4. Lifestyles Inimical to Success
“Inimical” means “hostile,” so the title of this chapter means “lifestyles hostile to your success.” If you are living one of the following lifestyles, in other words, you are seriously reducing your chances of building a sustainable activist career and a happy life.
The AACL, not surprisingly, lies at the root of many of these inimical lifestyles. If, for example, you spend your whole day working at a stressful day job so that you can buy lots of stuff, it’s not surprising that you don’t feel like doing much of anything when you get home. Many people spend their evenings vegging in front of the tube not because that is how they want to live their lives, but because they are too exhausted to do anything else. If you are in this situation, you might want to do what Chris did and switch to a job that is, (a) easier, (b) requires a shorter commute or (c) both! Once you’ve made that important change, you will then have the time and energy you need to ponder, and then effect, additional changes.
If changing your job seems like too big a step right now, then work on a smaller problem, such as reducing your housework burden. The important thing to remember is that restructuring your life to fit your values takes time: often years or even decades. Some changes may come quickly and easily, while others may be more difficult. Just keep working at it.
Below and in Chapter 5 are some of the inimical lifestyles you must discard if you are going to succeed. Chapter 6 describes the lifestyle you should replace them with. And Chapters 7 through 17 describe the process for doing the replacement.
A TV or Other “Soft” Addiction
There’s nothing wrong with watching a small amount of television each day, particularly if you record the shows and watch them after you’ve finished your work and met your other obligations. The problem is when you watch television indiscriminately and for many hours a day.
Television is almost always a waste of time. There are some exceptions, such as quality news shows, dramas or documentaries. But no matter how you rationalize it, most television is worse than useless; worse because it tries to brainwash you into the AACL. Unless you’re a media activist, and perhaps not even then, the rule of thumb is: the less television, the better.
Psychologist Judith Wright characterizes compulsive television-watching as a “soft addiction” in her book, There Must Be More Than This: Finding More Life, Love, and Meaning by Overcoming Your Soft Addictions (see Bibliography). Ditto for compulsive Web surfing, video games, e-mail-checking, shopping, napping, fantasizing and about forty other activities. You know you are in the thrall of a soft addiction when you don’t do the activity because you enjoy it or because it’s important, but merely out of habit, boredom or to escape. Or, you do it instead of something more important that you should be doing.
Breaking a soft addiction takes time and is usually best accomplished gradually. If you are currently watching three hours of television a day, try cutting back to 2.5 hours, and only when you’re comfortable at that level of television-watching should you try to cut back further.
Same for your other soft addictions: tackle them gradually.
Never berate or criticize yourself for your soft addictions, or for any other problems you may be having. As you will learn in Part III, blaming and shaming and criticizing yourself is usually counterproductive. Practice being a compassionate observer of your own flaws, since a compassionate attitude is key to helping oneself and others.
A soft addiction isn’t as debilitating as a “hard” addiction such as alcoholism, of course. But it can still sabotage your success. So, if you have one, deal with it. If necessary, talk to a therapist or other professional.
A “Hard” Addiction
Hard addictions—to drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.—are a whole different story. Unlike most soft addictions, a hard addiction can ruin your health and destroy your life.
Generally speaking, you should only work on one major life problem at a time, and if you have a hard addiction, that is unquestionably the problem you should be working on. Everything, including your activism, should take a back seat to your recovery and health. If, while you are recovering, you are able to do some activism, that’s terrific. If not—if the activism stresses or depresses you to the point where you are tempted to break your abstinence—then you have to forego your activism at least temporarily. Eventually, perhaps, you may reach a point where you can integrate your activism into your recovery.
If you are addicted, don’t be ashamed; many wonderful and talented people share your problem. Many experts, in fact, consider the AACL as a catalyst of addiction, due to its stressfulness, emphasis on immediate gratification and isolating tendencies.
Don’t try to handle your recovery yourself; seek professional help from a therapist, doctor or Twelve-Step Program. Don’t rush your recovery and don’t feel like the time you spend on recovery is wasted. Recovery is growth: an increased ability to handle the world in all its rawness, pain and confusion. It is one of life’s toughest challenges, and the ability and strength one gains from it are excellent qualities for anyone to possess.
Go-To Person or Doormat
Do you spend a lot of time doing things you don’t want to do, but that other people want you to do?
Do you spend a lot of time feeling resentful or angry about it?
Do you often feel like someone is using or exploiting you?
If your answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” then you have lots of company. Many people spend a lot of time doing things that are important to others, but not to themselves, and also a lot of time resenting it.
Typically, the problem manifests itself in two ways:
Doormats are people who are reluctant, or afraid, to say “No.” They may seethe inside, but they swallow their anger and do whatever it is they’ve been asked. Or, they may not even be conscious of seething.
Go-To People are people who like saying “Yes.” While some “Yesses” obviously spring from heartfelt generosity, Go-To People often say “Yes” because doing so makes them feel powerful and important. They like being the person others turn to for help, the one who’s in charge.
From the standpoint of managing your time, it doesn’t really matter whether you are a Doormat or a Go-To Person. Either way, you need to learn to say “No.” Chapter 15 offers some techniques for doing so.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that you should never help anyone. I’m saying that you should create, and follow, a reasonable schedule that allows you to help the people whom it is important for you to help, as well as the occasional random stranger. Constantly subordinating your goals or agenda to other people’s, however, is not being nice or noble: it’s self-sabotage.
Activists Face Hard Choices
Here, again, activists have it harder than most other people, since much of what we get asked to do is truly urgent or life-saving. (For example, interventions in cases of human or animal suffering.) The problem is that you can easily spend your entire life doing these urgent things without making progress on other important goals.
Not helping someone in dire need is obviously not an option. The best solution, therefore, if you get many emergency requests, is to find or create a group to back you up so that you’re not handling everything yourself. You will not only be able to alleviate more suffering that way, but you will also be much less likely to ignore your other priorities or burn out.
Please don’t forget that burnout, among frontline rescuers, is sometimes due to Compassion Fatigue, a psychological trauma condition for which you should seek professional help.
Drama can take many forms. Perhaps your relationships, living situation, income or health are constantly in flux. Or perhaps you are constantly screwing up at home or at work. Or perhaps you’re constantly getting into fights with friends, family members or colleagues. Or perhaps you are constantly zinging from one late-night or all-night party to the next, or one unfinished project to the next.
Many people, and particularly many young people, lead lives of great drama. Often that drama is painful, and yet it can also be exciting and escapist, and so sometimes we get hooked on it. The problem is that excessive drama depletes our time and energy and fosters a lack of emotional self-control. These conditions are inimical to professional and personal success.
That’s why many successful people lead lives that, on the outside at least, seem static or even kind of boring. They tend to create stable relationships, stable incomes and stable living situations, and it’s that very stability that allows them to focus on their Mission and succeed. Note the word “create”: stable relationships, etc., don’t just happen; you have to make them happen. As Gustave Flaubert put it, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
In his excellent book The War of Art (see Bibliography), Steven Pressfield says, “The working artist will not tolerate trouble in her life because she knows trouble prevents her from doing her work. The working artist banishes from her world all sources of trouble. She harnesses the urge for trouble and transforms it in her work.” Same for activists.
Work, therefore, to create a life for yourself that is rich (in the non-material sense) and interesting, but relatively free from drama. Even your activism should be as undramatic as possible. While activism is undeniably a drama-laden vocation, filled with emotional happenings and emotional people, you probably have more control over the level of drama you experience than you recognize. Acknowledge that any superfluous drama is probably detracting from your effectiveness as an activist, and strive to minimize it in your life and work.
I talked about workaholism in Part I, but the topic is worth revisiting. Workaholism fits neatly into the AACL, since people who work a lot tend to have more money with which to buy stuff. Workaholism also fits in with Puritanism, the “Protestant work ethic,” and other self-denying strains in American culture. All of these reasons may be why so many people see workaholism not as the serious problem that it is, but a benign dysfunction or even an admirable character trait. Many workaholics, in fact, joke or even brag about their condition.
It doesn’t help that, in the activist world, workaholism is often considered noble. Sometimes it is even demanded by the organizations we work for, or by other activists. But workaholism is incompatible with long-term success because workaholics tend to become miserable and burn out. That is particularly true if you’re working long hours while living in poverty, or not seeing a result you feel is commensurate with your efforts and sacrifice.
If you are currently living a workaholic lifestyle, you should go back to Managing Your Mission, and strive to get your life and priorities back in balance.