Have you ever had something you wanted to achieve, that always seemed just out of reach?
Every day, every month, every year, you think, “this is it, I’m finally going to do it…”
And then you don’t.
For about the past two years or so, I was doing that nearly every month.
No, it wasn’t a big hairy audacious bucket list life goal or anything. Really, just a modest little project to create an online learning environment for my clients, a knowledgebase of all the mind hacking methods and experience I’ve accumulated in the last half-decade, and a place where people can buy some of the dozens of CDs, workshops, and courses I’ve created over the last few years for my private clients.
But, because I was 1) a programmer, 2) filled with delusions of grandeur, and 3) a perfectionist with trust issues, I didn’t do the one thing any sane businessperson would’ve done, and paid someone else to do it.
Instead, every month I’d agonize over the seeming impossibility of getting it done in any reasonable amount of time, dive half-heartedly into trying to design or implement some part of it, and then abandon ship when it became clear I couldn’t keep working on it and still keep up with my regular work obligations.
And it freaking sucked.
And you know, there are times when honesty and a commitment to measurable results can seem like a real handicap for a self-help writer.
I mean, you read all these other gurus talking about just believing in yourself and it all sounds so hopelessly optimistic to the point of self-delusion.
And, if you’re inclined to being “realistic” (i.e., pessimistic), it can seem like just one more challenge to face: the scary possibility that maybe you’re just not cut out for this gig, that success is only for people who can blind themselves to the truth, stick their fingers in their ears, and go “la la la I can’t hear you” when anybody talks about potential problems.
And I don’t know about you, but that sure as hell ain’t me!
But, there’s a funny thing about pessimism that I’ve been noticing lately. Namely, that it’s usually just as self-delusional as optimism, only in a different way.
I mean, basically what happens when we’re pessimistic is that we’re trying to be safe. We’re taking an attitude that we’d rather make the mistake of thinking things are worse than they are, than end up disappointed.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the same thing as actually facing the truth of a situation, which might be better or worse than even our optimism or pessimism can imagine. It’s just a kind of mental superstition, where we’re acting as though our mental attitude (of finding problems) can actually shape or determine the outcome of events.
And it’s every bit as delusional as people watching The Secret and believing they’re going to become millionaires by sitting on their asses and wishing for it!
So, what usually happens to pessimists – just like the optimists – is that they still end up with a situation worse than the one they expected, because they didn’t really think things through in the first place.
They just looked for things to gripe and moan about, in order to feel safe!
Okay, so by “they” here…
I really mean me.
Because, ever since my project to write Thinking Things Done started going sideways, I got into this weird, conflicted state where I was trying to be an optimistic, make-lemons-into-lemonade, nothing-can-stop-me self-help guru about the whole thing…
And at the same time, I was totally convinced that I was the worst guru ever in the history of gurus, that I was a miserable impostor who didn’t deserve any success at all, and that I should just give up the whole thing, curl up in a corner, and die of shame and disgrace.
Yeah, that sums up the last two years, pretty much.
And if I was one of those sappy gurus, you can bet the very next thing I’d say after a revelation like that would be:
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me!”
Well, yes and no. Frankly, it was horrible and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, like a root canal or deep gingival scaling.
However, just like a root canal, there are times when it’s something that you just need to have happen.
Because the truth is, real optimism is not what a pessimist thinks optimism is.
Pessimists think that optimism is pretending the problems aren’t there. And they believe that the optimists in the room are willfully ignoring them. “Can’t you see there’s a problem right there? How can you be so blind?”
But the optimists don’t believe the problems aren’t there. They just don’t believe that problems mean you’re ruined. Or finished. Or stuck. Or bad.
They’re just things you fix, and then move on from.
And this is something I never really understood before. I mean, sure, I intellectually understood it, and I wrote about it a lot during my insight addiction phase. It was also a major theme of my previous writing, about naturally struggling and naturally successful people.
But because I didn’t really get it on an emotional level, I made a huge mistake. I thought that if I fixed all the (obvious) problems that made me a naturally struggling person, I would thereby become naturally successful.
And this just ain’t so!
Because the difference between struggling and success is not in the presence or absence of problems.
It’s in how you think and feel about the problems.
Even when the problems are your own quirks, blocks, and fears.
Oh yeah, it always comes full circle, doesn’t it? Right back to what the traditional gurus were saying all along about “attitude”.
Only difference is, the traditional gurus act as though you can just decide to change your attitude towards life.
But you can’t.
Alright, that’s a bit of a simplification. You can, sort of, sometimes, but probably not if you really need and/or want to!
My saying that “what pushes you forward, holds you back” applies in full here. If you’re trying to change your attitude because you think it will solve a terrible problem for you, you’re doing it wrong.
Why? Because, by the very act of trying to solve your terrible problem, you’re usually operating from the exact mindset you’re trying to get rid of!
It’s like being in a terrible hurry to solve your problem with impatience, or being proud of your efforts to be more humble. Essentially, you’re trying to become an optimist because you’ve foreseen how horrible it’s going to be if you don’t.
And that means while you’re theoretically trying to be an optimist, what you’re actually practicing is pessimism.
It’s like fighting fire with gasoline.
So, the worst/best thing that ever happened to me, my two years of frustration, despair, and intense inner conflict, were actually my saving grace here.
Because the real truth about change is this:
Even though there are many, many methods that make change easy, and allow us to change the habits or attitudes of a lifetime in hours or minutes…
And even though we can often change who we are and turn our lives around in literally an instant…
The real truth is that we won’t.
Not until – and not unless – we first admit that what we’re doing isn’t working.
And that, my friend, is the hardest part.
Because it’s not the superficial obvious stuff I’m talking about here.
You Can’t Quit What You Won’t Admit
I mean, it’s relatively easy to notice and admit that, say, your eating and exercise habits aren’t working. But on the level of noticing that you’re in a hurry to fix your impatience or being proud of your humility, it’s a whole different ball game.
For that matter, while it’s potentially easy to notice that a particular diet or exercise routine isn’t working, it’s not necessarily easy to admit it! After all, admitting it might mean you messed up by picking the wrong thing, or that maybe nothing is ever going to work and you’re going to be a fat slob for life.
But the really stupid thing about this, is that admitting things to yourself never makes them any worse in reality. I mean, how can it? Things are already as bad as however they are, you’re just pretending that they’re not!
So, my two years in hell were a blessing in disguise, a giant “clue by four” whacking me on the back of the head until I was willing to admit that, yes, some part of what I was doing was most emphatically not working.
And the first thing I admitted was that the techniques I was using (circa 2008) did not have as good of a track record at producing lasting change as I initially believed. And that led me to learning about perceptual control theory (PCT), and why people abandon changes and revert to old behaviors.
Then, I admitted that while understanding PCT had made it possible to make more lasting changes, the way I initially learned for applying it was incredibly tedious and still not very predictable, even if some psychologists found it a pefectly workable format for months or years of therapy.
And that, led me to learning about what I’ll call the “Murray/Bennett/Robbins drive theory”, (which I later developed into my SASS framework), and to discovering an entire field of techniques known as “rights work”.
And, then, I had to admit that while rights work was working better than anything I’d ever done in the past, both in depth of changes made and how many became permanent, it was still pretty unfocused and unpredictable, and I still was – by and large – naturally struggling in my overall outlook on life.
Which led me to learning about Levin’s developmental model, and… well, you get the idea.
Sometimes, pain is the only way to learn something.
And now, after two hard years, I’m finally there.
No, I don’t mean I’m “naturally successful”, or that I’ve changed into some perfect paragon of virtue and productivity. Rather, I have both a roadmap and a set of techniques, that let me reshape key elements of my personality in a fairly predictable way.
And I’ve changed my outlook, in some very important ways.
But, for a few months now, I’ve resisted writing about these changes or discussing them with anyone outside my private subscribers and clients. (Heck, I’ve actually not said very much to them, either.)
Why? Because now I’m keenly aware of what happens when you try to convince other people of things.
Namely, it makes it harder to admit you’re wrong!
See, back when I was still trying to write Thinking Things Done, I was stuck in a place of needing to make the truth consistent with everything I’d said about what I was able to do and the results I thought I’d gotten.
And that’s what got me stuck, and kept me stuck: the inability to notice when my thoughts stopped matching reality.
And the truth was, when I first started writing the book, after the initial burst of enthusiasm (where I wrote all the glowing optimistic bits), I actually hated my life. I hated what I was doing, and it was not going well at all. I would write all day and throw two-thirds of it away, and I had no idea where the hell it was going and doubted that what I wanted to write was something that could be written by anyone, let alone me.
And that should’ve been my first clue, would’ve been my first clue, if I hadn’t already announced to all and sundry that I was writing it!
So, in the last few months, I’m much more wary of making those sorts of statements. Not because I’m afraid of being embarrased, but because I don’t want to mess up my ability to notice when things aren’t working.
The truth is not an option… it’s a requirement.
Because I want my brain to understand that I want to know and admit the truth (even when the truth might be bad or uncertain), and that this is more important to me than keeping up a good front, or staying “on message”.
And that’s not because the truth is some sort of abstract virtue, but because admitting that things aren’t working is the only way to change on purpose!
Really, it’s the only thing that gets me – or anyone! – to seriously pick up the heavy mindhacking tools and go digging.
It’s kind of weird, but when you’re not really willing to admit that your outlook on a situation is wrong, there’s a kind of blindness that happens when you try to change it. Somehow, everything you do seems to go in the wrong direction, whether what you’re trying to change is your situation, or your thinking about the situation.
I’ve seen it happen over and over, where somebody signs up for the Mind Hackers’ Guild and is quiet for months and months. Until, one day, they post on the forum for the first time, because something happened in their life that actually made it a priority to change. Something happened, that forced them to admit that what they were doing, wasn’t working… or that at least, they had nothing else to lose by doing something different!
Before that, sure, they wanted to change, and maybe picked up the tools a few times. But there was no focus or direction to their efforts, because their subconscious always led them away from whatever the real problem was.
You know, the one they didn’t want to admit to!
Alright, enough of that. At this point, I have to admit that this article isn’t turning out to be about what I thought it was going to be about when I started, and if I keep down this road, I’m never going to get to what I meant to write about!
So, turning point. What happens after you admit it? Does everything turn into roses and sunshine?
At first, it’s more like dirt and fertilizer – it’s messy and smells like… well, you know.
It’s a little bit like the terrible thing you’re afraid deep down that it is, but only for a moment.
Then, you go, “oh, that wasn’t as bad as I thought.”
Then, you start to actually think about the situation, really think about it, for like the first time in, oh, ever.
And sometimes you see a solution right away.
Sometimes, you just see a direction.
And sometimes, you just become determined that, no matter what…
You’re going to get this handled!
Which brings me back to the beginning of this little tale, and my long-standing wish to create a set of web-based applications for my clients, subscribers, and customers to use to learn, share, use – and of course, buy! – the materials I’ve produced so far, and will in the future.
Because while I was in my two-year slump, I was still producing a heck of a lot of valuable training material. I just wasn’t selling it to anybody, and only sharing it with people who were already paying me.
(Honestly, I didn’t feel right about it. I stopped selling my “Procrastination Cure” product the minute I noticed that it was only curing a very narrow class of procrastination problems, never mind that people with that particular class of problems gave me glowing and even heartbreaking testimonials. Until I can update it with what I’ve learned since 2006 about procrastination, it’s simply not for sale any more.)
Anyway, aside from the simple usefulness of making it easier for people to buy stuff from me (I routinely get emails from people asking, “How the hell can I buy any of your stuff? I can’t find any order forms…”), the web project is much more about a personal goal.
See, I first started blogging because I wanted to share my discoveries with the world, because I thought that what I was doing could change the world.
Now, over six years later, my view’s a bit more nuanced. I’m not so idealistic, and I have a much better idea of what it takes to actually change. Back then, I thought just a few insights and techniques would do the trick, and that they’d all be easy to teach, learn and do.
But now, I know that there’s more to it than that. Some of the techniques are hard work, in the mental sense. You actually have to think, and as some joker said, that’s the hardest work of all. (Mostly, what we do instead is “rearrange our prejudices”, and call it thinking.)
But, I still have hope. I know now that I’m not going to change people – or the world – just by teaching them a few techniques. And I’m not going to be able to automate the learning process as much as I’d hoped, but there are things I can do to make it better.
And there is more to teach than I thought there would be, and it needs a better vehicle than any single article, book, workshop, or video that I could ever undertake to create.
It needs a frickin’ wikipedia.
A TV Tropes, even!
And I’ve known that for almost two years, but I kept getting stuck in stupid trivia and self-defeating behavior. I was perfectionistic and unwilling to compromise, but also unwilling to experiment. To question my methods or approaches. To invest in learning a tool until I already knew whether it was going to work or not.
Boy, am I glad those days are over!
Because, for the last few weeks, I’ve been working literally day and night on making this dream a reality.
And unlike my experience working on Thinking Things Done…
I’m loving every minute of it.
(Okay, well maybe not so much the parts where I have to work around stupid quirks and inconsistencies in the PHP programming language, but still…)
And so far, I’ve integrated my two existing shopping cart and billing services with a closed source CRM, an open source CMS, and an open source wiki. The whole thing still looks like crap but it works and it’s (lightly) tested. I intend to integrate another open source CMS that I’ve been using in the past, and an open source learning management system that I’ve heard good things about, and lightly sprinkle it with a bit of eye candy and a bunch more testing.
And the Mind Hackers’ Guild is gonna get a wiki, finally. And I’ll have a way to sell my videos, finally. And I’m going to start documenting and organizing the massive body of oral knowledge and practice that is the Guild’s treasure trove of methods for rapid change and personal development, finally.
And this isn’t happening because I’m a superhero. It’s not because I’ve taken any steps to “believe in myself” or to “change my attitude” or do any other thing that you’d ordinarily hear from a self-help guru.
But if I didn’t know where I came from, if I wasn’t crystal clear about where I was before and how I got here from there, I would probably say something like, “Well, I just decided to, you know. I wanted it, and I’m doing it. It’s really that simple.”
Because it only seems that way now, after the real work of change is already over.
The real change took place over the months where I was struggling to find out why I wasn’t working on this project, and to find the deep personality traits, the flawed thought processes, and the dysfunctional attitudes I had towards work and goals and getting what I wanted and deserving good things and… well, a whole heaping load of broken thinking.
And I couldn’t even go looking for those things, until I first admitted that what I was doing, wasn’t working.
So no matter what the gurus tell you about it being easy, don’t believe it.
Sure, it’s easy to do things differently, when you’ve already changed the way you feel about doing them.
And it’s easy to change, when you’ve already admitted you’re wrong, and discovered the precise way in which you’re wrong, and know what right thing to replace it with.
Then, and only then, you can turn your life around in an instant.
So, yeah, success and change are easy.
Admitting you need to change in the first place, now…
That’s the hard part.
If only because, when you start, you have no idea which things your brain is doing, let alone which ones it’s doing wrong!
Alright, I’m outta here… these software integrations and configurations and videos aren’t going to produce and upload themselves!
P.S. If you read between the lines of this missive, you’ll be able to see some things I’m still doing wrong… but which I haven’t yet admitted aren’t working!
I know. Believe me, I know. And I’m sure I’ll get around to them… later. 😉
Self-delusion is the natural state. If you think you’re not trying to fool yourself about something, that’s just one more item on the list of things you’re fooling yourself about.
And you can’t break out of it by a simple act of will, either. Like Yudkowsky’s fictional Ritual Of Changing One’s Mind, there actually are deliberate practices required, if you want to do it on purpose.
(As opposed to, you know, getting smacked up the head by enough repeated pain that you do it spontaneously.)
So, when I say I’ll get around to them later, I mean that I’ll literally have to sit down and work on uprooting those self-delusions, in order to change them.
But one of the things that’s different about me now, is that I’ve stopped waiting till all my problems are fixed, before I actually start living.
As it turns out, I was wrong about that, too.