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A frequent question I ask when trying to improve some area of my life is: If I were to rate this area’s current performance on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the worst imaginable and 10 being the best imaginable, where am I right now?
Very often I find that areas get stuck somewhere in the 6-8 range, usually at a 7. A 7 seems very close to a 9 or 10, but often a 7 is a local maximum — you can’t get any higher by continuing to follow the same path that got you to that 7 in the first place. You’re already at a peak. The only way to reach a true 9 or 10 is to climb back down (sometimes back to a 2 or 3) and take a new path.
How many times do people get stuck at a 7 and remain there for years? Is your job a 7? Your health? Your relationship? Your family life? Your self-esteem? Is it likely to improve much if you keep heading down the same path you’ve been on for the past year?
A 7 is pretty good. At this level you feel generally content. It’s OK, fine, acceptable, satisfactory.
A 7 is above average. Compared to most people, you’d say your 7 isn’t bad at all. You feel like you’re ahead of the pack.
People often get to a 7 and then coast for a long time. At a 2 or 3, you know something is very wrong, and you’re probably driven to action. But a 7 is like a warm bath. It’s cozy and non-threatening. You feel fairly safe at a 7.
So why are you stuck there? Are you waiting for everyone else to catch up?
Getting past a 7 is hard. It can take more effort to get past a 7 than it takes to reach a 7 in the first place. Some people would complain that it takes too long to get past a 7. But the truth is that the time is going to pass anyway. Even if it takes 5-10 years, you might as well get yourself to a higher level within that time, since the years are going to pass anyway.
Whenever I feel I’ve gotten stuck at a 7, I stop and ask myself: What would a 10 look like?
It’s a simple question, but forcing myself to list the specific factors that would be part of a 10 and which differentiate a 10 from an 8 or 9 helps me get clear about my definition of the best.
Then I can start setting some clear goals to get me moving in that direction.
You might be able to go from a 6 to a 7 in a week or a month, perhaps even a day with conscious effort. A few tweaks here and there, and you’ve got it. But to go from a 7 to an 8 might take a year or two. 7 doesn’t always connect with 8. You might have to take a path like 7-6-4-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-6-7-8 to get there.
Sometimes getting to an 8+ requires a career change (it did for me). Or it may require a relationship change, a diet change, a location change, or re-education.
Escape the trap of 7
Don’t let yourself get stuck in the trap of 7. Define your 10 in writing, and ask yourself if you can transition smoothly from your 7 to that 10. Maybe you’re already on the right path and can see the trail ahead of you with great clarity. But for most people this isn’t the case. The path to a 10 may lead through the darkness of 2 or 3, maybe even 1. But you will eventually get through it and re-emerge on a new path. And even if the very next path you try doesn’t reach a 10, you’re still better off trying any other path than the one that dead-ends at 7.
However, some people become overly attached to their 7s. You may be afraid you won’t be able to get to an 8 or 9 or 10 even if you try. What if you go for it, and the best you ever see again is a 5? Wouldn’t that be foolish? A bird in the hand….
Guess what? You could be right. I don’t know your situation, so I have to imagine that it’s entirely possible that if you leave behind your 7, you may never reach that level again. You could drop down to 3 or 4 and get stuck there and never rebound. You might quit your job and never find another career as good as the one you left. Maybe there are unseen factors you aren’t aware of. It’s a risk.
What I can tell you though is what lies on the other side once you’ve left behind a 7. I’ve done it enough times to feel pretty comfortable describing what you’re likely to find.
There is no 7
What you’ll find when you leave the comfort of your 7 and go chasing after that 10 is that your 7 was never a 7. It was only a 3.
If you think you’re at a 7, you’re really at a 3 maximum. The 10 is way, way out there. You think you can see it, but your definition of a 10 is based on your experience of a 7, and you can’t even see a real 10 when you’re standing at 7. It’s beyond your ability to fathom.
If you were to go out and find someone who’s actually at a 10 in your area and asked them how you were doing on a scale of 1 to 10, they’d be able to label your 7 accurately as a 3. How would an Olympic gymnast rate your current diet and exercise habits? Are you really at 70% of their level? Ask a couple that seems to be googly in love with each other how they’d rate your relationship? Ask the most motivated, successful person you know how they’d rate your career? Is your 7 really a 7? Or is it a 3?
A perpetual 7 is a clue that the whole path is wrong
A second discovery I’ve had is that when you’re stuck at a 7, you’re using the wrong type of rating criteria anyway. You’re rating your current status, your location on the path. What you should be rating is the path itself.
What is your path right now? How clear is it? Where will it take you in 5-10 years? How would you rate the path itself if you were to view it outside of time?
For example, in observing your health status, rate the path you’re on. Is your health declining or improving? Are your diet and exercise habits making you stronger and fitter and more resistant to disease, or are you becoming weaker and sicker? What path are you on?
When you think about what path you’re on, rather than just your current position, you’ll become much more aware of where you really are on a scale of 1-10. Life is a journey, not a destination. When you get stuck at a 7, your path is the problem — it’s your path that’s really a 3 because it isn’t moving you forward. You’ve stagnated.
In physics terms I’m saying that what matters is not your position but your velocity. Velocity is a vector which has both a direction and a speed. Where you’re headed and how quickly is more important than where you are. If you rate your position as a 7 but your speed is virtually nil (meaning that your situation is stable/stagnant), then your speed is probably no greater than 3. You’re moving at a snail’s pace. And when moving that slowly, you can’t overcome inertia, so you’ll only end up circling your current location — the direction of your velocity vector will keep shifting. You’ll feel unfocused, and even when you do manage to focus, it won’t last. If you try to make a change, your environment will simply pull you back to the same old status quo. You’ll never hit escape velocity. Things will only change when an outside force acts upon you and forces a radical shift in your velocity vector — you lose your job, get dumped, suffer a serious illness, etc.
So how do you get out of a stuck situation (aside from waiting to be rescued)? You speed up — deliberately.
You might get a bit scratched and bruised along the way. You might mess up your current relationship, your career, or your lifestyle. You won’t be able to see very far in front of you because everything will be moving faster than you’re used to. Sometimes you’ll just have to take it one day at a time and guess at the best direction. You might even hit a wall now and then.
Bruises just come with the territory. But getting moving again is far better than remaining stuck. The wounds will heal, and I’ve always found an exciting new path to explore. It sure beats dying a slow death while waiting for the vultures to swoop down.
As you do more and more of this kind of path switching, you’ll develop a higher tolerance for it. The pain won’t sting so much. The pain level is still the same, but you’ll be stronger and more capable of handling it.
If you never do this path wandering though, you’ll grow weaker with each passing year. A thorn prick will be enough to send you fleeing back to the comfort of your previous position. You’ll be too afraid to venture far off the path. And most likely you’ll die right where you are. Your only hope will be that some other adventurer comes along and shows you a way out or that some event forces you out. But often that never happens, or it happens on terms that are much less pleasant than what you would have achieved through conscious action.
You control the accelerator
If you want to get onto a new path, you have to be the one to initiate it. Not me. Not your boss. Not your spouse. Not some divine being. It has to come from you. If you’ve stalled at a 7, it’s because you’ve slowed down.
If you know your path is wrong, then you know you need to get off it. Take some time to figure out the best direction to go next, and then get moving. Take baby steps if you need to. Wear lots of protective gear. But just get moving. If you’re stuck then almost any path is better than remaining stagnant.
Think of one small action you can take to get yourself moving in a new direction, and take it today. Don’t wait. Don’t put it off. Don’t suckle your 7. Wean yourself, and get moving again. You may not find that 9 or 10 position, but you can find that 9 or 10 path.
There is no 10
As you begin charging ahead towards your 10, you’ll eventually discover that there is no 10, at least not in the sense of a fixed position. It was just a mirage. You may reach the 10 you defined back when you were a 7, but once you reach it, you’ll see a new 10 off in the distance. There will always be another pot of gold ahead of you.
The real 10 is not some position. It’s the path itself. Human beings aren’t cattle — we aren’t supposed to be settled and domesticated. We need to keep things stirred up in order to continue learning and growing.
No matter what fixed position you arrive at in life, it will never be fulfilling. Fulfillment comes from action, not position.
If you want to experience deep fulfillment, take lots and lots of action. Action can be physical, mental, social — even spiritual.
The only true security lies in action. No fixed position is ever secure. Security comes from dynamic action, knowing that no matter what happens, you can always do something about it.
The true 10 is doing your best. And that can never be attained by standing still. Get moving!