Why is it the most passionate-about-life people seem to be usually successful where less driven individuals rarely push the edge of life’s possibilities?
– John Jancik
John, I love your question and I have thought about this very thing before. Keep in mind that I do not assert any things that I say to be universally true, just true from my own perspective. There is, of course, a lot to gain from thinking about other people’s perspectives though; even if you find yourself in disagreement, it is by that disagreement that you strengthen your own thoughts.
I will not attempt to apply reason to all particular people’s lives. However, I will focus on a few things that I believe to be relevant factors.
I believe that your question comes down to this: What drives people and what keeps people from pursuing their dreams fully?
I feel that it is more important to discuss some of the reasons for people not pursuing their dreams fully, because in focusing on these possible reasons, the former question of ‘What drives people?’ will be answered. To exaggerate, we can assume that the reasons for some people being so passionately driven to the point of actively pursuing their dreams is either from overcoming or never confronting the hardships of the people who rarely push the edge of life’s possibilities.
The factors I will discuss will be, in order: weakness of will, procrastination, fear, self-deception, and habits.
WEAKNESS OF WILL
To start, weakness of will may explain why, I believe, people may linger too long on the edge of life’s possibilities without yet pursuing them.
If someone evaluates their situation and considers all things before reaching the conclusion “I will quit smoking”, it does not necessarily follow that their actions will correlate agreeably with their decision to not smoke.
The will is weakened, I believe, in moments where emotion, mood, interest, and desire are strengthened, usually for immediate satisfaction. The person who once thought that they would not smoke, may go against their better judgment and give into an inclination to smoke if, for example, they find that their current state is one of anxiety or irritability. Motivated by their discomfort of not being able to smoke when they want to, they all too easily revise their decision in order to accommodate their current situation in every way: It is 6:30 PM, they want to smoke, so they conclude, “I will not smoke anymore, except only one cigarette in the evenings.”
This gives them the ‘OK’ to smoke now without feeling bad about it; they are still willing to do something, but their will has been weakened by immediate desires. Later, after their discomfort has subsided—after they get to smoke—, they revise their will back to their initial decision: “All things considered, I will not smoke again.”
This, to me, is weakness of will, and it has, I am certain, happened to most of us in one way or another.
Acting in contrast to your better judgment definitely puts a damper on goal-oriented progression, especially when the process is put on repeat. Although I consider weakness of will to be a moral issue, I do not think that it necessarily makes someone a coward. I feel it is a circumstance of being a free person and having the ability to make decisions as such. However, it should not be accepted as mere normalcy and, therefore, ignored. Addressing acts of a weakened will are important for moving forward toward your goals.
Next up, procrastination.
There are many different forms of procrastinating, but I will focus on procrastination associated with bigger, goal-oriented things; not on, for example, why one might procrastinate mowing the lawn.
Excuses for procrastination are certainly plentiful by the procrastinators themselves: “I don’t feel like doing it right now”, “I want to, but I have so many other things that need to get done”, “I work better at the last minute when I am under pressure”, “I’m trying to figure out if it’s really what I want to be doing”, “I don’t have the necessary tools or information to do it”, “I don’t know where to start”, to name a few.
These excuses (and any others) are merely surface statements for the underlying reasons for procrastination. Some of the underlying reasons for procrastinating are, I believe, as follow (but are not limited to):
Because you are not sure where to start; anxiety (may be another form of perfectionism);
Because your goals are set for others (whether you are conscious of it or not);
Because it is truly not what you want to be doing (again, whether you are conscious of it or not).
(It is important to note that, in my opinion, laziness is one of the fundamental reasons for procrastinating. Laziness to accomplish a task would only be present as a result of one of the above reasons for procrastinating.)
Perfectionism: Procrastination can be a form of perfectionism where the person will put something off until last minute, knowing that they will not have enough time to work to their fullest and best, thereby giving them an excuse for their imperfections. This is usually done in instances where a person may not feel prepared or particularly knowledgeable on a subject. Knowing that the end result may not meet their perfectionist standards—even if they start early—, they put the project off until the last minute. Then, when they do poorly or below their desired standards, they claim, “If I would have started earlier, then it would have been perfect. It is only imperfect because I started late.” This example can be carried over to bigger goals that someone may have, putting the goal off almost indefinitely for fear of unknown failure or imperfections.
(Note: If the person creates the failure or imperfections, then they have control; by contrast, if the person takes a chance by pursuing a goal, they do not necessarily have control over the failure or imperfections.)
Unsure where to start: For the person who procrastinates because they are not sure where to start, they may never accomplish any of their goals if they wait till they have things planned out perfectly. It’s important to just start. Start somewhere. Anywhere. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu says it simply and perfectly, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (The Way of Lao Tzu). However, this person may be stalled because of anxiety and uncertainty, finding themselves trapped also by routine or habit. (This will be discussed more later in this piece in the section on habits.)
Goals set for others / Not pursuing what you truly want: In the next form of procrastination, we see instances where someone finds that they “don’t feel like doing it right now”, is “trying to figure out if it’s really what I want to be doing”, etcetera. These excuses or reasons may be because your goals are set for others or the thing you are pursuing is not what you truly want.
The most important thing to do in this situation and any, I feel, is to abandon all expectation-oriented goals and take sufficient time to know yourself.
Without taking sufficient time to truly know yourself—who you are, what you want, your morals, beliefs, values, etcetera—, you may fall prey to acts of self-deception and procrastination. (Self-deception will be discussed in length later in this writing). Both are done to try to please false motives acquired from expectations from yourself and/or expectations from others.
An example where someone may be procrastinating pursuing something because their goals are set for other people and it is not something that they truly want to be doing is: If someone has been told by their family and friends for years, “Oh, you are so smart!”, then they may feel the need to go to college since they have, over time, internalized this thought that they are smart and should pursue a higher education. They may have even, again over time, subconsciously deceived their self into believing that school is, in fact, what they should do and want to do.
This form of self-deception and procrastination (procrastination, if the person is putting off going to school for related reasons) is a lose-lose situation: The person loses both ways—whether they go back to school or not—if they are setting goals or working toward goals that are set for other people’s expectations. In the end, they still do not get for what they truly dream.
However, if this same person were to analyze the reasons why he or she has been putting off going back to school, then they may find a truth in the very act of procrastinating; that is, their voice speaking to them saying, “The reason I have put off going back to school is because it’s not really what I want to be doing!”
By the same token, someone whose family members never pursued a higher education and who was rarely, if ever, told that they were “Oh, so smart!” may lead their self to think that they could never go to college because they are not ‘smart enough’. Even though their hopes, dreams, and aspirations lie in becoming a nurse, for example, settling for what they have internalized from others’ words, or lack thereof—that is, settling for less—, they never actually conjure enough passion to confidently step toward their dreams, or they procrastinate ever actually trying.
Now that we have looked at weakness of will and procrastination as setbacks in life, let us look at fear.
Fear can cripple an otherwise headstrong person. For one, fearing failure may keep somebody from even attempting their dreams. If someone has worked hard to create their reputation as a strong, confident person, then pursuing a dream may make them vulnerable to failure or pain—a fear of weakening their character or freedom. Situations that challenge somebody’s personal autonomy are certainly fear-inducing. If one lost their ability to fully govern their self, then they might feel powerless or broken. For some, this may be reason enough to keep ‘putting off’ dreams until they feel prepared or ready.
However; the ambiguity and uncertainty that reveals itself from holes in the sidewalk along one’s journey cannot be thought of in advance. These holes may lead to falling and pain, something that can only be dodged by not even taking the walk to begin with.
For others, a “disorder of the will” may be the explanation. From the textbook, Abnormal Psychology, a disorder of the will is explicated as knowing what you should do, what you ought to do, and what you must do, but having no notion of what you want to do. Admittedly, I suffer this from time to time. Finding myself bored with nothing to do sometimes, I remember all of the goals I have set for myself, picture myself working toward these goals, then decide “I don’t feel like it right now”, thereby accomplishing nothing in that moment of time. Overcoming this, for me, is a matter of mood control and self control, I know, because other times I may go through this same process, but push myself through mentally—I know that if I just get started, then I can keep going—, thus working toward one or more of my goals.
Now, something that I believe falls under the categories of both driving people and keeping people from pursuing their dreams is self-deception.
Basically, self-deception works to lead oneself and others to believe something that the deceiver knows to be false, but is claiming and maintaining to be true. The reason for deceiving oneself, I think, comes from the belief that one does not have sufficient means to accomplish one’s goals, thereby feeling it is necessary to lie to oneself and others.
Example one: For example, Anna would love to travel the world, but she is truthfully too scared because she fears that she will not be able to survive outside of her familiar home (fear of failure), being too scared to leave comfort and delve into the unknown.
While working at her cubicle, her coworker Elliot asks her if she has ever wanted to travel the world. Anna—knowing her true fears of traveling, but too scared to reveal aloud to herself and to others what she believes is weakness—replies, “I would like to travel, but I am just too busy lately”, continuing her excuse, “Although, I just helped create the new marketing presentation that will be displayed in Russia next month!” Convincing herself and Elliot that traveling is something that is not high on her to do list and that she would absolutely do it if she ‘had time’ works as something believable by showing favor to her real life situation of not actually traveling. A difference lies in the reasons for not traveling: one of which is the truth but would reveal a weakness of Anna, and the other of which is deception to show that her reason for not traveling is her moral, confident decision.
Example two: On the other hand, self-deception can lead someone who is not quite prepared enough to accomplish their goals, to believe that they actually are. In other words, I am sure you have heard the phrase, “Fake it till you make it”.
For example, Elliot knows truthfully that he is not a particularly confident person and he fears traveling alone. He is no longer taking adequate steps to mentally overcome his lack of confidence and his fears; although, in the past he has tried to talk about his problems with psychologists, family, and friends, but in the end he thinks it will be too much work and take too much time.
Hungry for an immediate fix, he practices trying on a personality that is headstrong and fearless.
Eventually, he mostly convinces his self that he is ready to travel alone.
When talking to Anna at the office, Elliot says, “I love travel. This summer I am going to be leaving for Turkey. I will be going alone without any set plans.” Regurgitating this same thing to other people, Elliot finds that he is able to believe his displays of confidence and fearlessness. From here, he leaves for Turkey and successfully ‘makes it’ traveling alone, coming across small physical obstacles along the way, and every so often catching a glimpse of the person underneath the facade who is still self-conscious and still fearful; the person he did not pay attention to and no longer really knows: his true self.
Pondering still the reasons for people not pursuing their dreams fully, we find habits.
Breaking habits is perhaps one of the hardest things to do in life, but it is something that, I believe, can set people free from their mental trappings and allow them to work toward their dreams or goals.
Example: Continuing the example of traveling, in the adjacent cubicle Lucy overhears the conversation between Anna and Elliot. Lucy is an accountant, 45 years old, and has been working her job for 18 years.
Also a victim of self-deception, Lucy has convinced herself that she is too old to travel and has too many things to do. Not to mention, she has formed the habit of working her job, going to the grocery store every Sunday, attending book club sessions every Thursday, and mostly leaving her weekends to be ‘spontaneous’, sometimes meeting her friends for a drink or watching movies. She is fairly happy with this routine, but she knows that since she was in college she has wanted to travel the Mediterranean countries. Listening to Elliot talk about his upcoming trip to Turkey, she allows herself to dabble with the idea of actually taking the trip of her dreams.
Quietly, she searches the Internet for an airline ticket to Greece. Her blood rushing with excitement, the butterflies in her stomach push her further to calculate her expenses and see how she could reasonably manage to take the trip.
She figured that if she did not eat out very often, was frugal with her money at the grocery store, and if she drove less and took the bus more, then she would have enough money to comfortably take the trip in September, six months from now.
She let herself get carried off into her imaginations of relaxing on the sandy, white beaches of the Mediterranean Sea, eating delicious foods, drinking spirits, and maybe even meeting the ‘man of her dreams’. Then, as quickly as she fell into her daydream, she fell out. With thoughts of, “Who will cover my position while I am gone?”, “Who will take care of my house?, “Who will take care of my dog?“, etcetera, Lucy convinced herself that it is not reasonable to take the trip in September and that maybe she could shoot for next year when she has more time to work things out.
The problem came when she allowed herself to fall back into habit and let her enthusiasm that day fade with time and routine.
In the end, it is necessary to not only take the time to know yourself, but to practice being yourself. Pain, suffering, and failure are all necessary parts of life. Avoidance of them may keep you from pursuing your dreams, and in the very act of avoiding them, you are avoiding life itself.
To me, it is a necessary and worthwhile pursuit to go through pain, risk, and anxiety to find what you really want to do, and then do it. No reservations, no apprehensions.
There may be other reasons for why some people may not push the edge of life’s possibilities, and I am certainly open to hearing your thoughts if you have any on the topic.
— Virginia Craft