I study behavior modification like Mark studies nutrition, movement, and lifestyle. He’s created a paradigm of related principles for Primal living, as I’ve created a paradigm for self-chosen life change. Our similar interests, along with the fact that I’m a longtime member of the MDA community, is how I’ve come to write this post. Reading the Success Stories every Friday for as long as Mark’s been posting them, I’ve figured something out. There are common threads running through these stories that explain why so many different kinds of people, in so many different circumstances and walks of life, have been able to transform themselves through the PB.
This post is about those common threads. They happen to be the essential behavioral principles that enable us to make a substantial life change and sustain it – which is what we’re all endeavoring to do here in becoming and being Primal. None of us has it completely nailed. The point of the PB is to keep evolving. The point of this post is to help everyone do just that. So let’s get started, shall we? Here are the common threads:
The Success Story writers share the basic core belief that they can evolve themselves throughout their lives. In other words, they believe this basic idea: “The way I am now is not the way I always have to be.” This belief is known as the growth mindset, identified and studied over a 20 year period by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.
Mindset is reflected in what people do – as we see over and over again in the Success Stories. People who think they can evolve themselves do evolve themselves. We see a wide array of approaches to getting started, all of which worked. See e.g. Ed & Amy (“it struck a beautiful chord with us …. we tossed everything in the house”); Michael (“After reading MDA for a day I decided to abandon the vegetarian path entirely and take the plunge into the Primal lifestyle”); Katie (“I wasn’t totally convinced of the fat thing right away …. over the course of a year I made small changes”); Myra (“I decided to give this Primal thing a try for a week.”); Lee (“Without a lot of thought or effort, I transitioned into it.”); Adina (“I spent the next few months reconsidering why I’d become vegan.”).
The opposite of the growth mindset is the fixed mindset. As Primal followers, we hear it all the time in people who say things like: “I could never do that;” “I don’t have the genes for that kind of body;” “The treadmill is fine for me.” The bottom line is this: fixed mindset people don’t think they can change very much. They think their skills, aptitudes, and temperament are fixed, so they themselves are fixed. That’s why they’re not open to change.
Not everyone in the non-Primal world has a fixed mindset. There are plenty of growth mindset people out there who just haven’t heard of the PB or decided to try it yet. As for the fixed mindset people out there, there’s hope. Switching from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset is easier than you might think. Just knowing about the two mindsets enables you to spot the thoughts that go with each one. You’ll start catching yourself in fixed mode, and from there, you can consciously switch into growth mode. After a while, it won’t take so much conscious effort. The growth mindset just becomes yours.
Takeaway #1: The growth mindset is, by its nature, evolutionary. It’s the simple belief that we can change and grow throughout life, through our own efforts. This belief is a major common thread running through the Success Stories. Its opposite is the fixed mindset belief that the way we are now is the way we always have to be. If you’re on the fence about going Primal, or you’re already Primal but you’re feeling stuck, there may be some fixed mindset thoughts going on in your head that are holding you back. Work on a mindset switch first. Read some success stories – it’s a great way to get some growth mindset optimism. Then try something new or different from what you’re doing now.
Another common thread running through the Success Stories is evolutionary action. We see all the writers evolving their efforts (and themselves) over time, in a continuous, iterative way. They all see the Primal Blueprint as exactly what it is – a continuing, lifelong process (as opposed to a “diet,” a quick fix, or something they’re doing just for now). See e.g. Mike (“My idea of fun is bettering myself and continuing to learn”); Myra (“My Primal journey continues as I try out different things and continue to learn how my body wants me to live.”); Jeffrey (“This has become much more than a way to lose weight for me, it is ingrained into who I am”); Katie (“I’m still learning and tweaking every day”); Jesse & Vickie (“We knew we wouldn’t be ripped in just 21 days”).
This continuous, iterative approach to Primal is reflective of what I call the motion loop – which is simply my illustrated distillation of the classic trial and error process through which all species in the universe evolved. When it comes to evolving ourselves throughout life, we follow the same course. To find what works for us – in all that we do – we do as the arrows say: we try things out, we learn from the results of our efforts, and rework what we’ve done. Then we try out our rework, learn from that, and rework again. To keep evolving our efforts and ourselves, we keep looping, over and over, just like this.
We see in the Success Stories that the motion loop is not a theory. It’s how effective people work in real life. We see each of the writers embracing the PB over time in just this way, without the objective of getting “done.” See e.g. Sean (“The Primal life is not a diet to me and has no ultimate finish line”); Dave (“Learning is something I will do forever and this way is a great place to learn … to live … to experiment and find your space that works for you”).
Takeaway #2: The motion loop reflects the classic trial and error process by which all species in the universe evolved. On an individual level, it’s our means of self-evolution. By staying in the motion loop with whatever we’re doing, whether it’s the PB or something else, we keep evolving our efforts and ourselves.
Evolution is chaos with feedback. – Joe Ford
The next common thread running through the Success Stories is the reliance on feedback. All the writers rely on it to keep their Primal journeys evolving. As we’ve already seen, feedback is an integral part of the motion loop. It’s precisely what the writers look to (and all of us must look to ) in order learn from our efforts and keep the motion loop going.
There are two main kinds of feedback running through the Success Stories: feeling and tracking. Let’s look at both.
Every single story details the feelings that arose from going Primal. The writers recount a wide range of physical to emotional feelings, with a lot of overlap. See e.g. Heath (“I now feel that I have a new lease on life”); J.P. (“I started to become more patient with people … and overall felt better emotionally. I literally was becoming happier”); Nikki (“I feel like I’m living my life the way I should be”); Cynthia & Paul (“feeling super fit and healthy all while training less and being true to our Primal selves”).
Feelings are a crucial source of feedback in any change we make, whether it’s going Primal, trying something new in our Primal journey, or some other change. Why are feelings so crucial? Because how something makes us feel has everything to do with whether we keep doing it. Decades of research by preeminent psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi explains why. His work can be distilled into this simple idea: Extrinsic motivation may be present somewhere in the background, but it’s rarely the main reason we do what we do. We humans like the feeling of evolving ourselves – by building skills, overcoming challenges, and being part of a process that leads to a higher level of harmony in life – so when we find something that gives us this feeling, and it’s learnable and accessible to us, we keep doing it.
Another way to view evolution is to see it not as the selective survival of life forms such as dinosaurs or elephants, but of information. Inside each person there is a wonderful capacity to reflect on the information that the various sense organs register, and to direct and control these experiences …. [H]aving a self-reflective consciousness allows us to write our own programs for action, and make decisions for which no genetic instructions existed before. – Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
The PB is precisely that something, for everyone who’s written a Success Story and for the whole MDA community. There are lots of specific reasons we all can list for being Primal, but in its simplest terms, what’s really going on is this: We do it because we like it. We like it because it feels good. Self-evolution is inherently likable.
If you’ve been skimming this post, this is a good time to start reading every word, because what I’m about to tell you will change your life.
There is a particular feeling that shows up again and again in the Success Stories that’s not well understood but very powerful. Acclaimed author and psychiatrist Edward Hallowell calls it mastery. I’ve renamed it slightly. I call it micro-mastery to differentiate it from what we normally think of when we hear the word mastery.
Micro-mastery isn’t full mastery, as in the way Picasso mastered art or Wayne Gretzky mastered hockey. It’s something completely different. As Dr. Hallowell explains, it is not an accomplishment or the reaching of a goal. Instead, it’s that simple feeling of “Now I get it!” or “I can do it!” that comes when you’ve been trying hard to do something, and you do a small part of it just well enough to give you that feeling.
That’s it. That’s all micro-mastery is – a feeling. It seems small, but it’s huge. Because we humans like that feeling. So when we feel it, we’ll work to feel it again and again. When we’ll work to feel something, it means we’re intrinsically motivated. Thus, micro-mastery is a source of intrinsic motivation we make ourselves, through our own actions.
The Success Stories are a beautiful treasure trove of written accounts of self-made motivation brought on by micro-mastery. Over and over, we see writers come right out and say, unequivocally, that when they felt one part of the PB working, even just a little bit, it motivated them to go farther in their Primal journeys. Great examples are Andy, Keri, and Jenna:
Andy saw his weight drop a bit in each of his first 3 weeks of going Primal. “Talk about motivation!” he wrote. By his own account, it’s precisely what lead to his gradual, linear pursuit of athletic goals (a 5k, a 10K, and a 1/2 marathon).
Keri found herself where a lot of women runners do: gaining weight while training. Stumbling on MDA lead her to shift her macronutrient balance (to more protein and fat and fewer carbs). From that, she felt herself transform from a sugar burner into a fat burner, and she loved the feeling. Finding she could train on fewer carbs and have great race results, her motivation shifted as well. It became more intrinsic and less extrinsic. Here are her exact words: “I am not sure where my running will take me in the future but I know that the motivation will be from the pure enjoyment of getting outside every morning … not the calories burned.”
Jenna felt her breathing improve and her weight drop a little. That motivated her to start exercising – and she soon started liking the feeling of exercise, so she didn’t have to make herself do it anymore. She did it because she wanted to. She wrote: “There are so many gifts I have gotten from following the PB. My health, my motivation, my identity …. I am getting stronger, and exercising more because I enjoy it now, not because it’s a chore.”
Takeaway #3: Feedback from feelings fuels the the Primal process, because how something makes us feel has everything to do with whether we keep doing it. As we see in the Success Stories, many different kinds of feelings serve as valuable feedback. One of those feelings is micro-mastery. It’s important because it’s a source of intrinsic motivation. Once we feel micro-mastery, we’re on our way to being intrinsically motivated, because we like the feeling so much that we want to feel it again and again. Thus, it’s not true that we have to be motivated first, before we get started making a change in our lives. We can get started even when we don’t want to, and even when we think we’re not “ready.” Because motivation kicks in during the process. We create it ourselves by reaching micro-mastery, over and over in the motion loop.
Tracking is another common thread running through the Success Stories. By tracking, I mean that the writers used metrics of some kind to gauge what works and what doesn’t. Their metrics reflected their reasons for going Primal. For example, PaleoBird and Andrew went Primal to lose weight (among other reasons). Through self-experimentation, they both found that carb reduction alone wasn’t effective, so they both restricted calories as well. So their metrics and tracking focused on those things in the weight loss part of their efforts.
While weight loss is a common reason for going Primal, it’s not the only reason. The Success Stories make this clear. The writers had many other concerns, and they chose the PB, at least in part, as a means to healing themselves in some way or addressing medical conditions. As such, their metrics reflected those things. Katie created pie charts of the foods she was eating to get at the cause of her migraines (among other reasons). Michael kept medical stats relating to an array of health concerns.
It does seem that a few writers geeked out over going Primal for the pure enjoyment of geeking out, and that’s a great thing. It got them into the flow of their Primal Journeys and kept them focused. See e.g. Shane (charted his entire first year of being Primal); Jason (tracked weight, carb count, and blood work in his transformation from sugar burner to fat burner). There’s much to learn from their efforts, so be sure to have a look.
Tracking doesn’t have to to be elaborate, and it doesn’t even have to include numbers. You can keep a simple journal and write whatever is meaningful and helpful to you.
Takeaway #4: Tracking is a powerful source of feedback. There are as many ways to track as there are people tracking. The idea is to track what’s important to you in a way that makes sense for you and the change you’re making. The same is true for metrics. It’s where we get our much-needed answers to these fundamental questions: What are the effects of what I’m trying? What’s working? What isn’t? What’s next? Should I keep doing what I’m doing, or tweak and adjust it, or change courses entirely? It’s getting to these answers that propels us through the Motion loop of change, i.e. that powerful, continuing circle of try, learn, rework, that keeps us evolving.
Summing it all up
The common threads running through the Success Stories comprise the essential behavioral principles that enable us to make a substantial life change and sustain it. That’s what we’re all trying to do here, in becoming and being Primal. Knowing what these essential principles are, and seeing how so many people have put them into action, will help you evolve all your Primal endeavors and any other change or self-evolution you have in mind.
For those interested, I’ve taken these essential principles of change and created a “mind app” out of them. It’s called app4Mind. You’re all welcome to use it to change your life and Grok on!