World-Changing Books: The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks (2009, HarperCollins)
When I invited suggestions for ‘world-changing books’, Gay Hendrick’s The Big Leap was one of the most frequently suggested. I saw a post on a forum recently asking for advice on the best book to give a friend considering launching a new venture, and again, this was the book most frequently recommended. It’s not hard to see why.
The book has two big themes: the Upper Limit Problem (ie our ‘limited tolerance for feeling good’, the way we subconsciously sabotage ourselves when we feel things are going too well) and the Zone of Genius (where we fulfill our fullest unique potential, where ‘work doesn’t feel like work’). Gay explains below how the book was created when he recognized the link between them.
Who’s it by?
Gay Hendricks trained in counseling psychology at Stanford University and was a professor at the University of Colorado for 21 years. With his wife Kathlyn he has coauthored over 35 books. He founded the Hendricks Institute, which offers training in conscious living and relationships, and is also a founder of The Spiritual Cinema Circle. As well as his many nonfiction books, he has recently published a series of mystery novels featuring the Tibetan Buddhist private detective, Tenzing Norbu.
Who’s it for?
This is not a niche book. As Gay writes in the introduction: ‘I haven’t met a person yet who didn’t suffer at least a little bit from [the Upper Limit Problem].’
Because the themes are so universal the book will speak to people in very different situations: what they’re likely to have in common is a sense that they’re living below their potential, or perhaps just a vague dissatisfaction with how things are.
What’s the key message?
Gay argues that each of us has an ‘upper limit’ to the amount of happiness and success with which we are comfortable: when we push up against it we tend to find a way of sabotaging ourselves or deflecting the positive emotions to take ourselves back into the comfortable, unchallenging world of low-level discontent. Upper limiting behaviours can be dramatic – the addictions or suicide of a star at the zenith of his career – or more subtle, such as cynicism, deflecting a compliment, picking a fight with a spouse or even becoming ill. It’s a form of self-protection: if we play small, we can’t fall far. But identifying and overcoming these self-limiting beliefs and behaviours enables us to move into our Zone of Genius, our ‘Big Leap’ into a life of ‘more love, abundance and success’.
How does it change the world?
Many readers, myself included, will recognize upper limiting behaviours in themselves. The very fact of this recognition can be immensely powerful – suddenly you realize that whatever you think is the problem is in fact just a symptom of something else. You can see beyond the immediate issue – the squabbling, the anxiety, the anger – and that immediately robs it of its power. So many people have their finger firmly pressed down on what Gay refers to as ‘the misery button’ without ever realizing that they have the power to quit pressing it. It’s a powerful, insightful and practical strategy for a more conscious, happier life.
What’s interesting about it from a writer’s perspective?
· The way that Gay links his big themes is structurally interesting: as an editor, my initial response might have been that this was in fact two books, but when you read more deeply it’s clear that, as he makes clear in the interview below, it’s actually the connection between them that makes the book so powerful. It’s a useful counter-argument to the often-heard advice to keep a book focused on a single big idea.
· The book is filled with anecdotes from Gay’s years of counseling and coaching that illustrate the points persuasively and also make the book very readable – we engage at an emotional level with stories, they makes sense to us at a level much deeper than our intellectual consciousness, so it’s a powerful way to make your concepts real and memorable to readers.
· The cover is a great example of metaphor in action: the fish leaping from the small bowl to the big. It communicates movement, risk, possibilities (although when I told him I was a bit worried about the fish, Gay confirmed that he’d been contacted by a mathematician who’d worked out the trajectory and concluded that things ‘didn’t look good for the fish’. Maybe on future editions the angle could be adjusted…) I also like the way the orange of the title picks up that flash of colour against a monochrome palette – orange is associated with optimism, enthusiasm, happiness, creativity and success, perfect subliminal messages for this book.
· Each of the chapters in the book has a subtitle, providing a little more information on exactly what it contains and hinting at the benefit for the reader, eg ‘Getting Specific: How To Spot the Upper Limit Problem in Daily Life’. I’ve talked before about the importance of the table of contents; it’s like a menu for the book and it needs to both inform and entice.
· The book includes a ‘bonus’ in the form of an appendix: Baby Steps and Big Leaps: My Early Adventures as an Entrepreneur’. It focuses on the entrepreneurial development of the young Gay, and its apparently artless home-spun simplicity allows him to get beneath our cynical defences – his central message, ‘create things that make people’s lives better’, hits the mark perfectly. Again, an illustration of the power of storytelling.
· Irritatingly, it’s another example of a book that emerged in the writing rather than being carefully planned (so I hope none of my clients are reading this…) – Gay says he thinks in paragraphs, so I’d argue that he’s internalized structure to the point where he doesn’t need to plan it out.
More from Gay himself…
Tell me a little about the motivation for writing The Big Leap.
That book took me 30 years to write: I started thinking about the Zone of Genius, one of the key themes, when I was still a PhD student at Stanford in 1973/4; my daughter was in the 1st grade at the time, she was 6 years old and sitting in her classroom, I saw that these little kids had these areas of genius, one of them was really good at one thing, another was really good at something else, but they didn’t get much of a chance to develop that area of themselves. The Big Leap finally crystallized 5 or 6 years ago when I finally realized, ok, I’ve been thinking about this book for 30 years now, I’ve finally got to sit down and write the book around it.
I took a vow just between me and the universe when I first started my career way back in 1968. I said ‘OK, I’m going to quit working for money, I’m going to put my attention on expressing everything I know and writing about all the interesting things I think there are about human beings, but it’s not necessarily going to be what the field of psychology or psychiatry thinks is interesting, I’m going to forge my own path.’ And so I began doing that, and so far it’s been working like a charm for 40 years, so I have no plans to give up that way of doing things.
That’s certainly not the traditional academic route…
I originally trained as a research psychologist as well as a counseling psychologist, because at Stanford you couldn’t just do the people stuff, you had to do the data stuff at the same time, but I realized I wanted to do the kind of research where I could see the results on the person’s face.
I had that experience the first time I saw a private client, a woman who was feeling very anxious. Her husband had begun a relationship with another woman, and she was terrified about that, and rightfully so, she had two kids and a house and a life and suddenly it all seemed to be under threat. When I saw her that first session she was almost literally trembling with fear, and I noticed something very interesting, and here’s where I departed from all of my statistical and data training, I simply saw a piece of body language. When she went to breathe she would catch her breath, she was trying to keep from crying, I think, then she would try to talk and catch another breath, it looked quite painful. I said ‘I notice that when you go to speak you kind of catch your breath, so just for right now, go ahead and let’s honour that and find out what’s underneath it. Go ahead and breathe and find out what that thing is you’re trying to stop.’
As soon as she started to breathe, she started trembling even more, and so I invited her to stay with it, and keep feeling it as she gently breathed instead of holding that breath, and as she did that she went through this amazing transformation: she quit resisting what she was feeling, she quit resisting her fear, and just started talking about it. She started telling me all the things she was afraid of, and as she did that her body smoothed right out. She became animated and alive, and I found that fascinating, that as a result of not resisting her emotion she was able to then communicate in a very straightforward way and her body seemed to relax.
When I analyzed it afterwards, I realized that what I had really invited her to do was feel what she was feeling, instead of trying to talk over the top of it. I invited her to experience it as something in her body that needed to be honoured. That was a magic moment for me, I saw how instead of applying a particular technique or clinical strategy, simply by observing something in the person’s body, I was able to use her natural awareness to help her move through that.
It was a huge learning for me, that something like that could be accomplished within 15 minutes, it hadn’t taken much time to move from the anxious place to the easy place, and the only thing that had happened was that she had confronted it directly in herself and had spoken about it.
I don’t know how many people would have had the insight or confidence to do that at such an early stage in their career – do you know what enabled you to do that?
You know, I could just feel myself at that moment going off in a different direction, I don’t know where I got the courage. I once worked in a school for juvenile delinquents – they hired me because I was big – and there’s nothing scary that’s going to happen in a nice office with a nice client sitting opposite you after you’ve been chased by a kid who’s high on glue and carrying a knife.
There are two very separate concepts in The Big Leap – tell me about that.
That’s an interesting point, because that’s what contributed to why I finally wrote the book, suddenly I saw how they fit together so beautifully. Think about the issue: something positive can happen, we have more money or more love in our life and what happens? We find a way to bring ourselves down to where we were before. I call that the Upper Limiting Problem, and suddenly one day I saw that that is really the issue that keeps people from developing their Zone of Genius: they start to do a little bit more in their Zone of Genius, and then they have an Upper Limiting Problem which puts them back down where they were before. And so I saw how those two things connected together, that was when the light went on for the book.
Tell me about the title and the cover.
I didn’t have a title until I talked to my agent [Bonnie Solow] – I was very excitedly describing to her on the phone what this book was about and she said, ‘What’s the title?’ I said, ‘I don’t really have a title for it yet: do you have any ideas?’ and she said, ‘Well, what it really sounds like is that you’re helping people take their big leaps in life’, and there it was.
Someone at the publisher’s came across that picture of the goldfish on the cover, which I love. I wanted to give the impression of hope, possibility. (Although someone did write to me about that, a mathematician, who said that the trajectory wasn’t looking good for the fish… Maybe I should get the publisher to adjust it!)
How did you go about the actual writing of the book?
People who like to do outlines should plug their ears and close their eyes right now: I have NEVER used an outline in my life, since I had to do it in college. Here’s my outline: I get to the end of a sentence and I think to myself, what’s the very next thing that needs to be said? People tell me all the time that I think in paragraphs – I had a great English teacher when I was in college and he was obsessed with us learning how to use topics and paragraphs. I always tell people if you can write a paragraph you can write a book, all it takes is a bunch of paragraphs together.
So for me the book wrote itself because once I got the idea of how the two ideas worked together it was just boom, boom, boom: I wrote what had to be expressed to help people really understand it. And when I write I’m not just after intellectual understanding, I’m after whole-body understanding, so I use metaphors that aren’t just cognitive, I use a lot of body metaphors with breathing and movement, because if you think about it, how big is the territory in the human brain that deals with language? It’s about the size of a quarter or a 50p piece. So that part of the brain is very small compared to the limbic, the emotional part. We have this civilized person sitting on this cauldron of emotion, this reptilian brain that was there before any of that happened.
A crocodile doesn’t sit around and consider its emotions much, its emotions are all tied up in its jaw. But as human beings we need to consider how to deal with our emotions and be with our feelings and particularly how to express them in a clear way. In an average relationship, marriage, business, whatever, there are going to be dozens of different feelings that occur during the course of the day. You might feel excited, scared about something, happy, angry – all of those feelings are really 10-second issues, because if you know how to communicate your feelings you can say ‘Hey, I feel scared right now’ or ‘I feel angry right now’, but if you don’t know how to communicate your feelings those things become very big deals.
I’ve done a lot of work where I go into businesses and coach CEOs and boards in conflict with each other and I haven’t seen one yet that took longer than 10 minutes to sort out once people started communicating clearly about what was going on. The more we start concealing, the more problems we have, and I think ultimately if we’re not transparent with our emotions it affects our physical health, because when you hide all these things down inside there it sets up a dissonance, a rattle, that makes you sick.
When you were writing the book how did you see it working with your business?
When I’m writing fiction I don’t really think about the commercial purpose of it, I’m just telling a story, and I write mystery stories because I love to read mystery stories. But in the nonfiction realm, I write books partly for my own satisfaction, to express something that’s important to me, but I always have in mind how those books are going to populate my business. Book royalties is a distant third in our profit centres: our main revneues come from training in leadership and relationships and from corporate consulting, but the books feed those business.
I always have a commercial purporse in mind with a nonfiction book – I knew immediately when I was writing The Big Leap that it was going to be a tremendous service to people in the executive world and also to entrepreneurs, who really have a lot of the issues I deal with in that book. I’ve just started a training course for entrepreneurs on how to deal with those upper limits that entrepreneurs face when they’re starting up, and also when their business takes off and they don’t have the structure to handle it.
We have to start paying attention to [the Upper Limiting Problem] no matter what level of the game we’re at. I get some of the most satisfying emails from Big Leap readers, and it’s variable: I’ll get one email from someone who’s just starting up, and then I’ll get another from someone who’s running a big business. It seems to hit people wherever they are in the process, and I’m very grateful for that. I did that by conscious intention, but I’m grateful the intention got realized.
It’s the same principle – wherever you are in business, you’re always going to be pushing up against your upper limit, but can you do that gracefully?
What is it about writing that you love so much?
When writing is going well, it’s as good as sex. I’ve been a daily meditator since 1973, and at the end of meditation when I feel that clean, open, spacious feeling – that’s one of the best feelings in the world. And also when you’re making love that’s one of the best feelings in the world. And when writing is going well it has that flow to it, that good feeling. I use that good feeling as my barometer: if I stop feeling that, it’s time to stop for the day. As long as I keep that sweet easy feeling going in my body when I’m working I figure I’ve got something good to say. I like to have a good time when I’m writing. I think that may be a different way of going about it – I have a lot of writer friends who need to supplement with vodka to get the flow going…
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write a World-Changing Book?
Life unfolds one choice at a time. The life you create is the result of tiny little choices at tiny moments of time that maybe didn’t seem like big choices at the time, but they are: I think the best thing that you can do as a human being, as a writer, is get in the business of being more sensitive to those little choice points of life, and making choices that further your authenticity, your deep connection with who you really are.
Each choice may not seem like a big deal but it IS a big deal because one choice leads to another, so you’ve got to get into the habit of making choices that favour your authenticity, which will ultimately contribute to your overall aliveness and your ability to amplify and bring forth your creativity. It all starts with those tiny moments of choosing one thing over another.