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January 28th, 2019
The question: “are you settling” has an appropriately negative connotation. We might be asked this when one of life’s quandaries has somewhat tentatively been decided upon. Even the one who has made the decision is likely to ask this question of themselves.
What lies within this question is a worry that we are slowing down in some fundamental way. That our decision is somehow a setback and that a different decision could somehow move us forward in a way that is in accord with some higher imagined value.
To settle is inevitably to settle for less than you should. Otherwise, such phrasing is not used. It’s often been observed that if you have to ask if you’re settling, then you are.
But no matter how obediently we fulfill the root of the word settle, which derives from the simple act of taking a seat, we are still being pushed through time inexorably. While we can take a moment to pause our thoughts and take inventory of what is going on, we cannot in fact pause time. There is no settling and it’s for this reason we like to remind one another how life can pass us by.
One of the current concepts in wellness, productivity and fulfillment is the ‘optimal challenge’. We as humans seem to atrophy in all sorts of ways if we are not challenged, either physically or mentally, and both through some kind of learning or problem solving.
Within the worry about settling is the question of whether or not we are being optimally challenged. Superficially we ascribe some kind of value judgment to the question, as in: are you settling for less than you’re worth? This is an underdeveloped corner of language because value is highly correlated with some kind of quantifiable metric, like money. It’s not only taboo to value someone in accordance to such a metric, it’s unwise for the very reason that a quantifiable metric is not a process and has no inherent potential. A quantity is not a dynamic entity, it is –at the moment it is measured- a static, settled fact. The very act of attributing a value to something is a form of settling. The image of two people bargaining or haggling over a price might arise as two people who are trying to settle on a common agreed price. While this act might be useful in the markets, simply for the reason that if we could never settle on a price for even a small amount of time, nothing would ever change hands, it does not make sense to do it with people, nor ourselves. Even the value of a given product changes and goes up and down over time. A human being represents a far more dynamic process. But as we are all familiar with, we can experience the eerie spectrum of feeling like we are moving forward in life, or being stagnant, or even spiraling some kind of drain. Moving forward might be described as achieving things, or navigating obstacles with an efficient variety of strategies, and being stagnant on the other hand might be described as settling, which is closer to spiraling that drain which is a whole different story.
One fickle benefit that seems to arise from language is our ability to compartmentalize different parts of our life. This is perhaps unavoidable since language itself is simply a vast network of categorizes. Our tendency to shy away from uncertainty makes the borders between these categories look opaque, when really they all exist on a spectrum of semi-permeable membranes. It’s unfortunate that such a fact doesn’t seem to affect our behavior in a meaningful way. Or rather, it’s unfortunate that we can compartmentalize things in our life, but the drift that occurs with words does not seem to replicate in our modes of thinking. We often fail to open the flood gates between those compartmentalized parts of our life and mix things up. This is another form of categorical mistake, and it’s brought up here because we can so easily find that fulfilling optimal challenge in one area of our life, say at work, but then find ourselves ‘settling’ in perhaps our personal life where no optimal challenges arise.
Optimal is key here. If we face a challenge that is too big, one we don’t know how to deconstruct, one that is simply overwhelming, then we risk falling victim to a kind of learned helplessness. And if the challenge is too small, then the challenge is rote, and we become bored and perhaps even insulted because we feel our capacities are far greater than what such a bullshit job requires. Gauging this optimal aspect of the challenges we choose requires a fair degree of mindfulness. The overwhelming feelings of an overwhelming problem can create a kind of emotional feedback loop which prevents an undertaking of new challenges that we actually do have the capacity to meet with success. Such a vicious cycle can make an individual far more likely to settle. But as with time, we are never actually settling. We have simply agreed to move in a new direction. And the direction from optimal challenge to settling is a track that eventually leads to spiraling a drain. Whether that be a lay off from an unchallenging job after decades of work, or a divorce, the seeds of such outcomes often lie in our disposition at the beginning. While we cannot see, nor predict the future, we can safeguard against many unwholesome outcomes by mindfully seeking a sense of challenge and difficulty to ensure that we are in fact never settling, but always moving forward and growing.
This episode references Episode 139: Regretting Categorical Mistakes