As uncomfortable and scary as it can be, the Place of Uncertainty is where everything juicy and interesting happens. Certainty is the death of curiosity. Knowing exactly what you're doing all the time is a pitfall of the fixed mindset; it means you're not learning or growing or changing. Ah, but it's so nice and secure and comfortable to be certain! Why would anyone ever give that up, even for a moment?
The most fascinating thing about the Place of Uncertainty is that it can feel terrible at the time. Confusing! Stressful! Frustrating! Lonely! Expensive! Depressing! Not knowing what to do next can break people. We're talking total life derailment. In retrospect, though, these points in the timeline can barely register. We may forget we ever felt that uncertainty entirely. Usually we remember it as a mere speed bump. Just a little blip.
An example of this is when my husband and I went to Spain last year and decided to follow what I call the Wing-It Method. We landed in Barcelona with no plans. We didn't know a single person. Not socially, not professionally, not through a website... we just knew zero people. We had nowhere to stay, no way to get there, and no idea what we would be eating for dinner. There was a really intense ten-minute period in the airport terminal where we were having a bit of an argument. The wifi was slow and we were not getting information instantaneously, the way we might at home. We had to find a campsite, learn the bus system, and find places to buy food and propane canisters. It felt not just daunting, but nearly impossible. Ten minutes later, we had all that information and an action plan, and we were merrily walking out to the bus stop, which was only a few yards away the whole time. In retrospect, it's very hard to express adequately the sense of foreboding and misery that comes from standing in the Place of Uncertainty, even for those scant ten minutes.
The Place of Uncertainty demands full attention. Full System Two thinking. Total mental bandwidth. Standing in the Place of Uncertainty is no time to be distracted or futzing around with one's phone. This is precisely why it's such good discipline. We force ourselves into unnatural and uncomfortable situations, when we have no real idea what to do, because we need to stretch our concept of what we are able to handle. Eventually, what used to be impossible or intimidating becomes doable, maybe even routine.
If you don't believe that, recall your first driving lesson.
My husband and I ran full speed toward the Place of Uncertainty this month. He accepted a tantalizing new job offer in a new city, and we only had twelve days to somehow get ourselves and our menagerie over there. From my current vantage point, sitting on the couch in our new apartment, the timeline seems clear and obvious. Yes, of course: we boarded our animals; reserved an Airbnb, a moving van, and a storage unit; packed everything we own in three days; loaded the van and cleaned the house top to bottom in one day; stored our stuff for eight days and moved it twice; and found the perfect apartment within six hours. Looking backward, it seems to make sense that we are 90% moved in to our new place exactly one month after the initial job interview! While we were living it, though, it felt like that one month was equal to a thousand years.
Making decisions depletes willpower and mental bandwidth. A job change plus relocation involves thousands of decisions. What to wear to the interview? How to phrase the thank-you note for the interview? Where to live? Should we pack or get rid of each of the ten million trillion billion objects in our house? Where do we put everything in the new place? What do we eat, when our kitchen infrastructure has been shattered into multiple cardboard box towers? The natural coping mechanisms for this mental exhaustion include overeating, quarreling, and standing idly with one's hands hanging limply by one's sides, mouth hanging open, hopefully not making a noise that sounds too much like UHHHHHH.....
The last month has been exhausting for us. Our sleep schedule was all over the place. We are both gimped up from being middle-aged, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed for a week and a half, and moving all our worldly goods twice in eight days. I rolled over in bed the other night, twitched my foot, and was seized by a cramp in my calf so strong that I had to push my foot down with my other foot before it would release. I mean, we are SORE. This was hard. It was physically tiring, mentally draining, and emotionally challenging. We said goodbye to a city we had grown to love, our nice neighbors, our nice yard, and a very significant number of our personal possessions. On the front end of it, having roughly zero idea where we would eventually wind up, it could have been traumatizing. We really didn't know if there would be a happy ending, other than that we would have each other.
There was a happy ending. It didn't come down from Fairytale Land. We created it. We pushed through our feelings of confusion, exhaustion, and uncertainty and kept working until we got what we planned to get. We knew we wanted the job, we knew what city we wanted to live in, and we knew how much we were willing to pay. If we hadn't found what we needed the first week, we would have extended our Airbnb stay or changed to a different one and kept looking. The task itself wasn't complex. Usually nothing in the Place of Uncertainty is really complicated; it only feels like it. It's our willingness to endure these feelings that leads us to victory, to a sense of progress and hopeful optimism in our lives.
I had the good fortune to hear Jonathan Fields speak at World Domination Summit 2016. I love his podcast, The Good Life Project, and the more I get to know his work, the more I want. How to Live a Good Life is an excellent book, one that arises from many years of exploration of that topic. I think we can safely say that if there is a textbook for such a thing, this is the one. How to Live a Good Life is for people who are looking for something more, and are starting to feel skeptical or disappointed because they haven't figured out their "passion" or "purpose" or what happiness means to them.
The core of the book is that there are three metaphorical buckets in life, and we can only be happy if we distribute our energy between them. The buckets are Vitality, Connection, and Contribution. This translates to physical health and well-being, social relationships, and work, which I always use in the sense of both vocation and avocation.
How to Live a Good Life is designed to be read and worked through in brief sections. It's the ideal kind of book to dip into, doing one "day" at a time. Some of the exercises may feel obvious to one person, while creating a real epiphany in someone else, and that will undoubtedly vary from one reader to another. One of the three buckets will likely stand out as having the lowest level. I really liked this image, and the sense that all of my buckets could be filled, or that maybe I could even get bigger buckets!
One of the stand-out moments for me in How to Live a Good Life was Jonathan's discussion of The Five Love Languages with his wife. They came to realize that they were both wrong about her primary love language. My husband and I also loved reading that book together, and this inspired me to revisit the concept, wondering if either of us had changed over the years, too. I really enjoyed this book and found it very approachable, inspiring, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.
Perfection doesn't exist, first off. Let's make that clear. The only place anything perfect can be found is in the Platonic ideal, floating around in our minds somewhere. More importantly and more interestingly, perfection is pointless. It's a boring, static concept with nothing to offer. No thrills, no party, no memorable stories, no laughs. Perfection isn't funny.
My future husband picked me up at work one day. We were just falling in love and we had a big date. He walked in, we made eye contact, I stood up to greet him - and I stepped on my skirt when I was only partway out of my chair and fell over sideways. Vanished behind my desk. Truly one of my finer moments. I don't know if I've ever laughed harder in my life. "You disappeared!" he said. Imperfect but hilarious. If I had just sat there without a hair out of place, he wouldn't have learned anything about my personality (assuming I had one) and I would have had to live up to that smudge-free image. Forever.
I married someone who knows the real me. The real me does not have the attention span for the pursuit of perfection. The real me is frequently driven to do things like hula hoop while reading, try to teach the dog to jump rope, make up alternate song lyrics, or write an eighty-line epic poem about a shoe. The fruitful pursuit of hilarity is much more interesting than the futile pursuit of perfection.
As a general rule, care more about how something feels than about how it looks. Experience, not image. This is why I wear comfortable shoes. It's also why I'm in a marriage where we laugh a lot, not one where we take selfies a lot. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just that for me, trying to capture a moment in a photograph usually ends with me stressing out about how weird I looked, spoiling the memory and making me self-conscious. Maybe we should get some horse-head masks...
We have a pretty little parrot. Sincerely, she is cuddly and friendly and adorable. She also likes to pick her nose with her toe. I'm constantly battling the feathers and shredded chew toys and dog hair and muddy paw prints and other unspeakable messes. The bird likes to throw food to the dog. Sometimes he catches it in mid-air, but usually not. There is nothing perfect within eight feet of the bird perch, let's just make that clear. But, they make us laugh every day. There are many sweet moments when they smooch each other or take naps together, but usually the moment has passed in a split second. Whenever I get my camera out, they freeze and look at me like NO, DON'T YOU PERFECT ON US. We live in the now, bow wow.
Perfection is about criticism. It starts with self-criticism and quickly leaks out and starts staining everything and everyone in sight. Perfection is about shame. If criticism is a stain, shame is mustard gas. Shame kills. Perfection is about social comparison and envy. Nothing good can come of that. Looking for the humor is looking for the recognition, the surprise, the affection. Funny is endearing. When we add hilarity, we bring connection and understanding. The friendship that can't be made through perfection can be made in an instant through a shared laugh.
When we let go of the nonsensical hunt for perfection, we can relax, and we can free others from our sometimes unfair judgments and standards. Self-compassion ripples outward. We understand that others are no more able to be perfect every single second than we are. One thing I'm working on right now is to catch myself whenever I judge someone else for anything I myself have done. It turns out that that's nearly everything. There are a lot of jokes to be found with this material. Criticism, shame, and perfectionism aren't really all that funny. We can let it all go, and let ourselves go.
It's a mystery to me, but there is something about the Perfect Day exercise that utterly stumps my clients. They'll do everything else for me, from handling bags of wet trash to sorting stacks of dusty papers to opening boxes that make them cry. But when I ask them to imagine their version of a perfect day, they can't do it. What do you like best? What do you want the most? What's your idea of fun? Nothing. No idea. It finally occurred to me that maybe we should try a more oblique approach. What's your most imperfect day?
We don't want to call it the Worst Day, obviously, because that brings up connotations of calamity, grief, and disaster. My people have always had plenty of that. In fact, it's far easier for them to imagine horrible things happening than pleasant or kinda okay things. Much less perfect or exhilarating or delightful things!
It's really the difference between pessimism and optimism. It's the indicator of depression and anxiety. Imagining a positive future is extremely difficult from these positions.
As an optimist, I reflexively find the positive spin on everything. I woke up one day at 6 AM, while I was still really tired, but then I looked out my back window and saw an Audubon's Oriole perching in my yard! First and only time in my life, and it was only a few yards away! Then its mate came and flew around! Another exhausted person with a parasomnia disorder might not have bothered to look out the window, or might have seen a brown and yellow bird and not cared. Most people in that situation would definitely have complained about their tiredness for the rest of the day. I am sure I was just as tired as anyone else would have been - but I really, really loved seeing those orioles. It made me feel lucky for waking up too early. If I was going to talk about my morning with anyone, that would have been what I talked about. For me, any day that involves a rare bird sighting is a Perfect Day. Optimism involves looking for the bright side. It also involves curiosity, awe, and wonder.
What did you get out of that story? Crazy birdwatching lady. There were no details in there whatsoever about: what I looked like or what I was wearing. My house, what it looked like, where I lived, or what stuff I had. How much money I had. Who was with me. What kind of car I drove. What job I had. That story was about me loving something that is easily available to most people: observing nature. It was about my EMOTIONAL STATE. Awe, delight, and gratitude. THAT is what makes a Perfect Day.
Okay, now that we've got the spoilers out of the way, let's get back to the Imperfect Day exercise. What makes an imperfect day?
There are so many more negative emotional states than there are positive emotional states!
The thing about the Imperfect Day exercise is that you don't have to imagine something beyond your experience. You don't have to make anything up. My 'Perfect Day' always seems to involve room service breakfast, an infinity pool, and a hot stone massage for some reason, which is bonkers because I've never experienced a single one of those things. BUT, everyone has had an imperfect day. A day when we wish we'd just stayed in bed. A day when we are so miserable we want to change our names and enter the Witness Protection Program just to get away. When was that?
Waking up almost too exhausted to hit Snooze again
Stepping barefoot on something sharp or wet
Realizing you're out of something: coffee, gas, toilet paper
Getting dressed and then immediately spilling on yourself or tearing your tights
Not being able to find your keys, your phone, your shoe
Showing up late to work and getting a dirty look or a comment from someone
Oh my gosh. That's just the morning!
Getting a headache at work
Thinking a bag of microwave popcorn and a diet soda qualifies as a "lunch"
Being too busy to stop and pee
Two hundred emails
Dealing with rude customers, rude coworkers, a mean boss
Feeling resentment, annoyance, discouragement, fear of layoffs
All that before even commuting home.
Having an altercation
Eating cereal for dinner
Feeling overwhelmed and hopeless about everything that needs to be done
Just wanting to escape
Staying up too late trying to get some High Quality Leisure Time.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Problems have solutions. They're not always the solutions we would want, and they're almost never the solutions we would have thought of. Recognizing our problems, though, is the way we know where to start. We have targets. A list of problems can be a to-do list of actions that can make our lives noticeably better - or at least less annoying and disappointing.
Many of us make goals like 'get organized,' not realizing the true transformative power that this has. We think 'get organized' means something like 'put all our stuff in little modular bins' or 'wear a stopwatch around our necks like Flavor Flav.' What it really means is that we learn to think strategically and avoid the most predictably frustrating parts of our daily lives. We look for patterns. We take charge. We spend at least a few minutes every day doing something nice for Future Self.
Dear Tomorrow Me, I stopped after work and filled up the gas tank so you wouldn't have to do it in the morning. I started a shopping list so you'll have something for breakfast and lunch every day this week. I looked at the weather report and laid out something for you to wear to make your morning easier. Have a great day! - Love, Today Me
Decisions are decisions because the answer isn't obvious. For instance, I'm wearing my shoes and pants because my husband's shoes and pants don't fit me. I'm going to eat my lunch instead of your lunch. I'm going to walk on the floor and not the ceiling, although I wouldn't rule that one out. Non-decisions. Most things are not decisions, and they shouldn't be. Decisions are to be avoided whenever possible. The best way to do this is by using strategy.
A strong case can be made that strategy is the single biggest difference between successful people and everyone else. It's the difference between a professional and a student. Most of us have to fight a strong desire to be an "A student" and be perfect, which means we're trying to follow someone else's rules and figure out what is expected of us. Strategic thinkers instead create their own rules and figure out how to get the world to meet their expectations. Like, I am still trying to figure out why I can't buy potato chips at the baseball stadium, or, for that matter, why I can't get kale chips at the movie theater.
Let's do some examples of decisions vs. strategy.
Getting dressed. Decisions are what happens when your closet is full to bursting, you feel like you never have anything to wear, there's stuff that doesn't go with any other stuff, a lot of things don't fit right now, and there are shoes that never get worn. Strategy is what happens when you plan outfits either at the store, or before you even go shopping, and only own clothes you love to wear. My house was built in 1939, a time when average people looked great, and my four-foot closet rod matches with the idea that most people in the Thirties only had nine outfits.
Eating. Decisions are what happens when you're already hungry and have no idea what to make, but nothing in your kitchen looks good and there's stuff spoiling in the fridge that cost you hard-earned money. Decisions also happen when you're staring at a menu and overwhelmed by FoMO. Strategy is what happens when you plan meals by the week, write your grocery list off that meal plan, and have a system for using up leftovers.
Dating. Decisions are what happens when you're emotionally conflicted about a relationship with someone with whom you are probably incompatible. Strategy is what happens when you decide on your deal breakers and only get involved after finding out what someone is really like. The most important feature of a new romance is to find out whether this person is emotionally available and interested in monogamy, and it's an eternal mystery why so many people skip this vital bit of research!
Shopping. Decisions are what happens when you are in a store looking at things that maybe you didn't even know existed. Strategy is what happens when you plan ahead of time to buy only what you can afford, that you need, that you can maintain, when you know where you're going to put it.
These things all tend to have a multiplier effect on mental bandwidth. Burn through your mental energy on a decision like what to eat or what to wear, and there won't be much left when the next decision point comes up. Make decisions while under emotional strain, like when you're in a bad relationship or hating your job, and it's that much harder to "make good choices."
"Make good choices" is kinda useless as far as advice goes. What if what I want isn't even on offer? What if all the choices presented to me are bad options? Thinking of menus again, sometimes we're just in the wrong 'restaurant' in life, with fifty things we don't want and not a one that we do. Time to get up and create a different situation.
Strategizing is really the reason to make resolutions at the New Year. Once a year is probably the longest we should ever wait to do strategic planning for our lives. What do we want out of life and how are we going to get it? It's much simpler than most people realize; in fact, average people will make strong arguments that strategic planning is impossible and give all the reasons why they aren't allowed to do it. Well, it is allowed and we can generally do whatever we want. Here are some ideas.
Relocate to the part of the world where you want to live. Moving from a cloudy, wet, cold climate to a sunny, dry, hot climate is probably the single best decision I ever made, while the reverse might be true for someone else. Other solid reasons to choose where to live include career options and proximity to loved ones.
Choose a career. Most of us just sort of stumble into a job, which we then hate and dread, and only look for something else when we get laid off. Choose something and figure out how to get the credentials to do it. Relocate if necessary - another vital strategic step that most people reject.
Figure out what energy level you want. Default option for almost everyone is burned out, chronically exhausted, moody, irritable, overweight, and sedentary. These are not coincidences. Moods can be managed, and the keys to that are sleep, hydration, food intake, and substances like caffeine and alcohol.
Plan your personal environment. How do you want your living space to feel and look? How do you want your life to function? Mornings are a big indicator: Do you start your day exhausted, frantic, and running late? If so, that shows how strategy can help. Figure out where to put your most important stuff like keys and glasses, get your outfit and meals ready the night before, and set a bedtime alarm. When you've got a handle on that, start getting rid of all your extra stuff. Don't let a bunch of old junk cause you to keep losing track of your important stuff or be late all the time.
Strategy is about where you want to be and what you want. Decisions are about what to do with what's in front of you right now. Sometimes the answer is that you don't want anything out of the available options! There may be nothing left for you at your current place of employment, in the neighborhood where you live, or in the stuff in your house. Pretend it doesn't exist. In a parallel universe, where you suddenly found yourself bare naked and starting over from zero, what would you do? What life would you build from scratch? It's always possible to create something new based on your vision for yourself.
Quit. Drop the idea. Let it go. Forget about it. Let yourself off the hook. Stop yourself. In many cases, deciding not to do something will get you a lot farther than the things you decide TO do. Decision means "to cut away," and cutting away anything that is not relevant to your current or future life will free up your time, energy, and focus. Quit today. Just don't do it.
Look at your to-do list and remove everything you can possibly get away with.
Break up with anyone you need to break up with.
Throw away or give away everything you don't need or want.
Give yourself permission to end one phase of life and begin another.
I quit folding athletic socks. Life is too short. They fit in the drawer and they don't need to be wrinkle-free. Nobody at the gym cares what our socks look like. No clothes need to be folded unless it is necessary to look pressed at work. Folding helps things fit better in their drawers, but it's less work to get rid of half of your clothes than it is to fold laundry that doesn't need folding. Buy more laundry baskets.
I broke up with my trainer. I had used up all of the sessions in my introductory package, and the rates go up significantly after that. (Note to marketers: This is exactly backward). He spent half of our last session pressuring me into scheduling another package. That made it a lot easier to say goodbye. When I switched from seeing him as "professional trainer" to "loser boyfriend who won't let go," the decision made itself. It's not you, it's me. I'm sure you'll find someone. Byeee. This may not work for everyone, but for me, when I ask myself how I would handle a situation if I were dating it, suddenly the choice becomes much clearer. I'm not married to any given stylist, store, restaurant, dentist, rental house, neighborhood, climate, book, craft project, couch, or anything else. I only have two ring fingers and only one wedding ring.
I threw away my baby photos. Well, technically I scanned them first. I looked through them and thought, Why do I even have these? I kept the scans because I have the storage space and because it's conceivable that I might want to look at them in my eighties. But I couldn't think of a single reason I would ever want physical copies of my baby pictures. I also got rid of my high school yearbooks and all evidence of my first marriage. I'm not completely heartless; I still have all the shoes I wore in all my foot races. But I have gotten rid of partially completed cross-stitch projects, sweaters, pottery, poems, drawings, wood shop projects, and who knows what else. It's helpful only to be sentimentally attached to living beings.
What about phases of life? Our culture could use more rites of passage. Once we get a driver's license and a job, the only two milestones left are parenthood and retirement. Awful lot of big gaps in there. When I turned 40, I decided I was going to quit caring what other people think and just do what I want all the time. It's awesome. I wish I'd realized I could do this sooner, like when I was 15. (Fortunately, almost everything I want to do is a good idea, like being a good citizen and making a good living). I'm officially a crone now! Who says? I say. Thinking of our lives in terms of phases, stages, and decades can be really helpful, as we start paying more attention to things like retirement planning and dental care. I want to reach my last day with all my own teeth and enough money to pay for my own funeral. If that sounds morbid, better start planning more awesomeness into the life you have now while you're relatively young!
Just don't do it. Don't waste your life. Don't finish boring books. Don't finish projects just because Past You thought you would want to do them. Don't save recipe clippings unless there's one in the stack that you know you're going to make tonight. Don't hang onto things you think you might need. Don't make plans based around your worries. The only things you really need are somewhere to sleep, somewhere to sit, a way to make dinner, a go bag, and something to wear to work. The only things really worth hanging onto aren't things at all; they're relationships and your personal values.
When I was doing my annual December stuff purge, I found a couple of photos of a former friend. The friendship ended badly. I looked at the pictures, had a flash of regret, and then remembered how much of that friendship was based on illusions and false expectations. I shrugged and burned the photos. Be free, old friend. Maybe one day our paths will cross again, or maybe not. You were here for a brief while, and so was I, and then our roads diverged. We don't owe each other anything. The same is true for our old illusions about what career or education we once thought we wanted, houses or vehicles or stuff we bought that we thought we wanted, hobbies or books or fantasies we thought we would be into. We're allowed to get older and lose interest or change our minds. We're allowed to change our plans and goals whenever we want, especially after we find out more than we knew the day we formed the goal. We celebrate weddings by tying a bunch of old cans or shoes to the bumper of the get-away car, and we can do the same with any new phase of life. Take all the old junk we can find and use it for party decorations. Have a bonfire to mark a new milestone in your life.
Don't do it. Don't do anything half-heartedly. Don't keep things unless they rate five out of five stars in your life. Spend your time with the people you love the most, doing the things that make you feel alive, surrounded by the few personal objects that serve those ends. Let the rest go.
Whenever a choice point comes up, it can be regarded as a crossroads. The options are either to continue forward, or make a turn. Turn right or turn left, and the turn will be in the exact opposite direction as the other turn. Which is the right direction? This is where most people tend to get hung up, unable to make a decision, and that's because they think there is a right answer. There isn't. Every turn leads somewhere. It's always prudent to pull over and look at a map. Most choices are even better documented than most maps, with more predictable results.
Let's go over some typical crossroads moments.
Relationship drama. The three options are to stay together, break up and be alone, or break up and wind up with someone else.
Job drama. Similar story, because dating and job hunting are almost perfectly identical in every respect. The three options are to stay put, quit and work for yourself, or quit and get another job somewhere else.
Not enough space. The options are to continue to live in cramped quarters, get more space (bigger house or storage unit), or get rid of a bunch of stuff.
Body image drama. Keep doing what you're doing, decline, or grow stronger.
Where does this road go? If I make one turn, where will I wind up? If I make the other turn, does it go anywhere interesting?
These are challenging questions when we're caught up in it. It's hard to read a map when you're driving through life at freeway speed. There are a lot of tired old jokes about people who refuse to stop and ask for directions, but we don't like to do this in a metaphorical way either. The problems and choices that seem to torment us are usually simple and obvious to everyone else.
Break up with him! Apply for another job! Have a yard sale! Love it or change it!
Of course, we always think other people's problems are easy to solve, while having a tough time with our own. We don't like thinking that there are clear patterns to our behavior. We generally don't like thinking that our behavior is the root cause of anything, preferring to lay the blame on fate or the machinations of others.
I've come to regard choice points and crossroads as triggers for automatic strategic planning breaks. I have left the city limits and I am about to cross another border. This is why we get rid of more stuff and get a smaller house every time we move. This is why every time I hit a snag in my workout plan, such as an injury or a long trip, I come back aiming at a more intense level. This is why I now believe that a change in management at work signals a time to revamp my resume. When something changes, it's time to ask, Would I get into this situation if I had to do it over again right now?
Would I date someone who acted the way my partner is behaving these days? Would I have taken this job under these conditions? Would I plan to make a new house look this way? Did I plan to look this way? Did I plan to wind up here, doing this? Was this intentional?
It's a mystery to me why most people seem to do the opposite. Start quarreling with someone you used to love, and then fight more and more often, being nastier and meaner to each other, until nobody can figure out why you would live with someone like that. Hate your job and then just stay there, miserable, with no plans to leave and no plans to increase your job skills. Hate your body and then just become more passive and gain more weight, even when the health problems start to show up. Hate housework and then make your life harder by leaving everything to pile up. It's like pulling up to the crossroads and parking there. Keep moving and leave this town in your rear view.
This analogy works well for me because I've moved so many times. I can associate any given street address with a particular job or relationship or haircut.
Learning to recognize choice points as crossroads can start to make a lot more choices a lot more obvious. Do I move in the direction of a bigger life or do I retreat? Do I move in the direction of improvement or decline? Strength or weakness? More options or fewer options? Debt or financial freedom? Mess or order? Creativity or stasis? Am I passing up awesomeness in favor of imagined security? Am I simply nervous about going somewhere I've never been before, even though I heard it's great? Moving in the direction of greater awesomeness is always recommended.
Would you slap a bratty child? Yours or someone else's?
Assuming the answer is no, congratulations! You have just demonstrated a healthy regard for social norms, self-restraint, and willpower. These are superpowers. They can be used in all situations.
Assuming the answer is yes, of course you would slap a bratty child, let's do another one. Would you rob a bank? Hmm, wait. That might be the wrong kind of question to ask someone who would slap someone else's kid. Would you... would you pee your pants on purpose rather than wait in line at the restroom?
Let's just call that a No and move along. Of course not. Not only do you have self-restraint, willpower, a healthy regard for social norms, and control over your voluntary bodily functions, you also prefer to avoid doing things that are against your obvious self-interest.
If this is true, then you have the power to do and achieve anything.
What it comes down to is that we will not do certain things under any circumstances, because we do not give ourselves permission to do them. Some things we will not do out of disgust, like eating furry blue leftovers. Some things we will not do out of contempt for "people who do those things," like late merge, even though it's purpose-built for the greater good. Some things we will not do because they make no sense, like cashing out our retirement funds to buy a jet ski. Some things we will not do because we just have no urge to do them, like murder or arson. We can thank Past Self for avoiding these things.
We are smart. We have plenty of self-control. We easily do what two million incarcerated people evidently cannot do, which is to stay out of trouble.
Why, then, do we think we have so much trouble with "willpower" and "motivation"?
If we can refrain from punching annoying customers, why can't we refrain from eating that second slice of cake?
If we can avoid shooting heroin, why can't we stop drinking soda?
If we can resist setting our boss's desk on fire, why can't we resist the siren song of the sofa?
It really comes down to what we give ourselves permission to do. We give ourselves permission to eat things that taste good that we want to eat, especially when they're free. We give ourselves permission to lounge around when we've made other commitments to ourselves. We give ourselves permission to abdicate on responsibilities, even when they are congruent with our core values. We are perfectly happy calling ourselves lazy, or claiming we have no willpower, when really we're talking about the same exact self-discipline that allows us to control our bowel functions.
What is behind this, I suspect, is that our defects are our charms. Flaws make us relatable. Get too perfect, and we quit having so many friends. We bond over the things that annoy us, frustrate us, the things we hate. Where is the benefit in suddenly having less in common with other people?
Don't you dare start eating healthy. I need you to have my six when I want to order dessert.
You're making the rest of us look bad.
Now, I'm a contrarian, or so they tell me. My main motivation is curiosity. The more I feel that something is unexplored territory, the more something seems taboo for some reason, the more I think about it. Fact-Finding Missions are my brownie bites. I have to know. If I married Bluebeard, I wouldn't have waited until he left the house to try to unlock that last door. In fact, I wouldn't have married him until after I'd seen it, but anyway. Divorced people are suspicious. I give myself permission to experiment, research, and check out things I want to know, like: what does it feel like to be strong and fit? Sometimes other people have a problem with this. Anyone who is put off by my appearance, my activities, my thoughts, or my conversation is unlikely to be happy with anything I do after the first five minutes regardless.
What I've learned is that whatever you are doing at any particular point in time, however you are dressing, whatever music you are listening to, a group of people will gather around you. What annoys one group will be cheerfully embraced by another. This is why I don't let crowd response dictate what I do.
In the words of my dad, don't do anything illegal, immoral, or just plain stupid. I agree. Everything else is on the table.
I give myself permission to do what I want. I go where I want. I wear what I want. I read what I want. I eat what I want. Surprisingly, I very rarely say what I want, but I say plenty, and it's fair to keep my thoughts to myself. Perhaps because I am a free elf, I do not give myself permission to overeat, stay up too late, spend money frivolously, be overweight, or watch dumb stuff on TV.
Other people will not give themselves permission for other things. To go out without wearing makeup. To tell missionaries to get off the porch and never come back. To wear comfortable shoes. One person's freedom is another person's asceticism. One person's prison is another person's freedom.
Fourteen-second rule. Do you do it? Do you eat food that hits the floor?
Eating grapes while shopping for produce, or taking samples from the bulk bins. Do you do it?
Texting and driving. Do you do it? I sure as [unprintable] hope not.
Being late. Forty minutes? Twenty minutes? Ten minutes? One minute? How often?
Ask around. The answers to these questions are highly personal. Most people will recoil in shock or disgust at one thing, but shrug and admit that they do another, while the person standing right next to them will do the exact opposite. We don't always agree on how these behaviors fit into civilization, or what constitutes a social norm.
What we do generally agree on is that it's okay to break New Year's Resolutions. It's fine to overeat and struggle with weight and body image. It's totally ordinary to have piles of laundry laying around. It's expected to be disorganized. It's practically required to blow off going to the gym. It's somewhat uncouth to have read the entire book before the book club meeting. It's standard to carry debt and have no retirement savings, even when you're fifty. Even though these common areas of attempted resolutions involve the same self-discipline as obeying social norms, they are not regarded AS social norms, and thus they are fair game.
What we have to ask ourselves is which we prefer. Do we prefer fitting in and living the conventional track? Or do we prefer solving what we have felt to be a problem in our lives, at the risk of no longer bonding with people about the problem? Is the tradeoff worth it? What do we give ourselves permission to do or not do?
Do you believe in love at first sight? Soulmates, destined to be together, who spot each other across a crowded room and instantly merge spirits until the end of time?
Do you believe in genius? Iconoclasts hatched from special eggs who come like Prometheus to grant innovation to the masses?
Do you believe in Sasquatch? How about fairies? Rodents of Unusual Size? Trickle-down economics?
Okay then. Let’s talk about motivation. Because I do not think it means what you think it means.
People often tell me that they wish they had my motivation. Chances are, they actually do. I mean, I don’t seem to have any laying around. I may have had some back in the 90s and it got thrown in with a bag of Goodwill donations. It sounds like something people associate with youth and vigor, anyway.
When I’m “motivated” I’ll quit procrastinating. I’ll start eating healthy and going to the gym. I’ll get organized. I’ll plan my retirement. One day, when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, I’ll wake up and everything will be different! Basically my entire personality will change! Everything I hate doing now will suddenly be bathed in sunbeams, emanating prismatic rays of cosmic power! A magical sword will float up from a lake, activated solely by my aura! Doves will fly over my head, carrying an embroidered banner that reads TODAY THOU ART MOTIVATED! Flowers will sing Hosanna! A unicorn will gallop by with a tray of refreshments strapped to its back! I will suddenly sprout defined abdominal muscles!
Or maybe there was just some ergot in my muesli. It happens.
[Note to self: draw this as soon as there is sufficient motivation]
Allow me to present my credentials. I ran a marathon. I am at my goal weight. (I in fact actually have visible abs.) My house is both clean and organized. I do my art every day. I publish on a schedule. I’ve been earning (extremely tiny sums of) money off my writing for five years. I’m actually one of those people who grows and cans our own produce. Arguably, there are no things that would require motivation that I don’t do on a regular basis. I know whereof I speak.
What I have to say is that I don’t have any feelings other people don’t have. As far as I know, there are no ecstatic, mystic states where you 1. Meet a giant caterpillar smoking a hookah and then 2. Suddenly feel an intense satisfaction related to scutwork and drudgery. I was never allowed into the Archives of the Motivation Cabal, where they possess the last remaining copy of the Codex Mirabilis, handwritten in ink made of crushed scarabs, meteorites, and wormwood, the mere sight of which permanently etches epiphanies into your pineal gland. I don’t even have any level-ups or extra lives.
In truth, I am a lazy person. A tightwad. Too stubborn for my own good. I do the things I do out of a belief that they are good ideas in the long run, that they save time and money and effort, and that it’s easier to do them than to suffer the results of not doing them. It’s three times harder to burn off a pound of fat than to put on a pound of fat, and probably five times harder to add a pound of muscle than to maintain it. Cleaning a cluttered house takes 40% more effort. The longer things go between cleanings, the harder they are to clean. The benefits of being fit and organized are obvious the moment you experience them. Do what’s necessary for long enough, and it becomes so automatic you forget there was ever another way. You can coast. It’s not motivation you want, but momentum.
The secret is not woven in gold thread into a flying carpet. It’s not hidden in a cave at the top of an uncharted mountain. You don’t have to carry honey cakes to feed to a three-headed dog. You don’t have to click your heels together or talk to yourself with your eyes closed. All you have to do is to realize that there is really no such thing as motivation, and just get started doing things whether you want to do them or not. Just get started.
Being broke comes from two sources: not knowing how to get ahold of more money, and having negative ideas about where money comes from. Most of us are quite capable of doing things that can turn into money, if only we knew what they were. When we do imagine ourselves doing these things, we freeze. We're overcome with negative thoughts. It's the same as body image. We associate bad character traits with physical vigor in the same way that we do with wealth. More money? That's just going to mess everything up! We see what is really a neutral tool as a force of evil. These negative associations, I think, are why we act like we're allergic to money.
I used to "know" that athletic people were dumb, vain, arrogant, and mean. Gradually, I started to realize that I kept seeing pictures of wealthy celebrity athletes visiting children's hospitals, something that I have only done twice. These busy, famous people were visiting kids they didn't even know! Something was wrong with my mental image. Just because I had had some bad encounters with rude jocks in school did not mean that every person who goes to the gym has a cruel streak. I opened my mind. Now I know gym rats who: work with the homeless, run a preschool, coach at-risk kids, meditate, rehabilitate dogs, and other non-bullying activities. Being physically fit is not a character trait. It's not a complete package that works the same way in all people. Being wealthy is the same. It can be whatever you want it to be.
Greed, our strongest negative association with wealth, comes from scarcity mindset. It's only possible to be greedy when you fear that there isn't enough to go around or that you can never get everything that you want. Greed requires fear of competition. If I don't take it, someone else will, and then I'll get nothing and I'll be a loser. If someone else has something, it's something that I don't have for myself, and I want it ALL. Greed is only one manifestation of scarcity mindset, though. Social comparison is another. When I judge others who have something I don't have, I'm allowing myself to be distracted. I am forgetting to be grateful for my own life and I am, at least for a moment, no longer fully aware of what I have. Worse, I am forgetting what I have the power to DO. Another facet of scarcity mindset is the depressing feeling of poverty, which involves aspects of humiliation, social rejection, helplessness, and shame.
True wealth is abundant. For instance, the house that we rent has three citrus trees. They produce bushels of fruit for about half the year. All our neighbors also have at least one citrus tree apiece. We give away sacks of this fruit while still eating our fill, and sometimes it's all we can do to collect it all before it spoils. Even the two flocks of wild parrots that live here can't eat it all. Want some grapefruits? How about lemons? Tangerines? Oranges? The humble zucchini is another example. The trouble is that when we have easy access to abundance, we quit valuing it. Sometimes we even have contempt for it. Our gaze is irresistibly drawn to whatever someone else has that we don't.
I like comparing myself to the Emperor Charlemagne, who died 1200 years ago. I have all kinds of great stuff that he would give up a kingdom to have. Ice, for one. Central heating and air conditioning. A cabinet full of salt, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and even saffron. Refrigeration. Modern sanitation and vaccination. Basically anything that ends with '-ation.' My pillow. He might have had a crown, but I can buy a plane ticket (over my phone, with a credit card) and fly through the air! We take for granted all kinds of things that Charlemagne and his contemporaries wouldn't even understand, like space travel and the internet. Even our poorest people have basic literacy, when poor Charlemagne struggled just to write his own name.
Abundance means we understand that we create money by adding value to the world. Not that we don't already do that just by existing, of course! When we create things that never existed before, and allow people a chance to buy them, we can enrich the lives of others. When we offer services that can make other people's lives better, and give them a chance to hire us, we make the world a better place. Take J.K. Rowling, for example. You know she was on the dole while writing the world of Harry Potter into existence, right? So she wrote a bunch of books and was able to provide for her child. Then what happened? Millions of fans were able to enjoy the books and the movies. Thousands of people got jobs working on those books and movies. Bookstores had lines around the block waiting for new books to come out, and started having launch parties at midnight. Posters, t-shirts, Halloween costumes... See that it is possible to become wealthy by bringing delight into the world. Also note that the estimable Madame Rowling is an active philanthropist. Creating wealth does not have to take anything away from anyone else, and it doesn't have to turn you into a bad person.
Money changes things, just like every change changes things. There's no point denying it. The trouble is that we fear what we can't predict. We want to control all the risk out of our lives. The best way we know of to attempt to eliminate risk is to do nothing, not realizing that change will come for us regardless. There is no status quo. The best we can manage is a few similar years, if we hang on tight, but one way or another, change comes. Money can be a great insulator. Money allows us to adjust to change with less stress, as it can solve most problems more quickly than any other method.
When we think about money, it can be interesting to observe what sorts of thoughts bubble up. We can ask ourselves, is this really true? Where did I get this idea? Why do I think this? For instance, why do I associate money with ice sculptures? Then we can imagine doing it our own way, having the money without the negative association. Can I be rich and not throw my phone at my assistant? Can I be rich and not wind up in rehab? Well, sure! As with muscle, though, massive wealth doesn't tend to show up by accident. We get there incrementally, little by little. We can still control the rate. Most of us could double or triple our incomes and still not come anywhere near extreme wealth. Our negative associations with money don't have to come true the moment we earn more. We'll be okay. We have permission and it's allowed.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.