A few years ago I was at a low point in my life. My girlfriend had left me, my writing never went anywhere, and I was hopeless with women and had little to no social life. I had few options and spent most of my time daydreaming of being someone else who had none of my flaws, and living a life that had none of my lack. Once again I felt hopeless, and that the whole thing had come off the rails.
A few years before that I was skinny, living with my parents, had dropped out of university, never dated a girl and spent all my time eating Oreos and playing Xbox. When my friends would invite me out to clubs and bars to hit on girls I would say things like ‘I’m not into that.’ When the opportunity to travel the world reared its head, I shied away.
Like many of us in these scenarios, I felt there was something wrong with my life, something unidentifiable that was holding me back from turning the idea of me into actual me. Often I would just settle for the reason being that there was something inherently wrong with who I was as a person – that I didn’t measure up. My vitality felt stifled and I would constantly look for ways to solve a problem that was in fact right in front of my eyes
In truth, the problem was a simple. The problem was I was comfortable.
But first, let’s rewind…
During the Great Depression, a young man retired to a shack in Woodstock, New York and spent the next five years researching human story-telling and myth across all cultures. Instead of looking for the differences, he was trying to break down the commonalities between all human myths. What he discovered was a pattern that was repeated in each and every story, a pattern that he felt reflected the rhythms of human life and development.
The man was Joseph Campbell, and the resulting book was called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
It describes a singular mythic story – a monomyth, which he describes as follows:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Which is a fancy way of saying:
Someone goes somewhere new, encounters something new, and learns something new.
In my own life when things seemed hopeless or lacking in any direction, the problem wasn’t that I was inherently wrong – it was that I was designing my life in a way that stopped the developmental process happening.
My comfort was directly in the way of me going somewhere new, encountering something new, and learning something new.
In the years since reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces, my confidence has grown, my dating life has improved, my social circle has grown exponentially and I’ve accrued some pretty cool life experiences, like sailing a Duck Boat across an international border.
What I’ve learned since then is that developmental change and altering the course of our lives needn’t be the stuff cloud cuckoo land. In fact, there are key ingredients and tools that any of us can employ to make that change happen.
…GOES SOMEWHERE NEW
In all the stories Campbell encountered, he described how the Hero would leave his ordinary world, and depart into the unknown – to the land of the new. It was there that the hero would find the growth he craved. Luke Skywalker leaves Tatooine, Bruce Wayne leaves Gotham, Frodo leaves The Shire – it’s an essential step.
If I could go back in time and teach myself one thing – It would be this. Leave you comfort zone.
The comfort zone can be broken down into two parts, the macro comfort zone™ and the micro comfort zone™ (patents pending).
Macro involves stepping out into new environments and most importantly severing the ties that bind you to any childlike state. Some people call this ‘leaving the womb.’ Here are some examples:
- Moving into your own place.
- Cutting financial ties with your parents.
- Moving to a new city (or even better, a new country).
In her book, Daring Greatly, Brene Brown writes ‘courage starts with showing up and letting yourself be seen.’ Micro involves taking on new challenges and situations that make you feel vulnerable and emotionally exposed, for example:
- Public speaking / Presenting.
- Approaching someone you’re attracted to.
- Asserting your boundaries.
On the micro level, leaving the comfort zone involves managing your anxiety and going after whatever it is you want – typically something you haven’t done before, or feel you’re inexperienced at.
On the macro level, leaving the comfort zone involves embracing the transition from child to adult, and stepping out into the world on your own. Leaving the comfort zone on the macro level is ownership of your identity.
…ENCOUNTERS SOMETHING NEW
When it comes to the development of personality there is hot debate. The nature / nurture argument is as old as thought. In his book, The Blank Slate, scientist Steven Pinker examines the nature / nurture debate, exploring the contentious political history, the warring opinions and the data that support each side. The most intriguing study he cites is something called The Three Laws of Behavioural Genetics which can be broken down into 3 parts:
- All behavioural traits are heritable.
- The effect of being raised in the same family is the smaller than the effect of the genes.
- A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioural traits is not accounted for by the effects of families.
And I’m sure you agree with me when I say that is unintelligible. The essential conclusion is that the nature / nurture debate is over, at least in the sense that ‘genes are involved in all traits.’ So nature definitely plays a role. In fact, it’s roughly 50-50 for genes and environment.
The problem when trying to make this information useful is that we struggle to identify which genes are the culprits, and we’re useless at determining what environmental influences are playing a role in the development of personality.
A good example of this dilemma is expressed in the study. The writer, Turkheimer, states:
‘If the children of depressed mothers grow up to be depressed themselves, it does not necessarily demonstrate that being raised by a depressed mother is itself depressing. The children might have grown up equally depressed if they had been adopted and raised by different mothers, under the influence of their biological mother’s genes.’
When it comes to the development of personality – we don’t know. Uncertainty is the rule. But when we feel the urge to change something about ourselves and our lives – uncertainty isn’t good enough. We need hard facts that can be used pragmatically.
So what can we do?
Well we can’t control our genes; that much is spoken for. And we can’t control the elements of random chance in our environment, i.e. trauma (chillingly referred to as The Gloomy Prospect) – but what we can control, as adults, is our environment itself and our social peers.
In trying to debunk the effect that parenting has on our development, Steven Pinker wrote that ‘Children do not spend their waking hours trying to become better and better approximations of adults. They strive to be better and better approximations of children, ones that function well in their own societies. It is in this crucible that our personalities are formed.’
Here in lies the solution; the one that has reaped the most change in my own life. It is the fact that on some level the human personality is malleable by the social environment of its own peers. We all strive to become better members of our own society.
The caveat I’d make with Pinker’s analysis is that it doesn’t stop at childhood, it goes on into adulthood, and is the rule that is affecting you right now. The reason I stress this difference is that a child is placed into a social environment, and adult however, is free to choose.
That is the element we can control.
This thinking has led motivational speakers such as Jim Rohn to assert that “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Resulting in countless self-help articles telling you to get rid of your dead beat friends, which is a pretty emotionally bankrupt choice. Unless my friend was a danger to me, I wouldn’t sack him off for my own gain. That misses the point of relationships entirely.
The way this information has proven true in my own life is this:
‘You are the diversity of your peer group, and the depth of your connections.’
The trick isn’t to coldly prune your friendships until only 5 successful friends remain. The trick is to have a rich and diverse social life, with friends of different backgrounds, interests, ideologies and identities that you know in their unique richness. It’s in this richness that you’re exposed to new ideas, lifestyles and opportunities that affect change on a psychological level.
And as with leaving your comfort zone, this is best done by going somewhere new. In fact, if you were to break down growth into two parts it would be:
Go somewhere new. Meet new people.
The third part would be:
The best way to meet new people is to go somewhere you haven’t been before. Where Joseph Campbell talks of leaving the ordinary world for the fantastical, where fabulous forces are encountered – real life shows us cutting the ties to childhood and meeting new people who bring fresh perspectives and new challenges. The myth of the hero is as real as you make it.
…LEARNS SOMETHING NEW
Development begets more development. The more you grow; the more you understand what makes you grow. The more you grow; the more you understand your own rhythms and cycles of development and stagnation. The idiosyncrasies are unique to all, but we develop in moments of uncertainty and stagnate in moments of repetition.
When you start taking steps beyond the womb of childhood and start embracing the uncertainties and anxieties of life, you are rewarded with fresh perspectives on your own character, on the character of others and of your direction in life. This is something you can use indefinitely for your own gain, and also pass on for the gain of others – a way for you to help those who are struggling with the same issues you struggled with.
THE DISCOMFORT METRIC
When I was younger, living at home and avoiding anxiety like the plague, I was choosing comfort over discomfort. I couldn’t identify it at the time, but that was the secret to my stagnation. It was only upon realising the importance of avoiding comfort in my life that I began to develop as a person.
The secret to changing my life that eluded me in my youth is something that I call the Discomfort Metric ™ (patent pending).
The Discomfort Metric is a self-assessment of how much comfort and discomfort you’re exposing yourself to. If you’re looking for change, you want to be swinging for the latter. The discomfort metric is a psychological barometer for the likeliness of growth.
You can measure the likelihood something is good for you by how much it involves putting yourself out there, and if it involves willingly making yourself vulnerable – I.e. moving to a new city, travelling alone, speaking in public.
The discomfort metric argues that the more something ticks those boxes, the more it should be done. It says that those jitters and nerves you feel aren’t a deterrent but instead a compass. Follow them, and navigate the macro and micro levels of your own comfort zone, to invoke to change and developmental growth.
When we achieve something someone else hasn’t, this gives us a feeling of superiority. This is normal, but when it comes to change, this can lead to divides between people we know and the person we think we are. But that needn’t be the case.
What is a hero in the hero’s journey? Is it the guy who leaves home to follow his dreams? Or is it the guy who sacrifices his dreams to look after his sick parent? Is it the girl who pursues a career? Or is it the mother who gives it all up to watch her children grow?
Following these paths doesn’t make you better than other people. Some people are content to stay at home. Not everyone follows the traditional rhythm. I think for many people becoming a parent is the point they leave the womb, so to speak.
Where Campbell went wrong is that he implied this hero’s journey was necessary for everyone. I don’t agree, I think it’s only necessary for those who feel that itch deep down. That little voice that says something needs to change. Only you know whether that’s you or not.
Listening to that voice, and taking the steps to bring it to life doesn’t make you a better kind of person, it just you a better kind of you. A version of you that is most in tune with its own needs wants and desires and is taking the steps to make those come to life.
But as Campbell correctly stated – whether we leave or stay, confront ourselves or don’t, we all return to the same place anyhow.
And that’s pretty nice.