Why are you stuck? In what ways would you like to live a different life or be a different person? And what keeps you from reaching that goal or – since you’re likely to have more than one – those goals?

Let me stress: when I write about change and the good life, I do not equate this with a selfish or self-centered life. The good life often includes taking responsibility, mastering difficult situations, being an asset to any organization one is part of, and giving back to others and one’s community. In fact, one major motivation to getting unstuck is to be more effective at helping others; this may be more motivating than focusing on helping one’s self.

What is stuckness? It has several components: emotional, cognitive, and behavioral. It includes an increasingly firm belief that foundational change in one’s life is out of reach, perhaps not theoretically impossible but practically so. It includes feelings of dissatisfaction with the status quo and a frustration that can shade into desperation that something better is “out there” and yet out of reach, or that one is not living a life most aligned with one’s life goals and values. And behaviorally, stuckness takes hold when one’s efforts at change have failed and failed repeatedly. A conviction that one is trapped takes hold and further attempts are curtailed.

But, with all the freedom most of us have and resources available to us, why is positive and lasting change so difficult to achieve? There are several reasons, only one of which I cover today and the others in upcoming weeks.

My focus today is the world’s circular causality: the resources one needs to accomplish a goal only become available once that goal is achieved, but that goal cannot be achieved to gain those resources until after that goal is achieved. This can be hard to grasp in abstraction, so let me illustrate visually.

Imagine there are three ornate, armored, and locked chests before you that we’ll call A, B, and C. The last one, Chest C, holds all manner of treasures that can provide you with everything you desire or, if you wish to be less passive, place you in a position in which all you desire becomes achievable through your efforts. And Chest C must be unlocked with a key that is locked in Chest B. And the key to unlock Chest B is locked in Chest A. So far so good. But where is the key to unlock Chest A? Once we get it, we can then serially unlock Chest A, Chest B, and Chest C. And all our desires will be met.

But this parable doesn’t have a simple happy ending. In this parable the key that unlocks Chest A is locked in Chest B and, as you know, the key to unlock Chest B is locked in Chest A. (Note that Chest B contains two keys locked inside, one opens Chest A and one opens Chest C.)

Now, we are stuck. Let’s presume the chests are impenetrable. You can shake them, sledgehammer them, blast them and they won’t open. You need that key that can serially unlock all of the Chests to get to your treasure.

What does this have to do with stuckness in real-life? Imagine these statements coming from patients, friends, or inside your own head:

  • I have an idea that might lead to a great business, but I need a million dollars to get it off the ground. But I don’t have a million dollars. Also, I don’t anyone who can give me a million, nor anyone who knows anyone with a million. Nor anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone else with a million to spare.
  • I could be a best-selling novelist if I had the time to write my novel, but I will never have enough time to write professionally until I earn money from writing professionally.

I have known many people who’ve struggled for a lifetime to figure out how to escape this conundrum. It is heartbreaking to see people lose their dreams because they don’t know the way forward.

I have a solution. It’s not secret, esoteric, nor glamourous. It also takes a lot of effort sustained over a long period of time. In fact, my solution is quite unattractive in many ways. Its main attraction is that it can work.

Here is the solution: forget the three chests that will forever remain out of your reach due to their built-in “catch-22.” The fact is that in real life we almost never get opportunities to achieve great wealth or total freedom all at once, in one grand fell swoop. Seeking to unlock the third chest by concentrating on getting the mutually unavailable keys locked in the first two chests is like concentrating on becoming a multi-millionnaire through a single burst of activity done in a brief period of time. It’s not impossible, perhaps, but it is highly unlikely to occur.

The path to getting to the treasure that reflects real life is through iterative change, through small, repeated, and long-term efforts. Rather than a person stumbling upon three pre-existing chests, a person creates their treasure from nothing. First, the treasure exists only in the imagination. Slowly, incrementally, it is brought to life. All the activities are nurtured by the creative, hard-working person, each day, each month, and each year, with each step gathering size and opening up the next opportunity.

Now, this may sound a little like saying “Every great journey starts with a single step.” It does, but there is more to it than that. If I wanted to walk from Chicago to Los Angeles, my last step would look like my first step. It would take no more knowledge or skill. But most journeys of change and growth differ from that. On most journeys, you may start walking, perhaps without much knowledge and skill nor even direction. But soon you face a small stream you must cross. The water is swift, and the rocks on both sides slick with mud and moss. Once you figure out how to cross it you then come upon a mighty river you must ford. You use your knowledge and skills gathered from crossing the stream, but now you need to further your knowledge and skill. And so the journey continues. You may face impassable mountains, dragons that need to be slayed, and demons who make you doubt yourself and tempt you off your path that must be cast aside.

So, the start of a journey requires perhaps little more than the determination to move and to gather, over and over and over again, small bits of knowledge and skill, including the skills of learning how to learn, perception, decision-making, effective action, course correction, and nurturing one’s motivation and resilience. And, of course, sometimes when you start, you don’t fully know your destination or the destination you desired changes along the way. This adds to the complexity.

There’s a concept and a word for what I describe: it’s called bootstrapping. How can it be possible that a person can make something from “nothing”,  to lift themselves to something more true and valuable than what they started with, sometimes against all odds?

Bootstrapping seems impossible. But each of us was once a single cell. And yet here we are, conscious, self-reflective, complex creatures navigating a complex environment. The universe unfolds, the world unfolds, and we unfold.

One resource that does make this self-lifting easier is to have someone to turn to, to brainstorm with, to test one’s ideas against, to get advice and encouragement (as in “enheartenment”) from.

So, if there is any advice or help I can provide you if you’re feeling stuck, email me. I’ll do my best to help.

Until next time,

Dr. Jack


Today’s Quotes

“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself” – E.E. Cummings 

“In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.” – Henry David Thoreau

I will be stronger than my sadness.” – Jasmine Warga

“No person, trying to take responsibility for her or his identity, should have to be so alone. There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep, and still be counted as warriors.” – Adrienne Rich

“As time goes by, as time goes by, the whip-crack of the years, the precipice of illusions, the ravine that swallows up all human endeavour except the struggle to survive.” – Roberto Bolano