The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. — Lao Tzu
I’m a huge fan of self-help books. Not because I need a lot of self-help (I promise). But because I love the way that authors can reduce a complicated life plan to a list of 5 platitudes.
Believe in yourself! Trust in the healing power of positive thinking! Whatever you want is only a mindset away! A quick search on Amazon shows that you can think yourself happy, thin, rich and smart. If that’s possible, why aren’t we all joyful underwear modeling millionaires? The self-help industry is worth upwards of $11 Billion for one reason. It’s not that easy.
The idea that we define our own reality comes from a few places. Let’s start with a group called the Post-Structuralists. This includes some well-known names like Foucault, Lacan, Derrida and Barthes. If you’ve studied the humanities in a University setting, you’ve likely come across them. If you’re not familiar, grab a stiff drink and read a little on them. It’s heady stuff.
They had a lot of ideas, but for our purposes here, we only care about one — that there’s a disconnect between the world outside our heads and the world we perceive in our heads.
If you back up to Descartes declaration “Cogito Ergo Sum” in 1637, this makes a lot of sense. He was trying to prove what was real and found that anything outside your head could be a lie. Only your own thoughts are completely knowable. The Post-Structuralists later accepted that there may be a reality outside your brain. “But”, they say, “you only interact with that world through perceptions and mental filters”.
Science has also gotten on board with the idea in some ways and found that we can actually prove this happens in specific situations. The most widely known is the Placebo effect, where sugar pills can cause some of the same outcomes and side effects as real drugs. And there’s the inverse, known as the Nocebo effect, where we can actually think ourselves sick. Some scientists are now speculating that even the perception of time may exist only in our minds.
If our brain has that much power over our life, you can change your brain to change your life. Right?
Not exactly. The common thread in the ways that our brain constructs reality is that it starts with reality. You’ve got to accept that there’s actually a pen on the desk to think about thinking about the pen.
Matthew Crawford covers this problem in his book The World Beyond Your Head. The problem with most self-help is that it treats ideas as independent functions. If that were true, you could “reprogram” your brain to perceive the world differently, just as you can reprogram a universal remote for the TV and DVR. If ideas were simply the software that we control, you ought to have no problem swapping out the code.
But we evolved in a world of physical reality. And with that, we developed a million triggers like hunger, distraction, anger and fear. Nature has baked those into our brains at a fundamental level, and we can’t easily turn them off or swap them out.
I promised you the first step to doing anything better, so here it is.
Step 1: Start doing it
The first step is to take the first step. And by that, I mean a real physical reality step. Don’t read another book or listen to tapes whiles you’re sleeping. Change something in your physical world.
When we see ourselves doing what successful, beautiful or healthy people do, our self-concept evolves to match. We don’t have to do it all in one day. But if we don’t take the first step, our self-concept stays stuck in not reflecting what we want, and we can get down on ourselves. I want to be healthy, but I see myself sitting on the couch every afternoon. I know I’m not healthy. But if I went for a short walk every day, I’m suddenly the kind of person who gets some exercise every day. But without that first step, you can never get there.
First steps are hard. We live in a world of instant gratification that doesn’t ask for a lot of perseverance. I want a new way to distract myself? I can download games, movies and books from the comfort of my couch. I’m hungry? I can get groceries, cook-it-yourself meal kits or already cooked food delivered right to my door.
But I want to become a better person? I want to be healthier, wealthier or smarter? There’s no quick fix for that. There’s no mental switch to flip. There’s no script to rewrite. There are only our daily waking hours and how we choose to spend them.
Change one thing. Take the first step. And then, take another when you’re ready. Push yourself to progress. See that you’re the kind of person who makes progress and push for more.
We get so caught up in our own heads that it’s easy to forget how the real world affects us. Work as closely with the real word as you do with your own thoughts, and they can come to reflect one another. Belief and action are two equally powerful parts of our lives. Don’t lose sight of either. Own both.