Here’s one way my life has been for the last year:
Every day I wake up, planning to float through the day with some grace. Then something happens, and I shake it off. Then another thing…then another. At some point I’m way off my intention, and basically feel beaten down by a never-ending stream of challenges. Sometimes I go to bed thinking “I’m getting there, I’ll try again tomorrow”. Other times, it just seems like an endless stream of failed attempts to be the person I want to be.
I’m guessing every person who gives a damn about bettering themselves asks some variation of this question from time to time: Am I really making progress towards being the person I want to be, and merely frustrated by a temporary setback, or have I barely moved the needle in that regard, and will ultimately die with the same shortcomings I live with today?
In my experience, this question comes up because there are two kinds of personal growth:
- Sudden insight
- The hammer hitting the rock
The first kind is thrilling, spectacular, and obvious. It’s the heroin of personal growth. In a moment, something changes in you forever – a kind of quantum leap in understanding or awareness. For some reason, these often happen to me in the most mundane of circumstances. In my early twenties, I realized that I was not my thoughts or feelings while at work, folding boxes in the back of a Pizza Hut. Not on a mountaintop in the middle of a meditation retreat…in a fucking pizza store. My higher self has a sense of humor.
The second kind evokes the question above, and seems to be the one on offer most of the time. You hit the rock over and over again, each time hoping to see a crack appear – a sign that something you’re doing is having any effect. This can go on for a long time… Most of the time in this brand of growth, when I see any progress it’s because I get lucky: something happens, perhaps a setback that would have normally caused considerable upset, and I notice that I reacted slightly better than I would have six months previous. It’s subtle.
I like the rock metaphor because it illustrates the illusion that nothing is happening. On the outside, nothing seems different. The results of any hammer strike appear the same as the previous, and the next. But inside, something is happening, right? If you hit a rock with a hammer one hundred times, and it broke on the one hundredth strike, would you think that the first ninety-nine had no impact on the very visible result of the last?
My error in perception seems to be focusing on the ‘very visible result’, the kind that is so easily seen when a quantum leap happens. I want to see the big behavior change; for example, instead of getting frustrated when I slam into a problem, I feel at peace.
Reframing is a pretty good tool for this kind of difficulty, and I get curious what happens ‘inside the rock’ of my consciousness as I bang away at some goal.
The first thing I notice is how easy it can be to see the outcome I want.
The part that is most frustrating is that I can’t see whatever it is in me that steers so far off course. I take pride in being a good problem solver, but there’s no problem to solve when you can’t see one. Donald Rumsfeld had it right all along, it’s the stuff you don’t know you don’t know that really screws you.