Happy New Year!
The picture above is from July 2022, during a trip to Florence, Italy. My wife Lea was taking a month-long portrait painting class at the Florence Academy of Art, and we were staying at an Airbnb in the center of Florence. Each morning Lea rode her rental bike 3 miles to the studio, and I rode along with her because I love being out and about on my bike in the hustle and bustle of Florence as it came to life each morning.
Every morning we rode together down this long stretch of bike path next to a very busy street. After I dropped Lea off at the studio I rode back on my own, piddling along and soaking up the sounds and sights of one of my favorite cities on earth. On one of these rides, I noticed an older woman walking slowly down this long path. Then I noticed her the next day, and the next, and the next..., and I started to get curious about her. Where did she live? Who was in her life, if anyone? What did she do with her life up to this time?
I was so curious about her because she amazed me! It is all too easy these days to create a post in our brain's own social media board, dedicated to a mental comparison of ourselves to people who accomplish massive feats that are paraded around social media - people like David Goggins, Jocko Willink, Jacky Hunt-Broersma, or Adam Grant, to name a few. I would also include my son Sam in this list, given his ongoing bicycle ride from Alaska to South America with a below-the-knee amputation.
The problem with comparing ourselves to these icons is that the gap between where we are and where they are seems so HUGE, a gap that can seemingly never be bridged. What we don't see these folks do when no one is looking is the daily small things, done consistently over time, that led to them becoming so epic.
Back to my unknown Italian lady friend above. She captured my imagination because every day, despite her age, despite being so kyphotic, despite being alone (small assumption here), she got up, got cleaned up, fixed her hair, put on a nice dress and nylons, picked up her big black purse, and walked down the massive length of this chaotic street, to somewhere. Every day.
If I put myself in her shoes (which, if you look closely at the picture - they are flat, angled, and quite worn), I could imagine her wondering if she should just throw in the towel on it all. She has not. Perhaps she can't. Perhaps she lives alone, and if she did not go out every morning, she would not have groceries for her dinner. But perhaps, just perhaps, she just has not given up. After all, she is out there every day, walking the same walk, to somewhere.
Regardless of the story I create in my head about this beautiful Italian woman, the fact remains; she gets her ass out of bed, she gets squared away, and she hits the road, every day. And I think it is safe to say that she does it regardless of how she feels. Every day.
I had my picture of her framed, and I hung it in my office above my desk. When I look at it, it brings me back to ground zero, to the most fundamental aspect of living. Get up, get squared away, and do something useful, for yourself, or for others, no matter what. It is the central tenet of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy - to accept reality and your feelings, and commit to doing the things that you value, despite how you feel.
You can either commit to doing the hard things, one small bit at a time, each and every day, or you can get comfortable, not do the small actions each day, and dwindle in a slow downward spiral. Then you have to work hard to get out of the ditch dug by your focus on comfort. Either way, the work will be hard, but it is a lot harder to get out of a ditch than to stay on the road of discipline. We might as well stack the deck with smaller, not too hard, things each day, which always leads to an upward spiral and to good things and good feelings, rather than the usual Herculean effort to unwind the aftermath of a lack of discipline.
This principle was highlighted for me in a remarkably useful book called Streaking. The thesis of their book is that we can choose who we want to become in life in one of four areas of our lives - personal, professional, spiritual, and social by committing to a streak of action that will help us become that person. In other words, you can change who you are, literally.
That may seem like BS on the surface, but in the world of personality, it is for real. Our personalities are constructed by three forces: our genetic or biogenic personality as best measured by the Big 5 personality assessment, a sociogenic component (these two comprise the nature and nurture side of the personality coin debated so heavily in the past) and finally, what Brian Little, the world expert on personality calls our Idiogenic force, which consists of the unique personal projects that we pursue in life.
In other words, the various personal projects or activities we pursue that are unique to us, change us, for better or worse. Two personal examples:
One of my personal projects was to become a great father, and I worked hard to become as good a father as I could be, and it impacted my personality greatly. It taught me to be more patient, understanding, and compassionate. It taught me to be more open to seeing my children as the unique individuals that they (and all of us) are. These influences have spilled over into other areas of my life in very beneficial ways.
On the flip side, becoming a surgeon changed me in many wonderful ways and some not-so-wonderful ones. The 4 habits I learned as a surgeon - discipline, be strong, self-sufficiency, and fix everything - well, they were (and still are) massively powerful and valuable skills, but like all good things, they are good until they are not. Continued misapplication of those "personal project personality traits" that I absorbed as a surgeon led to unnecessary challenges and suffering on my part, and on the part of others in my orbit. In other words, not everything in life needs a surgeon's surgical approach (my wife and kids can confirm the veracity of this).
The other challenge with our lives as surgeons is the all-consuming nature of the beast, which often seems to leave little time or energy to actually pursue who else you might like to be in life. Of course, we are all too busy, but if we care at all about who we are and how our lives are unfolding, we can make the effort on our behalf to steal back small chunks of time from the many useless activities that can dominate our days - unnecessary meetings, social media to name a couple - and use those time windows to dedicate ourselves to the actions that will help us become the person we want to be.
Good news. You are actually in the drivers seat, and you can decide who you want to be, and with the help of a few simple streaks, you can start to crack the door open to let the light in on a new way of being in the world. The process follows three steps.
Becoming Who You Want To Be
- Ask yourself who do you want to be. Pick an area.
- Then ask: to be that person, what do I need to do - what actions - consistently?
- Then ask: what do I need to do daily, weekly, or monthly that will make me into that person?
- Then choose streaking actions - the smallest, most laughably simple thing you can do every day - and commit to doing that action, every day, like our lady above. The streak of actions will change who you are.
A wonderful example of this in action is in this video I picked up from Tim Ferriss.
So consider picking one of these four areas of our lives - personal, professional, spiritual, and social - and then decide what small and laughably simple action(s) you can realistically commit to, start a streak, and don't stop! It will change who you are, your life, and the lives of those around you.
(BTW - there is a great app for doing a streak - and you can have others do the same streak or a different one - which is very powerful for one's motivation).