When I was 20, I got into a phase of reading books and autobiographies and falling in love with the people I would read about. People like Dale Carnegie, Phil Schultz, Norman Vincent Peale, and many others. I would imitate their behaviors, memorizing their quotes and rules. Every night before I went to bed I would recite Dale Carnegie’s 27 principles for “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” When I spoke to friends, I would recite psychological terms and attempt to manifest a life similar to what I read in this books.
“You need to stop copying others and be yourself,” my step mother used to always tell me. But she didn’t understand, or so I thought. Why would I be myself? I don’t even like myself, why would I want to be what I don’t like, when I could just become these people that I did like? Why would I “be myself” when myself was a 20 year old college dropout living with his father who had 2 friends and 0 aspirations? Why would I be him?
Well, obviously as I talked about before, and said when I gave the speech for the closing ceremony of Americorps NCCC in 2016, “...hiding who we are from yourself is the last breathe in the waiting room of life...“. My step mother was right, and the thing I realized down the line was that I always knew it, I was just scared. How do you take an unsculpted piece of clay and turn it into a masterpiece? Why not just hang a picture of Michelangelo's work and call it a day? I was terrified at the work it would take for me to become someone that others would read and want to emulate, so I convinced myself that I was doing myself a favor by just becoming someone who already did the work, and was already worthy of emulation.
Changing ourselves is terrifying. Eradicating old habits and creating fail proof systems to prevent backslide is tough. Even when we do it all, even when we feel we put in the years needed to accomplish such a task, how do we prevent ourselves from going off course? How do we prevent the 1 degree of variance, which, over time, sends us astray? How do we, as humans who suffer from, and hold things in life that suffer from atrophy, prevent the law from eroding and suffocating ourselves and what we love? How would I, the 20 year old who felt the same way as Chester Bennington when he said in “Waiting for the End”, “All I want to do is trade this life for something new, I am holding on to what I haven’t got”, ever create enough incremental friction to spark the fire of growth within me?
In “Ego is the Enemy”, Ryan Holiday closes with a lesson that his martial arts friend shared with him. It went along the lines of: “In Life, as in Martial Arts, asd in any realm, we have to sweep the floor. Day in and day out, we have to keep the floor clean.”
Lately, all the way up here in Alaska, I have been thinking about that premise a lot. I write it in my journal everyday, but the meaning has finally hit me. We have to do the little, seemingly inconsequential things that suck, daily, in order to create incremental momentum. One-tenth of a percent of growth a week seems like nothing, but after 3-4 years, we have become the person that we could have never imagined. We do this by humbling ourselves to the floor. We must live in the details. It is easy to perform grandiose achievements, to remodel our kitchen in a fit of inspiration, but to sweep the same floor every single day? That is where the difficulty lies.
I often think about this in terms of my romantic relationship. It is easy to get flowers and go on dates, and hold large acts of love. And those things are important. But in order to maintain the relationship, in order to keep it clean and moving forward, I must do the little things that seem not to matter, regularly. I must sweep the floor by making sure she knows I love her, by asking about her day, and by actually listening when she tells me about it. I must be present when we are together, hold her hand in the car, kiss her forehead when she falls asleep. Love, as in life it seems, is made up of the mundane (not that listening to her is mundane). It is only when we conquer the inconsequential, when we pay attention to the details, when we sweep the floor, do we create a foundation that is able to maintain a lifelong love. Only then are the grandiose and elaborate actions icing on the already worthy cake.
Everyday we must do the little things that send us in the direction we want to go. It is humbling, and it keep us from flying off with all of our aspirations. It reminds us that the work never truly ends, and that the incremental accomplishments will never save us from the work, but increase our capacity to maintain it.
How do we change ourselves? How do we eradicate old habits and create fail proof systems to prevent backslide? How do we prevent ourselves from going off course? How do we prevent the 1 degree of variance, which, over time, sends us astray? We sweep the floor. We master the mundane. We conquer the inconsequential, and we do it day in and day out. Only then, over the course of years, can we look back and see what we have accomplished, see how far we have come.
“Character cannot be summoned at the moment of crisis if it has been squandered by years of compromise and rationalization. The only testing ground for the heroic is the mundane. The only preparation for that one profound decision which can change a life, or even a country, is those hundreds of half-conscious, self-defining, seemingly insignificant decisions made in private. Habit is the daily battleground og character.” (Dan Coats)