Sorry, An Epiphany Isn’t What’s Going To Change Your Life

April 4, 2016

Epiphanies are bullshit. People think it’s some momentous wake up call that leads to innovation, identity crises, insight or breakthroughs.

Like that’s why someone “suddenly” quits the NFL. Or goes public with allegations. Or proposes a bold new theory about the world after staying up all night.

But the people who think that are mostly people who haven’t done anything like that. And probably never will. They haven’t had to walk away from a big job or a lot of money. Or ever questioned some dominant point of view or institution. Their creative output is next to nil. They’re too busy chasing (or waiting for) an El Dorado that doesn’t exist.

I get it. You want to be like the people you admire–and they all seem inspired, bold, and have no problem burning the place to ground. I wanted to be like that too.

But then I actually made some of those decisions. I dropped out of college and it was terrifying. I decided to write an expose about the media in which I would have to admit bad things I had done. I broke ranks with a mentor and friend and it’s been eating me up inside.

So lately, I’ve been trying to think about how that actually goes down. What is it actually like to come to question everything and change your mind or life? What do you need to know going into it?

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argued for the first time that it wasn’t flashes of brilliance that change scientific thinking, but instead it’s a slow process in which assumptions slowly unravel and then require a new explanation—a paradigm shift as he called it. In this frothy period of shift and flux, real breakthroughs begin to occur.

That isn’t how we like to imagine it though. We picture Edward Snowden hearing his bosses lay out some maniacal plan to spy on the world and deciding: “I am going to bring those motherfuckers down.” In actuality, he sat on the info for five years before going public. Doing what? Probably thinking, probably afraid, probably changing his mind a million times. It’s always more complicated—in fact, the whistleblower is usually complicit in the crimes in some way or at least blinded to their severity before coming forward.

The Fosbury Flop—which turned the Olympic High Jump on its head—wasn’t something that Dick Fosbury tried out for the first time at the 1968 Games. Nor was it something he was even certain about. Instead he’d been fooling with jumping and falling over the bar sideways as opposed to hurdling it since elementary school–to only middling results. He’d tried it high school and was told it was a “short cut to mediocrity.” He kept going back to way you were supposed to but that didn’t work either. As we know now though—after his Gold Medal and every medal since—that he was right and his technique stuck.

We think The Great Gatsby was a sniper shot of insight into the Jazz Age and its participants. In fact, the book was rejected and reworked by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor three times and only turned out to be right four years after publication, after the market crashed.

I think movies and television are partially responsible for this total misconception about the world. Because they can only show scenes, because they can’t get us inside the character’s head, we’ve started to think that’s how our lives should be. I think of that scene in Benjamin Button where Brad Pitt sneaks out one morning without a word and never comes back because he doesn’t want to burden his wife and family.

Yeah OK, like they would have been fighting for months and not known why. Like they wouldn’t have broached the topic or floated alternatives. Like the breakup would have stuck the first time. And he wouldn’t have been torn up inside and done a bunch of stupid things to cope with it. But as viewers all we’re left with is the action, the montage scene and the ultimate vindication, but not the process which precedes and proceeds it.

This is insidious because it intimidates first timers and the fearful. Because we believe that it must have been clear for other people, and yet it feels so opaque for us, we convince themselves not to take a risk. We doubt ourselves because we’re cut off from the humanness of the experience and the vulnerability that’s actually there.

When I wrote my first book, which was positioned as a confessional, every interviewer would ask me when I realized what I wanted to do. They’d say, “What was the thing you were asked to do that you regretted, that made you realize?”

The reality is never. I’m really struggling with it. It’s a fucking process. One that ironically didn’t even start to feel like it made sense until well into the writing and publishing process. Because that’s how people are, they act before they are fully ready and they figure things out as they go.

But I have to tell people something—so I give them an answer. Dropping out of college was the same thing. It was something I’d been considering, sure. Then I got an offer. Then I decided not to take it. Then I decided it was worth the risk. Almost immediately after, I felt it had been a mistake. But by then, I’d got into a rhythm. But a year later, I seriously considered going back. Yet my bio—my narrative—makes it seems like I knew at 19. (In fact, I turned 20 during the months this all transpired.) It’s not true, but that doesn’t help some other 19-year-old struggling with whether to leave college.

So if you’re staring some life changing decision in the face right now, you need to understand this. It is always going to be inscrutable. There will not be clarity. Not before, not during, not until well, well after.

You see, Thomas Kuhn said something else very wise and applicable here. Once a new paradigm takes hold, he said, it becomes almost impossible for people born into that paradigm to understand the logic of the system that came before them. As Kuhn put it, incommensurability separates one paradigm from the one that preceded it.

We can hardly recognize the world that we used to live in, and whatever it was that made us think the way we did. Because now things are radically different.

It would be nice if this was a clean break, but it isn’t. It’s like an internal Civil War—eventually there is a clear winner, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. It took a while for everything to get sorted out.

What I mean to say is this: embrace the limbo period. Take risk. Question things. Do not wait for certainty to act…because it isn’t coming. It never has.

This post appeared originally on Thought Catalog.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

14 responses to Sorry, An Epiphany Isn’t What’s Going To Change Your Life

  1. I would encourage you to embrace more wholistic and less binary thinking. Your opening statement is just another form of the false dilemma. That – and your outright dismissal of the experiences of myself and others where epiphanies most certainly occurred and were life-altering – reduces your credibility.

  2. An epiphany on epiphany

  3. Thanks for this article, I feel it’s very insightful. Having gone through with a very hard decision just recently, I can only feel this is the truth; no decision or breakthrough is ever made out of the blue.
    I do feel however, that there’s a point where ‘enough is enough’; possibly this is the point you could equate with an epiphany?

  4. Greetings! It is not the epiphany per se that is of value, it is the value creation process that we can use to turn our ideas to life. Doesn’t matter if it is something general as: “i am changing my life”, or something more precise like i am going to be better at table tennis. Still process must be thought of, applied and than changed, enhanced or whatever is necessary for the value to occur. “Shortcut” should not be in our mind as “how can i become, do, have or whatever more quickly” it should be “what value can i create to start the learning process” and starting that process i believe is the only shortcut possible towards that giant “dream”. Eventually well after, life may become better even possibly in a very different way than expected and some topspins may be presented while playing table tennis.

    Ryan, i really liked the part about paradigm. I think one of the things “The Obstacle is the Way” is trying to tackle is the understanding that our thoughts and actions are based on the paradigm through which we comprehend all around us. If we manage to shift that paradigm and see things differently it is possible to face obstacles in a way that could be beneficial.

    Health and smile! 🙂

  5. I’M right, and YOU’RE wrong .. i think i got it

  6. Gaius Octavius April 7, 2016 at 2:12 am

    Terrific article Ryan, one of the best you’ve written.

  7. I like this perspective, Ryan. The stories we hear about success and the bios that are read never include the internal struggle. In my experience there is always doubt and debate. It’s unfortunate when people think that internal struggle is a sign that they shouldn’t take that leap.

  8. Hi Ryan

    I absolutely agree. I spent the first half of my life waiting for an epiphany and then the second half actually realizing that nothing would change unless I did and that it would be gradual, painful and dissatisfying in it’s incompleteness – the opposite of ‘an epiphany’ perhaps. Everyone wants to practice by torchlight under the bedclothes at night and then emerge as this complete, heroic transformation because that’s what they see in the media etc as you put it so well.

  9. Ryan,

    Thanks for a dose of cold wisdom in support of courage to act when it feels right. Indeed, the certainty is on the other side, where the dust settles and the dots are connected.

    We must earn the other side.

  10. What? You mean no one has found a way to save us from the plight of the human experience? Dang……heading back to my cave now….

  11. Thought provoking piece. I very much agree that it’s a process and that Hollywood/media ‘moments’ have deepened what I suspect has been a long-held fantasy that, change done right, can happen in an instant (wouldn’t that be hygenic)?

    Having said that, I’m living proof that epiphanies as catalyst of process very much do exists. Big & small, my life’s scattered with moment my jaw dropped in recognition of something I couldn’t un-know, recognitions that (after much backing & forthing) drove me into change & kept me in the process, even when doubt or misgiving returned.

    My life (& professional experience) tells me this isn’t an either/or but an and. And that we need to live with the uncomfortable truths that come from learning to live & create & innovate from the paradoxical space between them while on our way from one paradigm to the next.

  12. I appreciate your perspective in this article. I grew up watching movies and interviews with athletes, actors, and other famous people that always seemed to have a movie-worthy story about how one day “It” came to them and everything was made clear.

    In my real experience I’ve never made a big, life changing decision like that. In fact every big fork in the road has been determined by deliberation and cognitive dissonance on the decision I went with. I don’t think I’m very different from anyone else in that regard.

    I think the epiphany route is a hope for someone that doesn’t want to take responsibility for their decisions and would rather it come down to some symbolic dream or happen-stance that revels the true path. That’s a dream though, not reality.

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