Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hard Work Pays Off, Or So They Say: Why the Journey Is So Painful

The war we fight is not against powers and principalities, it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender. The future is all around us, waiting, in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain." -G'Kar, Babylon 5

I am fighting against chaos and despair in my own life in the attempt to make my dreams a reality. So are you, probably. It is part of life, if we are striving for goals or seeking to be a better person. I suppose there are people who are just going through life without trying to reach a goal, but I am not one of them.

The thing about reaching for goals is that it is painful. We seldom just get things handed to us in this world. Instead we have to work hard, lose sleep, agonize over decisions, and sometimes suffer physical pain.

I've lately been thinking a lot about how to reach goals and the journeys one takes in life. If, as Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living," I guess my life is worth living; it is definitely being examined.

I was wondering why it is always so hard to change habits, make progress on new projects, or keep progressing towards goals. I thought about the old axioms about hard work paying off and "nothing worth doing is ever easy" and wondered--why? Why is the future "born in pain"?

Perhaps it is that we will only appreciate things when we can say we overcame obstacles. Just like we can really only know happiness if we also know its opposite (otherwise we'd only have the middle ground of nothing--it takes the highs and the lows to help us define our experiences), perhaps we can only truly appreciate the journey if there were difficulties along the way.

Or perhaps it is because there must be obstacles in order for us to grow. It might be that we only learn and grow through the failures, difficulties and struggles. If life and what we wanted from life came easily (like with "The Secret" where you apparently just visualize what you want and -magically- it is yours), then we would neither learn anything nor appreciate what we have. I suppose it would be like we were spoiled children handed anything we asked for without having to do chores or learn to wait our turn. That is not a world I would want, where everyone was like a spoiled child.

The obstacles and hard work also means that not everyone will continue on in the face of adversity. The sad fact is that we will fail, at least some of the time. We will either fail in execution or fail to even follow through and try (I'm just as likely to have difficulty starting something as have difficulty finishing something successfully--there are two types of failing involved there). This means that there are real consequences to our actions.

I can hear some people objecting. Of course, some people do have life handed to them, it seems, and other people work hard and struggle and still don't succeed for reasons that have nothing to do with their effort or worthiness. These are both very true. Life is not fair, despite what we might wish. If you can stand another Babylon 5 quote (it is one of my favorite shows of all time), "You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn't it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So, now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe" (Marcus Cole, B5). I think this sums it up pretty well. Life may be unfair and we may not like that fact, but we can't fight it. The best we can do is work hard and hope that we will succeed despite this unfairness. If life were fair, it might not look nearly as nice as we'd like to think, anyways.

What does all of these theoretical musings mean to my life, right now? First, I'm trying to turn my life around and find a way to decide what goals I really want in life and how to reach them. This will almost certainly result in some discomfort, emotionally and physically. Whether this is my difficulties in getting my writing done to dragging my heels about how much I hate to organize my office, the journey will almost certainly involve tedium, hard work, and discomfort. What I need to remember is that the pain is a necessary component, not a sign to give up. In fact, the pain can be a sign that I need to continue. I will only grow as a person if I push myself out of my comfort zone a bit and stretch myself mentally and physically.

I could continue to live a perfectly calm existence of watching TV and continuing down the path I've always known. I might have a very normal life, much like others around me. I'd drift through various jobs, wake up each day and do my work, goof off a bit, and then go to bed. It sounds rather peaceful. If I didn't have so many things I want to do with my life, it might be enough. For some people it probably is enough, but it isn't enough for me.

Is it enough for you? If not, there might be some pain ahead of you, but don't let it stop you from continuing to push forward. It is just part of the process and a sign that you are learning and growing. It might even lead to success.


  1. Hi Real Me

    I think goals, like so many things, can cut two ways, depending how we approach them. It is very easy to get into the habit of creating external goals that always exist outside of oneself, just over the horizon, never quite part of our ordinary everyday lives.

    As your wrote in an earlier post about weight loss, one problem external goals create is that of putting off one's life until the goal is achieved, and expecting that achievement to solve everything else as well.

    Another problem of external goals is that we get into using them as sticks to beat ourselves up with. Either because we don't feel we're making progress towards our goals, or because we never stop to reward ourselves when we do achieve a goal, and reflect upon how we got there. Instead, we're more likely to assume 'well, that wasn't the one' and just create a new external goal to repeat the process over again.

    Another problem we've begun talking about is that the habit of external goal-setting tends to create unrealistic expectations about exactly how a goal gets achieved. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I'm only just beginning to learn how actual achievement never happens, or feels like, how I imagined it would.

    Common areas of mismatch are: overestimating how quickly I can achieve a goal, assuming that it is a rational and straightforward process fully accessible to and controlled by my conscious / ego mind, overestimating my daily capacity for focused and productive work towards a goal, underestimating the mundane aspects of making progress, assuming I can always keep the end in sight.

    The other approach to goals is to internalise them. My beginning experience of trying to internalise my goals is that yes, you have an overall aim in mind, but you keep your focus much more on the small increments of progress towards that goal.

    You also learn, by observing yourself, about the actual processes by which you realistically achieve goals. This is important: everyone is different, what works for you isn't going to be what works for me, or your husband, or Leo Babauta. Then you aim to foster circumstances that allow you to achieve goals in the way that works best for you. I think one of your earliest posts was about this - recognising what you need in order to get things done.

    All this is hard; what's even harder is getting to grips with failure and pain and all the other areas of mismatch between actual and imagined achievement. As someone who desperately fears failure, it's been a big shock / revelation to me to realise how many successful people are more adept than me at achieving goals because they are much more sanguine about failing. So I have to keep working at failure, expecting some things to fail, learning to cope when they do, learning from the experience, keep on going.

    Also pain. You are right that pain and obstacles are always there on the path to achieving things; the catch is conceiving something as painful - no-one wants voluntarily to be in pain. The best I've managed so far is trying to observe and learn from what I find painful, but without seeking to duck out of it. Really difficult :)

    You might like She is really good at writing from inside the neverending journey of personal growth.

  2. I think your areas of mismatch list is really insightful, Astral Cat. These are things which we need to keep in mind: expectations can be a killer. Much like that post (last week?) where I thought I was going to have a really productive day and then didn't. If I hadn't had such high hopes going in to the day, what I did with my day wouldn't have seemed so bad.

    Dealing with failure is a hard one for me. I fear failure. Might be why I'm still having trouble finding time to write my novel. I have a really good plot all planned out but the actual execution of the plot? I think I fear finding out that I'm not good enough to do it. I fear how bad drafts can sound when they are still in progress. I fear writing a book which can't get published.

    I need to work through this because I don't want to be one of the millions who is PLANNING on writing a novel. I want to write it!

    You are right--this is all really difficult. But then, I think my post was saying, that is to be expected-- it is life!

  3. Re your novel: you just have to wade in there and write it, and find out. It's good to be aware that you're afraid. Also to remember that many writers, including (especially) talented, experienced and successful writers, experience fears of precisely this kind.

    However you went about writing your thesis might give you some insight into how your own writing process works. Basically, if you can write a graduate thesis, you can write a book - this is the most useful thing that writing my own PhD taught me.


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