Personal Growth on Steroids: The Strategy of Immersion

March 10th, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

If you want to expand your horizons and try new things in life, the strategy of immersion is one of the best ways to do it.  Instead of merely dipping your toes in the water, immersion means you dive in head first.  This isn’t a strategy that appeals to the timid; however, with a sufficient degree of courage and adventurousness, immersion can enable you to make huge strides in your growth in a short period of time.

Suppose you have an interest in starting your own blog.  Many people will hold onto this desire and do nothing about it for months.  Perhaps they’ll read other blogs and maybe post a few comments to “get their feet wet.”  But that isn’t blogging — it’s just pointless delay.  With the strategy of immersion, you’d simply dive right in and setup your own blog (such as with a free host like WordPress.com) and then immediately start writing your first post.  It doesn’t matter if you know what you’re going to say.  Simply do it.  If you seriously want to be a blogger, you can be one within the hour.  It’s not that complicated.

But if it only takes an hour to become a blogger (and I really don’t think I’m exaggerating here), then what sense does it make to hold onto this desire for months and do nothing about it?  The only thing stopping you is a collection of limiting beliefs about what it all means.  One of the most common limiting beliefs is that many people feel that if they’re going to do something new, it must be something they’ll commit to for life.

For example, maybe you’re unwilling to participate in a local drama because you don’t want to be an actor.  Perhaps you avoid learning HTML because you don’t want to be a web developer.  Or maybe you don’t want to learn about Buddhism because you don’t want to be a Buddhist.  But this attitude will rob you of many wonderful opportunities for growth.

Think of the strategy of immersion as a period of intense dedication to a particular interest, but let go of the idea that you have to make a long-term commitment to it.  It’s like serial monogamy.  For brief bursts of time, typically ranging from a few weeks to a few months, throw yourself fully into some new endeavor, behaving as if you’ve made a lifelong commitment to it but without actually making that commitment.  If you fall in love with your new interest, you can keep going as long as you like.  But there’s no shame in quitting as soon as you decide it’s time to move on.  You could be a blogger for a week and decide it’s not for you.  But it’s better to have been a blogger for a week than to never have been one at all.

One of the things I’ve always wanted to try was stand-up comedy.  Whenever I saw comedians performing on stage, I thought it looked like a lot of fun.  But I don’t want to switch careers and become a professional comedian for the rest of my life.  And I also don’t want to take years or decades developing my humor skills just to earn the privilege of performing in front of an audience.  Is there an alternative solution?  Can’t I just find a way to have this experience without making a lifelong commitment to it?

Seven weeks ago I attended a live performance of the Las Vegas Improvisational Players.  These improv shows are similar to what you might see on the popular TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”  Nothing is scripted.  By playing a variety of games, many based on audience input, the players must act out scenes, perform humorous skits, and make up songs off the top of their heads.  With talented performers it’s usually hilarious to watch.

After watching that show, I decided it was time for me to go for it, so I went to the very next improv workshop and paid for eight weeks up front.  Aside from giving a handful of humorous speeches in Toastmasters, I’d never done anything remotely like stand-up comedy, certainly not in front of an audience.  But I just dove in headfirst and started attending the two-hour workshops.  It took me a while to get the hang of things, but I threw myself into it and did the best I could.  It was all hands-on learning.  Observation and effort.  Trial and error.

Well, last night was my first live performance with the improv group, and I had a blast.  In just seven weeks I went from sitting in the audience to performing on stage in a two-hour show.  My wife was in the audience, and she loved it and was very impressed.  She said she especially enjoyed watching me do the physical comedy, like when I had to pretend I was a buffalo or when I was trying to act out the word “excruciating” in a charade-like game called Debate.  Although I don’t see myself doing improv for the rest of my life, the immersion strategy has already allowed me to fulfill this dream of mine.  I plan to continue with it for a while and see where it leads.  I find it very challenging, so consequently it’s a tremendous source of growth for me.  It’s helping me learn to be fully present in what I do and to really stretch myself.  It’s an experience unlike anything I’ve done before.

But it didn’t have to be this way.  I could have just sat there in the audience and convinced myself that trying to be a comedian wasn’t for me.  I could have decided to let the great skill and talent of the other players intimidate me.  I could have convinced myself that I’d freeze like a deer in the headlights under the pressure of trying to be funny on the spur of the moment.  I could have said, “I can’t.  I can’t.  I can’t.”

I chose to cast aside those negative thoughts though.  Woody Allen said that 80% of success in show business is just showing up.  So I took his advice.  Did my mind always cooperate?  Of course not!  It tried to sell me on images of utter failure and public humiliation.  But I refused to listen because I know that I have the ability to consciously direct my thoughts instead of allowing them to direct me.  Whenever my mind started to make excuses about why I couldn’t do it, I would consciously turn off that negative voice and switch my focus back to what I wanted.  I wouldn’t allow myself to harbor the thoughts that would lead me to be nervous and afraid and to give up.  Obviously I wouldn’t be as good as the other players who’d been doing this for years.  They’re amazingly talented.  I can’t hope to match their skill after only 12 hours of instruction and practice.  So what?  Who cares?  If I get up on stage and bomb, it just isn’t that big a deal.  I gave myself permission to fail.  But I wouldn’t give myself permission not to try.

On the day of the performance, I noticed I was feeling slightly anxious.  I found myself succuming to mental images of myself performing well along with other images of things going badly.  What if I was on the spot and couldn’t think of anything to say?  What if I tried to make a joke and all I got in response was dead silence?  But fortunately I know how to handle my brain when it gets ornery like this.  I took my own advice and applied the strategies I explained in Podcast #12:  Building Confidence.  I took about 10 minutes to consciously visualize what I wanted, and I also used my body and my voice to put myself in a state of total confidence.  I imagined myself up on stage having a great time, feeling highly enthusiastic and energetic, and seeing the audience laughing uproariously.  I physically moved around to act out a couple pretend scenes.  I didn’t try to imagine myself performing flawlessly — that would have been totally unrealistic.  So instead I chose to focus on something my subconscious could deliver:  to thoroughly enjoy the experience.  Within a matter of minutes, all self-doubt evaporated, and I started feeling very excited about doing the show that evening.  Consequently, during the hours before the show and all throughout the show itself, I experienced no nervousness whatsoever.  I was excited and enthusiastic and looking forward to a great time.  My negative thoughts had no chance to break through all the energy created by the positive thoughts.  And while I was on stage, I felt that I was fully in the moment.  Feeling the energy of the audience and getting lots of laughs was amazing.

So how does this relate to the strategy of immersion?  Whenever you push beyond your comfort zone, it’s common to experience a surge of fear and self-doubt.  You could take a very gradual approach to overcome your fear via systematic desensitization, but why let fear slow you down at all?  If you can get fear out of the picture, you can dive in and enjoy rapid growth without being preoccupied by negative thoughts.  You can even enjoy that awkward beginner phase by giving yourself permission to fail.  What you’re really doing though is redefining success, such that instead of demanding a great performance from yourself the first time out, which is virtually impossible to deliver as a beginner in any field, you define success simply as your enjoyment of the experience.  That’s something your subconscious is capable of delivering regardless of your skill level.  No matter how poor your performance is from an objective standpoint, your subjective experience can still be one of pleasure and enjoyment.

From an objective standpoint (based on feedback I received from the other performers and some audience members), I’d say my performance last night was good.  Definitely not outstanding, but certainly not terrible.  For a first-time performer, it may even have been very good, but I credit my modest degree of objective success to my high degree of subjective success.  Subjectively I had a wonderful time.  I thoroughly enjoyed myself and felt very much in tune with the other players and the audience.  I was confident.  I was excited.  And I had fun.  And I think this internal success boosted my external success significantly.  If I had been nervous, fearful, or self-conscious, I could not have done the things I did.  Consequently, I felt that my objective success was limited only by my lack of skill and experience, not by fear or self-doubt.  I did my best, and I have no regrets because I could not have expected more from myself than that.

Enjoying the process is the key to rapid personal growth.  People who read some of my articles in isolation, especially “Do It Now,” often come away with the impression that I over-discipline myself in a self-torturous manner.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The reality is that I’ve learned to take experiences many people would view with fear or resistance and turn them into fun, pleasurable growth experiences.  I get past the fear of failure by making it perfectly OK to fail and by redefining success as my own subjective enjoyment.  And this in turn allows me to take action fearlessly and enjoy rapid growth without holding myself back.  I put myself in a state where I just don’t care if I fail in an objective sense because I’m just there to have fun.  If I bomb on stage, so what?  If I get flamed for something I write in my blog, so what?  If I eat some bad Chinese food, so what?

The irony is that once fear of failure is removed from the picture, objective success becomes far more likely.  Many people believe that fear of failure is healthy and even necessary for success.  If you aren’t afraid of failure, doesn’t that mean you’ll be lazy?  Don’t you need to be worried about failure to succeed in business?  Not at all.  Losing your fear of failure doesn’t mean losing your desire to succeed.  In fact, it’s easier to avoid failure when you aren’t afraid of it.  Fear is paralyzing.  If you’re afraid of something, you’ll be more likely to procrastinate on it, not less.  However, if you’re gushingly enthusiastic about what you’re doing, you’ll take whatever actions are necessary because you want to, not because you have to.  Haven’t you notice that you’ll work harder and longer at something you enjoy than you will at something that makes you stressed and anxious?

Fear is a choice, not an obligation.  When you learn to define success in subjective terms, you gain the ability to virtually guarantee success regardless of the external odds stacked against you.  And when you achieve subjective victory, then objective victory becomes far more likely.  As within, so without.  Get your mind and body to be congruent with what you want, and your outer world will soon fall in line.  With the strategy of immersion, you can shove fear aside and make rapid progress in the direction of your dreams.  You’ll be limited only by the limits of object reality, not by your own fear and self-doubt.  And best of all, you’ll enjoy every step along the way, not just the end result.  Who wants to suffer for years in the hope of attaining that proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, only to experience a brief moment of happiness before painfully taking up the next goal.  Why not enjoy the whole rainbow?



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