How To Become Your Best Self

A Story About Changing Your Habits

Katy Butler

Once in a while—perhaps inspired by therapy or a retreat or a friend's heart attack—we may make concerted attempts to be kinder to our spouses, less impatient with coworkers, more loving with our children, or more attentive to our own self-care. But our chaotic 21st-century lives often lack the structure, discipline, and even the raw physical energy required to make the changes stick. After a few weeks of trying something as simple as swimming at lunchtime—never mind reforming our characters—we sag beneath the weight of too much distraction and too little sleep. We know everything except how to live.

In earlier centuries, before the train whistle and the factory siren drowned out the village church bells, step-by-step systems of human transformation were embedded within local religious life. Whatever their limitations, the mosque, temple, and church offered communal, time-tested practices designed to foster altruism and slowly transform character—soft technologies of change, which the religious sociologist Robert Bellah called "habits of the heart" in his 1985 book of the same name.

Now, at the opening of the 21st century, in a culture freed from communal and familial rhythms by 24-hour Wal-Marts, Burger Kings, and cell phones, the practices that Bellah called habits of the heart are nearly forgotten. They lie in the backs of our mental closets, like robes dusty from disuse, barely serviceable when we put them on for a funeral or a retreat somewhere far from home. Therapy, the modern substitute, has often proven less effective in changing lives than once was hoped.

In this postmodern world of infinite choice and incoherent structure, what practical steps should we take now—a personal trainer? More therapy? Feng shui? Life coaching? Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous? Martial arts? Zen meditation?—to become the self we see shining in our best moments? How can we learn to live in consonance with what we value most? And how can we construct a ladder to the stars while we stand on its lowest rung?

What Really Matters?

Such questions have long preoccupied the writer Tony Schwartz, who paid a price in the mid-1980s for failing to live in accord with what he valued most. He was a tennis player and a 35-year-old former New York Times reporter—quick, angular, pessimistic, thoroughly psychoanalyzed, and driven—when real estate developer Donald Trump offered him a quarter of a million dollars plus royalties to ghostwrite a book that became a bestseller, The Art of the Deal.

"I did it with great guilt, enormous guilt," says Schwartz, who was raised in a relentlessly secular Manhattan family that valued political activism far more than either money-making or traditional religion. "My wife was pregnant with our second child. I was making $45,000 a year supporting a family in New York, and this was a chance to make a lot more money. I had two sides at war with each other, and what won was the darker, more primitive side—my desire for money, for fame."

The day the book was published in 1987, bookstore staff buyers around the country told The Wall Street Journal that nobody outside Manhattan would read it. They were wrong: it was the Gordon Gecko era of deals and Wall Street greed, and the book hit a nerve and the bestseller list.

Not long afterward, Schwartz woke up in the bedroom of the house he'd bought in Riverdale, just north of Manhattan. The Art of the Deal was number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and well on its way to selling a million copies in hardcover. He'd achieved much of the fame he'd hoped for, and earned enough to think he'd never worry about money again. "And I felt bad, I felt lousy," Schwartz says. "That was what prompted me to write What Really Matters. It was my penance."

For the next eight years, Schwartz abandoned the art of the deal for the heart of the matter. What's a truly meaningful life? he asked. And who could show him how to live it? He flew to California and talked to Michael Murphy about human possibility at Esalen and to Ram Dass about transcendence. He tried meditation at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and biofeedback at the Menninger Clinic. He worked with the mind-body back doctor John Sarno, drew on the right side of his brain, and explored his difficulties with intimacy through the Enneagram, the Diamond Heart method, and dreamwork.

When What Really Matters was published, in 1995, M. Scott Peck (author of The Road Less Traveled) said its last chapter contained "as good a description of wisdom as any I know in literature." But Schwartz had spent all the money he'd earned from The Art of the Deal. He still sometimes woke up in the bedroom of his house in Riverdale feeling pessimistic and driven. And he found his thoughts returning to one of the most prosaic of the people he'd interviewed—a former tennis coach named Jim Loehr.

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Loehr was 47 and working at a Florida tennis camp when Schwartz first interviewed him about mind-body approaches to personal change. Raised in a devout Roman Catholic family in rural Colorado but intensely pragmatic, Loehr had attended Jesuit schools before becoming a clinical psychologist and the director of a community mental health agency. There, he'd lost faith in therapy (as he had earlier in religion) as a sufficient force to catalyze change. "I just didn't see it working," he told Schwartz. "I'd watch people get lost in their own conflicts and come out no better than when they started—and often worse."

In 1984, after nearly starving to death in private practice, Loehr went to work at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy near Sarasota, Florida—a struggling place full of talented but underperforming teenage athletes with overly ambitious parents. In this unpromising environment, he tried to get the kids to reframe their challenges as opportunities and to practice guided imagery and emotional discipline.

Positive Rituals

Conventional sports psychology alone didn't work. He saw kids in the late afternoons, after six hours of nonstop tennis competition on top of a lunch of cheap fried food. "Their blood sugar was low, and they'd be tired, angry, upset, and spacey," he says. "No matter how much training I did with them mentally and emotionally, the whole thing was an impossible nightmare."

He first addressed the management of their bodily energy—the raw fuel for every sort of change. He got the school to throw out its doughnuts and deep-fat fryers and to provide healthier lunches and fruit between meals. In the mid-afternoons, he took the kids off the court and into a darkened classroom, where they lay down, closed their eyes, and rested while he played relaxing music.

Loehr got his first clue to the significance of what he calls "positive rituals" in 1987, while studying hundreds of hours of videotapes of professional tennis matches to find out what set champions apart from also-rans. It wasn't their raw talent or their strokes, he discovered, but what they did during the seemingly unimportant 15- or 20-second pauses between points.

During these breaks, the less successful players—both among the kids at the training camp and on the professional circuits—dragged their rackets, muttered under their breaths, dropped their heads and shoulders, looked around at the crowd distractedly, or even threw fits. Giving vent to energy-draining emotions like anger and fear, they looked either demoralized or tense.

Champions like Chris Evert, on the other hand, kept their heads high even when they'd lost a point, maintaining a confident posture that telegraphed no big deal. Loehr nicknamed this "the matador walk" after a Spanish matador told him, "The most important lesson in courage is physical, not mental. From the age of 12, I was taught to walk in a way that produces courage."

Loehr showed his videos to the tennis kids—and his growing list of private clients—and had them mimic the champions' confident walks. Their games improved. He organized 90-minute cycles of oscillation (intense exertion followed by rest and recovery) into their days, and they improved again. He tailor-made new rituals to address individual weaknesses, and the athletes improved still more.

A Larger Self

But could Loehr's training principles  help people develop a "self" fueled by something larger than self-interest? Could people develop character, altruism, and closer relationships—things that really mattered to them—using the techniques that improved their hand-eye coordination? In the mid-1990s, Loehr began experimenting with non-athletes, especially middle-management employees on the verge of burnout, sent by their Fortune 500 companies to his training center in Orlando, Florida. Another early guinea pig was writer Tony Schwartz.

During his research on mind-body transformation for What Really Matters, Schwartz—an energetic but self-critical tennis player—had spent four days on a Florida tennis court with Loehr, learning to oscillate and to pump his arm in the air and cheer between points, no matter how badly he'd played. By the fourth day, his critical thoughts had quieted; he felt notably more cheerful, and he handily beat one of the young Bollettieri camp's hotshots in a single game.

But tennis, after all, is just tennis.

Now Schwartz wanted to change negative character traits that affected the lives of his wife, his daughters, and other people he loved. Over the next couple of years, extrapolating from what he'd learned from Loehr, he designed three rituals. Every Saturday morning at 8, he'd talk privately with his wife for an hour. Every morning, he'd get up and write down his pessimistic thoughts, and then find the opportunity and challenge within each perceived threat. Before he went to bed at night, he'd make a list of what he was grateful for.

Over the course of a year, the pessimism Schwartz had assumed was indelibly stamped into his character began to melt. He and his wife grew closer; they've since voluntarily extended their "intimacy hour" to two 90-minute sessions a week. "I could've spent 15 years in therapy talking about my reluctance to be intimate," Schwartz said. "Guess what? I just did it and I got better. Once you say—'This is just a muscle that's weak in me—if I developed it, I'd be more productive, I'd feel better, and I'd make other people feel better'—once that's clear, it's common sense. Push the weight."

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In the late 1990s, Schwartz and Loehr came up with a pragmatic definition of spirituality: actions taken in the service of deeply held values and a broader sense of purpose. The book they cowrote chronicling this work—The Power of Full Engagement—was featured on Oprah Winfrey's show, and reached number four on the New York Times's "Advice" bestseller list. Perhaps, in a culture with so little common-sense understanding of the importance of daily ritual and rhythm, it touched a nerve. If The Art of the Deal promised something to a culture obsessed with the free market, The Power of Full Engagement spoke to the quotidian chaos of our present lives and their lack of self-care.

The case studies of businessmen and women in the book opened a disturbing window into well-compensated, 21st-century daily life. Many of the participants had high blood pressure and had gained 20 or 30 pounds since college. They rose at 6:30 a.m. and returned home from work at 7:30 p.m., too exhausted to exercise. After a preoccupied supper, they might spend an hour or so answering 50 to 75 business e-mails. Few practiced "habits of the heart" that counterbalanced the demands of their jobs. The concept of oscillation was foreign to them: there were no breaks in their days.

They skipped breakfast and lived on blueberry muffins, candy bars, sandwiches eaten at their desks, and pizza on the run. They drank too much, ate too much, and worked too much. Running on empty, many had lost touch with what they'd once passionately valued or wanted. More exhausted than they knew, they lived and worked in a culture hostile to rest.

Schwartz and Loehr first helped these men and women design rituals to recreate daily rhythms and rebuild raw, physical energy: a walk in the park at lunch, a mid-morning yoga break, a day a week working from home, a workout or snack in midafternoon.

Mindful of the power of environment and context in shaping behavior, Schwartz and Loehr also got them to clear out junk foods from the house, pack trail mix and protein bars in their briefcases, and put water bottles within arms' reach everywhere. Night owls were trained (over the course of a couple of weeks) to become early birds by using bright lights and alarm clocks placed on the far side of the bedroom.

Next, participants moved on to emotional and ethical reforms. Through pen-and-paper exercises, each was encouraged to create his or her own list of important values—a set of do-it-yourself commandments. On questionnaires designed by Schwartz (sample questions: What would you like to have written on your tombstone? Name someone you deeply respect and describe the three qualities you most admire in him or her.) many had named "family," or "respect for others," or "integrity, " or "meeting my commitments" at the top of the list.

These tactics weren't one-session wonders, but trainings—religious practices without the religion—to be repeated without fail until automatic, and then continued for life. Through the unexpected doorway of sports training, Schwartz and Loehr were creating a secular wisdom tradition that didn't require putting on a medieval robe and chanting in Japanese in a barn on the California coast.

Reshaping Lives

Mechanical as these ways may seem, they confirm what ancient folkways, religious custom, and the old joke about Carnegie Hall make clear: change requires not just inspiration, but practice. We don't simply paint a rainbow into the sky and climb it. We paint the rainbow over and over again until it's strong enough to bear our weight.

Nothing that we've learned about the unconscious suggests that the process will be easy. As anyone who's tried to quit biting her nails or overeating knows, it's far easier to decide to change a habit than to take action for 60 to 90 days in a row to make the changes stick. To stop or change any habit creates anxiety, and human contact, be it in the form of a therapist or a support group, is a proven antidote for it. We're only generations away from the "habits of the heart" of the village well and temple; we remain communal creatures, and the individual-consumer model of change propagated by 20th-century therapy ignores the essence of our humanity. The influence therapists have on a broader community, and the way we're influenced by it, is another powerful part of the territory of the unconscious, and one that remains only partly explored.


Former Networker Features Editor Katy Butler is the author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door, a New York Times “Notable Book” and bestseller, and The Art of Dying Well, both published by Scribner. A past finalist for a National Magazine Award and winner of a Science in Society Prize of the National Association of Science Writers, she lives in northern California.

This blog is excerpted from "Living on Purpose" by Katy Butler. The full version is available in the September/October 2003 issue, The Power of Purpose: Turning Our Daily Habits Into Shining Moments.

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Topic: Creativity | Cultural, Social & Racial Issues

Tags: Anxiety | attachment | change | changes | Couples & Family | culture | eating | eating disorders | family | family dinners | habit | habits | habitual behavior | healthy eating | Katy Butler | meditation | mind | mindful | Mindfulness | overeating | religion | stress | success | successful relationships

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