Getting caught on barbs

close up of a single barb on a barbed wire fence

I’m reading a book about grit at the moment, but I’m struggling to finish it.

The Alanis Morissette “we’ll-call-it-ironic-but-it’s-not-irony” meter is going fucking wild.

If it were a book about mushrooms or surfing or Estonia or anything except the skill of sticking with difficult things, I wouldn’t have any problem putting it down.

“This book about mushrooms is boring, terribly written, bullshit” I would tell myself and I’d move on. But because this book is about seeing things through, I feel much more obliged to finish it.

Clever of the book, stupid of me.

This book has a tiny, built-in barb, which is catching on my pride. It’s threatening to expose that I might be the kind of person who quits important things (starting with this book).

In this situation, the tendency is to look for barbs and avoid them. But the real trick (and the more difficult task) is to look at what the barb is catching on, and give some attention to that.

This barb is catching on my pride. It’s not about the book, it’s not even about strategically quitting something, it’s about being perceived as a quitter.

Finding where the barbs dig in isn’t the most pleasant exercise, since you’re necessarily looking for tender, vulnerable spots but it’s super-valuable.

Once you find them, you can acknowledge them, slowly take the barbs out and work on letting them heal over properly.

– – – – – – – – – –

BTW – The book is Grit, by Angela Duckworth and it’s actually very good.

Solving the problem of “I have to…”

Ball and chain by Thomas Quine

Inevitably, there are a truckload of things which we should do, but which we don’t want to do.

We resist them, not because they’re unnecessary, or not good for us, but mainly because they’re a pain in the arse. They just aren’t as fun as activities which we voluntarily pursue.

There is often a heavy sense of obligation with these tasks – a feeling that we have to do them.

Rather than motivate us to action, this obligation of have to becomes a millstone around our necks, dragging us down and creating resentment around the task, and usually around the fact we haven’t already done it.

Reframing the obligation

James Clear wrote a compelling piece around reframing the have to to get to.

Instead of “I have to wash the car”, we reframe it as “I get to wash the car”. Instead of focussing on the obligation, we can explore the advantages of completing the task over letting it sit undone. The obligation then becomes an opportunity and we can approach the task in a more open, skilful way.

Why bother?

This might have a touch of the “work will set you free” about it, but it’s important for two reasons:

  • Your own happiness – You might not choose whether or not something needs to be done, but you certainly get to choose how your feel about doing it. If you’re going to be completing the task anyway, why torture yourself by being resentful the whole time? Either reframe it, or stop bitching about it and change something.
  • Your ability to operate skilfully – When we’re in a resentful or defensive frame of mind, it blinds us to the options which are available to us. This self-imposed tunnel vision means that we can only see the what we’re already familiar with. But we can loosen up this tunnel vision and broaden our perspective on a challenge by asking ourselves “If I chose to look at this as an opportunity, what might I see, which I’m missing now?”

The best thing about this reframing is that it only takes a second and it’s completely within our own control. In fact, the entire point of the exercise is to get our ego out of our way by giving it something to control.

Taking charge of the things which are within our sphere of influence, however small they may seem, is one step down a path which helps us avoid resenting the necessary obligations.

Want change? Change something

a street sign which says "change"

We often want thing to be different to how they are.

It’s fine balance, this desire.

On one hand it’s the source of most of our unhappiness, on the other it’s the main reason anything gets done.

But in order for things to be different, we need to do something different. We can’t sit around and expect change to happen around us with no input from ourselves.

In 1936, psychologist Kurt Lewin suggested that human behaviour is a function of a both the person and their environment: B = ƒ (P, E)

In simple terms, if you want a different behaviour, then you have to change either the person or the environment.

We often thing that we can get a different outcome with desire alone. We often underestimate the inertia that all our prior decisions have. We underestimate how hard it can be to fight our own habits without doing something different.

In short: if you want change, change something.

Avoiding the mistakes of the past

Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
– George Santayana

It’s an aphorism we know all too well, quoted and mis-quoted freely. It reminds us to study history, to understand past blunders so we may avoid them in the future.

It tells us to look at what others have done so that we might avoid their folly.

But it always seems to applied on a broad, society level which seems to miss most of its power and value.

Sure, as a society, it’s important that we understand our past, especially the mistakes, but this seems very abstract and theoretical. It doesn’t seem like something which is easy for each of us to collectively contribute to. But what we can contribute to, is an understanding of ourselves.

This reflection is a tool that can, and should, be foremost implemented at the micro level of our own lives.

We spend our short and busy lives facing only in one direction: forwards. With our eyes fixed on the horizon, we stumble into the future, tripping on hazards we could easily avoid if we spent a little more time studying the terrain.

We all want to be better, smarter and more productive tomorrow, but how many times do we reflect on how we went today? How many times do we sit down before bed and pick over the last day, week or month looking for opportunities to improve?

We’re always keen to get tips, hints or tricks from others on how we might improve, how we can find shortcuts to success, but we really only need to stop walking turn around and look at our own past few steps.

Institutions which have high stakes missions and projects formalise these reviews of the past as debriefings or wash-ups, but we rarely take advantage of them as individuals.

It’s neither time consuming, nor taxing to sit down at the end of the day and ask:

  • What went well today?
  • What didn’t go so well today?
  • What can I do to improve tomorrow?

It doesn’t take much to remember the past so that we can choose to take a better path in the future.

Getting back to the fundamentals

Colourful children's blocks

When we learn anything, we learn the basics first.

We learn how to put one foot in front of the other, how to cast-on wool, how to pay attention to the body and breath, how to chop vegetables, how to read the notes, how to draw basic shapes.

These basics are the fundamental building blocks upon which all the other skills and knowledge rest, so it’s important that they’re as sound as possible.

We work at the basics until they are mastered, and then we move on to the more advanced areas, developing our skills and advancing our exploration of the area in which we’re engaged.

But in the midst of our advanced study, it’s always worth coming back to the basics – it’s always worth coming back and honing our mastery of the fundamentals.

When we learn the basics the first time around, we absorb all the nuance all the detail. But some of that detail inevitably falls away as we move on to the advanced topics. Old details are replaced with new basics, so we need to come back again and again.

This isn’t a failure of our learning, of our dedication or practice. This is our dedication. This is our learning. This is our practice.

Understanding the value of going back to the fundamentals is one of the most advanced lessons we can learn.