Recently, I heard a very compelling story for why so many of us “stop” in our efforts to get what we want in life before we get them. It is a story about a teeter-totter.
On the left side of this teeter-toter are piled up all of the reasons we can’t have something… say, a better job, a healthy relationship, freedom from debt, or whatever. Some of the reasons are legitimate, and some of them are just in our head. It really does not matter which are which… just that the left side of the teeter-totter is weighed down pretty heavily.Now, what we might like to do is to simply kick all of those things off of that side of the teeter-totter, making it easier to push down the side we want. Unfortunately, those efforts are harder to do than we might think because we are actually quite attached to those burdens. Take the case of a better job, for example. Even though we might not like the one we have, it’s usually better than being unemployed. Often, we find ourselves in scenarios that are too bad to stay in, but too good to leave unless there is something better already lined up. The point here is not the job… it’s that we are attached to the very things that we want to get rid of. We are attached to the same very obstacles we are trying to overcome in our pursuit of something better, faster, more exciting, more fulfilling, or whatever happens to be on the right side of our teeter-totter.
So we start piling up weights on the side that we want — the right side — and by all accounts it doesn’t make a bit of difference. The left side is still firmly stuck on the ground. So we keep applying to more jobs, looking for other work, talking to our references, etc. but we’re still stuck. Again, the job is not the issue here… it’s just an example. The point is that up until the very moment where the weight on the right side starts to exceed the weight on the left, we are not going to see movement.
There are two fundamental challenges we face with most of the significant change efforts in our lives. The first is that there is a lot of weight on the left, and half of that weight is invisible to us until we start trying to push against it. It is when we push against it that we begin to see how resistant to change our lives can really be. The second challenge is that because the teeter-totter does not move despite a considerable amount of initial effort, we stop trying! We have this expectation that any amount of work should be met with a comparable amount of progress to show for it. When that turns out to not be the case, we get discouraged.
The solution to this dilemma is also two-fold. The first part of the solution is to let go of our attachment to the right side of the teeter-totter (results). In our results-driven society, that sounds counter-intuitive. However, it is that same focus on results that often leads to giving up prematurely. Instead of focusing on the result, we need to focus on the actions that lead to results. We need to focus on continually adding weight to the right side. To support that effort, rewards also need to be associated with those positive actions, rather than merely with the final result.
The second part of the solution is to notice where you stop. Where do you stop piling weight on the right hand side? How much do you do before you get discouraged? How much positive feedback do you need in order to sustain your positive actions? Sooner or later, we all stop. Your task for the moment is merely to notice where you stop. The precise moment when you notice that you stop, rather than merely stopping but not paying attention, that is the moment of choice where you can gain leverage towards accomplishing your change effort. By noticing where you stop, you are empowered to choose differently — to keep sustaining the actions that will support your primary goal independent of the attachment to the final result.
Or, in the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”