How people turn their life around?
Do you remember the last time you saw a before-and-after photo of a an overweight person losing more than a hundred pounds? On the left, they look bloated, and their facial expression often betrays sadness. On the right, they’ve slimmed down, posing with their old clothes for comparison. And inevitably their face glows and they radiate confidence and positive outlook.
I’m really fascinated and in awe when I hear about a person who had serious problems, and their life was going from bad to worse, but yet, somehow, they made changes, they took a different path, and they adapted their behavior and mindset, and started rebuilding their life. Just like this pitbull.
But I keep wondering… how does that work? Is it like a lightbulb epiphany moment - sudden, strong, and clear? Or is it like a sea change - gradual, gentle, and subtle? Does it originate from within, or is it driven by other people who care?
For a while, these questions have been simmering in my subconscious. They motivated me to read self-help books, listen to podcasts and watch videos on Youtube. And after all this research - I don’t have a good answer. I don’t have a scientific proof. But I have some thoughts I’d like to share.
I think I find these stories fascinating is, in part, because I’m hardwired to. All of them are examples of the archetypal “hero’s journey” narrative. To begin, the person in them is either overweight, or excessively alcoholic, or they were dealt a really tough hand in life. They might have lost limbs, or get paralyzed, or survived cancer, or fought in a war. The could have experienced PTSD. They were in a tough spot, with their whole life going from bad to worse, and seemingly no way to turn it around. They were at the bottom.
Then, there is always this critical moment, which Pitbull calls “turned my life from negative to the positive”, and which the “hero journey” calls revelation, and which I’ll call “inflection point” where something happens in their mind. Their outlook on life changes. And they start on a new trajectory. It is similar to an inflection point at a graph. It isn’t necessarily the lowest point, but it is the point at which the trajectory changes.
They decide they want to quit alcohol, or they decide they want to commit to a plan to lose 200lbs, or they decide to seek help, or they decide to run a marathon, or to climb mount Everest. Or they simply decide that they don’t want their life to be like this anymore, even if they don’t know what else it would be. Anything else - but this!
The inflection point is the point where they decide. It is a change within, only perceivable from within the mind of the protagonist. After that change takes effect, they slowly start taking actions, building habits and organizing systems to help them move them towards their new dream, and away from their nightmare. Over time, habits and system have compounding effects and with the absence of bad luck, some people make it through and turn their life around.
They come full circle and complete the hero’s journey.
Or do they….
For every motivational example we see, there are more which we do not see, and who never turn their life around. Most people don’t ever experience such reflection point. Their lives spin out of control like a whirlpool and they get sucked into the abyss. No happy end, and no silver lining. Fuck. They get sucked into a whirlpool all the way through the bottom. And they can never make it back.
If only we can give them a rope. If only we know what a rope would look like in this scenario - we can save many people from the vicious cycles of the whirlpool of death.
Here is my thesis - inflection points exist. Inflection point is the moment a person decides they want to live better. The decision does not need to be conscious. It could be as subtle and indirect as not enjoying alcohol as much, or even being extremely embarrassed about an action they’ve made. It is an epiphany, but the epiphany does not need to be a grand one. It could be a very mundane one - such as “this alcohol tastes like a nasty medicine”, or “I can’t see my feet any more”. But the decision and the trajectory change will be durable.
To define it mathematically - inflection points are when the balance of our underlying emotions change - simple as that.
What do I mean by that? Underneath our conscious logic, we have unconscious emotions. And emotions are what drives us. When an emotion is strong, it can override our logic, and we can see ourselves doing things we don’t want to do. It takes a lot of effort, to manage our emotions.
We like to refer to that effort as willpower. But, from the point of view of looking at emotions fighting for dominance inside our brains, willpower is simply the strength and effort of the constructive emotions. The emotions which lead to long term happiness and comfort, even at the expense of short term pleasure. Logical, sober thought is one such constructive emotion, and we call it willpower whenever we are able to make our actions agree with the constructive emotions.
Yet… there is such a thing as “destructive” willpower. You might have seen it under the name of “rationalization”. It is what destructive emotions use to take over our action. If people say and think “I’m gonna be OK to drive with one drink,” that’s their drink addiction emotion convincing them to drink. That’s destructive willpower. It’s not the absence of willpower, but the redirection of willpower towards a destructive emotion.
And why do we sometimes have constructive, and yet… sometimes destructive willpower? What changes from one moment to another? In my theory - what changes is our dominant emotion. Our emotions are not static, and fixed, they change in intensity and power through the day. And whichever emotion is on top, gets to decide where to spend willpower. If it is a constructive emotion, the willpower is constructive. It builds to a better life. If it is a destructive emotion, the willpower is destructive. It rationalizes short term pleasure at the expense of long term survival. Destructive willpower could lead us to take revenge, or to get high.
We have little control over which emotion is dominant for us. It takes a LOT of energy to change which emotion is in control. Over time, we can train constructive emotions with meditation, discipline, and habits. Yet, over a course of a single day, we are driven by what happens to us, and what is in our schedule. It is only over the long term that we can cultivate a mind of constructive emotions.
Which brings me back to the idea of inflection points. Inflection point is the moment our constructive emotions start increasing their share of the willpower. Mathematically, inflection point is the when the second derivative of our well-being becomes positive. Jargon aside, inflection point is when we start hurting ourselves less. Its a directional change, but compounded over the long term, it leads to building a life.
If we create such inflection points in others, when they’re in the whirlpool, we can help pull them out.