Many years ago, I accomplished something good at school (I can’t remember what) and my mother was congratulating me. And — snarky teenager that I was — I replied, “Yeah! Imagine what I could do if I actually worked to my full potential!”
I think of that sometimes, because it’s a question I still ask myself from time to time.
Imagine what I could do if I actually worked to my full potential.
I never wanted to be valedictorian, so I wasn’t. I didn’t care about what my class rank was, so I missed the top 10% by one percentage point. That sort of competition didn’t motivate me; it stressed me out and tied my stomach in knots, so I just… opted out. I still managed to do well academically without really even trying. That’s where that snarky comment from teenage Lacy came from.
But I had also taught myself that minimum effort was the way to avoid failure: if I failed, I hadn’t really tried, so it didn’t count. If I succeeded, it was a bonus.
And true failure was to be avoided at all costs.
Now, as an adult, I find myself better able to examine that mindset and see its deleterious effects. I’m still coasting by on half power in many areas of my life, and I’m still disinclined to find out what would happen if I gave it my all… because failure…
What if I went all in on my business, really worked hard 40 hours a week… and it didn’t make any difference?
What if I joined a bootcamp and pushed myself and exercised until I puked… and didn’t really get much fitter?
What if I went on a restrictive diet and lost a ton of weight… and wasn’t any happier?
It’s a hell of a lot easier and safer to stay at 50%.
I read a quote yesterday that had me thinking:
We have infinite potential and limited time. What you do with both is the meaning of life.
Somehow that hit me hard, a dose of cold truth poured over my head.
At the ripe, old age of 37, I’m thinking a lot about what I want to do with the rest of my life. I know I want to have as much life as I possibly can, live past my century mark — and enjoy every minute of it. That’s the important part. If I’m sick and unhappy for decades of that time, it doesn’t sound like a good deal. And I know that what I do now has a huge impact on how I will be then.
But we humans; we’re more motivated to buy medicine than vitamins.
I learned this in business, in sales. People are most motivated to buy to solve an existing problem, a pain point they already have — they’re mostly not interested in buying something that will prevent a problem they haven’t experienced. If you want to sell prevention, you have to use fear (think the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” commercials, or commercials for security systems that show scary bad men breaking into your home…).
I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want to sell myself on prevention that way. I certainly could; when I get on the anxiety train, I can enumerate to myself all the ailments my various relatives have ever suffered and then waste precious time wondering if I have the ticking time bomb for those diseases written into the code of my existence.
Yet even when mired in fear of the unknown, it’s hard to motivate myself to live the life I know I ought.
I bought a new book recently, called The Truth About Food. In it, the author asserts that we already know the truth about what to eat the same way we know that pandas eat bamboo. He argues that nutrition seems confusing and self-contradictory, yet when we look at the evidence — which has been scientifically supported over and over again — the truth (SPOILERS) boils down to what Michael Pollan wrote in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”: Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.
On the face of it, that seems easy, intuitive. Yet we are living in a society that makes it damn near impossible.
Living that way means eschewing all the advertising, all the fast food restaurants (and many sit-down restaurants), many family and holiday traditions, and most of the aisles in the grocery store. It means ignoring advertising, media stories, Instagram photos, and Facebook posts. It means making the right decision, the healthy decision, 200 times a day or more (scientists estimate we make more than 200 food-related decisions every single day), and because of the way our existing society is set up, that means saying “no” more often than we say “yes.”
The system is set up to work against us. If it weren’t we wouldn’t have a problem.
And this is true of just about anything I can think of that one might wish to change. We must force ourselves to exercise because the system is set up to allow us to sit all day. We must force ourselves to read books, go out with friends, or even interact with our own family because it’s easier to sit and play on the computer or watch TV. We must make radical choices about the way we live if we care about saving the planet because the system is set up to destroy it.
And so on, and so on…
Worst of all, these are systems we never voluntarily opted into. Yet we must actively choose to opt-out to overcome their negative effects. Not once, but over and over (and over) again.
And that is ridiculously hard.
Willpower, they’ve shown, is like a muscle; it gets exhausted the more you have to use it. That’s why you might make good choices all day long and then come home and flop on the couch and eat a bag of potato chips. Opting out is exhausting when the system is set up to make it effortless to remain opted in.
We have trained ourselves to exist at 50% — or sometimes even less.
What would it even look like to give more? To live up to even fractionally more of our potential?
I’m not lying or boasting when I say the idea frightens me. Because something, somewhere, long ago taught me that it’s not only dangerous to fail, but it’s dangerous to shine too bright. Is it any wonder? Think of the schadenfreude we feel when a celebrity fails to live up to the hype. We cheer when Icarus falls from the sun because he got uppity, tried to do too much, it’s no more than he deserves.
I have talked myself out of writing essays like this one before because it seems like ridiculous hubris to think I should be telling anyone how they ought to live their life. Who am I to offer such advice, flawed human that I am?
A friend and I once talked about an article that was making the social media rounds about wanting an average life, and it resonated deeply with her. She didn’t want anything fantastic or outlandish out of her life. She wanted an ordinary life. And I think that’s fine — admirable, even.
An ordinary life can still be extraordinary, especially if it makes you happy.
When I think about living to our potential, I’m not necessarily envisioning everyone starting a charity, tithing all their money, inventing cold fusion or discovering a cure for cancer. Those things might be nice, but I’m really just thinking about what it would look like if we made the choices and decisions we know we should make — the ones we want to make, and would make if it were just a little easier, or we had just a little more willpower.
An author I know wrote a story in which the protagonist carefully and deliberately charged, backed up, and cleaned his phone every week. The detail was added to show character, but the author thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to be that kind of person?” And then he wondered aloud (on his blog), why can’t I be that kind of person? So he started charging, backing up, and cleaning his phone every weekend.
What would it look like to live the life you aspire to live? To take the vitamins now instead of the medicine later?
It might mean that you start exercising more, or watching Netflix less. It might mean that you pick up that hobby you gave up long ago, or start to write that book you’ve always wanted to write. It might mean you give up buying lattes or cable for a few months to go on that vacation you’ve always wanted. It might mean switching off the TV once a week to talk to your spouse instead of zoning out together. It might mean you start recycling, or riding the bus, or gardening, even though it’s kind of a hassle.
But whatever your idea of an ordinary extraordinary life, it means opting out of something in order to opt in to something else.
When I think about what it looks like for me, I want to give myself credit for some small changes I have already made. I joined a choir because I get something from singing I don’t get anywhere else in my life. I have given myself permission to use the good china and silver any time I want to. Even lunch, by myself, on a Tuesday. I’ve started exercising regularly — that one finally clicked when I realized that finding the right, convenient time had everything to do with it.
There are still things I’d like to change. I think that’s normal. I think we stagnate if we’re not reaching for something new, something better. I’d like to make better food choices by default (as easily as daily exercise has become). I’d like to watch TV less and read books more. I’d like to write something creative, every day. I’d like to stop procrastinating on dumb household chores that I know make me happier when they’re done.
It means opting out of the systems that are easy, and opting in to doing something a little bit harder to get a little bit better result.
It also means being OK with being the weirdo. Earlier this year, I didn’t have any crackers to go with a cheese plate I was planning to have for dinner, so I made some. The comments on the photo of the cheese plate weren’t about my aesthetics, but comments of disbelief: “You MADE crackers?!?!”
Were those comments made in admiration? Maybe. I suspect (worry?) that more were made in a sort of derisive disbelief. “Sure sure. You just whipped those up for a weeknight dinner. Who are you trying to impress?”
(Ah, Icarus. What were you thinking making those wings? Who were you trying to impress?)
The truth is, I’m not writing this to encourage anyone to give 50% more — that’s ridiculous, unnecessary, too much to ask.
But what about 10% more? Could we live up to just 10% more of our potential? Could we act like an athlete/healthy person/reader/writer/environmentalist? Fake it til we make it?
Because I think that sort of improvement might make us all much more than 10% happier and healthier in the long run.
And honestly, it might just save the world.