I had a conversation recently with a mentor of mine at work after a particularly rough day. Mid conversation he sort of did an evil cackle and asked me if I this job I signed up for was the job I thought I was signing up for and I was honest in my answer: Yes and No. The highs this year at work have been so much higher than I anticipated, but the flip side of that coin is that the lows have also been so much lower. It’s no secret to anyone that I have been working to balance that all year long.
“The key is not to measure your progress” he said to me, “but choosing when to measure your progress. If you come home each night and compare yourself to your goals, you will always feel like you are on a roller coaster. But if you look at your efforts year over year and you are learning and also living, you are succeeding.”
I’ve been chewing on that ever since.
Whenever you embark on something new you can never know how it is going to work out. You can plan and act and have the most noble of intentions, but ultimately the outcome can only be influenced, and never controlled. The feeling of control is an illusion. I say this to myself multiple times a day lately and depending on what is going on it either helps me relax a little or it makes me want to punch myself in the face. Regardless I keep repeating it.
For a while I was trying to talk myself into letting go of my expectations — of myself, and of others — thinking that was causing me the stress and anxiety that I was feeling during the early months of the year. But then my mom made an insightful observation one day while we were chatting after a particularly successful day. She said, “It’s not the expectations you’ve got to let go of, because clearly it’s important to set them, but you have to let go of your desire to control all outcomes.”
I still want to set expectations and measure the outcomes, right? I mean, this is me we are talking about and I am someone who wants to always be learning. This year hasn’t changed my DNA. I haven’t had some sort of zen religious experience and now all of a sudden I want to show you that YOU TOO can give up thinking about progress and just embrace this single solitary blissful Moment of Now. OH NO NO NO. But I keep thinking about this idea of learning and living. And also just WHAT to measure. I am experiencing it in my professional life as well as my health + fitness life.
One of the constant tropes we are faced with in the media today (especially as females, but that is a whole other post) is this idea of working to stay on the wagon, right? More accurately, avoiding the inevitable fall off. It’s all over the blogs: the tips and tricks for keeping your diet in check. The strategies for staying motivated. Instructions on how to do things the right way. How to stay on the straight and narrow and not go off course. The Wagon is just one iteration, but we all know what it represents: this mythic place of hallowed self control. In this moment I’d bet every single person reading this has an opinion about whether they are on or off of their own version of the wagon, and could come up with myriad reasons for why this is the case.
We spend our days patting ourselves on the back for our relation to the wagon, beating ourselves up, reminding ourselves we shouldn’t be beating ourselves up about being on or off the wagon, going round and round about whether the path we are on is the right one. But the entire time we do this, we are ignoring the most glaring and most fundamental flaw about this wagon: THE WAGON DOESN’T EVEN EXIST. There is no wagon. The wagon is also an illusion that we are controlling an outcome. And if we come home each day and considered our lives in relation to this illusion, would that really be productive? That’s not even living, that’s just riding a roller coaster.
Getting comfortable in the present, for me, has been what is keeping me the least anxious and most effective. The Universe has sent this message to me in so many ways this year that I finally just stopped counting and started listening. But what that conversation with my mentor that day reminded me of is that the living and learning portion is just as important as the measuring portion. As kids we learn to walk and talk and read, and no one bats an eye when they go stumbling and struggling through those phases — sometimes making steps forward and sometimes back. But I sometimes think as adults we forget that we are also still learning. We are learning to live. And it’s okay to take two steps forward and three steps back sometimes. It is part of the process. It ain’t just about waking up everyday breathing, right? If we want to make any progress in life, we’ve got to make some room for the stumbling.