You’ve got to love a personal growth book that starts with the words:
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.”
Personal growth books usually try to convince us of the opposite: that life really is a blast if we learn and apply certain principles or techniques. Positive thinking gurus, neuro-linguistic programmers, New Age mystics… you name them: they all want to lull us towards a promised land of joy, happiness and fulfillment.
Many consumers of self-help books want to hear just that. They want the “goose that produces the golden eggs”, the get-rich-quick schemes, the techniques to conquer to woman of their dreams, the secrets to climbing the corporate ladder etc. They don’t want to pay the full price of admission of their dreams, of the lofty goals they have set for themselves.
So how can a book that defines life as “a series of problems” and that talks at length about the importance of pain and suffering qualify as a personal growth book and – surprise surprise! – be one of the bestsellers in the genre?
I think it’s because just as many people have come to realize that “quick fix “formulas just don’t work in the long run. As Stephen Covey points out many times in his classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, success is the product of hard work and deep commitment, and there are no shortcuts or magic formulas. Cosmetic changes don’t result in personal growth, but in superficial improvements that don’t stand the test of time.
Scott Peck is very direct with his readers, and immediately lowers the expectations of his book: they will simply learn “techniques of dealing constructively with the pain of problem solving”. Not a very sexy proposition, huh?
Wrong. One of the great eye-openers for me of The Road Less Traveled was precisely the importance of suffering. Whether we like it or not, suffering is at the heart of the human condition: from the existential angst of our own mortality to the mundane problems we encounter in our day-to-day lives, pain accompanies us every step of the way. And yet, as Peck points out, “once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters”. As a psychiatrist and psychologist, Peck knows the importance of acknowledging to ourselves and to others the pain – both physical and emotional – that we feel. Recognizing pain, expressing and fully living our “legitimate suffering” is the first step towards healing. There can be no healing without suffering. There can be no positive thinking, no empowering affirmations without first acknowledging how we feel and confronting our problems head on, instead of avoiding them or pretending they don’t exist.
But there is more. It is precisely through suffering, through the pain of problem-solving that we grow as humans, that we develop our wisdom and our courage. All the great works of literature tell the same wonderful stories of a hero’s journey, his struggles to overcome the greatest of challenges before finally succeeding is his impossible endeavor. Our greatest joys spawn from our greatest challenges and our greatest pains.
“It is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning”
So what we require for personal growth is a set of techniques that help of overcome our problems, even though they are all – to the authors own admission – techniques of suffering. He calls them “discipline”. His famous words:
“Without discipline we can solve nothing. With only some discipline we can solve only some problems. With total discipline we can solve all problems”.
I will briefly touch on the four techniques he describes, and tell you what I make of them.
The first is delaying gratification. Nothing really new here: it is a cornerstone of the “character ethic” that Covey talks at length about: everything worthwhile in life comes from long-term, focused effort. Resilience in the face of pain, tedious work, a string of errors and even desperation are almost pre-requisites for success and fulfillment.
I found particularly interesting that Peck considers procrastination (he doesn’t call it that, but that is what he means) an example of NOT delaying gratification: by not taking action on our problems, we are actually “gratifying” ourselves, because we eschew the pain required to solve these problems. We might think that problems can be solved with a minimal effort or, even worse, that problems will go away by themselves. The truth is that they almost always don’t, and the more we procrastinate, usually the more severe they become.
Peck is convinced that most of our problems simply require an investment in time on our part, nothing else. But since the process of solving them is painful, we often do not take that time. He gives the example of his supposed inability to solve mechanical problems until he was 37 and actually made a conscious effort to fix things. By investing the time, he found out that he wasn’t “hopeless” in mechanical affairs: he just invested his time and energy in non-mechanical endeavors. I must say I agree with him: many things that trouble me, haunt my mind and seem insurmountable actually end up being trifles once I actually take the time to actually deal with them.
This reminds me of Getting Things Done, by the way, when David Allen invites of to transform “problems into projects, and projects into next actions”. By taking action, the problem is already half resolved.
The second technique of discipline is responsibility. Again, it’s a concept that Covey elaborates on in his first of his seven principles called “be proactive” and a cornerstone of Tony Robbins’ philosophy. The idea is that YOU are the master of your own destiny, and that therefore you should not blame other people or external circumstances for your condition. You are free to choose your behaviors, your actions, and you must thus assume responsibility for the consequences. Don’t blame someone else for how your life has turned out. Look at the man or the woman in the mirror, and ask yourself what you can do to change the current circumstances that make you miserable.
Again, just like delaying gratification, assuming responsibility is painful. It is much, much easier to blame someone or something for our current condition. Painting ourselves as a victim is soothing, and paradoxically makes us feel good. But the path to personal growth calls for the total, absolute recognition of our freedom to choose, to take those autonomous decisions that end up shaping our destiny. There is no room for excuses.
The third technique is, by far, the one that struck me the most, because I hadn’t read anything like it before. Peck exhorts us to live a life of “total dedication to reality”. This is not some sort of moral precept about “always telling the truth” and about “being honest”. No. It’s about recognizing what is going on in our minds and in our hearts, and not pretending otherwise. There must be no dissonance between what we feel down deep and what we tell ourselves and others. For example, if you repeat – as in a mantra, or an affirmation – “I love my job, I love my job”, but you actually feel desperate on Monday mornings, I you are living a lie.
“What is wrong with that?” you may ask. After all, many personal growth experts recommend that we “fake it till we make it” and that we mentally condition ourselves in a way that is congruent with our desired result.Well, the problem is that mental illness can results. Peck cites Carl Jung:
“Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering”
If you choose not to face up to your suffering – in my previous example, to face up to the fact that you absolutely hate your job – the result is that you drift towards neurosis… a dangerous territory to be in. Much better – Peck tells us – to experience the legitimate suffering, to be honest with yourself about the thing that you hate/you are afraid of/you are desperate about etc.. This is very difficult in practice, because with others we tend to make ourselves look more secure and “solid” than we really are; and with ourselves, well… we rarely take the time to understand what we are going through, because it is difficult, and because it is painful.
“Truth or reality is avoided when it is painful. We can revise our maps only when we have the discipline to overcome that pain.”
Psychoanalysis is a good solution, because it allows us to lay “the truth” bare. Regardless, we should pay very, very close attention to our feelings, our emotions, to the signals from our body, and learn from them. Our mental map of the world must coincide with these signals, not override them, as it must be aligned with “reality”. Moreover, this map must be constantly adapted to the rapidly changing conditions of our lives. To live a life of truth, we must be open to challenge, so as to stay firmly rooted in reality and avoid the risk of “transference”: the use of on an outdated map that no longer serves us well to interpret the present-day circumstances. Peck gives the example of a person who learned not to trust his parents: a very important lesson that allowed him to overcome his painful childhood. However, when this mindset was transferred into adult life, it no longer served him well, because it led him to distrust people in general.
This leads us back to the concept of suffering. We must be totally honest with ourselves about suffering. Acting “macho”, pretending to be fearless is the quickest way into mental illness, and it actually keeps us from solving problems. I learned it the hard way when I was diagnosed, a few months ago, with a thyroid nodule that appeared not only to be malignant, but to be one of the worst type of malignant tumors of the thyroid, which doesn’t respond to chemotherapy. No matter how much I tried to minimize the scope of the problem, it kept coming back to my mind and I had a hard time concentrating on anything else. Only when I openly acknowledged to myself and to all my loved ones that this was the biggest, most devastating problem I had ever have to face in my life, and that I was terrorized, did I start feeling the strength to confront it. I had been totally honest with myself and with others, exposing my weakness: ironically the reward was strength and courage (luckily, after surgery, the nodule ended up being benign).
“Once suffering is completely accepted, it ceases in a sense to be suffering”
That is perhaps my greatest takeaway from the first part of Peck’s book: the idea that personal growth is strictly correlated with our capacity to accept suffering, learn from it, and use it to confront and solve problems head on, assuming full responsibility for them.
“One measure – and perhaps the best measure – of a person’s greatness is the capacity for suffering”.