Personal Growth; Way beyond the spiritual entertainment - Zak Kaplan

Life has this really cool feature that you don't have to subscribe to or opt-in for. Whether you're a professional, entrepreneur, artist or student, life features the challenges that push and trigger you to either crumble and fall apart or rise to the occasion and grow.

If you choose to rise to the occasion, the reward is the kind of personal growth money can't buy. Personal growth and development, "explores identity, talents and potential, as well as dreams and aspirations. It develops you physically, mentally, spiritually and intellectually," as explained by Misty Sansom in 14 Ways to Stimulate Personal Growth.

Zak Kaplan, a Business Development Manager, joined me for a conversation on the Between the Highlights podcast and talked about some of the challenging situations and perspective shifts he experienced through the Covid Surprise of 2020, pivoting careers and facing imposter syndrome head on. Growth out of struggle is both priceless and necessary. Growing beyond spiritual entertainment, however, comes from intention, and through Zak's experience we see how the growth is multiplied 10X when you get a healthy dose of both.

Response to the Unexpected...

How you respond to challenges, personally and professionally, is the difference between being extraordinary, mediocre and stagnant. I am reminded of Viktor's Frankl's quote about the space between stimulus and response, where he says that it is within our response that we find growth and freedom.

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom" -Viktor Frankl

Carefully consider what takes place in the space between stimulus and response. Stimuli is often external in nature, but can be internal when we are experiencing strong emotions that are seemingly unprovoked. Our responses can be so emotionally charged and almost instinctual. How you respond to a flat tire, a colleague saying something inappropriate, or a plan you worked on for years falling apart within days or weeks matters.

We must learn to observe and respect the space between stimulus and response. The space between an unexpected event and our response must be held and honored so that it can be expanded and controlled to allow ourselves to experience the magic of growth and freedom that can occur.

As the world was brought to its knees courtesy of the novel coronavirus, Zak, like the rest of us, was given the space to chose how he would respond to the unexpected layoff and newly placed obstacles ahead of his career, completing his MBA and his identity. The unexpected challenges of life have the ability to thrusts us into the corners of our minds where self-evaluation through questions and discomfort become mental boot camp 2.0.

Zak decided to use the unexpected time as an opportunity to evaluate and gauge where he was in his career and where he wanted to be. Turning inward allowed him to reimagine who he was in this world and how he wanted to show up. As he reflects on this time in our conversation, it is evident that Zak did honor and respect the space by acknowledging both the external struggles he faced and the internal struggle he was just getting to the surface of.

"People down play just how important the struggle is, I don't think you're going to have a fulfilling successful life if everything's handed to you, …you need to fall flat on your face, you need to come up scraped head to toe in order to really learn from it to make changes" -Zak Kaplan

There is immense value in the struggles we face. However unexpected and painful the struggle is, it can be easily missed when you are not consciously seeking and asking the right questions. Zak was at the juncture of understanding what would be the best path forward career-wise and his own identity. Quickly this space between stimulus and response became an internal search for meaning and purpose.

Chris Myers, authored a blog about his experience becoming a CEO and startup founder for the first time. He says, "Just as rocks are slowly polished and smoothed by the constant flow of the river, our personalities are polished and refined by the constant flow of challenges and uncertainty that we contend with." Zak allowed the flow of the challenges that 2020 bestowed upon him to polish and refine not just his career path, but also his character which he found in the space between unexpected struggles and beginning a new career as the Business Development Manager.


You can trust the struggle to grow who you are when you 1) acknowledge the struggle and pain, and 2) decide on a response that aligns with who you want to become. When you choose the highest level of response, you increase your growth and your freedom.

Zak refers to the struggles he's wrestled with as being the motivators for his growth. His journey to self-discovery is deeply rooted within the struggles, the unexpected and uncertainty that life promises. As I mentioned earlier, how you respond to challenges is the difference between being extraordinary, mediocre and stagnant. Zak's ability to resurface into the corporate world greater than he was when he departed is the result of getting real with himself in that space. His outcome is evidence what is possible when you trust the struggles entrusted to you by life.

Beyond Spiritual Entertainment

Reading books, listening to that fire interview with the person dropping all the knowledge you need, and attending workshops you've paid for, without doing anything concrete to make a difference is the essence of spiritual entertainment. Once the book is closed and the interview is over, we're back to real life and the inspiration and excitement quickly fades. Old behaviors and everyday routines that lead to poor decisions take over again and create the same results we've always had.

Dr. Benjamin Hardy often quotes Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Klemp, "Commitment is a statement of what ‘is’. You can know what you’re committed to by your results, not by what you say your commitments are." The problem tends to be our ability to get real with ourselves about the results we have that show our commitments. The issue is that self-evaluation is uncomfortable, but necessary.

It took the unexpected time off and struggles for Zak to come into a space of truth and action. In his words, "you need to fall flat on your face, you need to come up scraped head to toe in order to really learn from it to make changes." It was through his assessment of the career he pushed out of to explore what career he wanted to move into. In that, he found the need to explore himself.

From personal training to sales and the combination of all his experiences, Zak was the common denominator in every situation. Like many of us, he admits it was always easy to look outward why this wasn't better and why that was because of someone else. Through true exploration of self, Zak was able to see the real culprit and extract the lessons. As the infamous "they" say, knowing is only half the battle.

Zak found himself with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide from the man in the mirror. On the surface, his struggles and dilemma were about changing careers. However, the real answers he needed to find were deep in the abyss of total honesty and accountability. This takes brutal honesty not self-flagellation, and it takes total ownership not a victim's mentality to reemerge better than you were. Taking action is how you avoid spiritual entertainment and experience real growth.

We discuss some of Zak's go to resources for growth that once served as spiritual entertainment. The podcasts with Jocko Willink, books, interviews of some of the most inspirational people like David Goggins were great to get pumped and thinking but Zak, like many of us, walked away without applying any of the nuggets of wisdom shared.

Resources are only as good as your application and process for experimentation with the ideas and principles learned. Tom Bilyeu with Impact Theory says often, action cures all. So what has been entertaining you in the personal development space? What areas are you finding yourself drawn to over and over again? Are you seeking ways to get up early and be productive, or how to be more confident?

Procrastination and excuses were two behaviors that surfaced for Zak, which meant he needed to face these behaviors head on and find an effective strategy for addressing them. Zak talks very candidly about how he became good lying to himself and others. Calling yourself out is as uncomfortable and can feel embarrassing, yes even when you are alone with yourself, but it is effective. Calling out the bad behaviors when you notice them is an action that begins the process of change. Being willing to experiment with what will serve you best is necessary along the journey.

"learning to be able to step and say 'nope, you can try something and it can fail and then try something else' …look at my life as an experiment and be willing to fail and fall down and get back up again" - Zak Kaplan

We can trace our behavior patterns back to upbringing, family dysfunction or other things, but owning it has its price to pay and a reward worth the cost of admission. Zak's ownership of solving his problem meant taking a very blunt approach and being conscious enough to interrupt patterns of bad habits and behaviors. He also had to learn and see through his own exploration that procrastination and excuses weren't always obvious. Sometimes bad behaviors come well disguised in other forms, and you have to be committed to finding the root of your actions to recognize it is an excuse at the root, or procrastination.

Zak introduced me to an article, The 'Batman Effect': How having an alter ego empowers you, over the summer last year. As part of the work Zak was doing to address old behaviors hindering his personal growth he learned about the Batman Effect and created his own alter ego, Kap. Having an alter "allows us to rein in undesirable feelings like anxiety, increases our perseverance on challenging tasks, and boosts our self-control.

For many people, the alter ego is not about being someone else. It's about being yourself guarded with all the behaviors, qualities and characteristics of who you strive to be in the highest version of yourself, and that are already there below the surface. Zak recognized he was dealing with imposter syndrome when he was in the corporate space. In feeling like he didn't belong he defaulted to excuses and showing up in an inauthentic way, like many us do. Lucky for Zak, his wife saved the day and called him out to say this email you sent and how you are acting around these people is not you.

"I kept on running into obstacles of trying to learn new skills, trying to apply new mindsets […] and having that internal push that is 'this isn't really you, this isn't who you've been for the last 20+ years,' kind of feeling like an imposter […] There could be different sides of Zak, I don't need to become someone else I don't need to suddenly embody something else, these characteristics are in me, I can go back […] and point out times where I embodied these characteristics, these core values that I am trying to embrace in this alter ego, so instead of trying to become a new person I'm going to put on a different hat when I need to call on that more confident badass person, that's where Kap was born from." -Zak Kaplan

The alter ego gave Zak the freedom and permission to show up as Kap. Everything that Zak is, is who Kap is, except he easily shows up in the most authentic way Zak decided was the best way to show up. He's taking ownership of the good and bad with ease, where Zak would default to playing small and go with an excuse or procrastinate. Kap embodies the core values that Zak determined held the most value for who he needed to be.

Your core values will help align the life you live with your true self. The process of determining core values for Zak was about looking at what he was proud of in his own personality, and also studying the people and characters he admired. Listing what it was that they personified and represented that he admired was the beginning. Narrowing down the list to what would drive him forward was the final step. Zak also made a great point that, "these are my core values right now and they may change and adapt over time […] be willing to be wrong."