The 4 stages of belief & the 3 that kill your dreams.
When I was 14, my peers did paper rounds or packed groceries part-time at the local grocery store. Others worked at the drive-thru bottle shop (liquor store). But I had to be different, so I rang the local gym owner every day for two weeks until he hired me.
Instead of packing groceries, I got exclusive access to a ride-on lawn mower, as much spandex eye-candy as I could handle and a whopping $3 an hour.
From as young as I can remember, being like everyone else scared me. As a 50-year-old, it still does. I don't know why, exactly, but I've always wanted to be very deliberate about my choices, to take the road less travelled. I even registered the domain normalscaresme.com…
I instinctively rail against the herd and seek excitement somewhere on the fringes. Each time I conform to the masses, I feel like someone's sitting on my chest and squeezing the life out of me, and I have to escape.
This even applies to sports. I never warmed to football, cricket or tennis. Motor racing, deer hunting and mountain climbing were much more exciting! By the way, I never shot a deer (or any animal for that matter). Deer hunting was more a game of walking silently through the bush with my dad with a rifle over my shoulder. Like meditation with a dash of testosterone.
Too Drunk to Work
When my best friend started drinking and doing drugs at 16, I recoiled, and our friendship soon ended. Later, he would lose his job due to the excessive drinking – his boss describing him as ‘unemployable'.
His two brothers faired worse. I think one did time in prison.
Raised by their single mother who did her best, these boys lacked for a decent male role model. Their father left when they were very young, and he devoted little time to them after that. No one took his place, and so they ran off the rails.
On the other side of the fence (literally – we were neighbours), my father was the kind of man every young boy needs. Hard-working, principled and family-focused, my dad showed me a path, yet gave me the latitude necessary to forge my own. As I entered my teenage years, my mum moved from the lead into a support role, and together, they taught me to believe in myself.
There's a mountain of evidence illustrating how critical this kind of support is to a child's development. Our earliest years are imprinted with the behaviours we see in our parents. Later, particularly from about 10-12 years of age, we seek guidance on how to behave, how to think.
We look to our parents and we watch everything they do. We observe how they resolve conflicts, how they embrace opportunities and how they deal with risk. We watch for signs of self-limiting beliefs and their ability to handle uncertainty.
In the absence of these top-level influencers, we seek out cues from elsewhere like TV, social media and celebrities. Some of these can be positive and empowering, but most are unhelpful or even toxic.
What do you believe?
My father with my son in the Otway Ranges (above).
Since I was little, I knew I was destined for great things. Most of this belief came from my parents, who told me I could be anything I chose. I don't ever recall them comparing me to others or placing limitations on my potential, no matter how outlandish my aims.
I was very fortunate to receive such positive reinforcement. But in the absence of role models like these, it becomes our job to instil it in ourselves. Indeed, even with the benefit of mentors and role models, we have to reinforce our self-belief almost daily to counter the negative messaging we see all around us.
After all, everything is ultimately up to us. It's all ‘our fault', as Gary Vaynerchuck puts it.
But as we commit to becoming our number-one fan, it pays to think about the four stages belief, because only one will carry us onto our dreams.
Stage 1 – I don't believe it's possible.
I saw a lot of this in my late teens hanging around with the wrong crowd. The power of influence is never more pervasive than during that first blush of adulthood.
These people had very low standards, and they protected them like a prisoner covets his cigarettes. To aspire to anything beyond a beaten-up panel van, a bag of weed and a bottle of Jack Daniels met with swift ridicule. “What, you think you're better than us or something!?”
Such limited thinking is everywhere, though. As we age, it manifests as ambivalence, resignation and a posture that deflects ambition before it takes root. It's safer not to dream.
We anaesthetise ourselves with the warm blanket of conformity. “No one I know works from home.” “None of our friends live on that side of town.” “We'd never buy one of those – we're not snobs, you know.”
Strangely, as soon as we decide to believe that something might be possible, the evidence to support it appears all around us, and we advance to stage two.
Stage 2 – It's possible for others.
Stepping up from not believing, is believing something's possible for others – just not us. It goes something like this:
“It's okay for her; her parents are both lawyers.”
“He was bound to get that promotion; he's such a kiss-arse.”
“Her business is crushing it – she must have been lucky.”
“No wonder their marriage is perfect – look where they live!”
This level of belief is the most dangerous because it brings the ‘comparison game‘ into play, which we know is unwinnable. Sadly, many of us continue to play.
Stage 3 – I believe I can.
Now we're getting somewhere. Most ambitious sorts – those who reject the comforts of ‘average' – spend most of their days here.
They read the right books, follow prominent thinkers and harbour exciting dreams. They believe they have a shot. They want a better life, filled with all the things that will make them happy.
They listen to podcasts on the daily commute; there's a vision board in the den and a long list of goals on a piece of paper somewhere. They're on the path.
But there's not much action. They lose motivation. “If only I could take a month off work, I'd start writing my book.”
Over time, their lack of action builds a belief that they're a ‘someday' person, not a ‘today' person. And with each delay, each excuse, their life inches closer and closer to its end. Their dreams go unfulfilled and they die with the music still in them.
I've seen a lot of this with my peers. A new idea pops into their head – an opportunity, a lucky break, a way forward – and they're buzzed about it for a week or two. I've been there too. It's exciting! It's hard to sleep, your energy levels are through the roof, and all you can see is a river of possibility two miles wide and five miles deep.
But soon the buzz dies out, replaced by the harsh reality of the grind. The tedious, soul-crushing work. And so they quit before they ever really begin. For most people, it only takes two or three of these before they slip back into the second or first stage of belief, and chances are, that's where they'll stay until they die.
The reason this happens is that we're looking for clues we're ‘doing it right'. We need validation. But believing you can, and consuming inspirational or instructional content isn't enough. To make it through stage three and onto stage four, you have to DO something. Not once or twice, but a thousand times. You have to screw up, iterate, experiment and refine. Sorry, but there's no other way.
Sure, you need to learn from great teachers (lest you get lost in the overwhelm of Google), but you still have to act, and you have to be consistent about it. I don't have any ‘free' time, so I wake at 5:30 am to write, and then I reconvene at 7:00 pm to do some more.
The people I've invested my own money to learn from are listed at the end of this post. Trust me, if you think you can just go out there and learn from your mistakes, you won't live long enough to make them all, and you'll quit before you make any progress.
Over time, you'll become less concerned with validation and visible progress. Instead, you commit to doing great work, no matter how long it takes to make a dent, and stage four will take hold.
Stage 4 – I believe I will.
This is where you want to be. The excuses evaporate, the barriers fall, and the sun breaks through the clouds.
When you believe you WILL, progress occurs. And paradoxically, the outcomes you seek – whether it's freedom, authority, respect, wealth, meaning – cease to be the goal. The goal is to overcome the resistance and just do the work, as Steven Pressfield puts it.
The outcome you seek is to become the person who does what needs to be done whether you feel like it or not – because you know you must. Because to NOT be that person is something you just can't abide.
Ideally, it's where there's an overlap between:
- Something you're passionate about
- Your natural gifts or talents
- A cause that's greater than yourself
- An operating environment that feels right for you
Whether you're writing books, consulting with clients, teaching courses, making things, selling things – whatever it is, you'll never climb your mountain if it's all about the short game or a superficial vanity metric (like fame, money, or heaven-forbid: followers).
You might scramble to the top and get a glimpse of the view, but you'll fall off the other side and proclaim mountain-climbing a fool's errand.
Believing you will reach your dreams automatically takes the pressure off. You know you'll get there in the end, so now you can focus on daily practices instead of daily outcomes. It's a subtle but powerful distinction.
It means you can focus on what you do versus what you get, and the serendipitous nature of cause and effect can work in your favour. This is something you cannot fake. You have to live it every day. You have to know it in your bones.
Look at any of the success stories you admire, and always, there's a lengthy backstory of a person's daily commitment to doing great work without reward or accolade. I just heard Cathy Heller describe how Ellen DeGeneres practised her monologue in a flea-infested basement for seven years before landing on the Johnny Carson Show. And then her career finally began. You can hear that interview here.
It's about showing up day after day after day – because the alternative is unacceptable to who you are and who you want to become.
These days, I'm pragmatic about what I believe, not as a means to self-sooth any lack of belief, but rather to direct my energy where I can have the greatest impact.
If I look back on the things I've done over the last 40-odd years, it's this single tenet – believing I WILL – that's carried me through. It's the one thing that's made all my outlandish dreams come true.
Once you make this pivotal decision – from ‘I believe I can' to ‘I believe I WILL' – your life will change, and it'll never be the same again.
People I've Paid to Learn my Craft (and so should you)
Also published on Medium.