37 - When Willpower

Marks of Metanoia 3: A Mysterious Compelling When Even Willpower is Not Enough

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Updated May 20, 2016

In this series of posts, I’m exploring the 7 marks of this essential experience of metanoia that I laid out earlier. The third mark of metanoia is that it is mysteriously compelling and can carry us to places we never thought possible.

It happened during a visit to an unfamiliar city for work with a major client; one I really did not want to disappoint. I had gone to bed early to try to combat the jetlag when, with a start, I awoke well after midnight with the immediate knowledge that something was wrong with me. The symptoms were very real, and with the contribution of a fertile imagination were soon transformed into enough evidence to warrant concern.

“Stroke…” I thought. Or something else. “Heart disease fuelled by hypertension, but could be indigestion? Surely it will pass — but what if it doesn’t? I’m in another country, what about the quality of medical care? And how do I get it covered? These things can be expensive…”

I quickly realized that I could make one of two mistakes: get help and wish I hadn’t bothered, or continue lying there and later wish for help… I opted for prudence and set off on a late-night expedition to the local hospital’s emergency room.

A few days later, I was back at home and sitting in my doctor’s office. I had just produced a colorful description of the events of that troublesome night when I noted his skepticism. The body language I observed told me that he was not questioning my story or the experience, but instead whether it would induce the kind of lifestyle changes that both health and longevity would require before I might possibly experience their benefits.

Since the words “no” or “save it for later” were never powerful forces in my childhood home, and I have not since treated them with high regard, I have had the good fortune to enjoy a wide array of gastronomic delights over decades’ worth of lovely dinners with clients and at countless business meetings of every sort.

The inevitable consequence – the caloric maths are dead simple – is that delicious things which seemed good at the time quickly changed form and uncontrollably re-established themselves in force in whatever area of my body they might choose. It was as though I had eaten a thousand miniature Trojan Horses whose armies had waged war against the shape my body was meant to have.

Anticipating the response that this realization would produce from his patient, and having doubtless observed this situation unfolding unfold countless times before, my thoughtful physician then said, “Willpower is just not going to be enough.” His words were couched in years of well-earned skepticism that encounters with mortality would really cause meaningful change in habitual behavior, my most recent episode – however much of it was imagined – included. I began to see that this insightful physician’s expertise in cognitive therapy might have some helpful application for quite a few of my clients.

As we continued our conversation and explored the role that food played for me as a reward for performance and hard work, my physician then launched a single, intriguing question: “Chris, how many times do you imagine you have practiced this particular conditioning to reward hard work with food?”

To my own surprise, I answered, “thousands.” He added his own mathematics, “about twelve thousand times, by my estimation, so it is no wonder you have become quite good at it!” Overcoming the immense inertia of habit requires a change of heart and mind.

Like any of us seeking to break harmful patterns, whether personal or corporate—I understand very personally how much deeply entrenched resistance must be overcome before new habit formation can begin, and even then how the old habit lurks so close, ready to welcome us back from the discomfort of working for change. Only time will tell if the necessary behavior change occurs, but it feels different this time – almost as if I am being mysteriously compelled to actually make the changes I have long planned. Early indications suggest that I am beginning to overcome the entrenched resistance, and it is in large part due to the metanoia – the change of heart and mind – I experienced in that distant city.

In business, we must overcome the entrenched resistance that profit is the only outcome a company should deliver.

Consider the story of Martin Khan.

A Transforming Vision

He knew that virtually every eye in the room was turned politely, if not rather doubtfully, in his direction. And while the cultural conventions of polite attention held fast, not a soul in the room really “got” what he was saying as he tried to explain how their industry-leading “gold-standard” product was soon to be simply a functional component of a revolutionary new platform. And so, Martin thought, this bimonthly strategy meeting he held with his young leadership team would probably turn out rather like the previous three.

As he continued his impassioned assessment, even sharing the story of the two conversations that had tripped loose the idea in his head, there was little indication that they were undergoing the same transformative experience he had. Martin had become used to the skepticism over the past six months. He knew that his team wondered to themselves if this was the point that they’d all look back on as the moment their leader’s legendary touch failed. Further reservations were spawned amongst the group when Martin mandated revisions to the senior executive compensation plan that put more at risk contingent on his vision being realized.

On his long drives home each day, Martin routinely found himself examining his own judgment. He knew that he was not always right, and yet in that private reverie, it was as if the idea had taken such root in him that it had a life all its own. Despite his reluctance to have the tough conversations that inevitably resulted as he continued to share his zeal for this vision, and the lack of positive response from his team left him undeterred. Martin found himself strangely comfortable, even energized by the differences of opinion, although he still often wondered whether this conviction and clarity would suddenly dissipate. The mere prospect gave him the shivers, but oddly, it did not deter him or hinder his course.

He knew exactly what he needed to keep doing—everything he possibly could to ensure that his idea was not torn asunder by the strong current of entrenched habit.


As for me, one year after this post was first published on Ogilvydo in July 2015, the change of heart and mind I experienced has proved real by spurring successful outcomes. I have lost 50 pounds, learned to chase a goal that is lifestyle focused (farming) instead of achievement focused, and gained much awareness of how hard it is not to revert! Yes, even with the success I have found, I am still on the path to recovery, and only time will tell the outcome. As day-by-day (and some times minute-by-minute) I reinforce the necessary new habits and behave differently than I always have, fitness apps and regular check-ins with my doctor have proved helpful. As well, the encouragement of friends and family has provided a great boost – but those are not new to my journey, they have always been there and are greatly appreciated.

What is different now, today, is that I feel drawn onward, mysteriously compelled toward the pursuit of good health by the metanoia that began on a frightful night in that city a world away.

What has been your experience of metanoia?

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