I really enjoyed this past weekend at the Conscious Relationships Workshop. It’s so rewarding to see people arriving a little shy and uncertain on the first day, and by the end of the third day, they’ve become close friends and have a new sense of possibility and excitement.
One of the reasons I do these workshops is that they’re tremendous catalysts for my own growth as well.
After running the Conscious Growth Workshop several times in a row, last summer I decided to push myself and create three new ones: one on subjective reality, one on success, and one on relationships — all of them connected to the theme of living more consciously. I knew it would be a lot of work, but I also felt it would deliver a lot of growth and change, not only for the attendees but for myself as well. That was a big goal, and it feels wonderful to have accomplished it.
Creating Knowledge Hierarchies
It was indeed a lot of work to create three new workshops from scratch. The hardest part was compressing these topics into three-day experiences that would make sense when delivered in order from beginning to end. I always had much more content and more exercises than I could share. Coming up with ideas was the easy part. Deciding what to include was tough.
I found this challenge very rewarding though. It pushed me to think deeply about each subject. Instead of holding my knowledge as a network of interconnected thoughts and memories, I had to ask myself what it would look like if I compressed everything down to the most important essentials.
I love giving order and structure to ideas that tend to be nebulous and unstructured. The challenge of figuring out what to share on Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 pushed me to break large topics down into smaller chunks that would make sense when shared in a linear order. I had to figure out what the skeleton looked like and then decide where to attach each idea to the skeleton to complete the framework. Thousands of such decisions were required for each workshop.
I realized that success could be broken down into a basic skeleton of decision-making, planning, and action. Relationship skills can be loosely divided into initiating relationships, managing relationships (including disconnecting), and deepening relationships.
This challenge of having to take what I think I know and arrange it into a hierarchy of knowledge that can be shared in order from beginning to end gave me some incredible insights. I’m not suggesting that such a representation of knowledge is superior to any other, but doing the rigorous work necessary to clarify and understand this structure gave me a powerful new grasp of ideas that I’ve been working with for years.
One major benefit of creating these knowledge hierarchies is that it confirmed much of what I intuitively felt.
For a long time, I’ve intuitively known that it’s important to maintain high standards in our relationships and to disconnect from situations that aren’t working for us. There’s a place for negotiation, but sometimes it’s best to just call it quits and move on.
I had plenty of experiential evidence to see that this was important, and I could see that many people were suffering in their relationships because they overplayed the tolerance card and resisted leaving in situations where leaving was almost certain to lead to greater long-term happiness.
But as much as I understood this intuitively, it was hard for me to fully trust it in some situations. I had lots of knowledge and experience to draw upon, but it was in a form that we might call sloppy knowledge.
When I gave structure to this knowledge as part of the workshop preparation process, I began seeing new ways to connect the dots in my existing knowledge. I could clearly see how poor management of personal boundaries early in a relationship would almost inevitably lead to a build-up of resentment later, how having high standards early in a relationship can keep resentment from building, and how poor boundary management perpetuates lower self-esteem.
I feel I got the biggest gains from creating the Conscious Relationships Workshop. This may be because my earlier knowledge of that subject was the least structured relative to the other subjects. Relationships are very experiential. Direct experience can create many valuable insights, but it can also create a lot of sloppy knowledge. Sloppy knowledge is very flexible, but it’s difficult to trust in some situations.
When I was able to see the logic behind my intuition, I was finally able to trust that intuitive guidance. This allowed me to take more action and feel certain that my decisions were good ones that would lead to greater improvement down the road.
I also discovered some areas where my intuition was clearly wrong. It was almost right, but seeing the overall hierarchical structure gave me a better way of thinking about certain ideas. Usually in these situations, the problem was that I wasn’t even asking the right questions. So the intuitive answer wasn’t going to be that helpful no matter what, unless my intuition was strong enough to see that the question contained an invalid assumption from the start.
Suppose you spend a lot of time consulting your intuition regarding how to solve a recurring problem in your life. What if the best solution was simply to prevent the problem and avoid it altogether, and focus more time and energy on more significant challenges? If your intuition is able to see that, it may be helpful, but if you force it down a particular path of choosing between a limited set of options after the problem has occurred, it may not be so useful in the long run; the problem will continue to plague you.
Prevention vs. Cure
In many areas of life, early decisions can magnify to create significant after-effects.
Suppose you slip into the habit of eating an extra 25 calories a day. That’s only a small amount of extra food, about a 1% increase for most people. But fast forward 20 years, and you’re now 50+ pounds overweight. See how easy that is?
Now imagine how much effort it would take to lose 50 pounds, and compare that to the effort required to avoid the 1% overeating habit at the moment it was first introduced. Could you avoid eating those 4 extra almonds that one time, so the habit would never get installed?
These types of scenarios occur in other areas of life too. They can be very difficult to fix later but so much easier to avoid.
A minor decision in made early in business can make the difference between bankruptcy and wealth 20 years later.
A minor failure to clarify boundaries early in a relationship can lead to deep resentments and a messy divorce 20 years later.
I can trace many of my biggest problems and challenges back to fairly uneventful early decisions. At some point I was a little bit careless. Months or years later, there was a price to be paid.
Sometimes those early decisions led to good long-term outcomes; sometimes they don’t. Acting on a one-time impulse to shoplift led to a serious addiction, several arrests, and criminal friends to reinforce the behavior. Acting on an impulse to try eating vegetarian led to 19 years as a vegetarian (15 of them as a vegan). These choices also created ripples that affected others’ lives.
The Early Game
As a consequence of this work, I came to see just how critical those early game decisions can be. It’s much like a game of chess, which is probably why there are so many books written about opening moves in chess.
I also came to see where early game mistakes can create compounding problems down the road. After a time, the game is a lost cause, and it’s no longer helpful to ask how to win. At that point the better decision is to quit the game and avoid making the same early mistake the next time.
I could have kept focusing on how to get better at shoplifting, and my intuition would have kept providing “helpful” answers as it always did.
Real life may not be as precise as chess, but the notion of compounding consequences from early decisions is still relevant.
Many people ask me how to quit their jobs and transition to something they’d enjoy more. But perhaps the bigger lesson to be learned is figuring out why they took that job in the first place. Was it a mistake to begin with? Wasn’t it fairly predictable where they ended up? Would they have been better off choosing a different path years ago? Are they now dealing with the mid-game or endgame consequences of an early game mistake?
Mid-game and endgame strategies are still important, but I think we overplay those cards in life too much. I certainly feel that I have. There’s a lot to be gained from making better early game decisions, especially when it comes to relationships.
What about future workshops, including repeating the ones we’ve done so far? I don’t have any scheduled right now, so if you missed the recent ones, it may be a while. I intend to spend the next several months working on other goals and projects and doing some traveling. I’ve been through an intense period of growth, and I want to take some time to let the results sink in.
The way I think about certain subjects today, especially relationships, is very different than how I thought a year ago. Now I want to see how these thoughts trickle down to my actions. I already see some promising effects, but the changes are too recent for me to know where this will lead.
So for now I’m going to avoid making any major new commitments (such as committing to a new workshop). I want to keep my calendar as empty as possible, so I can focus on taking action from a place of daily choice.
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I also want to very consciously continue my shift away from online social networking and towards a more socially local lifestyle. I’m very pleased with how this has been going so far. It almost feels like my brain is rewiring itself to make online social media seem irrelevant… and the extra mental RAM is being transferred to face to face connections. I’m feeling a lot better about my future social life as a result.
Sometimes it surprises me just how good I feel about not having Facebook, the forums, and a high volume of email in my life. I’m so glad I finally decided to take conscious control over this part of my life and move everything in a direction that I felt would be more fulfilling. The surprising part is that just letting go of what wasn’t working created lots of happiness even before I added anything new. The silence itself is fulfilling.
Some days I check email now, and there isn’t anything to process. I haven’t visited Facebook in many months, and when people tell me what’s going on in some discussions there, it seems like so much childish drama, and I wonder why people bother with it. I don’t just not miss it — I celebrate its absence. Subjectively speaking, I kicked Facebook so far out of my reality that it now clings to its existence by a thread.
Without the forums as part of my life, I haven’t had to deal with trolling, members attacking each other and whining about it, and managing moderators on the forums. The absence of all of that feels practically miraculous. Again, I not only don’t miss it — I’m truly grateful for its absence.
As I’ve been letting go of what I was tolerating, I’m deriving even more enjoyment from connecting with people face to face. After CRW ended on Sunday, I hung out for 2-1/2 extra hours and was the last to leave. I was tired from doing the workshop, but I still loved hanging out with everyone afterwards. I still feel a little PTSD at times from having too many open doors in the online world, which can make me feeling like withdrawing altogether, but I’m quickly recovering from it. I feel more extroverted today than I did a year ago, but only when it comes to face to face interacting.
Looking back, I can see that I was dealing with frequent boundary violations that I never should have tolerated to begin with. I made some early game mistakes. When I finally raised my standards to a level that was more aligned with who I am and began dropping from my life that which didn’t meet my standards (such as the standard of “mutual respect, or disconnect”), I felt instant and lasting relief… then a lot of happiness. And now I’m feeling even more appreciation and optimism for how things are progressing.
I’m not suggesting that my path here is right for everyone else. Due to the popularity of my website, my experience of social media was pretty different from the norm. But I’ll stress the more general point — that it’s wise to pull the plug on what you’re merely tolerating. Just do that, even before you have anything to replace it, and you’ll likely experience relief and perhaps even some fulfillment. Then from that place of feeling better about your life and appreciating (not tolerating) what you have, new options will present themselves; that’s actually the easy part.