Getting On the Right Path: A Practical Guide

“So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality”

Jim Carrey

Are you happy with the path your life is on right now at this moment? If you were to change nothing, would you be happy with the results you see in a month? A year? 10 years? What about 20 or 30 years?

I use these questions to gauge my direction in life: If I continue focusing on the things I find myself focusing on every day, will I end up where I want? If I’m being honest with myself, am I on the path I wish I was on? Have I been tricking myself into simply allowing my current circumstances to manifest themselves? Have I been lying to myself and others about what I want out of fear of judgment or worrying that what I want is impractical?

The first thing you must do if you want to set yourself on the right path is this: stop lying. This is critical. Most of us are told not to lie growing up. We are told that even little white lies can become monsters. Everyone knows lying is ‘bad,’ yet we do it every day. We just don’t call it lying. Somewhere along the path to adulthood we loosen our definition of lying and start sneaking it in here and there.

If a coworker I don’t like (through no fault of his own) invites me to get a beer with him, I will lie and say I have plans already, but I also add “maybe another time” to soften the blow. I can say this and feel good about it. This is because before I lied to my coworker, I lied to myself. I convinced myself that I’m ‘letting him down softly’ because ‘I don’t want to hurt his feelings.’ I justified my deceitful behavior by tricking myself into thinking I’m being a ‘good’ guy, when really I’m just scared of confrontation or being uncomfortable.

Tell the truth. The truth is a piece of the reality puzzle that can be used to properly determine the best path into the future. Lies are divisive time and energy wasters. Don’t be the person who points people in the wrong direction. If someone were to stop and ask you for directions, would you point them in a direction that you knew would bring them harm? This is exactly what you are doing when you lie. You are bringing harm to others whether you think you’re getting away with it or not.

If you’ve ever asked someone on a date, you understand that it is better to be told a harsh truth in the moment than to be given a false sense of hope for the future. If they don’t want to go on a date that’s fine. Let’s both move on and chalk this up as a single, minimally awkward experience. However, if they lie to you and say, “I can’t this weekend but maybe another time.” Maybe you think there is still a good chance if you ask them again later. So you ask them again the following week. They have another excuse, but they give you hope once again, “I’m just really busy right now, maybe sometime next month.” So you wait a few weeks and ask again. This time however, they’re having a bad day. They don’t have the patience to deal with you so ‘nicely.’ They explode on you. They unleash hell and you receive the brunt of the build up from their own frustrations. You get a response you did not expect: “can’t you take a hint!? You’re such a creep! I would never date you!”

They tell you a lie because they’re scared of the awkward experience. They justify their fears by convincing themselves they are being nice to you. You poor pathetic little thing, you. You believe them, and now you act as if what they told you were true. After all, you’re a pretty reasonable and nice guy. But they had no intention of ever going on a date with you, how could you be so naive and actually believe them? Now it’s ten times worse and you avoid each other like the plague. Who is really the pathetic one here? The innocent believer, or the ‘nice’ liar? If they had just told you the truth the first time, this could have been avoided. Perhaps what caused them to explode on you was the build up of frustrations from dealing with all the other people they told ‘nice’ little lies to. They have been bottling up these frustrations for weeks, months or maybe even years. You just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. After all, it’s frustrating having to deal with people who don’t believe the truth. If you lie to yourself, and tell yourself you’re being nice to people when you’re really just lying out of fear of discomfort, then you’re the reason they don’t believe the truth. It’s your fault. You are the cause of your own frustrations, not the people who assume you’re telling the truth. Telling the truth is like a pressure release valve. Don’t weld your valve shut with lies and cause an explosion.

Let’s go back to the example of the coworker. What should I have told him? The truth, of course, whatever it may be:

“I don’t really want to get a beer. I have a routine when I get off work and every time I break it I throw my whole life out of whack. I appreciate the offer but I’m not really interested.”

So what happens then? My coworker will likely respond with a confused, and benign, “oh…ok” and I go about the rest of my day. Now he knows the truth. I’m not interested in getting a beer, so he asks someone else. They go to Dave and Busters after work, talk about what a dick I am and I’m none the wiser…no harm no foul. Am I being a dick, though? What outcomes will result from telling the truth vs a “nice” lie?

  • Truth:
    • He knows I don’t want to get a beer. He thinks I’m kind of rude for a minute and then goes and asks another coworker and they have a good laugh about it over a beer. If anything he thinks there’s something wrong with the way I behaved in the moment. Now he knows how to act properly as he continues forward and he can feel confident that he did nothing wrong.
  • “nice” lie:
    • He feels like I wasn’t totally honest with him but since he isn’t a bad guy he gives me the benefit of the doubt. He thinks maybe I was just stressed or having a bad day. He figures he’ll ask me again tomorrow and maybe I’ll feel better by then. Maybe he could even cheer me up. He asks me again tomorrow, which forces me to lie again. This time he knows something is up. I still left it open ended though. He feels like maybe he’s just being too quick to judge and wonders what he’s doing wrong. He’s unsure about whether or not he should ask me again, but he builds up the courage to do so a third time. I’m forced to lie again. Now I’m starting to get frustrated with him. “Why does he keep f**king asking me? I clearly don’t want to get a beer with him. Can’t he take a hint?” Next time he asks me, I explode on him out of sheer self-inflicted frustration. In anger, I call him names, demean him, and make him feel stupid, none of which is actually his fault. Now anytime he wants to get to get a beer with a coworker, he will not ask them out of fear. He thinks he did something wrong in his interaction with me and he doesn’t want have a repeat traumatic experience. He begins to isolate himself and becomes depressed. He starts to feel lonely and hate his job. He begins to think all of his coworkers are assholes who lie to him. He starts to become nihilistic and overly self-critical.
      • You see where I’m going here? All I had to do was tell him the truth and he could’ve asked someone else and had a fine time with another coworker. My own fear and lies disguised as being a good guy who doesn’t want to hurt his feelings have caused him exponentially more problems than being “kind of a dick” in the moment.

Stop lying to yourself. It will cause you to lie to others. Lying to others twists their perception of reality and can cause them to hate you, hate others, or hate life. Lying to yourself and others will certainly cause you to hate yourself, others and life. The truth is always best. Practice telling yourself the truth. Am I on the path I actually want to be on? Am I only [going to school/working this job/dating this person] because I think it’s what others want me to do or because I feel like it’s what I’m ‘supposed’ to do? Write down these questions on a piece of paper and spend five to ten minutes writing your answers. Do it with an open, honest mind and I promise you will be surprised with your answers.

Now that you’ve written down your answers, what did you find? Is your life perfect? Are you on the right path? Are you in the right [job/degree/career/relationship]? Congratulations, you are one in a million read no further and carry on. If, however you determined that you’re not really happy and you don’t want to see the end of this path or even one more step on this path, it’s time to start re-evaluating. If you’re like I was you may have buried the things you actually like doing. You’ve used excuses and distractions to avoid doing what you want because you think others will reject or criticise you and now you don’t even know what you like. Now you have to determine what you like and what you want to do. What activity/hobby/skill do you enjoy working on? It’s ok if you don’t know the answer right now. When you go down the wrong path sometimes it’s hard to see through the overgrown thickets between you and your desired path. Asking these kinds of questions will arm you with the tools you need to start chopping away at the vines and start finding your meaning.

“Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.”

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson – 12 Rules for Life

You must pursue the things that you find to be meaningful. When you get home from work or school, stop falling into your old habits of browsing social media, playing video games, or watching Netflix for hours. Start looking for things that you personally find joy and meaning in. Easier said than done.

The bad habits you have formed are permanently stored in a tiny, ancient part of your brain called the basal ganglia. Habits have three parts: the trigger, the action, and the reward. A trigger is an indicator to your brain that it is in a situation it has successfully navigated before. The brain determines that it doesn’t need to waste active critical thinking power (which is very expensive) and it goes on auto-pilot. This is when the action occurs. Once the brain has determined that it has a stored set of actions that it can fall back on, the basal ganglia takes over. This means your conscious brain goes idle and the habit (which is a much less expensive cognitive process) goes into effect. Your brain has determined that when it encounters this trigger it can perform a certain action and it will receive a “reward.” Example: you see a box of donuts in the break room (the trigger) and your basal ganglia takes over. You walk to the box of donuts, open the box, and inhale a donut or two (the action). Your brain gets the sweet reward of the sugar rush and now that the habit loop is over and the reward is acquired, your conscious mind boots back up to determine what to do next.

Often times after we’ve done something like this we find ourselves asking, “why did I do that? I’m trying to diet and now my stomach hurts.” Habits are a powerful, ancient process that if left unchecked will run your whole life. There is a book about habits that I mention in my essay The Importance of Mindfulness: an introduction to the idea of attention theft. It will show you just how much of your life you don’t consciously control and it will teach you how to start fixing it. In the interest of saving you from having to read a whole book before getting started, I have a few tips to get you started.

  • Figure out what your triggers are. This could be as simple as: walking through your front door after you get home from work causes you to crave ice-cream and a good ol’ social media binge.
  • Test your triggers. If you identify walking through your front door as a potential trigger, test it by going through a different door when you get home and see if your cravings kick in.
  • Figure out what the ‘reward’ you’re getting from your habit is. Example: walking through my front door after work triggers me to walk to my fridge, grab a tub of ice cream, sit on the couch and browse Facebook for an hour. What is the reward? The hit of dopamine you get from the likes and shares you get on social media and the sugar rush from the ice-cream.
  • Triggers are strong. Find a way to give yourself the reward without going through the detrimental actions that get you there. Example: walking through the front door after work has been determined to be a trigger. Replace the action of walking straight to the fridge with walking into your room and doing ten push-ups. Then leave your phone in your room and go eat a healthy snack to reward yourself.
  • Experiment with your habits. Identify your triggers, actions, and rewards. Play around with them. Figure out which parts are bad for you, and how to replace them. Figure out which parts can be used to better yourself, and strengthen them.

“I understand there’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day and watch cartoons and old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid and outwit that guy.”

Anthony Bourdain

While you begin to fix your habits try to remember that you will not be able to willpower your way out of a habit. Quitting cold turkey isn’t the cure. Willpower is a depletable resource. The more willpower you have to use during the day (decisions you have to make) the less capable you will be of exercising willpower when you get home. Find ways to avoid and outwit the guy who wants you to fall into your old habits and start incentivising yourself into getting your desired results.

Much Love,

Teddy Schultz

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