You never want to start something other people are trying to quit

My favorite maxim around the subject of habits comes from a widely successful television executive.

He’s been sober his entire life, and when asked what prompted that decision, here’s what he told the interviewer:

You never want to start something other people are trying to quit.

This might be the most lucid, logical and elegant life philosophy ever stated. And yet, most people don’t think that way when it comes to their own choices. Here’s proof.

Hundreds of people recently participated in a month long sobriety study. Over half of them reported that not drinking for thirty days led to saving more money, losing weight, sleeping better, improved skin complexion, greater concentration and feeling more accomplished overall.

Pretty impressive results.

However, despite these profound effects on people’s overall health and wellness, people’s behavior rarely changed long term. Even if overall alcohol consumption did curb for several months, most revert back to their old habits and make the same resolution next year.

This trend has always been baffling to me. Why would anyone start something other people are trying to quit? Why can’t people just stick with their changes?

Turns out, the answer is has nothing to do with alcohol and everything to do with anthropology.

See, drinking is the great centerpiece of social interaction. It’s firmly woven into the fabric of society, binding people together, breaking down barriers and generally greasing the social wheels. People can use alcohol to celebrate, commiserate, flirt, act generously, avoid their feelings and rebel. What’s not to like? Alcohol is amazing.

Homer said it best:

Cheers to alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.

And so, the reason people don’t permanently change their habits is deeply tribal. It’s because the risk of living outside the confines of that social construction outweighs the benefits of not drinking.

You see this in the corporate world all the time. For people who abstain from alcohol, it can seem harder to get ahead because they’re not willing to throw one back.

This sad reality has affected every job I have ever had. When you tell new coworkers that you don’t drink, you have to deal with the suspicion that you can’t play the game. And it will make you angry, resentful and likely to doubt your own values.

Hell, it’s a political polling truism in that voters choose the candidate they’d rather have a beer with. That’s how essential alcohol has become in building social capital.

Without drinking, you lower the amount of economic potential to be harnessed from your capacity to fit in.

The point here is not to bash alcohol and those who partake in it. Nor to shame anyone’s habits and choices.

It’s just interesting to me how our fundamental human need to belong, fear of missing out, and aversion to upsetting the status quo of the tribe, is more powerful than taking positive action to improve our own health.

Are you starting something other people are trying to quit?

Scrambling to figure out our intentions

There is so little in life we can actually fix.

Even when we do, everything fix seems to just break something else. It’s like those video game developers are fond of saying.

You haven’t fixed anything, you’ve merely changed the problem.

And so, whatever it is that we think we need to fix, perhaps what we really need is to fix is how we think about it. Because unlike ninety nine percent of the world, our own thinking is something we can actually change.

The first day of the new year comes to mind. My annual practice has always been to write goals and set intentions and visualize what the next twelve months of my life might hold. This exercise has served my growth for decades. We even wrote a book and filmed a documentary about my trademark dreaming process.

But this past year, for some strange reason, there was a complete lack of desire to do my regular exercise. Not because of sadness or emptiness or apathy. Part of me just thought, do you really need to spend yet another day beating yourself up about the imperfections of last year, then putting pressure on yourself to make improvements for next year?

Dilbert comes to mind, whose receptionist once asked him if he had any new year’s resolutions? He said that he resolved to not make major decisions about his life based on random calendar dates.

It’s a philosophy that’s become more and more attractive to me. The freedom to ignore the clamor for more, the ability to chill because all systems are satisfied, the privilege to reject the path of ferocious improvement supplied by our egos and our culture, what a gift to ourselves.

What a load off our psyches.

Because instead of fixing, we can just be. We can bravely embrace the joy of missing out and just do less for once. And not do less so we can achieve more, but do less so we can breathe more.

It’s like those scuba divers are fond of saying.

The oxygen gauge is the only one that really matters.

If you were smart enough to fix yourself, wouldn’t you have done it by now?

You can become more than what you’re known for

Valve, the award winning software company whose employee handbook went viral, asks this question of its team members.

How much do you contribute at a larger scope than your core skill?

It’s the counterintuitive question that all of us should be asking ourselves. Because typically, if a task or a project falls outside of our core competency, we’re told to delete, delegate, outsource, postpone, ignore or forget about it. In the name of greater efficiency.

Most of the time, that’s a useful rule of thumb.

But every so often, when you have a chance to stretch beyond what you have done before, you can become more than what you’re known for.

Einstein famously said that the mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size. The same applies to the work we do each day. If somebody on our team asks us to do something that requires safely stretching our boundaries of what we think you can do, it’s might be worth doing.

During my stretch as brand manager for a global travel startup, my marketing team asked me to create a customer education program based on international air passenger rights. It sounded exciting at first, until they showed me the hundreds of pages of legal jargon that had to be sifted through and converted into a curriculum.

Not only was it painfully boring, but incredibly complicated. Just reading the word jurisdiction gave me vertigo.

It actually triggered a traumatic and shameful memory of my hardest class from college, business law. I literally failed every single assignment, despite my hard work. What can I say? Linear thinking is simply not my brain’s natural tendency.

And so, to say that this air passenger rights task was outside of my comfort zone was an understatement. But it’s not like I had much choice in the matter, so I dug in my heels and did the best I could. The project certainly wasn’t perfect, and there were several anxiety nightmares about the assignment during the year.

But we got it done, customers loved it, our brand extended into the marketplace, and management was thrilled. More importantly, it deepened my sense of efficacy in creating value outside of my core skill. The project stretched me in ways I would not have foreseen.

The question you have to think about is, do you care enough to feel the discomfort so you can push through to the other side?

Because who knows? You might meet an entirely new version of yourself on the other side.

How much do you contribute at a larger scope than your core skill?

Blame your pain on the improvement paradox

Nobody knows why it gets worse before it gets better.

All healing is a complicated, frustrating journey that take longer than we’d like it to.

But if we don’t have realistic expectations about what our healing looks like, then that journey is going to feel even longer.

My therapist used to tease me ever time my impatience tried to rush my body into feeling better faster.

Hurry and relax, he would joke. Point taken, doctor.

What he was trying to teach me from a mental health perspective was, we have to accept the fact that we may feel more anxiety before we feel less. There’s actually a name for this phenomenon. It’s called the improvement paradox.

There’s a fascinating body of research in an engineering journal that explains it. When people make interventions to a system, they expect the effects to be nearly instantaneous. Unfortunately, in most of the cases the intervention intended to improve the process actually causes outcomes to get worse before they get better, if they get better at all.

According to the scientists who ran the study, the challenge in these types of situations is being able to readjust expectations that there will be a delay in the improvement. And not simply a case of learning curve where people get better by performing repetitive tasks over time.

What they are describing is a delay in the improvement and, in some cases, a degradation of performance.

Two examples they use are traffic engineers, who expect the addition of a new lane of highway to immediately decrease traffic congestion; and also organizations that look for immediate productivity improvement when new processes or tools are put in place.

Unfortunately, in most of these cases the intervention intended to improve the process actually causes outcomes to get worse before they get better, if they get better at all.

Reminds me of my friends who sponsors alcoholics in recovery programs. The thing with addicts, he tells me, is that these people used alcohol so they didn’t have to feel things. But now that they can’t turn to their dysfunctional behaviors, they have to deal with a backlog of unwanted emotions and issues dating back months, years, maybe even decades. That’s why the journey of sobriety gets worse before it gets better. People have to process things they shut out for so long.

Where do you underestimate delays in your own healing? Are you trying to change your behavior and expecting the effects to be instantaneous?

We’re all guilty of the improvement paradox. It doesn’t make us failures, only humans.

What’s important is that we soothe ourselves instead of blame ourselves. That we accept things might have to get worse before they get better, and that’s okay. It’s okay not being okay. To reference the above study again, causes of delay in improvement may be due to the chaos caused by the intervention itself.

The unlearning and relearning process has been shown to slow people down for a period of time before they recover their previous productivity levels.

Remember, healing always takes longer than we’d like.

For now, our main task might simply be trusting the process.

Are you trying to rush your body into feeling better?

When empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight

My friend who works for a television network jokes that most actors read scripts like this.

Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, my line, bullshit, bullshit, my line.

It’s a silly but truthful example of how empathy is not natural, it is learned. Like most emotional skills, it requires imagination, practice and encouragement. Deliberate and conscious development. Which is probably why empathy has been in increasingly short supply over the past few decades.

Konrath’s widely cited psychological research analyzed the data on empathy among almost fourteen thousand college students over the last thirty years. Her team found that students today are forty percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of twenty or thirty years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.

Why is this the case? It’s hard to tell.

Maybe people lack empathy because of social media, video games and death metal. Maybe people are not empathetic because they simply don’t want to be, haven’t had to be, or because it’s been to their advantage not to be.

Either way, what matters more than why we lack it is what steps we can take to expand it. Because make no mistake. Our society’s lack of empathy is the single thing that creates the most amount of evil in this world. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lawmaker, lawbreaker, or abiding citizen somewhere in the middle, when we lack ability to understand and share the feelings of another, we make things worse.

Schiffman, a novelist and entrepreneur, wrote a lovely piece about this issue of empathy:

There are strong empirical arguments to be made that humans are hardwired to be selfish. But whether unnatural or fighting against hardwired instincts, humans have been capable of enormous degrees of empathy throughout our history.

And so, at a minimum, we can think of empathy as aspirational, and take a pragmatic approach to it. Empathy cannot win out in every situation, but we should be morally obliged to try.

For example, imagine having a face to face conversation with someone you completely disagree with. Before digging in your heels and fighting back so you can win the conversation, try this.

Find out how they’re right. Ask yourself, okay, what is a sensible worldview in which what they believe makes sense? If this person is not stupid, why would they believe this?

This practice requires imagination and patience, but it won’t cost you anything. You don’t even have to tell the other person you’re doing it. Just have a conversation with yourself about why they might be right. Practice accommodating a small change on short notice. It’s life giving for the relationship.

What degree of compromise are you willing to live with? What degree of adjustment to your relationships are you willing to make that allows you to live with yourself?

In a world where evolution leads empathy to rarely extend beyond our line of sight, perhaps it’s time we get more proactive. 

What are you doing to work out your own brand of compromise with people in your life?

There’s too many people for it to be personal

When you live in a big city, the first lesson you learn is, pee before you leave.

The second lesson you learn is, every micro interaction costs energy. It’s the very harsh but very real economics of urban living. Strangers are not going to stop, look you in the eye and reward you with a crumble of their attention, simply because you’re in in their line of sight. It’s too risky. Too expensive of an investment of their most valuable asset, their energy.

After all, these are big city folk. They’ve got things to see and people to do. You are not part of their agenda.

The upside to this principle, however, is that it teaches you to depersonalize. You stop mistaking what’s happening in the world as somehow connected to you. You don’t take things because it can’t be personal. There’s too many people for it to be personal.

For any of these micro interactions to be about you, means that people would have to stop focusing on their own interests.

Personally, this phenomenon makes it easy for me to accept that most people in a large city will not engage with my nametag. Notice it, maybe. But use it to start a conversation, not likely. It’s too expensive of an interaction.

And that’s okay. Because when it does happen, when someone sees my nametag and flashes a smile or says hello or strikes up a conversation, the victory is that much sweeter. For both parties. The person who decides to gamble a chunk of their energy realizes that it was a worthwhile outlay, and for me, it’s another moment of joy that wouldn’t have otherwise existed.

Financial professionals would call this type of activity micro investing. It doesn’t require a significant change in behavior, but the amounts accrue. My accountant says it’s like taking all the spare change from your purchases and saving it in a jar until it’s full and then taking the full jar of change to the bank.

Except in this case, the bank is your heart, and the deposits are parcels of hope, which are especially helpful when you live in a massive, trash ridden hellhole that slowly sucks the life out of every one of its inhabitants. 

What investments are critical for your emotional bank account?

You can’t imagine having too many things

Fomo is the feeling of anxiety or insecurity over the possibility of missing out on something, like an event or an opportunity.

Not only has this term been added to the official dictionary, but it has also become a staple of our cultural lexicon.

To me, this whole idea is disgusting. Six billion people, and every last one of them trying to have it all? Fomo is just another way of justifying greed. It’s a sad reminder that many of us, myself included, have a very slim grasp on a sense of our own worthiness.

Nepo writes about this eloquently in the book of awakening:

This is a form of greed, of wanting everything. Feeling like we’re missing something or that we’re being left out. It’s the seed of lack that makes us feel insufficient. As if the thing we haven’t tasted will be the thing to bring us alive.

Make no mistake, greed is an important motive. It can be highly productive, as a source of ambition for an individual, as the motor of a company’s growth, or even the engine of an entire economy.

Several years ago, a group of economists started defining measuring greed. They developed a tool called the dispositional greed scale. There are several statistical and economic elements to this scale that are way above my intellectual pay grade, but to simply read through the line items is a very intriguing exercise. Check out a few of these survey questions and think about the degree to which they might apply to your own behavior.

Your life motto is, more is better.

You always want more.

As soon as you have acquired something, you start thinking about the next thing you want.

You can’t imagine having too many things.

You prefer to buy too much instead of taking the risk to not have enough.

As soon as you possess something, you don’t want to lose it.

You think it’s awful to lose your stuff.

Reading these questions helped me understand my own sense of greediness, but also reminded me that the overwhelming sense of urgency that I’m one purchase away from happiness, it’s just a social construct.

The world isn’t withholding anything from me. There is nothing that is going to free me, complete me, make me whole or save my soul.

Being informed in real time about anything that has happened, might happen, or could possibly happen at any time, simply because that one thing might happen once, is a recipe for anxiety.

Personally, missing out sounds awesome. 

Are you easily giving into consumer madness under the illusion of need?

We don’t have time to think about relativity right now

The thing about telling my nametag story to new people is, there’s a certain amount of processing time that has to occur.

In fact, relativity comes into play. Stick with me here, this is about to get weird.

Okay, so, in the field of physics, relativity is the dependence of various phenomena on relative motion of the observer and the observed objects, especially regarding the nature and behavior of time.

For example, say my group of friends is having dinner. Two of whom have known me for several years and heard my nametag story hundreds of times, and two of whom have only known me for a few minutes and are now hearing my nametag story for the very first time.

Within thirty seconds of answering the question as to why there is a sticker on my shirt, these two new people are forced to think about an entire universe of ideas that they’ve never had to think about before.

Like how a person logistically wears a nametag every single day. What implications that experiment might have on social interactions on public transportation, Where a nametag might be inappropriate or dangerous. What happens when you wash a nametag in the laundry? And so on.

Watching people’s brains cycle through all these new thoughts is fascinating. Their minds turn like hamster wheels. It’s like they’re playing catch up on my identity.

But that’s where relativity comes in. Because for the other two people at the dinner table, the old friends who barely even notice my nametag anymore, they’re also watching these two new people play catch up.

And so, for them, time temporarily slows down. It’s relative motion. Time shrinks and expands according to our labels.

Ain’t that wild? Isn’t life interesting?

As usual, there’s no real point here. This is just science banging on our door once again.

Einstein probably would have loved nametags.

How does time shrink or expand according to your social interactions?

Curious in why we react to life as we do

Compassion isn’t just a sentimental idea, it’s a survival tool.

Especially when directed within. Our willingness and ability to be sensitive to our own distress builds an innate resilience that keeps us on balance and moving forward.

That’s why compassion is now being taught in elementary schools alongside reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s a force multiplier. It’s the capability that significantly enhances the probability of success.

Gilbert actually discovered in his research on the compassionate mind that the kinder and more compassionate we are with ourselves, the more we can develop the courage to tolerate difficult things.

That’s one hell of a persuasive argument for learning to love ourselves. Who knew that being sensitive to ourselves during times of struggle could actually help us survive them? Who knew that weathering our many personal storms could be made dramatically easier by seeing our experiences as normal and not personal and part of the human condition?

Turns out, sending ourselves helpful messages when things are hard for us is the first step to healing.

And to me, the key is merging our compassion with curiosity. Not sitting up all night in our beds googling insomnia symptoms in the hopes of learning why we haven’t slept in six days. That’s not curiosity, that’s just rumination. Misdirected imagination that keeps our minds turned towards our suffering and probably makes things worse.

The real practice is learning to be curious and interested in why we react to life as we do.

Listening to body and spirit to uncover what our current experience of suffering might be trying to teach us. Reflecting on what aspects of our circumstances might be view as a gift to be treasured.

One question that’s helpful to ask is:

Right here, right now, what is the primary cause of my own suffering?

Honestly confronting what might really bothering us, lovingly accepting whatever answers surface, and curiously exploring where those things might have originated.

It may be sentimental, but it’s also strategic. And when you’re in a world of pain, you’ll take any strategy you can get.

What if genuine sympathy for your own distress and a gentleness towards your own needs was an untapped resource for building resilience?

It wouldn’t have the same motivational firepower

The merits of failure are vastly overstated in our culture.

We are obsessed with bragging about how badly we screwed up, just to earn another precious shred of street credibility from people we don’t even know.

But in most cases, that’s just false humility. It’s a performance in the art of failure porn.

Certainly, we all screw up and hopefully grow from that experience.

But the more life giving question is, what’s your relationship to victory? Because there is no reason to be guilty about relishing the small daily victories. There is no shame in taking the victory wherever we can. That’s all part of the long term process of growth.

Every day, one of my favorite rituals is chalking up my many victories. From writing a chapter in a new book to having a deep conversation with a coworker to getting a paycheck deposited into my bank account, they’re all victories. They all go on the list.

Because in my experience, small victories are critical to create the momentum for support that will lead to the major ones. The best part is at the end of the week when my list is reviewed, celebrated, breathed in, and then deleted. That clean slate ushers me into the next week with optimism.

Can you imagine doing the same thing for your failures? Keeping a tally of every mistake you made? It wouldn’t have the same motivational firepower. Nor would sitting around with people, commiserating about all your many fuckups, and how those failures made you better.

Only by saturating our consciousness with our own victories, plus surrounding ourselves with people who are having victories and making progress themselves, does momentum build.

The other point to remember is, to be victorious doesn’t mean we have to win.

Bowman, the coach of the greatest olympic swimmer in history, writes in his book about habit how the actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that date and has been nothing but victories. Winning is a natural extension.

That’s how each of us can build our own relationship with success. By seeing it as a continuum. Recognizing that there are many sources of victory and that they’re all worth counting.

And trusting that we are lovable and worthy no matter how many times we cross the finish line.

What kind of story do you tell yourself about success and failure?

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