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5 Ways You're Sabotaging Your Own Life (Without Knowing It)

#2. Focusing on the Whole Instead of the Next Step

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You go to the doctor and he tells you that you have a bacterial infection that will never, ever go away. It will literally eat away a crucial part of your digestive system unless you do a chemical treatment twice a day, every day, and do painful semiannual follow-up treatments with your doctor ... for the rest of your fucking life. Sure, it's not a death sentence, but the sheer weight of it kind of makes you want to give up -- you can just see this burden stretching out in front of you, forever.

But, of course, I've just described brushing your teeth.

You don't regard dental care as a crushing burden, because you don't sit around every day contemplating the unfathomable mountain of teeth-brushing you must scale before you die. You only think of it as that thing you do in the morning because you have to, because you don't want your teeth to fall out. You manage the long-term goal (having teeth) by thinking only of the very manageable daily goal.

Well, guess what: If you can apply that technique to other things, you can conquer the motherfucking world.

Arne Trautmann/iStock/Getty Images
Seriously, someone took that technique and used it to invent machines to make brushing even easier.

Any great long-term project that seems impossible to most people -- from building a house to writing a book to becoming an actual ninja -- is possible to the people who do them only because they don't just focus on the end goal. There's only what they have to do today. Don't misunderstand me -- it's not that they ignore the goal, it's that they don't regard what they do today and what they want to have 10 years from now as separate things. The future isn't a fanciful wish, it's just the logical end of a long chain of todays. What they do today and what they want to be long-term are the same thing.

I hate to use myself as an example, because I've led kind of a boring life aside from the time I went on a trip to Europe and got mixed up in that diamond heist, but I have done something that a lot of my aspiring writer friends find amazing: I've finished not one but two books that are 300,000 words combined. If that sounds easy, just try writing the same word -- say, "fart" -- 300,000 times and you'll see how quickly you tire of it. (Fun fact: The aforementioned books contain 435 instances of the word "fart.") Friends and family love to ask how it's done (usually phrased as, "How do you think of that shit?") because they know I have no substantial education on the subject. Well, I learned how to do it by fixing up a meth lab.

hroe/iStock/Getty Images, Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images
"So just add a throw rug and we're good?"

Or at least it looked like one. It was 10 years ago and I was an apartment-dweller whose only tools were a set of bright plastic ones that I found out later were intended for a small child. We bought a dilapidated rental property with a back door that was still smashed from where somebody -- presumably the police -- had kicked it in (yes, just like in Fight Club). We decided to pour our life savings and an enormous amount of borrowed money into renovating it because it was 2003 and we knew that the housing market would only go up and up, forever.

When I looked at the place and saw 10,000 things that needed fixed, I had a month-long panic attack. It was this mountain of work looming overhead, making me wonder if I should instead just hunt down some chemistry equipment and break bad. But on the first day on the job site, my father-in-law says, "OK, we have to take up this old carpet, because it's full of animal urine and/or meth residue." And then I realized, no, we didn't have to fix up an entire old meth lab. All we had to do was tear up this old carpet. One, single task. Then, when that was done, there'd be another single task. String enough of those together, and you can build the goddamned Death Star.

Lucasfilm
And this is what happens when you get lazy and skip "install vent cover" on your task list.

That experience is the reason sitting down to write a novel doesn't scare me -- I now know that I don't have to write a whole novel. I just have to do this one little part I've decided to do today. Tomorrow, it'll be some other part. And the days will march forward and the shit will get done. It's not magic, it's just adding "work on the novel" to the To-Do list for that day. And if instead your goal is to become a guitarist in a death metal band, it's no different -- you just have to add "practice guitar" to today's list and ... practice some guitar. Slow. Boring. Like brushing your teeth.

It's not like I invented this idea -- addiction programs have been living by this creed for as long as they've been around. You don't have to quit drinking forever, they'll say. You just have to not drink today.

#1. Lying to Yourself About What You Actually Want

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Off the top of your head, say something you've always wanted to do. Then, follow it up with why you've never done it.

So, maybe you said something like, "I've always wanted to start a little business selling cupcakes! But I wouldn't even know how to get started!"

Aaaaand ... 90 percent of you just lied.

I know you did, because if you actually wanted to do the thing, then the second part -- the obstacle -- wouldn't exist. For example, if that person up there actually wanted to start their cupcake business, they wouldn't be confused about how to get started. They'd be a freaking walking encyclopedia of information about how to get started, because they'd have spent every single day reading up on it and calling other cupcake-shop owners for advice. They don't do that because they don't actually want it. They don't have the invisible gun to their head.

BrandlMichaela/iStock/Getty Images
"The cupcake is a lie."

This, right here, is at the heart of every unfulfilled ambition in your life. We use the same word -- "want" -- to mean two completely different things, and the constant confusion between those definitions is why so many people are disappointed in how their lives turned out. Depending on the context, "want" can be:

A) A statement of intended action ("I want to mow the lawn before it rains.")

B) A statement of general preference ("I want everyone to live a long and happy life.")

It sounds simple enough, but the confusion of those two uses of the word is everything. We switch between the two definitions sometimes in the same sentence. This morning, I was driving to Five Guys to get a burger and an entire grocery bag full of french fries to go with it (that is, the "small"). I passed a guy who was jogging, shirtless, who had a torso like Matthew McConaughey. I said to myself, "I want a body like that!" And, if I'd pulled over and asked the guy why he runs and works out, he'd have said the same thing, almost word-for-word -- "It's because I want a body like this!"

Same phrasing, meaning two completely different things. I used "want" in the same way I say I want world peace -- a wistful statement about something I actually have no control over. If it's the same effort either way, sure, I'll take the rock-hard abs -- give me an ab pill and I'll swallow it. Otherwise, no, it ain't happening. That jogging guy, on the other hand, used "want" as a statement of intended action -- he "wants" to run five miles every day because he "wants" to be fit.

desertsolitaire/iStock/Getty Images
"Also because there's a guy with a gun pointed at me. Please, call the police."

Now look around you -- look at all of the minimum-wage people who "want" to be rich and/or famous, with some vague notion of, I don't know, being on a reality show some day or getting "discovered" for some talent they didn't know they had. Now look at all of the MBAs working 100-hour weeks on the trading floor because they "want" to be rich. The difference in the two is night and day, but in many cases the former group doesn't realize it. They just stay poor while the other group starts shopping for vacation homes.

And I'm starting to think that the world really is divided between those who have a clear idea of what it means to want something -- including the total cost and sacrifices it will take to get it -- and those who are just content to leave it as an airy "wouldn't it be nice" fantasy. The former group hones in on what they want and goes zooming after it like a shark. The latter looks at them, shakes their head and says, "How do they do it?" As if they have a cheat code, or a secret technique.

Eldad Carin/iStock/Getty Images
"That son of bitch and his Konami code."

"What, you're saying we should all be douchebag stockbrokers working hundred-hour weeks?" No. I'm saying that while some of you are sitting around the coffee shop talking about how you "want" the system to change, that douchebag is accumulating money so he can actually run for congress. Because when he "wants" something, he doesn't sing a song about it. He prices that shit and makes a down payment. And when that relentless BMW-driving douche has kids, he'll teach them, too, what it really means to "want" something -- to be single-minded, and voracious, and to pursue it to the ends of the Earth. Instilling that lesson goes just as far toward preserving wealth and power in a group as the actual inheritance they'll leave behind.

Are you scared of those people? Are you imagining them as cold-blooded stock brokers and lobbyists and swindlers, the Wolf of Wall Street types who are eating away at the world like a cancer? Well, they scare you because it's a glimpse at what accomplishing great things actually costs. You know Steve Jobs was a fucking psychopath, right? So the next time somebody asks you if you want to be rich, really stop and think about it. Think about what it will take. Think about what kind of person you'll need to become.

David Paul Morris/Getty Images News/Getty Images
"I would literally make them from the blood of orphans if it could save me five cents on the per-unit cost."

And that's the point of all this -- I've found, as time goes on, that everybody gets what they want. Not what they say they want in order to make themselves look good to others, or what they tell themselves they want so they feel better about the current state of their life. No, I'm talking about what they really want. And to find out what they really want, you don't need to ask them. You just need to look at what they did today. You want to change, start there.

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Related Reading: We have more valuable life advice. Find out why everyone around you is most likely giving you useless advice. Or learn why the people around you probably hate your guts. And find out which things you think make you happy probably don't.

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David Wong

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