I came up with a theory many years ago that there are two main ways for us to make significant-impact positive growth in our lives.
One way to make a big positive impact on our life is making a courageous, bold, big, emotional, intense, instantaneous, and immediate change. Examples of this would include to decide to take our life in a completely different direction (to go back to school to get a graduate degree, to quit a job and become a yoga teacher), to go and ask someone for something (a cute stranger for their number, one’s boss for a raise), to make a big public declaration (“I am going to quit this addiction from here on”, “You can count on me from now on to do XYZ”, etc), to make an apology or ask for one, to try something new for the first time, or to make a phone call or send an email with important content (“I’ve never told you how much I love you”, “I quit”, “let’s start a organization together”).
The other way to make a big positive impact on one’s life is less dramatic and less emotional, and takes more time. It is slow, steady, regular time put in moving towards a goal – hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. There is simply no way to accomplish certain goals, for example to get good at a musical instrument or a sport, without years of steady, persistent long-term effort.
Having the second/steady type of movement without any of the first/sudden type of movement is called being a bored, asleep person, a cog in the machine. But, having a lot of the first/sudden type of movement without any of the second/steady type is called being mercurial and unreliable, making big plans without achieving much. In order to achieve positive growth, it is ideal to combine the two, big sudden breakthroughs with steady regular effort. It’s like steadily cruising down the freeway, and, every once in a while, slamming your car into passing gear to make a quick, bold move around a car in your way.
I have noticed that sometimes, when people think that they would be happier if they had a certain type of growth, I suspect that their life would actually improve the most with the other type. For example, some people who are already working long hours and feel like they just need to work harder might actually be best served by making some big changes. And some people who are constantly seeking for big breakthroughs would be happiest if they settled down and put in some hours.
(On a different subject, thinking about this two part model – I have heard it said that a successful startup company often needs to transition, once it reaches a certain number of employees, from a CEO who is better at the first/sudden/risk-taking type of leadership (an entrepreneur) into one who is better at the second/steady/grind-it-out type of leadership (a steward.))
On a separate but related: I think of classical Buddhist and Advaita “Enlightenment” (Bodhi, Moksha, Satori) as the ultimate and most extreme form of positive “growth” or “transformation” that a human can have.
1300 years ago in China, there was a saying, “nan-tun pei-chien”, which translates to “suddenness South, gradualness North”.
This saying referred to the Southern school of Zen, which emphasized complete and immediate enlightenment, liberation, and transformation, where consciousness was irrevocably and totally purified in a sudden flash, like getting wet by having a huge bucket of water splashed onto yourself (whether such an experience was sought for or not). Examples of where this happened, and the person wasn’t even seeking it out, include Ramana Maharshi, Byron Katie, and Zen Master Hui Neng.
This was contrasted with the Northern School of Zen, which emphasized slow, steady, methodical, and intentional work, where enlightenment, liberation, and transformation that occurs more like getting wet by walking in a mist that slowly, gradually, and almost imperceptibly makes a change that eventually leaves one soaked to the bone. Examples of this include Adyashanti, Nisargadatta Maharaj, and Zen Master Dogen Zenji.
The Buddha, Eckhart Tolle, Thoreau, and Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku are a hybrid between the two, in that they worked for years towards opening and deepening, and then in a flash the big change happened all at once.
Adyashanti has some great teachings about how, even where enlightenment happened all in one moment, it usually takes years to stabilize and integrate the experience of transformation, and how people can often be off balance during that time until they find their clarity and footing again. That speaks to, again, the hybrid model.