Your reasons “why” will make or break you. They make the difference between jumping out of bed and dragging yourself out, between loving or hating 40 hours of your week, between being fulfilled when you die or full of fear when you die. They make the difference between achieving your dreams and killing them.
If you’re like me, you’re probably skeptical as hell of that claim. Read on.
There are two reasons why you can do anything: to pursue things you enjoy or to avoid things you don’t. These reasons go by several names (love vs. fear, pursuit vs. avoidance) and manifest themselves in the debates we have today (freedom vs. security, free markets vs. regulated markets, charting your own path vs. following the crowd).
You have tons of other motivations – you want to get an apprenticeship so you can get a career going so you can earn money so you can travel so you can meet a hot foreign spouse so you can have a family like you’ve always wanted. And on and on. (And on.) But at the bottom of it all, you’re doing what you’re doing to either build a life you love or to get away from a life you don’t. Everything you do traces back to that dichotomy.
You have to introspect to discover your root motivation, and it can be tricky to figure out. It’s entirely possible to be building a career at a company, getting a nice house, having a family, and creating a social life just to get away from the fear of missing out or the fear of losing social status. It’s also completely possible to be avoiding sketchy places at night, forgoing high-risk, high-reward career opportunities in favor of safe, comfortable ones, and staying within your comfort zone as a piece in a strategy to create the life you want. You can’t assume that just because you’re pursuing something you’re on a motivation by pursuit mindset. Or that if you’re moving away from something you’re on an avoidance mindset. It’s about your ultimate, core, root, the-meaning-of-it-all goal: is it to run towards something you want, or run away from something you don’t?
Why It Matters
Running away from things is not the same as running towards things. When you’re at a crossroads, pointing behind you and saying “not that” won’t tell you which destination you should choose. If that’s all you have to guide you, then it really doesn’t matter which way you go. You have no criteria to choose anything beyond “not the road I came from”. And the road with the well-paved streets, the Starbucks on every corner, the crowd of people all traveling it, and the paper saying “You won!” is going to look a lot more appealing than the deserted gravel road with the run-down gas station and sketchy motel.
There’s nothing wrong with the well-paved street – if the place where it ends is where you want to go. But if you choose it without knowing where you want to go, here’s what probably happens: you casually drift along with the crowd. Maybe you get a thrill out of beating the other people so you run faster than them, take more photos, or talk to more people. Maybe you don’t see the point in all that, so you decide to relax and enjoy the stroll. If you’re “lucky”, you keep going on like this for years.
At first it’s all fine and good – fun times, good people, easy walking – but as time goes on you start to get a bit nervous: where is this road going? Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones, and when you look you realize the destination is exactly what you want, so you keep walking. More likely you look and realize it’s not, which leads to a mid-life crisis and deciding to take a different road. Or, you don’t look until you’re too old to start again, so you find a quiet spot and spend your days longing for what could’ve been. Or maybe you blank out the question and keep walking.
When you finally arrive at your destination, you’re worn. Your life has turned into fighting fire after fire with no end and no enjoyment. You’ve had to force yourself to stay on the path and stop questioning it for so long that you’ve paralyzed your mind; the wisps of what you might discover leave you so riddled with fear that you couldn’t think you tried. Dragging yourself has become a way of life: out of bed, to the office, to the store, to the social gatherings. The only place you don’t have to drag yourself is to get a drink or a smoke. Maybe you’ve focused so heavily on beating others that this hasn’t been a problem; but now that you see what you’ve beat them to, it starts.
This is the rest of your life. It ends in ashes, from the fire you put out every time you consigned yourself to putting out fires as a way of life, from the hopes and dreams you fought instead of fanned.
Maybe you’re a bit different, and you consciously chose the endpoint, but you chose it because it would get you furthest away from where you started at – the road before you got to the crossroads. You don’t amble along, or have a drink, or drift with the crowd. You don’t care about beating them, and no struggle, no matter how insurmountable, deters you from getting as far away from that starting point as possible. You keep marching straight to the end of that road.
But you don’t stop. You beat on, boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past in pursuit of that green light that year by year recedes before you, not realizing that “as far away as possible” isn’t a destination but a direction, always traveled but never reached, determined entirely by that thing you sought to escape: where you started. You end just like the others, with ashes where your hopes and dreams used to be; only you were spending your flames, not squandering them.
What went wrong?
You didn’t get your “why” right. You were running away from the life you didn’t want, not running towards the life you did. Had you been, you would’ve looked at the end of each road when you stood at the crossroads, and you would’ve seen that the safe road wasn’t leading you where you wanted to go. Since achieving fulfillment was your primary goal, you would’ve chosen the unpaved road with the sketchy motel – not because it’s sketchy (it is), not because it’s less-traveled (it is), not because it gets you furthest away from your past (50/50 split on that one) but because at the end of the road sits everything you’ve ever wanted out of life.
Maybe the safe road actually is the one with the destination you want. But your motivation for choosing it, your “why”, is because it leads you towards the life you want for yourself. It’s only when you have a specific endpoint, one defined by what it is rather than what it’s not, that you can ever hope to achieve the life you want for yourself. You won’t have that if you’re only trying to move away from things.
The good news is that you can still get your “why” right if you need to. My “why” was wrong during my last two years of college: it was all about setting up a backup plan to move away from fear, the fear of not being able to support myself. Instead of keeping on that path – spending twelve hours on a one-page rough draft, with my biggest daily achievement usually being dragging myself out of bed in the morning – I chose to drop out and start pursuing a life I love. I haven’t regretted it yet. If your “why” isn’t leading you towards the life you love, take the time to reorient it, and act accordingly. If that involves dropping out, you can always find a home at Praxis.