“The truth is like poetry – and most people fucking hate poetry.” – Overheard by Michael Lewis (author of The Big Short) in a Washington, DC bar
I recently watched the stellar motion picture adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book, The Big Short. The above quote appears in the movie, and it immediately resonated with me in a big way. In our lives, how many times do we choose to ignore the truth in favor of complacency or irrational desires?
The truth might be boring. The truth might tell us what we don’t want to hear. If we aren’t mindful of this, a simpler alternative to the truth is to disregard it and instead make decisions based on emotions (likely lacking the foresight of any undesired consequences).
Today, I will look at a few important truths that seem to go ignored by society at large.
Truth #1: Many Cultural Norms are Backwards
Cultural norms are all around us, and it can be easy to build a lifestyle using them as a foundation simply because they are so ubiquitous. But this can become a dangerous proposition if the dominant cultural norms aren’t aligned with your personal values.
Everywhere, these cultural norms manifest themselves through infrastructure and design which go a long way towards enabling a prescribed set of lifestyle choices. These choices are wrapped neatly into a package, which is then sold aggressively through advertising and social stigma.
What’s inside the package? McMansions, sprawling urban developments, a large network of wide roads and parking lots, luxury cars and SUV’s to fill them, gadgets for just about everything, and other expensive toys that can serve to distract us from the unhappiness they cause. We are trained that all of these things are to be desired and sought after.
If the pinnacle of the American Dream is a 3,000 square foot home furnished by Crate & Barrel with two luxury cars in the garage, then sprawling development is a large culprit in enabling that dream. A second culprit is an unquestioning acceptance of this lifestyle, combined with a misconception of how avoidable it is in reality.
When a life is built around pursuit of these cultural norms, a massive amount of sacrifice is endured. But this could be avoided if the surrounding lifestyle decisions didn’t make the sacrifice mandatory.
There are many examples of people completely dismantling the dominant cultural norms. They show exactly how they actively avoided them, and they demonstrate how they are better off for it. However, for every one of these people, there are 100 more claiming it is impossible despite the clear evidence to the contrary.
Truth #2: Realized Potential Requires A Plan
It’s easy to initially thrive off of a romanticized idea of significant change. Over the longer term, a common pitfall is the lack of having a plan in place to ensure the change is sustainable once the novelty and excitement of it wears off.
How many of us have made new years resolutions, and burned out a few weeks into January after the glory and excitement dissipates? If there is no plan, there is no accountability – and the likelihood of success is diminished.
I used to laugh at the idea of a five year plan. I thought it was for the super Type A personalities who didn’t know how to enjoy life, and were focusing too much on working hard to advance in Corporate America. But when I started working towards a better and more fulfilling life for myself, I realized that there would be minimal forward motion without a plan and without some level of accountability.
Suddenly, the idea of a five year plan didn’t seem so ridiculous. Imagine if everyone had a plan and accountability built-in with their new years resolutions. The results would be staggering.
The truth is that any worthwhile change requires hard work and discipline to achieve. Many people don’t like facing this truth, and instead trick themselves into believing it can happen with minimal work put in on the front end. Cue the empty gyms in February.
Truth #3: Following Instructions Isn’t Always Optimal
We grow up following rules and instructions, and are taught (directly and indirectly) that it’s the only way to navigate life. It isn’t always bad to follow instructions, but it’s extremely important to understand when exercising your own judgement is best.
We love to follow instructions so much, it can become a default mode of thinking. We can spend so much time looking outward, waiting to be told what to do, that we totally forget how to look inward and find answers within ourselves.
Colin Beavan has an excellent blog post on this subject.
For me personally, being forced to follow instructions while working for a cause I’m not 100% invested in has given me the motivation to seek out a life where I am 100% invested. I remind myself of this whenever I feel any lack of energy or doubt that I need to be setting higher goals and ambitions for myself. This drives my motivation to look inwards and learn what this means for me.
It can seem appealing on many levels to live in a mode of following instructions, because it is the easier thing to do. It requires less effort, in exchange for getting less out of life. Complacency is a conniving beast, so many are tricked into thinking this is a fair tradeoff.
Truth #4: Grasp is Easily Underestimated
At times, perception can make a goal or milestone seem much more out of reach than it really is. In these cases, the perception myth can be tested (and likely busted) through incremental steps towards the goal/milestone.
Think back to a time in your life where you achieved something you were extremely proud of. Think back further, and there was probably a point where you thought it wasn’t possible. Any such example is living proof that many seemingly unreachable things aren’t only within reach, but they are firmly within your grasp.
This is especially important to keep in mind when setting goals for personal growth and development. Most anything that you set your mind towards is within grasp. This needs to be acknowledged in order to have any shot at seeing your dreams turn into reality. If not acknowledged, you will stop yourself before you even start.
I’ve found that being careful not to set the bar too high, too soon is important here. Start small, and use the incremental gains to test the waters. You will likely find that the smaller gains are surpassed much more easily than you might have expected.
When I changed jobs a few years ago and decided to not only save the difference of my new income, but to also cut expenses, I didn’t think it would be easy. I started cutting things out of my life while automatically directing money to my savings and investment accounts. And it was empowering. The more I cut things I didn’t want, and the more I saved for a better future, the better I felt. It was a win-win.
When I first started down the path that lead me to making these decisions, I thought it seemed ambitious and very much out of reach. As I made incremental steps along the way, I became more aware of how in control I really was.
The truth isn’t always exciting, and it isn’t always sexy. In the heat of the moment, it might not even seem to be in your best interests. Which is why, at times, it is so easy to disregard. Just look at investor behavior during a stock market downturn for proof of this.
At the end of the day, happiness comes from aligning your pursuits with your genuine desires. A problem seems to exist in our culture where these two things are not aligned, and not enough attention is paid to acknowledging and changing it. The good news is that this disparity can be overcome much easier than we might think. All it takes is some intentional thinking at the individual level.
What are you trying to accomplish? Can acknowledging difficult truths help you get closer to achieving it?