How do you explain the experience that someone has never had? Better yet, how do you convince someone they can do something they believe is impossible? The easy answer is you can't and you don't. What you do is use the closest experience someone has had and make analogy. Here, I try to make the ultimate one.
You're an addict. Food. Sex. TV. Booze. Anger. Something. You'd like to change. Or, at least you once did. You tried some stuff. Something kinda worked. Overall you failed. Ergo, change must be impossible. Right?
You read a testimonial. You attend a meeting. You believe, for a moment; and then you doubt. Doubt grows into disbelief. Disbelief becomes who you are. Change is impossible. It's your genes, your parents, your weak will, your age, your gender, the man keeping you down, the religious nuts, the irreligious nuts, the conservatives or the liberals or some factor you don't control keeping you from change. Change isn't in the cards. The "they" and the "them" have created a power structure that you just won't ever overcome. Right?
But you still sort of want to believe you can change. So, every once in a while, you put some hope in a pundit, an author, an infomercial. You try some new things. A little something works; but overall not really. Now it's a fact. A law. An immutable truth. Change is impossible.
This is the juncture in an article where the author knows he's struck a chord, made some connection you can relate to, and then he proceeds to draw you in a little more by giving his own testimonial or an example of some famous person. I'm not going to do that.
Instead, I'm going to point you at your own life. You have already changed, in profound ways, but you no longer view them as profound because they're familiar, tired, everyday. So try to remember when they weren't familiar.
Pick an identity, thought-process, skill or aptitude you at one point never had. Hint: that's all of them. Now consider one. Any one will do. Take, for example, riding a bike. At one point it was impossible. It was impossible for you to become the person who naturally rides a bike. Everything within you should have prevented you from gaining the skill. Then you transformed. It wasn't just unnatural for you. No humans are built to ride a bike. Yet somehow you did it.
Dig deeper. At one point you could not talk, read, write, think critically. At one point you were not an adult. At one point you were closed-minded. You couldn't draw, paint, photograph, play music, balance a ledger, run a company, lead people, run a 5k, shake someone's hand.
All of it, every aspect, was a set of action potentials in the brain. Then you began firing the neurotransmitters across a different set of pathways. Sodium flowed into and out of cells in a new pattern. And you changed.
You know what it looks like. You've done it. Every day you change dramatically. Every morning you wake up with the identity of "the person who has never made it through this day." And then you make it through this day.
We do what is familiar. By definition we don't understand what is unfamiliar. Change is the release into the unfamiliar. The skill or practice of change requires effort toward relinquishing oneself into the unfamiliar. It's uncomfortable, nonsensical, illogical, foolish, dumb, ignorant, baseless. Then, all of a sudden, the bike balances. Oh, now it makes sense.
People every day say to me, "I can't imagine eating that way." Or "I can't imagine living that way." Well, I agree it's unfamiliar. I couldn't imagine speaking English before I began speaking it. Then I couldn't imagine reading Greek until I did. Now I can imagine learning any language I put effort toward. No one is good at anything until they are. No one does anything until they do.
Really, change is inevitable. It's going to happen. It has. It is. It will. The question isn't whether it's possible. The question is if you are going to take an active role or a passive role. With entropy alive and well, you know where passive leads.
Taking an active role is unfamiliar. It's dumb, nonsense, irrational and doesn't work. I can't imagine how it could. Right?
Tonight or tomorrow morning you are going to stare in the mirror, wondering if one day you can sleep through the night, or be thin, free from sadness, liberated from the bottle, smart, good enough, successful, fulfilled. You want to change. Maybe it's possible. You've done it before. So now what?
Change something easy.
Change something challenging.
Change something difficult.
Change the impossible.
Mozart had to learn to feel, then move his fingers, control them first, synthesize his motor control with his ear and imagination next. Much later he became a musical genius. You're trying to play a sonata and you haven't even untied your hands or stood in front of a piano.
Just having read this, the contagion of change is already in your blood. It is infecting you at this very moment. You remember when you did the impossible before. Just the act of reading right this second is changing every cell in your body. Your pile of atoms configured themselves to capture electromagnetic waves from the screen in front of you. The optic nerve sent that data to the collection of chemicals inside your skull. You read. Proteins arranged themselves just so and you accessed memories.
And deep, deep down, you sensed a weak, inaudible, pathetic whispered "I think I can." It's silly. It's embarrassing. It's nonsense. Yeah, that's part of what change feels like. So now what?
Change something easy.
Change something challenging.
Change something difficult.
Change the impossible.
Everything the human body and brain does is a skill. And all skills require practice to improve. If you want to change the impossible and do the unimaginable, then you must practice. And like any other skill, you must start where your current agency allows.
So right this second make a list of the unimaginable. "I can't imagine making a list right now." Exactly. One practice session already accomplished. "I can't imagine forwarding this on to everyone." Perfect. Two practice sessions down.
Then, do the unimaginable every day.
"I can't imagine admitting I was wrong about X."
"I can't imagine forgiving my enemy."
"I can't imagine donating to my political enemy."
"I can't imagine never eating gluten again."
You imagine different and you become different. So now what?
Remember - you've already profoundly changed trillions of times.
Change something easy - write your name with your non-writing hand; read the cliff notes of a classic novel you've never read; eat your fast food sandwich without the bun just once.
Change something challenging - incorporate a new vocabulary word into your next conversation; tie your shoe with a type of knot you've never used; set a new personal record time for holding your breath.
Change something difficult - fast for a day; call and speak to someone you've had a grudge against; wake up one hour earlier than usual and meditate on only one word (i.e. - an ideal like "humility" or "forgiveness") for the whole hour.
Change the impossible - It's been four minutes, or four hours, or four days, or four weeks, or four months, or four years since reading this article. You're finally prepared. You've practiced. You've built up to this moment. You're now face to face with what you always wanted. And guess what: it's anti-climactic. You glide effortlessly across the threshold. It's hard to even remember how hard you thought this change would be. It happens just like every other change, naturally, and slipping into the forgotten it occupies the past where your other profound changes lost reside.
Can't imagine it? Spoiler: you just did.
There is no formula for success.
Do you remember the telephone game? Somewhere around Kindergarten, many American children experience one of their first introductions to high-minded communications theory. The teacher leans down and whispers into the first student's ear a word or phrase. That student then whispers it into the ear of the next, and so on. The last student recites aloud what he heard for all to hear, and everyone learns that it bears no resemblance to the teacher's initial quote.
The standard takeaway from the above exercise is that people misunderstand, misconstrue and/or misquote information. Thus, as it travels through more conduits, the distortion to the original message is amplified.
That's one interpretation. The other is that each student accurately hears, accurately construes, and accurately quotes ACCORDING to his understanding. And, of course, each student's understanding is entirely unique, built upon his idiosyncratic experience. Maybe the final product is better than the original because it has been subjected to greater perspective.
That leaves us at a philosophical impasse. Some say that the human experience is similar enough from person to person that we can share truths, axioms, and even advice. Others, like Antoine Roquentin, argue that you cannot even get a solid understanding of your own individual reality.
Bill Gates while at Concordia College several weeks back fielded a question about dealing with success. To paraphrase, he said something along the lines of "you have to understand more than the next guy, and still be in the right place at the right time, and still wager your risk while others are somehow thwarted in their wagering of potentially the exact same risk." Frankly, it doesn't matter what exactly he said; because he's Bill Gates and his experience has nothing to do with yours. But isn't it interesting that one of the most capable, wealthiest, knowledgeable people ever still recognizes the nebulous X factor in its contribution toward success?
Sadly, X is a variable, not a constant. No matter what other constants we may find, agree upon, theorize about or determine as law, one variable throws the whole equation into variability. So, again, there is no formula for success. No reliable one anyway.
Your guru would say otherwise. That's what gurus do. They also accumulate followers based on a formula which is supposedly repeatable. The only problem is that no one has ever identically repeated a breakthrough. "Of course not," your guru might argue, "new breakthroughs will come from certain formulaic practices or talents." Those practices become the formula.
Ok. Consider practices or characteristics that gurus promise will make you rich in spirit or rich in pocketbook.
Ingenuity? There is nothing new under the sun. Hard work? No one worked harder than slaves. Determination? Fails in the face of catastrophe, even though it pridefully soldiers on against adversity.
Every hour another "how to be the best" article pops up on social media and major business forums and entrepreneurial websites. They aren't worth the paper they're printed on.
No one has a predictable model. There are great stories, in hindsight, about people like Thomas Edison or Mark Mathabane. But what if Edison never found a working filament? His stubborn faith in finding a working solution did get him there. But what if it hadn't? Edison is just one guy, who maybe simply lucked out, and that's why we tell his story. We haven't codified an Edison manual for success that predictably brings the follower irrevocably to eureka. Even the compelling story of Mark Mathabane doesn't provide a primer on pulling oneself up by his bootstraps. Mathabane's harrowing story is a beautiful and brilliant triumph of the human spirit. One human spirit.
Access was a prerequisite for all examples. If the examples didn't have access to certain information, materials, insights, technology or people, nothing else mattered. Imagine a Mark Zuckerberg two decades earlier. Unremarkable. Imagine a Steve Jobs in feudal Japan. Fallen on his sword in a rice field. Isaac Newton captured this concept in his immortal quote: If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. Ready for a mind-bender? Newton did not come up with the metaphor within that quote.
Gurus and their devotees will consolidate success down to generalized essences, arguing that a Mark Zuckerberg would've simply created the Facebook equivalent in any environment. Not true. And what's the point of the argument anyway? If the definition of success is too explicit, it is easily disproven. If too general, it lacks importance. Either way, we're still without a guarantee or predictive model, which is the whole hope and value which drives our ears to a guru.
Gurus don't hold the keys to your success. They held the keys to a success. Theirs. Which has no resemblance to your life circumstances, your access, your resolve, your available tools. You do it on your terms.
Maybe it's talent? No.
Someone very close to me independently invented a "gearless"transmission in my high school physics class. He submitted the idea, without schematics, and prior to patent, as a bid simultaneously to GM and Ford. He never received a response. A few years later so-called continuously variable transmissions appeared in various models of cars. His first thought was that intellectual theft occurred. Later, he came to find out the concept had been around for at least 100 years. It was odd though, since major production vehicles never had CVTs until after his invention.
That same mind around the age of eight had come up with a working model of car brakes that recharge batteries during deceleration. Almost fifteen years later hybrid vehicles began using the technology. Since the public doesn't know about his ideas and he never collected a penny in royalties, do we tell his story as a success, failure or something else?
Another someone close to me was the quintessential entrepreneur, but tragic, not triumphant. We partnered in 2008 to begin a fitness franchise. He had built the obvious momentum for major success in many, many enterprises. With several viable multi-million dollar launches at the ready, a year ago he died of a spontaneous pulmonary embolism. An Ivy League college dropout, he constantly had his finger on the pulse of innovation in business, fitness and technology. A self-taught chemist who had built a laboratory where he created new polymers, he had his success story blotted out. After all, life is sort of the ultimate access.
The point is clear. There are uncontrollable variables in success. Innovation, brilliance, persistence and determination do not dictate the outcome. We have to let them be.
Moving on, what are the controllable constants?
Simon Sinek argues persuasively that THE constant is "the why." His Tedtalk includes strong illustrations to gird his theory; and honestly the presentation has some great points. Look at successful people, companies, movements, organizations and you will find a common thread of inside-out communication, Sinek claims. His juxtapositions appear to prove it true. When people begin with a strong, clear, genuine belief, their actions result in great results.
But, when testing it against other stories, the theory doesn't hold up. The prosecution submits into evidence Andrew Carnegie. Heck, consider every warlord who ever walked the earth. Their results came from "what" and "how" perhaps more often than "why."
Even success isn't success.
Shawn Achor's presentation of positive psychology challenges the debate at a different level. He argues that the answer lies in inverting the equation. That is, seek first fulfillment, and success will rain down. Battling for success will result in only impermanent enjoyment, because, after all, fulfillment for that accomplishment will be not much longer lived than the moment you made it. Achor points out that you always are stuck having to move on to the next challenge, putting happiness "beyond the cognitive horizon." That's a losing proposition. Instead, he says, seek fulfillment in and of itself, then success becomes automatic.
Achor is slick; but the keen eye will find he merely repackaged "instant success is wanting what you already have." If there's utility in it, then use it. But we're still without a template to get from A to B with endeavors for accomplishments.
Ultimately, your life experiences are 100% unique. This is why no one can just come along and sweep aside your deepest understandings about life, happiness, religion, ethics and death. No one can sweep your whole life aside. Professional debaters attempt to. They zero in on provisionally agreed-upon axioms, then disassemble in an attempt to drive you toward their interpretation or conclusions. But you can just always switch the axioms, because, after all, your experience is singularly your own.
Gurus are up against the same road block as the debaters. Their experiences and insights add very little to your experience, because you're only going to hear what you can hear, construe as you can construe and repeat as you can repeat. Thank your whole life for that.
None of this is meant to be a downer - just a wake up call that there exists no checklist to get you from where you are to where you want to be. Certainly, widen your access. Expand your tools. There are inspirational models of excellence, like "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." But carve your own path. Do not become the tribute band of your favorite guru.
That then just brings us back to the beginning: there is no formula for success. There isn't because there can't be. Each success is at least as unique as there are people who've ever lived. There is no way to condense or codify infinite uniqueness. It's a statistical paradox where your chances are 0% until you succeed, at which point your chance of success became 100%. When you hit a home run, look back and describe in hindsight. But remember that no one predicted it just so.
There is no formula for success; and that is why your guru sucks.