What separates us from what we want is not the depth of our desire, but our ability to choose something and take action upon it.
– Lisa Tufano
I began this post in early December and have come back to it several times over the last few weeks. The thing about celebrating a new year is that unless you live by an ancient Mayan calendar or something then December 31st represents a very precise moment of transition whether we like it or not.
Recently I read an article that challenged the notion that in order to be happy and successful “you’ve just got to want it badly enough.”
I’ve discussed this concept with multiple people, and when I reflect upon my own experiences what I realize is that having a deep desire or “wanting something badly” is not a strategy for actually getting the things that we want. The “wanting” part is easy, and we all know people who obsess about wanting to be healthier, debt-free, own a house, find a soul mate, etc. And the reason that so many people spend months, years, and even lifetimes haunted by these unfinished goals can be distilled down to the following:
1. We don’t actually want it. The fantasy of something can be really powerful and the actual emotional feeling of wanting something can become an addiction. If you can simply dream about something you never have to be disappointed by the reality of it (which might fall short of your imagined expectations), nor confront any difficulty in obtaining it. It is a perfect idea suspended somewhere on the horizon of our mind. Sometimes we don’t actually want the thing, we just want the safe fantasy of the thing, and it can be hard to tell the difference.
2. We want it but are crippled by fear. Humans are creatures of habit; we actually make routines and habits out of our misery. We may complain about things, but often we don’t do much about it because we are afraid of risk, afraid of rejection, and afraid of failing.
What if it doesn’t work out? What if we end up worse off than we were before?
We may not be over the moon about something about ourselves or our life, but there is still comfort in knowing that whatever mediocre aspect of life exists today will most likely still be there waiting for us in the morning. We get comfortable with this reliable misery, and make a daily (if not bland and malnourishing) meal of our unhappiness. One must eat something to survive, after all.
3. We are kind of lazy. We all know someone who “wants” something but just expects that the sheer force of their desire will somehow attract that thing to them if they want it badly enough. For every successful person on this planet, there are millions more who REALLY want that same success but who cannot or will not put in the actual work or face the risk and change required to make it a reality rather than a wish.
4. It just isn’t realistic. When I was little I *really* wanted to be a drag queen. Like Ru Paul was the coolest, and I wanted desperately to follow in her sassy sashaying footsteps. Eventually I had to come to terms with the fact that I was born with lady bits and no amount of tears, wishful thinking, practice being fabulous, or spirit gum was going to make a career in drag a viable outcome for me.
Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.
– Mahatma Gandhi
My good friend Therese has a New Year’s tradition of choosing an word of affirmation for the year ahead. Her word for 2016 is “Deeper” and she asked me a few weeks ago what I thought my word might be.
After some consideration I think my word for 2016 would have to be “Intention” because it has a double meaning:
When I moved out to Los Angeles in 2005 it was without much expectation and certainly without any real intention. I had been offered a job here and the company was willing to relocate me. I had no friends or family awaiting me, and no meaningful insight into the city of Los Angeles that would lead me to believe that I had a future here. In fact, I made the transition thinking that odds were high I’d be living in another city entirely after a few years.
The only thing I truly knew was that I was ready for a change — a BIG, burn it to the ground and rise from the ashes again kind of change. I was extremely unhappy and this filled me with an unshakeable need to run away, and in the folly of my youth and inexperience I thought that I had nothing to run toward until the job offer materialized. So I seized upon that small opportunity, sold what little I had, and moved to LA without even my car for the first few months. Some people would view that decision as incredibly reckless given my age and inexperience, but I suspect that my age, inexperience and complete ignorance functioned as a kind of protective buffer. It could have ended very badly; there are far more tales of woe related to running away to Los Angeles than not.
Luckily when you’re that young you can afford to make all kinds of mistakes, and so I did, and most of the time I learned an important lesson. Sometimes it took making the same mistake multiple times before I figured out and actually changed something. And here’s the crazy thing about life — you change even when you’re not actively attempting to reinvent yourself (as I was in 2005)!
Sometimes you can anticipate it like a bolt of lightning in an already mercurial sky, and other times it starts so slowly and sweetly that your conscious mind is the last to realize what has happened, like a neglected and then forgotten orchid long presumed dead that suddenly sprouts a tiny green leaf. P.S. If that dead orchid suddenly sprouts a tiny green leaf, you better be prepared to nurture it.
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
– Anais Nin
Regardless of whether you anticipate it or it blindsides you after months or years of quiet development, occasionally the personal puzzles and challenges you thought you had already solved will resurface and need to be conquered all over again. And it is your job to take the knowledge, skills, and strength you’ve amassed during your lifetime to grapple with this change (good or bad) and find a way to make a kind of peace with it.
Now that I’m celebrating an actual decade of living in Los Angeles, I reflect on 2015 as a year of significant change, some of which I could have predicted and even more that I never even imagined could be lurking on the far off horizon. For me 2015 represented a much greater turning point in my life than I could have anticipated, and although my social media accounts and blog don’t reflect it well, 2015 was pretty damn rough. And that’s why the alternative definition of “Intention” feels pretty appropriate as well.
Ten years has shown me that I still cannot predict the future, but that I have certainly outlived my ability to hide behind youth, ignorance, and inexperience — so unlike 2005 I can and should set my sights on 2016 (and beyond) with a direction in mind. The person I am today won’t let me run away out of fear, but instead choose to run toward something with the clear intention to do so.
Human psychology has shown us that when you avoid something that scares you, you will tend to experience a sense of failure:
Every time you avoid the feared object or situation, you accumulate another experience of failure and another piece of evidence attesting to your weakness.
Finally, avoidance eliminates practice. Without practice it is difficult to gain mastery. Without mastery, confidence is less likely to rise.
So, avoiding anxiety maintains and magnifies it.
Thus I accept that I will still be scared sometimes. Even the most successful and seemingly happy people on the planet still anguish over how they could have done something differently, or whether they will be able to replicate the success and happiness they’ve created thus far.
In the process of confronting the potential discomfort and pain of change within me and around me, I can hope to be healed by my courage — because if you look it up in the dictionary “courage” is not an absence of fear but rather “strength in the face of pain or grief.”
Accepting transition or change with intention can heal us when we choose it, embrace it, and take action upon it even when it’s totally overwhelming and every bit of us says to run away. I think that may be the key to getting what you want, if you really do want it.
So… who else is with me?