The Survivor Paradox

This blog is obviously a self-development blog. Many people despise that topic, as it smells of indecisive advice like “think positive” or “be grateful every day.” I can understand why people make fun of this – I can’t stand that kind of nonsense either.

The way I look at self-development though, the real thing I mean, is that you really have no choice in the matter. You are either winning or losing at it, notwithstanding a proclaimed interest in Oprah style self-help books or not. You are either losing weight and gaining muscle or you are getting fatter. You are either moving towards a point in your career that fulfills you or you are moving away from it. You are either getting more and more emotional rewards from your relationships or you get more pissed off by the day.

Self-development, i.e. your progress in key areas of your life, is ALWAYS happening, one way or the other. You simply can’t get away from it.

If you accept that as a fact, the next logical step is to look at HOW it actually happens. What dynamics are at play so you can get the most out of it?

I would argue that self-development happens mainly in 3 stages:

Stage 1: The I-Really-Suck-At-This Stage
This is the stage where you find yourself 40 pounds overweight. Or maybe 100 pounds overweight. This is the stage where you look at what you are doing for a living and realize you are wasting precious time in your life, doing something that bores you to tears in order to scratch a living. This is a major depression because of a lack of meaningful relationships. And so on. You realize you are at the bottom and something needs to be done. So you start working out daily, you start looking into becoming self-employed, and maybe you take dancing lessons. Whatever you think will remedy the pain that comes from the I-Really-Suck-At-This stage.

Stage 2: The Keep-Your-Head-Above-Water Stage
Then, with consistent, daily practice, over an extended period, something magical happens: You actually get better. You can touch your feet again (or see them). You at least managed to line up a few job interviews for yourself. You now have something to do on a Saturday night. It is crazy, I know, but doing the right thing consistently will do this for you… In any event, things are finally starting to look okay.

Stage 3: The Bringing-In-The-Harvest Stage
This is where you move from being “okay” to being excellent. You kept up all the positive habits that initially got you started, and you kept them up over several years. You expanded and built on them, accumulating more and more compound interest on your personal development journey. Now it’s harvest time: Not only are you in excellent health and/or working a fulfilling job and/or having meaningful relationships, but you also start to earn unexpected crossover rewards. You can get more work done because you feel rested and energetic all the time. More people notice you because you look attractive. Your increased income allows you to travel more, meeting new interesting friends from all over the world. People can’t believe your good “luck” in all things.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Makes you want to get started right now. I just decided on 3 new resolutions while writing this, getting all fired up and motivated.

Except it doesn’t ever work this way. Yes, these ARE the actual phases of self-development. HOWEVER: This is by no means a linear progression as this listing implies; at least not for most people.

The truth is that most of us just oscillate back and forth between the I-Suck stage and the Head-Above-Water stage. We will start from a position of defeat, driven by pain until the pain goes away and we start to feel better. BUT AS SOON AS THIS HAPPENS, or within a very short period of time, we will neglect the habits that got us there and sink back under water again. Until we hit rock bottom and decide we really need another gasp of air again. This is what I call the “survivor paradox” (I partly stole this term from Jeff Olson). We move back and forth between drowning and breathing, but never actually make it to dry land. We just get too lazy keep going as soon as we can breathe again.

What to do about it? Well, the answer should be obvious: Don’t get lazy and sink under again. For once, keep up your positive self-improvement habits, eventually getting you from the Head-Above-Water stage to the Harvest stage. Trust the process that allowed you to breathe again to carry you even further, to carry you back to land. DON’T EVER STOP DOING THE RIGHT THINGS. It is, technically, as easy as that.

Nevertheless, it is oh so boring sticking with your positive habits. And it is taking oh so long to reach land. This is where measures like writing a detailed monthly habits report come in, or the power of smart self-punishment. But it all starts with an UNDERSTANDING of the dynamics and the self-development phases there are, as well as the patterns you tend to fall into.

So I hope we got the understanding part out of the way now (also talking to myself here…). No more lethargic drowning please!