Let’s contrast two ways to improve your performance at anything – work, sports, etc. The results and the experience of the journeys will be radically different. Different levels of effort will be involved. Different outcomes will also be generated. Each approach is built upon a different premise.
Specifically, the first approach I’ll speak to omits something subtle but true about how the mind works. A subtle shift or omission can completely change the experience of something. Like forgetting to add a dash of salt to a great meal or not bothering to line up your feet when teeing off at the golf course.
The External Approach
The external approach to growth is how the vast majority of coaches and leaders are operating in the world today. It’s how most of society is living and relating to each other and themselves. It’s predicated on going out in the world and finding a method, strategy or tactic; and deploying it to achieve a result. An assumption here is that without the external knowledge or skill to fill a crucial gap in your arsenal, you cannot get ahead. With the external knowledge fully internalized by the recipient, like a virus infecting its host, all that is left to do is take action and give it time.
An external approach to performance growth can be exhilarating at first, but also exhausting. There is a lot to do and time to spend. It’s also inherently limited in the scope of impact that can come from it. The more uncertainty and dynamism in the world, the less reliable “established” and extrinsic models for success become.
There are ample examples in the graveyard of business books of frameworks and good advice that fail miserably when they don’t account for the unbounded nature of life. “Good to Great” and “In Search of Excellence”; two all-time best-selling business books, lauded many companies as paragons of business robustness, only to see those same firms fall from grace, hard, in the years since they were so highly regarding in print.
The Internal Approach
The second approach I’ll call the internal approach to growth. This approach is predicated on the existence of a curious faculty of the mind to produce revelatory wisdom in service of one’s personal development and growth. Need an answer? Don’t bury your nose in that self-help book or call a friend for advice. Instead, look within. It’s age-old advice, present in – what is to be assumed as – independently evolved cultures and spiritual traditions from time immemorial.
The internal approach to personal growth requires improving the capacity to listen to the state of your internal world as a point of leverage. With greater perception, the quiet voice of insight becomes clear. It helps to have a calm and peaceful mind to hear something quiet. Insight tends to speak softly after all. More whisper. Less “Bang!”.
The internal approach can feel opaque and vague. Much like this blog post! It tends to bypass the intellect, which raises all sorts of psychological red flags. It doesn’t, however, mean that it isn’t valid or effective. It just means that it is pointing to a facet of the human mind that you rarely connect to consciously.
The experience of this approach tends to be one of doing less and listening more. After all, one insight can be the only thing you need to make massive progress, and it can occur at any moment. It’s like staring into the night sky, open to anything, but looking for nothing in particular. Then, out of nowhere, a shooting star streaks across the sky. Blink and you’ll miss it, but you don’t if you are paying attention.
This dichotomy – External vs Internal methods for growth – is false, as you probably guessed by now. There is no way to avoid taking in external factors when doing anything. We are human beings and faced with an onslaught of data from the world. So long as we are conscious, this is going to be the case. It’s not a bad thing to ask someone for advice, help or coaching either!
However, what is crucial is that in the midst of externally seeking answers that you dial-up your attention to what’s going on in your internal world. Bring awareness to a tighter connection with, and better listening for, the inner voice. Call it intuition, gut feeling, inner knowing or insight. It’s this small, but distinct, innate signal – something we all have – that is the real point of leverage for achieving profound growth.