should. I think I followed, but I need you to explain this.
Jen: Okay. So the one that I'm really happy with, which I am going to give up the need to rewrite, is "be impeccable with your word."
Peter: I like that one.
Jen: In my own golden circle, one of my "hows" is "tell the truth," so I love this idea of "be impeccable with your word. Speak with integrity. Say what you mean." All that good stuff.
Peter: "Impeccable" is just a great word, too. I like that word.
Jen: Tell me more about that.
Peter: I just think it's a great word. You know when you hear a word in the English language and you just like, "I just like that word, it just rolls off the tongue, it makes me smile."
Jen: Like "spruik."
Peter: Exactly, like "spruik," which until recently I assumed was a word understood by people all over the globe, and I mentioned to Jen that I had been spruiking our podcast, only to discover she had no idea what I was talking about.
Jen: But once I learned what you were talking about, I got excited about spruiking, and we're going to do a whole episode on spruiking. So look forward to that, listeners. Okay. So let's talk about the second agreement: "don't take anything personally." So the problem here is that when you tell someone not to do something, you have neglected to tell them what to actually do. So I can say to you, "don't take anything personally," but that leaves you actionless. It leaves you in a state of unknown. And so what I want to do is, with you, right now, unpack what we think that really means, and then rephrase it in language that allows people to take action. So give me your best shot. What do you think it means when the agreement states, "don't take anything personally?"
Peter: That is a good question. Okay so, I think what they mean by "don't take things personally" is, to me, it taps into the way that we feel and react based on our feelings. When someone or something happens to us and our tendency to - I'm trying not to use negative language as well - but our tendency to put ourselves at the center of the universe, and think that everything that happens around us is a personal attack on us. And so - this is not the way to phrase it - but I think it's, yeah, like "not taking it personally" is almost like removing yourself from the center of the universe and viewing things objectively, maybe is where I'm going with this. Or viewing things from a place of anonymity, or, I don't know. Is this is making sense? Am I getting somewhere?
Jen: It is, and you know, the way you just described that reminded me of something that I know you want to talk about in its own episode, but we can give a preview right now: the opposite of, "don't take anything personally," is: practice sonder.
Peter: Right, yeah, of course.
Jen: What is sonder?
Peter: So sonder...
Jen: Or, "sonderrr," depending on where in the world you are right now.
Peter: Sonder is - it's one of those, really like it's one of those unique words, and has been described and defined in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows - which is this crazy online website where the guy takes obscure words and seeks to find their origin and define them - and "sonder" is like, it's the moment where you realize that everybody around you has as rich and troubled and sure a life a as you do, and that they all have that same noise in their head, and at some times the person that you walk past on the street, you are just an extra. You are just a passerby in their life in the same way that they are just a passerby in yours. So it's an exercise in empathy, really, in realizing that everyone has their own story. Everyone has their own noise, and everyone is, you know, doing the best they can with the life that they have, and the rich relationships that they have within that life don't necessarily transcend into your life.
Jen: So another possible way of stating that agreement might be, "build the empathy bridge."
Peter: Yeah. Tell me more about empathy bridge-building.
Jen: Well, it's this idea that the best way to connect to someone else is to give up your own bias and your own point of view and attempt to understand fully where they are coming from. And sometimes, of course, that is easier said than done. When I think about this, "don't take anything personally," or "building empathy bridge" or "practice sonder" idea as it relates to some of the freelancers that you and I both work with, sometimes you're sending your work out into a vacuum, and there's no echo. It's like, you send your work out, you send out your proposal, your pitch, do you do your audition, whatever it might be, and there's just silence, and so in response to that silence, it seems like an easy thing to do would be to take the silence personally and decide that it means that you are terrible, you are wrong, you are bad. But instead if you can seek to build the empathy bridge, practice sonder, then it gives you a little relief around why someone may or may not have responded to your pitch, your idea, your audition. So rather than deciding, like, "Something's wrong with me," it can be like, "Wow, it must be a lot of mental work to sit through eight hours of auditioning actors and have to make decisions with a producer breathing down your neck, like that must be a lot of pressure. No wonder that person devoted their energy to the actors they were actually interested in instead of spending that energy on the actors who were not right for the project."
Peter: Yes. So instead of "don't take things personally," what if it was "seek to understand?" How do you feel about that?
Jen: Yes! Love it. I feel great about that, and it immediately reminds me that in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, that phrase is uttered over and over again in that book: "If you wish to be understood, you must first seek to understand." Boom, drop the mic. That's a "Shepherdian" move there.
Peter: I mean it took a little bit of thrashing, but we got there.
Jen: We totally got there. Okay, so we'll move on to agreement number three, which is, "don't make assumptions." Now, I've got a major beef with this one, especially recently, because of course, again, negative, exclusive language, but even more than that, it denies our very human impulse to make assumptions. And the part of our wiring that does make assumptions is something that we don't have the ability to eradicate. It is part of who we are. So instead, I want us to be able to acknowledge our assumptions and then challenge them, because when we challenge our assumptions, it can completely reframe the way we view the world, and what we see as opportunity and possibility. So it's like - okay, I know I keep bringing this back to actors, but they're, they're just so easy to talk about.
Peter: No, it's good. It's good examples. Let's do it.
Jen: So I work with a lot of actors who see what in theatre-lingo is called a "breakdown." So this is essentially a character description for a job that's available in a play. So it'll say something like, "Peter Shepherd: six foot seven, Australian, wears glasses, laughs easily, very smart and goofy," you know, it'll say things like that. And then the actor will make an assumption based on the breakdown about whether or not they are qualified to play that role. Well, I would say, "well, nobody's going to cast me as Peter Shepherd. I am a five foot one, female American who's in no way goofy." Kidding. And so I've made that assumption, and therefore I do not spruik myself for said role, but what I would rather is to acknowledge that I've made that assumption, and then say, "Let me challenge that assumption and spruik myself anyway, and then either I'm going to get the 'yes' or the 'no,' but then I'll have a clearer sense of what the reality actually is." What do you think?
Peter: I think that you've - I think you've rewritten it. I think it's, "acknowledged and challenge assumptions." And it's interesting your point, I've never thought about this, but your point around we can't, we can't remove our ability to think about or acknowledge assumptions because it's, it's hardwired. And it reminds me again of what we spoke about before of sonder and empathy is part of being empathetic is there is this little degree of: you have to assume a couple of things in order to be able to walk in someone else's shoes, right? You have to assume that they might feel this way about this thing, but you can't be sure. So there's, there's a degree of assumptions that comes into something really meaningful, and well, practicing empathy, which is an important part of human connection, so you can't just remove assumptions altogether. So, I love this rewriting.
Jen: Okay, so we're on a roll right now and we are moving in to agreement number four, which is, "always do your best." Now before I get into this one, for our listeners at home, Peter is responsible for taking the audio files here and turning them into the podcast that you're listening to right now. Do you have the ability to bleep?
Peter: Oh yeah. I think I could do that, actually. I'll figure it out.
Jen: Okay, cool, because I'm about to swear.
Peter: I mean, I think you're allowed to swear on a podcast.
Jen: I know, but what if I want my daughter to be able to listen to this?
Peter: True, true. We can bleep it.
Jen: So for all the eight-year-olds out there, we're bleeping it for you. Okay, so this is very similar to my beef with "I am enough," which is: I think that we have started to adopt things like, "well I did my best," as an excuse for not actually doing your best. It almost feels to me like a surrender, like a throwing your hands in the air and being like, "Well, that sucked, but I did my best," "I did my best under the circumstances." So my rewrite for this is: "always do your f*cking best," because there is a difference between your best and your f*cking best. Your f*cking best is when you have pushed yourself into the discomfort zone, you have taken risks, you have felt some pain, you have grown, and you come out on the other side with something to show for it, and that thing may not be the thing you went in to find, but it's the thing you're coming out with, which is a new perspective, growth, development, etc. So I propose: "always do your f*cking best."
Peter: That was a whole lot of bleeping. I, I wonder though, what does do your best, what do you think that means? Like, is there another way of saying the same thing? Because I - yeah I'm curious on what you think about that.
Jen: Well, I know what it means in the book. So in the book it basically talks about how your best changes from moment to moment, and that in any circumstance, if you do your best, given the circumstances, you can avoid negative self-talk and the shame spiral. So this is where, again, bringing it back to the actors, you gotta show up eight times a week and deliver the performance that the audience is going to pay for, and they don't care if you have a cold, they don't care what's going on in your personal life. In that moment, you've got to have trained yourself enough in whatever your skillset is - you know, it could be coaching, it could be acting, it could be surgery - whatever your thing is, so that your best doesn't have to vary that much. Like, I want people to have honed their craft, whatever their craft may be, to the point that the best day can be replicated because of technique.
Peter: Ooh, interesting. So is it more about mastering your technique and your processes so that your best is more likely to come out each time?
Jen: Yes, and to be fair, life throws some curve-balls, so you will certainly find yourself in situations that you've been unable to prepare, rehearse, or plan for, and so in those moments you do your best under the circumstances given the knowledge that you have. I totally hear that, and I think it still becomes an excuse for avoiding mastery. I go, "Well, I did my best."
Peter: I agree with that. I was, I was just gonna say I - it also reminds me of - I can't remember what podcast it was - but recently I heard an interview with someone and they were describing their approach to everything was instilled in them at a young age was this idea of being world-class, and her father had told her over and over and over to be world-class, and she took that so literally that she'd be like, "Oh, I've got to do some photocopying. I'm an intern, and I've got to do some photocopying. How can I do a world-class job of doing this photocopying?" And so she would like, line up the paper really well, she would index it, she would, she would make it the perfect photocopied document that she could. Like, she would bring that idea of it being world-class to literally things as small as photocopying, and I really liked that frame, so I wonder if that's, could be the P.C. version: "be world-class in everything that you do."
Jen: Yes. Or as Steven Pressfield might say, "Turn pro."
Peter: Yeah, turn pro. Be a pro.
Jen: Because can you imagine - I'm just thinking, the World Series is happening here right now in baseball (now people know that we're recording this in October) - and can you imagine if the pitcher just loses his arm and is like walking in and runs and doing a doo-doo job, and then at the press conference after says, "Well I did my best." It's like, well we were watching. There is no way that was your best. We've seen your best. We know how to measure your best.
Peter: Yeah, I think that's fair enough. Is that all four or did we just write all four of them?
Jen: We did. So I think we should recap.
Jen: So the new Four Agreements -
Peter: - as documented by Jen Waldman and Peter Shepherd -
Jen: - are: one, be impeccable with your word.
Peter: Yeah. We'll give you that one.
Jen: Two -
Peter: - seek to understand.
Jen: Three, acknowledge and challenge your assumptions. And four -
Peter: Do your f*cking best.
Jen: I feel very satisfied. I'm also slightly worried that we're going to, you know, get a legal Cease and Desist from Don Miguel Ruiz and Oprah, but I'm okay with it, because Oprah is really a North Star for me, so I do this to honor her and say, "Thank you for introducing me to The Four Agreements, Oprah."
Peter: And if we get that Cease and Desist that means she's listening. So, hey Oprah, thanks for listening.
Jen: Oprah! I love you! And that is The Long and The Short Of It.