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The only two ways people ever really transform

Chances are you’ve had a go at some form of behavioral modification over the years. The multi billion dollar self help industry is a testament to our desire to improve ourselves and change things. Just check your local bookstore Amazon.

Money, fat, sex, cigarettes, fame… and on the list goes! We’re constantly dissatisfied – always wanting vastly MORE of some things and radically less of others.

Despite the plethora of guides out there, my experience helping people move closer to goals has taught me that there’s really just two ways people change and grow. This article lays down the pros and cons of both, for your consideration.

This is the closest thing to a shortcut you’ll ever get…

The Slow & Steady transformation model

The name says it all really – this is self development the way your grandparents did it. Insert tortoise metaphor here.

The pros of Slow & Steady:

  • Beginning is really straight forward. Day one of “the new you” feels a lot like the old you.
  • You build momentum. Incremental change gets easier and easier as time goes by.
  • Other people tend to admire the progress you’ve made, because they see you working hard at it.
  • You’ll find it easy to connect with a bunch of cool people on the same journey (find a group training for a marathon and you’ll see what I mean).

The cons of Slow & Steady:

  • It takes enormous willpower to make slow and steady work. Building momentum without radical acceleration requires huge torque.
  • Since we tend to have limited quantities of willpower, it’s usually only possible to change one thing in your life at a time this way.
  • You will come across people who have achieved what you’re trying to achieve as a tortoise… except they did it as a hare. Observing them is the definition of demoralizing.
  • People who don’t share/are jealous of your objectives will attempt to sabotage your progress, almost daily.

The Phoenix from Ashes transformation model

Again, no real intro required. This is the explosive existential crisis that results in a monumental shift in one’s life. Big change never happens faster!

The pros of being a Phoenix:

  • You’ll burst from the ashes in such a tower of flames and bright lights that your whole world will pay attention. People will want to idolize/interview you.
  • You’ll have really good before/after photos. Or financial statements.
  • The acceleration of your change will be such that you’ll have to fall really, really far to get back to where you started.
  • You’ll feel super satisfied with yourself – similar to placing in a marathon or summiting a huge mountain.

The cons of being a Phoenix:

  • (following on from the above) … but other people will, behind your back, call it “luck”.
  • The cost of burning yourself into ashes (the necessary first step) will literally destroy you. That’s kinda the idea.
  • You will, for a short while, drop every single ball you’re juggling.
  • The impact/power of ashes-to-phoenix experiences diminishes at the same rate the frequency increases. Change this way too often and it becomes an act of theatre – not for real.

It’s a tough choice

That’s my ultimate point. Most people attempt one or another (or a trial of both) by unconsciously selecting a method. Perhaps it’s our childhood conditioning or our mentors to blame… but overall, we have a strange habit of not deciding how to change when we first set out to transform ourselves.

Both options have merits – both come with enormous price tags. The decision is difficult but the act of making it is simply overlooked! Most people don’t actively choose, even though they can and should.

I’ve done both, personally. I’ve built a business using both techniques – slow and steady built my private therapy biz (it took years) and I was as close to phoenix as I think I could get with my whole online thing. Took me 4 months from launch to completely replace my corporate consulting income. Also required me to ditch all my old clients, have a melt down and run away to the mountains.

I’ve also done the same with more personal behavior change. Exercise has ALWAYS been a phoenix thing – which seems counter-intuitive to a lot of people. If you think phoenix weight loss is impossible, just watch The Biggest Loser. Those people get completely broken then built back up again… and it WORKS.

So, important questions for important readers (you’re one of them):

What kind of change have you favored?
How’s that working out for you?

Do you transform your business results the same way you change your personal-life behaviors?

What do you think made you lean toward one or the other in the past?


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  1. Ay… Painful post, Peter.

    I always want the phoenix change because there are so many things I want to change and they’re all tied in together.

    But it’s a lot and willpower is the problem. So in the end it always turns out to be a less than badass tortoise process. In fact, I wonder if I ever change at all or ever will. Getting used to that, I guess.

    1. Hey Martin, I’m kinda glad this one stung – it means the writing is working! 😛

      You do change though – the only constant is change. It’s just which DIRECTION the change is going that you’ve gotta worry about. (If you’re not growing, you’re dying!)

      1. True, true. It’s just that I really want for the complete phoenix-style overhaul to happen, but in the end it’s all pussyfooting forward all the time.

        Then again, forcing what isn’t natural is no good either. Is it?

          1. Sigh. Oh well, let me go and book a 3 week yoga retreat then :/

            Actually, I kind of did a semi-phoenix thingamabob, I realise. I spent 6 months completely online, like a 15 year old in his mom’s basement, focusing exclusively on online connections, and I came out with a nice littlle business.

            But it’s probably cheating, right? I mean, a phoenix probably doesn’t take 6 months to burn. Hang on, let me check that with Joseph Campbell…

          2. Building a profitable business in 6 months (when others try and struggle for years) is definitely a form of phoenix change.

            However, your yoga retreat (assuming in reference to my discussion with Pam) isn’t really valid. If you don’t have the resources to do that specific strategy for achieving phoenix-based health change… then find one of the many many options that require no big upfront investment.

            Phoenix change is actually the friend of those on the total down and out – the phoenix is the only creature that REALLY understands:

            “It’s not until you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.”

  2. It’s a pretty interesting and cryptic topic you’ve raised here…

    I can only offer my experience/philosophy by way of narrative example.

    I trained intensively in full contact kickboxing through my somewhat crucial formative years (teens into early adulthood). As a result I feel I inherently imbue most of what I do with a sense of near-masochistic self-discipline (discipline being at the core of martial arts training). In addition, I feel true attainment of success MUST take time. I would question the credibility of anyone who boasts that they attained a black belt (in both actuality and as a metaphor) in 6 months. It must take 6 years – at least. As a result, while I train regularly at the gym, I don’t expect radical transformation. I take quiet satisfaction in the knowledge that my moderate results come steadily and naturally.

    HOWEVER, I am the most impatient entrepreneur I know. I expect an empire in 6 months…. I’m working hard, applying (as best I can) the discipline and focus I feel I’ve inherited from my martial arts, to my career. But the tortoise logic doesn’t seem to sit comfortably with my business goals.

    The only conclusion I can draw is that our approach to transformation stems from our relative feeling state – our sense of need. As a new entrepreneur, I struggle with cashflow as much as the next guy/gal. So perhaps my financial goal is further away from me, than say my physical goal is. Is our tortoise vs hare approach directly related to how badly we want something?

    Great post.

    1. Hey Steve,

      I think to some extent, it is. The thing about the phoenix method is that the fiery destruction usually includes a huge amount of angst and frustration at NOT having the thing that you want… so yes, this really is all about how bad you want it.

      This is also why the phoenix changers tend to get the thing they want… but at the cost of something else that was burnt up in the pre-fire.

  3. Fiery post Peter!

    I’m in the slow and steady change camp. Get my feet wet, then my ankles, then my thighs, then my waist … On my road to getting my writings published, I started with a letter to the editor, then a guest post, then a local column, etc. Same with speaking up. Share opinions with friends, then in a small group, then a larger group, then at a town meeting, then, etc.

    To me, it’s like building change muscles so I have the strength I need to keep going when the road gets muddy and to fight off the naysayers when the ideas get threatening. Kinda like a change action hero. (think I will use this analogy in my e-inspire this week. Thanks for posing this question.)

    Am into slow these days. I want to take my time and savor the experience whatever it is. Life’s short enough as it is without depressing the fast forward button.

    Thanks! G.

    1. Hey Giulietta,

      I get where you’re coming from – although I think the fiery phoenix has it’s time and place. Sometime’s the adrenaline rush of diving into the deep end (I’m really mixing my metaphors) takes you to a whole other level of “feeling alive” 🙂

  4. I’ve always been a tortoise, though I’ve always been jealous of the hare/phoenix, as you put it. Usually it works okay for me, though when willpower lags I tend to settle where I am. At least, until some major upheaval in my life (and they happen with regularity) means starting all over again!

    The question I have is do people actually change for good? That’s a puzzle I’ve been contemplating for some time. Sometimes it seems they do, and sometimes they don’t. So is one of type of change more lasting than another? Under what circumstances?

    1. Hey Monica!

      I’m always intrigued when people are skeptical of permanent change – of course change happens… just ask any parent! It’s just always easier to observe growth and change in OTHERS than it is in your self.

      I don’t think the tortoise or phoenix method are inherently more or less permanent than each other. They arrive at permanency differently though – the tortoise because of the inexorable moment and the phoenix because of the enormous distance regarded to actually go back to where they used to be.

      Does that make sense?

  5. I read every post of yours that pops into my email but rarely to click on the link to see what other people are saying about it but today I just had to because this one totally blew me away. I had no idea that these two methods existed and reading your explanation of them clicked so many things into place for me.

    Weight loss and exercise, I’m an all or nothing gal. Strike one up for the phoenix.

    When something comes up with the children that needs tweaking (like the eldest is watching too much telly or I decide that middle one should be eating more green stuff!) there are no half measures, I throw myself at it. Blame that darn phoenix again.

    And with my business, I’m a chameleon (either that or a tarantula who loves to shed her skin!) and I go through phases with stuff but whatever the thing I’m chasing, it’s always done at one hundred miles an hour.

    What I’m interested in though is, having recognised that this is my mo, what, if anything, do I do with this new found knowledge?

    1. Hey El,

      Glad that this post made you curious.

      To answer your question, I’m going to ask you another question: How’s it working out for you?

      You’re pretty phoenix oriented, which is great – explosive change is awesome. The question is, are there any areas in your life where you’d value being able to create the consistency and momentum of the tortoise (without the meltdown and fire of the phoenix) ??

      If you’re, as you say, hardcore leaning towards one method… it’d be very useful to train yourself to have the behavioral flexibility to do BOTH, don’t ya think?

      1. I just get bored easily which is why the phoenix thing seems to suit me better. I throw myself at something and get it done before I lose interest or get distracted by another beautiful shiny idea.

        But you’re right, it would be very useful to have a mix of both. I have got a stickability mindset with some stuff but other times I could use a more tortoise like methodology. Like exercise for example. That could always benefit from consistency and momentum. 😉

  6. Definitely tortoise in biz. I have a lot of patience with it, and it feels much better to me to grow things slowly.

    Exercise, on the other hand, is where I want a big flaming Phoenix. I want to go to sleep a puffy middle-aged suburban Mom, and wake up like Cameron Diaz. If you can sell me that pill, I would buy it (ok, not really since there are diet pills — but my *desire* is for immediate results in this area).

    Strange, huh?

    1. Yeah see, I admire that patience in the business arena – I definitely don’t have it anymore. If you sat me down and said “Here’s a proven set of instructions for building an empire that’ll win you wealth and fame… but it take’s five years…”

      … well, I’d probably want to say “Screw you! I’ll do it in two! Just don’t talk to me about work/life balance!”

      FYI, the phoenix exercisers tend to get huge mileage out of RETREATS … ya know? Three weeks doing yoga in the mountains indirectly forces you to do the phoenix thing (drop all the other balls, lots of initial suffering for maximum bliss afterward etc etc). I know you were looking for a pill, but a bootcamp of some sort is probably the next best thing 😉

  7. I’m a tortoise. Always have been, always will be. I cannot thing of a single change in my life that happened with Phoenix-like rapidity, regardless of how much I wanted it to.

    I started my business while working as an administrative assistant, built it slowly after getting laid off and am still steadily building.
    I used the Couch-to-5K gradual training plan to start running.
    The most current life-change is getting rid of “stuff.” I started by giving things away; this weekend is a yard sale. Next will probably be a few loads to the Good Will.

    You get the idea. As to how it’s working out for me: why, slowly, of course. Your post makes me a little sad about it, although usually I’m perfectly happy to be slow and steady.

    1. Hey Dava,

      Sorry to show you the grass on the other side, but remember it only SEEMS greener. There’s a lot to be said for slow and steady. However, like I said to another commenter, there’s also a LOT to be said for rounding out your behavioral flexibility by learning to do both.

      Your biography isn’t your destiny – in fact, years of tortoise change is sometimes the exact ingredient needed to spark the all consuming (and all creating) fire of the phoenix.

      Watch out! 😛

  8. Nice post. I’m definitely in the tortoise who wants to be a phoenix category.

    I get what Stephen de Villiers said about the slow, gradual build to an expert. I’m always impatient to get to the level of those artists/designers I admire but at the same time understand that it took them years/decades to get to that level. The whole idea of practicing and slowing honing your craft and taking the time to mature your skills is important – and something I enjoy.

    However like I said I’m impatient to get there. I don’t like taking the slow, steady approach. Not sure I’m prepared for the phoenix though. The unknown of what gets burnt away scares me. Am I prepared to lose it? If it’s something like family then no.

    I think the duality causes me to be a tortoise hiding in it’s shell.

    1. Heya Greg, thanks for stopping by!

      I think you’ve added a really valuable point – that sometimes “losing everything to gain something” really isn’t an option. I guess it all depends how big the change needs to be – if you are not seeking transformation in your family world, then I shouldn’t think it would “burn” 🙂

  9. Peter I really like this post because for me it’s been a culmination of both. I’m constantly seeking to make small improvements everyday and learn something new.

    Along with that I set myself mini projects that require pretty rapid change or growth or action for more immediate and tangible results. Between the two it is working great guns.

    Throw in a ton of determination, a lot of spirit, energy and belief in what I do and the result I’m working to and I’m happy with where I’m heading – because it’s where I envisioned myself heading all those months back.

    A key factor in either of these trans-formative techniques is accountability partners to hold you to your word and keep you on track. Not everything has to be done by yourself alone.


    1. Hey Natalie thanks for dropping in 🙂

      AWESOME to hear that you’ve figured out a way to rock both. That’s kinda perfect – so we should all be expecting to see massive things from you eh? 🙂

      I can’t wait!

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