Recently, Ayana Mathis published a wonderful article entitled . The focus of the article was squarely on the “cult of success” in America and whether or not a person’s background can alter their path to realizing their ambitions, even to the point that a person’s background can prevent them from even recognizing that it’s possible for them to have big ambitions.
“We have a cult of success in America. We believe that if we just work hard enough, we will achieve. It is certainly better to hold these beliefs than a fatalist vision of the world in which fortunes are determined entirely by factors outside of oneself (social position, nepotism, economic status, etc.). Nonetheless, there is something naive about our way of looking at things, and cruel too, in the way children can be cruel because they are too young to have anything but an absolutist vision of the world. It isn’t always true that failure has direct correlation to insufficient grit or ambition. […] The humbling, and unsettling, reality is that all obstacles are not surmountable. And in any case, is the sole objective of our lives the surmounting of obstacles so that we can come in first, like dogs in a race? This seems an impoverished vision of our human experience, more tragic and empty than any failure could ever be.”
Ayana was lucky. She was able to get past some challenges thanks to what seems like a wonderfully supportive family and a few key mentors. I, also, was quite lucky; I was able to get past some challenges thanks to a supportive family and a few key mentors.
In both of our cases, though, the path to our eventual destiny wasn’t very clear as we were growing up or even in our young adulthood. Many of the things that we eventually wound up aiming for were, at their start, impractical urges.
I look back at the 12-year-old me, carrying around a loose leaf notebook in which I found myself constantly adding to a horror novel, one that started off as a paragraph and wound up growing to incorporate all of my nightmares. The simple idea of this was an impractical urge. The adults in my life worked at one factory or another (when they weren’t laid off) or worked at a soul-numbing job in law enforcement – that is, if they worked at all. The other children played sports and, even at the age of 12, snuck off behind the school to drink and smoke. The idea that I would do anything with my life other than get a job for an hourly wage as soon as possible seemed utterly impractical.
“It’s like this: A door opens, perhaps just a fraction of an inch. There’s no telling if the door will open at all, or for whom, but if it does, you push push push until it is wide enough for you to squeeze through.”
I look back at the 18-year-old me, wandering alone across a college campus, completely baffled by the turn of events that led me there. A pair of scholarships fell out of the sky onto my lap, hoisting me out of my hometown and into a college environment, something that seemed beyond impractical just a year before.
What were my grand ambitions? I still didn’t have any. I majored in a field that seemed safe, one that seemed like it might lead to a job that made sense within the context of how I grew up. All other paths seemed impractical.
I paid for the first few years with scholarships, then the last couple out of pocket, without even really considering other routes. Why? It seemed like the practical path. All other paths seemed impractical.
After that, I mostly just focused on my main career. I didn’t really have any side gigs for a while, even though I had some ideas. They seemed impractical. I still wrote sometimes, but it seemed really impractical. I thought about getting in better financial shape, but spending money while I had it seemed like the practical thing to do.
I had impractical urges. I had impractical dreams. But I did what seemed to be the practical thing.
“Now we have arrived at the heart of the matter: the legitimization of desires. In order to write the novel, I’d had to first acknowledge that I wanted to write it, that I could and would write it. Why had it taken nearly forty years for me to understand that I had the right to my ambitions?”
It took most of a decade and a long stream of thoughtful mentors for me to realize that I actually controlled my life, that I didn’t have to follow the path of anyone else, in my finances, in my career, in my personal choices, in anything.
Being frugal seemed wholly impractical for someone in their twenties trying to launch a career. Being more responsible with my spending seemed wholly impractical for someone who was trying to seem “successful” to his friends and family. Investing a lot of money on side gigs, especially things like writing, seemed wholly impractical for someone trying to build a strong career in a completely different field.
Yet those urges kept pushing toward the surface.
The practical thing to do would have been to just follow the same path that others were on, to spend almost all of the money I earned, to buy the most expensive house I could afford, to buy or lease a constant run of shiny new cars, to throw myself deep into my career until I was either completely miserable or forced to change direction or (if I was really lucky) stumbled into something that clicked with me, to walk a financial tightrope, to have very little savings for the future, to look like I was successful to everyone taking a passing glance at my life even if I wasn’t. The practical thing was to go home dead tired every day and spend a few hours watching television or reading an endless flood of websites.
That’s what seemed practical, anyway. It’s what everyone else did.
The impractical thing was to buy a less expensive, smaller house. The impractical thing was to stop buying unnecessary stuff and to work to cut off my urges to buy such things. The impractical thing was to stop worrying about what other people thought of me and worry instead about what I thought of me. The impractical thing was to drive older cars (unless I absolutely had to). The impractical thing was to spend my evenings building a side business instead of watching television or going out.
That’s what seemed impractical, anyway. I knew almost no one who did those things.
Yet, over time, things shifted. I found myself doing more of the things that once seemed impractical, simply because they started to feel like the right thing to do. The list of homes we were looking at gradually fell in price until we wound up buying a house that cost half as much as the houses we were initially looking at, even though at first this seemed like were intentionally choosing to look at dumps. I stopped buying the latest gadgets and the sharpest clothes and I gave up on trying to “keep up” with coworkers, even though this felt really impractical for my career at first. I bought a used car off of Craigslist, which caused every “this is impractical” sense that I had to start tingling. I started spending evenings doing things like trying to improve myself or trying to start a side business or getting involved in the community, which seemed really odd when people were talking about last night’s shows around the water cooler.
Those changes seemed really impractical and even nonsensical at first, something that I really struggled to make sense of. Why was I suddenly starting to feel like these impractical things were the right thing to do?
I actually think I can pinpoint it down to one real shift in my thinking. I began to put a lot more importance on the long term rather than the short term, especially in terms of what made practical sense in terms of how to use my money and time and energy.
For the first three decades of my life, most of the things I did were done with a perspective that barely stretched past the next few weeks. If you take that perspective, most of what I did at that time made practical sense.
If you really don’t place much value on what happens to you beyond the next few weeks, why wouldn’t you spend everything you bring in? That’s honestly the sensible response in that situation. There’s no point in having money just sitting around if everything beyond the next month doesn’t matter at all.
If you really don’t think beyond the short term, the best way to appear successful in the minds of others is to buy status symbols – nice clothes, nice gadgets, nice cars. They are very effective at creating a short term impression of success. What creates a good long-term impression? Character. However, if you’re simply ignoring the long term, then it’s the short term things that seem practical.
If you really aren’t considering your long term life, then getting the biggest mortgage you possibly can for the biggest house that a bank will let you have is the smart choice. After all, you get to live in a gorgeous house – for now. The fact that enormous bills are going to roll in for the next thirty years or more – mortgage, insurance, property taxes, probably a homeowners association bill, huge utility bills – doesn’t really matter too much if you’re barely looking beyond the next month or two. What’s the best long-term solution? Buying a smaller home that you can easily afford. However, if the long term doesn’t matter much to you, the giant home seems like the more sensible option.
I can go on and on like this. Almost every significant use of time and money and energy during the first few decades of my life was tied to looking at things in the short term above all else. Things that maximized the short term seemed practical. Things that maximized the long term seemed impractical. When I felt the urge to do things that would take care of the long term – things like saving for retirement or writing or working on a side gig – they seemed like massively impractical urges and it took a lot of cajoling and reflecting to make them happen.
My idea of practical urges and impractical urges were entirely based around a short term perspective, one that was built into my head all throughout my childhood. As I was growing up, almost every adult example that I had in my life revolved around that kind of short term perspective. Everyone lived paycheck to paycheck. Everyone drove the nicest vehicles they could possibly afford, even if the payments were incredibly painful. Everyone invested tons of money in various visual status symbols, often oriented around hunting gear. People took their jobs seriously only if they saw a direct line to a promotion that could happen pretty quickly; otherwise, they slacked off. College’s only purpose was to get a better starter job and you really didn’t worry much there beyond the party coming up the next weekend. Anything long term was basically viewed to be completely impractical. No one saved for retirement. Almost no one had a real emergency fund.
Later on, though, starting sometime around the end of my third decade of life, that whole perspective began to shift for me. I began to look at everything in terms of how it would affect my life far into the future.
How could I build a long-term career that I really wanted to be doing twenty years from now? I could push through a miserable job if I never thought about the future, but the idea of being in an unhappy position for a long time seemed even worse. Thus, I started investing real time into side gigs that seemed enjoyable and some of them clicked. One of them – this very site you’re reading – wound up becoming my primary job. I’m genuinely happy (most days) to get out of bed and work on the latest challenges and I enjoy thinking about things far down the road. I stopped thinking about getting through today’s work and started thinking about meaningful work over the next ten or twenty years.
How could I build long-term relationships in the community? Flash might build short-term relationships, but long-term ones were built over time with strong character, so I began to value character over keeping up with the Joneses.
How could I raise my children to adulthood and not just take care of them for the next few weeks? I can easily get through the day with shouting and demands to get what I want in the short term, but to build my children into strong long-term people requires completely different approaches. I began to value building my children into strong adults over simply getting through the momentary parenting struggles.
As that change in values occurred, so did my sense of what urges seemed practical and which ones did not. It began to seem practical to spend less than I earned. It began to seem practical to build long-term relationships with people based on lots of real interactions and conversation rather than impressing them with a bit of flash. It began to seem practical to invest the time and energy to teach my children how to deal with their impulses rather than to push through a difficult moment. It began to seem practical to save for retirement. It began to seem practical to spend my evenings working on a side gig that I loved rather than watching the latest episode of The West Wing (not that there’s anything wrong with The West Wing).
In other words, as I recalibrated my values, my sense of which urges made sense and which urges did not began to change significantly.
Why did that radical shift occur? There were a number of changes that seem clear in retrospect.
First, I had a few really thoughtful mentors. These men and women came from very different backgrounds, different religious traditions, different nationalities, and had different expertise than I did, but all of them took the time to sit down with me and talk about the future and impart some ideas that served as food for thought for me. Their advice nudged me toward thinking about things in a different fashion and gradually led to a shift in perspective. Some of that value shift resulted from meaningful conversation from people I respected who took the time to talk to me and listen to me and share their wisdom.
I had children, which is itself a very long term commitment. It did not take me long to realize that short-term solutions rarely work well with children. Their interpretation of events is far different than mine; they interpret my short-term solutions to challenges as the most efficient ways to get what they want from life, for example. If you want your children to mature, you have to think long term with them or else the same challenges keep coming up again and again and again. The easiest short term solution is almost always a disaster in the long term when parenting and you’re almost forced to see it. When you begin to see it in one area of life and then start reflecting on other areas, that same pattern comes up again and again.
I started having long discussions about the future with my wife and, to a lesser extent, my closest friends, spurred on by those mentors and the birth of our children. Ideas that were once vague dreams began to be discussed in terms of what could be done to make them actually work. Things that didn’t help those dreams to occur were roundly criticized and taken apart. I began to really see how the short term actions I was taking were actually working against the long term goals that I was developing – raising independent and resourceful children, having a meaningful career, having strong lasting relationships with people that I could rely on over the long haul, and so on.
Before long, my short-term urges began to seem like the impractical ones, while the ones with a long-term focus began to seem practical. I honestly began to judge things not in terms of how the choice made today better, but how it would make my life (and the lives of those around me) better down the road. This is true for money decisions, career decisions, interactions with others, how I spend my time, and on and on and on.
The truth of the matter is that we all operate based on urges, and some of those urges feel more practical than others. That sense of what’s practical is based upon our values, and we can only really change those values with a lot of reflection and consideration. It is nearly impossible to find success when the instincts and urges that would lead you to success feel naturally impractical. You can go against the grain sometimes and force it for a while, but there will eventually be backlash.
So, what’s the take home advice in all of this? I’ll point to two things.
First, in whatever area you want success in your life, spend time regularly thinking about what you need to be doing today to make that happen down the road and about the things you’re doing that are working against that succes. Think about this, consciously. Talk about it with the people around you. Evaluate all of the things you find yourself doing, consciously or unconsciously, and ask yourself whether or not those things are really guiding you to where you think you want to go. If you find that you have this big goal in mind but your urges are pushing you elsewhere, then there is a disconnect somewhere, one that you’re going to have to resolve before you start really moving toward your goal. For example, if you think you’re committed to early retirement but find yourself constantly spending money on needless stuff, there’s a disconnect between your considered goals and your instincts and urges. You’re going to have to correct the things that are pushing those urges, and that takes a lot of time and a lot of reflection. There is no magic switch.
Second, at the end of each day, spend some time before bed thinking about the day that passed and whether you did things in accordance with what you want out of life. What did you do that was really in line with your big dreams? What did you do that didn’t help it at all? What can you do tomorrow to nudge yourself in a better direction? This type of constant, regular reflection and assurance that you’re actually working instinctively toward your goals is the single most valuable tool you have for getting your urges in alignment with your big picture. It’s not easy. It’s going to take a while. But it works. It shuts down truly impractical urges, elevates sensible urges that may seem impractical, and demotes those urges that seem practical in the moment but really aren’t. It’s a refinement of who you are, and it’s only through that kind of constant refinement that you can achieve the things you want to achieve.