Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Challenge & Quest to Become

This is no ordinary self-help book.

Ordinary self-help books focus on giving advice about what you must do to get something. Such books are typically transactional in nature, providing quid pro quo solutions (i.e. do this and you’ll get that).

This book is different; it is transformational. Its goal is to shift your focus from getting something to becoming something. SAL is less concerned with helping you get what you want; it is more concerned with helping you become what you can. And there is great news! There will be plenty of getting as you become.

Acting in order to get something is not always dishonorable. To a certain extent, we are all necessarily invested in this lower form of human behavior (e.g. You show up to work late and do just enough to get my paycheck every two weeks). Acting in order to become, however, is a fundamentally different way of thinking, acting, and existing. It is a higher form of human behavior (e.g. You show up to work early and give it my all in an effort to exemplify personal integrity, help other people, and eventually get promoted). When you think, speak, or act to get something, you may obtain the object of your desire. But when you think, speak, and act to become, the Existential Growth earned through the process transforms your very being into something grander than it was before. In turn, this process increases your personal power, influence and freedom.

Existential Growth is not something you get automatically with the passage of time. It is not a ‘rite of passage.’ It must always be earned. I have met teenagers who were existentially ahead of aged retirees in nursing homes. This is sad, but it is true. Knowledge, skills, wisdom, maturity, and Existential Growth come with a price that no one is exempt from paying.

“The major value in life is not what you get…. [It] is what you become.”

Effectively practicing SAL principles over time has transformed my life. Along the way, ignorance has been replaced with knowledge; fear has been swallowed up in courage and faith; diffidence has been transmuted into confidence; disillusionment has become visionary empowerment; and many hurtful habits were replaced with helpful habits. It did not come fast. It did not come easy. These things were not achieved without sweat, toil, tears, and many, many years. But it has come, and is still coming—a bit at a time, each and every day—and the difference is telling; just ask anyone who knew me 15 years ago.

“If there be any peace it will come through being, not having.”


As human beings, we are creatures of habit. The Four Levels of Competency [1] model provides an effective tool for understanding the steps that lead to habit creation.

Level 1: Unconscious Incompetence ~ You are unaware of your own ignorance or inability
Level 2: Conscious Incompetence ~ You are aware of your own ignorance or inability
Level 3: Conscious Competence ~ You know and can do, but only through conscious focus
Level 4: Unconscious Competence ~ You know and do automatically (a new habit has been formed)

An easy way to conceptualize the four levels of competency is as follows:

Level 1: A kindergartner who has never heard of algebra
Level 2: A 6th grader who learns he/she will take algebra in high school
Level 3: A 9th grader who has started learning and doing algebra
Level 4: A calculus teacher who works algebra problems without even thinking

Ever been driving down the freeway and think to yourself: “I have no memory of the last 30 miles. I must be a hazard on the road!” Assuming you have good driving habits, you are, in reality, quite safe in the midst of these extended “zoned-out” sessions. It’s not that you aren’t paying attention; you are simply performing the activity on level four (4)—something you could not do at age 16 soon after getting your first driver’s license.

If you are reading this book right now, chances are you spend a significant portion of your day operating on level four (4). Depending on what kind of habits you have developed, this can be a good, or a not so good, thing.


Developing a habit for the sake of Existential Growth requires action (To become, you must do). But before you can do, you must know what to do—you must learn (To do, you must learn). This chapter identifies three different learning processes: learning, relearning, and unlearning.

The first process—learning—refers to understanding something for the first time. The second process—relearning—refers to reviewing something you learned in the past, but have presently forgotten about, or are not doing. The third process—unlearning—refers to breaking a bad habit and replacing it with a new, good habit. Of the three learning processes, unlearning is typically the most difficult. This is due to the inherent difficulty involved in breaking an old habit, which requires you to go back to levels two (2) and three (3) after you are already performing a behavior on level four (4). Backtracking competency levels forces you out of a comfort zone.

The following illustration and exercise provides a simple example why unlearning can be so challenging.

  1. Fold your arms.
  2. Notice which arm is on top (e.g. In the picture above, the man’s right arm is on top).
  3. Now refold your arms by putting the opposite arm on top (e.g. In the picture below, the woman’s left arm is on top). 

How does that feel? Most likely, it feels awkward and uncomfortable. When you first tried it, you may have even struggled to figure out how to do it the opposite way. Once you got it right, did you think to yourself—or even vocalize—how weird or uncomfortable it felt? Did you find yourself concluding that the new way was the ‘wrong’ way? Did you catch yourself going back to the old way so that it could feel ‘right’?

With this exercise in mind, imagine how many times you would have to fold your arms the new way (level 3) before the new way felt as normal as the old way originally did (level 4). The exact number would differ from person to person, but if you are like most people, it would take folding your arms the new way dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of times over a period of several days, weeks, or even months before the new way reached the magical ‘tipping point’ signaling the creation of a new habit. Ever known someone who broke or lost an arm and had to learn to write with the other hand? In many cases, it takes months before the person can write as proficiently with a different hand.

The key to success in breaking old habits and replacing them with new ones is repetition. Training yourself to do something can be difficult in and of itself; but training yourself to do something different than you are accustomed to is even more challenging. Thankfully, ‘difficult’ and ‘impossible’ are two very different things.

Consider another example… buttoning your shirt. Reflect for a moment on how you don a dress shirt. Do you button your shirt ‘up,’ or button your shirt ‘down’? Or perhaps you start in the middle and work up and down.

I remember the day I learned there were people in the world that buttoned their shirt from the bottom-up. I was flabbergasted to know such people existed! “Who would button their shirt from the bottom up?” I queried. “That’s crazy!” I thought. My next response—a very natural one—was to conclude that buttoning one’s shirt from the bottom-up was the ‘wrong’ way. It is natural to assume that ‘our way’ is the ‘right’ way. The morning after learning about ‘bottom-uppers,’ I attempted to try it “their” way. You probably won’t be surprised to hear it took me three times longer to button my shirt that day.

These simple examples illustrate the inherent difficulty in breaking old habits and replacing them with new ones. And if it is hard to unlearn how to button your shirt, imagine how hard it must be to unlearn how to smoke, drink, cuss, gossip, yell at your loved ones, or any other bad habit. Anyone who has undertaken the challenge to unlearn something knows how difficult and time consuming it is. For example, ever been in a foreign country where you had to drive on the other side of the road? My wife and I once spent 16 days on a business trip in Great Britain. Neither of us had ever driven on the left side of the road. My wife—bless her heart—did the driving, but after dozens of hours driving all over the British Isles for over two weeks, it still had not become automatic for her, nor had her anxiety levels completely leveled out. Changing habits requires enormous commitment and focus. Just as importantly, it takes time, and typically lots more of it than we are willing to invest.

The bad news is that unlearning can be extremely difficult. The good news is we are capable of doing it. The possibility of changing your own nature and inclinations lies at the root of emotional intelligence and Self-Action Leadership.

Changing habits—even your nature—is made possible by the malleable nature of human brains. As a human being, you have something animals do not. You have a capacity to examine your behavior and determine whether it is the kind of behavior you actually want to exhibit. Thanks to your prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain that regulates behavior, engages in social and moral reasoning, and is responsible for planning and decision-making—you have the power to intentionally alter deeply ingrained habits and natural inclinations through unlearning and retraining.

If you persist in making desired changes, those changes can eventually become new, good habits that are as deeply ingrained as your bad habits once were. This is the miracle of humanity. It is a phenomenon that places human beings on an existentially higher plane than other members of the animal kingdom.

How long does it take to get rid of a bad habit and successfully replace it with a good one? Good question. Some will tell you it takes 21 days, or something along those lines. The truth is that it totally depends on the person and the situation. Many variables are at play in the formation of habits (e.g. how long ago you formed the habit, how deeply ingrained the habit is in your psyche, how often you engage in the habit). Likewise, many variables are at play in breaking a habit (e.g., environmental factors, the strength of your will to try and persist when the going gets tough, whether you have help from others or not). As such, the only answer I can realistically give to this question is: “It depends.” Some habits are broken more easily than others. For example, if your home loses power in a storm, you will probably retrain yourself to not turn the light switch after five or so failed attempts. However, if you have smoked cigarettes for 20 years, you aren’t likely to break the nicotine habit after resisting your first five cravings. When I endeavored to stop sucking my finger at age ten, it was at least a year before I stopped craving my old habit.

As a self-action leader, you always have choices to make regarding habits. You can choose to become more fully human by pursuing a disciplined life of delayed gratification, which will lead you to higher levels of Existential Growth. Or, you can choose to live an undisciplined life driven by instant gratification, which will lead you into the bondage of bad habits and other Existential Gravity. Whatever you choose, concomitant consequences will follow. What are you presently choosing? What will you choose in the future?

At best, life is not easy. Yet its greatest opportunities and beauties lie on the other side of its greatest trials. Don’t let bad habits and other Existential Gravity mercilessly beat you down—because if you just sit there, or worse, lie down, they will thrash you every time. At Freedom Focused, we encourage you to commit to emerge victorious from whatever adversity crosses your path. In the ongoing battle against bad habits, determine today that whatever the cost, you will pay the price to emerge as the victor.

“Life is a grindstone, and whether it grinds you down or polishes you up is for you and you alone to decide."
– Cavett Robert


Who am I? What am I doing with my life? What is my life’s purpose? These questions rank among the most important you can ever ask yourself. Arriving at answers to such questions is among the most vital accomplishments you can possibly achieve as a self-action leader.

In conjunction with figuring out who you really are, it equally important to figure out who you really aren’t. Many people live their entire lives deluding themselves about who and what they really are. We have all made this mistake at one time or another. I know I have. 

For example, I once believed I was destined to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA). As lofty and potentially noble an aspiration as that may have been, it was ultimately not a realistic goal to pursue. I have harbored countless other ambitions over the years such as: winning a gold medal and breaking a world record as a middle-distance runner, speaking multiple foreign languages—even being an elite piano player. As for my profession, there were no limits to my youthful ambitions. From sanitation engineering (garbage collector), heavy equipment operator, and builder to plumber, electrician, and engineer; from lawyer, politician, and broadcast journalist to actor, director, and professional counselor, it seems I wanted to be just about everything at one point or another.
As a young adult, I didn’t know what I wanted to major in for the first half of my college education. Even after I graduated, I struggled for many years gaining clarity about my long-term professional objectives.

Discovering who I really am has been a long, laborious, and often confusing journey, and is by no means finished. Along the way I had to fight valiantly against external voices that sought to discourage me or pull me down. I also had to face my own self-doubts. In the end, I was able to discover my own, authentic, identity with a clarity that has undergirded every meaningful achievement in my life to date.

Knowing who I am empowered me to write this book. Who are you? Being able to confidently answer this question honestly and authentically is the single most empowering nugget of knowledge you can ever attain. You will never realize the full scope of your potential until you know who you really are—and also who you really aren’t. One of my deepest hopes is that this book will serve you in some way along the pathways of this absolutely vital journey to the beautiful valley of existential self-awareness.

Next Blog Post: Friday, December 19, 2014 ~ Chapter 15: A Moral Imperative

Visit us at www.freedomfocused.com


[1] The Four Levels of Competency were developed by Noel Burch at Gordon Training International in the 1970s.  See URL: http://www.gordontraining.com/free-workplace-articles/learning-a-new-skill-is-easier-said-than-done/  

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