I have a friend, a designer, who’s convinced she’s not very good. She doesn’t believe her work is anything special. She doesn’t even believe the fact does work is a result of her own discipline, preferring instead to give the credit to her environment or others’ expectations. This belief is very deeply ingrained in her. It is comes naturally but it’s been amplified as she’s interacted with others. They give her so little reassurance that she loses her self-belief.
That’s not what people tell her though. They tell her that she’s good, that she delivers work which is very good. That the combination of the two is unusual; that she is unusually good. I don’t know what people told her before I met her, when she was young, but now there’s no doubt. She is exceptional. She prefers not to see it that way. And she prefers not to see it that way because she wants to be better still. Because she wants to be as good as that she aspires to be. And that means ever better.
She has created a reality that forces her forward. Her need is always to be better. To be stronger at what she does. She values what others think of her but what she really cares about is what she thinks of herself. What she thinks is that she needs to be better. To achieve aggressive goals and then to push them further. Usually to push them on before she even arrives; forcing herself to fail inevitably and improve relentlessly.
She must never feel comfortable, she must never sit down. She forms a belief set that ingrains a sense of inadequacy. With that in hand, she has no option but to march forward, to make herself better and stronger. She cannot exist in a world where excellence is a prerequisite and where she is awful and so by grading herself down she drives herself ever forward, becoming ever better.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man” — George Bernard Shaw
So too ourselves. The unreasonable man adapts himself to fit his own vision of himself. Only adaptation and distortion is painful. It hurts and we cannot find peace while twisted. We have to believe that in the end our adaptation will bring us something: respite, fulfillment, happiness. We have to find a peace and an equilibrium or we are our own Sisyphean captor.
Because as we hold ourselves hostage to our dreams, as we push the rock back up the hill, life happens. It happens and as we get older it happens faster. Life accelerates around us until months disappear like sleepers under a train. As we focus on rolling our rock better, further, faster, the year that it took us to do so passed. It won’t come back again and it can’t be traded with a one from the next decade. Years aren’t fungible, being young passes.
This post started off as a message to my friend but it ends as a note to self. I think there is perhaps more of my friend the designer in me than I care to admit. I wrote this to implore her not to throw off comfort and contentment. That these are the things to to treasure and not to demonize. We avoid accepting praise because we fear we will start to believe it and cease to improve. We avoid creating a home because we fear it will make us too content to move, to lay our head on the rolled up sweater of the next opportunity. We avoid taking a job because we fear we will get addicted to the money and never start a company.
In the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, young children were promised two marshmallows by a researcher who then leaves the room. The researcher gave the first marshmallow straight away and told them they’d get the second as long as they didn’t eat the first. The researcher then left the room for 15 minutes. A few kids scarfed the marshmallow immediately while a minority held out for the second. The children who held out did so by forcing themselves. They turned around and covered their eyes, they tugged at their pigtails, they kicked the table. Some even stroked the marshmallow like a tiny stuffed animal. Long term studies showed that children who were able to do this, to delay gratification and wait for the second marshmallow, also turned out to achieve more in life. The conclusion was that the ability to delay gratification correlated with more success in the long run.
However I think there’s a second conclusion. It took 15 minutes for the researcher to eventually reappear and for the kid to get the second marshmallow. While one of the children spent 15 minutes of their life tugging their pigtails, waiting anxiously for a second marshmallow, the other kid who scarfed his down immediately got out of the experiment 15 minutes earlier in time for dinner and a game of football with his friends.
Sometimes we have to force ourselves to stop living with our eyes covered and our back turned, waiting for a sorry marshmallow. We need to remember to just eat the one in front of us and enjoy it.
Don’t forget to live [Peter Nixey]