A recurring theme in Raptitude is that why is a more useful question than what. Why is the mother of all whats, and tells a much more meaningful story.
A 600-foot triangular stack of stones sitting in the Egyptian desert for five thousand years is notable, but it’s the mystery of why someone was compelled to build such a thing that makes it so intriguing. If we only look at events and things, and judge them as if they were isolated entities, we can’t possibly understand them. Everything is both a cause and an effect, so there is no way of knowing what something is if you never look at why it is.
So if that isolated entity is something in your life that you want to change, such as a personal weakness or a lingering dilemma, your efforts to solve it may seem to be in vain. Your plan, at a glance, makes sense, but the problem keeps coming back. Try as you might, ten years later you still haven’t lost the weight, found a better career, or learned to play piano.
Contemporary self-improvement material seems to be concerned simply with what you should do:
To be more productive, start doing this.
To lose weight, eat this and don’t eat that.
An isolated tweak to one troublesome part of a person’s behavior can’t possibly address why they do it. There is a whole lifetime of momentum behind a person’s habits. To change the trajectory of something with as much inertia as an adult human life, we really have to understand the forces that put it into motion in the first place.
You Have to Figure Out the Why to Get the What Right
For so long I was concerned solely with the what of my life. My attention was consumed by what was happening to me at the time, what decisions I’d made in the past, what I expected in the future. For quite a while, I didn’t like myself or my situation, and that appeared to be the extent of the problem. I’m in X situation, and I don’t like X situation. I look in the mirror and see Y, and I don’t like Y.
So I focused on what to do about that. If I didn’t like that I was out of shape, I would vow to start exercising that day. If I didn’t like that I was failing in school, I’d plan to wake up at five and hit the books. Sounds logical.
But it never took. I couldn’t make habits of these things. So I concluded that I was just defective in some way, and it would always make things hard for me. Success would come only with greater amounts of effort and will. Hopefully one day I’d have it in me.
This is a flawed approach. I’m beginning to make headway in my weaker areas, and I think it’s because I figured out that almost all of my problems are just tendrils of the same problem. There is one all-consuming compulsion that undermines just about anything I do to be more effective than I’ve been in the past.
When I finally unraveled the cause, the solutions started to emerge. I haven’t solved this problem, but finally I know what it is and where it came from. In fact, it seems like everyone I know well is struggling with a host of problems stemming from just one major weakness. Some people just can’t make a decision. Others can’t keep their temper in check. Other people just can’t bring themselves to trust someone. One big problem gives birth to any number of little ones.
Mein Kampf, and Yours
This week marks six months writing for Raptitude. I launched it on this year’s Ides of March, and it has changed my life so much that I can’t believe it’s only been six months.
I didn’t realize it, but writing is something I’ve needed in my life for a long time. From here on in I will never not write. It helps me clarify my thoughts and my values. It helps me figure out who I am. In a brief half-year, my goals have become clear to me, and I have no ambivalence about what I want to do with my life.
So now that I (finally!) know what I want, I’m left to confront this major personal weakness in order to make it happen. I’ve always felt like there was something in the way: a dark, malignant wall between me and my potential.
For many years I was too bogged down by indecision and resentment to worry about what that wall actually was, or how to get past it, but now that I’m moving in a steady direction I find myself butting right up against it.
Sorry to be so abstract. My struggle — my brick wall — is self-sabotage.
I ruin things for myself whenever I start to excel beyond a certain point. Like clockwork.
For a long time it seemed to be reasonless, just an inexplicable curse on my life. There is no apparent logical reason to sabotage oneself. But over the years, patterns started to emerge in my life and the why of it all became obvious to me.
Life story time, but I’ll keep it as brief as possible.
As a kid I was an academic and athletic all-star. I excelled at everything without much difficulty.
I figure the beginning of my slide happened at a specific moment in Grade Two. Earlier in the week, the teacher had given me some advanced material to work on, because I already knew how to add and subtract. She was so impressed with my reading and math skills, and showered me with praise. I liked praise.
One day she had left the room when three or four of the rowdier kids started goofing off with some blocks, stacking them on their heads letting them fall off. The whole class was laughing, it was actually pretty funny. One of the blocks landed near me and I handed it to the head rowdy kid so he could do it again. That would prove to be one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
When the teacher returned, she made a stern face and wagged her finger at the kids who were acting out, giving them the same lecture they got just about every day. Just as she was finishing, a little girl said, “David was doing it too.”
She turned to me, staring daggers. In front of the whole class, she tore into me like I’d killed someone.
“And I gave you all this extra credit! I guess that was a mistake.” She went on and on. I don’t really remember exactly what else she said, but I got the message.
That was the first instance where I recognized the double standard I was subject to, and the resentment began to build.
At report card time, my friends were praised and rewarded for bringing home passing grades. The adults in my life thought there was something terribly wrong if I ever got “average” grades. I understand their concerns now, and they weren’t mean or pushy about it, but from my angle it was certainly unfair.
Naturally, I developed the habit of sabotaging myself whenever I started to do too well at anything. I just wanted to be normal, without the burden of high expectations. By junior high I started dumbing down the way I spoke, avoiding big words. I quit track and field and basketball. I gave myself permission to not do a stellar job on my assignments, and life quickly became easier on many levels.
I had successfully lowered the bar.
A Weakness Emerges
The blocks incident, and the subsequent years in school left me with two crippling fears: looking bad in front of others, and setting high expectations. In other words, I became terrified of both failure and success. Mediocrity was the only safe place.
By adulthood I had grown an immense internal resistance towards achievement and productivity, and to this day I feel an overwhelming urge to back the hell off whenever I start to outdo myself. Whenever I accomplish something, I immediately stop working and indulge in something. I take time off. I will to do anything but push myself further.
The problem is, I’ve reached a point in life now where I want to do nothing more than achieve as much as I can, but I’ve spent the last twenty years (subconsciously) learning how to make sure I don’t do that. I’m still highly addicted to letting things slide, and it makes my day-to-day tasks very difficult to get through.
Right now I’m excited about so many awesome projects, and it is all quite manageable for me in terms of time available and my skill level, but so much of it is floundering, because part of me really doesn’t want it to happen. After six months of blogging I still do not have a single article in reserve. Last week I was a whole seven days ahead, which (I guess) felt uncomfortably productive for me, and now I find myself finishing this article two hours before it’s to be posted. It seems to happen without my knowing, because it’s such a well-worn pattern.
I seem to almost be moving backwards with my exercise these days. I just worked out for the first time in four days, because before that I was starting to get on a roll. Once I get some momentum going, I almost dare myself to skip the workout.
I became intensely uncomfortable with the progress I was making, because it meant I had to expect that much more from myself in the future. So the pressure to back off surged to unbearable levels, and I caved like I so often do.
So there’s my problem. I sabotage myself compulsively.
But there’s hope now, because I know where it came from. I know what my fears really are. It’s still a wall, but it’s not dark and mysterious. It’s not a curse, and there is a perfectly good reason for it to be there.
Look Back to Move Forward
Knowing that there is a specific, meaningful history to my particular dilemma really puts it in perspective. I’m not a loser, I’m not defective. I will not always suck at what I suck at right now.
There were some powerful overriding forces shaping my behavior for a long time, and now the rest of my life has become a spinoff of that. My specific story determined the biggest defining qualities in my life today: what I think of myself, what I expect of myself, what others expect of me, what I desire and what I fear. Talk about big potatoes.
A specific story defines all those things for you too. Something from your past. Bad habits and personal weaknesses all have a story. You don’t have to be a genius to figure it out either.
- What in life has been profoundly difficult for you?
- When did that start happening?
- What was happening at that time in your life?
In any given moment, we’re strongly predisposed towards certain well-lubricated behavioral grooves. Once a major pattern develops in a person’s life, the rest of their behavior tends to form around it. For me, that habit — backing off as soon as I have something to lose — has become the path of least resistance.
So because of that, gravity draws me directly towards it. It’s the down in my universe. That stubborn pull defined my lifestyle (escapist, unambitious), my wardrobe (bland), my demeanor (quiet), my career choices (stable and boring), and who knows what else.
What’s the down in your universe? What would you end up doing if you let your impulses reign, if you exercised no restraint or willpower? That’s your path of least resistance. Figure out its story.
Once you discover the story, you might find that your major struggle in life is no longer a slugging match between your willpower and your impulses anymore. Rather than a battle, it’s a tangle. With a careful hand, you can trace its strands, get under the tightest knots, and eventually tease them apart.
If you find you are stifled by the same personal weakness over and over in life, don’t think of it as a part of you, it’s just the current chapter. Maybe it was there in other chapters too, but it’s an integral part of the story. If you can’t make sense of it, flip back to the earlier pages and see if you can see the events behind your current conundrum.
If you look at your life with a broader perspective like this, the arc of the whole story starts to emerge, and the big conflict seems to have a good reason for existing. It sets up the next chapter nicely.