The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks is a book I found valuable for decreasing negative thinking, improving creativity, and feeling more empowered. This a book review / summary of some of the concepts it contains that I found helpful.
The upper limit problem
The “upper limit problem” describes what I found to be a different way of looking at anxiety and progress in life.
The more conventional view might be something like this:
When we’re feeling comfortable, things are going well, and anxiety is a sign that we’re headed in the wrong direction. And if we were to excel and achieve our goals, we’d be cruising on easy street. In other words, the higher we go in life, intimacy, and success, the easier it is for us.
The upper limit problem says that is pretty much backwards.
The view I took from this book (which I like) is that anxiety is often (although not always) a sign that we’re bumping up against a ceiling of limitation — limitation that is artificially and unnecessarily imposed — by our past conditioning, AKA our limiting beliefs. This anxiety often comes after some success or period of calm, but could come right before a time of imminent success. And the anxiety often causes us to descend back down to our previous, lower level of existence, our comfort zone. But, if we can stay with it and go through the anxiety to expand, we can move on to the next level of our life.
This makes sense, if we consider that being bigger and expanding requires more of us. If we do more in life, it’s going to be harder, not easier. If we open to more experience, it’s going to require more energy to process that experience.
What I like about this model is that it inverts the depressing view that it’s easy at the top of the success hierarchy and hard at the bottom of the success hierarchy. What if it’s actually harder, the higher we ascend? What if it’s actually easier to think negatively, which leads to anxiety and depression?
If so, the implication is that we need to work to dig ourselves out of holes and move on to climbing mountains. It creates an incentive to face our fears and discomforts.
On the other hand, if we think that it’s supposed to be easy rising to greater levels of happiness and fulfillment, then we’re going to actually head in the wrong direction by using easyness as our compass, which will in fact lead us downward.
This fits with my own experience in life. When things have been comfortable for me, it’s usally been a lower level of existence. Eating poorly, not working out, not studying, not working — these things are both easier and prevent success.
Doing the right things — the harder things — lead to discomfort from doing them again and again, and the upper limit problem helps conceptualize this barrier that we need to push against in order to break through.
The two main examples given for the upper limit problem are wealth, and love/intimacy. Intimacy is perhaps the clearest one, to me. When we get closer to someone than we have before, it is both energizing and overwhelming. We’ve never broken this barrier before. What is on the other side of it? Now, with our heart more open than ever before, we can be hurt like never before. What if we needed those walls that kept us safe and secure all these years? Can there be too much of a good thing? What if this love ends, will we be able to withstand the loss? What if the person betrays us? This can’t last…
That is the kind of anxiety and mental dialogue we can face when we’re ascending and bumping up against an self-imposed, past-conditioned, limiting belief. But it’s pretty clearly a defensive strategy to reduce risk and stay safe, not an actual limit. The truth is, sometimes love can last, and grow, very big, for a very long time, and that most people, most of the time, hold themselves back from this.
The book goes into similar examples when it comes to wealth.
What I like about this concept is that it does away with the fantasy that we can have our cake (success) and eat it too (not have to be uncomfortable). No wonder no one finds that elusive concept, it doesn’t exist! Success is uncomfortable.
And it also does away with the defeating belief that if we’re uncomfortable or making mistakes, that we’re failing. Actually, mistakes and pain are more likely signs of growth, signs that we’re shucking some old shell of ourselves and on the verge of a metamorphosis.
The upper limit problem reminds me of the quote:
“And the time came when the risk of remaining in the bud became greater than the risk it took to blossom.”Anais Nin
This quote also speaks to the tradeoff between staying small, and growing up higher and larger. But this quote gives an image of a single barrier (breaking out of the seed), leading to smooth sailing ever after. The upper limit problem makes me think more of a tall building with many floors, and many, infinite ceilings to break through. Or like rising in the atmosphere as we climb Mt Everest. The higher we go, the thinner it is and the more we need to work to stand upright and keep going. The discomfort of growth never ends. We are like a seed within a seed within a seed, ad infinitum. There is no end to expansion, in a way, and thus there is no end to discomfort from that expansion. The choice is ours. It’s not a moral choice, but I find it empowering and accurate to consider that there are tradeoffs to staying at the bottom of the mountain and climbing to the top, rather than thinking that all the bad is down low and all the good is up high. It takes work to ascend.
The zone of genius
The zone of genius is a label in this book that refers to what others have called “flow”. It is the state of us doing, thinking, and feeling in ways that are in alignment with our purpose in life. It is utilizing our natural gifts to their greatest extent, contributing our most valuable gifts to the world. Those gifts and their fruits may not be considered economically valuable to others (i.e. make us a ton of money) at a given moment in time, although, over time, being in the zone of genius does tend to correlate with the creation of goods and services that people want, and thus become economically valuable as well. But the paradox of the zone of genius is that, while in it, we don’t care about that (money) or status or what others think about what we’re doing. We just know that what we’re doing is our bodymind and spirit exhibiting it’s highest self, and that in itself is the biggest reward. The zone of genius tends to lead to well-being, health, and a happy life.
In contrast, the “zone of excellence” is a trap that involves doing something we’re good at, and are probably rewarded well for, but is not in full alignment with our soul’s purpose. The typical example would be a wealthy businessperson who has a great salary but doesn’t feel fulfilled inwardly by the work, and could be contributing something greater if they left the comfort zone of the cushy monetary rewards. This is how these zones dovetail with the upper limit problem. Moving from the zone of excellence to the zone of genius will entail the anxiety of hitting the ceiling between those two floors. There will be doubts that, if we leave the zone of excellence, that we will find out that we don’t have a zone of genius, or that the zone of genius will lead to unhappiness due to less pay, etc.
The “zone of competence” and “zone of incompetence” are fairly self-explanatory. We want to avoid these, especially the incompetence zone. Staying in these places is a sign that we have limiting beliefs from earlier in life that we need to spend our lives doing something we’re not great at or just okay at, because it is safer that way.
The book also has an interesting and helpful section on time. The author’s perspective is not that we have a finite amount of time, but that we make time. He gives an example of an 8 year old asking us to play catch, vs an 8 year old getting injured and bleeding. One of those we might say, “later” and the other we would attend to right away. In both we had the same amount of time. So he recommends always reminding ourselves that how we spend our time is our choice, and when we say there’s not enough time, we are putting ourselves in a victim hood position in which time is our perpetrator, and we are wishing for a fantasy world in which there were options that don’t actually exist (e.g. a task would take less time that it actually does).
He also points out how our perception of time is very different when we are relaxed and fully present (in the zone of genius), as opposed to being lost in thoughts or worries about the past or future. In the zone of genius (which I might also call the zone of presence), we don’t worry about time, and the time spent feels 100% efficient, and there is much more of a sense of having the exact right amount of time that we need, as though we are literally creating the time. In the worry state, the time falls through our fingers like sand, and we can get lost in a time vortex in which nothing gets done. But that isn’t about what time is doing to us, that’s about where our attention is place, which is our choice.
This is an example of how I find Gay Hendrick’s writing empowering. I think one of his central messages across his books is that “you are not a victim, because you can choose your reality by changing your focus.”