The epiphany problem


Here is an excerpt from the latest edition of Tom Butler-Bowdon‘s newsletter in which he shares his thoughts — and others’ thoughts – about what he characterizes as “The epiphany problem.” Other subjects addressed in this edition include

o “Purpose or process: which comes first?”
o 50 Politics Classics – Audio Edition
o Vale Wayne Dyer, Dr. Sacks too…and Thomas Stanley

Butler-Bowdon: “If you’d like to read my commentaries on [Stanley’s] The Millionaire Next Door and The Millionaire Mind, with all their insights into the recipes for building wealth over the long-term, just respond to this email with ‘Stanley’ in the title bar or in the first line of reply, and I’ll send you free pdfs of both.”

o “The Art of the Spiel” (Donald Trump)

To read the complete issue, sign up for a free subscription, and learn more about Tom and his brilliant work, please click here. Meanwhile, here’s Tom on “The epiphany problem.”

* * *

My initial motivation to write was a desire to understand what made people successful. The earlier books in particular, covering self-help, success and psychology, were the public result of a private investigation into possible ‘secrets’ which, if followed, would virtually guarantee that one’s wishes would become reality. From this project came two things:

1) A distrust of inspiration.
2) An appreciation of time in achievement.

Being inspired is the starting point of anything great, and the moment of inspiration itself is highly pleasurable. But such intellectual highs don’t help us get things done. This ‘epiphany problem’ is becoming better appreciated now, and I enjoyed a recent blog by Peter Shallard on the subject.

Peter mentions Allan Wheelis, a psychoanalyst who noted that there was a point in the 20th century when Freudian therapy no longer seemed to work. The therapy had not changed, so why exactly did it stop working? Wheelis argued that what had changed was people’s capacity for self-control. Freud’s early patients had come of age in the late Victorian era, a time when people were arguably more self-reliant and disciplined, and if Freud told them to make some change, they jolly well did so. But as the 20th century progressed, the capacity for self-regulation and self-discipline waned, just as our exposure to ‘inspiration’ increased. The result: more epiphanies, and less ability to turn them into measurable change.

Shallard refers to Roy Baumeister, the social psychologist and author of Willpower (2012), who describes self-regulation failure as “the major social pathology of our time.” In less intellectual terms, and speaking to his entrepreneur audience, Shallard writes:

“If you’re someone who feels like you’re going crazy experiencing breakthrough after breakthrough, but you’re STILL not getting the results in life and business that you know you’re capable of… well, you might have a Self-Regulation problem. More epiphanies won’t help you. Building your self control muscles will.”

Most days I work in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. People are working on lengthy dissertations on Virgil’s poetry, or researching Descartes’ mind-body problem, or getting to the nub of Augustine’s City of God. There is good Wi-Fi in the building, but I’m always struck how little time people seem to spend checking Facebook, or catching up with the news, or shopping on Amazon. When they have decided they are going to work on something, they do it. This ability to self-regulate, I would venture, has played an important part in getting them to a top university and increasing their chances in life. You may be very talented or smart, you may have perfect material conditions to pursue a goal, but none of this counts if you are not able to control your behavior and work habits to an extent that you can get things done.

By the way, I am not claiming to be great at self-control myself; there are so many things that take our attention these days and I can easily waste a morning on trifles! But at least I know that epiphanies don’t last, and that ultimately what gets achieved is thanks to work. The world is full of good ideas, what is rarer is good execution.

* * *

As I read this excerpt, I was again reminded of an observation by Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Here is a direct link to Tom’s new website.

To read Steven Pinker’s review of Willpower, please click here.

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