5 Ways You're Sabotaging Your Own Life (Without Knowing It)
When you were little and people asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, what did you tell them? Did you stick with the standard "doctor" or "veterinarian," or did you shoot for the moon with "pop star" or "astronaut"? Whatever it was, I'd say for about 95 percent of you the answer is hilarious in retrospect (I told my parents I wanted to "out-funk Prince").
Now, here's the question: When people ask you the same thing now (phrased as, "What are your long-term goals?" or, "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?") will your answer look just as stupid 10 years from now? For most of us ... yeah, it will. Somewhere along the line, that train always gets derailed.
Well, fortunately I've had the opportunity to study numerous such derailings up close, and here are the most common causes:
Focusing on How to Accomplish Something Instead of Why
Try something for me. Get up and go to an empty part of the floor, and position your body so that it's like you're riding an invisible motorcycle. Knees bent at about a 90-degree angle, arms out, you can make engine noises with your mouth if you want. Look at the clock, and hold that position as long as you possibly can, until the pain in your thighs becomes too unbearable. Note how long you lasted. Some of you won't last 30 seconds, because why would you? This is stupid and it hurts.
We'll come back to that in a moment.
Now, let's say you want to help somebody quit smoking. Which do you think would be more effective, of these two:
A) Showing them a scare-tactic ad talking about why they need to quit -- photos of tumors on diseased lungs, all that shit.
B) Showing them a video full of good advice about how to quit, including tons of helpful tips to walk them through it.
"By day three, you'll have the urge to use a crutch to cope with the nicotine withdrawal. Don't."
Which one do you think works? The second one, right? The first is just manipulative bullshit, the second is imparting actual, helpful knowledge. But you're wrong -- a recent study found the "why" ads made a huge difference in helping people quit, where the "how" ads did nothing whatsoever. Here's the reason, and this is crucial because a huge portion of the modern economy is hoping you don't figure this out:
No one who wants to change their habits fails because they don't know how to do it.
No one. See, if they want to do it bad enough, figuring out how is nothing more than a trivial first step. And with most things, the method is unimportant -- that's why diet fads come and go every few months, and we never stumble across the one magical method that works better than all the others. The method is never the issue, we just focus on it to hide the fact that we don't really want to do it. "I know a guy who lost 40 pounds on Atkins!" No, you know a guy who wanted to lose weight bad enough that he was willing to tightly regulate what he ate every day -- if he'd chosen to just cut calories, that'd have worked, too.
"By day three, you'll have the urge to use a crutch to cope with the pizza withdrawal. Don't."
Allow me to illustrate with a particularly ridiculous example: the fitness industry.
Exercise machines are a $4.5 billion industry (treadmills are the top seller) and health clubs account for another $27 billion. How many of those people paid the money because they convinced themselves this would be the thing that would finally turn them into the type of person who exercises? Here's a hint: Two-thirds of people with gym memberships never go.
This shot was supposed to be filled with people, but even stock models don't want to do this.
It's not just a lie that we're telling ourselves, it's a ridiculous lie. A toddler could see through it. You know damned well that it doesn't require one penny's worth of equipment to get in shape -- you can do every single necessary exercise on your floor, right now, in the nude. Remember when you were sitting on your invisible motorcycle, and your thighs screamed for you to stop after, like, one minute? That searing pain in your legs is the same thing you'll feel with a thousand-dollar elliptical machine -- I just gave it to you for free. "But that was incredibly tedious and painful! I don't want to spend every day doing things like that!" I know! Me neither. So stop fooling yourself.
Now try this: Go back and do the invisible motorcycle pose again, only this time, hire a stranger to point a gun at your skull, with instructions to blow your brains out unless you double your previous time. Pretend it's a Sons of Anarchy episode or something. You'll do it, no problem -- you'll blast through all of those "impossible" to tolerate pain thresholds like the Kool-Aid Man. See, because now the "why" is taken care of -- you're doing it so you don't get shot.
"I got rid of the cigarettes and pizza. This is the only joy I have left."
So here's the secret, the thing that has been plainly obvious all along: Those people out there who are accomplishing great things and seem to get 50 hours' worth of work done every day? They're doing it because they have that gun to their head. An imaginary gun, pressed against their temple all day, every day.
Not Thinking About What Part of You Will Die
What I hate about articles like this is that they're always trying to guilt you into bettering yourself. "What are you doing sitting on your sofa eating ice cream, you lazy bag of Dorito farts! Get off your ass and go become the high-achieving superman you know you can be!" That pisses me off because I know exactly why I'm on the sofa eating ice cream. It's because I've had a hard day and this makes me feel better, so fuck you. Even if what I'm doing is a frivolous waste of time, I'm doing it for a reason.
Superman can eat shit; I'm eating mocha fudge.
But that is another thing that almost everyone ignores when trying to fix something in their life, and it always comes back to bite them.
Let's stick with the theme and say you decide to get in shape (if you're already an athlete, replace it with "learn to speak Japanese" or whatever). Let's say you're going to take up running -- you've read the above entry, so you picked one that doesn't cost anything, unless you don't already own shoes. You figure you'll run around the park every morning, and motivate yourself with the knowledge that you're going to lose weight, you're going to have more energy, you're going to feel better, and it won't cost a dime. And, when you steel yourself for this task, you anticipate most of it fairly easily -- you know you're going to sweat, you know you're going to be sore. But what will trip you up and make you quit isn't any of that. It's the one thing you didn't think about:
What you lose by running.
Because what you will lose is whatever you were doing instead of running, and whether you know it or not, every single thing you're doing right now is valuable to you. "But I spent two hours yesterday staring at my ceiling and making fart noises with my mouth!" Right, but you did it for a reason. You were filling some need. Maybe it's just stress relief, I don't know -- but I know that you did it because in that moment, you didn't want to do anything else.
So our runner says, "I'll run in the mornings, before work!" OK, so you're getting up two hours earlier than you are now. You don't need that two hours of sleep? I beg to differ -- if you're sleeping, you need it, that's how it works. "I'll just go to bed earlier!" OK, so what have you been doing during those late-night hours? Hanging out with friends? Browsing the Internet? Watching TV? Reading a book? Whatever it is, you'll miss it.
It sounds obvious, like most of the things I say, but I literally never hear people phrase it this way -- everybody takes on a project and expresses it as a pure addition to their life. It's, "I've decided I'm finally going to learn the saxophone!" Instead of, "I've decided I'm going to learn the saxophone instead of hanging out with my girlfriend!"
"If we got rid of her permanently it could be just us, Mark. Always."
Now go go find the most successful person you know. Talk to them about their average week, and listen closely to what they don't have. They either don't have friends, or kids, or hobbies, or they don't keep up with pop culture, or something that you actually consider very valuable to your own life. Their day is only 24 hours long, just like yours. There is no such thing as adding to it -- just sacrificing one thing for another.
This is why the "STOP WASTING YOUR TIME AND GO IMPROVE YOUR LIFE, MAGGOT!" method doesn't work -- you're fooling yourself if you think you can find a bunch of extra time by drawing from a pool of hours you're "wasting" right now. It doesn't exist. Instead, you have to make the cold calculation that you're going to do this instead of that:
"I'm going to go back to finish my degree, instead of spending time with my friends."
"I'm going to spend more time with my partner and spend less time working, understanding that this will make me poorer."
"I'm going to go climb a mountain and neglect my family while I train."
"Nah, it's cool. I left the boy 20 bucks for a pizza last week."
Otherwise, it's no different from planning a budget that assumes you'll have twice as much money as you actually make. If you want to become a different person, part of it is deciding which parts of you need to die.
Pretending You'll Magically Become Someone Else
If you don't like clicking on links, I'll give you a spoiler alert: Most people have an unspoken belief that, in the long term, they'll be a completely different person than they were today.
"... is possible."
The guy with a dead-end customer service job says one day he'd "like to work in IT" but didn't spend even one minute today learning about computers, or yesterday, or the day before. He hasn't signed up for a course or made plans to. He just has a vague notion that in 10 years he'll be at a desk with a well-paying computer job, with the unspoken assumption that at some point during the nebulous haze of the intervening decade, he'll have evolved into the type of person who devotes a lot of energy to learning computer things.
That guy I'm describing is me, of course, circa 1998.
But every obese person imagines themselves a decade from now having become thin, every coward imagines they'll be brave, you get the idea. There's never a defined plan for how to get from Point A to Point Z, and never an acknowledgment of the unbearable truth, which is that who you're going to be 10 years from now is just who you are today times 3,652. If you spent a good part of today playing iPhone games, then 10 years from now you'll be a person who's super good at iPhone games.
Or as good as your wallet will allow you to be.
That's not a judgment; there are worse things to be (have you played The Room and its sequel? They're both great). But the point is, if you're kind of a laid-back, low-energy type today, you're not going to suddenly turn into a human dynamo next year or the year after, unless you start doing meth or something. If you have anger issues today, you'll have them 10 years from now. If you don't know kung fu today, you won't know it in 2035.
But if you're learning kung fu today, well, then we've got something.
"But I do want to learn kung fu! I just don't have the time!" Nope. Stop. Don't make be backtrack. If you had the gun to your head, you'd goddamned well find the time. If you can't make yourself start in the next 24 hours, you wouldn't do it even if you had 24 lifetimes.
And that brings us to ...
Focusing on the Whole Instead of the Next Step
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.
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.
"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.
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.
Lying to Yourself About What You Actually Want
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
David Wong is the Executive Editor of Cracked.com and a NYT bestselling author, his long-awaited new novel is about cybernetic criminals and other futuristic shit like that. Pre-order it at Amazon, B&N, BAM!, Indiebound, iTunes, or Powell's. You can read the first seven chapters for free by clicking below:
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