I’m not sure where I got this approach, but for much of my life I have operated as if there is a right solution to every problem. Then, when I could apply that correct answer, I did. After that, there were no other options—or at least none that I have wanted to try. I just wanted that one thing that worked to be the thing that works. This doesn’t mean that it always did; it fact, just the opposite. But in many situations in my life, it hasn’t mattered much. If it worked once, I would pound away at it time and time again in an effort to make it the solution to that particular situation.
About a week ago—honestly—it occurred to me how many times I’ve done this in my life. It doesn’t matter whether it’s weight loss, relationship issues, money management, or writing projects. If once, even if it was 30 years ago, one particular approach worked, that’s my go-to answer. It’s highly possible it would be my favored method even if it didn’t work. It’s just what I know, so it’s what I do. And I’m even happy to pass on these techniques to others.
I’m kind of astounded at how many lessons there are to learn at this end of life.
When a person younger than me asks for advice (or even if they don’t), I often go right to a slightly modernized version of, “Well, in my day …” This is despite the fact that whatever behavior I’m suggesting might not have even been successful. I have relied on what is known to me—it’s that simple. I am familiar with what it feels like to do it that way. I realize now that the comfort that comes with familiarity is incredibly powerful. That comfort is so alluring that I will shove and shove and shove to make something work that simply can’t—just because I’m in that rut.
I’m beginning to see that if I took a few more uncomfortable, unfamiliar steps, it might result in a much better solution. I had a vague recollection of this when I read James Clear’s Atomic Habits and he emphasized that we focus too much on our goals and not enough on how we get to them. “You do not rise to the level of your goals,” he says. "You fall to the level of your systems.” But, like I do with a lot of books I read, I took that in fervently for a few days and then forgot about it. Recently, I found myself changing how I was doing several things. Most of those changes were unrelated to the situation and much more connected to other happenings in my life.
When the shift first occurred, and changes were happening without me trying to grind everything into submission, I kind of couldn’t believe it at first. It has created a new feeling in me. I am beginning to see that there are lots of ways to do things. I can focus on different systems and end up with better results. If I’m feeling stressed out, for example, my attention has most frequently gone to not wanting to feel that way. And, my traditional method for getting rid of that feeling is to build a big wall around myself and not let anything stressful get in. Trust me. That is not a good system.
I’ve discovered that a better system is actually being more open, not less open. Quit gripping the stressful situation and trying to control it into submission. Let it happen and do things that help me feel relaxed and more in control of myself—walk, read, cook, sleep. It doesn’t prevent the stress; it keeps me from becoming a stressed-out idiot. And, it’s a different route than I’ve taken before. In previous iterations, I’ve focused on trying to control the thing that’s causing me problems. I’m learning that switching my attention to calming myself is much more helpful.
I’m kind of astounded at how many lessons there are to learn at this end of life. It’s funny that we think of ourselves as learning the answers as we go and then lining them all up in a neat little row for comfort in our later years. In reality, I feel like I’m turning everything I’ve learned on its head. A million possibilities now on every path. What a great present waiting at this end of things—knowing I really don’t know much and being open to trying something new.