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A little over a month ago, I renewed my commitment to my health and wellness and decided to not let good be the enemy of great, as Jim Collins puts in in his book, Good to Great! I set some goals in terms of my exercise program and the tweaks I needed to make in my diet and I set out to make it happen. I am happy to report that I have been consistently following my program and I feel great about resisting the temptation to go back to my old ways—as I have done many times in the past—but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my share of challenges! One such challenge and defining moment is what gave me the inspiration for this week’s post.
It was about two weeks after starting my new regimen that I decided to get on the scale to see just how much progress I had made. I had resisted the urge to do so for a couple of weeks, but that day, I figured I might as well because I could use a little encouragement that I was indeed making good progress and everything that I was doing was worth the trouble. Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be a great idea as my bathroom scale seemed to be having a bad day! We have one of those solar-powered digital scales, so you have to turn the light on in the walk-in closet where we keep the scale and wait a few minutes for it to charge. I did that with anticipation and couldn’t wait to get on it, only to find out that the thing was malfunctioning! It was showing that I had actually gained two pounds instead of losing a few as I thought I had. At first, I couldn’t believe it. I got off the scale, repositioned it because I thought maybe it wasn’t getting enough light or the floor was uneven, then carefully stepped on again, this time making sure that I didn’t make any sudden moves that would confuse the scale, only to see the exact same dreaded number pop up again!
To say I was disappointed would be a huge understatement! I mean here I was, so proud of myself for having followed my plan. All those hours on the treadmill and all the desserts I skipped and the late night snacks I went without and this is what I get? It had been two whole weeks! Surely, I should have seen some results by now!? In an instant, I went from being totally enthusiastic about following through with my commitment to health and fitness to wondering if I would have even gained any more than the two pounds, had I been indulging in a few Twinkies every day and trading the treadmill for the couch this whole time! The moments after having the sudden realization that my efforts had not yielded the desired results were not fun. I felt the powerful urge to give up so strongly because I figured all was lost and there was no hope. I would never get in shape and no matter what I did it wasn’t going to work!
It was a strange feeling because, on the one hand, it felt like the agony of defeat and on the other hand, there was the sweet taste of victory in finding some justification that I no longer needed to work so hard because I had evidence that it was pointless to do so anyhow. Two whole week’s worth of evidence! So I did what I always do when I’m in my head. I reluctantly shared what I was thinking with my wife, knowing well that she was going to talk some sense into me, and that she did. She reminded me of all the things that I preach and teach and nudged me back on track.
Has anything similar ever happened to you? You set out to achieve a goal and pursued it with enthusiasm only to be disappointed by your expectations having not been met at some point along the way? Isn’t it interesting that when we get going in a positive direction, we want instant gratification and immediate positive results, and when we have had some bad habits for years, we are surprised at how quickly they produced negative results? I can go on eating junk food for years and be shocked at how quickly I gained weight and be on a diet for two weeks and wonder what is taking so long for the weight to come off!
How we react and what we do in those defining moments when the results are not as promising as we expected them to be is what sets Transformative Leaders apart from others.
Transformative Leaders act according to their commitments, not their attachments. In my case, my commitment is to lead a healthy lifestyle. My attachment is the number I see on the scale or just how far or how fast I can run or how I look. Acting according to my attachments is conditional based on my expectations being met, but if I continue to focus on my commitment regardless of what the scoreboard says, I will stay in action and eventually get the results. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not minimizing the value of keeping an eye on the results to determine where you stand and whether or not you need to adjust your strategy. That is absolutely necessary in every transformative journey. What I’m talking about is the obsession with the scoreboard that diminishes your energy and enthusiasm and unnecessarily diverts your attention to worry and fear, rather than the focused effort concomitant with any transformative vision to which you have committed yourself.
I run into this challenge often and have to constantly catch myself to make sure I’m focusing on my commitment. One example of something I have to watch out for is when I hold leadership development sessions. It is not unusual for the participants to come into the session a bit skeptical and sit with their arms crossed as if to say, “This had better be good!” I’m used to that and I usually don’t let it bother me, because my commitment to them experiencing a transformation is so much bigger than my attachment to the fear of evidence of that not happening. It does help to have seen hundreds of people walk out of my sessions completely energized and ready to get in action.
Having said that, I have to say I had an experience recently that almost messed with my head and threw me off. I say “almost” because I hung in there and boy am I glad I did. In a four-hour class that I conducted recently, I had one gentleman who maintained a very disgruntled look on his face the entire time, and absolutely refused to even crack a polite smile at my jokes and rebuffed my attempts to get him to loosen up a bit. I could clearly imagine what was going on in his head—according to the voice in my head, that is—and it wasn’t good. I took it as a challenge to get through to him and have him experience a transformation and I absolutely refused to give up. By the end of the session, however, I was convinced that while everybody else was completely energized, I had failed to reach this particular participant. As I was packing my computer and gathering my notes, he came around to the front with the same serious look on his face and I was very ready to hear him tell me how he thought the entire session had been a waste of his time. To my surprise, however, he held his hand out to shake mine, and he went on to tell me in a very genuine and authentic manner how much he enjoyed the session and how he picked up so many insights that are going to be extremely helpful to him, personally and professionally. I was taken aback because in my mind, and according to all the evidence on the “scoreboard,” I had made no contribution to him and wasn’t making any progress in getting through to him. But, luckily, I was proven wrong and I was so glad that I didn’t get discouraged and write him off along the way.
Commitment and Progress
This story and the story of my health plan illustrates some instructive truths about progress when it comes to transformative journeys. More often than not, the progress that is being made will not be visible to you, but that doesn’t mean no progress is being made. Sometimes this is because a transformation requires an initial time investment to pick up steam and gain traction. Consider the example of the Chinese bamboo tree, which shows virtually no sign of any growth in the first four years when it is planted and then in the fifth year, it grows by 80 feet in just six weeks. When it comes to something like health, unless we have some specific ailment that can be dramatically improved by a specific therapy, we will have to invest considerable time and effort on the front-end before we start seeing benefits. This is something we tacitly understand in some areas, since we don’t, for instance, buy bigger clothes every week we go to the gym in anticipation of our muscles growing dramatically with each weight lifting session. It would be ridiculous to expect such dramatic improvement in such a short time, and the bigger your transformative vision is, the less realistic it is to expect immediate and obvious results.
In other cases, it may simply be a fact that even after we have put in the time and effort on the front-end, our progress never seems to ever dramatically improve at all. This is because the truth is that we rarely ever feel this more uniform type of progress being made in real-time, whether physically or mentally, simply because it is so gradual and we are so close to it. To give an example, think of how many times you have ever felt your body growing or noticed yourself becoming wiser. I don’t mean times that you noticed that those things had happened, but times that you noticed them happening in the moment. Heck, think of how many times you have actually seen grass grow or paint dry. You can’t, can you? But you certainly don’t deny that those things have happened and are happening, right? Of course not!
The fact is, the only way we ever notice this subtler kind of progress happening is when we take the time to look for it in the past while standing in the present, and acknowledge the progress that happened to get us from where we once were to where we are now. You don’t ever notice yourself growing until one day you stop and look back and say to yourself, “Look how much I changed since then. I used to be so small/inexperienced/weak, but I never gave up and that’s why I’m where I am today.”
This being the case, what can we do to maintain our resolve to keep going even in the face of what seems to be little or no progress?
The first thing that I would suggest, and which I mention in One Point Lesson #20 of my book, is taking the process of looking back to the past to see how much progress we have made so far and extending it into the future. What I mean by this is, instead of looking back on the past from the present, imagine that you are living in the desired future you have set out to create and looking back from there to what is now the present. Fully immerse yourself in the feeling of accomplishment and peace that your future self must be enjoying, having already achieved whatever goal it is that you are currently out to achieve. Can you imagine it and feel it? Now, imagine that you have become your accomplished future self in the present, imagine that you have achieved your health or fitness goals, or that you have a wonderful relationship with your significant other, or that your performance and fulfillment at your workplace is right where you want it to be. If that were the case, wouldn’t you want to keep things that way? If you were already fit and healthy, wouldn’t you do things to keep yourself being fit and healthy? If you already had a wonderful relationship with your partner, wouldn’t you take actions to keep it that way? Of course! Then all you have to do is envision yourself as already having what you want and act in a manner consistent with maintaining it. By acting as if you were already where you wanted to be, you allow your designed future to transform your present in a virtuous self-fulfilling prophecy.
The second suggestion that I would offer is simply to trust the process. What I mean by that is that we live in a world governed by cause and effect, and there are certain actions we know that will always produce certain results. The truth is, if you let go of a glass vase, it will fall and shatter when it hits the ground, whether you believe that will happen or not. If you touch a hot flame, you will get burned whether you understand why or not. When it comes to making progress and creating transformation, the exact same rules apply, albeit in ways that we may not be able to perceive as easily. The very fact that we may not be privy to the inner workings of these processes is not a reason to distrust them, but rather a reason to trust in the process despite their obscurity. The truth is, whatever practice and hard work you do will pay off eventually, whether you know it or not and whether you recognize it or not. In fact, it is more precisely true to say that whatever work you are doing right now is already paying off, because, when you choose the action, you have already chosen the consequence. Or, as the Zen master Dōgen put it, “Cause is not before and effect is not after.” Have faith in the process, commit yourself to it fully, and the results will work themselves out. As long as you are moving in the right direction, you will eventually get to where you want to be.
The Bottom Line
In every transformative journey, there are plenty of those moments that can derail us or strengthen our resolve to keep going. The choice is yours. No matter what challenges you are dealing with right now, you can choose to shift your focus to your commitments and let go of your attachments. You may not be able to quiet the noise in your head that keeps reminding you that your efforts are futile. If you suspect that there is a need to revisit your strategies, by all means, be intentional about looking at your options and engage a coach to help you see things clearly. But whatever you do, don’t give in to the notion that just because you have not yet seen the results you thought you should have, you should stop and forget about it. It is true that we cannot feel progress subtly being made—indeed, it is not clear that progress feels like anything at all—but we must always take care not to confuse how we feel with the way things actually are. In fact, when it comes to your transformative journey, you can measure your progress by just how infrequently you preoccupy yourself with doing so. Most stories with a happy ending don’t feel like that along the way. So hang in there and enjoy the ride, envisioning yourself in the designed future you are out to create.
(Since this post was inspired by my own fitness efforts, I wanted to link an article on Olympian athletes explaining how the best ones embody this commitment mentality vs. the attachment mentality. I did post this on social media previously, but I would like to offer it here again for anyone who missed it: What Separates Champions from Almost Champions)
Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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