“I wonder how many times people give up just before a breakthrough – when they are on the very brink of success.”
Joyce Meyer (Author; 100 Ways To Simplify Your Life)
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Mahatma Gandhi (Preeminent Leader of Indian Nationalism)
“Effort only fully releases its reward after a person refuses to quit.”
Napoleon Hill (Author; Think And Grow Rich)
Breakthroughs are easy to predict once you know where to look.
I was just about to drop out of graduate school for the second time when my advisor sent me an email telling me to write my thesis and set a date for my defense. I spent the last 18 months begging for permission to graduate but I kept coming up against a brick wall. I tried everything to get out. I networked, I published more, I walked on eggshells, and I laughed at important people’s jokes. When that didn’t work, I complained, I met with my department, and I went to the dean. But nothing changed. Then, at 7:57AM CST on a Tuesday morning I checked my email and read the sweetest phrase in the human language: prepare for your thesis defense.
The captain of our college wrestling team had a legit grown man-body with huge mountains of muscles everywhere. I looked like I had just gone through puberty. Yet, we were both in the same weight class and had to wrestle off for varsity. Whoever won 2 out of 3 matches would make the team. Of course he was going win. He was a year older and had won over 30 matches his freshman season. But somehow I won the first match 4-3 in a last second fluke. It was a fluke because he destroyed me 13-1 in the 2nd match.
So, we wrestled again. We tied and went into overtime. Then we tied again and went into double overtime. With 8 seconds left, he scored and moved ahead 3-2. I remember thinking it was over. I lost. I even started rationalizing my loss during the final seconds of the match. Then something funny happened. He let go and I scored 2 points. It seemed like he just stopped trying and let me win. What happened?
Rock Mechanics And Learned Helplessness
There’s an entire field of science dedicated to the mechanical behavior of rocks. This field, called rock mechanics, studies and measures things like rock strength, which is a measure of the compressive, tensile, and sheer stress that a particular rock can withstand before breaking. Understanding rock mechanics is important for anyone who wants to drill into the ground, bore a tunnel, or do any kind of excavation work.
Back in the day, before we had things like drills, dynamite, and high pressure water jets, rocks were broken with handheld hammers. The process of breaking open a boulder by hand can take a very long time. Imagine trying to split a rock in half using a sledgehammer. You hit the boulder again and again and again but nothing happens. You don’t see any progress, which is extremely frustrating. But you keep swinging the hammer. Then, on the 30th hit or maybe the 300th hit, the boulder splits in half – like this. It seems like magic but it’s not. It’s science. Even though it looks like nothing is happening on the outside, each blow by the hammer is reducing the rock’s internal integrity. The rock is getting weaker. You just can’t see it.
Learned helplessness is what happens when someone is repeatedly subjected to a negative situation that they cannot control or escape from and, as a result, stops trying to avoid the situation and starts behaving as if he or she is utterly helpless to change the situation. A person who has developed learned helplessness will continue to act helpless even when opportunities to control a situation or escape from it are presented. For example, baby elephants are tied to trees with chains when they are young to keep them from running away. But, as adults, they’re only tied by ropes because they’ve learned that they can’t escape. Likewise, studies dating back to the 1970s show that animals who are conditioned to receive a mild electrical shock will not try to escape from the shock even when they are free to do so.
You’re About To Have A Breakthrough…
Obstacles are like giant rocks between you and your goals. Some of these obstacles are definable, like difficult circumstances, negative people, and your own bad emotions. Others are harder to define. Sometimes you don’t know what’s standing in your way. Maybe all you need is a little more information or one more connection, but you can’t see it. And you can’t see anything changing. You keep throwing yourself against the obstacle over and over again but nothing is happening. It’s times like these when you can start to feel out of control. Like nothing you do matters. Like nothing will ever change. In times like these, it can be easy to sink into a state of learned helplessness.
Every obstacle has a breaking point. Like rocks, most obstacles weaken without showing any obvious signs of weakening. But there are signs. You just have to know where to look. Here are 13 signs that you’re about to break through an obstacle:
1. When you’re frustrated.
I went to a Tony Robbins’ Date With Destiny seminar in Australia a couple of years ago and there was a big sign on the wall that read, “You’re frustrated? Good! It means you’re about to have a breakthrough!”
The biggest breakthroughs in my life have happened after intense periods of frustration. But it was my frustration that drove me to keep trying. A lot of people will tell you to woosah and do yoga and let go, which is all fine and good but staying a little pissed off is what’s going to actually get you to your goal.
Apathy is your enemy, not anger. Anger is always more useful than despair.
2. When you hear radio silence.
Being ignored or blown off is one of the first steps to having a breakthrough. Don’t take it personally. Just see it as a challenge.
I used to sell very expensive medical equipment on the road. The sales cycle for this stuff was super long, like 6 months to a year. Sometimes I would get a lead and follow up with them 30-50 times, once every 1-2 weeks, before closing or moving on. And most of the time these leads wouldn’t answer my emails or phone messages. But guess what, I kept calling. Because they were reading my emails and listening to my phone messages, even though I couldn’t see it. And when the time came to buy, they replied.
3. When resistance increases.
I used to hate conflict, especially when starting a new project. But now I get excited by it. In fact, I gauge how successful a project will by how much initial resistance it gets.
The last few months I was in graduate school my advisor started bullying me like crazy. He yelled at me in front of other students, threatened to ruin my career and write letters against me, and started doing paranoid things like deactivating my card key. I was scared, depressed, and intimidated. But I kept coming into the lab to work. Then one day, when I least expected it, he sent me an email telling me that I could graduate.
Don’t be afraid of people coming against you and don’t shy back from being bullied. People fighting against you is often a sign that you’re headed in the right direction.
4. When they start laughing at you.
I didn’t fit in very well in graduate school. I wasn’t freaky smart like some of the other kids and my ADD-brain had a hard time focusing on details. I pretty much knew right away that I didn’t want to be a professor. When I shared this with some of the other students they made fun of me and said I was wasting my time in graduate school. To be honest, I thought I was wasting my time. But then I found some other people like me who were using their degrees to be successful in business.
Being mocked or feeling like a misfit can make you want to give up. That’s normal. Everyone wants to fit in to some extent. The key is to not let the desire to fit in keep you from having a breakthrough.
5. When you want to give up.
Don’t feel guilty for doubting yourself or your path from time to time. And don’t feel bad for wanting to quit. Instead, lean into this feeling. Because it means that you’re close to a breakthrough.
Never wanting to quit is not a sign of strength, it’s a sign that your goals are too small.
6. When you start rationalizing.
Rationalization is the path to learned helplessness.
In a recent study, two groups of people read that lowering the speed limits in their cities would make people safer. The first group was told that this legislation would definitely come into effect. The second group read that it would probably happen, but that there was a small chance government officials would vote it down.
People who thought the speed limit was definitely being lowered supported the change more than control subjects, but people who thought there was still a chance it wouldn’t happen supported it less than these control subjects. In other words, if people think something is absolute like a new speed limit (or, failure), they will find a way to rationalize and accept it.
Failure is never an absolute. All breakthroughs are proceeded by failures — a lot of failures. But failure is only temporary. So don’t rationalize your failures. Instead, learn from them and use the urge to rationalize them as a sign that you’re one step closer to success.
7. When you feel like changing your goals.
Think of your biggest goal in life as a giant mountain peak.
No matter what mountain you’re climbing, there are going to be times when you want to stop and settle before reaching the top. There will also be times when you want to get off the mountain altogether and start climbing one of the prettier mountains next to you. This is normal.
The higher you climb on one mountain, the better you’re able to see all of the other mountains. But that doesn’t mean you should stop climbing the one you’re on. It means you should start climbing harder. Imagine how many other mountains you’ll be able to see (and conquer) once you reach the peak.
8. When you’re told to be realistic.
Intelligent people refuse to pursue realistic goals. The more you’re told to be realistic, the closer you are to doing something amazing.
9. When it really hurts.
Breakthroughs are painful. The first person through a wall always gets bloody. Don’t shy away from this pain. Expect it. Invite it. And use it to stay motivated.
Right when it hurts the most is the moment when everything will fall into place.
10. When the numbers say you’re wrong.
Sometimes mistakes turn into “Eureka!” moments.
One of the first experiments I did in graduate school was a total failure. We were looking at the expression levels of a certain gene in T cells. Everything we knew about this gene at the time pointed to the idea that it should be expressed at very low levels in these cells. But every time I tested it the expression levels turned out to be really high. This made no sense and I was sure that I was making a mistake.
Eventually we learned that the gene was supposed to be expressed at high levels in these cells. I had been doing the experiment right all along. My mistake ended up leading us to a lot of new discoveries.
11. When people turn their backs on you.
When my advisor sent me an email saying that I could defend my thesis he also told me that I wouldn’t be able to do any more experiments in the lab due to some trumped up charges about using another person’s reagents.This other person was both my labmate and friend and she knew my advisor was lying. But she never said anything.
I don’t blame her though. Because I was leaving and she had to stay and work with my advisor everyday.
Breakthroughs are life-changing events. Moving forward often means leaving other people behind. When this happens, don’t be surprised if some of these people turn their backs on you. Be forgiving. Because, in a way, you’re turning your back on them by leaving.
12. When people try to help you.
As soon as I passed my comprehensive exam after my second year of graduate school, I decided to dropout. One of the deans, who had a close relationship with my lab, caught wind of this and called me into his office. He talked things out with me and helped me see why I should stay. His insight and motivation helped empower me through the next 3 years.
Some people can see things that you can’t. Let these people help you. Let them be a part of your breakthrough.
13. When you’re scared.
I was terrified of giving my thesis defense in front of my advisor who had tried really hard to keep me from graduating. I was also scared because graduating meant that I would have to start a new career and be a new person. But I forced myself to do it.
Right as you start to have a breakthrough is when you’ll want to shrink back the most. Because that’s when things get real. That’s when you have to step up and step into a new way of living.
Changing your life is scary. But being afraid is normal. It’s just part of the process. It’s a sign that you’re having a breakthrough.
What’s the biggest breakthrough you’ve ever had in your life? What was your life like right before you had the breakthrough?
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