From “Impossible” To “I’m Possible”: A Program For Holistic Development

As we approach the start of a new year, a common topic among the professionals I work with in financial markets is “goal-setting”. The idea is to learn from the year past, set goals for the new year, and seek performance improvements. What, however, if we decided that simply improving who we are is not enough? Suppose we wanted to transform ourselves? To borrow Carol Dweck’s term, a fixed mindset tells us we are who we are and that it’s impossible to achieve actual transformation. A growth mindset, in Audrey Hepburn’s memorable phrase, turns “impossible” to “I’m possible”: I can renew, transform, and redefine what my life is about.

We rarely achieve such transformation because we typically approach personal growth in a piecemeal way. We work for a while at improving our physical activity or diet; later we work on our productivity at the office or helpfulness at home. These are all worthy aims, but there is no clear continuity or synergy among them. A true program of development is ongoing and cumulative; it’s the difference between reading a book on a topic and entering a degree program dedicated to that area. We learn from reading a book; we develop as a professional from the training of an educational program.

Last year, I wrote about the surprising psychological benefits of aerobic exercise. That article proposed a radical hypothesis: that exercise benefits us for the same reason that psychotherapy helps us. Both transform our states of being—cognitively, emotionally, physically—so that we can process ourselves and the world in new ways. When my academic colleagues and I reviewed the research literature on psychological change, we found that creating powerful, new experiences in novel states of consciousness accelerates and deepens our efforts at transformation. In our normal states, we achieve normal changes and life improvements. To achieve lasting and more fundamental development, however, we must go beyond the normal. From this perspective, we can appreciate that the great spiritual and religious traditions of the world are time-tested systems for holistic development, generating unique states (meditative, reflective, ecstatic, physical) that help us transcend daily, ego-laden concerns. There is a reason we dance at weddings, bow our heads and remain still in prayer, and enjoy food and drink during social gatherings. Novel experiences in novel states are gateways to transformation.

A great example of such a gateway is meditation and the ways in which radically quieting the mind can improve our access to intuition and creative insight. As Headspace observes, resting in awareness enables us to rest in creativity, fueling a fresh sense of purpose and direction. That, in turn, helps us generate new ideas, pursue novel life directions, and expand our development across a variety of domains, from personal to professional. It’s a great example of what Barbara Fredrickson and positive psychologists refer to as “broaden and build”: expanding our awareness opens the door to fresh life experiences and competencies.


What if we harnessed this developmental dynamic and turned it into an ongoing lifestyle? That would turn transformation from an abstract ideal to a daily pursuit, where developmental experiences in one area fuel growth in other areas. Here is a simple example:

Earlier this year, I wrote on the topic of trading and investing with greater consistency. I used the analogy of the blood glucose meter that I employ to monitor and control my blood sugar. As a Type 2 diabetic, I had encountered significant challenge in controlling my blood sugar readings. Swinging from low to high readings and back again was not good for my longer-term health, but also negatively impacted my energy level and mood during the day. With frequent readings from the monitor, I gradually learned what increases and decreases my glucose levels. I discovered that certain kinds of exercise with a minimum level of intensity decreases my readings; eating certain foods at certain times of day allows my sugar levels to be more constant. With small, cumulative tweaks aided by data and deliberate practice, I reached the point where I now consistently stay in a normal blood sugar zone an average of 95% of the time.

That, however, is but a small part of the story. In performing more exercise to keep the sugar readings consistent, I found myself with more energy. By discovering that when and how I sleep impacts my glucose levels the next day, I was able to improve my sleep quality, as measured by my Fitbit FIT . More stable readings and more and better sleep and exercise, in turn, improved my mood and energy level and greatly increased my work productivity. That itself provided a sense of pride and progress and motivation that spilled over to my personal life. In short, creating a data-driven program of continuous improvement turned small changes into transformations. What would have initially seemed impossible became a discovery of possibility.

Dr. Tom Frieden recently recognized these synergies when he pointed out that, “Physical activity is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug”, creating a variety of positive health outcomes from longer life to reduced illness. Importantly, this is true of all ongoing, cumulative efforts at development, creating cascades of cognitive, emotional, social, spiritual, and intellectual improvement. A true program for holistic development would turn such efforts into coordinated lifestyles where we pursue multiple “wonder drugs”, much as I have worked on the physical control of blood glucose. The challenge is defining and implementing a life process as rigorous as our work processes, with ongoing, dedicated activities devoted to cognitive development, the development of emotional and social strengths, physical development, and the cultivation of spiritual experience. What synergies would result from the intersection of these? From the vantage point of our saturated, busy days, such a program might seem impossible. If, however, we develop a vision of “I’m possible”, might such efforts renew and not deplete our energy?

In the new year, I will be expanding my Fitbit efforts with the recent Sense unit that assesses a variety of functions, from heart rate variability to blood pressure, skin temperature, sleep quality, exercise, and blood oxygenation. I will also be working with the MuseS unit that tracks brain waves, meditation outcomes, and sleep in real time. These data, along with self-report measures of psychological well-being and productivity, can readily gauge the impact of coordinated efforts at physical, emotional, and cognitive development. Imagine, for example, a daily routine of challenging physical exercise, intensive loving-kindness meditation, and rigorous biofeedback exercises aimed at stress management and cognitive focus. If shifts in state help us make specific life changes, could it be possible that life lived in a broader set of states enables us to access a wider range of experiences and strengths creating positive cascades throughout our relationships, work, and health? Thanks to the real time data now available to us, we are not far from the development of a truly evidence-based positive psychology. Once impossible, it is now well within our reach to pursue new possibilities in data-driven ways.

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