The Big Leap, by Gay Hendricks

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I had heard of the work of Gay and Katie Hendricks, including Gay’s idea of the Zone of Genius (as opposed to the Zones of Excellence or Competence that most of us spend our lives in) or Katie’s idea of integrity as energetic wholeness ((which I heard described by Jim Dethmer). So when I bought Hendricks’s book, The Big Leap during a Kindle sale last week, I didn’t expect to learn anything radically new.

And yet I had somehow never heard of the central idea of the book, which Hendricks calls the Upper Limit Problem:

I have a limited tolerance for feeling good. When I hit my Upper Limit, I manufacture thoughts that make me feel bad. The problem is bigger than just my internal feelings, though: I seem to have a limited tolerance for my life going well in gneral. When I hit my Upper Limit, I do something that stops my positive forward trajectory. I get into a conflict with my ex-wife, get into a money bind, or do something else that brings me back down within the bounds of my limited tolerance.

As somebody who is consistently the biggest obstacle to my continued success, I found this concept both horrifying and illuminating. I see it happening in my relationships, I see it happening in my coaching business where I limit what I aspire to, I even see it happening with my book where I have not done the marketing work necessary to propel it to greater success. I am a little shocked that this idea has not been popularized the way the Zone of Genius concept had been.

My guess for why I haven’t heard others talk about the Upper Limit Problem is that most people don’t want to hear that they are the architect of their own distress. They think that when they have a fight with their business partner or their spouse, it’s really the fault of the other person. Hendricks dismisses this idea, and points the responsibility right back at you:

Arguments are caused by two people (or two countries) racing to occupy the victim position in the relationship. Person A claims the victim position (“ Why are you doing this to me?”) and then tries to get person B to agree with that assessment. In other words, person B has to agree that he or she is the persecutor. Therein lies the problem. It’s almost impossible to get the other guy to agree that it’s his fault.

The key insight: each entity in a situation represents 100 percent. Each entity in a conflict has 100 percent of the responsibility for resolving the conflict. In other words, person A is a whole and complete 100 percent, and person B is a whole and complete 100 percent. If two people are involved, there is 200 percent responsibility to be divided up. The fatal mistake is thinking that there is 100 percent of responsibility to be divided up; this approach requires each person to take some portion of the 100 percent.

In other words, to quote myself, “You have a choice.” When you take full responsibility for your own actions, you leave the victim mindset and start recognizing how your actions create the circumstances you are experiencing.

Other Upper Limit behaviors that Hendricks observes besides arguing are:

  • Worrying is a way to stay in the victim mindset, especially if we are worrying about something over which we have no control. That is just wasted mental effort, compared to thinking about something we can change and taking positive action.
  • Blame and criticism: We can’t control another person’s actions, so if we are blaming or criticizing them, we are failing to take charge of our own behavior to change what we can.
  • Getting sick or hurt: I interpret this as observing how physical and mental health are intertwined; when we stay in a victim mindset where we don’t believe we have a choice, the stress hormones damage our physical health e.g. when I burned myself out at Google. And when we are distracted by worrying, we pay less attention to our environment and are more prone to accidents.
  • Hiding significant feelings, or not speaking significant truths to the relevant people. Again, this is related to the idea of positive action. As he puts it, “If you’re mad at John, he’s the relevant person to talk to. It doesn’t help to tell Fred that you’re mad at John.” If you hide your feelings, you are not giving the other person a relevant signal so they can change their behavior; you are just stewing in your own resentment they are not changing, even though they would have to read your mind to change in the way you want. Terrence Real’s book, Us: Getting Past You And Me To Build a More Loving Relationship, is relevant here.
  • Not keeping agreements: This is often a sign that we are hiding our feelings, because we are making agreements to which we are not committed. Then we don’t keep those agreements, which impacts our integrity and dependability. This leads to more of a victim mindset (“What else could I do?”) which perpetuates the cycle. Instead, we can choose whether to accept the agreement in the first place, as described by Fernando Flores.

Hendricks shares that behind the Upper Limit problem is a longing, “a persistent, lingering feeling of wanting something you can’t quite get or something you’ve judged unobtainable”. This is the desire to take a Big Leap to operate in our Zone of Genius. But most of us hold ourselves back from taking that leap out of fear: “If I took the Big Leap into my Zone of Genius, I might fail. What if I really opened up to my true genius and found that my genius wasn’t good enough? Better to keep the genie in the bottle and coast along in the Zone of Excellence.”

I liked his four questions to help you find your genius. As he puts it, “These questions are designed to bring forth hidden treasures from deep inside you. Wonder is the tool that invites these treasures up into the light.”

  1. “What do I most love to do? (I love it so much I can do it for long stretches of time without getting tired or bored.)”
  2. “What work do I do that doesn’t seem like work? (I can do it all day long without ever feeling tired or bored.)”
  3. “In my work, what produces the highest ratio of abundance and satisfaction to amount of time spent? (Even if I do only ten seconds or a few minutes of it, an idea or a deeper connection may spring forth that leads to huge value.)”
  4. “What is my unique ability? (There’s a special skill I’m gifted with. This unique ability, fully realized and put to work, can provide enormous benefits to me and any organization I serve.)”

When I wondered about these questions for myself, I return to a theme I’ve explored for over two decades, that of interdisciplinary translation, explaining an important idea such that somebody understands it and can apply it to their life. It requires both deeply understanding the idea (an activity I love as a generalist) and deeply understanding the person so I can translate the idea into the frameworks the person uses to make sense of the world. It’s one of the reasons I love coaching (question #1) – I can have a brief conversation with somebody that they will remember for years because it shifted something in how they approach the world (question #3), and it doesn’t seem like work to me (question #2) because I love figuring out how to match explanations to people in that way. I’ve applied this ability in many different ways in my career (as a software engineer, as a product manager, as a revenue analyst, and as a chief of staff), and I keep coming back to it including in writing this blog (question #4).

But knowing about my Zone of Genius isn’t enough because the Upper Limit Problem means I will sabotage myself rather than let myself experience the joy of living in that zone. Hendricks suggests four barriers that might explain why a person would not let themselves enjoy the abundance and success of living in their Zone of Genius:

  1. “The first barrier is the false belief that we are fundamentally flawed in some way. If we carry this feeling within us, we sabotage our success because we think we’re essentially bad. If something good happens, we must mess up to offset it, because good things can’t happen to bad people.”
  2. “The second barrier is the false belief that by succeeding, we are being disloyal to and leaving behind people in our past. If we harbor this feeling within us, we sabotage our success because we think it’s disloyal to our roots to soar too far into the stratosphere.”
  3. “The third barrier is the false belief that we are a burden in the world. If we carry this feeling inside us, we sabotage our success so that we won’t be a bigger burden.”
  4. “The fourth barrier is the false belief that we must dim the bright lights of our brilliance so that we won’t outshine someone in our past. If we hold this feeling inside us, we tend to hold ourselves back from expressing the full potential of our innate genius.”

I have experienced each of these barriers myself at different times, and they are likely unconsciously holding me back because they are wired into my nervous system as “barriers” I can’t break.

If I won’t let myself stay in the Zone of Genius because my nervous system gets uncomfortable when I experience too much success, then I have to retrain my nervous system. For this, Hendricks suggests meditating on what he calls the Ultimate Success Mantra:

I expand in abundance, success, and love every day, as I inspire those around me to do the same.

I’ll admit that this feels hokey to me, but I’m willing to give it a try for a few weeks to see what happens. If nothing else, it’s an inspiring thing to say to myself when I feel frustrated or irritated with others; rather than blame them for how I’m feeling with a victim mindset, it helps me take responsibility for my own feelings and focus on how I can expand my sense of love and abundance in that moment.

I appreciated Hendricks’s explanation of the Upper Limit Problem, and immediately saw how it applies to my life and experience. If this summary intrigues you, I highly recommend you check out the book!

One thought on “The Big Leap, by Gay Hendricks

  1. I listened to a podcast interview with Gay Hendricks and he shared the 3Ps tactic to notice if you are experiencing an Upper Limit Problem: Is my response designed to Protect myself, Prevent something, or Punish myself? I liked that framing to notice those techniques commonly used to sabotage oneself back to a familiar level of limiting beliefs.

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