The Option of Low-Key Greatness

Successes are the side effects, not the goals of living.

Coaches, lecturers and self-help experts spend a lot of time telling you how to be greater, achieve more, improve your self-worth. I admit I’ve done the same thing in the past, and I’ll probably do it again, when it seems appropriate.

But just for now, just for the next two or three minutes, let’s set aside our to-do lists, our goal sheets and our dream boards. Let’s not talk about goals or achievement at all. No affirmations, no law of attraction stuff, no power-packed visualizations.

Instead, just for a brief change of pace, let’s imagine that we’re sitting at a table playing a killer game of bridge, and we just cannot catch a break. Every hand loses. Every bid is met with puzzled stares from half the players seated around us. Then, it finally dawns on us that most of the others at the table are playing some kind of game they call poker. Whoops.

Of course, that’s a silly scenario, right? Who’d be unaware enough to get themselves into a situation like that?

Well, don’t be too quick to judge. Lots of people do exactly that every day – do it for weeks, months, years on end, maybe never quite catching on to the error in their thinking.

I’ve certainly done it, and I’ll bet you have too, and may even be doing it right now.

So, just for the next few minutes only, let’s examine this idea and see where it might take us. After all, it’s just a harmless little mind game, right?

But What If

We already know that everything we do, every goal we set and every milestone or step along the way has just one objective:  moving us closer to our values.

And we know that the goals we scramble to achieve are not important in themselves. They’re just a way to build up a lifestyle that expresses the values we admire and want more of. Those goals are the way we expect to ensure we feel comfortable, secure and worthy.

We can look at a society – ours or anyone else’s – and note which people command the greatest respect or honor, and we can tell which values command the highest esteem in that society. Using this same rule of thumb, it’s easy to check out which people we, personally, most admire, which ones we wish we were more like, and from this get a quick sense of our own values.

The first quick takeaway in this, if we’re into achievement, is that the values we most admire (or envy) in others may have been unconsciously adopted without thought.

Fight or Flight or …

For many years psychologists have talked about the “fight or flight” reflex. When confronted with a threat or a challenge, all animals, including humans, will either fight or run away. Of course, there is a third option, but we’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, though, let’s look at this “fight or flight” package.

Let’s say both Mary and Edgar attend a rousing, exciting motivational workshop. It’s conducted by one of the big-name figures in the self-help world. Each of them is really, really inspired by their prospects for the future.

Then they go home, Mary to the East Coast, Edgar to the West Coast (or vice-versa, I don’t care).

There, they stand face-to-face with their real world, with the same old problems they’ve been battling for so very, very long. Oh, but now they’re armed with better tools, better mental technology, higher self-esteem.

Sooner or later, however, the adrenaline rush of the workshop fades, so the sharp edge of their enthusiasm may dull a bit, but they dig in and start applying the new techniques and skills they’ve learned.

After a while they find that learning a new technique doesn’t confer expert level skill on them. They’re going to have to work at this a little harder than they’d expected.

The Three-Way Fork in the Road

At this point, they have a choice to make. And they WILL make it – everyone does at this point. It’s like a fork in the road. And when the road splits, there are three paths, each leading to a different destination.

The first two paths, most-well known, are:

Fight (I will work harder, I will master this), or    (I’ll never cooperate – I’m a proper rebel)

Flight (I’ll run away and hide and avoid this thing)

And there is a third path, though it’s not as often discussed:

Surrender (I’ll just sit here and coast, a cog in the machine)
– I give up – I can’t resist this
– I don’t care anyway
– It’s hopeless, it doesn’t matter
– Somebody please just tell me what to do

However, there is a fourth group, a tiny fraction, who manage to find a separate, unmarked path. We’ll come back to this group in a moment.

Two Main Factors Driving Our Choices

Factor No. 1 is external. We may be facing a situation or a threat that conflicts (or seems to conflict) with our own core values and appears likely to force us away from those values.

When that happens, we’ll make one of the three decisions listed above. That is, we’ll fight it, we’ll retreat from it, or we’ll knuckle under, sacrifice our values, and become a more-or-less obedient servant.

Factor No. 2 is more complex and it’s internal. This includes our sense of personal resources and how much smaller or weaker we think we are in comparison with the perceived threat.

Also, some people have a higher estimation of their self worth. A thing that overwhelms one person’s self-esteem may simply irritate another’s and stir it up like an angry hornet’s nest.

I once read a quote (don’t remember who it was) that said, when the action starts, there are those who run away from the threat, and there are those who run toward it. This difference helps explain why some people fight and some flee.

There is also our response to ambiguity. Some people, when they don’t know the outcome of a situation, become fearful and demotivated to try. These are often the surrenderers.

Which type are you? I don’t know, but it’s pretty deeply ingrained into your nature. However, it’s in my nature to believe that this can be changed and mastered if we set our minds to it.

So which path will Mary turn toward? Which path for Edgar? Will each of them plunge right into the resistance they’re encountering, or will they turn bitter and decide that it’s all a bunch of ridiculous hokum?

Or maybe the third path – maybe just settle into surrender, where they accept that “this is all I’ll ever get from all this stuff.”

If they choose the path of surrender, Mary and Edgar are likely either to drop out and give it all up, or to settle into an ongoing pattern of buying one DVD after another, attending one event after another, and listlessly calling it their path of enlightenment.

There’s Always Leaving

But you remember I mentioned a fourth group? That tiny fraction who take a separate, unmarked path?

Well some few – a very few – come to question the game they’re playing in. And at that point they may decide that it doesn’t actually matter whether that game is Bridge or Poker or anything else. It may even be Roulette for all that it matters.

That’s when they realize they can simply get up and walk away from the table.

Now, on the surface this can sound a lot like flight, like running away. But there’s an important difference, and that’s the difference between escape and disengagement. In one you’re overwhelmed. In the other you’re disinterested.

This tiny fraction of a percentage point of players finally understand that the game is bogus. It’s artificial, and it’s unimportant whether the game is Bridge, Poker, Roulette, Sandlot baseball or anything else.

It’s all contrived to keep people busy and focused on details. Contrived so that when anyone comes to the fork in the road, they see only those three paths.

Contrived to hide the fact that it doesn’t matter whether you’re pulling on the rope this way or that, or just standing and holding it obediently. In all three cases it’s a rope that somebody else has handed you.

And it’s contrived to hide the fact that you don’t have to walk on a road at all.

You, that occasional independent soul who doesn’t take one of the regular paths, you may choose simply to turn your attention in another direction, making your way across the next meadow, the next mountain, the next forest floor, as you wish.   And along the way, you may even find that some results still come to you whether you’re on the “right path” or not. In addition, you may find that to-do lists, goal sheets and dream boards are sometimes useful (but not essential).

As you travel your self-selected road, you may become “greater,” achieve more and strengthen your self-worth. But those things, you find, are the side effects, not the goals of living.

Cheers from sunny Japan,
Charles


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Successes are the side effects, not the goals of living.
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