The Prime Belief
In the mid-1800′s, a boy was born into a wealthy family. From the beginning, the boy suffered health problems: an eye problem that left him temporarily blind, a terrible stomach condition that limited his diet, and back pains that would haunt him and wound him throughout his entire life.
Despite his father’s disapproval, he spent most of his young adulthood attempting to become a painter. He failed. Meanwhile, his brother went on to become a world-renown novelist. Many of his health problems worsened, his relationship with his father deteriorated, and the young man struggled through bouts of depression.
Losing hope, his father used his connections to get the young man into Harvard Medical School. The young man was smart enough to handle his studies, but he never felt at home or at peace. The young man once mused in his diary that he had more in common with the patients than the other doctors. In a last ditch effort to search for life purpose, he joined a group of scholars on an expedition down the Amazon River. But within months of arriving, he was forced to abandon the expedition because he contracted smallpox and nearly died.
He returned home dejected, nearly 30 years old, still unemployed, a failure at everything he had ever attempted, with a body that betrayed him and wasn’t likely to ever get better. He slumped into a deep depression and became suicidal.
But he had an idea.
He made an agreement with himself. In his diary, he said that he would try an experiment. He would spend one entire year believing that he had 100% responsibility for everything that occurred in his life, no matter what. During this period, he would also do everything in his power to change his circumstances. If, he wrote, at the end of one year of taking responsibility for everything in his life nothing in his life had improved, then it will be apparent that he was truly powerless to the circumstances around him. Then and only then would he consider ending it all.
The young man’s name was William James, the father of American psychology and one of the most influential intellectuals of the past 200 years. Of course, he wasn’t these things yet, but he would go on to become them largely due to his experiment. James would later refer to his experiment as his “rebirth.”
There is a belief from which all other positive beliefs flow. This is the prime belief. This is the belief that you are responsible for everything you do in your life, no matter the external circumstances. The belief that regardless of the situation, our decisions are our responsibility.
Until a person has adopted this belief, change is impossible, and all negative beliefs will remain cemented in place.
Without the prime belief, people will feel powerless to their own lives. As a result, they will rely on excuses, pity, victimization and whining. They will overload you with statements about trying and follow-up with very little doing. They will talk of why things can’t happen instead of why they can. They will often be emotional vampires and strive to always make themselves out to be a victim.
Until they adopt the prime belief, they will not change. Ever. They are slaves to their life circumstances, strident warriors for their own victimization, stewards of self-pity.
They are a passenger in a car without a driver, blaming the collisions on the objects which they crash into.
They cannot be helped. At least not until they choose to be. You can’t help someone who will not help themselves.
In 1879, fifteen years after making the deal with himself, William James gave what was perhaps his most famous lecture, titled The Will to Believe.
In it he argued that whether religious or atheist, capitalist or communist, everyone is forced to adopt beliefs on some degree of faith. Even if you don’t believe in faith, that is itself a belief requiring faith. He went on to say that if we all must believe something, then we may as well orient ourselves to believe what benefits ourselves and our happiness — the first and most important of these beliefs is the belief that we have control over what we choose to believe. The Prime Belief itself.
James wasn’t dumb though. He knew that beliefs require more than a simple choice to believe them. You don’t just wake up one day and decide, “I’m a happy successful person!” and become it. Beliefs must be cultivated, consciously tried and tested and steeled by reference experiences. Beliefs are worthless if they don’t contain some sort of real-world manifestation, some tangible benefit in the form of positive experience.
Or as Charles Swindoll put it:
“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company, a church, a home.
The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past. We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you.”
The key to adopting the prime belief is the decision to go out and attempt to live the prime belief itself. The key is attitude. It’s the decision to not only see the opportunity in every situation, but to actually attempt and live it.
Ask yourself: what is something you could take responsibility for in your life that you’re not right now? Post it in the comments below.