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Breaking free: Embracing revolutionary change and crafting your identity

Tony Robbins breaking free of the chains of society

Yesterday, I was listening to a podcast with Tony Robbins. If you’ve been living under a rock for a few decades and haven’t come across that name before, Tony is one of the most recognizable names in the field of self-improvement. Over his lifetime, Tony has held seminars which have impacted, without exaggeration, the lives of millions of people around the world. Through his seminars, Tony changes the behaviour, biochemistry and thought patterns of his audience, guiding participants to take on an identity that matches their ambitions.

A thought crossed my mind as I listened to this podcast. Although it may be taken for granted that Tony is who he is today, he himself has almost certainly gone through as many transformations as the audience that he preaches to. Many of these changes would have come about through an evolutionary path – countless small and seemingly insignificant changes that, over time, bend the trajectory of the self. But a few changes, including the one that kickstarted the path that he is on would, I imagine, have been revolutionary – the type of change that is radical and disruptive.

I wonder then, when Tony first decided to step into the identity of a self-improvement teacher and public speaker what that may have felt like. How strong were the societal norms that were otherwise guiding him to remain on his current path? What did the people around him think of him when he decided to take forward this revolutionary change? I suspect, and without knowing fully the details of Tony’s backstory, that Tony probably had to navigate extreme levels of impostor syndrome and normative pressure to step into what was a new trajectory at the time. While we may now take it for granted that Tony is who he is today, at some point he too had to cut loose of the same normative pressures and behavioural, emotional and mental patterns that he teaches others to break free of.

In New Zealand, we have this idea of the tall poppy syndrome, where successful people are criticized for being, well, successful. In other societies, there are similar ideas or expressions; in Japan there is a saying that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down”. Moving against the grain in a society that espouses, subtly, that being moderate is the preferred state is no mean feat. It takes extreme bravery to not only declare who you want to be to the external world, but then also to become that person, particularly if that new identity stands in the face of both the beliefs of those closest to you and the normative behaviours of society. For you to challenge and change your identity casts the same challenge to others, and that can be incredibly confronting.

A protruding nail about to be hit by a hammer

It takes great courage to be the nail that sticks up

I wonder how many times I too have bowed to normative pressure – the perceived expectations and societal norms that influence (often subtly) an individual’s behaviours – staying within myself so as not to rock the boat. It takes enormous courage and intention to not only design an entirely new identity, but to step into that identity in spite of the opinions and beliefs of those around you.

Many of the fears that we hold around changing who we are probably won’t materialize further than the anticipatory mental anguish that these fears conjure. And ultimately, if you do step into a new identity, the people that you actually want to be there with you on the other side of that revolutionary change will continue to walk alongside you and celebrate you, rather than denigrating you, for who you’ve become.

I’ll leave you with two questions to ponder.

  1. Who would you become if you didn’t care about the opinions of others?

  2. What identity would you step into if the influence of normative pressures was removed?

Everything that you want could be on the other side of fear. So, what’s really holding you back?


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