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#15: Your Next Big Breakthrough

#15: Your Next Big Breakthrough

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Welcome back to another Motherf*ckin’ Monday, the only weekly email newsletter that will claim that no, really, it’s not that hungry—and then proceed to eat your entire cheesecake. Every week, I hit you with three interesting ideas about the human mind, life, the world, and burritos. This week, we’re covering 1) the concept of “breakthroughs” in self-help and why they’re not that helpful, 2) whether a “growth mindset” exists or not, and 3) the inherent pain of human advancement. 

OK, let’s get into it. 

1. Your next big breakthrough is already here – If you watch a lot of movies, then you’re familiar with the trope where the main character screws up, screws up, screws up, then 90 minutes into the film is like, “OMG! I’m totally different now!” Famous blockbusters like Star Wars and The Matrix turn on these epiphanic endings. And pretty much every rom-com ever involves one or both people having the “I changed!” moment towards the end… you know, right before they live happily ever after. 

But, as you (hopefully) know, movies are not reality. Life doesn’t work this way. This desire for epiphanies is a trick of the story’s narrative—a little tactic that satisfies us. Our minds like clear before/after pictures. And our movies deliver it to us, over and over. 

But that desire for before/after narratives doesn’t just happen with movies. We do it to ourselves, in our own lives. And we usually don’t even realize it. 

For instance, in Subtle Art, I wrote about how my friend’s death marked the clearest before/after point in my life—a true transformational experience. And indeed, even today, it feels like it was. But if I’m being honest, a lot of things happened that year that influenced me. I dropped out of music school. My girlfriend broke up with me. I stopped doing drugs. I read some incredibly inspiring books. 

Each of those experiences altered me a little—one degree turn here, another couple degrees turn there, another few degrees again—and suddenly, I’m headed in an entirely different direction. 

Our minds don’t recognize these dozens and dozens of tiny changes in our lives, these imperceptible turns. Instead, our minds focus on the most emotionally impactful changes and give that event all of the credit. Thus, “My friend died, and I became a new person.”

Put another way, it’s not like I was one person, then had a huge breakthrough and became someone different. My breakthrough was happening in slow motion, across many months and was due to a multitude of decisions and experiences. 

Understanding this is incredibly important because there are many, many, many people in this world that will try to sell you your next breakthrough. And if you buy into your mind’s narrative, then you’ll buy into whatever fad or trendy solution is being offered. 

But there is no breakthrough. Your breakthrough is already happening. Through hundreds of small, forgettable, simple choices, it is constantly occurring, constantly evolving. At this moment. And the next. And the next. 

(Note: I wrote a site member’s article about this many years ago. See: Your Next Breakthrough is Already Happening.) 

2. Is the growth mindset just another fad? – About 15 years ago, a psychological researcher from Stanford named Carol Dweck began investigating how our beliefs about ourselves affect our abilities. She found that people who believed they could get better and improve did get better and improve. And people who didn’t believe they could get better did not. 


Dweck called these two beliefs the “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset.” And for years, her research piled up showing the benefits of believing in one’s own ability to improve. She published study after study. She wrote a hugely successful book about it. She gave a TED Talk about it. The idea was adopted around the world. Growth mindsets infiltrated the business world, and, most importantly, education. 

Well, it’s been about ten years and the data is in. After analyzing the results of 400,000 high school students, it turns out that the wide-scale growth mindset education that teaches thousands of kids to believe they’re capable of growth results in: nothing. 

It could just be that the education program sucked. Or it could be that the growth mindset isn’t as hot shit as we thought it was. 

This is one of those maddening moments that reminds you: psychology is hard. So often it’s two steps forward, one-and-a-half steps back. Humans are complex and incredibly difficult to run reliable experiments on and what is accepted as fact one decade turns up nothing the next. 

So, don’t necessarily buy into every TED Talk you watch or business book you read. The research is often complicated and messy and sometimes comes up with a big ole’ miss in the real world.

3. Breakthroughs rarely feel good – One of my favorite philosophers is Arthur Schopenhauer. Aside from being brilliant and relatively readable, he was the crankiest, grouchiest old man that ever was. His entire life was basically one never-ending, “Get off my lawn!” moment.

I ran across this quote of his the other day and it got me thinking: 

“The greatest achievements of the human mind are generally received with distrust.” 

One thing I often talk about is how change is inherently painful. If someone ever tells you that they changed their life and they talk about it the same way kids talk about Disneyworld, be skeptical. Very skeptical. Real change is unpleasant for the simple reason that you’re stepping outside of yourself, challenging preconceived notions, going against your better assumptions and emotions. It’s not fun. In fact, it often sucks. 

Schopenhauer points out that this change isn’t just difficult for you, but for everyone else as well. Humans don’t like shaking up the status quo. We’re complacent creatures. Any time someone makes a big breakthrough, be it in business, politics, or entertainment—everyone’s first inclination is to usually call bullshit. Keep that in mind any time you’re pushing the limits. Distrust is not a bug, but a feature of the growth process. 

Until next week,