So, onto something lighter!
I usually hate when people boil something down to banal trivialities. I find myself despising it when people take a complex process and try to pretend that it can be reduced to something “As simple as 1-2-3”.
So, here’s an analysis of my own 1-2-3 approach to complex problems!
Specifically, my approach whenever I help anyone deal with any personal and psychological issues (and in fact it’s a good general approach to many problems) is the following:
#1: Identify where you’re at.
#2: Make a list of aspirations.
#3: Construct an action plan.
This sounds simple, and in matter of fact you can do each part relatively easily in many different contexts. But there’s two things that need to be analyzed before you can use this approach.
First of all, we as human beings tend to want to focus on step #3. But in actuality, step #3 is nearly automatic when #1 and #2 are done correctly. Truly identifying a problem, especially when it’s an emotional problem that requires admitting weakness and fault and real hurt, is difficult. We often want to leap to the point where we find a solution, but we have to actually live in the moment of the problem. And really figuring out what we want and why is actually an immensely challenging process.
Once we’ve figured out where we actually are, with no self-serving illusions, and once we’ve figured out what we actually want, the mind has an incredible ability to begin subconsciously working on implementing the action plan.
More importantly, and today’s main topic, is the complexity of #2.
When I work with people on bridging the gap between #2 and #3, I have to do what seems like two contradictory things. I write this post now because last night I was in the process of doing so for myself. (Everything I suggest when working with people is techniques that I have personally used, including every chapter of Skillful Means).
First, I have to tell someone to not censor their aspirations at all.
Do you want to kiss George Clooney? Great, write that down.
Want a billion dollars? Add that to the list.
We have a natural instinct to try to keep our aspirations down. We want them to be realistic. We don’t want to admit aspirations that seem selfish. In particular, we often struggle to admit aspirations that society doesn’t want us to have.
For example: I want a partner who is willing to explore D/s and ravishment fantasy play. (If you don’t know what that is: Google is your friend… if you’re careful).
I admit this in public because my work requires me to be metaphorically naked. But it’s also a good example of the kind of thing that many people would struggle to admit. It’d be too problematic to their self-image. Hopefully, the work that was done at step #1 would force the honesty here, but it will still be hard at step #2 to admit it as something that could be desired.
For this process to work, it has to be complete. Someone has to list everything they want.
The reason why is that the list of aspirations is not really to actually achieve.
When we see written out all the things that we want, we can then start putting priorities to them. I suggest people use Very Low, Low, Medium, High and Very High, effectively a simple Likert scale.
Someone might realize that their desire to kiss George Clooney or actually be in a Hollywood movie or anything like that is Very Low. Yes, the idea’s cool, but they come to realize as they think about implementing it that they don’t really want it.
Meanwhile, their desire to actually become a good chef may be Very High. They might realize that they love cooking so much that they want to pursue that dream.
When we fully understand the networks of our desires and where they come from, we can move onto the second, seemingly contradictory step.
Because now that we’ve listed everything, we have to start tapering. Brutally.
This process can seem difficult. It can mean sometimes compromising on dreams. It means selecting how we will spend our time and how we will be defined.
But this tapering process is actually liberating.
Throughout history, most human beings had staggeringly few options. Paleolithic people were going to be hunter-gatherers. Maybe you were also a storyteller, or a drum-maker, or a weapon maker, but you were certainly going to be a hunter-gatherer. In feudal societies, most people were going to be farmers and serfs, the bulk of society providing food so a small elite could do anything else and have relative material security, expecting full well that they and their children and their children’s children would forever be in this state of agonizing lifelong work.
But options can be paralyzing. When we stand in the middle of a massive field and see every possible direction we can go, sometimes we find ourselves choosing none.
Tapering down options and making selections is difficult at first, but it becomes a relief. It frees our minds. It allows us to eliminate expectations. It lets us realize that the reason why we haven’t achieved many of our dreams is that they were phantasms rather than true aspirations of the soul.
Because it can be psychically jarring to go from opening the heart to every possibility to shutting the mind’s doors against idle thoughts, we may have to do these two steps separately. But they need to be done.
Perhaps the most important thing that we can discover by doing this is realizing not just what our aspirations are, but why.
One of the most important things to realize about human psychology is this: Two people can have the same goal for very different reasons.
I want to make more money. I find myself not only wanting to be more free from monetary concerns but also wanting to be able to aid friends and family, give to causes I care about, and have the latitude to pursue options and projects.
Yet I don’t really want consumer goods. Aside from a penchant for Steam games (which I’ve managed to mercifully shut down) and other occasional stupid purchases, I find myself generally being quite satisfied with what I have, materially.
This isn’t to brag or say that I’m some kind of saint. I have desires, they just generally are not fulfilled by material possessions. (I must admit, an Iron Chef pilgrimage would be expensive and yet a goal I do have).
But other people might quite justifiably want to make more money so they can enjoy creature comforts. They may want to have a powerful car, or a lavish home, or be able to pursue expensive projects and hobbies such as constructing model train sets.
The guy who wants the model train set, we’ll call him Rod, and I share a goal: Increasing how much money we make. But our action plans to get there have to be totally different.
If someone like me were to try to choose to make good money because they wanted to provide for their friends and family, if they found consistently that that was the reason for that aspiration, then they would want to avoid doing jobs that might require compromises that might lead them away from that aspiration. Someone who wanted money for private consumption like Rod does, on the other hand, would be able to pursue virtually any career that paid well.
A person who wants children to satisfy their parents’ desire for grandchildren may need to recognize that that is not a particularly healthy reason to pursue children. A person who wants to get more friends because they feel lonely may need to recognize that they may feel lonely even surrounded by people. We can begin to get a diagnosis of our internal ailments by examining our external desires.
I have found consistently that the biggest predictor of the way people endure trauma and the costs of living and move through difficulty is their feeling of purpose. When you have something to live for, events that would cripple others can wash over you. Moving through #2 and getting to #3 can give us a desire to fulfill our dreams and an awareness of what specifically we want. So many people struggle to get by in life not because of the challenges of life but because they haven’t found something that burns hotter than the darkness outside. When we know what we want, we can recognize that the costs that we often endure are part and parcel of what we’re pursuing. And simply recognizing that the challenges in our life are so often of our own choosing can be tremendously liberating.
Post-scriptum: I am considering doing a video on this topic. Please comment if there would be any interest; I also have a video planned on sacrificing to the altar of our beliefs!