The Illusion of Success
When we begin to exercise or eat better or meditate we develop some idea of where we want to go. We imagine ourselves with six pack abs, serene faces, and the ability to pass up a doughnut without a second thought. We set this picture in our mind and begin working towards it.
And then something really annoying happens . . . REALITY. Despite our hard work, the picture of our lives does not match the picture in our heads. Things don’t go smoothly, we give in to temptation, and we face challenges we never could’ve predicted.
And that’s when we start to get grumpy. We thought the deal was that we work hard and we get the picture. Except we did work hard, but the picture isn’t here.
We begin to wonder why it isn’t here? We look up articles about how to get this picture. We buy more products to make our lives more like the picture. But nothing seems to help.
No matter how hard we try, we can’t make it to the picture. So we give up. We decide all this picture chasing isn’t worth it. And we go back to the way things were before.
This is the root of suffering whether it’s exercise suffering, diet suffering, or life transformation suffering. Whenever we set some ideal in front of ourselves and work to get there, we set ourselves up for disappointment. And this set up is the basis of all human suffering.
Let me give you an example. When I first started becoming a minimalist, I had this idea of what my minimal life would look like. My life would be free of clutter, I would move about my living space with ease and peace, and I would never lose anything.
But despite the fact that I have been a minimalist for over two years, I still have all these problems. Why? Because these are the problems of life.
My life is certainly simpler than it was two years ago and I certainly have less stuff, but despite my progress I still have more than I would like, I still have to deal with clutter, and I still lose things (often).
Whenever I realize this, I have a choice. I can decide that it isn’t working, get upset, and give up. Or I can let go of the picture and choose another way to measure success.
Alternate Measures of Success
Here are some other ways I’ve used to measure success and stick to my changes even when the results weren’t apparent.
1. Length of Commitment -
Even if the plan you are on is the least effective exercise, diet, or meditation plan ever (like a milkshake diet or Kim Kardashian guided sitting practice) it takes a lot of energy and strength to stick to that plan. So instead of feeling down you can celebrate the strength of your commitment.
When I first started swimming I sucked so bad I wanted to quit, but I made it a point to keep going so I could say I had tried it for at least one month. At the end of the month, not only had I improved, but I had also established trust in my ability to stick to something I wasn’t naturally good at.
2. Tiny Improvements -
Often when we make a change we expect huge results, but the first results we see are usually tiny. We can either choose to see these tiny results as tiny disappointments or tiny victories. And choosing the latter will help turn those tiny victories into big wins.
When I first started meditating, I made it a point to notice and celebrate even small improvements in my mental peace and clarity. I found that these tiny celebrations encouraged me to keep sitting and actually made the experience better for me.
3. Trying Something New -
Trying something new is always a risk and it doesn’t always work out right away. But by sticking with something beyond our initial urge to quit, we can grow our capacity for patience and our willingness to try new things. And these two skills will pay big dividends over the long term.
When I went to my first game design meet up I felt a little like a tortoise at a hare convention. I had no idea what most people were saying and probably sounded like an idiot when I told them I had been playing a lot of madden recently.
But I stuck with it, asked some questions, and before long started to feel more comfortable. Then only a week later I helped lead a team to create a really cool game. And my whole team said I made a big contribution to the project by being the project manager.
4. Reflection of Others -
Often when we make changes in our lives the shift is so subtle we don’t notice it right away. Other people often notice our changes before we notice them on our own. Much like when you don’t see your nephew for a year and then are shocked at how big he’s gotten.
That’s why it’s important to ask other people if they’ve noticed a change and if they would be willing to reflect what they’ve seen.
When I first started smiling practice I thought I was doing a horrible job, but then someone who was visiting the monastery told me how much they appreciated my smile. I was not only surprised by their comment, it also helped me realize I had been making progress without ever realizing it.
5. Alignment with Your Vow -
Whenever you want to live a better life the first and easiest thing to do is to start acting as if it’s already true.
When you act like you’re naturally calm, or act like you like eating kale, or even act like you are really interested in your boring uncle something starts to happen. Just by pretending, those things start to become true.
This isn’t about being fake or dishonest it’s about living in alignment with your highest values, even before you think you can fully embody them.
When I first started my business, I made it a point to act like a professional. When I went to networking events, I would present myself and my business like I had been doing this for years. Of course, I never told anyone I had x years experience or that I had a million certifications. Instead, I just acted like I imagined a really pro trainer would.
What was amazing was when I did this people started taking me more seriously. They listened more intently to my advice and were more engaged when they were spoke to me. Just by putting on this persona of success, people saw me as more successful and I became more successful as a result.
If there is anything I can guarantee, it is this: no matter what results you imagine you will get, they won’t match your imagination. Losing weight won’t look how you think it will, meditating won’t be the way you imagined it, and eating better will be harder than you think.
But this isn’t a reason to get discouraged; instead it’s a reason to be excited. What makes the process of transformation so appealing is the fact that it is so new and unpredictable. What makes it so exciting is that you never know what will come next.
Changing your life isn’t a step-by-step, color by numbers process. It’s more like a choose your own adventure book. And while this means that you may not get the results you set out to get, you will be forever changed by the journey.
The important thing is that you look for the silver lining that will help you keep going. Because I can assure you that if you keep seeking with an open heart, you will find something more fulfilling and more interesting then you ever could have imagined.