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December 11th, 2018
Progress on any front in life feels great. It’s clearly one of the best feelings we can have, and it seems to stay aloft, or rather keep our spirits aloft quite a bit longer than the quick pitfall pleasures we encounter everyday, like donuts, T.V. and social feeds.
Pairing our hard-won progress against quick pleasures, we can see that they are actually inverses of one another.
The hard-won progress begins with difficulty, frustration, and even pain, but results in an elation with a decently spread half-life.
The quick pleasure on the other hand, starts with the pleasure, that is generally quick, fleeting and followed by a long and somewhat painful payment. Anyone who has had a bad hangover can remember pondering the previous night and wondering if it was all worth it.
This inversion is not a difficult one to realize, but figuring out how to choose the more rewarding of the two is not so apparent. Many brain processes paradoxically seem geared to lead us astray from forging paths to a sense of fulfillment.
If we look at that hard-won progress, we might breakdown what our thoughts are like just before attempting to do this hard work.
Is there an expectation that we will achieve what we’re setting out to do? What happens when the day comes to an end and we have toiled for hours on a problem that just doesn’t yield it’s solution? We might think that expectation is our driver, our motivation, but it is a ripe recipe for disappointment.
While such self-expectation, perhaps passed down from some tiger parents, work for some people, it’s clearly a stressful sort of pressure-cooker. We would do well to wonder if there are easier and potentially more efficient ways of achieving similar progress.
One curious way might be to find a way to deflate the concept of ‘failure’. This is a big one, the fear of which keeps so many people from every attempting anything outside of a fixed routine.
If we play the thought experiment on ourselves, by asking: what would happen if I was completely, utterly and totally comfortable with failure, would I be more likely to try more things, or less likely?
Often the phrase “what would you do if you were guaranteed not to fail?” is tossed around as an ineffective way of motivating people to find better paths. But this question is an absolute farce. It’s akin to asking “where would you fly if you were superman?”. It’s a nice question to contemplate, but it has no basis in reality. The question requires a dangerous suspension of disbelief. We are never guaranteed to undertake anything without the prospect of failure. This is why that question is a purely unproductive joke, it only initiates day dreaming, not action.
But, what is within the realm of possibility is changing our relationship to failure. We can, by exposing ourselves to it little by little, over and over, become comfortable with it. Just as mountain climbers slowly acclimate to altitude by pushing higher slowly and steadily, or how weightlifters slowly inch their way towards feats of strength that would have been impossible in the beginning, so to can we push ourselves into small curious endeavors and begin to develop an acclimation to failure.
One might ask at this point, if we become so comfortable with failure, would that become a kind of self-defeating default that we seek?
No. The reason is because sometimes we will surprise ourselves with progress. And the elation from that tiny victory is far more powerful than anything we might achieve with a desire to become comfortable with failure.
The exercise is simply to release a sort of mental pressure that keeps one from engaging more fully with what life has on offer to do.
It’s a tricky balance to simultaneously seek progress while being comfortable with failure, but for some, actually scheduling work on projects by scheduling failure, might be a counter-intuitive help.