[00:00:19.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than three million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we discuss what causes the big moments that can transform your life in an instant. We show you how to create that motivation and inspiration in your everyday life, so that you can be more productive and happier. We also expose why the common wisdom about willpower and the concept of ego depletion are completely wrong and what you should do instead; all of this and much more with our guest this episode, James Fell.
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In our previous episode, we discussed how to break into careers in tough industries, the skills it takes to succeed in difficult circumstances, how to deal with the difficulty of constant rejection, how to build the muscle of determination, a hack for switching your thinking that can make it much easier to face challenging situations and rejection and much more with our previous guest, Alex Grodnik. If you want to know what skills it takes to get your dream job, listen to that episode.
Now, for our interview with James. Please note, this episode contains profanity.
[0:03:01.4] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, James Fell. James is an author, owner of bodyforwife.com and science-based motivator for lasting life change. He's one of the most read health and fitness writers in North America and currently writes articles for the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune. His work has been featured in numerous publications, including Time magazine, Men's Health and much more. He's the author of a recently released book, The Holy Sh!t Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant. James, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:35.0] JF: Thanks so much for having me on, Matt.
[0:03:37.5] MB: We're really excited to have you on the show today and to dig into some of these topics. To start out, I'd love to just begin with this idea of life-changing moments. How is it possible that massive change or lasting change can happen in the blink of an eye?
[0:03:56.6] JF: Well, the interesting thing is that when we have a transformative experience like this, it's not about behavior change. It's more about an alteration in your core identity and your values. Those are things that happen because of some either a massive flash of insight into your life, where you've suddenly achieved the solution to problems that have been pestering you, or it can even be mystical in nature, where maybe you feel that there was an otherworldly presence that commanded you to do something.
Regardless of the sensation as to where you felt it come from, they're incredibly powerful, emotional experiences that have a tendency to – it's like carving a new purpose into your being, like a chisel working on stone. When something like that happens, there's this overwhelming sensation that you just feel that you have to go in this new direction. These are not things that happen slowly. It's not adopting new habits where you're a tortoise, not a hare, or taking baby steps. It's something that happens so rapidly that you cannot help but notice. People find them incredibly motivating where when an event like this takes place, they feel they must fulfill this new mission, or vision that they've had.
[0:05:15.9] MB: What are some of the primary things or experiences that can trigger these kinds of moments?
[0:05:22.5] JF: There's lots of different things that can take place. Sometimes maybe it's a health scare, or there's an example in the book where it was a positive pregnancy announcement. The pregnancy announcement is a good one, because that relates directly to identity change. It was a man named Chuck Gross, he weighed over 400 pounds. He'd been heavy his entire life. He had tried and failed to lose weight many times.
Then there was this unexpected announcement. His wife comes out of the bathroom and says, “I'm pregnant.” The first thing that happened was there was an overwhelming sense of joy, because he was very excited about being a father. Then the next thing that happened was that he realized in a moment that this time he was going to lose weight. He just knew it was going to work. It was a fait accompli. That was because there was an identity change that took place in a flash. It was like he went from not a father to, “Hey, congratulations dude. You're going to be a dad.”
That also transformed his values, because for him something very important to him, he loved the idea of being a thin and healthy dad that could roughhouse with his kids and live a long time and be there for them and all that stuff. He wanted to be this high-energy dad that that was what held tremendous value for him. It did shift everything about his personality in that regard in a moment. He told me – this is a direct quote from Chuck where he said, “I didn't have to struggle with my motivation. It came built-in. It came built-in, because the behaviors, your actions, your attitudes, your beliefs line up automatically with that core identity.” He said he never struggled from that day forward. He lost over 200 pounds. He's kept it off more than a decade.
To continue on and answer your question, there can be other things where you reach something of a breaking point, or there's all sorts of little problems in your life where it's called crystallization of discontent. Maybe there's these different problems if you look at them individually one at a time, they don't seem they're that big deal. If they crystallize together, where the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, suddenly you just say, “Okay, enough of this. I need to go in a new direction.” You're suddenly – a window opens on a new path that you can take and the positive benefits of doing so were so overwhelming that you have no – you feel you have no choice. You got to do it.
[0:07:50.4] MB: Well, I think you made a really important point as well that these big shifts are not necessarily about behavior change, but it's rather about identity change.
[0:08:00.5] JF: Yeah, that refers to social psychologist Milton Rokeach’s model of personality. It's like that line from Shrek, where he says to donkey, “Ogres are like onions.” Well, people are like onions too. If you cut them, there's going to be some crying, but that's not my point. My point is that there's layers to our personality. The external layer is the behaviors and the actions. You go down a layer and then you've got beliefs and then you've got attitudes and then there's values and then there's identity at the core, the self of who you really are.
When we focus strictly on external layer behavior change, it essentially involves suffering. That's why we preach baby steps of minimizing the discomfort of change, so that it does not combat with your core identity too much. If you try and change too many things all at once, you show up hungover on January 1st with your first session on with Attila the trainer, all while quitting smoking, quitting drinking, eating healthier all in the same day, that's a recipe for a crash and burn, because you're just looking at those behavior change that is in opposition to what your identity and your values are. If you go through this shift in the much more powerful internal layers, then the external layers just come into line naturally.
[0:09:27.6] MB: I love this notion of making a shift deeper down at a deeper layer and then the natural change in beliefs and behaviors, etc., flows out of that.
[0:09:38.0] JF: Yeah. Like I said, it's the opposite in terms of rapidity with the way that it happens. Behavior change in order to stick, in order to drag yourself over a motivational tipping point and form habits to become sticky is a slow, painful process. Identity and value change is one of those things that can happen in a flash effortlessly.
I mean, sometimes the homework to get you to that point, or the struggles that you've gone through for your life, it's an erupting volcano. It's been bubbling beneath the surface for months, or years. Then all of a sudden, it explodes in an instant. It can be surprising. If you really look deep within yourself, you can realize that this has been building for a while. This storm has been coming.
[0:10:31.2] MB: Before we dig into that and I definitely want to dig into this idea of how we can engineer and create those identity shifts, but before we spend some time on that, I want to come back to this notion that if we don't change correctly, our core identity will push back or resist these changes. Tell me more about this.
[0:10:51.3] JF: Well, it has to do with the concept that we need to use willpower and grit and power through and suffer and suck it up and all that concept, that really the idea that people that can't change just lack in willpower is rather deeply flawed. There's an interesting study that was conducted back in the 90s that I think sent a lot of people on the wrong path.
It was in 1996 where researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio took a group of students and well, they were pretty mean to them, so half the students – these weren't starving students, but there were definitely hungry students, because they were told to show up hungry in order to participate in a study about taste preferences.
Half the students get put in a room where they have – the room smells have freshly baked chocolate cookies. Lo and behold right in front of them, there is a plate of those cookies, plus a bunch of other chocolate treats. There is also a bowl of radishes in the room. The researchers say, “You guys can have all of the chocolate you want, but don't touch the radishes. You got to resist the radishes.” These guys are like, “Yeah, no problem.” They started stuffing chocolate into their face holes like the apocalypse was imminent.
The other group of students was not so fortunate. They go into the same room, smells like chocolate cookies, there's piles of chocolate treats. They make a beeline for the chocolates and the researchers say, “No, you can’t have any chocolate, but over here you can have all the radishes you want.” These guys were like, “No, man. We want chocolate.” They're like, “Sorry, man. You got to resist the chocolate.” It's much more challenging when you're hungry to resist chocolate than it is to resist radishes.
Afterward, they made both groups work on an unsolvable puzzle. It's like that time when your sister moved around all the stickers on your Rubik's Cube and the sides would never line up again; that that type of a puzzle that just could not be solved. They found that the ones who were made to resist chocolate gave up on the puzzle sooner. They posited this hypothesis that they called it ego depletion. They said that willpower was a limited resource that could get drained throughout the day. Like when you had a crap day at work and you hit the liquor store on the way home, instead of the gym.
They said that if you have to engage in a lot of efforts that require your will throughout the day, then you're going to run out and later on it's hitting the couch with a six-pack and a bag of Doritos. There were other studies that followed that supported this concept of willpower is a limited resource and ego depletion, but, big but here; there was two things wrong with these studies. At the time prior to the 20th century, a lot of studies engaged in what is called probability hacking, which is where you dredge through the data looking for something of statistical significance.
That's what these guys were doing. It's like, “Okay, let's see what we can find that we can report on, so we can get published, because publish or perish, right?” They did that. Plus, there is that nasty thing called publication bias. Sure, there's a few studies that get published in scientific journals that show that this ego depletion is a thing. What about all the others of which there was many more that conducted similar studies that showed no such effect? Those ones don't get published.
That was one of the things that led people to believe that willpower was this limited resource and that you needed to be very careful to parse out tiny drips of it over the day that – and not changed too much all at once. Now instead, and also to what happened recently just within the last couple of years, there was a major study by researchers. I think it's at Curtin University in Australia that did – that looked at all of those old ego depletion studies. They used new methods of statistical analysis to get a more realistic understanding of what the data meant.
They found that ego depletion was either not a thing, or barely a thing. Other studies showed that ego depletion was something that could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. As an example, if you tell someone this activity is going to energize you for doing other stuff afterwards. They would do that activity and they would be energized, because power of suggestion. If you told another group of people that the same activity was going to de-energize them, they were de-energized. It's totally open to suggestibility.
They've just discovered that ego depletion really wasn't a thing. Instead, what it depends on is your internal drivers, your passion. There are people who are singularly motivated to do something where they will do it until they pass out sheer physiological exhaustion. They have no psychological exhaustion, because they want to do it so badly.
There's been nights that I've stayed up until 3:00 a.m. writing, because I was on a roll and it's something I'm really excited about. Willpower was irrelevant to the equation. It's called the identity value model of self-control. That was a 2016 study that was done that showed that those people who engage in behaviors that are directly in-line with what their identity is, that they're far more successful in sustaining those behaviors and working hard at it, because as an example, it's their passion. The other thing is that willpower training efforts to increase a person's willpower have never shown any measurable effect.
There's been multi week-long studies that try to train up a person's willpower and it doesn't work. It's an irrelevant concept, where instead you really need to focus on looking at those internal drivers. I'll say one more thing about to really trash on the whole concept of willpower, was that there was some studies that have been done of these were lower socioeconomic status youths that lived in rather desperate circumstances. The ones that were able to resist the pull of things like alcohol and drugs, even though they were in in an environment that was – that really had a tendency that pushed those things towards them, that yes, they did end up better off, because they were able to do that, because it was a constant daily sense of harassment on their psyche that they had to choose this different path in life, it was physically unhealthy for them.
It had negative cardio metabolic effects. I think it said something about shortening telomeres or something, which has effects the length of your life. It’s just having to power through and do things that you hate that suck day after day after day, it's not good for you. It doesn't work that well.
[0:18:38.3] MB: Such fascinating research. That was a really great breakdown of the science and why willpower is a flawed concept. It's interesting, reminds me of a previous guest we had in the show and we'll throw this episode into the show notes. We had Dr. Brian Nosek, who spearheaded the reproducibility project, where they went back and they took a lot of psychology studies and that had been created because of things like a publication bias and probability hacking, these kinds of things. Went and tested them again. A lot of cases found some of those results were deeply flawed.
[0:19:12.2] JF: Yeah. That's exactly what I was talking about with they called it the replication crisis, I think.
[0:19:17.4] MB: That's right. Yeah. That's exactly what it was. That's really, really interesting. Let's dig in a little bit more into this. Correct me if I say it incorrectly, but this idea of the identity value model of self-control.
[0:19:30.1] JF: It really boils down to what we're passionate about. A lot of it can have to do with a sudden insight into our lives and who we are and what it is that we want to get out of it. Sometimes it can be anything where you decide to change careers. It can be an entrepreneurial venture. I had one about – I had a very successful business career and I reached a point where I just realized, I don't love this work. I make a lot of money at it, but I don't love doing it.
Life is too short to spend the majority of my waking hours engaged in something strictly for a paycheck, because I have this other passion, a skill that I'm good at that I think I can make money on. As soon as I made the decision to become a writer, I never worked so hard in my life. I worked way harder at being a writer than I ever did as a marketing executive. Not only that, but I wanted to get really good at it. That's called rage to master, where you have this skill that you feel that it's an innate talent, or a talent that you've developed, but it's not good enough. You've got to get better at it.
In some ways, it can become all-consuming, so you need to be a little bit careful that you don't ignore your family. That is one example of it. Another example can be that the way that you view yourself, for example we've found that having to engage in resistance for treat foods as an example, is futile. That if you view yourself as someone who likes to eat junk food and it's nearby, you're going to eat it.
However, if you view yourself as someone who doesn't eat it, or only rarely eats it, there is no resistance to engage in, because of the way that you view your identity. Same thing that happens with smokers; people who think of themselves as ex-smokers who still crave that cigarette have a much tougher time with quitting, than someone who says, “No, I'm a nonsmoker now.” That's just, “I am a person who will never smoke again.” That simple mindsets switch is something that's very powerful, because the temptation no longer exists for them.
[0:21:55.9] MB: Just clarifying one thing and then I have a follow-up question. You said it was called the rage to master?
[0:22:01.2] JF: Yes, rage to master. That's not necessarily the greatest term, but it's just one of those things where you're overwhelmingly passionate of having to develop a skill. We see it quite often with musicians that they have to perfect something on the piano, or guitar, or something like that. It can happen in anything, where you have this skill that you know you're good at and you want to be your absolute very best. We see it with athletes as well.
[0:22:32.7] MB: What if my rage to master is something like video games?
[0:22:37.1] JF: That works. I mean, there's guys on YouTube that make a lot of money at that.
[0:22:42.2] MB: It’s a good point.
[0:22:44.1] JF: If it's your thing. The thing is these things don't have to make money. Some people just want to get really good at guitar and they're never going to make a dime at it. A book that I love that I quote a number of times in my book is called Good to Great by Jim Collins. It is a business book and it's about corporate change, but it can also apply to personal change.
It's one of those things where it says rather than trying to create greatness, find the thing that makes you want to create greatness. It's not about greatness for greatness sake, it's about finding something that makes you want to create greatness. If it's one of those things that you need to make a living at, then you look at things, “Okay, what can I be best at? What can I do where I can really blow away the competition? Is it financially viable? Is it one of those things that can make money?”
I wanted to be a writer. At first, I wanted to be a novelist, but having an MBA and having worked in marketing, I did a business case analysis and realized you know what? Most novelists worked full-time jobs, because it does not pay well. I mean, except for the elite few. Your chances of making a living as a novelist are quite remote. I thought, “Well, I want to write full-time. I want to quit this job that I'm not in love with and do something that I love all the time.”
I realized, “Okay, health and fitness is something that I'm really good at, I know a lot about and I think I can –” Rather than just writing a novel a year, there's myriad opportunities to make a lot of money; there's freelancing, there's speaking, there's consulting, there's blogging. I saw so many different potential revenue streams. I said, “Okay, fine. I'm not going to – maybe I'll write a novel when I retire. For right now, this is a way I can write full-time and make money.” It was pushing my economic engine and it was one of those things that I knew that I could be better than most other people at and I was still really excited to do it. It didn't have to be a novel. It just had to be writing.
[0:24:42.5] MB: What about, and I'm taking this to its logical extreme, but I'm curious what your perspective is. What about someone who who's really passionate about something, like watching TV and they just want to sit around and watch Netflix all day long and they have that – I don't know if that's a skill you could even master. What I'm trying to get at is there a cut-off where you decide that that activity is not productive, or not worth investing in, or how do you think about that?
[0:25:10.0] JF: I think if somebody sits on their butt watching Netflix all day, they're not happy about that. I don't think. I mean, deep down they realized that they're probably wasting their life. I like Netflix myself. I like watching TV at the end of a hard day. I feel like I've earned it at the end of a hard day. Someone that has no ambition to do anything other than watch TV, I expect if they started looking below the surface, they would realize that there is discontent there, that maybe they wish that they were getting up and doing more with their lives.
I would encourage them, start looking at finishing the latest marathon season of You, or Jessica Jones, or whatever the latest thing is that's on there. It’s not an accomplishment. That's not something that gives you purpose. People need to start examining, “Okay, what could my purpose be?” There's actually a section in the book that talks about happiness versus flourishing. Happiness is largely a state of mind. Yeah, maybe watching lots of Netflix makes you happy, but what really drives people is flourishing, which has more to do with looking at what your capacities, your talents, your callings are and using that as a way to find purpose in life where you do something that contributes to your own well-being and the well-being of others. Maybe you could even go on to do something that changes the world.
[0:26:37.7] MB: I want to dig into that concept a little bit more and generally zooming out, coming back to the section of the book around the idea of finding purpose via epiphanies.
[0:26:49.4] JF: Sure. What is it that you'd like to know?
[0:26:52.4] MB: I guess, I just want to explore this topic a little bit more. Tell me more about the notion of flourishing. For somebody who's listening to the show who's thinking, “I don't know what my purpose is. I don't know what fills me with the rage to master, for lack of a better term.” What advice would you give to them, or what strategies would you recommend?
[0:27:10.3] JF: Oh, I see. I see. Sorry, so it has to do with – there's a saying that goes inspiration favors the prepared mind. There's an entire chapter in the book about the neuroscience of the life-changing moment. There's a there's a great book called the Eureka Factor by psychologist John Kounius and Mark Beeman, that did used fMRI and EEG brain scanning to look inside the heads of people that were having these sudden epiphanies, these sudden insights.
One of the things that they discovered is that insights can be prepared for, that you go through an analytical phase, where it's essentially a learning process, where you're thinking about okay, you're looking at your life, what you've done, what you could possibly do, to start asking yourself the question of, “What could I accomplish if I was suddenly overwhelmingly inspired to strive for it? If I had an endless fountain of motivation to do something, what could that thing be?” You start asking yourself questions like these.
Then you start asking yourself questions like, “Well, what's holding me back? What are my friends doing that I admire? Who do I look up to? Who are my idols?” Those types of things. Read books, just gather lots of information. That's not when the life-changing epiphany strikes. That's the analytical phase. Actually, analysis constricts your thinking. It's a state that is actually the antithesis of having the epiphany, but you're preparing yourself for it.
Then this is the critical component, you need to engage in distraction. It’s analyzed and distract, you analyze until you get stuck and you think, “Okay, I still don't know what the answer is.” Then there's all sorts of things that you can do that are distracting in nature, because the answer to the problem of your life that you're trying to solve does not come while you're actively trying to solve that problem. It happens when you go for a walk or take a shower; shower thoughts, or a big one.
Here's a critical thing about that going for a walk, great thinkers across the ages have extolled the virtue of a walk out in nature for spurring creativity and spurring insight. However, those great thinkers were – no offense Matt, they weren't listening to podcasts while they were on those walks. It needs to be a situation where you get to be alone with your thoughts. You can listen to music, but you don't want to be distracted. You have to get inside your own head and let these various bits of data that you've been collecting meander and collide, until the solution gets presented to you, saying that this is your calling, this is what you need to do.
Or you can meditate, or you can pray, or you can just lie on the couch and engage in some free association. You need to give yourself a chance where you're not checking your phone, or you're not watching TV, or you're not listening to the radio or something like that and let that answer come to you.
[0:30:28.6] MB: That's such a great point. I love the notion that inspiration favors the prepared mind. It reminds me of some scientific research and I don't know if you came across into this and doing the work for this, but there's a phenomenon called creative incubation, which is a very similar process and essentially the idea is that you feed inputs into your brain consciously and then you take a conscious break away from whatever you're working on. Then when you come back to it, or revisit that topic at a later time, typically your subconscious has processed and recombined and worked on these ideas. Then when you when you revisit them, you have these breakthrough insights.
[0:31:07.0] JF: That's exactly what I was talking about as an incubation period, that one of the books that I reference that discusses that is by Scott Barry Kaufman, called Wired to Create. It's a book that I actually really recommend as a companion to mine. I would say that they're quite complementary, because these sudden insights are a creative process. It's the same thing as if you're trying to figure out what to write about, or what painting to paint, or the answer to even a mathematical problem involves creativity, finding of the answer to the problems of your life, or what you're going to do when you grow up or where you need to put your energies towards, the answer is creative in nature. Also, this really is about spurring creativity.
There's a thing about that. There's a great quote by T.S. Eliot that he said, “We do not know what it is we've been sitting on until the shell cracks.” You don't know what the answer is going to be, that's why it's a sudden insight. That's why you have to wait for it to arrive. You need to be ready to embrace the audacious. You need to be ready to say, “When this answer arrives, even if it sounds a little crazy, the thing about these sudden insights is the overwhelming sense of rightness associated with it.”
The psychologists that I mentioned earlier that used the brain scanning technology, they found that the people that achieved answers to word problems be a sudden insight. First of all, they knew they were right. Second of all, they were right. They had a much higher accuracy rate than the ones who solved the word problems via steady analysis. It comes with when you get this life mission to deliver to you, you just know that this is the right thing, that you've got to do it. That's why it's so motivating, because you feel like, “I've got to do this. It feels like the right thing to do.”
There's another quote that I have in the book that was from radio personality, Earl Nightingale, and said, “Most people tiptoe through life, trying to make it safely to death.” I'm like, “Okay, well I guess that's fine if that's what you want to do.” I would say to listeners, you should consider what if you could make it unsafely to death? What if what if life could be more of a thrill ride? There may be something deep down inside you that others don't see and maybe even right now you don't recognize that it's there, but it can wake up all of a sudden and the world better watch out.
[0:33:46.7] MB: Really interesting. Really inspiring. Both of those quotes I think are fantastic.
[0:33:53.6] JF: I got one more good quote for you from Steve Jobs. “You don't have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.” That's it. That's a whole quote. That's why I wrote the book.
[0:34:06.6] MB: Today's episode is brought to you by our amazing sponsor Athletic Greens. I've used Athletic Greens for years to make sure that I'm on top of my game. I'm sure you've heard about it from other experts like Tim Ferriss, or even previous Science of Success guest, Michael Gervais.
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[0:35:26.7] MB: The other piece of this that you touched on, but I think bears digging into or repeating is the importance of cultivating the skillset of creativity. That's something personally that's been super interesting to me for the last couple years. I've spread a dozen books on it, done a ton of research and homework and really dug into it is how do we be more creative and how do we build that creative muscle? Because no matter what you're dealing with, it's such an important asset to have.
[0:36:00.1] JF: I think on that note, one of the things that I think stifles creativity is the desire to be like everybody else, to give in to societal demands and not be thought of as weird. I mean, my job is very creative. When I first became a writer, a year after my first article was published, I had a column in the Los Angeles Times. This is despite being a Canadian, living in Canada, an LA Fitness Mecca had no shortage of fitness experts there, but they gave me a column because they liked the way that I approached it, because it was different and it was weird and it made them laugh. I came up with stories that nobody else was writing for them. They said, “Yeah, we like this guy. We want him to be are our health and fitness columnist.”
I think that Lady Gaga became famous because she was very talented, but she was also – nobody had ever seen her before. The same thing happened with Madonna way back that people aren't looking for the same old. When I was younger, when I was in middle school I was bullied a lot, because I was weird. I didn't fit in. Later on, okay I had to realize that there was a time and place for that weirdness. You don't wear it on your sleeve, but I was able to take that later on and turn that into a career that I love and happen – my work happened to resonate with a lot of people.
[0:37:28.7] MB: We've talked about this toolkit and started to get into this already, but I want to come back to a fundamental question and ground this for the listeners so that they have a really understanding of how to implement this. For somebody who's listening who wants to start to create these mindset shifts, start to create this rapid identity change, how would you recommend from a practical standpoint starting to implement this? You can be with either in general terms, or even with a specific example, whether it's weight loss, or taking on a new business project, or a side project, or anything that you think is a good example.
[0:38:08.4] JF: Okay, well I'll give you a few different tips for listeners today. One is that this is the most important one, you have to believe that it can happen. These things happen all the time. There's no shortage of evidence of people having a transformative, life-changing epiphany that gives them a quest, that leads them to just tremendous success. If it can happen for other people, I know there's a cliché, but it can happen for you.
One of the researchers I spoke to, William Miller who the co-founder, co-creator of motivational interviewing, he told me that as many as a third of people have these life-changing epiphanies during their life and that's without even trying. If you start actually trying to have one, your likelihood that you're going to have one can go way up. You got to believe that it can happen. Don't ignore it if it does happen.
More concrete steps that you can take, one is to engage in what psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen refers to as mental contrasting. She wrote a book called Rethinking Positive Thinking that I recommend. What it is about is being careful about what it is you fantasize about and how you fantasize about it. As an example, say the first thing you need to do is really come up with, a dream a wish that is dear to you. Not what other people want you to do, but something that you know that deep down you would love to be able to do this and it would have deep meaning for you.
However, be very careful about the way that you approach your dreaming about this. Don't fantasize about attainment of the goal. The reason why is that this grunts counter to that whole oh, you got to keep your eye on the prize, positive thinking stuff. The reason why is that Oettingen’s, Professor Oettingen’s research has shown that people who fantasize about their goal attainment demotivate themselves to chase the goal. The reason why is you get a virtual reality experience of having achieve the goal without having to do any of the work.
It's okay to imagine a little bit about how great it's going to be, but then you've got to put your mind in a different space. That space is the roadblocks to goal achievement. You need to figure out okay, if this is a really important dream of mine, if this is a wish, a goal that I would really love to attain, you need to deeply analyze why you haven't. Why aren't you doing it? Why aren't you chasing this goal right now? Look at the obstacles. Look at the roadblocks. That is where not just your focus, but your fantasization should be, which is you imagine breaking through those roadblocks, either going around them or through them. That's what you think about is the doing the work is where your fantasy should be and seeing yourself, seeing a vision of yourself doing what it takes to reach that goal.
The last bit of advice that I would have is imagine that motivation for goal attainment is like a mountain. If you have zero motivation to work toward this goal, you're down at the base of the mountain. The peak of the mountain is ultimate motivation to do all the work with inspired rigor. If you're at the base of the mountain, you don't just sit there and wait for a life-changing epiphany to suddenly Star Trek transporter device your butt all the way to the top. That can happen, but it's less likely than if you started to hike a while.
Figure out what the steps are. You may need to do some uninspired work for a time to realize that this process has meaning for you. Then suddenly, that motivational transporter device can pick you up and transport you, either all the way to the top, or much higher towards the top. It's it's called a sudden gain in motivation. Those sudden gains in motivation are more likely to come if you're already engaged in the process, rather than not engaged whatsoever. The analogy that I would use to that, the whole Aesop's Fable tortoise and hare thing is that you're behaving like a tortoise, but you're thinking like a hare.
[0:42:35.7] MB: Great pieces of advice. We actually previously interviewed Gabriele Oettingen as well and we'll make sure to throw her episode in the show notes for listeners who want to check that out. I think this is so important. Even the last point you made is a great one, which is this idea that you might have to do some uninspired work in the beginning. You might have to start as you put it, hiking before you really start to get to the meet and uncover what truly gives you meaning, what truly motivates you.
[0:43:05.1] JF: Yeah. One of the reasons why I wrote this book was because I had a transformative experience in my 20s, that I was drinking too much, I was flunking out of university and I was in debt and just miserable and unmotivated. Then I had this sudden transformative experience that really changed my life in terms of school. I went from flunking out to doing great and I got myself out of debt.
Then after I graduated with my first degree I was like, “Okay, I'm pretty heavy. I should probably see if I can lose some weight.” I started working out. I hated it at first. I was not into exercise at all. It took a couple of months of really dragging my butt to the gym and not liking it at all. Then all of a sudden I realized, “You know what? Today did not suck.” With that realization, that it went from totally sucking to not completely sucking. I realized that if it could not suck that I could one day really learn to love it.
In that moment, there was a sudden flash of insight where I said, “I will work out until I die. I'm just going to keep doing this forever.” That was 25 years ago and I'm still going strong. I went for a run this morning, so I would say so far so good.
[0:44:23.6] MB: For listeners who want to start concretely implementing the ideas we've talked about today, what would be a piece of homework that you would give them as a first action step to starting to execute on these themes?
[0:44:38.5] JF: Oh, there's so many different pieces that I can give. You know what? I would say that the first thing that they could do is as soon as they finished listening to this podcast, go lie down in a quiet place where there's no distraction; there's no TV, there's no radio, there's nobody talking in the background and just be alone with your thoughts for 10 or 15 minutes, just free-associate and think about anything that you want. Because here's the thing, that we talked about homework, we talked about the analytical phase, the inspiration favoring the prepared mind. It's possible your mind is already prepared. You the listener has a lifetime of experience already that you could have this transformative moment right after you finish listening.
Go lie down and get used to just letting it – the answer could arrive very quickly. Give it a shot, because you never know. If it doesn't, well then you do some of that analysis and then try that distraction again. Go for a walk outside. Remember, leave your phone at home. Get used to either meditating, or praying, or just spending this time alone with your thoughts, because that's when it happens. Then there's too many people that are afraid to be alone with their thoughts. They need that constant voice in their ear, or text, or Facebook notification, or snap chatting, or whatever it is, that you need to get away from that, because when you're texting with somebody is not when it's going to happen.
[0:46:18.1] MB: Such an important lesson to not be distracted. I'm definitely guilty of this as well as constantly wanting to have something on, constantly wanting to be listening to a podcast, or learning, or watching a YouTube video, or whatever. It's these moments of quiet contemplation that often lead to the biggest transformations.
[0:46:35.5] JF: That's exactly it. It can come when you're cleaning the toilet. It can come on a walk. Another thing is when you wake up first thing in the morning, the thing is that the more focused you are, the less likely it's going to happen. You want to be in a very relaxed and even a drowsy state, so when you wake up first thing in the morning, don't get out of bed right away, don't reach for your phone, just lie there for five or 10 minutes, because that is a very relaxed easy-going state. That's the time that these types of things can pop in.
[0:47:08.5] MB: Y made another great point, which is that for somebody who's listening to this, your mind might already be prepared to have this transformative insight, but it's just a question of whether or not you've given yourself the opportunity to listen and hear it.
[0:47:25.3] JF: Yeah. Mine happened and my big one, the one that really changed my life was at 22. There was another woman that I interviewed for the book, Kathrine Switzer. She was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon back in 1967. She had won at the age of 20, that would motivate her to go on and change the world.
[0:47:45.7] MB: It's fascinating and it's such a great toolkit and it's a great lesson as well. James, for listeners who want to do some more research, want to find more of you and your work and want to find the book, where is the best place for them to do that online?
[0:47:59.2] JF: The best place to go would be my website, which is bodyforwife.com. That's wife with a W. There's a books tab where I have links to every possible platform that they could buy it on, including audio. If people didn't mind the sound of my voice, I did do the narration for the book, if they want to listen to it as an audiobook. I also have quite a popular blog there. I've got a few million readers each year. There's blog posts that are all over the map, but I do talk about motivational inspirational stuff on my blog there. Visit my website.
[0:48:32.9] MB: Awesome. Well James, thank you so much for coming on the show for sharing all of these insights and ideas. It's been a great conversation.
[0:48:39.8] JF: Thanks so much, Matt. I really enjoyed it.
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