Each of us are greater artists than we realize.
The power in choosing the kind of story we tell ourselves is the gem Victor Frankl brought us from the ashes of Auschwitz, it is the reverberating echo of the Stoics, and the modern medicine of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapists.
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” -Victor Frankl
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” -Marcus Aurelius
“Reality is not so much what happens to us; rather, it is how we think about those events that create the reality we experience. In a very real sense, this means that we each create the reality in which we live.” -Albert Eliis
This article is going to introduce the significance of the story we tell ourselves and cover a practical technique you can begin today to start uncovering your story.
Cracking My Delusional Story
As a tall, charismatic, white male American who did well at sports and academics, I had a narcissistic, delusional, and wildly insecure ego-driven story about who I was.
After an injury mauled my athletic dreams, my mom introduced me to philosophy, and I dove into it with the competitive ego only a could-have-been college athlete has.
Throughout college, I’d brood in my room on Friday nights, smoking weed, attempting to write what I thought were profound logical proofs on the nature of reality (I was absolutely delusional and the writing was shit). I hid in my ego cathedral for four years because I was too cowardly to show anyone what I had written.
Soon after college, I found the Artist’s Way, and her advice to write the morning pages transformed me.
Before this book and the morning pages, I was one of the artists you know who hid their fear behind the slogan “perfectionism.” Perfectionism was the demon guarding the door of my ego cathedral.
After religiously writing the morning pages every fucking day for 3 months, my entire cathedral collapsed. I emerged an artistic infant, with nothing to show, but ready to create and share.
This happened almost two years ago, and since then, I’ve shared almost 100 articles on my website, dozens of podcasts, and my closest friends tell me my ego is at least endurable.
The cocoon that took me from delusional caterpillar to mastery-seeking butterfly was the morning pages, and this post is going to share how you can use them to transform.
Becoming Aware of Your Story
Change begins with awareness, and we need to become aware of our story.
Due to the limited capacity of our conscious minds, and the overwhelming amount of data we must process in every moment, the majority of our thoughts and behaviors occur outside consciousness as habits.
Your story is a product of the habitual style you explain reality to yourself.
Our narrative style is like a stained glass window embedded in a cathedral. The sun’s light shines white into every window, but it is the contents of the window that color the walls inside the cathedral.
Our narrative styles are our stained windows, and our lives are the illuminated reflections dancing inside.
Your style of explaining reality to yourself colors every relationship, accomplishment, failure, loss, mistake, and success you experience.
Writing the morning pages begins to reveal our windows to ourselves.
We live in an age where the language of science reigns supreme among persuading the intelligent that something is “real”, and science has indeed codified the narrative style outlined above. Researchers call it our “Explanatory Style,” and they’ve dichotomized our styles into the two broad categories: “pessimistic” and “optimistic.”
A useful metaphor to understand these styles is to think of life as a journey, with our consciousness acting as planner and implementer of our unique way through the journey. Where we are journeying to is a deeper and more profound question beyond the scope of this article, but how we journey is largely influenced by our explanatory style.
Broadly speaking, pessimistic people explain obstacles to themselves in a way that diminishes their autonomy and power, while optimists do the opposite. Ryan Holiday captured the essence of pragmatic optimism with “The Obstacle is the Way.” [link book]
For a guide to understanding these styles and how to metaprogram them, I’ve written about it here, but I’d recommend you commit to writing the morning pages for at least a month before trying to implement the technique in the link, because identifying our explanatory style is key if we want to metaprogram.
Understanding the Inner Critic
One of the most defining aspects of our explanatory style is what is often referred to as the Inner Critic.
You know this voice. And you know how most regard this inner voice as something to ignore, negate, or destroy; but I have a different perspective.
If we choose the evolutionary perspective, that inner voice begins to make sense in a way that it hasn’t before.
One of the most remarkable differences about humans is the complexity of our social communities. Many evolutionary scientists think that our brains became what they are because they had to keep up with these social relations. As social animals, in order to survive, we must not only learn which plants to eat and which animals to avoid, but also what “game” is being played amongst our tribe.
Democracy, Capitalism, and your commenting behavior on this website are each social games Sapiens have created.
I think the inner critic is an evolutionarily evolved tool that helps the individual identify, articulate, and internalize the “rules” of the “game” the tribe is playing.
I think one of the profound reasons most people’s internal critic is so fucking loud and nasty is because we have access to too many games, and some of the games are massively out of our league (think religion’s expectations, comparing yourself to the greatest athlete in your given sport, or the most successful business people of all time.)
This internal advisor developed to help us navigate a tribe of maybe 100 people, where our ascension path ended at a successful hunter, a wise elder, or a great mother. Now we live in a time where our internal advisor is trying to keep up with hundreds of tribes, millions of people, and attempting to compete with the greatest men and women culture has produced.
The inner critic is our completely over-worked, stressed-out, desperate internal advisor. Writing the morning pages will help begin to identify our inner critic, and hopefully, help our conscious mind come to its aid and help it become our advisor once again.
Why the Morning Pages “Clear the Mind”
People from Tim Ferriss to my roommate, Clif, report that writing the morning pages seems to magically “clear their mind.”
There is a scientific explanation.
A useful way to think about consciousness is that it is a GPS (Goal Producing System), and life’s positive feelings are produced by our nervous system sensing progress toward these goals.
As an example, my goal is to write an article that both fortifies my commitment to daily journaling, and that helps others who are interested see the benefit in this habit. The goal of publishing this article becomes an “open loop,” in my psyche.
An open loop is any goal you’ve produced that has not been completed or “dealt” with. A part of your unconscious stores all your “open loops,” and monitors your progress towards their completion.
Each goal we have, conscious and unconscious, that we haven’t dealt with, is running in our mind somewhere, consuming resources. The fact that open loops consume energy has been scientifically demonstrated in the Expressive Writing literature, validated by the market with Gary Allen’s “Getting Things Done,” and anecdotally by the thousands of people who report the mind clearing effect of the morning pages.
In Gary Allen’s consulting service, he reports the average person having close to 150 “open loops.”
Writing the morning pages helps us identify our unconscious open loops.
How to write the Morning Pages
There is a lot of discussion on how to implement the morning pages. For clarity and brevity, I’m not going to entertain the debate, I’m just going to tell you what worked for me. If you follow this guide, your life will transform.
Buy a journal you’d look forward to writing in.
Determine how you are going to monitor your progress.
The first morning after you get your journal, write three pages longhand first thing in the morning. This takes me about 45 minutes. This might seem long, but if you took a step back and looked at how you spend your time, 45 minutes a day to uncover the story you are telling yourself is an order of magnitude more important than watching any show or reading any book. Those are other people’s stories. Take the time to learn yours so you can begin to metaprogram it.
Track that day’s progress and write until the notebook is full.
Set a reminder in your calendar 1 month from the day you finished your notebook, and schedule a couple hours where you will get some coffee and sit down to your explanatory style.
This will likely be the most you’ve ever written, and subsequently the most your soul has ever exposed itself. You will learn who you are and this will transform you.
Treat the pages like a meditation. In the same way that you’d bring your attention back to your breath when you catch it wandering, bring the pen back to page if you catch yourself over-thinking, editing, or analyzing.
Do not edit, reread, or censor. Do not let anyone read it. And do it first thing in the morning.
Technique: How to close Open Loops
There is a very simple, scientifically-validated technique for closing open loops.
“(Open loops are) the unconscious asking the conscious mind to make a plan.The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics, like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders…Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind. Once the task is completed and the goal reached, this stream of reminders comes to a stop.” -Baumeister
Research by Baumeister has found that the kind of plan that closes a loop is one that articulates when, where, and how a task will be completed.
When you detect an open loop, capture it (I have a blank notecard waiting next to my journal for caught open loops.)
After you are done writing your pages, look at your notecard.
Write an Implementation Intention for each one, and Baumeister’s research shows that this will take care of your open loop.
An Auschwitz survivor, arguably the greatest ruler of Rome, and a revolutionary therapist each converged on a singular truth about the nature of reality; each of us has a tremendous power over how we choose to explain our lives to ourselves, and this story creates our lives.
Writing the morning pages will help you discover your story. It will cultivate your awareness, help you understand your Inner Critic, and will begin cleaning the dirt and grime that has collected at the edges of your stained-glass window of perception.
If you are interested in understanding your story, write the morning pages as if it were a religious act. Commit to honesty. Don’t edit, don’t review, and don’t show anyone. Fill your book up. And after a few months, revisit this soul-lection, and get to know your explanatory style.
Admittedly, I know this post has failed to capture the magic of what this technique has done for me, but I know this is the best I could do at this point, and I will try again soon.
We are more than we could ever understand. Writing the morning pages is a constant exploration deeper and deeper into who and what we are.
I love yall, and I’d recommend this technique over any other I have shared on Metaprogramming. Namasteezy.