I love this one because it's so counter-intuitive. You should never give up hope, right? Keep your eye on the finish line. Focus on the results. These are all ways of helping us get to our goals. But do they apply all the time? Do they even apply most of the time? What if holding onto hope is what’s keeping you from reaching your potential?
Holding Out for Others or Focusing on the Finish Line Constrains Your Passion
I found myself in such a scenario while serving a 2-year proselytizing mission for my church. I remember a fellow missionary ask how long I’d been out, and not wanting to sound like I was too green, I responded: “About a year.” And he replied: “You’re at the darkest point of your mission.” What a strange thing to say, I thought. Then he said, “Because you can’t see the light at either end of the tunnel.”
It was true.
It was hard to remember not being a missionary. It was hard to think of ever going home more than a year from now. It was a really depressing thought. After I had a moment to consider my bleak situation, I started to realize it was ok to not think about home. In fact, thinking about home was about the least productive thing I could do. I needed to think about what I was doing and why I was there. Giving up hope gave me a chance to let go of my former self and life, and make something good out of where I was. Or even better, become passionate about my current pursuit. I had a lot of time to work on that.
What about smaller tasks? A while back, my daughters had made an enormous knot out of about 15 metal necklaces. It was a huge frustrating blight on our living room couch that I was not in a mood to tackle. It was about the last thing on my list of important tasks to do around the house. My mother came to stay that week, and one day she sat in the middle of the couch with the kids, and was watching cartoons or something, and she picked up the blob of twisted metal. I was a bit horrified, and about to spurt out some apology for my horrible daughters and their disregard for their things, but instead I just watched as she put on her glasses, and started tugging at it here and there, and turning it over. A few “My Little Pony” episodes later, she was untying the last two strands, and laying out the necklaces over her leg, and seemed delighted with her handiwork. I’ll admit, I was astonished by her attitude. What could have possessed her to have the patience to squander her productivity on such a meaningless task? Then I realized I had been sitting on the chair next to them, and had less to show for my time.
The time spent really wasn’t the root of the issue. And I’m not trying to advocate that we spend every waking moment working tasks rather than getting lost in a cartoon with your kids. Or getting lost in a cartoon alone, I won’t judge.
You Have More Control than You Think (Which Can Be Scary)
So had she given up hope of finishing untying the necklaces? No – It’s that she had no expectation going into it. She just decided that it would be fun to play with them for a little while, and before she noticed it, she was finished. That’s a powerful insight – at least in my opinion. And when I stand in front of a gulf of despair over a task I’m dreading, I sometimes imagine my mom dancing a little bit in her seat as she plays with a knot of necklaces, and I think maybe I can change my perspective a little. Maybe I can just toy with the task a little, and pretend like I’m having fun, or let myself see it as fun to be lost in a pursuit. Suddenly the destination is less important. Hope of completion becomes less important, and even less motivating. One of the greatest motivators of all is joy. And when you’re looking toward finishing, you’re telling your brain that this activity is the opposite of joy.
And that’s fine for a task that you only have to do once. But the next time you have to try and face that task, alarm bells are going to go off in your brain screaming “RUN AWAY!”
Most of us feel that way about a good percentage of the activities that we do every day. Do you dread waking up in the morning, or facing the day? Do you dread going to work? Do you dread tidying the house, or driving? Maybe you have a list of things you dread each day, and if you think about each one of them, I’ll bet you can think of at least one time where that experience was awful. Or at least that’s the way you remember it. But was it really awful? I mean objectively, scientifically, how many things can we really put into an awful category? Is driving awful to a teenager who’s been cooped up in the house, and is craving their freedom? Is working awful for everyone? Think of your job – are there any people in the world who could enjoy your job? Is there anything redemptive about it? What about cleaning: is the act of organizing the random assortment of items scattered around that inherently unpleasant? What about sorting, and categorizing, or finding homes for the things. Have you ever stopped to think that could be something rewarding? Do you know people who crave organizing? Have you ever asked them what they like about it? I guarantee if you’re open minded, and let yourself see it through their eyes, you’ll catch the vision pretty quickly. But it’s hard when your own experiences make you feel averse to the activity.
The more scientists explore the brain, and our conscious mind, the more amazed they are by the astounding elasticity of the brain and its ability to adjust to changing circumstance. Many journals see correlation between the way our brains may have evolved and the brains elasticity. They’re beginning to see some evolutionary reasons why the brain is so capable of allowing you to generate your assumptions about your circumstance, rather than have more of those instincts hard-wired in our DNA. How else can your brain know what kind of circumstance you’ll find yourself in the future and adjust for it, if not depending on the conscious mind? How can it prepare and thrive in ever-changing environments, and ever-evolving threats? Possibly by relying on the new pre-frontal cortex (where our conscious mind seems to reside) to assess the threats and store them using a kind of mental ‘muscle-memory’ to quickly tag those threats, and help you avoid them without having to re-evaluate every time. While this is great when the threats are obvious - like a rustling in a bush somewhere – it becomes more challenging when the threats in your life are in fact, your life. How is your brain supposed to understand that you just hate your job, but it’s what actually provides for your weeknight and weekend well-being. It’s not really evolved for that. But you are! Your conscious is perfectly evolved to make this distinction, but you’re probably not taking advantage of that entire evolutionary horsepower. Let me show you how.
How to Harness Your Pre-Frontal Cortex Power Over Your Mental Muscle-Memory
1: Challenge Your Assumptions
First you need to challenge your assumptions. Is your job horrible, or are you just lazy? Is your circumstance detestable, or are you just making third-world lions out of first-world problems? In the scope of history, is your life really so bad? Think of the middle ages – what would a serf in the 1100s trade for your life? How would a Peruvian field-worker who has to walk 10 miles through the jungle feel about your morning commute? How would a hotel maid feel about trading her 300 hotel rooms for your one unkempt kitchen? If you can imagine a worse situation than yours, you’re getting close.
2: Find the Hidden Virtue
Next you need to find the hidden virtue, and focus on it. What do you like about your job? For a month, try and act like an observer, and jot down the things you like about what you do. Remind yourself why you like it. I started wondering about why exactly I like what I do a while back because I wanted to use that information to help me understand my talents and passions in the hopes that I could spend more time doing the things I love. I would catch myself suppressing a laugh once in a while, and I knew that was a good indication that I was getting a dose of joy at that moment. You know the feeling when you get an ‘aha’ moment about something, or you’re so pleasantly surprised by something that you have a little laugh out of pure astonishment? For me it came when we solved an unsolvable problem, or answered and unanswerable question. Or we found the expert who could answer our question. But it was even more gratifying when against all odds, I was able to get to the solution on my own, or while talking through it with others on my team. It’s that feeling of conquering, or blazing a trail that had never been taken, and finding success. I’m sure you have moments that make you feel that way. And most likely they are very brief, and if you’re not paying attention, they’ll pass you by. But if you’re watching, you’ll see patterns of hidden virtue, even in the most grueling pursuits. If you can see those diamonds in the rough, you’ll be in a better position to start going after them.
3: Change Your Script
Once you are aware of the gems in your life, you need to change your script. You need to rewrite your inner monologue. You know that little voice inside your head that tells you everything is hopeless, and that you hate everything? You need to start arguing with it! And start calling it out on its stupidity. You’re the smart one, and you’re the only one who can make that voice see the good in things when all it talks about is bleakness. Even if you’re not sure you believe it yourself, start telling it what you want to believe. That you have power over the world – That you are grateful for everything you have – That you are the captain of your destiny! Everything that you think you hate, start telling yourself the opposite – that you love those things! And if you keep it up long enough, something amazing will happen. That inner voice will start to affirm your convictions, and start to get excited with you about the potential you start seeing around you. Even when you start to give up hope, your inner voice will cheer you on. You’ll start to stand out in a crowd, and people will ask you why you’re so happy all the time. And you’ll forget why you were ever unhappy. Your greatest weaknesses will become your strengths, and your greatest challenges will become your greatest triumphs. And when you set out on a journey, you’ll no longer hope for the end, you’ll have a passion about those tiny moments along the way that you conquered, and before you know it you’ll look back and wish you were still in the thick of it!