What is it that makes you unable to write consistently or eat healthy or get up early and make your bed in the morning when you are able to drag yourself to work every day? What is it that makes it so hard to learn how to cook, and stop drinking coffee and alcohol, and remember to stretch everyday, when you can force yourself to tolerate cold showers and workout until the point of physical harm or read and read and read even though the book is moving at the pace of traffic in LA? How do you meet and befriend so many people and remember to go to salsa class even when you don’t want to, but fail to plan classes for the next day?
Why can you perform some crazy feats against all the odds and struggles of the human nature of resorting to apathy and laziness, while succumbing to it in even the most basic tasks?
Some people say it’s habit. You don’t think about what you’re doing. Consciously, that is. You don’t control 80% of your waking actions or whatever the number is that they throw around. You simply respond to stimuli, do the thing, feel some reward for doing the thing, and then simply go on with your life. And you can change one habit for another but never truly be rid of it. Your life is habits. They say. You are tied to habit because you are humans and that is human nature. Just like laziness and apathy and building things and anxiety. Human nature. Habits.
And this is partially true. We feel bad when we don’t brush our teeth or read for half an hour before bed or meditate, or lo que sea. And this negative feeling, this feeling of let down to yourself eats at you until you repeat the habit. Habits are addicting. They’re like drugs that you can supposedly never kick but just replace with healthy drugs. But when you don’t take even those healthy drugs (i.e. perform those basic habits), you feel terrible about yourself. But why? What is it about not doing the habits that makes you feel terrible? And how do we start doing them in the first place?
I am going to indulge in myself for a little bit with this next paragraph. I’ve noticed something interesting recently, looking back at every major life changing habit that I’ve been able to develop. These include consistently exercising, eating healthily, reading, learning things like muay thai, salsa dancing, and yoga, practicing soccer endlessly, spontaneously traveling in uncomfortable circumstances, meeting and talking to strangers, learning to enjoy tea, and performing standup comedy (none of which were activities that came to me naturally).
I noticed that I started and continued all of these things because I saw myself as the type of person that does and wants to do these things. I wanted to see myself as a reader. I wanted to see myself, in the world, as a more curious, adventurous person that travels and learns. I wanted to see myself as a more social and outgoing person. This all happened subconsciously at first. I didn’t admit it to myself. I realized that I wanted to see myself as a hilarious person, so I started cracking jokes.
It’s all weirdly dishonest. You know why? Because I didn’t start reading books for the sake of enjoying books. I didn’t start telling jokes for the sake of fun. I didn’t start meeting people for the sake of connecting with them. It was all a very shallow self-indulgence of how I saw myself in the world. Rather, how I wanted to see myself. The romantic story that I was telling myself of my place in this world, adapted from various books and movies and stories and characters and people that I’ve loved and respected. And that’s what it is. A romantic story.
Most of the decisions that we make, when we aren’t trying to survive and eat and run away from lions are romantic. When we are not faced with life or death situations and we have the time and health to use our conscious minds to their full creative extent, the decisions we make are almost always through the lenses of the story that we are telling ourselves. Think about it. Do you actually want to be a doctor, or do you want to be seen as a respectable contributor to the overall well-being of society (that is also fairly well-paid)? Do you want to write, or do you want to see yourself as a wandering romantic, as someone who shares ideas and contributes to intellectualism? Do you want to be an entrepreneur, or do you want to see yourself as someone who builds something from scratch, as a creator, as someone who works on his own terms?
For me, at least when starting something new, it is always because of the image of myself doing the thing. That is why I have been able to consistently go to muay thai but not cook. I wanted to see myself as someone who practices crazy martial arts but didn’t feel the same way about being a good cook.
When you are starting something new and difficult, it really helps to have a strong idea of how you want to see yourself. It helps to have this romantic vision of the type of person that you want to be. It keeps you going through the hard phase.
And then, slowly but surely, as with everything, you start appreciating the thing for what it is. Not the image that it gives you – to other people or to yourself. You don’t associate your life story and identity with this thing anymore. You are able to do it and appreciate it and enjoy it for the sake of it.
But rarely does this happen in the beginning. In fact, people don’t start learning new things because they don’t have a strong enough romantic idea of what it would be like to be the type of person who does such and such. Because it is impossible to appreciate something that you don’t have experience with. Thus, all conscious change that people undergo is usually labeled as “fake.” And it is good to know this before getting yourself involved with something as serious as changing yourself or “growing.” This part is very important.
So what story are you telling yourself? Do you want to be the type of person who reads? Do you want to see yourself as adventurous? Do you want to see yourself as a cook? Smart? How do you want to see yourself? Get very clear on this. And then go. And it will feel unnatural, because it is. Because human nature —human naturalness— is actually a tendency towards laziness, apathy, and inactivity. And it will take awhile to appreciate the thing for itself. But do it enough, and it will come naturally. If you are romantic enough about your life, you might be able to live it.