Who the heck do you think you are? With as much time you spend on social media, that last impulse buy you made because that ad campaign caught you in a moment of weakness, and your sleep habits…you really think you should be in control of your life?
Click-bait title and inflammatory first paragraph aside, this is something of a serious question. It came to the forefront of my mind shortly after posting my last article to Medium, as the app tried to recommend other articles to steal my attention based on my prior reading habits.
Two of the headlines, close to each other, made me laugh at their oxymoronic beauty:
How to Take Control of Your Life, and
Why We Are So Bad At Predicting the Future.
I mean, think about it. If the latter is true, then the former would be a disastrous thing to do. It would be like hiring me to be your chauffeur in London. “Take me to Buckingham Palace!” you’d say, and I’d cheerily say “Right-o, guvnor!” and we’d be off on quite an adventure. We might even get to the palace, but I wouldn’t put money on it.
We are bad at predicting the future, most especially on what will make us happy. The good part of that is that the flip side is also true: the things we fear will make us unhappy turn out to be not quite so bad. Not only that, but the more detailed our predictions get, the worse our accuracy gets. One of the fun stats regarding finances is that an average monkey can outperform market predictions every year (since before I was born). On the other hand, if someone asks me “What do you think your grandson will be when he grows up? and I reply “Taller” the odds are pretty good that I’ll be correct.
Perhaps, then, we need to revisit this tendency, especially this time of year, to try to “get control” of our lives.
The Destructive Nature of Building
Back when I was working at a community television station, the city decided to build a new city hall in the field right outside our window. This is broadcast gold for any station hungry for locally relevant content – it was our very own free “Bob the Builder” show! We mounted a camera pointing outside at the machines and digging and cement pouring and such and it was quite popular.
On the one hand, you can look at this as a (literally) constructive process. Except…especially at the beginning, the process is actually very destructive. You have to clear the land (bye bye, trees!), dig a big ugly hole, fill it with cement, and then start bolting together pieces of steel and other materials that were created with other destructive acts (mining for ore, drilling for oil, etc). All done with machines pumping toxins into the air…
I’m not sitting here saying we shouldn’t have built the place – it’s beautiful and thriving now. But at the same time, this is the process for every building that goes up…and in places like Detroit or the many vacant malls across the U.S., the plans that were laid did not go the way the builders predicted.
Similarly, when we decide we’re going to “take control” of our lives, we often start with the destruction of what we’ve considered to be our useless things or (here’s the dirty word) unproductive habits. Unfortunately, we’re really bad at understanding why we had those objects or habits in the first place, what needs they actually fulfilled, or what the future effects of getting rid of them might be.
That’s why so many resolutions end up dying before the end of January; they are external motivations full of “I really should” reasonings that don’t deliver what they promise when we build them.
Quick personal and current example: I’ve changed my TV habits, thinking I would find more time to do the things I enjoy without that distraction. Instead, I find that TV was less a distraction and more my body and mind’s desperate attempt to stop me from overworking myself. Without it, I’m having to find other ways to relax, and discovering that I’m really not very good at it.
The Nurtured Self
There is, however, another way to create environments: growing them. I should thank my girlfriend the greenhouse manager for planting this idea in my head (see what I did there?), but the process of growing is very different than the process of building. Yes, you may have to clear some land – but that is in order to create a more fertile area for the thing you want to grow, not to pave it over.
You then take a seed – something that looks nothing like what you’re hoping you’ll end up with – and you put it in the ground.
Usually that’s with the recognition that there’s a lot of seeds that end up not doing what you expect, so you put more than one in the ground, all with a leap of faith: if I do this, it will eventually turn into what I hope for.
Then it’s a waiting game. You try to provide those seeds with a nurturing environment – sun, shade, water, temperature, it all depends on what you’re trying to grow – and that’s how you tend your garden. You may have to protect it from destructive pests (I’m looking at you, twitter) or extreme changes in environment, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out – but the more you create these environments, the more seeds you nurture, the better you get at growing what you want.
Perhaps a better way indulge in the urge to improve yourself here at the beginning of the year is to create an environment for yourself that nurtures the seeds you want to grow. That’s going to look different for you than for me, because we have different goals – but perhaps you can find someone else who wants to cultivate that particular crop with you, and you can carve out an hour or so of time to both tend to your growth.
It’s tempting to do the “Build a Better You” idea, because the process is dramatic and often has short-term and easily recognizable results. But the long game is where the results happen, because anything you construct can do nothing but fall apart, eventually. On the other hand, the things you grow literally take on a life of their own – and end up nourishing and sheltering you when you need it, rather than the other way around.