Recently I read Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins. I’d been curious about the book for a long time but I’d been reluctant to buy it … somehow I didn’t want to succumb to the Robbins money-minting self-help machine. On the other hand Robbins has worked for decades to develop and share a complete life system (something I’m also interested in). However when I realized the book was both available for free download and for sale on Amazon.com for $0.01 (used), I realized I didn’t have an excuse. I picked up a used paperback for the cost of shipping.
A Message From the Nineties
Awaken the Giant Within was first published in 1991, and the book shows its age. Many of the heroes and exemplars of the book have either died tragically, fallen into disgrace, and/or committed heinous crimes (Robin Williams, OJ Simpson, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, Ross Perot). Of course these names leap out with hindsight, but it’s enough to question Robbins’ ability to judge character. Robbins also had trouble thinking of women to either quote or use as positive examples (the book was written before the Oprah/Robbins alliance).
Values as a Decision-Making System
These criticisms aside, the exercises themselves hold up well. The book contains many useful personal development tools*, but one stood out in particular and using it has already changed my behavior and quality of consciousness for the better. The tool (described in Chapter 15) is a series of simple exercises that includes:
- Values inventory (listing your values — what’s important to you — in order of most important to least important).
- Considering if that order is working for you in terms of what you want out of life, and changing the order as a way of shaping your own decision-making system.
Everyone has values, whether or not we’ve considered them or not. We inherit values from our family (especially our parents), peers, and culture. When we make decisions we consult these values (usually subconsciously) to guide us in one direction or another. Sometimes the values we hold are in active opposition to each other. We might value both earning money and spending time with our family, but these two values can pull us in opposite directions.
In the first version of my values list my top value was creative work (fiction writing, music producing, etc.). Also very high on the list were love/friendship, vitality/health, and kindness/compassion.
The flip-side of the exercise is making a list of what Robbins calls “moving-away from values.” These are the things you actively avoid in life. My initial “moving-away from values” included poor health, depression/hopelessness, boredom/stagnation, and being cheated/taken advantage of.
Both lists included many more values, and the more I thought about it, the more values I added.
Creating these lists, and even more so ordering them, was mentally strenuous. What was more important to me, health or creativity? Where did one value end and the next one begin? What does love as a value mean exactly?
It helped to remember that it was just an exercise, and I didn’t need to make a perfect list. The process was the important part.
After I made the initial lists I reflected on the question Robbins asks on page 363: “In what order do my values need to be to achieve my ultimate destiny?”
Ultimate destiny. Hmm … not sure I have one or want one. Don’t we all have the same ultimate destiny? But I got the point — Robbins pushes the reader to go beyond “What is important to me?” and to consider “What kind of person do I need to be to have the kind of life I want to have?” It’s an important distinction.
After a few days of reflection and list-editing, I ended up with these as my top five “moving towards values”:
- love (friendships and family relationships)
- quality of consciousness
- creative work
Following these top five were an additional 32 values (loosely prioritized), and the very last value in my list:
- luxury/being rich
Yes … I admit it, I’d like to be rich and live a more luxurious life (like flying first class once in awhile, traveling without extensive budgeting and cost-optimizing). But it’s the very last value on the list (financial well-being is much higher).
“Creative work” dropped from first to third. Ultimately my relationships and my state of mind are more important. Probably, putting those values ahead of creative work will improve the work itself. For me, inspiration comes when I’m feeling good, and I don’t feel good if my relationships aren’t going well or if I’m not making meditation and other practices that improve my state of mind a priority.
Vitality/energy also dropped a bit as a value. Having experienced poor health, I know the value of taking care of oneself. But excellent health is not that closely associated with happiness and life satisfaction (jump to 2:00).
So what difference did listing and then consciously considering and reordering my values make?
In the weeks following the exercise, I’ve done a few things that I attribute to this exercise, including:
- Resetting my relationships with my daughter (age 6). I felt like I was too much in the “rules enforcer” role, with not enough fun times. We’ve been enjoying each others’ company much more since the reset.
- Raising my consulting rates, which has reduced the number of hours I need to work, allowing me to spend more time with family and friends (and also on writing and hobbies).
- If I find myself in any kind of negative mindset, stopping whatever I’m doing and taking whatever steps I need to get in a better place. Sometimes this is an honest, non-accusatory conversation with a family member, sometimes taking a walk or lifting weights, sometimes meditation, or sometimes doing some work that I’ve been putting off.
In addition to these specific changes, I’ve noticed a sense of clarity in terms of decision-making. Should I do x? It’s easy to evaluate if the activity in question supports or detracts from my top values.
Moving Away From Values
Listing and prioritizing my “negative” values was just as useful and revealing. After the listing and reordering process, my top five anti-values are:
- chronic pain or disability
- poor health/low vitality
Another twenty-five follow. The very last item on the “moving-away-from” list is:
- brief discomfort/pain
In other words I don’t generally want to be uncomfortable or feel pain, but I’m not going to work hard to avoid it, especially if the benefits are great (like brief discomfort from cold water immersion, which can have positive health benefits). Another item low on the list is waste/inefficiency. I don’t like to waste or be inefficient, but it’s way more important to be a good person, to not be depressed or lonely, etc.
Working on the negative values list brings up some hard questions. Would you rather experience chronic pain or be lonely and isolated? Neither, obviously, but which one are you going to more vigorously avoid? Don’t want to be broke, humiliated, ugly, and ignored? Neither do I, but I’d rather be all those things than be a cruel, lonely, depressed person.
The result of the negative values listing and ordering was greater clarity in decision making, especially in terms of avoiding behaviors that I know from experience send me into a negative spiral.
Is Personal Development Narcissistic and/or Another Form of Procrastination?
To some extent, yes to both questions, but that doesn’t mean selected exercises aren’t worth doing. The values listing and prioritizing is a good one.
I chose to do ALL the exercises in the book, and it took a long time. I didn’t get as much done in other life areas while I was spending hours listing and reordering my values, and engaging in the fifty or so other exercises the book recommends. The values prioritization exercise was one of the most helpful; others less so. At times I felt guilty of navel-gazing and over-self-analysis. Would I be better off using my time to be productive or have fun?
There is a definitely a point of diminishing returns in regards to self-help work of this nature. I’m glad I did the values listing/reordering exercise, but it’s not something I would feel a need to repeat more than once a decade or so.
For someone facing difficult decisions, or in the midst of a big life change, a values inventory could potentially serve as a powerful compass to guide decision-making and set a new course.
Expectations vs. Results
I expected that reading Awaken the Giant Within might motivate me to work harder and reach higher in terms of professional and financial goals. While I did end up strengthening my commitment to goals in these areas, the more significant life changes I made were in the areas of emotional processing and family relationships. Working on the values exercises in particular, I could feel my emotional intelligence increasing.
The net result is that I feel more aligned in my intentions and motivations. Now that I’ve explicitly decided which motivational substructures have priority over the others, the “wars within” have subsided.
*Other Tools and Exercises
There are some other techniques and tools in the book worth mentioning:
Neuro-associative Conditioning or NAC
Consciously associate massive pain with behaviors you don’t want to continue (like smoking or eating junk food); associating massive pleasure with behaviors you want to encourage (exercise, meditation, whatever you feel you need to be doing to improve your life).
Control of Attention and Focus, or “Manipulating Submodalities”
Changing the intensity of our emotions by manipulating aspects of our thoughts as if we were editing video or audio (brightness, contrast, color, zoom, amplitude, etc.)
Modulating/Changing Vocabulary and Metaphors used to Describe Feelings/States
For example instead of habitually saying “I’m furious” experiment with saying “I’m miffed.” The more ridiculous your language, the better (in order to break up your habitual emotional reactions).
Asking the Right Questions
Use question-asking as a tool. Don’t indulge in unhelpful questions (“Why me?” “Why do bad things always happen?”) and build a toolkit of helpful questions such as “What is helpful about this problem?”