A reader emailed me citing a few examples of people who abruptly changed their lives: they started exercising, built better habits, studied hard and got good grades, moved up in their careers … basically turning themselves into “successful” people seemingly overnight. He wanted to understand why this happens and ask how someone might attempt a similar transformation.
I’ve witnessed this kind of personality change in others several times, so I believe the phenomenon is real. A number of my friends suddenly became much more motivated, conscientious, organized and ambitious—often translating into better life outcomes for themselves.
It’s also something I’ve personally experienced. When I was around fifteen, I changed my diet, started waking up early, exercising regularly, reading books and trying various ways to be more productive. While the transition took place over a couple of years rather than a singular moment, it still a rather abrupt directional change in my personality that has culminated in who I am today.
Assuming, for a second, that my introspective self-report and anecdotal observations are accurate, I think the reader’s question is important and merits further discussion. Why do people sometimes abruptly become better versions of themselves? Perhaps more importantly, why does it so often seem to fail?
For lack of a better term, I’ll call this kind of transformation discovering self-actualization. That sounds vague, but it’s the best way I can describe the experience. If you’re allergic to self-help jargon, perhaps another way of describing it might be “becoming an adult” or “getting your act together.”
In my case, I think the changes were triggered by a fundamental restructuring of my belief system. Namely, I began to believe that there is considerable room for autonomy in making decisions over my life and that, if I chose wisely, those decisions could make a big difference in where my life ended up.
Wanting to start my own business was also a significant trigger. Something about the intrinsic appeal of being my own boss and having complete financial independence, combined with the inherent difficulty in succeeding in that goal, acted as a catalyst. Indeed, I’ve known quite a few people who have discovered self-actualization in the context of professional ambition.
For other people, the trigger was something more concrete. They read a particular book that changed their worldview (Getting Things Done, for many). They encountered a new-to-them religion, philosophy or spiritual practice (mindfulness meditation seems to be another common trigger for change).
Even if the exact cause is idiosyncratic, I see a few common features:
- A belief that there are lives better than the one we are currently living. The central premise is that there’s a broad array of possible futures, and many of them are better than the default. This seems to hold even in philosophical views that reject most kinds of ambition. For instance, those interested in mindfulness meditation often spurn the idea that career ambitions should be made central to life. But they still believe that mindfulness will let them experience a better quality of life.
- A sudden, pervasive increase in self-efficacy. While Bandura’s original concept was decidedly granular, there do appear to be moments where you become more confident in succeeding at a broader range of actions.
- Increased valuation of delaying gratification and resisting impulses. The willingness to work hard, do things that make you feel uncomfortable and resist your immediate habits and impulses is also at work. Over a relatively short period, someone who might have struggled with sticking to an exercise program is suddenly taking on dozens of high-effort challenges.
- (Over)zealous application of the above changes. Often, people who experience a major paradigm shift are overly optimistic about the value of alternate versions of their life, overly confident about their ability to execute, and overly focused on self-improvement over momentary gratification.
The Skeptic’s Critique
Of course, I’m far from the first to notice this phenomenon. A lot of self-help gurus have built their entire marketing empires around selling people transformative life change. Tony Robbins, in particular, seems to make a big deal about these kinds of moments.
The skeptic would argue that these kinds of changes don’t typically last. Hype fades, and while getting excited about something is easy, we rarely change our personality or behavior permanently.
I tend to agree with the skeptic—most of the time. I suspect that most people experience one or, maybe, two of these shifts in their entire life. Many people may never experience it. Change, instead, is generally gradual and directionless. Sometimes we get in a bit better shape, sometimes we let ourselves go. Most bursts of self-improvement revert to the mean.
However, given the significance of these dramatic shifts, we shouldn’t round their probability to zero. Experiencing such a moment once or twice in your life might make up for dozens of other fizzled attempts at bettering yourself.
Why Does it Happen? Why Does it Fail?
My speculative theory of these kinds of personal transformations is:
- There’s a temporary change in your optimism, confidence and valuing of effort. This kind of momentary effect can come from reading a self-help book, having a role model who inspires you to work at something, or having a private epiphany.
- The environment creates a self-sustaining feedback loop. The easiest way to see this kind of positive feedback loop would be setting a goal, achieving it, and suddenly biasing your other estimates of self-efficacy or confidence upward.
- Once the initial feedback loop wears off, you’re already in a sufficiently “different” position for your life. Your habits and material circumstances of personal identity have shifted to a new equilibrium position, and you now maintain it.
Under this theory, most self-improvement efforts fizzle because the momentary burst of enthusiasm doesn’t generate a self-sustaining feedback loop, and the equilibrium you reach is metastable. Eventually you decay back to the person you were before because a lot of gravity is pulling you back that way.
Even when this kind of transformative change occurs, I think there are probably limits on how far it can go. People’s beliefs about their malleability vary wildly around the actual figure. Some people suddenly become incredibly optimistic about their ability to become popular, successful, smart, enlightened, etc., as well as the converse, where people adopt a fixed view of themselves and believe change is impossible.
The transformations I’ve witnessed in other people tend to involve modestly unrealistic beliefs. This raises an interesting question of whether some amount of self-delusion helps in crossing over into a new equilibrium, even if it’s unsustainable. Were that true, though much-maligned by skeptics, this small break from reality may actually be key—a truly sober assessment of one’s possibilities may not encourage enough of a transitory change in your beliefs to shift over to a new equilibrium.
At the same time, it also seems clear that most changes are not of this magnitude. Discovering that you can take charge of your life is probably something you can only really do once or twice in your life. Once that’s firmly established in your beliefs, further adjustments are probably minor in comparison—tweaks to your habits, skills or perspective.
Since the world is flush with people pitching and persuading others to adopt a self-actualization belief set (even if it is partly delusional), a related question is why such transformations are relatively rare. My suspicion is that they’re harder to sustain because while it’s easy to find sources of inspiration, it’s much harder to locate the positive feedback loops that keep the motivation going.
Can You Trigger a Change in Yourself?
Given that many of us would like to have a sudden, positive shift in the direction of our lives, is there anything we can do to facilitate this kind of transition?
I’m not sure. While I’ve witnessed it many times, the change itself happens as a by-product of something else rather than the person actively seeking it out.
However, I do think there are a few generic ingredients that may increase the likelihood of such a change:
- Success with self-set ambitions. Self-efficacy seems to be a crucial motivational component here. It’s not enough to know that building a business, learning a language or getting in shape is possible. You have to believe you could do it. While achieving one thing doesn’t necessarily translate to across-the-board motivation, having more success is likely to encourage increased self-efficacy.
- Reading a lot of books with inspiring-but-credible messages. If modest self-delusion plays a role in initiating these transitions, the temporary boost you get from reading motivational material may increase your chances of hitting an inflection point. But inspiration fails if you don’t believe it. Hence, finding optimistic sources that seem credible to you is more important than just picking the cheesiest self-help title.
- Finding challenging, worthwhile goals. At least in my own case, I felt like the desire to start a business was a catalyst. The combination of an attractive goal and knowing I wouldn’t succeed unless I worked really hard seemed vital.
- More randomness. A final catalyst is having experiences that take you outside your comfort zone. The idea here is that greater variability in your day-to-day experience increases the likelihood of stumbling upon a positive feedback loop that alters your course in life.
In the end, I’m not entirely sure why some people become obsessed with personal productivity, mindfulness meditation, exercising daily, building a business or becoming a straight-A student. I don’t know why the direction of their life seems to pivot abruptly after a particular experience. But I agree with the reader who emailed me that even if such transitions are rare, they seem important and poorly understood.