Have you come across situations when you are about to do something right and then someone interferes, and changes your mind? Maybe you are about to leave the house for the gym but then your roommate convinces you to play videogames with him. Maybe you are about to order the chicken salad at TGI Friday’s but your brother thinks you should treat yourself to a burger. Maybe you are planning to go to bed early for once but then the girlfriend calls and off you go barhopping.
From a personal development point of view, this is the kind of situation where the rubber hits the road. It’s one thing to read all these inspiring self-help books and come up with all these great resolutions for change. It’s a very different thing when everyone around you is doing shots at the bar and you are miserably holding on to your water.
It’s easy to point the finger, when talking about this type of event. After all, you didn’t ask for that other person to try to undermine your willpower. In fact, if they hadn’t shown up, you might really have gone on to make the right decision. All true – but still only half the truth. Life happens, and that includes other people. People are a contingency to be dealt with, always, and wishing differently is just that – wishful thinking. And on top of that, how many times have you caught yourself secretly being thankful for that other person pushing a donut on you? If you are like me, many times. Other people can function as the perfect excuse to do the wrong thing, i.e. experience instant gratification, while being able to lay the blame on someone else. It’s a very sneaky way of deluding yourself.
Having made it clear that you cannot pull the victim card here, let’s now look at the other person’s point of view, the person trying to tempt you. The thing is, the other person is usually not even trying to pull you down. Rather, if they know you well and know about your personal development efforts, they might actually be admiring you, even supporting you (at least in their heads). So why would they tempt you then? Their line of reasoning simply goes like this: “It is so great that he or she is trying to get fit / eat healthy / go to bed early. It’s a great project and I really admire his or her self-discipline. But I am here now, and I want to us to have fun together, and what is one little transgression gonna matter in the long run? Surely he or she can make an exception, just this one time for me.”
That sounds like a pretty damn convincing argument, one that I have (gladly) fallen for many times. Just one tiny exception. Really, what difference DOES it make in the long run?
Well, sorry to tell you, but it makes ALL the difference.
Let’s take a quick step back. If you ask any successful person how they got where they are, and cut out the anecdotes, they will all end up telling you essentially the same thing: I did the right type of action, every day, for years. That’s it – there is not much more to success. You do the right thing, every day, for the unforeseeable future, and trust in the process. The aspiring guitar hero practices his scales three hours a day to a metronome; the athlete does his deadlifts and his sprints, the programmer produces new code. Despite our willingness to believe otherwise, there are no overnight successes. Instead, you grind out your skillset or that long-term project you are concerned with, as if it was a sentence for life.
And I mean this literally – you are supposed to be a prisoner of that positive action you decided on. Prisoners don’t get exceptions, neither do you. If you study the biographies of famous artists (I can recommend Mason Currey’s book “Daily Rituals” in that respect) you will find that the greats really take this to the extreme. They will protect their daily routines to make sure they get their practice time in with a fervor that goes beyond the obsessive: Practice comes first, everything else comes second, without exception. Think Thomas Mann’s 4 hours of writing in the morning, think Joan Miró’s highly structured day and his strong dislike for social distractions, think Haruki Murakimi’s self-chosen isolation. These guys would get furious if anyone got in their way, be it wife, children, friends, whomever. No one deserves an exception.
It’s easy to put this down to the crazy artist’s mindset, all artists being eccentrics etc. But there is nothing crazy or eccentric about this, not at all. The truth is, these “crazy” artists understand how the game is played and act accordingly. They understand that good intentions are just that and that all you ever have to make things happen is the present moment. Putting off action to some mythical future is never the answer and will never make it happen – change can only happen in the present moment. Hence, the person standing in front of you demanding a one time exception “just for me” is just as delusional as the person who grants the exception: None of us ever fail for being too strict about practice, but all of us fail for constantly making exceptions and excuses. And life will provide us with every opportunity to make these excuses, especially in the form of other people demanding your attention. This is a key insight: It never stops, ever. There will always, always be another person.
But there is no way around it: If you want extraordinary results, it’s up to you to tell them no. Don’t kid yourself: This moment is all you have.