Monday, February 16, 2009

Rebel Without A Pause

So a couple nights ago, it's Valentine's Day, and Leslie and I are talking about what -- if anything -- we're going to do that evening.  Eat out, eat in?  Go to a movie?  A show?  What?

And as we're lying there in bed, throwing options back and forth, it's beginning to occur to me that nothing is really going to happen.  Because even though we're talking about possibilities, neither of us is really proposing anything.

Neither of us is saying, "Hey, let's do X."  We're just saying, "Well, what do you think about X?"

And so we get to talking about that, and about how we're actually pretty passive in most of our lives, not just figuring out dates with each other.

So we both did a little mind-hacking, to see what we could do...

To Fix It!

And in my case, I started with a little "installation conflict" test -- a procedure I use to find out what existing mental "software" installed in my head, would conflict with any attempt to install new attitudes and behaviors.

Specifically, I wanted to find out if it would be okay for me to take a more active role in managing my own life -- and at the same time, be more okay with accepting proposals made by other people.  (Like my wife!)

Now, a few weeks ago, when I found and got rid of my superhero complex, I mentioned how I thought an easy life would be boring.  This time, though, thinking about my ideal life came back, not as being boring, but rather as being painful... in some vague and unclear way.

I felt a sense of deep loss, almost as if living the way I wanted to, would in fact be a fate worse than death!  As if I were losing my soul, or my sense of self.

And when I thought about it, I realized I'd had that feeling...

Many Times Before!

But every time I'd encountered it in previous mind-hacking sessions, I'd ended up shying away from it, to deal with less-central issues.  And even when I got rid of my "superhero" ideal, I only skirted the edge of this feeling.

This time, though, I was determined to face -- and understand -- what was causing it.

Now, more than once before, I'd asked myself about it, trying to get what it was I was afraid would happen if I actually became the organized and motivated person I claimed to want to be.  Not just some of the time, or most of the time...

But all of the time.

And always the answer came back, "because then I won't be me anymore."

And every time I'd gotten that answer before, I'd always been stumped by it.  Where, exactly, do you go from there?  I mean, I could hardly claim that I would still be me, could I?

But this time, it occurred to me that there was another angle I could approach the issue from.  And so I shot back, with one of my classic mind-hacking questions:

"What's bad about that?"

Now, if someone were to do a study on what things I do most when I'm helping my clients and students, this question is probably one of the top five things I say or ask.

Because its function is to uncover cached thoughts.  Or more precisely, stale cached thoughts.

You see, the brain, like a computer, uses "cache memory" to store previously-computed answers.  That way, it can get results faster, by looking up old answers, instead of doing all the work of thinking up new ones!

But a key side effect of this caching process is that we end up doing most of our reasoning, on the basis of unthinking prejudice.  Because literally, that's what prejudice is: pre-judgment, or using already-thought-of answers.

And we can then go on to reject entire lines of thinking -- entire pieces of our possible selves, lives, and personalities! -- on the basis of conclusions we jumped to with outdated evidence!

But by asking questions like, "What's bad about that?", we can force our brain into a "cache miss": computer terminology for a situation where the desired answer isn't available in the cache memory.

And as a result,  a cache miss forces the computer to calculate the answer directly, or to at least fetch it from another, slower (but more up-to-date) layer of cache memory.

And on Saturday, the answer came back as:

"That would be giving in!"

Hm.  Interesting.  "So what's bad about that?", I ask, forcing a miss through to the next layer of cache after that one.

And bam! -- just like that -- the entire story starts pouring out, a string of previously-unconnected childhood memories.

And before I can even think to ask one of my other top 5 questions (i.e., "And what does that say about you?"), I already have the answer:

"Giving in" means I'm weak.

A wimp.


Because I despised myself for not standing up to bullies.  Not just of the schoolyard variety, mind you, but also those adults who shamed, demeaned, or objectified me as a child.

And in compensation, I created an ideal of holding to my beliefs under pressure.  Of emulating the christian martyrs I heard so much about in church, who suffered diverse tortures and death rather than "give in" to their oppressors.

And so I'd decided that, even if parents and teachers and bullies might be able to force my physical compliance, I would never give in to them mentally!  Never would I change my own mind to agree with them, nor would I ever allow their efforts to so much as influence my own values.

Even if they were values that...

Wanted To Develop!

And I saw the insanity that resulted from this decision: decade upon decade of struggling with myself, unable to develop any kind of self-discipline, for the simple reason that I interpreted all my attempts to change as giving in to the enemy!

Because, even if what I sought was not a value that parents or teachers tried to force on me, I still seemed to find the very idea of giving in so distasteful, that even giving in to my own decisions was off-limits for me!

Indeed, for most of my life, the only sure way I'd gotten myself to do things, was to arrange them so that I had to do them, with sufficiently bad consequences that I could obtain my grudging -- and merely physical! -- compliance.

Meanwhile, the idea of actually enjoying working hard (or even on a regular schedule!), was the very height of betrayal, as far as my inner rebel was concerned!

And I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.  So many years... so much wasted effort and pain...  for no real benefit whatsoever.

Because it was all just another classic "ideal-belief-reality conflict" -- a fear of weakness, covered up with a compensating ideal of strength.  But fortunately,...

It Also Had A Classic Solution

In his books, Robert Fritz suggests that a simple way to get rid of such a conflict is to just admit whatever it is you're afraid of, and/or to state that you are that thing a few times.  So, I said to myself a few times, "I'm afraid I'm weak"...  and then I also said, "I'm a wimp," a few times.

And around the third or fourth repetition, I felt a sudden easing of the tension and terror that had initially gripped me.

"...And that's okay," I added.

Now, not every conflict like this goes away with just a few short statements, of course.  Both I and my clients have occasionally had situations where stating the fear just makes it worse in that moment.  But, in such cases, we simply use other techniques to break the conditioned link between the statement and the feeling, first.

In my case on Saturday, though, no additional measures were required.  I just felt a remarkable sense of relief, as though I'd just put down a very heavy weight, that I'd been carrying for a very long time!

And I began to see all the ways that this conflict had driven me to passive-aggressive behavior, and other negative patterns.

How it affected my ability to let go of control in some situations, and to go along with the ideas or suggestions of others.

Hell, I could even see how it affected my sexual development!  Because, when I was a teenager, living in the Caribbean, I was aggressively pursued by local girls... to a point we'd call sexual harassment today.  And of course...

I Never "Gave In"! matter how much I wanted to, at times.

(Which means I stayed a virgin for several more years than was strictly necessary.  Oh well!)

Now, I wish I could tell you that after making this change on Saturday, I went on to live happily ever after, with all my "passivity" problems solved.

In reality, it has taken some considerable additional "cleanup" work over the last couple of days, tracking down another half-dozen or so interrelated beliefs and blocks like, "If I fall behind, I can never catch up" and "I'm no good at anyhing that's difficult."

But, even as early as last Saturday night, I found I'd already become much more comfortable going along with my wife's suggestions, now that I lacked the subconscious need to find things wrong with them, in order to justify my knee-jerk objections to them.

And I think Leslie would have to agree...

That it's probably the best Valentine's Day present...

I've ever given her.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How Mind Hacking Really Works

I was in the middle of planning another revision of Thinking Things Done's chapter 7, when I stumbled across a year-old email from Mind Hackers' Guild member Mike Brown.

In it, he mentioned an article he'd run across, talking about how some scientist had found that each time a memory is used, it has to be stored again as a new memory, in order to be accessible later, because the old memory is either not there, or because it becomes inaccessible.

Now, when Mike first sent that to me (over a year ago), I didn't give it much thought.  For one thing, it sounded like another one of the many quirky or over-reaching interpretations that journalists often give to scientific topics.  (I read a lot of those, especially on topics related to procrastination... and sometimes the scientists themselves are the ones with the quirky or over-reaching interpretations!)

But for some reason, that old email caught my eye this evening, as I was skimming through a folder of un-answered and un-followed-up-on emails.  So I followed the link he sent to here, and then did some follow-up research via Google.

And it turns out that the basic idea, called "reconsolidation", has effects that have been studied by neuroscientists for quite some time now.  And the basic idea, explained quite well in this paper, is:

When you retrieve a memory,
it becomes changeable!

Now, that might not seem particularly important or significant, and indeed, a year ago I didn't make the connection that I made tonight.  But in the last year, the variety of mind-hacking techniques that I use and teach, had gotten quite a bit more varied.  And I was starting to notice a lot of commonalities.

In the lead-up to writing Thinking Things Done, I had been studying the predictive function of memory, and the role of surprise in my work.  Because frankly, when people change quickly and easily, it surprises them.  (Not to mention their friends and family!)

But more importantly, it had seemed to me that the emotion of surprise itself was a key part of the process of change.  Because people who failed to surprise themselves, failed to change.

Now, this is where things get interesting.  The reason that some people fail to surprise themselves, when first using my techniques, is because they're thinking about the present....

Instead Of Experiencing The Past!

Because most of my work involves using questions designed to provoke certain memories or thought patterns, in order to "access the code" that makes a person feel or act in a certain way.  So the people who have difficulty, are the ones who go into analytical and conceptual thoughts, instead of emotional/behavioral experiences.

And when I ask a question like, "And where do you feel that in your body?", they'll give a non-answer like, "I think I must be afraid of success," or "it must be my low-self esteem."

Of course, working with such people 1-on-1, I can usually get them to stop doing that after a little bit of prompting.  But when people just read what I write, or listen to my recordings, there's no way for them to get that kind of feedback!  (And to date, I haven't managed to write or say anything that gets 100% of people to not do this.)

Now, I've always known that directly accessing the relevant memory or belief was critical to what I do; heck, I was writing about that as far back as 2005!  After all, every technique I use and teach is essentially just a different way of locating, activating, and then altering different kinds of memory patterns.

So I knew, from direct experience, that you had to access your mind's "code", in order to change it.

I just didn't have a good explanation for why!

But now, reading about how memory reconsolidation works, I see a new way to explain this principle.

Not just from a motivational perspective, (i.e., "you have to do it this way because Science says so").

And not just from a teaching perspective (i.e. "this is why you need to be as specific and sensory-based as possible, so as to access the precise memories").

But now, I also have a better way for someone to test whether they're doing it correctly!

See, up till now, I've only been able to point to their analysis and thinking, and say, "stop doing that", until they learn to do the right thing.

But now, I can more clearly describe what they're supposed to be doing in the first place!

Specifically, in order to perform a successful mind hack, you must be either:

  1. Remembering something,
  2. Expecting something, or
  3. Experiencing something.

And if you're not doing one of those three things, then you're thinking, and therefore doing it wrong

Because, while reconsolidation applies to both "declarative" memories (concepts and abstract thinking) and "procedural" memories (emotions and behaviors), it only affects the currently active system.

And that's the real reason why...

Abstract Ideas Can Never Change You!

Anyway, this reconsolidation concept doesn't actually change any of the techniques I use or teach in any meaningful way, and I certainly don't need to rely on it for "scientific" validation of what I do.

But, it does seem like it could have some profound influence on how I teach people to do what I do, and that it has some potential to make the learning process a little easier...  especially for people who get too bogged down in abstract thought to be able to actually apply the techniques.

And that's precisely what I needed, for the rewrite of chapter 7.

So thank you, Mike.  And thank you, Science!

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Everything I Needed To Know About Life, I Learned From Supervillains

When I was a kid, I thought superheroes were awesome.  And I wanted to be one, 'cause then I could wear a cool costume, fight for the right, protect the innocent and all that kind of thing.

But in the last few years, as I've been studying the characteristics that make people successful in "real life", I've come to realize that fictional "heroes" (whether they're comic-book superheroes, or action-movie leading men) aren't quite what they appear to be.

And I started noticing something really odd about the messages that Hollywood was sending, in nearly every TV and movie.

Because in them, the people who are successful in life...

Are nearly always the bad guys!

I mean, think about it.  In the movies, the villains typically:

  • Have a vision and goals, for how they'd like things to be in the future

  • Believe that they deserve -- and are capable of obtaining -- everything they want in life

  • Proactively seek the fulfillment of their goals, and persistently work towards achieving them

  • Are willing to plan and prepare for years, then execute that plan in a well-disciplined manner, having anticipated as many issues as possible, with well-thought out contingency plans

  • Are very willing to delegate most tasks to their staff of loyal, highly-motivated employees...  who they somehow managed to recruit, train, and persuade to follow along with their shared vision.

Meanwhile, the heroes tend to:

  • Be reactive, rather then proactive -- they wait until something bad happens, then try to solve the problem afterwards

  • Be reactionary, rather than progressive -- they try to put things back the way they were, instead of changing them for the better

  • Rarely promote a shared vision, preferring to work alone or with only a partner or two...  who they don't trust with anything really important!

  • Rarely anticipate the possible failure modes of their plans, to the extent that they plan anything at all!

  • Use their talents and abilities rarely, for emergencies only, instead of keeping them in top condition or proactively using them to improve things

  • Not believe they personally deserve anything good out of life, or that things will ever get better for them

Ouch!  I mean, if the bad guys weren't hurting innocent people, and the good guys weren't rescuing or protecting said innocents...  we'd probably be calling them "go-getters" and "losers" instead of bad guys and good guys!

But I didn't really think all that much about it, until this past week.  It just seemed like an amusing, cynical observation about Hollywood: that movies are designed to make people feel better about their crappy lives, by allowing them to subconsciously identify with the "good" guys.

But that was only because I didn't realize just how much this applied to me.

Or that on the inside, I was still trying to be the hero.

And that it was perhaps the single biggest source of pain in my entire life!

But now, I'm getting a little bit ahead of my story...

This Time, It's Personal

Earlier this week, I was working with some of my Mind Hacking 101 students on the subject of getting rid of the emotional blocks and negative beliefs that keep them from succeeding.

One of those students had posted to our private forum, talking about his determination to rid himself of all these obstacles...  but fretting a bit about just how many of them there seemed to be.

And both I, and one of the more experienced mind hackers in the Guild, were cautioning him not to turn block-removal into some kind of crusade.  Because one of our principles is, "What pushes you forward, holds you back."

In other words, anything you feel you must do (because of negative consequences) tends to put your brain into the "pain mode", decreasing motivation and creativity.

And so we showed him how to identify and fix the real issue -- self-hatred! -- that was making him turn the self-improvement process into a self-destructive crusade.

But, the inspiring and enlightening discussion between the many Guild members who joined that thread, got me to thinking more deeply about my own motivations for doing this stuff in the first place.

Because even though I was talking the talk...  I wasn't sure I was really...

Walking The Walk!

I mean, I knew just what to say to my students, but was I actually practicing what I preached?

My wife had even mentioned, on occasion, that I seemed to treat my own mental and emotional blocks as something to struggle with, instead of approaching them from the same "no big deal" state that I use when I hack other people's minds, or that I teach them to use themselves.

Hm, I thought.  I guess it's time for a change.

So I fired up my trusty mind-hacking toolkit and started the process of installing a new mental program: doing everything -- block-fixing included -- easily.

First, I checked my brain for any possible installation conflicts with the new program.  (After all, the number one reason why most people fail to change established behaviors, is that they don't look for -- or handle -- these conflicts.)

But the conflict report that came back from my brain was this:

If you do things too easily, life will be boring!

Now, you've probably already guessed that this has something to do with superheroes and supervillains...

But only because I already told you.

For me, though, not having any "spoilers" to clue me in, I had to spend a day or so wondering off and on what the heck the problem with life being boring was!

I mean, on one level, I felt like I could definitely use some more "boring" around here.  But on another level...

It Just Felt Wrong!

So I used a few RMI questions to probe for more information.  What's bad about being boring?  "You'll be like everyone else."  What's bad about that?  "You won't be special."  What's bad about that?  "It just is."

Turnaround.  What's good about being special?  "I'm better than everyone."  What's good about that?

I don't remember all the questions I asked, or precisely how I got there, but at some point in all this, the idea of being a superhero popped into my mind.  And then I started getting some real answers to my questions:

  • If I'm a hero, I won't get hurt

  • If I'm a hero, it's okay that I'm alone or have few friends

  • If I'm a hero, it's okay that people look down on me, because that's just my secret identity

  • If I'm a hero, I'm strong on the inside, even if I seem weak on the outside

  • If I'm a hero, it's okay for me to strike at those who hurt others, the way they hurt me

All in all, the superhero fantasy was more attractive to my 7-year-old self (the approximate age where these thoughts originated) than I'd ever realized.  And consciously, it had never even occurred to me that they were anything but idle daydreams and escape fantasies.

I had no way of knowing that, when I adopted this superhero ideal, the following personality traits would come along with it:

  • If you're a hero, you're just strong and successful and equipped... automatically -- you don't have to practice or work out or really do anything at all to become successful (Impatience with details and implementation)

  • If you're a hero, you should never use your powers (talents and abilities) for any personal gain...  unless it's an emergency.  (Procrastination, not to mention failure to pursue non-work goals)

  • If you're a hero, it's your job to right wrongs...  not to make good things.  (Perfectionism!)

  • If you're a hero, it's your job to do the impossible, or at least the extraordinary...  so leave the ordinary things to ordinary people  (More perfectionism, not to mention elitism!)

  • If you're a hero, you have to rely on yourself...  so don't share your secrets with anyone, or expect anyone to be able to help you with your problems...  frankly, it's laughable that they'd be able to understand your issues, let alone help.  (Arrogance, closed-mindedness, and other a**holery)

  • If you're a hero, everything is serious business.  Deadly serious.  All the frickin' time.  You can enjoy other people being happy, but don't expect to have any free time that can't be interrupted for something more important.  (Recipe for struggle, suffering, and general life imbalance.)

So even though I never donned a pair of tights or stalked the night in search of evildoers, I still managed to adopt all these negative traits!

My seven-year-old self also had a bit of confusion about how "right" and "wrong" can refer to correctness as well as good and evil...  thus starting a lifelong crusade to correct other people's mistakes, too!  (Which didn't help much with the whole "I work alone" thing, not to mention my ability to trust or rely on other people!)

And this entire scenario was also a classic example of Robert Fritz's "ideal-belief-reality conflict" pattern:

  • I was afraid of being (morally) weak, so I sought an ideal of (moral) strength
  • I was afraid of being disliked, so I clung to an ideal of independence
  • And I was afraid of being laughed at, so I seized on an ideal of seriousness.

This then set me up for plenty of installation conflicts down the line, with everything I ever tried to improve about myself.

Because, even in the last few years, when I made so much progress on so many individual blocks, I never saw this bigger picture of how they all fit together...  or why, in certain areas of my life, there always seemed to be new blocks to replace the old ones!

Because the catch in every school of self-improvement, is that there is no way to be 100% sure you've fixed the real problem...  any more than you can prove that a non-trivial computer program is...

Free of Bugs!

And so sometimes, you can end up fixing the part of the program that merely displays the wrong answer... instead of the part that calculated it in the first place.

I do have some hope, though, as the methods I teach the Guild are definitely improving.  For example, when I first created my Procrastination Cure course in 2006, I mainly emphasized removing the individual blocks holding you back.  But these days, I focus much more on fixing whatever is pushing you forward in the first place.  And techniques like the Gateway questions ("What's bad about that?  What's good about that?  What do you get if you have that?") do an okay job of establishing context for a lot of issues.

But even the gateway questions can be hit-or-miss when it comes to identifying whether you've actually addressed the overall system, or just one part of it.  So maybe we need some new questions like, "What larger patterns in my life is this an example of?", or "If I had another problem with things like this, what would it be?"  (Definitely something to experiment with in the future.)

For now, though, I just went ahead and used the rest of the Gateway method to eliminate the conflicts behind my need to be a hero.

And as soon as I did, I realized that...

Superheroes Are Idiots!

Take Superman, for example.  Instead of using his powers to feed the hungry, stop wars, or fix global warming, he goes around beating up crooks.  What the???  Way to be helpful and positive, superjerk!

Now, the only reason I'm mentioning this is that (Watchmen and Miracle Man aside) these kind of thoughts had never even occurred to me, before I deleted the superhero "ideal" from my brain.  Superman and other heroes were simply good by definition. (To my brain, at least.)

But as soon as I dropped that ideal out of my head, the very first thing that popped into my mind was that superheroes are actually a bunch of neurotic, paranoid, and depressed individuals, full of suppressed rage that they've channeled into an obnoxious self-righteousness.  Nobody sane would willingly go out and do what they do...  at least not with that kind of attitude!

And I couldn't believe I'd actually been crazy enough to model my life on them...  even subconsciously!

So, from now on, my role models are all going to be supervillains instead...  'cause they sure do know how to enjoy life!

Nah, just kidding.  I don't really need the management hassles involved in finding replacement henchmen, after I slay them for their incompetence.  And have you seen the rent on secret island volcano hideaways these days?

No, what I've really decided to opt for, is the basically ordinary life of a basically ordinary person... who just happens to be focused, motivated, and enjoying their life, while achieving their goals.

And so, in the days since I dropped that old ideal, life has become a lot more "boring"...  or as I prefer to think of it now:


And drama-free.