“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” — George Bernard Shaw
We want to change without the effort. We want the lesson without leaving our mental cocoon.
That’s why people fail — they are looking for fixes, not real transformation.
Take meditation, for example. People want to beat anxiety, but not to train their minds. Breathing is easy; confronting our thoughts without judging them, not so much.
Some folks want to become more productive but don’t want to let go of bad habits. Others wish to lose weight without giving up their favorite dessert. Managers want their teams to take the initiative but don’t let go of power.
People enwrap themselves in a mental cocoon — they isolate in a personal oasis. They want to change without the growing pains.
We can’t expect a different outcome if we don’t modify our thinking first. We must get out of our mental cocoon.
Attachment Is Mental Slavery
The first step is to stop looking for solutions outside. As Epictetus said, “Seek not the good in external things; seek it in yourselves.”
To adopt a new behavior, you must let go of old habits. As the Zen saying goes, “empty your cup” — make room for new practices.
Sounds easy, right? However, most of the times, we get stuck in old patterns and let past behaviors define us. Attachment is mental slavery — we are not free to embrace a new reality. Eckhart Tolle said, “There is a fine balance between honoring the past and losing yourself in it.” Getting caught in past glories can be as detrimental as being attached to past suffering or mistakes.
“Empty your cup!”
When I started my change leadership consulting, I had to let go of a successful 20+ year marketing career. My experience as a four-time CEO and behavioral strategist was transferable into my new gig, but my reputation not so much. I had to build my credibility in a new field in spite of having worked with all the big companies you can imagine. To succeed, I had to adopt a learner’s mentality, rather than being attached to my former reputation.
When we let go of our internal narratives, we make room for new ones.
The Point of No Return
My wife used to smoke a pack of cigarettes every day for over 15 years. She tried to quit many times. And failed. One day, my wife woke up upset with herself. She was determined to give up her unhealthy habit. And never smoked again.
Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was on a mission to conquer Mexico back in 1519. Many others before him had failed. Cortés ordered his men to burn all the ships — retreat is not an option when there’s no way back. The same fire that set the vessels ablaze also inspired the men to complete their mission.
What ships do you need to burn?
The point of no return is when you say enough is enough. You feel disgusted with your current state. You burn the ships. Disgust is a powerful motivator, as Kris Gage wrote here, “Disgust is usually never going back. Disgust is a “can’t unsee” situation. Disgust is something better — for you and for your life.”
Perfectionism Drives Disappointment, Not Perfection
The notion that we are not good at something paralyzes us. Perfectionism is the enemy of change. The more we focus on what’s missing or broken, the less progress we make. But, how can you ever become a great piano player if you are not willing to be a lousy one first?
Being a perfectionist is avoidance. Instead of facing our fears, the conditions are never good enough for us to start something — we fail to launch.
“Perfectionism doesn’t make you feel perfect; it makes you feel inadequate.” — Maria Shriver
It’s one thing striving to be your best and another it’s trying to be perfect. We are all amateurs in life — avoid using the expert bar to measure your initial attempts in a new field. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Making mistakes is not only okay; it’s fun also. Epictetus said, “He who laughs at himself never runs out of things to laugh at.”
The fear of failure is a paradox — some folks feel better with being a successful smoker than confronting the failure of quitting. Failing is a necessary step to make progress. Change is never linear nor perfect.
Things Are Out of Your Control
Epictetus invited us to make a distinction between what is under our control and what is not. This realization removes a lot of suffering. The Greek philosopher suggested that worrying about what you can’t control is meaningless.
You can’t do anything about other people’s behaviors or the weather. But you can choose your actions. Trying to change what’s out of your control is pointless. Worrying distracts us from acting. Buddhist teacher Geshe Kelsang says there are two types of problems: an inner and an outer one,
“We should understand that our problems do not exist outside of our self, but are part of our mind that experiences unpleasant feelings. When our car, for example, has a problem we usually say “I have a problem”, but in reality it is the car’s problem and not our problem.”
When we fail to discriminate what’s under our control or not, we turn external problems into internal ones. You can’t control events, but you have control over your reactions. Choose to act wisely when things don’t go your way.
Find A Partner In Crime
Behind every successful person, there is another great person or team. No one succeeds alone. It’s easier to stay on track when you can count on other people. Multiple studies provide evidence that peer support is a critical and effective strategy for simple behavioral changes as well as for more complex ones such as ongoing health conditions or addictions.
“If you want to go somewhere, it is best to find someone who has already been there.” — Robert Kiyosaki
Pride is not helpful — there are no bonus points for not asking for help. Everything we achieve in life involves other people. From the genes you inherited from your parents to that boss or professor that changed your life or the coach that got the best out of you — we are social animals. Acknowledging how others have shaped our lives makes it easier to ask for help.
An accountability partner can keep you focused, provide emotional support or call out your BS. Social commitment dramatically increases your odds — you have a 95% chance of achieving your goals.
Action Shapes Your Identity
New habits create discomfort — we feel weird doing something we are not used to. We tend to reject eating healthier or going to the gym because it doesn’t feel part of who we are.
But, what comes first, action or self-identity? Psychologist Timothy Wilson addresses this dilemma in This Explains Everything:
“People act the way they do because of their personality traits and attitudes, right? They return a lost wallet because they’re honest, recycle their trash because they care about the environment, and pay $5 for a caramel brulée latte because they like expensive coffee drinks.”
Though most of the times this might be right, our context also affects our identity. Not only that. Our actions — in turn — end shaping our self-perception.
As the author explains, maybe we recycle because the city has made it easy. Or because all our neighbors do so — we feel the social pressure. Perhaps the act of returning a wallet makes us feel good. So, next time we find one, we are triggered to do the same.
Jump into action. As Alan Watts said, “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
We Are Connected to the World
This is an essential part. We are part of a bigger system. We cannot neglect our environment. Your space, relationships, and the larger world can help or conspire against you.
To get rid of a habit, start by eliminating the temptations. If you want to stop eating snacks or drinking beer while watching a movie, start by removing those from your house — the odds of being tempted decrease when you have to drive and buy some.
Use your surroundings wisely
You are not the average of the people you surround yourself with, as I wrote here. You can learn from anyone. Some people can inspire you; others will challenge you. Rejection is a powerful motivation. We can learn from our friends and foes alike — some get the best out of us, others the worst.
Resilience is not directly linked to the environment, but how we learn to rescue ourselves from adversity. Some people thrive because of their environment and others in spite of it.
Pay attention. Your surroundings can transform your circumstances. The way you treat the world is how the world will treat you. Change your environment, and it’ll work in your favor.
Free yourself from attachment to your reputation. Cross the point of no return. Strive to be your best, not to be perfect. Focus on what you can control. Find a partner in crime. Plunge into change — join the dance. Use your surroundings wisely.
There’s no change without growing pains. We all have to leave our mental cocoon sooner or later.