“Dammit! I succeeded!”

Goals. We can all agree that goal setting is a good thing. They are however, not the best thing to hold onto once we achieve them. Sure, there’s a grace period to celebrate our accomplishments. Once settled again though, a new realization dawns on us. “Dammit! That was a success!” Now what? What’s next?

Failure is an achievement with the an undesirable result. However, what’s keeps us driven is getting back at it until we achieve the desired result. Once that happens, we’ve often expended a lot of energy and are drained. Furthermore, we are sometimes so drained from pushing towards the goal that we didn’t even see the progress we were making until we were well beyond the finish line.

Goals can be like watching the grass grow. We need the distance to gain perspective. It’s almost like we need to have parallel lives going: one to do the work, and one to watch from afar to monitor our progress, so we can appreciate the journey to see the growth within the goals we set in real-time. There are methods of reflection that allow us to do so, and to each their own. The point is that achieving a goal should create a balanced feeling of pride and fear. Pride for what we did, and fear for either, “how do we now maintain what we’ve achieved” or “where do we go from here?” That fear, however, will be more appropriately used if we look at it as excitement for the unknown opposed to fear of the unknown.

If we feel drained on the daily, it’s likely not the work that’s draining us, it’s our approach to the work that’s exhausting. We’re failing at how we’re looking at the problem. Because, as Einstein said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” So when we succeed, we’ve succeeded at thinking/doing on a new level. Levels are often battles fought uphill, and in life they can be infinite. There’s good work to be done, and there’s always a demand for it. We shouldn’t fool ourselves in thinking that the demand for doing good work is an external expectation. We should demand from ourselves to put out the best work we can, and continue to build on our successes with excitement for the maintenance and/or the new.

The Pendulum of Expecation

The ability to feel excitement or be excited about something is supposed to be a trait of a positive person. Being excited about something assumes that there is a positive expectation attached to whatever we are excited about. “It’s going to be great!” We’re going to see a World Series game! How excited are we when the team we’re rooting for gets slaughtered? How excited are we when the line for the roller coaster we specifically came to the amusement park is visible from space? How excited are when after waiting over three hours, they closed the ride for maintenance? How excited are we when buy tickets for the most talked-about Broadway show a year in advance, only to hear over the loud-speaker when we arrive at the theater that the lead role in today’s performance is being played by the understudy?

If expectation is the root of disappointment, excitement is then the fuel of expectation. Why not adopt the mindset of simply being opening to the experiences that come our way? Why taint our experiences with ruinous expectations? Whether we are excited or dreading an upcoming experience, our expectations are ruinous all the same. It’s like a trial lawyer leading the witness with a line of questioning. It’s trying to force an outcome. When we lead up to experiences with expectations, the experiences now has the pressure of living up to what our imaginations have created. Imagination is defined as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.” The words “not present” stick out in that definition. Being present doesn’t require imagination. It requires a stillness of thought. Thoughts that are constantly trying to judge an experience as it unfolds are being good or bad. Should we be excited or disappointed right now? If we allow ourselves to be at the mercy of our expectations, we’ll forever be pendulums oscillating between extremes. We can still enjoy the game as it unfolds even if our team loses in the end. We can still enjoy the play even though the star we came to see didn’t perform. We can still enjoy the other rides and time spent with friends if we don’t get to ride the one ride we all came to the amusement park for.

Being excited about something sounds good. Being open to everything is good.

The Evolution of Rattlesnakes

Several years ago, I heard a story about rattlesnakes evolving so that their tails no longer rattle. A quick Google search returned an article that provides evidence of how some rattlesnakes in South Dakota are evolving with atrophied tail muscles. The reason is rather simple. The rattle was meant to be a warning sign. “You are in danger – please move away from this rattling sound!” However, for those who hunt rattlesnakes, the rattle does not serve as a warning from the snake; it’s the target giving away its hiding place. The rattle becomes its death knell. The snake’s venom is meant to kill its natural prey – it’s not a weapon for war. It’s a signal of peace. The rattles is an aid in helping others avoid danger, neither a threat of nor an invitation to violence.

So, when reading/hearing about how some rattlesnakes are evolving away from their namesake, it sounds like the nearest thing to an identity crisis for a snake. But then, another realization. The rattlesnake did not give itself its name – we did! We’ve actually named everything that know has a definition. No thing has ever named itself. The monsters we fear the most, are monsters of our own definition. Therefore, it’s not at all weird for a rattlesnake to evolve to no longer rattle. That’s natural under the given circumstances of its environment. It’s only weird because what do we call rattlesnakes in the future if they all evolve to no longer rattle? Do we change their name to the Silent Shaker Snake? Do we continue to rename and redefine these snakes based on how they appear to us? We’ll likely never get the snakes’ insights on these matters.

 

Playing Hide and Seek with Ignorance

Why do we feel the need to care so deeply about what other people do? Total strangers grouped together as either an “Us” or a “Them” and we overlook the obvious that most of our daily interactions include people from both sides. We are always a few questions away from being able to decipher who is “with us” or “against us” in our short-sighted minds. What does it say about how we must feel about ourselves, to exhaust so much energy trying to compartmentalize everyone we see, instead of examining why we feel it’s so urgent to “know” where someone belongs in relation to us?

Ignorance loves games made simple; when appearance alone is enough to sort things out. But ignorance lacks such grace in regards to its own self-awareness. When ignorance tries to hide, it fails to realize how it mimics an infant covering its eyes. When ignorance tries to seek, it fails to realize how it looks to itself for guidance, which is futile. Ignorance is a perpetual infant. Yes, what an incredible superpower it would be to be able to cover our eyes and become invisible. To be able to escape reality for a while with a simple gesture. If we never remove our hands from our eyes, we’ll never have to worry about what we can’t see. However, we’re missing the point that we don’t actually have any superpowers. We are human – just like everyone else!

When we cover our eyes and embrace our false invisibility, we fail to see that everyone else sees us for what we’re choosing to do. By doing so, we never let people see what we’re capable of being, and let it be known in the process that we only seem capable of being duped by the same level of trickery that makes an infant marvel. Should we use this as a source of pride? By the time most infants become toddlers and enter kindergarten, they’ve discovered that playing peek-a-boo is just a game. The world of the hidden has been revealed. Their ignorance has been replaced with basic intelligence and rationale thought. As adults, there is no excuse for us not to be constantly reaching towards enlightenment that corresponds with our age. Yet, society seems to provide daily instances of how many of us choose to revel in the pride felt during infancy, and wear ignorance as a badge of honor. Once we leave the comforts of blissfully ignorant toddlerhood behind, we’re always old enough know better.

Cloudy, with a Chance of Anything

Gratitude is “the quality of being thankful and/or readiness to show appreciation for and the ability to return kindness.” The notion of gratitude is inherently positive. However, to practice gratitude we must also have a deep empathetic understanding of just how bad things can be or get. Every bad situation can be made worse. This can be referred to as “negative forecasting,” but it’s intention is to actually increase appreciation of the present. For example, my daughter broke her arm at camp over the summer. No parent wants to receive a call to learn that their child has been injured in an accident, and worse, not knowing to what degree. When they called, they didn’t say it was broken, just that she fell and hurt her arm. The unknown was maddening. Ironically, an hour before this call, we received a call from the nurse informing us that she had been stung by a bee while swimming. So when the second call came, and I saw the caller ID before I answered, I was definitely guilty of my initial reaction being, “Toughen up kid! It’s only a bee sting. You’re not allergic to bees.”

The entire drive to pick her up was a worry spiral, trying to think of the worst case scenario. “It’s definitely broken.” That thought was countered by, “It’s probably not broken.” When I arrived at camp, she was there waiting, in a makeshift sling and looking pale, puffy-eyed, and worn out from pain. Her arm was swollen and curiously C-shaped. She’s a trooper though, and was in good spirits on the car ride despite every bump causing her discomfort. Like the jackass I am, I attempted to make a joke with a layer of perspective wrapped up in it. “Bet that bee sting doesn’t seem so painful now, right?” She shot me a “you’re kidding me” death stare before breaking out into a knowing laugh.

I think we both knew her arm was broken, but remained hopeful that the X-rays would come back negative. They didn’t. A spiral fracture of her right humerus. (Insert, “there’s nothing humorous about that” comment here) Then, the doctor suggested a scenario I hadn’t yet considered. He said, “It’s a bad break. We get broken wrists and elbows all the time, but this, we only see this about twice a year. I don’t think she’ll need surgery though. She’s young and her body will likely heal itself just fine.”

Surgery! I never considered that she might need surgery! The situation could have been worse. On the way home, my daughter was in good spirits, and actually somewhat excited about getting a cast. We had a great conversation about perspective. I explained to her that as a parent, I never want to see her in pain, but I’ll take a call any day that she broke her arm – that she just broke her arm. Because the reality is that, on that very day, there were likely hundreds of parents receiving calls about their children that were far worse. She also learned the valuable lesson that pain is relative, and joked about the bee sting again. Luckily, up to this moment, the worst physical pain she’d felt had been a bee sting, or perhaps a shot at the doctor’s office. How fortunate for her, and for us as her parents. When you consider how bad things can actually get or be, it’s not an attempt to channel the spirit of Eeyore, it’s not pessimistic or cynical, it actually allows you to be appreciative. It’s a way to practice gratitude.

Equidistant

Depth perception is “the ability to perceive the relative distance of objects in one’s visual field.” In other words, how close we are to something or someone. If anyone has ever felt alone amongst friends or loved ones, you understand that physical closeness can pale in comparison to feeling emotionally connected to others.

On the first day of high school, back in the late 1900s, I recall a riddle the math teacher presented to the class as an icebreaker. The riddle was this: How can two people stand on a single piece of loose leaf paper, be facing each other and still not be able to touch each other? The quote attributed to Cesare Pavese, “We do not remember days, we remember moments” is apropos here. I remember this moment simply because I happened to be the one in class that solved it. I felt clever, which was something I rarely felt at that age, and so it stuck with me. It was also one of the last and very select few positive memories of that year and the years to follow. The answer is to slide the piece of paper underneath a door. That way, two people can be facing each other, with both their feet touching the paper, and still not be able to touch each other. Depending on the door, they may also not be able to see each other. It serves as a wonderful visual metaphor for how we can be physically so close to someone, yet literally unable to connect. The riddle is an example of two people being equidistant. Yet, in life, the feeling of being “so close, yet so far” is anything but equal. Feeling alone in the company of friends or loves ones is a terrible feeling.

This is paradox of self-improvement. When working on yourself and pushing yourself to be the best version of yourself, you often feel isolated. When you try to rid yourself of ego and maintain the even-keeled stoic state of being, you fail often and often feel alone. In striving to develop deeper connections, you may feel like you are slipping away. In your quest for depth, you may find it in a deep dive, only to realize your lost in the deep, murky unfamiliar waters, tugging at your lifeline and feeling no response. It’s a dark place to be – in waiting for a response, waiting for others to realize where you are. Do you wait? Or, do you keep swimming to save yourself?

As we wait, time doesn’t. Not all truths are warm and fuzzy, but that doesn’t make them any less necessary to know.

Stakes to the Heart

We’ve all heard the expression “risk vs reward”. This is the ratio of what you’re putting up in relation to what you can lose/gain by doing so. If the loss is too great, it’s not seen as being advantageous. The risk determines the worth. This is understandable in terms of business, or where there are perhaps monetary stakes, but what about when the only thing to gain/lose is expectation? This is a far more common occurrence. When is it worth it to risk the reward?

When it comes to right action, the answer is: always! For example, it’s worth the disappointment of holding the door open for someone, because the only thing at stake is not receiving a “thank you” for doing so. We can control our expectations. Even better, we can choose not to have expectations of others. We can choose to simply have expectations of ourselves and ourselves in relation to others. This affords us the freedom to risk all day long without consequence. Unexpected behaviors happen all the time. They are actually quite expected. That’s why expectation is the root of disappointment. Without unexpected behaviors, there would be no need for the expression “I told you so.” And we all secretly love the times when we get to tell someone, “I told you so!” Why? Because it means we were right! The reward is sweet validation. But how many storage units and safe-deposit boxes do you currently possess to stow all the pats on the back you’ve received for being right? Validation in this regard neither takes up any real estate nor has any monetary value. Therefore, risk the reward! Risk being proven right or wrong when all that’s at stake is validation. Why? Because it’s just easier to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, the kind thing to do, the compassionate thing to do, the empathetic thing to do, the decent thing to do, the polite thing to do – the human thing to do. Go “all-in” when the stakes are validation, because the true reward is the courage to risk being let down, knowing you’ll be unfazed by that outcome.