Achieving the Impossible
Make change with the right balance of self-discipline and self-compassion.
Why is change so hard? Our reclining friend above had it right 2500 years ago: “the root of all suffering is attachment.” Whether you want to improve your communication, fix your eating habits, stick to a new budget, or revolutionize an old industry with modern SaaS solutions, the path to all these goals is paved with suffering. But I’m no Buddhist, nor are the startup leaders I coach (usually). So we’re all stuck with goals we’re very attached to—and a dilemma of how to pursue them while minimizing our own suffering.
Often the solution boils down to changing our behavior. But that’s easier said than done! Change can trigger strong emotions that make behaving rationally nearly impossible. Case in point: I’ve been trying to lose weight pretty much my whole adult life. Yet the scale keeps slowly creeping up, year after year. In The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, they make the point that we often fool ourselves about our true commitments. I might say I’m committed to losing weight, but the reality is in the results: I am committed to remaining fat. I can do the calorie math—I’m just addicted to the utter satisfaction of a rich meal in my belly. Either way, my attachment to both weight loss and rich meals means suffering is inevitable (thanks for nothing, Buddha!).
Faced with our own failure, it’s easy to retreat to the extremes. This is often where our inner critic voices start chiming in:
We can let go of attachment to our goal: “This is all too scary and stressful, why even bother trying? I give up, I just don’t have the self-discipline.”
We can get even more attached: “Screw self-compassion! If I really want this I’m going to buckle down and do it!”
Or we can bounce between both as our motivation waxes and wanes! Ironically pushing for too much self-discipline can be exactly what makes us take shelter in self-compassionate activities.
Often people glorify the ends of this range, but in fact it’s the middle that tends to be most effective. Our task is not to strive towards ever more self-discipline or self-compassion, but to find the right balance for ourselves in each moment. There are moments for ordering pizza and saying “fuck it.” There are moments for steeling ourselves for suffering because we know in our gut it will be worth it. And there are moments to hang in the middle: not giving up, not demanding success, but simply pushing steadily to make our dream real.
So how do we find the right middle ground? Focus on values over outcomes. You can’t control outcomes! There’s no guarantee any of us will get what we want, no matter how hard we try. So of course getting attached to outcomes inevitably leads to suffering. But you can always make choices that reflect your values. If you’ve done that, what regrets can you really have?
A goal like losing weight means nothing on its own. To me, losing weight is about freedom: to know I can do anything without my body being a hindrance. It’s our values that give our goals meaning and emotional weight. I would sacrifice a lot to feel free—I’m just not quite ready to give up my freedom to eat pizza. So what are your values? They motivate people unlike anything else, and only you can decide how to prioritize them. With them in mind, you too can achieve the impossible.