This post is inspired by this short and fascinating article.
In the last months, I’ve been searching a lot about goals vs habits, and behaviours vs identity.
I started this quest because I struggle with goals. I tried many strategies, methodologies, tools without cracking the code of this limit.
Until I started focusing on habits instead of goals. Creating patterns is definitely more in tune with how I operate, and it helped me improve in many aspects of my life. Still, sticking to some habits has been and still is harder than others.
The next shift in my quest was realising that only when my habits are in synch with who I am, I can be more consistent and create significant results.
These are my learnings so far.
Your identity informs your behaviours.
The starting point is the WHO, not the WHAT or the HOW. Once you have clarity about who you are (“I am a writer”), then you can design your goals or habits (depending on what works better with you) as a way to become more of who you are (“I am a writer because I write every day”).
Unfortunately, at least for me, this is not enough to really create an impact in my life.
Your behaviours shape or reinforce your identity.
To know what to do is not the same as doing what you know. Once you have clarity about who you are and you have designed your goals or habits, you need to infuse discipline in your practice.
That means creating the structure that will support your newly designed behaviours. Over time these identity-based behaviours will shape and reinforce your identity, that in turn will infuse more energy in your behaviours creating a positive growing loop.
Discipline has played a crucial part in my childhood education. I’m talking about the kind of discipline that relies on punishment and guilt to educate people to follow the rules and codes of behaviour. Indeed, it was driven by love, but still, that was the idea of upbringing when I was a kid, in the seventies and eighties.
Nonetheless, I was a rebel and a dreamer. I have always sought freedom, since when I was a youngster wandering in the woods fighting my imaginary dragons. I was a rebel inside, and a rule-abiding kid on the outside.
No surprises that growing up I’ve always perceived discipline as a cage. I wanted to follow my intuition, to be creative without limits. How was it possible if I had to respect rules and form? Like when I aspired to become a rockstar. I wanted to be a songwriter, to write my songs and perform my guitar on a stage. I couldn’t understand why I had to repeat the same boring exercises day after day. Deluded, I gave up.
I was looking for freedom, not discipline.
So, I repeated the same pattern on any other project that required discipline. It didn’t help that the ones who loved me kept telling me how smart and creative I was. It just fed my ego and my belief that I didn’t need discipline. My talents were the unique source of my achievements.
With everything perfect, we do not ask how it came to be. Instead, we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.” F. Nietzsche
The first breakthrough came when I attended a riding class on a closed circuit. As I wrote previously, a circuit is by definition a closed loop. During the day of the course, I repeated the same sequence of turns and movements for hours, lap after lap. At every lap, my moves became a little more smooth, and my overall speed improved. In the last hour, I had the opportunity to do some free practice without the instructors. It was exhilarating. I instinctively knew where to put the wheels, where to brake and accelerate. I was free to play with the motorbike. I was so excited about the whole process that I forgot about my assumptions on discipline. To my surprise, I had been able to stay disciplined a full day, and at the end, I felt freer than when I started.
That day, I felt that there was something wrong about my beliefs on freedom and discipline. I wasn’t entirely aware of it, but I started digging. I learned about underlying automatic commitments and limiting beliefs, but it was only when I met the Japanese word “Shuhari” that I had my second breakthrough.
It is fascinating how the Japanese language can embody a whole concept into one word. The word Shuhari represents the three stages of learning to mastery in martial arts.
Shu (守) “obey”; It is the first stage, in which the learning is focused on the fundamentals. As students, we practice the techniques, the forms and the rules. We mainly learn from a single model through imitation and repetition until we can execute the form flawlessly. The focus is all on the what and the how.
Ha (破) “detach”; The second stage is about expanding the learning, both in depth and width. We explore the “why” beyond the “how”. We learn the theories and the principles behind the techniques and the forms that we can now execute flawlessly. We also look for other models and integrate all these new learnings into our practice.
Ri (離) “leave”; The higher stage is when the students become masters. Everything becomes natural to us, and we transcend rules and forms to create our own way.
I’m not a martial arts practitioner, and my knowledge about Japan comes only from movies and books. But this concept immediately resonated with me.
“Ri”, the higher stage, is my idea of freedom.
Freedom is not the denial of the form. It is the transcendence of it. And discipline is a vital ingredient that sustains the journey through the stages.
Thanks to the Shuhari concept I gave meaning to discipline. It wasn’t any more a limit to my freedom, but rather the way to achieve it.
But then new and relevant questions rose to my mind. How do we know when we are ready to move to the next level? How do we avoid the risk to get stuck at the first level becoming perfect machines? How can we be sure that what we achieve at the end is freedom and not just the illusion of freedom?
I needed another piece to complete the puzzle, and I found it in the conscious competence learning model.
The four stage of competence
In psychology, the four stages of competence, or the “conscious competence” learning model, relates to the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill. — Wikipedia
In short terms, it is a model that focuses on our consciousness along the learning process. The four stages are:
Unconscious incompetence: at this stage, we don’t know how to do something, and we don’t recognise the deficit. Only when we accept our incompetence, we can move to the next stage.
Conscious incompetence: at this stage, we recognise our deficit, and we start the learning process to address that gap. Rules, forms and imitation are essential to building the competence we need (the Shu stage).
Conscious competence: at this stage, we have finally acquired the skills we wanted but to use them we must concentrate. Conscious is highly involved in using the newly acquired skills. Being conscious of our skills allows us to go deeper in the understanding and explore the principles (the Ha stage).
Unconscious competence: at the final stage what we have learned become “second nature”, and we can operate using the new skills without consciously thinking. We finally reach the Ri stage. Freedom.
Self-awareness was the element I needed to complete my formula.
Without self-awareness, the learning process won’t even start. The first necessary step to grow is to become conscious that we need and want to grow.
It may look obvious, but it is not. Becoming stuck in our beliefs is easy. When faced with our incompetence it’s easy to accept it as a “limit” and make it our reality. And because we can’t go against reality we ignore our inability, or we find good rational explanations on why we don’t need to learn. That is precisely what I did with my belief about discipline.
Self-awareness is also a fundamental piece of the whole learning journey. Without self-awareness, we won’t be able to understand when we are ready to step to a higher level. We won’t be able to go beyond the form, connect with the meaning and transcend it. Self-awareness magnifies our discipline and allows us to achieve the freedom we aim for.
So, here it is, my not so secret formula to create freedom.
“You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher”
— from Biko by Peter Gabriel
Through the course of our lives, we occasionally experience moments that light up a candle in our hearts.
It can be a journey, a retreat, a book, a random encounter, a moment with friends, a walk in nature, a concert, a speech, a workshop or something else.
Once that candle is lit, its flame allows us to see the extraordinary beauty that we hold inside.
Sometimes we share that moment with others, and the combined light from all the candles gives us an opportunity to see more.
More of our beauty and more of others’ beauty.
To lit a candle we need at least three elements.
First of all, we need the candle, obviously.
As human beings, the candle is our potential to shine.
A potential that, like a candle, won’t shed any light if we don’t light it up.
Then we need a spark to kindle the flame.
Sparks are everywhere around us, and they can take any form; people, places, words, images, silence, animals, elements of nature, objects.
Anything can become the spark we need in order to light our candle.
Then, there is the final element.
A vital one that is often overlooked.
Like all living beings, a flame needs to breathe.
We can’t lit a candle without oxygen.
To ignite the flame, we must create the space for the wick to burn.
It is amazing what happens when we create and hold a safe space for others.
They open up, surrendering to the space, and they kindle the candles within allowing their inner light to radiate.
When the space is created and nurtured by a sacred circle of people, the light becomes brighter.
It makes everyone shine.
And it is in that moment when we allow ourselves to shine that our fears show up.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” — Marianne Williamson
The flame of a candle is feeble.
A small breeze can kill it and bring us back to darkness.
So, we want to protect it.
Protect it from our limiting beliefs, the naysayers, the struggle of our daily lives, the small difficulties we encounter every day. We start worrying that someone may want to blow out our candle, for fear of the greatness they may discover if they lit their own.
To protect our burning candle, we hide it inside.
Someplace where nobody and nothing can blow it out and take that light from us.
Until, without air and space that same flame we want to protect, slowly dies.
But here is the good news.
You may blow out a candle. But you can’t blow out a fire.
Once the flames have started then the wind will only blow it, higher and higher.
Before a fire nobody can hide, they will all feel the warm power of liberating their inner light.
Anytime someone or something light up a candle in our heart, instead of thinking about how to protect it, we should ask ourselves a much more powerful question.