EVERY SO OFTEN, I get emails from people asking me to help them with problems in their lives. At first, they’re hopeless, sometimes distraught and don’t know what to do, but after a while, they come to a solution (often on their own, with me acting as some kind ofdigital sounding board).
Solution in hand, they then proceed to boldly declare that their life is going to change from now on and that they are going to achieve all the dreams they’ve ever set for themselves.
And in these moments, I’m happy for them, but also, in the pit of my stomach, I usually think:
You’re not going to end up becoming the person you think you will.
Because that’s just not how it works.
WHAT YOU WANTED WAS WRONG
In my teens, I would spend most of my time at home playing video games, was socially insular and afraid to branch out from the safe and certain world of my parents’ home. New social situations were almost entirely threatening, and I was so comfortable where I was, they really presented no appeal to me. So I sat indoors and tried to beat people at Halo. But now, 10 years later – I can’t think of anything I’d rather do more than travel to a completely alien culture and meet new people, embarrass myself and make new friends. And don’t even get me started on my parents.
Then, in my early twenties, I wrote a year by year, month by month plan on how I was going to develop my body, using powerlifting and bodybuilding routines, as well as cycling bulking and cutting, into the most incredible physique I could possibly possess. I looked in the mirror and all I ever saw were imperfections and smallness (I was 6’3” and weighed 225lbs, so yeah, I was tiny), entirely consumed by my body dysmorphia. Every problem in life that confronted me I would seek to solve by … building more muscle. But now, years later, I can’t think of a more boring, dull, and ultimately unrewarding way to spend my time.
More recently, I could barely think of anything except pursuing the next girl to sleep with; of reaching the arbitrary number of conquests in my headlest I never feel self-worth again. I would get anxious when I didn’t go out, constantly beat myself up about girls I didn’t approach, and subconsciously adjust my personality to try and please. But now, I don’t give a fuck about any of that; often resent the amount of time I dedicated to it; and am more concerned with meeting girls who add something to my life, rather than ones that make up some magical number.
It turns out that everything I wanted was wrong.
The things I thought I wanted changed; the things I wanted changed. And in 10 years’ time, all this stuff I think I hold dear now… Odds are that’s going to change as well. Maybe I’ll end up as a Buddhist monk, maybe I’ll end up as a porn star (apologies in advance).
And what I want now – Maybe I don’t want that as much as I think, maybe I won’t want it for much longer.
WHAT YOU THINK YOU WANT IS WRONG
Over time, we look back on many of the decisions we’ve made with disdain. My decision to improve my life had less to do with self-love and more to do with wanting my ex and every other girl who’d rejected me to regret their decision. It’s something I look on now as beneficial, but also pathetic. My past obsession with sleeping around is something helped me get over my neediness, but it’s also time I wish I’d invested in writing and finances (yes, I’m that boring). The time I spent in the gym, although it showed me that my goals were achievable, is ultimately something I view as very misguided – a time I spent almost completely invested in building an image of how I wanted to be perceived rather than who I actually was.*
Our goals are not what we think they are. What we now determine to be important are sometimes the things we’re most keen to get rid of; the things we’d wished we’d either never done, or moved past very quickly.
In his book, Stumbling Upon Happiness, Dan Gilbert writes that:
“[But] our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan. Even that person who takes a bite of the Twinkie we purchased a few minutes earlier may make a sour face and accuse us of having bought the wrong snack.”
How you feel once you’d achieved your goal is not how you actually feel once you’ve achieved it. The life you think you want now, and the life you think you’ll have in the future, are almost never the way you think they’ll be.
And that’s okay.
We crave certainty over the future because we’re afraid we might never have the life we want. We crave certainty over what we want because that gives solidity to our identity, and in turn, a perception of meaning to our lives. But when we look at our own lives, and our own choices, it’s extraordinarily rare that we remain on the track we believe we need to be on. More often than not, we are thrown to another track, or just step off freely, having grown out of the one we’re on.
When life is down in the dumps, it can feel like the most important thing in the world to hold on to an idea of who we want to be and what we want to become; because the message we’re telling ourselves is that this new, future self, will never feel the way we do, that we will escape whatever terrible reality we currently experience.
But in reality, we don’t really know.
In the future, this terrible reality might be what we crave the most. In the future, the escape we have in our minds might be even worse. Some people grow up despising their parents, only to, later, want to spend all their time with them. Some people think they couldn’t live if they didn’t become an artist, only to realize they completely hate it once they actually try. Some might call the latter a failure – but is it not just another example of goals evolving over time?
WHAT YOU WANT IS ALMOST ALWAYS WHAT YOU FEEL
You’re not going to end up becoming the person you want to become because the person you want to become is a solution to your current problems.
But over time, your problems are going to change, and your perception of those problems and your previous problems are going to change. And, as a result, day by day, you’re going to change – into someone you never expected.
But because our goals are so transient, because our opinion of what we think we hold as important changes so much over time, we should think about our goals differently. We should question just how important and practical they are.
Do we really want to spend all your time in the gym? Is that actually beneficial to our life? Do we really want to spend all our time chasing girls? Is that really going to make us happy? Do we really want to spend all our time chasing an idealized version of ourselves? Is that really going to make us feel whole? Is that going to make us feel lovable?
Or would, y’know, actually confronting the emotions themselves be a better idea?
I know it was for me.*
Sometimes when you question your goals, you’ll find one that sticks. It could be sorting your finances out, it could be pursuing a passion, it could be building houses in Borneo. But most of the time, you’ll find a goal that exists as an attempt to change how you feel now. Like me, or the people who email me about their problems – your new aspiration of life exists because you wish it will free you from how you feel now.
It’s not the goal you actually want. You just want to feel better.
But feelings are only fought with feelings. We change our lives when we take different, more challenging actions that get us different, more advanced results. But if our desire to do this is rooted in a toxic emotion, then all the pursuit of this goal is going to do is drag that emotion with us, and send us down avenues that aren’t always logically beneficial. I.e the bodybuilder who never looks good enough or the player who can never be loved enough. It is these kind of goals that we end up coming to look back on with disdain, because, once our age unmasks them, we see them for that they always were.
What we were actually pursuing.
Now, I guess the only question is – what are you actually pursuing?
*This is what I like to call the ultimate fuck up.
*Talk to people. Practice Honesty. Write. Read classic books. Get therapy. Get therapy. Get therapy.
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