The etymology of the word “transform” implies changing from one state or shape into another. “Form” comes from the Latin form meaning a mold, and trans means across. The word transformation implies movement over an expanse from one place to another. Visualize transatlantic shipping fleets.
Moving from here to there is something we do all the time. But within the boundaries of a single human life, what is it that transforms? The self-improvement industry claims to know the answer and markets the “new you” as if it’s a given that you want it, a known that you need it, a guarantee that you deserve it. But, have you considered what it is you’re truly yearning to transform? Or, for that matter, what part of you is even transformable?
An oak tree emerges from an acorn. Along the growth trajectory of the oak tree it transforms from a seed into a shoot, into a sapling, into an young tree, into a mature one, a fruit bearing one, and so on, until it dies and transforms into compost and becomes the soil from which some of the acorns it dropped now grow. We could say that this is the transformational life cycle of an oak tree.
Note: the oak never attempts to transform itself into an elm.
A human transforms from a baby into a toddler, into a child, into a teenager, into a young adult, and so on. Like the oak tree, this growth occurs naturally. We don’t have to will it to happen. There is no agency necessary. It’s in the natural order of things to grow to a certain age and then die.
Still, in order to become the best version of ourselves, we seem to benefit from applying agency to the process of our human growth and development. We have no way of knowing if the oak tree can apply agency to become its best oak self, but many of us have the experience that we can do so. Within limits. We cannot transform into a tree or a dog, but maybe we can change ourselves into a successful business owner, a top athlete, or a healthy happy adult.
Is this the sort of transformation you seek?
If so, dive into the world of self help, a multi-billion-dollar industry and growing every day. These numbers certainly imply the success of the people offering these retreats and workshops. But what about the success of the participants? How many people do you suppose really change themselves into something dramatically new or different? How many of you have taken these workshops or read these books and later found yourself pretty much the same as you were before or slipping back into old patterns after a short time, still wondering how to change yourself?
Let’s take a fresh look.
Developmental growth happens for humans naturally without our consent or agency. Assuming that our personal acorn is predetermined, thus setting organic limits for who we will grow into, the conversation has permission to move away from “transformation” and the concomitant promise of dramatic changes. Now we can proceed to a deeper inquiry into this notion of agency and into what about us is truly changeable.
Questions we might consider: Who is the self that feels capable of directing the course of her life? Where does she arise from, what are her intentions, to whom does she have allegiance, and what are the limits of her jurisdiction?
I suggest that instead of transformation, we steer the personal growth obsession to an orientation around assisting people in becoming the finest most exquisite expression of the human being already encoded in their personal acorn. I’d like to coin a new term for this approach—the field of fulfillment.
In the fulfillment field we won’t attempt to change ourselves into something we think we should be, based upon an outside source. Nor will we equip ourselves to traverse a chasm to get somewhere over there where we’ve been told the grass is greener. On the contrary, we’ll activate our agency and apply it towards being fully present right here and now. We’ll slow down, take an honest inventory, listen deeply for our acorn’s whisper, and act accordingly. Rather than coercing ourselves into changing into someone different from who we are, we will place our attention on fulfilling the depth and breadth of the self we’re already becoming.
It’s an act of courage to stop chasing the carrot of transformation and the promise of a new you loaded with more success, more sex, more power, more fill in the blank. The stance to reject transformation and uphold fulfillment may seem like a subtle distinction or a play on semantics but, when truly embodied, self-fulfillment becomes a bold willingness to inhabit the mystery of your ordinariness. The great good news is that in our ordinariness we realize and actualize our innate extraordinariness.
Read those last two sentences again, please.
The irony: What many people hope for when they say they want to transform is to become extraordinary. They just don’t realize their ordinariness is already extraordinary. It might just need a little polishing is all.
Here’s a suggestion. Stop and look at the next tree you run across. Instead of walking right by it, stand for a few minutes and really take it in. See if you can let go of your ideas about “tree” and just be with the miracle before you. You just might find it extraordinary.
If fulfillment becomes the goal, then the transformation industry as it stands would be out of business and the creative arts, service industries, families ,and diversified villages would all flourish. Why? Because when humans live in an environment where they’re not controlled or being coerced to live up to some external standard, they end up creating, playing, socializing, adventuring, and, in essence, being extraordinary ordinary human beings.