Fear

We all exhibit fear of the future.  Our minds seem to be predisposed to concerning ourselves with things that might happen.  Many of us seem to be built around the scaffolding of concocting great stories of what “might happen” and then acting (or more commonly, NOT acting) on that story.  We have rich, fertile minds.

The philosopher Michel de Montaigne noted, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened“.  I can relate to that.  I’ve dreamed up all kinds of scenarios – big and small – that “just might happen”.

How might we be different if we trusted the future, rather than feared it?  The interesting thing about this is that if you trust the future, you might actually have time to live in the present moment.  That is where the real benefit is gained.  I’ve written about this in other posts, but living in the present allows you to experience what is going on now. You are able to more richly appreciate what is around you.  You notice details in yourself, your environment and people you interact with in more detail.  Perhaps you pay attention to someone who is important to you a little bit more.  All because you are living in this moment, not a “what if” future.

I read this Chinese proverb recently. “That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot change. But that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent”. Kind of a great metaphor.  Worries may come and go but we have the power to decide if they get to stay with us.  What would your life be like if you did not carry so many worries around with you?

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Boundaries on self

As I have gotten older, I have begun to appreciate people who are willing to go “all in” on a seemingly crazy decision because they are driven by some passion, some inkling of an idea.

I recently read an example of one such person, Alfred Beach. In 1870, America’s Civil War had only completed five years earlier.  The transcontinental railroad had just opened.  Automobiles were still more than 25 years in the future.  Most everyone traveled by horse, horse drawn carriage or walked.  Distance train travel was dirty and noisy  because all trains were coal or steam powered.

But Beach had a crazy idea.  New York City had become so crowded due to immigration.  The number of horses had raised the stink in the city to unbearable levels.  Trying to get from one part of the city to another was dangerous and time consuming.  Beach figured if he could find another way to transport people efficiently and effortlessly, he would serve the city.  So Beach and his men began to dig in private in the middle of the city under one of the most famous roads.  Sometimes only moving 6 inches a day, they made progress.  In that same year (1870), after two years of work, Beach introduced a subway under the ground on Broadway in New York City.  The train was described as very comfortable by everyone.  It was propelled by a giant fan at one of the track.  To come back, the fan was reversed.  More than four hundred thousand people road this subway in the first year.  It was a massive success and promised to revolutionize travel in big cities.  But alas, Beach was defeated by corrupt officials, not technology.  His dream of adding more lines was denied because government officials and the carriage tradesmen wanted to keep their monopoly.  The subway was not to be created until more than 30 years later.

Beach’s idea was way ahead of his time.  In the end, it was probably not practical because the power of the fans would have had to be enormous.

So why do people like this fascinate me?

I am not entirely certain.  Part of it is the fact that I probably enjoy reading about risk takers.  I am very risk adverse. The thought of chasing a dream  so risky never makes it far in my mind. But someone else who is willing to go for it, that is fascinating, even if I think they are crazy.  It is interesting reading about people who are different from me.  I am also probably overly practical.  Spontaneity is not something I exhibit much.  So to see someone so different from me pursue a dream is entertaining.  I get to vicariously enjoy their journey without enduring their pain.

I would hope that these acts of others give me pause to think about how I limit myself by doing things the way I do them.  Doing something as extravagant as building a subway before the technology, and the populace, are ready for it is not in the cards for me.  But are their personal, business or fitness goals I do not pursue because I am too rule bound?  Might I get real pleasure – along with a lot of pain – by trying something so far outside my comfort zone?

Willpower aka ego depletion

Willpower.  We all have it.  We were all born with it.  We all use it every day.  It is a choice we make.  It is self discipline.

We face challenges to our willpower every day.  Do I eat the cookies sitting there or not?  How about that nice cold beverage?  Do I react to the person who is being unkind or baiting me?  The customer who is being rude or extra demanding is testing me, how should I react?  I know I should get that task done, but I will wait until later to do it.

It is hard dealing with what seems to be a barrage of tests of your willpower.  You probably know someone who seems to have no willpower.  They just do whatever comes to mind, whether it is good for them or not.  But most of us have some reservoir of willpower that we use day-to-day.

Some people believe willpower is like a muscle.  In that they mean you can use it up until the point of fatigue and then it will not function as well.  Psychology professor Roy Baumeister and colleagues have done numerous experiments showing where a person who had to perform a hard mental task subsequently had an impaired the ability to control oneself later.  This theory helps explain why we fail when presented with the chance to answer those questions posed above.  We all have experienced “giving in” to our weaker self.

But the studies also note that, like a muscle, you can build willpower up, make it stronger, with practice.

One idea is to build additional knowledge about a subject.  Having that knowledge allows you to lessen the effort required to decide, so you won’t have to use your willpower as much.  For instance, let’s say you are trying to improve your diet.  If you studied more about nutrition and its impact on your body, you might be better prepared to know that certain food alternatives are bad for you.  The food decision becomes an intellectual one, rather than a discipline one. In this case, “knowledge is power”.

Another idea is to try to make your toughest decisions earlier in the day when your willpower “muscle” is at its strongest. In my example above, you could plan your meals for the day at the start of the day,  In theory, you are stronger, so you can make good food decisions (rather than getting to the end of the day and saying “I am too tired to cook something, I will just go to Taco Bell”).  In a similar vein, some people recommend you have your workout clothes by your bed.  When you wake up in the morning, they are already waiting for you and you are more apt to use them.

Finally, building awareness around your willpower is an effective strategy.  Some deliberation around a decision, including thinking about your use (or lack thereof) of your willpower might make you better at using willpower.