Prepare to Die

Now that I have your attention, please know that the title of this article is not a threat. Instead it is sincere bit of hope and advice that you will take to heart. Ben Franklin once famously quipped that the only certainties in life were death and taxes. I can’t help you with your taxes, being barely able to fill out my own simple returns even with the help of TurboTax. It is a wonder the IRS hasn’t thrown me in chains yet. What I can help with is in the discussion of how to prepare for dying and how to use it’s inevitability as something that motivates us to live happier, more meaningful, and more fulfilling lives before that moment comes.

I am no expert in dying, no more than anyone else. I do have a reasonable amount of thoughts on the subject thanks my exposure to the thoughts of other wiser and more intelligent men and women, themselves no more acquainted with death at the time of their writings or speeches, who devoted a great deal of thought towards the subject of death. This article is not about the act of dying or what comes after, we can save that theoretical discussion for another day. This article is about how to use the certainty of death to add value, beauty, and meaning to the things we do in our lives; to encourage us to take advantage of what precious little time we do have; and to prioritize the most important aspects of our delicate lives.

Following significant victories, Roman Generals celebrated with spectacular parades called Triumphs where they marched through the city and were praised and honored by all. During these parades, it was common for a member of the General’s retinue to stand behind him and quietly whisper in Latin the phrase “memento mori”, remember you will die. The point was not to be a buzzkill or to be some harbinger of doom, but to keep the General feeling modest and grounded even amidst their greatest and most ego-gratifying moments. The idea is that we must remember that no matter how much we love ourselves or are loved by others, how great and extraordinary are our achievements, one day we will die and whether in a few years or a few generations, our selves and all of our achievements will have faded into mere memories or even into complete obscurity.

Roman Emperor and Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote “Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.” It didn’t matter if you were Alexander the Great himself, someone whom history still remembers today, or his mule driver, of whom very people may ever have bothered to learn his name, both are dead and gone and whether great or small their accomplishments are relegated to mere footnotes of history. Remember that you will die, and use that reminder to drive you not to the acquisition of fame, fortune, or applause, but to spend your time wisely doing work that is truly meaningful and impactful.

I recently participated in a self-exploration activity that I learned from Robin Sharma in his book “Everyday Heroes.” Robin called this activity the tombstone statement, and the objective was to write out what you would want your obituary or eulogy to say about you after you passed. I took about 20 minutes to think about it, and 20 more minutes or so to write out my proposed eulogy. I am going to keep the specifics of what I wrote personal but I can say that they did include: dying at a (very) old age; charitable organizations and programs I founded; adventures; conducting myself with integrity; and friends and family. What this did was allow me to look within myself and to truly see and understand that which was most important to me, especially when it may involve something I wasn’t aware might actually be so dear.

My wish to die old (165 was the age I used – we shall see) indicates that health and longevity are important to me. Ergo I must maintain a healthy diet, take care of my body with movement, stretching and exercise, and that I should be aware of advancements in science and medicine so that I can ensure I am doing all I can to not just live long but live well.

Establishing charitable organizations and programs would mean that I give my time in service of others and that I accumulate enough wealth so that I can then lend that wealth towards the betterment of others. This is a call to work hard but to do so without losing sight that the real value in work is in creating value for others, not merely financial value for myself. It reminds me of the importance which doing work and spending my life in service of others holds within my heart.

Having adventures mean saving money to enjoy those adventures but also being willing to step outside my comfort zone and to make temporary sacrifices in order to enjoy extraordinary and unusual experiences with people and places across the glove (and maybe across space – who knows).

Conducting myself with integrity means having a firm understanding of myself and of the type of person I wish to be. It means having goals for my character and understanding which principles are in line with my ideal self, such that when tested I know the best decision in any choice is the one that most honors my ideals.

Lastly, I described experiences with friends and family members, and that I wished – in the scenario of my hypothesized death – to be surrounded by friends and family at the moment of my passing. This indicates the importance of the relationships in my life. It is a call to remember to be present in their lives and to be vulnerable while also allowing those I care about to do the same. It is about being aware that fame, fortune, and applause will not comfort you in death nor make you feel proud of your short time on earth, but that those with whom you were close will. It wont be the things we did per se that matter, but the way we feel about those things and about the way we felt being around the people who were present when we did those things, those people who were with us through the memorable cinema worthy moments and the mundane and forgettable alike, and who remind us that those ordinary experiences with extraordinary people were really the most precious moments of the whole journey.

I would encourage each of you to do the tombstone exercise on your own and to take it seriously and slowly so that you get a meaningful use of your time. I did mine a few days ago and even since then it has been often on my mind, serving as a compass to guide me towards making the decisions that will lead me to the wonderful life I wrote about during this activity.

It is easy to get carried away chasing pleasure, accolades, to endeavor on pursuits that bolster our ego and swell our pride. Death can be frightening until when we recognize death as a necessary precondition for the experience of life. From there we realize that the finality of life, that it ends in death, is what gives it meaning. Without death there would be no need for urgency or action, anything we wanted could be postponed indefinitely. Nothing would seem as beautiful because in a state of eternal existence, there would always be not just the potential but perhaps the inevitability that something more wondrous and special would come along, and the beauty of the current moment would lose its luster. That life is finite in duration should comfort us as it encourages us to act, allows us to enjoy, and by its very nature of having an end gives meaning to the entire experience. As Seneca famously wrote “it is not that life is short but that we waste a great deal of it.” Do not waste any more time. Grow to understand that which is most meaningful to you and prioritize that. Remember that you will die. Memento Mori.

Progress Must be Deliberate

“It’s not the hours you put in your work that counts, it’s the work you put in the hours.”

Sam Ewing – Professional Baseball Player

The motivated individual must be wary of the fact that simply showing up may not be half the battle. Have you ever been committed to a goal but been faced with the thought that you really aren’t feeling it that way, so you plan to just show up and go through the motions? Those days happen, and on those days one could argue that showing up at all is better than the alternative, which in this case would be to not show up at all. At the very least, showing up keeps the habit for which we are trying to achieve sharp. If we are trying to get better at golf, showing up to the driving range is better than not going; if you are trying to lose weight, going to the gym and doing 10 minutes on the treadmill is better than not exercising at all; reading through a chapter of the textbook for your master’s degree keeps you in the habit of studying, even if you don’t retain most of the information and have to read it again later. I am a firm believer that any progress or commitment, on a particular day, is better than no progress or the potential of dulling our positive habits which are setting us up for success. However, in order to achieve meaningful growth in any pursuit which will bring us happiness and fulfillment, we must have sufficient amounts of those days where we not only show up, but we pour our heart and soul into our work, such that every effort we can have is dedicated towards our progress. If we do not consistently show up in this kind of manner, then we are doomed to mediocrity.

Refer back to the quote from former White Sox and Blue Jays player, Sam Ewing. Sam is referencing the need not for mindless motion our casual pursuit of our goals, but for concentrated effort and determination. It is possible to make some progress by simply showing up. It is possible to understand the basics of chess movement and strategy after just a few games, but in order to achieve any sort of proficiency you must dedicate yourself towards learning advanced techniques, analyzing the great players, and studying your own mistakes. This requires determination and focus.

Likewise a basketball player can go out and shoot hundreds of free-throws, but unless she is determined to get better, and analyzing her movements, noting the difference in her movements and thoughts between those shots she makes and those she misses, she won’t get any better or will at the very least not improve as much as she COULD.

Robin Sharma has studied the habits of elite-performers in sport, business, wisdom, psychology, art, and more – the findings of which he lays out in an easy to follow format such that we may achieve similar greatness in our desired realm in his book “Everyday Heroes.” Sharma identifies for his readers that one, of the many, common traits shared by such successful people across various disciplines is that they approach their work with a sharp focus and the desire to improve. Take Tiger Woods, who even after his meteoric levels of success, decided that he needed to change his swing. Even though Woods was already perhaps the greatest golfer of all time, he recognized an opportunity for improvement, and completely reinvented his mechanics by concentrating on subtle movement changes day in and day out, even on rainy days and holidays. Tiger wasn’t just going through the movements, well in this case his focus was on his movement, he was concentrating on progress and change.

Simply showing up does not involve the required levels of mental focus, neurological intensity, or physical stress required in order to make a change. The survival of all living beings comes down largely to their ability to conserve energy and maintain homeostasis (normal/balanced function) throughout their system. Energy was to be used only in necessary circumstances for example when a threatening situation arose and the expenditure of energy became a life or death situation. Change does not occur without introducing a stress that necessitates the need for our brain and body to create such a change.

Therefore we can create an environment that will enable us to change, that is to progress in our desired goal, by mimicking stress. Fortunately, that no longer means running from saber-tooth tigers or roving bands of violent neighbors who want to steal our food, but the center of our brain that regulates our response to stress, our sympathetic nervous system, does not truly distinguish the nature, cause, or ultimate effect of that stress, and thus the body responds similarly whether we are running from a wild beast or trying to learn a foreign language.

When the body becomes stressed, our system is flooded by epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine which makes us hyper alert and focused, and increases neuroplasticity – our ability to learn. Think about this: imagine yourself as a pre-historic human whose village is attacked by a lion. Our brain responds to that stress by jacking up the aforementioned neurotransmitters such that we become appropriately stressed by the truly life or death situation caused by that beast. During this event, suppose we realize that by grabbing a sharp stick and using it as an extended form of self defense, we can fight off that attack. Our body at this time is highly neuro-plastic because it wants to remember everything that happens during this event because anything that successfully protects the system will be vitally important to our future survival. Thus, the stress of this situation permanently imprints itself upon our conscious and subconscious brain and we have now learned a new skill.

Remember that the stress response is no different from a physiological standpoint whether we are trying to ward off attackers or study for a test. The same neuroplasticity or desire to learn that saved us from the attack can help us study for the test and remember what we studied because was ingrained upon our mind during a period of intense focus and controlled stress.

The word stress often carries negative connotations. Dr. Alia Crum of Yale University and her colleagues are responsible for a great deal of the research demonstrating what I have just discussed (for more thorough analysis and to be frank, better descriptions I highly recommend Dr. Crum’s research papers and her interview with Dr. Andrew Huberman on the Hubermanlab Podcast which I will link below.) In order to distinguish a useful form of stress such as that which we are discussing, Dr. Crum and her colleagues coined the term “eustress” aka good-stress. This is the type of stress which we can deliberately impose upon ourselves in order to obtain beneficial or useful results.

Among many of their discoveries, Dr. Crum discovered that our perception of the outcome of a certain event will affect the outcome of such an event. Take a cold shower for example. Cold showers are not pleasant, in fact they are extremely uncomfortable. However, many positive outcomes have been linked with cold showers such as the ability to improve metabolism, focus, and the ability to positively react to negative stress. Much of these benefits however come from the fact that the person subjecting themselves to the stress MUST believe that what they are doing will create positive change. It may not be something that one looks forward to, but someone who takes a cold shower, hates every second and doesn’t really understand their reason for doing so, will not exhibit the same types of positive adaptations as the person who faces this stress in a positive manner.

This is fascinating research that indicates our attitude towards a behavior influences our outcome. After what might seem like a fairly sever tangent, I will now attempt to land this plane by bringing it back to the beginning point which is that our intent and attitude towards the behaviors of practice, learning, and improvement will largely determine our outcomes. Rather than merely showing up, we must show up with the intention of making progress.

Therefore the attitude towards which we approach an objective is of vital importance. If we show up with the proper amount of focus and intent, we can trigger a eustress response in our physiology that creates hyper-engagement, channeling our energies towards improvement. Whether it be playing the piano, refining our sprint technique, or reading a text-book for our Medical School class, when we concentrate our will towards our task, we create an internal environment that makes us susceptible to truly learn, improve, and retain rather than simply go through the movements.

Thus, while not every day is our best, and some days the most we can hope to do really is to just show up, real progress is made when we prepare ourselves for what is often a struggle, but recognize that within that struggle is the opportunity for improvement. This is how we come to develop a sense of mastery whether it be in sport, academics, art, or simply our own well-being.

Intent matters.

Link to Alia Crum and Andrew Huberman discussion:

Never Enough, Never Happy

What is missing from your life today? What would make you happy, if only you had more of it? Is it money? Many of our problems could be solved by having more of that. With more money I could take a vacation to a country I’ve always wanted to see, or take a different job that offers less pay but a more fulfilling experience. Would more prestige make you happy? If you finally got made partner at your law firm then your friends and parents would know how smart and hard-working you must be, and you will have differentiated yourself as above average in your field. What about a nicer home? IF you could get that newer and bigger place in the safer neighborhood then you could have the extra bedrooms for all of your friends, the pool in the backyard, and how much nicer would those brand-new hardwood floors be?

All the above examples have the ability to make us happy, temporarily at least, but how much is enough? How much money do you really need to be happy? Don’t just read this rhetorically, really answer this question – the answer differs from person to person. Consider your expenses, savings, and how much money you need to do the things you want. Assuming you aren’t frivolously wasting money, you probably need less than you think. Lack of money and anxiety over uncertainties such as where their next meal will come from or if they an keep a roof over their head for the next month are valid concerns for many, but how many people do you know who are obsessed with earning more money? Are you yourself this sort of person? Do you really need to earn $20,000 more or do you just want to? Maybe you do, but a large number of us are chasing income with no real understanding of why and are oblivious to the damage to our wellbeing that such discontent brings. Unless you are struggling to pay bills and cover necessities like food and housing, that extra money you so desperately covet will likely not bring as much happiness as you imagine. How much is enough?

How much is enough for our hypothetical career ladder climber above? After the first promotion from associate to junior partner they will likely feel joy and happiness, reveling in the euphoria of achievement and the congratulations and envy of their friends and colleagues. After a while that fades and they feel the same as they did before, and they are once again searching for more, this time anxious about what it will take to jump from junior partner to senior partner. The person is suffering from a scarcity of true happiness and is looking to comparison of others and to superficial rewards to fill the void of unhappiness. For this person obsessed with climbing the ladder- there is a serious possibility that there will never be enough and that they will always feel a sense of loss.

Lastly we come to the better home. I am sure we all have a dream house in mind. I would love to have a home with 6 bedrooms for friends to visit, floor to ceiling windows to let in the sunlight, and a view of the ocean with a large yard where I can sit and hear the waves crashing. The reality is that I may never come to own my dream home and while I will work to pursue my dreams and attempt to make that a reality, I will not pursue that end to such an extent that I forgo the opportunity to be happy now or that I sacrifice precious moments of my life in pursuit of such a goal.

There is nothing wrong with having ambitious aims like earning more money so you can afford to have certain fun and exciting experiences and the abundance of free time it takes to enjoy them. There is nothing wrong with wanting to climb and grow in your career – I am all about achieving your highest potential and often times through such promotions and growth we are able to position ourselves in a spot where we are better able to serve and help others. And there is nothing wrong with wanting a better home, who wouldn’t want a killer view and a room for each of your best friends to come and hang out.

The problem is answering the question: what is enough? Seneca the Stoic’s most famous work is arguably “On the Shortness of Life.” The theme of the book is a discussion of how we live our lives. Seneca argues that while many people lament how short their lives are “it is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” Among the various ways in which we waste our lives and our allotted time is in the pursuit of more. More of anything. I have previously and will continue to argue that ambition is generally a positive force, but it can be a slippery slope if we are unchecked in the extent of our ambition, or unaware of both our reason for acting and the potential consequences thereof. Unchecked and poorly understood ambition, ambition without a known purpose other than the attainment of more, will put is in a permanent state of discontent with the present as we pursue a future where we believe we will have enough, not realizing that we have created a lust that will never be satisfied, for which there is never enough. For the person who is endlessly ambitious, believing that possessions, wealth, fame, accolades, and more are the source of happiness “new preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition,” to quote Seneca again.

I want to reiterate one final time that the inherent desire to build, grow, and improve is a good thing, in fact such desires create the foundation of a good life. It is only when our we desire more for the sake of having more, or when we sacrifice all semblance of  balanced and happy life in pursuit thereof that desire or ambition become bad. If you want more money so you can save and send your kids to college or take a family vacation, great, go for it! If you want a promotion because you feel that you have some great ideas that can benefit your company – then get that promotion. Only be certain that you recognize why you want these things and learn to recognize when you have enough. Whatever enough looks like for you, when you have it you will be happy, because enough is as good as a feast.

The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself

The number one reason why people fail to act at living better and happier lives is fear. Fear prevents us from making the necessary decisions that would enable us to become our better selves. This fear comes in several forms: 1) fear of the inherent pain that comes from deciding to change; 2) fear of failure; and 3) fear of being seen in the wrong light by ourselves or others – in other words: vulnerability. This discussion will describe in greater detail each type of fear, how it ruins our opportunity for growth, and how we can learn to overcome those fears and create our best life.

Change of any sort requires energy and often involves pain. When a caterpillar struggles mightily to escape the chrysalis where it is held, expending large amounts of energy and battling through immense pain as it seeks to become its better self, a butterfly. Transforming who we are today into who we wish to become is an equally painful struggle. The alcoholic who wishes to become sober must first undergo the horribly painful process of detoxification and will continue to face the pain of temptation throughout the duration of their sobriety. The overweight individual who wishes to build a healthier body will struggle as they move their heavy body off the couch and out the door for a walk around the neighborhood and they will constantly face the pain of temptation from their favorite junk foods as they perhaps reluctantly choose a healthier alternative.

Each of these given examples and more involve inherent pain as we move from present-state towards desired state. The critical point of this process is when we make a genuine decision to face the pain and enact a change. Up to this point the individual may contemplate a change but abstain from fully committing due to fear. They know the process will be challenging and painful and they let that fear stop them from acting. Some people never get past the contemplation stage because they are crippled by fear. In order to overcome fear, we must make a decision to change. This decision is change after careful consideration of what change we wish to make, why we want to make it, and what it will entail. Understanding what it will entail prepares us for the difficult path ahead. It is during this phase where we take stock of exactly what sort of pain we will endure.

To see that pain and decide to act in-spite of it we must consider the pain we face should we decide not to act. In the case of our caterpillar, should they choose to forego the pain of becoming a butterfly and fighting through the chrysalis, the cost of not acting is death. If the alcoholic decides not to endure the pain of becoming sober, the pain they will continue to face is a life in shambles with little or no friends, a loss of potential, an inability to live a truly joyous life unencumbered by chemical stimulation, and very likely organ failure and an early death. Finally, in the case of our overweight example: though the pain of acting to move will involve hunger cravings, aching muscles, and very likely judgement; the pain of not acting involves a continued void of self-esteem, the inability to enjoy certain activities with friends and family, and as with our alcoholic – a high probability of an early death.

Like a pot of boiling water, once the threshold of a certain temperature and pressure combination is met, the reaction is all but inevitable and unstoppable. Our greatest chance at reaching this boiling point and deciding to act is by understanding the scenario and being more afraid of not acting, and the pain we will endure by staying the same, than we are of acting and the pain we will endure in changing. Legendary boxing trainer, Cus D’Amato, who coached among others the legendary Mike Tyson, famously said: “the hero and the coward both feel the same thing but the heron uses his fear and projects it onto his opponent while the coward runs. It’s the same thing – fear – but its what you do with it that matters.” Be more afraid of staying the same than you are of changing. This may only happen if you have an honest understanding of what you want and why.

The second type of fear is the fear of failure. We live in a society that praises perfection and excellence. This type of fear is exceedingly prevalent in society where perfection is the highest of ideals and winning is the greatest form of glory and achievement. Most people let their fear of failure prevent them from acting or attempting anything in the first place. We have to remember that without failure, progress is impossible. Thomas Edison did not successfully invent the lightbulb on his first attempt. Legend has it that he in fact failed over 10,000 times but spoke of this not as 10,000 failures but 10,000 learning opportunities, saying: “I haven’t failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” If he had let his fear of failure stop him he would never have even attempted this invention which is now found in almost all of our homes, and if he had feared failing a second time and so on, we would be left in the dark.

Dr. Brene Brown warns us of the dangers of perfectionism saying “when failure is not an option, we can forget about learning, creativity, and innovation.” I would add that when failure is not an option, we can forget about happiness and growth. Behind every success story: whether it be Steve Jobs building Apple in his garage, or the legendary greatness of basketball legend Michael Jordan, there are stories of failed strategies, bad decisions, and missed shots. If he was too afraid of missing a shot, Michael Jordan would never have even attempted what would become so many memorable game-winners. If Steve Jobs was afraid of failing we would never have Apple. If you haven’t yet failed, then you haven’t tried hard enough. The only true failure is when we fail to make a decision to grow or improve at all. Without such failure we will never learn. Do not fear failure but embrace it. Every time you fail is an opportunity to become better next time. If you want to wait until you are 100% ready and prepared you will never act. If you wait for perfect conditions – they will never come. The only way to succeed is to overcome your fear of failure, not by ignoring it, but by re-framing your thoughts on failure and looking at failure as a necessary part of the process.

The third type of failure we will discuss is perhaps the most crippling of all, which is our fear of vulnerability. Vulnerability is defined by Brene Brown as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Vulnerability equates closely with courage as it takes courage to be vulnerable. Courage means the desire to be seen. Being vulnerable requires courage because it is a willingness and desire to be seen and to overcome the fear associated with the uncertainty, risk, and exposure of what happens when we are seen. Vulnerability is a stripping away of the masks we wear and showing our true face, or a removal of our armor and allowing ourself the potential to be hurt. Vulnerability is scare for this very reason that it allows us to be heart.

A specific example that comes to mind for me is my decision to be vulnerable again after a bad breakup. For a long time I was determined to never fall in love again because I was done being hurt, so I knew that if I was never completely vulnerable again then I could never be hurt. Thank goodness I found someone who made me feel safe being vulnerable otherwise I was destined for a lonely and unhappy existence.

Vulnerability stops us from acting because we afraid not specifically of failure but of being seen by others as a failure if we make an attempt and fail. Vulnerability prevents progress because if we choose not to make an attempt, we can still logic our way into believing that we didn’t fail because technically we didn’t even try. This type of rationale will lead to an unfulfilling life where we have missed the opportunity to grow into our best and happiest self. Do not fear vulnerability. Look at vulnerability as the ultimate test of bravery and the greatest and final obstacle to clear before you become your best self.

“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself,” Franklin Roosevelt. Change is painful, failure is scary, and opening yourself up to ridicule and embarrassment is a daunting idea. As painful and scary as the decision to act can be, the scariest idea is a scenario where we live our whole lives frozen in inaction because of fear, and thus never even dare greatly enough to attempt a better version of ourselves.

A Caution Against the Do-or-Die Mentality

While making every attempt to not be excessively negative or cynical, I am writing today about a trope that we hear in the context of motivational speeches or winning attitudes with which I often find myself disagreeing. That mentality, as those of you who read the title likely guessed, is the do-or-die mentality. At some point in our lives we have probably heard friends, coaches, teachers, mentors, bosses, or random motivational-guru’s talk to us and tell us that the only way to become happy is to become successful and the only way to become successful is to go 110% all in with the idea that we either achieve greatness or we die in the effort.

I find this ridiculous because very few things in life are truly do-or-die and the winner-take-all loser-get-nothing attitude rarely holds up to thorough examination. The stereotypical archetype of the person giving this advice is a tough-talking speaker on stage telling you their life story about fighting through poverty and kicking down the doors of opportunity because they wouldn’t open on their own and making themselves into the person they are through nothing but hard-nosed determination, grit, and refusal to quit.

This might work for some people and this might work in some scenarios but this is not the only way to reach success and to find happiness. For every success story achieved with a “burn the ships” mentality there is a story of ruin and disaster from someone who refused to take proper stock of either themselves or their environment, neglected an opportunity to retreat and regroup, or who lacked respect for the difficulty of what they were trying to achieve, holding onto an inflated ego (“Burn the Ships” is a metaphor describing how if one were to burn their ships upon landing on enemy shores they would have no choice but to succeed or die trying). For every triumphant victory this attitude has won there are failures such as: Major General George Pickett’s fateful charge up Cemetery Hill during the U.S. Civil War – a charge that cost him 3/4 of his unit and likely turned the tide of the battle and the war; Colonel George Custer’s famous last stand at the battle of Little Bighorn where his entire regiment was killed; and lastly Marcus Licinius Crassus of the Roman Empire who was killed in his ill advised invasion of Parthia.

Each of the above examples come from military history, not the only such topic which we can demonstrate the theme at hand, but these instances each demonstrate a lack of knowledge of self in the strength of the leader’s units, a lack of respect and awareness about what they were doing and for their enemy, and an ego that convinced them that they could not be stopped – despite the overwhelming evidence they each should have seen.

What each of these men could have done would be to take a moment to accurately take stock of their own units: what were their numbers and armaments and what was their energy level or morale (Pickett’s men for example were exhausted by two full days of prior fighting). They should have taken a moment to analyze the objective: what was the enemy position and what exactly would a victorious assault entail; does a victorious assault seem feasible given all that we know or could they will themselves to victory. Lastly, they could have stopped for a moment and considered if discretion may have been the better part of valor and if they might retreat or regroup in order to restore their strength or apply an advantage elsewhere. Using the example of Pickett again, yes, he was ordered by his superiors to take the hill so maybe the blame is not squarely on him, but this was an ill advised decision that held little chance of survival in any case and ended up not just costing thousands of lives but turning the tide of the way. Perhaps those 12,000 men and the rest of the Confederate army could have pulled back but lived to fight another day. (Disclaimer: I abhor war but I am glad the Union/North one. I am by no means a lover of the Confederacy – this example simply is used to illustrate my point and because this was the turning point in a war that was until this point being won by the separatists).

Sometimes we do find ourselves in circumstances where the best chance of success is to put our head down and plug ahead. Many people will quit on the road to whatever aim they have because they are disheartened with their lack of progress or with the seemingly infinitely far distance where the accomplishment of their goals lie. In such cases buck up, put in the work, and forge ahead. But also have the wisdom to recognize when an alternative strategy may be better.

Sometimes our lack of success is not due to a lack of effort but by the wrong approach. This is why we need micro-goals and milestones by which we can measure our progress. If we continuously miss these milestones, then perhaps it is not our effort but our tactics that are wrong. Take such time to pause and consider whether a different strategy may be more useful. Insanity after all is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Not only can it be beneficial to pause and consider alternate strategies for success, but sometimes a tactical withdrawal or retreat can be the wisest choice. Military history would again show us numerous examples where a literal retreat was beneficial (see Battle of Dunkirk in WWII) but I will not go too deep down that rabbit hole again during this post. Have you ever changed careers? You likely found yourself working hard to reach a certain position and then realized you weren’t happy where you were. Maybe it was because you weren’t at your final goal yet and needed to work harder, or maybe after further thought you realized it was because you were on the wrong path all-together. Thus, rather than re-strategizing, you completely withdrew into a new path and thus found happiness – just one possible example of when such an approach would be useful.

My final issue with the winner-take-all / burn the ships trope is that life is not a zero-sum-game. Much success and happiness can be found despite not fully achieving whatever goal or objective we once thought was vital to our personal fulfillment. Life doesn’t work that way and this is a good thing. If you set out to lose 100 pounds in a year and you only lose 90; or if it takes 13 months instead of 12, should you feel a failure? Hell no! You are still 90% better than you were when you started or only slightly delayed. So often we focus exclusively on a future goal in the horizon, not realizing that in all of life we never really get to the horizon. Life is the journey and the real goal is the progress and growth we develop along the way rather than the end result. Have you ever achieved a goal you worked hard for, been ecstatic, and then felt lost or confused without that goal to work towards any longer? I have. Often times in such moments we are reminded that the striving towards a goal, towards an ideal, is better than actually achieving that goal.

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