“Done right, an essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions. It’s like deciding you’re going to become a doctor instead of a lawyer. One strategic choice eliminates a universe of other options and maps a course for the next five, ten, or even twenty years of your life. Once the big decision is made, all subsequent decisions come into better focus.”
—Greg Mckeown, Essentialism
Here’s my waking up routine: my first alarm goes off at 4:30, I hit snooze, and in the ensuing eight precious minutes of silence, I let myself gradually wake up.
My mind turns on (to some degree) with the first alarm. The snooze ritual gives my body time to catch up.
That’s cool, and works well (most of the time, if I’ve gone to bed at a semi-decent hour—if not, multiple snoozes and lots of cursing), but today—today!—it didn’t get a chance to work. The first note of my first alarm sounded and all of a sudden there were fireworks, trumpets, a parade, several clowns, the dog barking, and a list of urgent demands being read in a strident voice while a siren blared.
At least, it felt that way.
The actual scenario might have been more like this: my alarm rang, and Joe—who had been awake, apparently, for hours—jumped up, turned on the light, and said, “Hey! Good morning! If I run to the post office, will you pick me up?”
I did not handle this scenario gracefully.
I was, in fact, deeply agitated.
It all sounds very stupid right now (it is, but then, aren’t most things? Essentially stupid, essentially perfect) and I felt very stupid for letting something so minor upset me.
I stood outside crying and pretending to stretch, the dog looking at me like, “WHAT THE HELL LET’S GOOOOOOO” and finally I quit hoping Joe would come outside to fix everything and I took off, knowing I would either find some clarity or be so busy trying to breathe and not slip on an unseen mango pit that I’d forget about it.
That’s pretty much what happened.
I had a great run, rhythmic breathing, faster pace, loose, open. Felt great. Actual footage below. There’s been lots of rain lately.
On my walk back home I realized what it was really all about — and it was not at all about the wake-up, the question, the interaction. It was all about the meanings I’d assigned to those things.
Joe’s actions felt harsh and abrupt, and if that’s how he’s treating me then that must mean he doesn’t care about me, doesn’t notice or care about my pain.
Then, although I reactively said No to his request right way, inwardly I agonized over it… because saying No to someone must mean you don’t care about them, don’t notice or care about their pain.
Just like that, in the briefest of interactions, I made myself feel unloved and unloving.
The meaning we assign to something always matters more than the thing itself.
Once we see the meaning, we can evaluate it. Understand it. What we understand, we control.
It can be the slightest shift, and it can make the biggest difference.
Also, the snooze button is important.
But waking up is most important.
The only real choice you can make
Good writing❋ has always been a beacon for me, a way to know myself and know that I’m not alone, at the same time.
That’s important, because those twin desires—or twin fears, depending on your perspective—are the source of almost all our hesitation, indecision, and failure to act.
Hesitation, indecision, and failure cause a great deal of our suffering, so anything that addresses them is worth paying attention to.
Actually, it’s not the desires/fears—let’s call them needs, there’s the word—that cause suffering; it’s the unresolved conflict between the two.
These two needs seem to be pointed in different directions. Not just off from each other by a few degrees, but fundamentally opposite, leading down opposed paths, toward opposite outcomes: a continual conflict between Individuation and Connection.
They’re both deep, essential, these desire/fear pairs that reverberate under and through all the chaos and noise.
But they seem opposed: how can I truly know myself except by being alone? Yet how can I live, and why would I want to, if I am alone?
Every decision point has some element in it that relates to these needs, even the most mundane:
“Should I say Yes to the restaurant he wants (connection!) or insist on getting what I want (individuation!)?”
“Should I choose the career my parents approve (connection!) or pursue the work that I find more fulfilling (individuation!)?”
This morning’s experience is a superbly mundane example.
Joe’s question, a simple request: Hey, will you pick me up in town in an hour or so? But it conflicted with what I wanted (to go for a run, then come home and write — not be running around town).
I felt huge tension over a simple decision because I didn’t know how to resolve a conflict:
Do what Joe wants (connection!) ↔ Do what I want (individuation!)
Ah! Oh! No! Conflict!
So, yes, of course we feel conflict greater than these decisions merit. Of course we have tension. Of course we delay, procrastinate, avoid. Of course we second-guess our decisions and doubt our wisdom, our instinct, our desires. Of course we hesitate and hesitate and hesitate to take action, because we are afraid of saying Yes since, by saying Yes to this direction we are saying No to this other, equally important direction.
Compounding the tension are the layers of meaning we frivolously pile on.
We love to attach meaning to… well, everything. Not just words, but tone of voice. Not just actions, but expressions.
“Did you see the look on her face? You know what that means…”
[Side note: we have a lot of shared/common meanings, but much miscommunication happens because of the assumption of shared meaning:
“He should know what I mean.”
“She knows better than to do that…”
But they don’t know, do they? So it doesn’t matter if they should or not; they don’t. You can either communicate your meaning or accept that they don’t share it. Getting angry at others because they have different meanings assigned to things is a crazy-stupid but crazy-common source of interpersonal conflict.]
We also have a lot of individual, personal, and usually hidden deep in our subconscious layers of meaning. When we face any decision, those meanings are there, under the surface, attached to all the elements, the backstory, the characters, the words, the environment, etc.. Everything involved in every decision has a meaning.
That’s a lot of pressure, pal.
In this set-up, every decision is much, much more than a simple choice.
It’s a major conflict, with deep implications, between two dominating needs.
We want to resolve/fulfill both needs, but choosing to fulfill one looks like choosing not to fulfill the other.
This internal conflict is difficult to name, to recognize, to draw out into the open. So, we do the noble, heroic, courageous thing: ignore the internal conflict that’s causing all our pain, and focus on the more obvious, easier, external target. That’s usually the other person involved in whatever decision is at hand.
A grand and complex illusion
The resolution for this scenario is to realize that there is no real conflict.
All dichotomies are false, including this one which presents two internal, eternal needs as opposing forces.
To know yourself is not to separate from others. To connect with others is not to separate from yourself.
These two needs take us in the same direction, not in opposite ones.
We think they’re opposite directions because we think in linear terms pretty much all the time. We think in linear terms because Time. But time itself is an invention, or illusion. Or both. It’s a way of experiencing reality, but it is not reality.
“Time is what prevents everything from happening all at once.”
The linear view doesn’t hold up when we step back and gain a broader perspective. The lines streeeeeeeetch, then curve:
And so we see: it doesn’t matter which “way” you go, you’re going to end up in the same place. The opposite lines curve around, head back toward each other, and meet at the culmination point, the final destination.
The more important question
Suddenly, there’s a much more important question than Which path should I take?
If all paths lead to the same destination, the only important question is What is my destination?
Well, it could be the culmination of love, of what you desire: a place of knowing and being your Self, fully and simultaneously a place of knowing and connecting with others fully. In other words, it could be the place where you get everything you ever wanted.
Or it could be the culmination of fear, of what you resist: a dark and terrifying place of being utterly alone with a Self that you can never know, a place where you are stuck experiencing everything you’ve never wanted. Hell seems like a good name for this place.
The only real choice you ever make
Every decision offers a choice, but it turns out that every choice isn’t leading to a different destination: you’re choosing between paths, not between destinations.
The only choice that affects your destination is the only real choice you’ve ever made, the choice between Fear and Love. Or whatever terms you prefer: Growth or Comfort. True or Not True. Fuck Yeah or Hell No.
This is the choice you’re making all the time and it’s the only choice that matters. Whatever you choose becomes your destination.
How do you know what you’ve chosen?
Look at what’s in your life. You know by what you notice.
What gets your attention? That’s what you’ve chosen and that’s where you’re going. Once you’ve set your destination—by directing your attention—any path you choose will get you there.
All other decisions are subordinate to this one defining decision that you’ve already made, that you are always making.
You choose with your attention.
In my opinion, this is great news. This is not a once-and-done deal, so relax. Take a deep breath. You don’t have to figure out your passion, heal your trauma, get in touch with yourself, complete the twelve steps, or transform your life to start making a different choice.
You just shift your attention. A little bit. As much as you can.
None of us are at the final point, the destination. If we were, we wouldn’t be reading (or writing) these words. These words are only for those still in the midst of it. We’re all still choosing. That’s what life is.
We can waste time on choices that aren’t real choices. We can spend our lives avoiding the only choice that matters.
Or we can get clear on what kind of paths we like best, and frolic through life knowing and being who we are, enjoying deep and honest connections, and doing fun shit.
Is it that simple?
I think it is.
There’s only one real choice to make, so wake up and make it consciously.
Although you can keep hitting the snooze button, if you want.
The ball’s in your court!
(It always is, if you’re paying attention.)
Here’s a cheatsheet to stay focused on the only real choice.
It’s for me. You can also use it, if you’d like:
Decide which destination you want: love or fear.
Pay no attention to what you do not want/want to be.
Give all your attention to what you do want/want to be.
Be honest about what kind of paths you like best and choose them… or choose something different every time and enjoy the adventure.
Discover and become more of who you are with every step.
Develop meaningful partnerships with those who share your paths.
Learn from those who walk different paths.
Accept the inherent lack of stability that seems to be a feature of our universe.
Appreciate the simplicity and peace that comes when you quit putting so much weight on every single decision.
Breathe deep. It’s just life.
Better questions will get you a better life: Questions provide the framing, the structure for our answers. We have to focus our attention, and to do that we need boundaries. Many questions, however, provide a shoddy structure. They put the wrong boundaries in place, focus the attention in the wrong direction, or cut off relevant options arbitrarily.
Journey through grief without losing yourself: We can lose someone we love, and we can lose some version of ourselves. What we don’t realize is that when we lose one, we also lose the other.
The art of Alex Gross: What’s your favorite? Your least favorite?
7 Must-Read Books on Time: I haven’t read any of these, so don’t believe anything I say about time.
Guano Apes: my new favorite band. I’ve had Open Your Eyes on repeat lately.
❋ By good writing, I mean writing that connects with something inside of you in a real, emotional way. Writing that helps you see something you haven’t seen before. Writing that shows you more options. Writing that expands your perspective. Writing that helps you go deeper or higher or both.