Many times when people get stuck working on some aspect of their personal growth, it’s because they’ve defined their core problem in a way that it can’t really be solved.
by Steve Pavlina, from stevepavlina.com
One of the most common forms of this is when someone defines their problem as a mental or psychological one. I see this all the time from people trying to overcome procrastination. They usually define the problem as a lack of motivation, drive, self-discipline, passion, etc. Sometimes they see it as a lack of clarity or focus. Other times it’s succumbing to too many distractions. But ultimately they believe that the source of their problem is their own mental programming, so the solution is to upgrade that programming in some fashion. In other words they need to work on their mindset, attitude, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and so on.
But most of the time, this is a dead end. The results of their efforts are usually weak, even after years of serious inner work. They will often make some progress, but it’s like going from a 3 to a 4 on a scale of 1-10.
Some people keep trying anyway, figuring that this must be a really difficult personal challenge. Others essentially give up. Some oscillate between making an effort and then giving up for a while.
What if there’s a better approach that can create faster and more consistent results? Many people have already considered this possibility. They’ve usually tackled the problem in lots of different ways, each time with renewed hope that maybe this time there will be a real breakthrough. They’ve already come at this from the passion angle, the big why angle, the pain/pleasure angle, the self-discipline angle, the chest pounding rah-rah angle, the NLP angle, the Law of Attraction angle, the inner child angle, and many more angles.
Is Mental Reprogramming a Trap?
On my own decades-long path of personal growth, I’ve often experienced the most stuckness when I kept searching for solutions without taking an additional step back to question how I was actually defining the problem. It’s common to define our problems in mental or emotional terms. We love preaching that thoughts are causes, so if we want to create different results, we must change our thoughts. We say that our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs give rise to our actions, and our actions create our results. Or we say that our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs vibrationally attract that which is in harmony with them. Either way, success begins with the contents of our minds. It’s always assumed to be a software problem, isn’t it? To change our results, we must change the software than runs in our minds. But is this actually true?
Several years ago I was at a leadership retreat with about 100 speakers, authors, and trainers from the personal development field. Joe Vitale gave a lively talk in which he invited us to share the names of our favorite methods for creating inner change. Two volunteers recorded these suggestions on a large whiteboard on the stage. In short order they filled up every inch of the whiteboard, but the ideas kept coming in. Joe instructed the volunteers to keep writing over what they’d written, and they filled up another layer on top of the first. After a while the sheer volume of techniques began to make people chuckle – it was more than any one person could study in a lifetime. I loved Joe’s fun way of demonstrating just how many techniques we’ve already invented for trying to reprogram our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.
Do we need to create more? Will people grow faster if we crank out a thousand more techniques for mental and emotional reprogramming?
Some of my biggest breakthroughs occurred after I struggled for years with the mental reprogramming method and then finally gave up on it. There was usually a period of surrender during which I gained some perspective and decided to approach the problem from a totally different angle – but NOT one of the mental reprogramming angles this time. Actually I’m taking way too much credit when I assert that. The truth is that much of the time, I simply stumbled upon a different way of approaching the problem, often when I wasn’t actively working on it. Frequently this came in the form of out-of-the-blue suggestions from other people.
The more this has happened, the more it became clear that one of the biggest challenges of personal growth is to define our problems correctly, so that we can actually solve them. If we identify the source of a problem incorrectly, it can set us on a path of spinning in circles for years with little to show for our efforts. So it’s really important to be flexible in how we define our problems. If our action steps aren’t leading to real progress, or if we can’t even feel motivated to take consistent action, maybe our problem needs a better definition to begin with.
Some problems that I found really difficult to solve even after years of struggle, I was able to solve relatively quickly when I defined the problem in a totally different way.
What if the Problem Really Is External?
During my first attempt at college, my academic performance was dismal. I barely passed the first semester and failed the second and third semesters, resulting in expulsion. The sad thing is that I only had 3-4 classes each semester. As I endured these awful results, I had a hard time motivating myself to go to class. I just couldn’t get myself to want to do it. The classes were boring, the homework uninspired and tedious, and I didn’t see the point of it. Trying to motivate myself to do the schoolwork was getting me nowhere.
After getting expelled from school, I got a job a video game store for $6 an hour. A year later I decided to re-enroll in college and try again, starting over as a freshman. This time I blasted through the work like it was nothing, getting mostly As and a few Bs, graduating with two degrees in three semesters (computer science and math), and receiving an award for being the top computer science student that year. I took 10-13 classes per semester instead of the 3-4 classes I took the previous time. That may seem like an insane contrast, but this success became possible when I changed how I defined the problem.
When I struggled with low motivation in school, I initially assumed there was something wrong with me that I had to fix or improve. I was slacking off, deficient, not trying hard enough. Everyone around me seemed to reinforce that assessment. If I got a D or an F, it was an evaluation of my performance. Supposedly going to class was a challenge that I had to rise to each day, something I had to stretch myself to achieve.
But I could never motivate myself well when I framed the problem that way. Why? Because that definition of the problem wasn’t accurate. It wasn’t actually true. I had to turn the whole thing upside down.
I ultimately solved this problem by reversing the problem definition. What if I was actually an awesome student all along, and the school itself sucked? What if the school wasn’t designed to properly motivate someone like me? What if the teachers just weren’t very good? What if I was too much for them to handle?
Okay, I know that might sound a little silly, but have you ever thought that you might actually be an amazing student too if you had the very best school with the very best teachers educating you? How could you possibly fail under such conditions? Is it really your fault if you perform badly in school? Could you not just as easily interpret those Ds and Fs as the teacher’s self-assessment for poor performance as an educator?
The real truth was that I didn’t feel challenged enough, and because of that, I sabotaged myself from even going to class. When I did go to class, I was bored. The teachers didn’t engage me. They didn’t bother getting to know me. How could they in a freshman computer science class with 500 students packed into a massive auditorium? For the most part, the teachers seemed like dreadfully dull and uninspiring people, so I didn’t care to get to know them either. Sometimes it was hard to stay awake in their classes. If they had a real passion for teaching, they certainly didn’t show it. As far as teachers go, most of them sucked.
At the time I was going to UC Berkeley, which my high school guidance counselor told me was ranked #1 in the nation for computer science. I don’t know exactly what that #1 ranking was for, but I don’t see how it could have been for excellence in teaching.
Think of any movie you’ve seen about a really awesome teacher – creative, engaging, passionate, witty, caring, etc. My teachers were the opposite of that.
This one-minute video should give you an idea of what it was like:
Not Dead Poets Society. Not Stand and Deliver. Not Mr. Holland’s Opus.
More like Dead Delivery Opus.
It took me a long time to see this though. If you have a problem in school, it’s automatically assumed to be your fault. You lack motivation as a student. You don’t have the right mindset or attitude. You must not be driven enough. You should work harder and study more. You need to think about the long-term consequences of your actions. All that B.S.
Well… I found that attitude towards my weak academic performance even more demotivating. The admonitions to make more of an effort only seemed to hasten my path towards expulsion. But even worse than getting expelled was buying into the erroneous beliefs regarding why I got expelled.
Fixing the Externals
Taking a year off was one of the best decisions because it allowed me to reconsider these assumptions, and I saw that they just didn’t add up. If I was having motivational issues, then how come I didn’t suffer from a lack of motivation to put in an 8-hour shift at the video game store? How come I could finish 100+ NES, SNES, Game Boy, and Sega Genesis games from start to finish, playing them for hours at a stretch? I had plenty of motivation in other parts of my life.
Maybe it was true that my problem stemmed from a lack of motivation, but that wasn’t because I was failing to step up to the challenge. The problem was that the challenge wasn’t designed well. The educational experience wasn’t engaging. The system did a poor job of executing. Playing a NES game was more appealing. One time a friend and I played Contra something like seven times in a row without either of us losing a life. That was a lot more fun than going to class.
In order to succeed in college, I had to gamify the experience, mostly by increasing the challenge. Once I compensated for the design problems and made the educational experience edgy enough to keep me on my toes, I was able to succeed. It wasn’t that difficult to do this. It was a challenge of course, but not in a painful way. It was much like playing through a dozen video games each semester. It takes a lot of effort, but if you like the games, then it’s a lot of fun.
Have you ever binged on a game for 8, 10, or 12 hours with few breaks? If you can do that, then you can do the same with other parts of your life too, such as school and work. You just need to modify the external experience to make it more gamelike. This usually requires changing the rules, including ignoring other people’s rules when they get in your way.
I love a good challenge, and I need to feel that even if I do my best at my highest level of motivation, there’s still the possibility of failure. That makes it fun. When I added that element to my educational experience, it changed everything.
My motivation wasn’t the problem. My mindset wasn’t the problem. I had to change some habits and adopt some good time management techniques to make this work, but I didn’t need to reprogram myself mentally or emotionally. I was still the same guy who got expelled earlier and who worked at the video game store. To succeed educationally, I needed more engagement, more risk, and more stimulation.
If I’d had fun, lively, witty, challenging teachers during my first attempt at college, I’d have gone to class every day just to bask in their presence. If I’d liked, respected, and admired my teachers, I’d have kicked ass in their classes. That was largely why I was a straight-A student in high school. I had some amazing teachers back then. They were challenging. Or brilliant. Or witty. Or sadistic. Or just odd. And that made me want to do well in their classes. My mistake was going to a college full of teachers who’d rather be doing research than teaching. If they didn’t want to be teaching, why should I want to attend their classes?
I know it’s considered uncool in personal development circles to blame someone else as the cause of your problems, but sometimes when you blame someone else, you can finally solve the problem for good. I don’t think this is a denial of responsibility because even when you define the problem externally, you can still assume responsibility for solving it. And in fact you may gain access to much more effective solutions.
When I placed the blame externally, I felt empowered to do something about it. I re-enrolled at a different school. I took a much higher course load. I got to know many of my teachers, and sometimes I chatted with them outside of class. If their classes weren’t engaging, I challenged myself to do other homework in class to see how productive I could be. I pushed myself to learn everything the first time it was taught, so I didn’t have to study outside of class. If there was something I’d have to memorize, I’d memorize it immediately, before it was even erased from the chalkboard. When I had lousy teachers, I stopped blaming myself for not being motivated, and I changed the way I played the game to compensate for their weaknesses. I had to make the experience more like a game of Contra, where I felt fully engaged. Then it was as easy as shooting aliens.
Could Your Problem Be Physical?
One particular area where people get stuck in endless “I’m not good enough” loops is when they define their problems in mental or emotional terms when the real cause is physical. You can’t easily solve a problem by treating it at the level of mind if the cause is in your body or brain.
A great example of this is toxicity. Our world is filled with chemicals that didn’t exist a few hundred years ago. Every day we drink polluted water, eat polluted food, and breathe polluted air. We can’t help it because these pollutants are everywhere now. They build up in our tissues year after year, causing a slow degradation over time. These toxins can fog up our minds, destroy our emotional well-being, and cause all sorts of behavioral problems.
Your liver, kidneys, lungs, intestines, and skin do an amazing job of neutralizing toxins, but these organs are struggling to keep up with today’s assignments. If we rely solely upon our internal detoxification systems to process toxic loads that are orders of magnitude beyond what was encountered during the entire evolutionary history of these systems, we’re going to fall behind and lose this battle little by little, year after year. It’s a recipe for slow decline. People are showing the symptoms of this decline on an unprecedented scale today. We’re having to invent scores of new terms just to label the mental and emotional disorders caused by toxicity.
How can we possibly solve all these mental and emotional problems that are caused by our physical reality? We’re not going to fix these problems at a software level when the root problem is in the hardware.
We know that most depression has a physical cause, and if you address the physical cause, it usually goes away. But if you always treat depression as a mental, emotional, or psychological problem, you can get stuck in an endless loop treating the symptoms with no cure. If the root cause is physical, then we ought to solve the problem physically. Don’t just treat it. Cure it.
When I went to a multi-day raw food conference with about 3000 people several years ago, the place was just overflowing with love, warmth, instant connection, happiness, and sexiness, regardless of age. It was a powerful example of what normal is supposed to look like when our underlying hardware is running properly. It’s much harder to get depressed when you eat raw because your toxic intake is much lower. It’s so much easier to get depressed when you consume a little poison each day. It’s tough to find a depressed raw foodist. I’m not saying it’s impossible… just very uncommon.
In fact, if you want a simple way to test your own mental hardware, eat 100% raw vegan for 30 days. That will give you a glimpse of what you’re missing out on due to toxicity. I often get emails from people who’ve done this challenge, and almost everyone reports marked improvements in their mood, motivation, energy, and mental clarity. Then it becomes undeniable that by eating more toxic foods, you really are slowing yourself down. Just be aware that if you try this, you’ll probably feel like crap for the first few days as the most accessible toxins start flooding out of your tissues. For most people it feels like having the cold or the flu.
When my mental performance was weak and I blamed my own thinking, mindset, or personal standards, I got nowhere. But when I felt sluggish or foggy and started blaming the people who were actively poisoning me, I finally made some progress and began to see meaningful improvements in my mental clarity, emotions, motivation, productivity, and confidence. That’s because when I blamed others, I saw that I could actually compensate for their attempts to poison me. I didn’t have to let them toxify my brain as much as they’d been doing in the past.
In terms of action steps, improving my diet certainly helped, but that wasn’t where I saw the greatest gains. It was a good starting point though. If you’re consuming poison every day, it makes sense to start doing less of that, but you also have to deal with the effects of the poison you’ve already consumed, especially toxins like heavy metals that can remain stuck in your tissues for life if you don’t address them. The people in Flint, Michigan have to deal with this in a big way due to massive lead poisoning, but all of us have been poisoned to one degree or another, and ignoring this just isn’t a good idea, especially if you want your brain to function well.
One reason I’ve been vegan for about 20 years is that eating otherwise is just way too risky. I’d rather not join the ranks of all the depressed and scatterbrained people out there who seem to be in deep denial about the long-term effects of a high toxicity diet. Even if you’re concerned about the effects of pesticides and herbicides, it’s still better to eat plants that have been sprayed directly as opposed to eating animals who’ve eaten such plants. Those toxins build up in animal tissues just like they do in our human tissues.
Eating animal products is like eating a used water filter. Being a human that eats animal products is like being a used water filter that eats used water filters – not a recipe for optimal functioning.
What if you’re into the paleo diet? Then you must be a hunter with a time machine. The animal products people consume today are nothing like they were a hundred years ago. No amount of labeling games will change that. Today’s paleo diet is just another name for the used water filter diet.
If you care about the health of your brain, the one thing you should avoid consuming at all costs is fish. Whether they come from the ocean, a lake, a stream, or a fish farm, all of the water areas where fish live are polluted, and fish soak up those pollutants like sponges. When fish eat other fish, the toxins become even more concentrated. You might as well sprinkle mercury on your meals if you think eating a dirty sponge is a good idea.
Despite all the marketing dollars the animal products industry invests in convincing you otherwise, being one of their customers is not an intelligent decision when it comes to the health of your brain. And if you’re already suffering from weak motivation, chronic self-doubt, procrastination, anxiety, fear, depression, and other issues, then please switch to a low toxicity diet for a while, if only to give your brain a chance to show you how it’s actually supposed to function.
But as important as it is to reduce your intake of toxins, I think it’s even more important to work on removing the toxins that are already in your body.
I actually got much bigger gains not from dietary or lifestyle changes but from exploring more intensive detoxification protocols. Over the years I’ve done many different cleanses – liver cleanses, kidney cleanses, salt water flushes, hydrocolonics, a green smoothie cleanse, and a bunch of cleanses I’ve forgotten. These cleansing rituals helped. I gained an especially nice boost in mental and emotional clarity after doing a 30-day juice feast several years ago.
I also tried dozens of different detoxifiers, starting about 10 years ago. That helped too. The boosts were relatively small, but there were noticeable differences. The downside was that it often took a lot of time and experimentation to reap the benefits.
But the biggest leaps forward happened more recently, starting in August 2015 when a guy named Alexander Bloom told me about his detoxification experiences and invited me to check out his detox page. Please do yourself a favor and read his story because it will blow your mind if you’ve never looked into this sort of thing before. I saw a lot of alignment between what Alex shared and what I’d been exploring over a period of years, except that Alex was miles ahead of me in terms of how far he’d taken this exploration, and he had a lot of specific advice about it.
Alex and I emailed back and forth a few times, and I decided to try a detox protocol similar to what he recommended, beginning with a 30-day trial in August 2015. I was pretty foggy during those 30 days, but after I stopped, I felt like the guy from the movie Limitless. I enjoyed amazing mental clarity and a massive boost in motivation, and I plowed through mountains of work like it was nothing. I could work a 14-hour day with ease and still feel alert afterwards. There were some nice physical changes too, like my hair growing in thicker.
That 30-day detox was the reason I was finally able to tackle my website redesign project. I’d been wanting to do it for years, and it was such a delight to direct all that extra clarity, motivation, and energy into that project and drive it all the way to completion. Then after that was over, I did four three-day workshops in four months, more than I’d even done in such a short period of time.
I’ve done many more rounds of detoxification since then, mostly still based around Alex’s protocol. This year I also did another round of hydrocolonics, a two-week raw liquified diet cleanse, and a 17-day water fast. That seems to have helped even more.
Additionally, last year I bought a top of the line infrared sauna with ceramic emitters (not the cheaper carbon fiber ones). Cedar, hemlock, and cheaper woods can release toxic gases when heated, so I paid extra to get a sauna made from aspen wood. I normally use it 2-3x per week, and my skin is super soft now. An infrared sauna heats you up from within, encouraging more of your cells to release their toxins, some of which gets released through your sweat, but most of these toxins are actually processed by your liver. This is very different than a traditional Swedish sauna (like the kind with hot rocks), which heats you up from the outside in.
I continue to invest in detoxification, spending thousands of dollars on this in 2015 and 2016 because this investment has been paying off so well. I’m still seeing gains from it, although now the progress is more gradual than it was last year.
My motivation has been sky high for more than a year now, and I enjoy working more than ever. I feel like I was starting from a decent level of motivation and mental clarity to begin with, but now it’s just ridiculously wonderful. I can only imagine how this type of exploration would affect someone suffering from major mental and emotional challenges. Actually I don’t have to wonder because I’ve heard some amazing stories about that too.
If you want to read a really long and powerful story about how important it is to correctly define your problem, read Josh Macin’s story about coming back from the brink of being suicidal. I met Josh earlier this year at a conference in London where he gave a moving talk about how detoxification saved his life.
The funny thing is that all of this progress stemmed from defining the problem externally. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself, What if I’m having problems motivating myself and staying focused on my goals because people are poisoning my brain with toxic chemicals?
I know… it seems like a big leap, especially if you’re new to detox and have yet to personally experience how powerful it can be. And if you accept that the problem is external, it puts a huge ton of work on your plate. And it sucks to acknowledge that people are poisoning the planet. But what if this is the key to unlocking a huge amount of progress that you could never access when you framed this as an internal mental or emotional problem?
If you’ve been working on your personal growth for years like I have, isn’t it possible that your brain already grasps the importance of mindset, motivation, focus, and being in the flow? What if it totally gets this already, and it’s simply not able to run the positive programming you’ve internalized because the hardware of your brain is constantly misfiring due to a long-term buildup of toxins like heavy metals?
Blaming vs. Shaming
I know that blame sounds like a dirty word, especially in personal growth circles. But note that this is primarily about an internal shift in perspective that actually helps you assume more responsibility for solving your problem, not less. And generally speaking, solving your problem is better than letting it fester.
Blaming others doesn’t require you to inform them of your new perspective. In most cases I wouldn’t recommend doing that because it’s a waste of energy. People will just feel attacked, they’ll respond defensively, and you’ll get sucked into pointlessly debating instead of taking action to solve your problem. On the other hand, if you do meet someone who’s actively poisoning us, maybe you should try to get them to stop.
Blaming doesn’t necessitate shaming other people publicly or privately, which is also counterproductive. If you feel so inclined, you can certainly discuss your problem with others, including those you may feel are causing it, but make sure you assume responsibility for actually solving it. If the other person can’t or won’t help you solve it, then solve it without their help. Sometimes that will require you to change the nature of your relationship. It can be an especially unnerving personal growth challenge when you have to weigh your loyalty to someone you like vs. your ongoing path of growth if that person is creating social drag for you. I’ve received many emails over the years with questions of this nature; usually the answer is already clear to the person, and accepting that answer is the hard part.
Ultimately this is about truth alignment. Pay attention to the information and feedback you’re receiving from your external reality. If you believe the external reality is a dream world of sorts, then pay attention to what’s arising within that dream. You may resist seemingly unpleasant information at first, but if you accept it as a call to greater truth alignment, and if you understand that truth is one of the core universal growth accelerators, you’ll soon warm up to this type of invitation if you want to graduate from stubborn problems sooner.
It’s usually easier to recognize truth alignment issues in other people than it is in ourselves. For example, suppose you received an email like this one:
I recently caught my boyfriend cheating on me again, and when I confronted him about it outside of his apartment, he started hitting me really hard and told me he doesn’t want to see me anymore and that we’re through. That was three days ago. I still love him so much though, and I know he’s my soulmate. What can I do to get back together with him?
I just made this up, but I actually get emails similar to the above pretty much every month, although usually with a lot more detail.
As glaring as the lack of truth alignment may be in a situation like this, it’s almost guaranteed that you have a similar misalignment in yourself, and you’re just as blind to it as the people writing these emails. If you have the willingness to look for it though, you’ll usually find it in the areas of health, career, finances, or relationships. And you may find more than one.
I’ve had major misalignments in all of these areas at one time or another. In my first business, I kept working with game publishers despite seeing major integrity problems in how they worked, and when I finally gave up on them and went indie, my business thrived. I put off going bankrupt for many years, but when I finally did, I felt tremendous relief afterwards, and it helped me turn my finances around. I didn’t want to accept that the long-term incompatibilities in my marriage couldn’t be resolved through negotiation or personal growth work, and a separation and divorce finally made it possible to move beyond that stuckness. In all of these cases, blaming my own shortcomings slowed me down for years, and I could have made much faster progress if I’d just been willing to blame others sooner.
If you don’t enjoy your work, is your mindset really the problem? Are you just an unmotivated, procrastinating, lazy sloth? Or could it be that your company, your boss, or your coworkers do a poor job of engaging and stimulating you? Could it be that your company was poorly designed? Might it be that your company doesn’t have a meaningful purpose in the world? Could it be that your manager sucks? Could you imagine a different company with different leadership, a different team, different values, or a different style where you’d actually look forward to going to work each day?
If your productivity is low and you succumb to distraction often, does it really help to define the problem as your own lack of self-discipline or focus? Or could it be that you live in a world where other people are constantly competing for your attention? Do the people running the social media services you use truly care about helping you manage your social life, or are they really just trying to addict you, so they can make money from your addiction? Weren’t the devices you use at least partly designed to distract or addict you? If all of these services and companies weren’t actively trying to suck you in, would you be so easily distracted, or is it possible you’d find it pretty easy to concentrate on your own goals without their meddling?
Do you really have social anxiety? Do you find it hard to experience deep and meaningful relationships? Are you just socially defective, inexperienced, or untrained? Or is it possible that you’re relatively okay on the inside, and your friends and family are just socially inept when it comes to connecting with you? Or is it possible that some marketers have been trying to convince you that you aren’t good enough, so you’ll buy their products instead of meeting your needs more easily through abundant social connections? Did these people teach you that your body isn’t good enough, your hair isn’t good enough, your skills aren’t good enough, or that you’re not attractive enough? Haven’t you been exposed to this kind of conditioning your entire life? What would happen if you blamed these sources for a weak social life instead of yourself? Can you imagine a social group in which you don’t experience social anxiety because everyone recognizes the destructive societal conditioning they’ve all endured, and they’re consciously teaching themselves to connect like real human beings in spite of that conditioning? How would you compensate for the efforts of some people to condition you to become a lonely and isolated consumer? How would you push back against that?
Noting that the world is beating you down in many ways doesn’t have to be disempowering. Try to see it as a weight to lift, and by lifting it you can grow stronger.
Ironically, perhaps your mindset really is the problem, but not in the way you originally thought. Maybe you’ve been overplaying the idea that you need to improve your internal software, causing your mind to get stuck in endless self-analytical loops. And maybe the solution is to notice that your external input has included way too much garbage, so you’ve been caught in a GIGO pattern – garbage in, garbage out. If that’s the case, maybe your mental software is running just fine, and you simply need to provide it with different input, such as a new school, a new work environment, smarter people, cleaner food and water, and so on.
Perhaps you’re awesome just as you are, and with a few adjustments to your external world, you’ll be able to fully express your awesomeness. The next time the world seems to disagree with you, don’t buy into its assumptions so quickly. Be sure to consider the possibility that maybe the world itself needs fixin’.