Make sure your ladder's leaning up against the right wall.
This is a piece of advice that has been extremely compelling to me in the last year or so. Truth be told, I can't even remember where I heard it.
I think it's a very common thing to believe that excellence, the pride of a thing done well, and generally working hard is an inherently good thing. There's a part of me that has both taught and truly believed this in the past. But today, I think I hear the admonition to work hard with a caveat: work with the end in mind.
As people settle into January, our collective tendency (mine included) is to start fresh, to break ties with old habits, and to begin remaking ourselves all over again. Before you are bogged down with the rush of it all, I'd invite you to take a second and really think about why you want something.
Do you want that success at work because you feel that this will make you happy? Do you want that budding relationship because you feel that this will make you happy? Do you want the house or car of your dreams because you feel that this will make you happy? Do you want to fit into that size pant because this (yes, this!) will make you happy?
Let me be frank: I have lived through phases of working tirelessly at a business, working hard to make a name for myself, gritting my teeth to make everyone happy, and working hard to look and feel a certain way. For a long time, I thought: "One day when I am done with this I will stop and love my family, reconnect with my friends, and provide time for myself to do other things that I enjoy - then, I will be happy."
Over the summer, I was challenged by a mentor to think of my personal values from an entirely different perspective than I had been used to. I was always told to think of what I wanted right now to understand what my values were. If you had asked me three years ago I would have said: creating a thriving business that supports my staff and members, and physical excellence through CrossFit and weightlifting. Honest to goodness, I don't know that I would have said a thing about my family or my friends.
I was asked often through this time, "what do you want?" And told, "follow that thing!"
This became a kind of infuriating prompt to me.
I want to go out on a limb and say that there may be a problem with following after "what we want". What we want, is not always what's best for us in the long run. I don't think we are as wise as we think we are. We are all two year olds. "I want what's in front of me." "I don't want to go to bed." "I don't want to eat my vegetables." "I want more."
Simply put, I don't buy that happiness is as basic as getting what you want. The big question is, can we re-align our loves? How does this happen if so? Is it even possible? Can we want to want something? And for me, can we want to want what is best for us instead of what is easy?
This past summer I was asked instead to think about my values the other way around: to think instead, "At the end of my life, when I look back, what do I want the high points of my time on earth to be?" This shifted my gaze from my slightly muffled present, to a hopeful future version of myself. I thought, "If I lived all my life, and never felt that I had time to learn to love to my friends and family, I would die with great regret." This has nothing to do with clean and jerks, you guys!
I shocked myself with my answer.
Here's the greatest illusion of all: none of us knows how much time we have on earth. We don't know if we will live to a ripe old age of smarmy sooth-saying or walk out our doors to trail our dogs behind us and keel over mid-step. Therefore the time to know what you want to live for, the time to lean your ladder against the right wall is now. In fact, it is more than now. It is always now. It is every day when you wake up, every breath you breathe, and every moment you are able to become conscious of the chance to lean towards what you want to want.
I've been reading Walden during my Sabbatical and this passage has been specifically inspiring:
I don't believe the perfect opportunity to take time to really care about what we say we care about ever comes to us - we have to wake up, and claim it right where we are. No one is ever going to stand right in front of you and like Willy Wonka, grace you with the golden ticket to life balance. We must learn, and I am still learning, to say 'no' to some things in order to say 'yes' to others. Frustratingly, we have to learn to do this not only day-by-day, but literally moment-by-moment.
This occasionally means climbing back down a ladder we thought was giving us a leg up. As many in fitness know, doing anything backwards is never as easy as moving forward, but it must be dealt with, and it must be done.
When I was in New Zealand I spent the better part of my time there hiking a trail called the Routeburn. Along the Routeburn there is a summit that is about a mile off the main trail which affords brilliant perspective to the surrounding mountain spires. The way up to the summit is also quite steep and particularly jagged and typically a bit wet. The tricky part of all of this, is that if you do decide to go up, the weather is very unpredictable and you can sometimes go up and see nothing at all.
The day I went up many of our party stayed down below and I figured it wouldn't take that long to go up and "YOLO". It rained most of the way up and was a bit of a trudge but I survived. When we got to the top it was absolutely freezing but I could see where we were headed, and where we had come from. It was stunning, but also - merely a moment of the journey.
The way down in fact, was far more treacherous than the way up. My husband, Arrus, ended up accidentally crushing his phone along the way and a few in our party just flat out fell very hard multiple times as they climbed.
Some paths help us to see better where we need to go, but they aren't the end goal. Often the longer, higher, or harder the path has been, the more terrifying it will be to come down. In my twenties, I feel like I have had to learn to be brave enough to ascend. In my thirties, I am feeling lately that I have had to learn to be brave enough to descend.
The truth is, I don't know if we ever really "get" where we are going. We choose the paths we walk, the company we keep. I believe we can choose what we want. As Annie Dillard says,
We spend it on coffee, on sleep, on training, on friends, on family, on cell phones, on books, on walking, on biking, on driving, online, on waiting in line, but we spend it. And we have the autonomy we have always sought. We can use what we have as we see fit. I believe we have this ability all the time - every year, month, day, hour, and moment.
So I'd ask you now, given an image of your whole life's journey, before you set yourself to eating less, drinking more water, and pursuing that never-ending picture of a perfect you, is your ladder leaning up against the right wall? Will the work be worth it in the end? Is it worth it now?
What do you want to want?
Let me leave you with this piece by Mary Oliver: a challenge to me to be conscious:
THE FOURTH SIGN OF THE ZODIAC (PART 3)
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
So why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.