All the World’s a… Mirror

Last week I made the terrible mistake of looking at my face in the 5x magnifying vanity mirror in our upstairs bathroom.
I saw a lot that I couldn’t do anything about, at least not at 6:30am without a scalpel and belt sander, but the thing that really got me was the condition of my nose.
In the regular mirror, my nose looks fine: good skin, no forests growing out of my nostrils. Perhaps a bit larger than Hollywood prefers, and with a slight bump at the bridge courtesy of a self-inflicted racquetball injury in 1978, but all in all, a fine specimen of a shnozz not in need of urgent remedial attention.
But the magnifying mirror told a different story:
  • Long black hairs like warthog bristles sprouting from the bridge
  • Clogged pores
  • Dead skin and dirt piling up like dead leaves over a storm drain
So I switched on the magnifying mirror light, grabbed a very expensive Rubis tweezers that my wife does not let me use (hope she misses this issue of the BOPzine) and went to work.
First, I yanked the offending hairs off the top. That took about five minutes – as my eyes got used to the grotesquely magnified view, more and more of these hairs started appearing.
Second, I put down the tweezers and went to work on the whiteheads until my nose was red, swollen, and sore.
Finally, I took a scalding, soapy hot wash cloth and rubbed until you could practically see the nerve endings.
Then, satisfied with my excruciatingly painful “extreme self-care,” I turned back to the regular bathroom mirror to see the results.
After the redness subsided, I was shocked to discover that I couldn’t see a difference. My new, refurbished snout looked exactly like it had before I went all depilatory on it.
And I’m guessing if my regular mirror didn’t notice that my nose was an unkempt mess, the people in my life didn’t either.

It’s All Mirrors

So my mistake here was looking at the wrong mirror for feedback. And you know what? We humans do that all the time…
Let’s start with the difficult-to-swallow premise that everything and everyone in our life is a mirror for us, because we project ourselves outward onto the world.
It’s easier to see others do it that do catch ourselves, of course, because when we project we think we’re actually seeing reality. It’s the same illusion that we experience at the movies, forgetting that we’re just staring at a blank silver screen because of all the lights being projected onto it.

What the Heck Am I Talking About?

Maybe an example or two will help here.
Sometimes my children aren’t perfect. (Shocked, are you?)
They don’t clean up their rooms when I ask them to. They dawdle in the morning, reading comic strips and listening to books on tape instead of hurrying downstairs and taking responsibility for their breakfasts and lunches. And occasionally, once or twice a minute, they annoy each other.
The reality – the actual silver screen – is simply a series of facts:
  • Children who do not clean their rooms to my specifications of what a clean room looks like (which is much much cleaner, by the way, than my vision of what a clean entrepreneurial office looks like).
  • Children reading The Book of Bunny Suicides at 7:52am instead of packing their lunches or brushing their teeth.
  • Children saying things to each other in a voice calculated to be overheard by a parent, “If you haven’t made your lunch yet, why are you reading The Book of Bunny Suicides instead of doing your job?”
My interpretation of those facts can range from exasperation to annoyance to frustration to epic victimhood (“Why is the universe punishing me like this? Is this retributive justice for my own squalid childhood?”) to snooty anger that renders me far more annoying and unhelpful than anything they can come up with.
Or I could just see a couple of tired kids just being kids.
The silver screen doesn’t change. It’s what I project upon it that ends up being what I see “out there.”
And the less drama and suffering I load onto the screen, the more effective I can be in shifting the situation.

Business Mirrors

Some of my mirrors, career-wise, have been mentors who showed me the good in myself. They realized that I looked to them to discover who I was, and they intentionally reflected back my best potential.
Other mirrors have been neither as friendly or as intentional. Like the speakers at the online marketing events I attended in the early 2000s who displayed huge affiliate checks in their PowerPoint presentations. I looked at them and saw easy money and effortless opportunity, and me a poor schlub who just couldn’t figure out how to crack the online marketing code.
Like the online sales letter writers posing next to their mansions while I stared at the promised on my computer screen in a small house “outside of Princeton” (as I told people because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t afford to live in Princeton (or even “just outside of Princeton” – Lawrenceville and Hopewell were also well outside my price range).
Like the dozens of gurus whose pitches were calculated to make me – and my fellow insecure, struggling newbies – look at myself as a failure because I had not yet attained their level of success.
In fact, those mirrors did more to slow down my development and hold back my business than any competitor or any recession could possibly have done.
How do I know they were just mirrors? Because I look at them now and laugh – they have almost no hold on me anymore.
I’ve discovered that even the rich, “lazy” ones work 14 hours a day, six days a week to convince me that they’re rich and lazy.
I’ve discovered that a lot of the online Super Success Stories are just smoke (and yes, mirrors) – meticulously crafted illusions that don’t hold up to scrutiny.
But much more important, I’ve matured enough to realize that my net worth and my true worth are two completely different things.
I’ve stopped judging people – rich, middle-class, begging with a cardboard sign at the intersection of 15/501 and Interstate 40 – based on how much money they earn and spend and save.
So those greed and despair mirrors related to my income have nothing powerful left to reflect back to me.
I can be thrilled to see a really successful launch – even by a so-called “competitor” – without feeling that underlying spasm of jealousy.

Who are Your Mirrors?

You know you’re looking into a mirror when what you see comes with a negative emotional charge. When you look out into the world and suffer because of what you see.
Let’s take inventory:
  • Where are we projecting your own insecurities and fears out into the world?
  • What gets our blood boiling?
  • What makes us feel weak and ashamed?
  • What turns us against ourselves, muttering curses like “I’ll never figure this out”?


What Can We Learn from Mirrors?

Those mirrors, as much as they may manipulate us and twist us in knots, are our best teachers.
They show us unhealed parts of ourselves.
They reveal areas where we don’t yet take full responsibility for our own lives.
They point to paths of inner growth that can magically and ironically get us what we want at the same time as they make the attainment of what we want not such a big deal.
And they show us, in stark and unmistakable detail, the place where change starts – in our own consciousness, before it manifests in our actions and results.

Lessons from the Mirror

I had a roommate my sophomore year in college who used to talk to himself in the full-length mirror as he combed his hair after a shower. “You sure are ugly,” he’d tell his reflection as he meticulously parted his hair. “It’s a good thing you’re such a good lover.”
As I think back, he was really saying that his looks didn’t matter – gorgeous, cute, so-so, or ugly – because he was attractive based on his attitude alone. An attitude, if I might translate it for a business crowd, of “I sure can be of top-notch service.”
My shock at seeing my ugly nose turns out to be an invitation to go deeper into my own inventory of what’s OK and not OK about me. On a superficial level, I’m doing well these days. Liking myself. Not getting too caught up in envy or blame or victimhood.
But at 5x magnification, it looks like I’m not done yet. I still have projections yet to claim as parts of myself that I’ve misplaced “out there” somewhere.
But that’s OK.
Because I sure can be of top-notch service… ;)
Wishing you a holiday season in which gratitude fills you and surrounds you,

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  1. #1 • Jim Arsenault said on November 24 2009:

    Hey there, Howie!
    I found your "All the World's a … Mirror" blog simply brilliant.  A profoundly insightful and hilarious post.  As an Integral life coach, human development is one of my passions, so to see the dynamics of shadow and projection describled in this way is refreshing.  Your storytelling is much preferred over the more academic descriptions of these dynamics.  And it's so funny!  I was frothing with laughter throughout the article.  As usual, this was a powerful post, Howie.  Keep up the good work.  Thanks again!

  2. #2 • Paul Bellerose said on November 24 2009:

    Howie….I was drinking my coffee when I scrolled down to your 'closeup' and spit coffee all over my monitor!   I could'nt stop laughing…..Once I regained composure and read what the article was about I found that a lot of the issues that you mentioned (i.e.  where are we projecting our own insecurities…etc.) are staring me right in my face (and you don't want to see a closeup of MY face).   I also understand about all the hard work it takes to get a successful business because I am still struggling with that when I see all these offers about making $$$$$$ to not do anything just irks me to no end!   I read all your articles and will continue to do so…..Your sense of humor just makes learning from you so much more enjoyable.   

  3. #3 • mike bann said on November 24 2009:

    I still have not figured out how to monitize the internet with my business but with three kids and a big nose I can relate to your post. I too can be of great service!

  4. #4 • Mo said on November 24 2009:

    All I  have to say is… bravo!!
    I have one of those mirrors and it scares me everytime I look in it. Because it tells the truth
    Thanks for sharing your message!  This has touched/changed my view about myself, which is in
    serious need of honesty and work.
    As always you are my hero!

  5. #5 • Lloyd Matthews said on December 2 2009:

    Hi Howie, 
    Interesting thoughts in your article, and rather applicable for a pre-recessionary business environment. I think smoke could also be pulled into the analogy, as this distracted people from really seeing what was reflected. It could be said that people only saw what they wanted to see.

  6. #6 • Jessica said on February 7 2010:


    18 pt
    18 pt


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    Am happy to finally connect with your blog after too much time away. Love your writing style, love your sense of humor, love your insights, and love your nose.

  7. #7 • Jessica said on February 7 2010:

    Also, wanted to respond to Lloyd's comment, although at this late date, I am probably talking to myself : )
    I think it's not so much that we see what we want to see as much as we see what we've been afraid we'll see, or what we think is reality based on what we've seen in the past.
    And the more we practice telling ourselves that this means this and that means that, especially if, without realizing it, we've practiced being upset about it for a long time, the more likely we are to see that thing reflected back at us, the more likely we are to have that unwanted experience.
    For me, this is a new way of looking at life, and I feel inspired to go deeper, as usual, by Howie's deep thoughts.

  8. #8 • Jessica said on February 7 2010:

    But Lloyd, I think you're right, too. And I would say it like this: we can see what we want to see, if we choose to. But so much of what we see is based on thoughts we don't even know we're having. I'm not sure if I said that clearly. I'm in the process of learning how to talk about this : ) Thank you to Howie for inspiring this "inner conversation".

  9. #9 • Gemma Laming said on July 1 2011:

    One other thought – it has been eighteen months since you wrote this, and I hope that you kept up the beauty regime ;-) Best thing for skin? Drink lots of good water and eat lots of good fruit. Where you are that should not be too hard?

    As to the kids not tidying up – how about doing it with them? It always worked for me, and then they come and help you to do something (in the kitchen?) (oh) (well maybe?) even if you just start them off and return now and again it can work wonders.