Ever wonder why so many people fail to achieve their goals, even when they seem so determined and sure of themselves? Want to learn why such people so often fall flat on their faces, so you can avoid making the same mistakes that they (and practically everyone) make? If so, read on.
From losing wars to failing to stick to your new diet, in the end, there is only one thing responsible for the majority of people’s failures; one thing that gets in our ways time and time again.
Yet this thing is actually a lot simpler to get past than you might have imagined (Note: I’m say it’s necessarily easy to get past. Just simple).
Unless you are living in complete and abject poverty, I can almost guarantee you that the thing that is blocking you from succeeding at what you want to succeed at, if you’re not there yet or efficiently working to get there, is yourself. Now, you’ve probably heard this statement before, and perhaps it sounds a bit cliché. I’d find it deplorable myself if it were not the case that I was simply using it as a premise to then extrapolate on the primary way people block themselves from their goals.
I only realized what this way was recently, and, let me tell you, the revelation came as a quite a shock. Are you ready to hear what it is?
When you think you want something, you often only really want the rewards that come with the thing, not the thing itself. Yet the actual object of your desire is not just the benefits, but also the costs.
And here’s the rub: if you don’t want the costs, you’ll NEVER get the benefits.
• If you don’t want to put in the effort, you’ll never increase your understanding through books.
• If you don’t want to learn to write (by studying other writers and imitating their styles or learning to write good long sentences, for example), you will improve little as a writer.
• If you don’t want the crazy work hours and the doubts of whether or not you will succeed at building your business, you might not actually want to build your own business.
• Basically, if you have a creative vision of any kind, but don’t want to work to make it an actuality, it is because you don’t actually want it; because you don’t want to pay your dues.
I call these false desires.
It all comes down to what the Buddha said: “Life is suffering.” But to take that one step further: I say, if life is suffering, and if I love life, then give me more suffering. Not so much suffering that I break, mind you, but just enough for me to handle, so that I can keep growing and becoming stronger each day.
Now this probably isn’t a popular belief nowadays, especially in the West. You may have noticed that this implies that happiness is not my primary goal here. Instead, what I seek is meaning. Because of this, I value strength (of character, for example) and contribution to worthy causes above happiness. I want to struggle, fight, fail… but in the end, I want to win. Yet don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to suffer for just anything – I want to suffer for things that are worth suffering for.
The first and most important thing you can do is to be sincere to yourself about the costs of an activity – especially the ones you think are aimed at achieving the bigger life strategies you’re undertaking. For example, if you’re bootstrapping a business, you need to be aware of and prepared for the fact that it will likely take up most of your time. Are you ready for long hours and the uncertainty of whether or not things will pan out even after all that work? Have you accepted that most of your relatives and friends won’t understand, and that the more you succeed the less people will be able to relate to you? These are not easy questions to answer, but the more sincerely you can answer them (sincere about your availability, your access to resources, your skills, your resolve, etc.) the more prepared you will be to face the storm of doubt and hardship you most likely will face on your grander campaigns. If you aren’t aware of these costs, when you encounter them, they may take you off the path you determined to set out on. This is why you fail.
You fail because you didn’t really want it.
If you had actually wanted it, you would have also wanted the costs. If you just want the benefits of a thing but not the costs, you will never obtain it.
This is why it is so important to focus on the process of development and not the events. So often we look at a famous musician, or a writer, or a speaker, and feel like they must have been born that way – that anyone born in their situation could do what they can do. But that is rarely the case. What you don’t see when you see the pianist on stage are the painful hours and days they spent practicing and re-practicing songs, the frustration, the doubt, the struggle – the process that actually got them there – aka, the costs.
If you want the costs of something as well as the benefits, congratulations, you are being rational. However, if you want just the benefits of a thing without having to put in the effort to getting there, you’re simply being delusional and you don’t actually want it.
This isn’t that uncommon a situation for a person to be in. We’ve all been there countless times.
But when you find yourself wanting some benefits and not wanting the costs of actually achieving it, remember that you’re ignoring a fundamental law of the universe (or at least one of it’s deeply ingrained regularities, which, for the sake of simplicity, I refer to here as a “law”): the Law of Equivalent Exchange.
The Law of Equivalent Exchange
“As above, so below.” ― Hermetic maxim
“GIGO… Garbage In, Garbage Out… Good In, Good Out.” ― Ed Foreman
“There is no such thing as a free lunch.” ― Anonymous
First off, I’m not saying that all exchanges are fair (though oftentimes they are – it’s just a matter of scope and acknowledging hidden costs). What I’m saying is that for every good that is brought into the world there is an equivalent bad, and that by acknowledging and accepting both the good and the bad, one can learn moderation, enjoy the good without affectation, and deal gracefully with the bad.
But even if you logically accept this philosophy, it can be extremely difficult to practice.
The problem inevitably arises that, try as you might, your subconscious doesn’t want to accept this, as it would mean leaving comfortable delusions behind and facing a much more brutal, transitory, imperfect reality. And for what? Why leave The Matrix behind? That’s a question you have to answer for yourself.
As you probably realize, most people aren’t able to do this, and never will be. It would lead to too much despair. So don’t take my advice here lightly, it’s certainty not for everyone. The implications of believing the Law of Equivalent Exchange go deep. Only when you have a cause that you feel is truly worth fighting for; only when you have a clear sense of meaning, would I recommend endeavoring to fully accept it. Otherwise, it’s just plain masochistic. Better to remain unenlightened, I say, if you don’t know where you’re going – for though that light may be beautiful, it is also hot. Just ask Icarus.
“Despair is suffering without meaning.” ― Victor Frankl
“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.” ― Lewis Carroll
Going off that Lewis Carroll quote, I’d elaborate that the road you would end up taking would be the one that requires the least effort, which typically means the one that gives you the most immediate relief from anxiety, pain, and suffering. The person taking this path typically occupies a more short-term, hedonistic mindset.Yet ironically, in the long run this mindset is less effective at assuaging suffering than a more long-term, cause-oriented one.
The problem with a short-term mindset is that a person in the habit of thinking this way typically grows very little (or only superficially), so they more or less face the same problems over and over again; a hydra that just keeps growing new heads each time they chop one off. Quite a terrible situation to be in, in my opinion. I much prefer the less immediately gratifying but more progressive mindset of having consciously chosen goals that are in line with a grand strategy (or a singular purpose, if you will), and pursuing them doggedly to elevate myself to new, more interesting/challenging problems, as this path inevitably leads to increased understanding and growth, while the other only leads to stagnation.
A lot of self-development writers suggest you ask yourself “What do I want?” to help you consciously determine what actions you should take, and I’d say that sitting down and writing out a list of the things you want is often an extremely useful thing to do. But the thing is, when it really comes down to it, we all want pretty much the same things:
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs breaks down what we all want quite well. So does that mean we should always be consciously targeting whatever it is we most need one step up? No, I don’t think so; at least not entirely.
Maslow intended this chart to be descriptive, not prescriptive. It was not meant to be used as a guide for achieving things, and I think it is misused when done so. This is because it seems to encourage people to focus too much on the question: “What do I want?”, which is a wholly benefits-focused question, and does not give balanced attention to the costs. What happens then is that, especially when uncritical people encounter this advice, they ignore the Law of Equivalent Exchange and just keep building up more and more false desires. Their ego relentlessly grows, rendering them ineffective in the world. This is what is often happening when it feels like you are just spinning your wheels. The problem that you are feeling is that you are not grounded in reality.
Instead, a more wholesome and interesting question you can ask is: “What do I want to suffer for? How do I want to suffer?” This is the question that really distinguishes people from one another, and is what leads to meaningful, longer-lasting achievements.
What makes people different (and what distinguishes the winners from the losers/non-players) is what they have decided is worth suffering for. This is something that you need to consciously decide on for yourself. If you don’t consciously decide, you cannot win, because you aren’t trying for anything at all. Many people choose that path: the path of not trying. But one thing that the people who think they can opt out of playing the game miss is that…
Losing is default.
Humans are much like sharks – if we stop swimming we die. By “swimming” here, I mean that if we stop striving for higher and higher levels of survival, achievement, knowledge, beauty, truth, incorporation, we would cease to adapt to a changing world and quickly civilization, along with our species, would be no more. Think about it: every person alive today is here for precisely one reason – all of our ancestors were survivors, and successfully bore children. This should be so obvious, but so often I encounter people saying things like: “I would never have children!” or “I just want a comfortable life.” I smack my forehead when I hear this (mentally, if not physically). These people seem to even have repressed the fact that they are human! And being human means suffering – you grow old and die. Life means impermanence, dissatisfaction, imperfection. People in this state confuse their ego, their sense of “I”, for their organism. And this causes unnecessary suffering and ineffectiveness for them, especially when their more basic organismic needs override their professed wants, as so typically happens.
I personally agree with Dylan Thomas’s solution to this predicament: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I seek to contribute to the growth of civilization, and within that frame to do what I can to ensure the ongoing survival of myself, my family, my friends, my species, and life in general. Not only is this good for my environment, but it actually is good for me too, as it makes me tend to the fulfillment of my own needs and desires as well. In this way, I seek win-win-win situations.
You need to want the costs. If you only want the benefits, you’re living in a fantasy. You don’t actually want what you think you want. Best to move on boldly or learn what the costs are as fast as possible, and then move on with greater understanding instead of maintaining that fantasy until it’s forced to break by external circumstances. If you decide on a concrete, winnable purpose in life, and decide to live in accordance with the Law of Equivalent Exchange, the path to winning will be simple. It won’t be easy, but this knowledge will give you what you need to succeed. The Law of Equivalent Exchange will help you learn prudence and make you grounded in reality; your concrete, winnable purpose will give you direction; and time, when applied to these, will give you momentum. And all three of these things combined will lead to your success.
It can be frightening facing reality like this – few do it for very long. It causes a near constant feeling of anxiety, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.
However, this feeling, this being a truly modern man, is worth it if you want to achieve your conscious ends in this world (meaning you want the benefits AND the costs). This is the second thing you need to actually achieving what you want to achieve (the first being concretely knowing what’s possible and what it is you’re going to do).
The funny thing is that, even if you think you don’t have a guiding purpose, you in fact already know what you stand for. You’ve just hidden it from yourself so that you can look for it, as it’s more frightening to engage in your true purpose than it is to pretend you don’t know what it is. So it’s just a matter of remembering it.
Here’s to your success,