IT WOULD BE EASY for me to say that I wasn’t financially literate, I looked for confidence in all the wrong places, I really wanted to be liked (and loved) and this made me needy, I didn’t know how to have fun, I didn’t work hard enough and I didn’t treat my time like it was important.
But those mistakes, whilst irritating, are stuff we all go through. They’re obvious. And if I’ve learned anything about mistakes, it’s this:
Not all mistakes are made equal.
The shitty thing about growing up is that nobody teaches you how to become an adult. The truth is, you have to teach yourself. The mistakes that you make in life are the problems you have to solve because it’s in solving them that you become the adult nobody could ever teach you to become.
Looking back on my early twenties, it’s become apparent to me that past the detail of my life there were patterns of mistakes, each with specific underlying principles, that were directly getting in the way of my growth as a person. And far from being obvious at the time, these patterns were almost impossible to spot.
So they continued, and instead of growing up, I stood still.
Eventually, I slowly (read: far too slowly) figured out what was going on, and started to fix these mistakes. Some of them were easy, but other’s took years. And it was midway through all of this fixing that I realized something:
These mistakes weren’t unique to me.
Far from being a special snowflake – these were in fact patterns of mistakes I saw in everyone. Sometimes much older, sometimes much younger – it didn’t really matter.
The patterns just kept showing up.
Which got me thinking. If I could fix them, then everyone else could too.
YOU’RE HOLDING ON TO CHILDISH THINGS
When you leave school, university, and your parents behind, life suddenly becomes very different. Instead of being surrounded by people your own age, you’re working with people of all ages; instead of your parents paying for everything, you have to pay for everything; instead of everything being simple and uncomplicated, everything is complex, difficult and often threatening.
It’s a cliche, but the world is a scary place. It’s a constant – whether you like it not – competition, where you have to compete with other people and your own shortcomings in order to provide a life for yourself, and in many ways, in order to be happy. Life after childhood is a series of complex, mature problems that we have to take responsibility for, or they will dominate our lives and determine their direction.
If we don’t get financially smart, we get financially trapped. If we don’t get good at dating, we end up in dead end, unhappy relationships, or worse, alone. If we don’t develop a good work ethic, we hamstring our career or kill our dreams. And all of these, rather than being simple, are complex issues that require us to use a lot of emotional horsepower.
In other words, it’s incredibly easy to get in our own way.
This is why, when confronted with this new reality of adult life, we often sought a retreat into childhood.
It’s funny, looking back, to see how, frightened by the idea of what I needed to be in order to have the life I wanted, I instead prolonged my teenage life well into my early 20s in order to dull the constant feeling of anxiety the world gave me. I was well aware of what I needed to do, but instead of building myself up and educating myself, I retreated to video games and shallow escapism. Games where I could temporarily make myself feel like a winner, and shallow stories that fed my fantasies about a simpler, more black and white life; where I was special and important, instead of not.
This was comforting, and in the context of my youth, seemed harmless. After all, a lot of people my age were acting this way. Hell, most of western culture seemed to be acting this way. Geek culture had spread across all mediums and instead of our lives and hobbies and interests changing and growing to reflect the deepening challenge of our lives, culture seemed to be feeding a demand for the exact opposite; something that nourished the desire for the cocoon of childhood to return.
The complexities of a struggling adult life were replaced by power fantasies of superheroes or normal guys becoming drug kingpins – both under the guise of being ‘mature’, even though, at their core they were just more stories about a wish to not be powerless.
Dating, one of the most challenging things we can do emotionally, was reduced to what was essentially a slot machine. And reality TV fed us fantasies of being attractive and getting attention.
And finances? Well, they were just fucking boring. Savings? Investments? Pensions? Cashflow? What benefit was that to a life?
Like anyone else, I sought avoidance whenever I could. And it hurt my life.
My work ethic stunk, and I wasted years procrastinating. My dating life was shallow, stupid, and made me a vain, insecure, try hard. My finances were a mess and constantly ate away at me in the back of my mind.
And all of this, compounded on itself until a single voice echoed in my head:
“You can’t do this.”
When we turn our backs on reality and run for comfort, we are unconsciously telling ourselves that we’re not capable of taking responsibility for our own lives; that we don’t have what it takes to solve the actual problems we’re being confronted with.
When we drown ourselves in power fantasies, we’re telling ourselves life would be better if we were someone else. When we drown ourselves in fantasies of love, we’re telling ourselves life would be better if we felt like someone else. When we frivolously blow all our money and fail to secure a solid financial foundation for ourselves, we’re telling ourselves that consequences aren’t our problem. And all of this just makes us want to bury our heads in the sand even more.
The retreat from the responsibility of adulthood is nothing other than a retreat from the challenge of taking command of who we are.
And it’s a retreat that stunts our maturity and cripples our potential.
But if we took on the problems adult life puts in front of us – if we engaged with a world that was intellectually and emotionally challenging; if we developed a robust and consistent work ethic; if we built an exciting and rewarding dating life that stemmed from our interests and personality; if we took steps to develop a growing and secure financial situation for ourselves, we would be taking on the challenge of our lives in a way that made us leave every stage of our lives behind, and develop our abilities and personality into capable reflections of the world in which we existed. Reflections that thrived on the challenges presented.
And I guarantee, if you did that, you’d look at all that childish shit as it always was. A dream of being the person you are now.
YOU’RE WAITING FOR A FEELING THAT YOU CANNOT CONTROL
Early into my twenties, I was struck by an idea by for a movie that I felt was entirely original and needed to be written immediately. Seeking to coax more of it from my head, I plugged music into my ears and let the sounds take my small kernel of imagination and grow it into a vast world; one I could shape into a story.
Once home, I wrote a few notes, messaged my friends about it, then left it, touching it occasionally over the next few years.
To this day, it’s never been finished.
I imagine that you, like me, have often found yourself in a place where you’ve been seized by an idea, and felt such a strong feeling towards it (for instance happiness, aggression, passion) that you felt it was extremely important for you to pursue it. Yet, after starting, the initial feeling begins to dwindle, and so does your effort, until you cease pursuing it entirely, and your idea that was conceived with such a great strength of emotion ends up as just another scrap of paper in the trash – or worse, a reminder of how you don’t “finish things.”
You start things because of a feeling, and then stop them because the feeling goes away.
This same principle I see in countless people looking to change their lives or, often, just make small changes. They feel something strongly, they make a decision, they take action, the feeling dwindles, they stop. The shame they felt at their weight as they entered the new year fades away, and their resolution to go the gym fails; the energy they felt, when imagining their story, dissipates, and they cease to write it; the ambition they felt towards starting their business dwindles under the difficulties, and it becomes just another aborted startup.
Now, sometimes this is fine – we get older, and the way we feel about things change. I no longer chase girls like I used to, and I certainly spend less time in the gym. But more often than not – we give up on the things that are actually important to us (i.e our creative passions) because the feeling just isn’t there. We’re not in the mood, we lack motivation, we lack passion. So we stop.
That is, until we feel something again, start as we did before, only to stop, once the feeling fades away.
Repeat ad infinitum.
It would be easy to say that rather being in love with what it is we want to do, that instead we simply love the feeling associated – the heightened sense of being, of purpose – or perhaps we just love the fantasies that our imagination brings to life alongside them – of success and adulation.
This was largely the case for me.
I would start and stop, over and over, enjoying the idea of success rather than the effort required to bring it about. But even when through discipline I started to avoid that kind of thinking – the pattern of starting and stopping over and over didn’t cease. Because, as ever, I was relying on my feeling to keep me in the game.
When I felt good, the days were easy. When I felt bad, I didn’t bother. And the bad days came a lot more often than the good.
That’s the lesson I failed to learn: it doesn’t matter whether it’s a good day or bad; it doesn’t matter how you feel. All that matters is the consistency of effort.
The basic principle of anything difficult is that some days it’ll come easy, some days it won’t – and that’s fine. Your feelings are transient and fleeting and based on hundreds of other factors, many of which are difficult to control. In many instances, the feelings you’ll feel towards the work you need to do are beyond your control and take care of themselves.
That means the only thing that is in your control is whether you continue to keep being productive despite the feeling. This means doing what needs to be done.
In other words, discipline.
YOU’RE PRETENDING TO BE SOMEONE YOU’RE NOT
The longer you fail to perceive who you actually are, the longer you prevent yourself from solving your real issues. The longer you spend pretending to be someone else, whether to yourself or others, the longer you will never develop confidence in who you are, and will always be plagued by insecurity.
When I was a teenager, I was socially anxious, insecure and sensitive to the opinions of others. When invited to social events, I told myself I wasn’t interested “in that sort of thing” and instead hid away in my room and played video-games. Later, when I was at university, I alternated between this same avoidance, or extreme overcompensation, where I drank heavily and acted like an idiot. This continued for some time, until, in my early twenties, it dawned on me that:
- I was socially anxious.
- I was avoiding confronting this.
- As a result of this avoidance, I was dealing with that anxiety by fleeing it or trying to smother it.
I realized that as long as I kept doing the same things I was doing, my social anxiety (the true problem) would never change, and I would be stuck being swept around by my various ways of trying to deal with it. I realized that because I had failed to perceive what my actual problem was, I incapable of ever actually solving it.
Now, you might say, well, if you were acting in that way, wasn’t it obvious you were suffering from anxiety?
No, it wasn’t.
Because the other way I dealt with this problem, was by trying to create an image of myself where none of this existed. Just as I did with myself, I didn’t want anyone to perceive me as I actually was.
And so, my focus was almost always external.
“Does this person like me?”
“Does this person find me funny?”
“Will those people reject me?”
In other words “will these people treat me like someone who is anxious and thus confirm what I am fleeing from?”
Eventually, I realized what was going on, and through honesty, therapy and effort, I was able to heal what was causing my anxiety. But this principle, of failing to perceive myself accurately, and thus pretending to others, is a principle I have spotted everywhere. And it always has the same implosive effect.
- The guy who’s insecure about his self-worth compensates by going on about his intelligence, what he knows, how he’s right and builds an identity around this. As a result, he rarely recognizes what he doesn’t know, and thus leaves huge gaps in his thinking, hamstringing his intelligence. (This is actually called the Dunning Krueger effect).
- The guy who’s scared of violence compensates by going to the gym and creating a large physique and carries himself around aggressively, only to watch the facade come crashing down around him when confronted with real violence.
- The guy who lacks self-esteem doesn’t respond well to feedback. As a result, when people accurately point out he’s not very hard working and easily distracted, he gets aggressive and rejects everything they’re saying – regardless of whether it’s actually true or not.
In each case – whether it be acknowledging what he doesn’t know, learning how to fight, or accepting that feedback is not a criticism of who he is, but what he does – the best solution is always to confront the source of the actual problem, as the solution the problem often creates of its own accord usually just sends you in a repetitive, self-destructive cycle.
This is, I believe, why people stay stuck in such repetitive cycles. Whether it be anxiety over their future, their safety, their parents, their relationships; whatever it is, as long as they fail to perceive it as it actually is, they’ll be constantly chained to its control over their behavior.
So how to fix it?
Take a long, hard, honest look at yourself. Be brutal. Take a look at your actions and choices and really question what they say about you? Take a look at your patterns of behavior and consider what might actually be motivating them. Ask yourself – what am I really accomplishing with this choice of behavior? What am I actually trying to achieve? And why?
9 times out of 10 you’ll be trying to protect yourself from something. That ‘something’ is your real issue.
Fear of failure, fear of intimacy, fear of rejection. Fear of anything, experienced in a way that’s unique to you.
Then, once you’ve found it and explored it, you’ve got to confront it.
Sometimes, this means making taking certain actions. If you’re socially anxious, this means leaving your comfort zone and going in the opposite direction your anxiety is trying to compel you to go. If you’re afraid of the opposite sex, this means gradually pushing yourself to approach them more and build a dating life. Whatever your issue is, taking actions that directly confront the issue are some of the most powerful ways to solve them.
But sometimes it just requires that you open up to someone else, anyone else, and let go of the shit that’s weighing you down and confining your life. This can be with friends, this can be with family, or it can be with a professional therapist.
In my own experience, all three work.
SHUT UP AND SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS
When I look back on my early twenties, the most staggeringly obvious learning is that I failed to take responsibility for my own life. I looked for retreats into childlike avoidance whenever I could; I waited for things to feel good before I took on any challenges, and I failed to perceive myself, and what my problems actually were.
And as long as I was acting in that way, I failed to grow.
The more we hang onto childishness, the less we focus on the problems we need to solve. The more we wait to feel ready to take on those problems, the longer we will go without ever solving them. The longer we attempt to be someone else, both to ourselves and others, the longer we will never work on our actual flaws and capitalize on our actual strengths.
That is in a nutshell what happens over and over again.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
When it comes to adult problems, there are generally three categories of stuff we need to keep in check, which when we do, result in the growth we desperately need.
Essential, otherwise known as getting your shit together
- Financial intelligence
- Discipline and work ethic
Has huge effects on your emotions
- Social circle
- Dating life
- Family life
The Real Shit
By far the most important – the 80/20 rule of all of the above
- Your ability to deal with your own emotions
- Your understanding of yourself
- The development of your self-confidence
When we keep these in check, we are actively solving the problems of our lives, and through that responsibility, are growing into a more capable version of ourselves.
At the beginning of this article, I said that nobody teaches you to be an adult. And I was telling the truth; nobody does. Becoming an adult is a by-product of making mistakes, creating problems, and solving those problems. Often that’s external things like finances or relationships; but in each of us, there are things we’ve carried over from childhood and our teenage years, that live within us and deeply affect who we are, what we want and what we will become. These are the problems that are unique to us, and that we owe it to ourselves to solve.
We cannot escape who we are. We’re stuck with ourselves for our entire lives. And because of this, we owe it to ourselves to take responsibility for what’s going on up there, to confront ourselves – in all our ugly, shitty, flawed ways – both externally and internally, and take care of our lives and how we feel about ourselves, and grow until everything that troubled us in the past is no longer an issue.
Because here’s the truth about getting older:
The problems never stop coming.
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