There is something curious about those that seek out a magic pill – some tangible product or action that will help them skip two or three steps towards a goal. It’s common knowledge that there is no real quick fix or shortcut in anything worth doing, so why still fall victim to the false idol that is this “magic” scheme?
In all of my effort with growth and self development I made a discovery lately, one of irony and hypocrisy: I am still looking for that pill myself.
With a quick reminder for us all to judge not lest we be judged, I have found that there are many things that I have tried in the last year or so that fit the “get rich quick” attitude while I both practiced and preached what I thought was the opposite.
It’s not to say that I had chosen poorly, nor had I been spinning in circles. I have made many steps forward, but I do notice that there is an old friend still lurking around that presents itself in my attitude.
This “friend” has been surprisingly loyal – he has even managed to stick around years after I wanted him to leave. This friend has only one purpose to life – to make sure that if I put work into something, I expect to get what I want in return. Exactly the kind of get rich scheme I would like to avoid.
But my friend, Quick Rich, is quite insistent about what he wants:
“You want me to avoid eating donuts at work? I expect to weigh less at the end of the first week. You want me to exercise? I’d better have a modelling contract by next month… any kind of action that is done with good intention isn’t just for the greater good, it actually has a specific goal in mind. And I’ll tell you this – if I’m going to perform for you, I expect you to deliver.”
No pressure then. Thanks man.
One problem with this is that it’s the same action-reaction system that people start to learn at only a few years old. I did this – now you give me that. There are cases where that expectation is warranted. If I have a contract with a company to get paid a certain amount per hour for work, then that cheque had better have the right numbers on it when I’m finished the job.
Putting a specific definition on your picture of success will greatly help you to drive towards that goal, but it’s important to understand whether or not your expectations are able to meet the path you have chosen. You want to pay down your debt by the end of the year? Great. That’s a milestone worth achieving. You think that once your debt is paid down you’ll attract more women because you’re better with money? Sorry to disappoint, but paying off a credit card is not a portal into an 90s beer commercial.
I had no idea that some of the more wholesome and dedicated things I’ve brought into my life were being wielded like a wizard’s staff attempting to dissolve all my worries. It was when I started to look not at what I was doing but how I was doing it.
Several years ago I got behind the idea of cold showers. (There’s a TED talk on the topic.) For a number of reasons these are very healthy for you: I’ve come to understand that it exercises your vascular system, promotes immune response, many other technical things like that.
It definitely wakes me up in the morning – that’s at least one benefit that I know I’ll get every time I turn that shower faucet over to the farthest reach of its temperature selection. Especially here in the Canadian prairies in wintertime. When it’s -40 outside, (same in C and F, by the way,) that water coming out of the tap is juuuust above freezing.
Another reason for this seemingly masochistic practice is about what’s gained mentally. It’s difficult to be in a nice hot shower early in the morning and get yourself to reach over and turn it all the way to the coldest setting. And then wait. It’s only a few seconds until it turns from hot to cold, but those seconds are simultaneously the longest and shortest seconds of the morning routine. It takes discipline to see that through.
So it was an opportunity to practice discipline and to get used to doing something I didn’t want to do in order to help future me. Present me thinks this sucks, but I’m doing this for you, future me. Minutes from now you’ll thank me.
But… maybe I won’t. Maybe future me won’t thank me. What if I don’t notice those effects that I had learned about? All those advantages to my health, my discipline, my hot water heating bill.
And that’s where the crack in the armor was found.
I had started this practice a few years ago with the intent that it would be part of a collection of habits and behaviours that would be the new me – I would exercise every day, have cold showers, read many books, learn multiple languages…
That’s a lot of magic pills. Surely one of those will work its wizardry and transform my life!
They did not. Don’t get me wrong, everything I’ve done to explore and grow myself over the years has definitely had its positive effect on my life. But none of them did the work that I wanted it to do.
And that’s just it – I was looking at these actions as a way to do the work for me. I’ll put in the work now, all grueling and uncomfortable, and before I know it I’ll be waking up and doing these things easily and masterfully.
I’ve been coming closer to understanding that each of the difficult things I choose to do are not transforming into easy tasks that I blast through with little effort – that it takes far more time than I have been able to appreciate before something becomes an old routine.
I did the cold shower thing for a while, then I didn’t, then I did, then I didn’t…. but if there’s one thing about me it’s that I’ll never give up on not giving up. Even after I’ve given up.
So I stuck with it in my own way, which is to say that I eventually started to do it again. But I have learned that although these kinds of healthy and challenging habits do truly help me, they will not be the agent of transformation. It’s not like a candy machine where I put in a quarter and get a gumball.
Ever get those quarter machine gumballs? I think it’s store policy wherever they’re stocked to only fill it with gum that has been sitting long enough to become less than one percent water. They’re so dry they should have a contest for whomever has the bloodiest gums from trying to mash them into anything considered a chewable gum.
I do know that practicing a set of habits intentionally in order to improve something in one’s life does work to bring change, but I have come to learn that those habits can not be used as the engine that will drive the change.
Without realizing it, something within me had come to expect that if I adopted these habits I would be a happier person and my life would change. If I got up early, exercised, stood in a cold shower, practiced mindfulness, gave to charities, and fought crime at night, my life would carry itself into a new era.
Imagine my disappointment when I kept waking up the next morning as myself. I had not woken up free of my neuroses, I didn’t climb out of bed with a new set of millionaire allies on speed dial, and standing in a cold shower was still difficult… and cold.
It turns out I have been putting too much weight on the wrong supports. These activities are small parts of a big picture and they were put in place to be just that: a small part. They were never designed or intended to make big change in my life, but that was the expectation I was putting on them. “I’m doing all these ambitious and character building things, where’s my new life?”
All of these small parts make life interesting and give us something to do but they will not in themselves bring us anything. What they can do, when selected carefully, is help us to achieve whatever goal we have in mind.
I want to exercise every day so that I age gracefully, I’m strong enough to do my work, so that I can play better hockey. And so I have gotten stronger over the past year. But then I stepped on the ice and learned that hockey is still really hard. But it is a little easier to handle that challenge now that I’m in better physical condition. It didn’t magically sculpt me into being a better player, but it helped out some.
And the shower – I want to accomplish many things in this life that require me to be at peak condition as much as possible. It turns out cold showers do not accomplish this. It’s still up to me to get moving and get the work done that needs to be done. The cold shower was a preparation for the real work to be done – it does not do any of the real work itself.
When I was younger I didn’t want to take on a whole lot of responsibility. It was hard and I was not mature enough to handle it. As time goes on has, and continues to change… I want the rewards that come with responsibility so I therefore want responsibility.
But I have a lot of years experience avoiding it, so it seems the old patterns of doing just that are at work without me even realizing it. I want to accomplish big things so I’ll do what the big players do. Hells yeah, progress!
But that’s not how you accomplish big things. You still have to go out and put in the work to earn those accomplishments. Unaware of what I was doing, I was attempting to abdicate some of my responsibility to these new habits – there was a part of me that was hoping that these actions would shrink the amount of work ahead of me.
But they did not. And so now I practice these healthy habits as best I can while I work to remove their ties to expectation. I understand that they can help me to get some of the things I want but will not actually do the work of getting them.
I fail often, and at the moment this is still in ways that may seem small to the curious observer but are large to me. This is one of the examples of that failure – a failure to clearly understand my own actions and intentions. I truly believe there is no magic pill, but evidence suggests that my actions have yet to fully adopt this belief.
It takes time, and I am learning.
Most of us have chased after some kind of magic solution, what is yours? How have you tried to get things the easy way? How did it inevitably blow up in your face?