It’s not the other way around.
It’s easy to think that it is though.
That if only you had a bit more good in your life, then you would be happy.
It seems like a straightforward way to think about feeling better. First, improve your life, then you will feel better, but it doesn’t work like that.
When it comes to emotions, there are a lot of things that don’t make sense.
There is a documentary out there that follows around some Mongolian folks and shows how happy they are living in Mongolia in their funky tents drinking fermented horse milk. People watch the movie and immediately think, “My life sucks because I’m not drinking fermented goats milk!” or “My life sucks because, capitalism”. These people are missing the point.
The lesson to be learned from happy people in bad circumstances is not that good circumstances lead to unhappiness, it is that being happy is really just your choice. Regardless of your circumstances, it is your choice how you feel about it.
And just like being happy is a choice, you can also choose whether you want to be stressed or not.
Lately, I’ve had some tasks on my to-do list that just aren’t getting done. I think about these unfinished tasks and I feel sad that I haven’t completed them. I feel stressed and worried about what people are thinking of me because I haven’t delivered on things I said I was going to get done.
I feel this bundle of negative emotion around these tasks so I immediately think:
I need to get these tasks done so that I can feel good about myself again!!!!
I put myself into fight or flight mode thinking about how these things need to get done. I tell myself to stay up later, to wake up earlier, I wish for more time, I feel guilty, and…. they don’t get done.
Even though I am slowly knocking items off the to-do list, I stay focused on all the things that aren’t done, and having these uncompleted items on my to-do list makes me feel awfully like a failure.
And that is the problem.
When you feel like a failure you act like a failure. It doesn’t matter how good you want to be in life, or how high your ambitions and expectations are for yourself, if at some level you think you suck, then you are going to suck.
“Self-concept is destiny” – Nathaniel Branden
When you have things you want to accomplish, and you’re not getting them done, pushing harder is almost never going to work. You have to get rid of the negative thoughts in your head first. You have to convince yourself that you are capable. When you feel good about yourself you get good results, when you feel bad about yourself you get bad results.
The lesson is that you are not a puppet.
The way you feel is not controlled by your external world. You can go from sad to happy by noticing things that you are getting done. You can go from guilty and afraid, to joyous and confident by noticing all the things that you are grateful for.
Once you commit to changing your beliefs, your world changes.
In the book “David vs. Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell, there is an example of a study comparing students from elite and middle of the road colleges. You would expect that since the best of the best students are going to places like Harvard, that the average to bad Harvard student would still be better than the top students at a place like Ohio State. But that’s not the case.
Being at the top of your class might be a better indicator of long-term success (measured by papers published) than where you actually went to school. Being a big fish in a small pond could be better than being a small or even medium-sized fish in a big pond.
The best students from Harvard do better than the best students from other schools, but the best students from other schools tend do better than the average Harvard students at least in when it comes to publishing papers in academia. Even though the worst students at Harvard would no doubt have been some of the most capable students at lower schools had they chosen to go there.
It is usually better to be a big fish in a small pond than a medium-sized fish in a big pond.
Another way to look at it is, it is more important to think you are good than to actually be good, at least when you’re starting out.
When you think you are good at something you do it more often, you feel happier doing it, and don’t feel fear or stress when you encounter an obstacle. You practice until you are actually good at it.
When you think you are bad at something you get discouraged, you give up, and you never become good, even if you had a TON of potential.
So what do you do when you think you suck?
Whether you are trying to become the best male stripper in the world, or simply trying to feel like less of a failure at work, you need to start by convincing yourself that you are capable, and maybe even that you are good at the thing you are doing.
You need to stop thinking that your ability to complete the task in front of you will determine your value as a human being. You need to start thinking that you are valuable and capable of doing the task in front of you and that task will only be confirmation of your value.
I’m a hypocrite though.
I give you this advice, but I struggle deeply with the same problem.
I get in this same situation, with a bunch of tasks and a bunch of stress, and think that I will be able to feel calm once this is done. Or, that I will able to feel better about my level of competence once I get have a clear to-do list. It has taken a while and this lesson still isn’t drilled into my head.
When I think I suck, I get shitty results.
When I think I am good, I eventually become good.
So when I realize I’m stuck, I try to convince myself that I am awesome.
I start by making a list of all the wins that I’m getting in my life. All of the positive actions that I am taking in my life that make me slightly better.
Woke up without snoozing. WIN.
Meditated this morning. WIN.
Wrote a blog post. WIN.
Decided not to eat a doughnut. WIN.
Went for a twenty-minute walk. WIN.
Each thing makes me feel a little bit better about myself. Every win makes me feel more confident, and before I know it I’m going all kool-aid man on any walls that block my progress. Feeling like I have the competence to tackle those projects that had been getting me down before.
Then, to keep the momentum going, I make a list of all the things that I am getting done. Making a done list instead of a to-do list. Every time I write something down on that list I feel better about my ability to get things done.
So, the lesson is this,
The causality of productivity is actually the opposite of how we think of it is.
You’re not getting things done because you’re feeling stressed. It’s not the other way around.
You’re not improving because you don’t think you’re already good. It’s not the other way around.
Your life sucks because you’re not happy. It’s not the other way around.