First, my next live course, Light and Shadow Themes begins this Thursday June 23 and runs an hour per week for eleven weeks. I’d love to have you join us. Also, recently released on my podcast is a series on the root of responsibility issues that pairs nicely with this article.
After coaching for twenty years, I am struck by the single issue that makes the ultimate difference between whether someone can make significant change or not. This issue has nothing to do with discipline, intention, skill, knowledge, tools, techniques, hacks, or anything else that we’re commonly sold these days by the self-empowerment industry.
It comes down to one thing.
Most people who want to change something in their lives ask this unconscious, implicit question: “How can I change my outside without changing my inside?”
Said another way: “How do I get better results and stay the same person?”
It’s not true to say this doesn’t work, because it does… a little bit, and for a little while. The seduction of this question and the will-to-manifest dynamic of making things happen is that it does, in fact, work somewhat. But it dead-ends fairly quickly, and the problem is when we can’t let go of the strategy when it’s no longer working.
The result of this, in what I call the Strival Phase of human existence, is that we work harder and harder for diminishing returns, and inevitably justify the lack of fulfillment with stories about reality, ourselves, and others that just aren’t essentially true.
Your results in your life are expressions of your actions, which are expressions of your intentions, which are expressions of your unconscious motivations. In other words, you created your life to large degree. You are the governing dynamic. Your outside circumstance is a mirror for you. It is your creation. Your external circumstances ultimately cannot be separated from who you are. The idea that there is an “outside” separate from an “inside” is like the black line on a map between states: it’s useful, but artificial.
So the idea that you can change your outside without first changing your inside is absurd.
So you may be able to stretch your current self and improve your results without changing, but ultimately Life will say, “Okay, that’s as far as this version of you can go. This you hasn’t earned anything more.”
An easy place to observe this is asking people about the qualities of their ideal mate. List out what you most want, then ask yourself if you have the qualities that you want in an other. As a matter of integrity, do you believe you deserve a mate that has all the qualities you wish you had but don’t?
Can you intuitively sense how thinking that way doesn’t work, nor serve you? We often look for qualities in others to shore up what we don’t have in ourselves. It’s natural, but it doesn’t make it healthy. It’s codependent.
Can you see that complaining about a quality in a mate that you exhibit a version of is actually victimhood, because you yourself likely drew the person as a mirror to better see yourself?
I commonly see this in management. Managers inevitably draw employees to them that have the same issues, only more pronounced. Alternatively, managers may also draw employees with issues that codependently match their own, like two sides of velcro.
For example, that means over-responsible, caretaking managers attract irresponsible employees because they have a need to be a savior. Or the opposite: under-responsible managers often attract over-responsible martyr employees who do their manager’s jobs for them, inevitably resent them for it, and ultimately leave.
With some help, these managers can see the issue, but if it’s deep enough, awareness of the issue alone will not create change. The manager must change, which brings us back to the beginning.
The implicit, resistant question, “How do I change my circumstance without changing myself” guarantees limits to your own growth and fulfillment because, I offer, our own evolution is the very purpose of our lives.
When we ask this question, consciously or not, we are in opposition with Reality. Some people call that God. What do you think is going to win when your will and the Will of the Universe collide?
The answer is you suffer. When we fail to use obstacles, hardships and challenges in our lives to change ourselves, and instead try to work around them and stay the same, we effectively try to game the system. We test a paradigm of excess and teenage expressions of stubborn free will so that we can learn via the suffering we cause ourselves.
In short, we invite pain to be our teacher.
All of us do this and that’s how we learn, but perhaps if we’re aware that we’re doing it, the suffering can be lessened. There is only so far change on your terms will take you. Eventually, we all must surrender to the design of Reality: that our suffering is feedback for us that we must change.
“Change into what?” takes us deeper into this exploration.
The answer is that you don’t know. You can’t know. If you know in advance, then it’s still on your terms, isn’t it?
Let’s revisit my favorite quote from one of the best-selling business books of all time, from my alma mater, E-Myth.
The problem with most failing businesses I’ve encountered is not that their owners don’t know enough about finance, marketing, management, and operations—they don’t, but those things are easy enough to learn—but that they spend their time and energy defending what they think they know. The greatest business people I’ve met are determined to get it right no matter what the cost.
–Michael Gerber, The E-Myth Revisited
“Defending what they think they know” is what people do when they want change on their terms. When they’re willing to “Get it right no matter what the cost,” they’ve surrendered.
The greatest people I’ve ever met are people who surrender to a transformational process that they elicit and surrender to, activated by their dreams, and carried out by their soul. If you look closely at the lives of people who achieved greatness, you see commitment and dedication, but you also see chaos, pain, and failure.
Steve Jobs was fired from his own company. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper job because he “lacked imagination.” PT Barnum’s building burned down five times. He was forced into bankruptcy and later created a moving circus. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school team. Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school three times. Henry Ford’s first two auto companies failed. Elvis Presley was fired from the Grand Ole Opry and told to go back to truck driving.
You’ve heard these kinds of stories before, surely. Mostly what people take away is “Don’t give up,” and that’s not bad, but what’s in between the lines is something far more intangible and important: “Change.”
Anyone who’s been through intense failure knows you don’t just get back on the horse. It changes you forever. Failure doesn’t mean you didn’t try hard enough, or the world doesn’t appreciate your gifts. How life works is more sophisticated and nuanced than this.
Do you think that when Steve Jobs returned to Apple he was the same leader as before? Do you think Elvis had the same disposition? Do you think Michael Jordan blamed the coach for getting cut and played victim? We know from Jordan’s professional career that failure fires him up like nothing else. When did he learn that?
Failure is feedback that says, “The you that tried isn’t the you that earns success. Change.” But what changes for people on a psychospiritual level in the face of hardship we cannot quantify or see from a distance.
In one way, though, the catastrophe of abject failure is easier to learn from than lesser difficulties. The tragedy and beauty of profound failure is that it’s non-negotiably not on your terms, and so tends to precipitate transformation whether you like it or not. This is why people who achieve great things inevitably have a history of failure.
People don’t succeed greatly despite failure, as we’re typically taught, they succeed greatly because of how failure changed them.And surely, they deserve credit for what they did with that failure, as many people collapse under its weight. But make no mistake, the pain is a teacher and a necessary part of the process.
If you want to take the most efficient road to fulfillment, surrender to change without needing to fail greatly. In other words, surrender to change not on your terms now, so you don’t invite Life to force you.
When I work with clients, I see their misguided assumptions about reality, distorted beliefs, unproductive attitudes etc. and I work to help them change their insides first so their outsides change in tandem. Sometimes people listen, sometimes they don’t.
Many times people are so focused on changing the outside, they don’t want to look at the inside. Focusing on the outside keeps them so preoccupied that they never have to look at the inside. These people are destined to fail. They tell Life that they need a wake up call to learn. We all do sometimes, but we also want to minimize them.
When people insist on change on their terms, they immediately impose limits on themselves, invite Life to make them suffer, and ultimately they ask for the failure they eventually experience. This is the way of things.
Let’s get practical. What does it look like when you take change seriously and no longer need it to be on your terms?
- You hire a coach, teacher, therapist, etc. and you carefully follow their instructions, doing the assignments thoroughly and on time.
- You accept feedback from said teacher remembering that you hired them and don’t play victim or argue with the inevitable discomfort that arises in the process.
- You monitor, own, and vulnerably report resistance that arises in you rather than acting it out, especially against the teacher, especially when you want to quit. Most clients quit three months before the breakthrough.
- You operate with the assumption that sometimes your teacher can see you better than you see yourself, and sometimes knows what’s good for you better than you do. After all, this is why you hired them, right?
These are some of the basics for how I see “coachability” but there is more to it, of course. It’s my experience that about 5-10% of clients start out this way. The rest have to learn how to be a client. This is understandable, since our conditioning for how to be a student was in a dysfunctional education system that didn’t have our best interests at heart. But we must get through that conditioning and learn how to learn the best way.
One last thing: just because the change isn’t on your terms, however, doesn’t mean it’s not in your self-interest. This is not a call for altruism. There’s an old expression that says, “A coach helps you do what you don’t want to do so that you get what you want.”
But if it’s going to get you what you want, then you would want to do it, right? You just might not realize it in the moment.
As a young teen, I was lazy. I had a dizzy relationship to challenge and looked for the easy way out with everything. I was smart, so I didn’t have to study much, and I had some natural talent as an athlete so I didn’t have to work very hard.
Fortunately, I had a swim coach early on who saw that. I was a springboard diver who almost always won and swam races sort of “on the side.” I was a good diver and a decent swimmer. I was fine with that. My coach wasn’t.
At the end of one practice, we lined up behind the blocks for sprints. The coach called out the number of breaths we were allowed before each sprint. Three breaths, then two breaths, then one breath, then none. At age thirteen, I’d never swum twenty-five yards with no breaths before and I was sure I couldn’t do it.
My first attempt failed, along with two of my teammates’. We thought we were done and began to slink away sheepishly. “Again. Zero breaths” we heard from across the pool. He’d never done this before. Practice should have ended five minutes ago. Parents began to gather nearby with a mix of curiosity and concern.
I hated my coach in that moment. Just hated him.
We went again. I failed. My teammates must have succeeded, because I heard:
“Are you f—king kidding me?” I thought. Somehow I hated him even more. Now there was a crowd watching. I was mortified and exhausted. I failed again.
I failed two more times after that, but honestly didn’t try very hard. I was crying a little, fogging up my goggles, and failing almost as if to spite him. I needed him to know I couldn’t do it, that he was wrong, and that he was wasting his time.
This was a battle of will, and I realized he wasn’t giving up, even if I did. The trapped and angry feeling gave way to a focused resolve, and I swam the length with no breaths.
“Nice job,” he said flatly, standing over me, “I knew you could do it,” and walked away.
I hugged the deck, panting into the concrete, still hating my coach. That was the summer before high school, where I would go on to be one of the best divers in the state, and far less impressively the fastest freestyle sprinter on my team. The former I did with natural talent. The latter required me to change. Of course, I got far more attention for diving, but I always was more proud of my swimming achievements because I earned them. I changed who I was to make that happen.
I learned that I didn’t know my own capabilities, which served me with dozens of teachers, trainers, and coaches I would have in my future. I learned what wanting something felt like with all my heart. I learned what it felt like to make something possible that seemed impossible, and I was hooked.
I learned something else that day, too: that sometimes a coach has to be willing to be a villain in the student’s eyes. It’s not something I enjoy at all, but it’s unfortunately part of the job. There’s a line from the film Jacob’s Ladder that loosely interprets some wisdom from Meister Eckhart:
The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you, he said. They’re freeing your soul. So the way he [Eckhart] sees it, if you’re frightened of dying and…you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth. It’s just a matter of how you look at it, that’s all.
Let’s rewrite this to apply to change:
The fear of change is the part of you that won’t let go of what isn’t working. Truth burns it all away. But truth isn’t punishing you. It’s freeing your soul. If you’re frightened of change and need it to be on your terms, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace and surrendered to change, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from your suffering. It’s just a matter of how you look at it, that’s all.
If you’re sold by now that you need to change, the next question is “How, exactly?” That’s the subject of my next course, Light and Shadow Themes. In this course, you’ll learn the eight core problems with which all humans wrestle and stagnate our relationship to change.
Everyone has only one primary shadow theme that is a misguided expression of a soul-level strength that holds them back from their deepest fulfillment. Knowing yours changes everything, but you must surrender to the terms of change, the terms dictated not by you, but by your very soul.
The inauthentic version of ourselves is rigid and calcified. It operates from a fear of the unknown. It wants to keep its existing values, world-views, opinions, etc. whether they still apply or not, whether they are true or not. The soulful aspect of ourselves is fluid. It knows that your take on reality is a work in progress and always changeable based on new information. It is unafraid and deeply curious.
We hunger to be the realest versions of ourselves, because that hunger is our very soul, trying to come through. But we stagnate when we avoid the challenge of allowing ourselves to be reorganized by the process of change, then wonder why change is slow and limited.
Are you ready to grow beyond these limits?
Light and Shadow Themes broadcasts live on Zoom, Thursdays at 11:15 am PT, beginning June 23, 2022 for eleven weekly sessions ending September 1. All recordings will be posted by the morning following the session, becoming an online course.