Normally, when I write my articles, I try to be at least a little encouraging. But unfortunately, there’s really no way to soft-sell today’s topic. So today I’m going to piss you off instead.
I want to get this out of the way up front because, frankly, we’re going to be talking about some cold, harsh truths that are unpleasant to hear, and the instinctual reaction to a lot of harsh truths is to get mad. To say “fuck you, you don’t know me!” But truth is truth and the sooner you accept certain truths, the better your life will be in general. So here it is:
Many people reading this blog aren’t going to get any better at dating.
Now yes, I realize I’m opening up myself to “ha ha, you just admitted you suck as a dating coach” responses – but this doesn’t just apply to dating. It applies to any form of self-improvement or chasing any particular dream you may have had. For many people, it’s just never going to happen.
But here’s the reason why: you’re sabotaging yourself. You may not realize it, but more often than not, you are your own worst enemy. You are Edward Norton punching the ever-loving shit out of himself over and over again as your brain disrupts every single attempt to make things better.
But here’s the good news: once you recognize the ways that you’re sabotaging your own self-improvement, you can actually start to fix things.
5) You’re Ignoring The Opportunity Cost
More often than not, people have failed at their self-improvement regime before it’s even started. The reason for this is that they’ve made one of the most common errors imaginable – they forgot that they don’t have unlimited hours in the day. This seems like it’s obvious – we all complain that we don’t have enough time to do X, Y or Z. But whenever we take on a new goal – whether it’s trying to improve your social skills, start a new exercise regimen, train for a marathon, write a novel, whatever – we do so without stopping to think about how we’re going to fit this into our lives. We just assume that we’re going to effortlessly find the free time and make it work.
This is when you run into the resource management issue. As any player of real-time strategy games will tell you, resource management is 99% of success… and in this case, that resource is time.
The problem is that time is like energy; it can’t be created, only redistributed. Every new activity in our lives, by definition, comes at the expense of something else. This is what’s known as the “opportunity cost”; you’re making the decision between two mutually exclusive options, understanding that the potential gain from one option is price of the other. Anything new in your life means that you’re having to make the choice to give up something else. Now you have to weigh the value of everything in your day to day life and start deciding what’s a priority and what’s not.
Some of these choices are easier than others: most people aren’t able to work fewer hours, for example, so you can’t take time out from your job to train for a marathon. Other times, you decide that the opportunity cost is too high; you could take fewer hours at work, but it would come with a commensurate reduction in pay, which would mean having a harder time in other areas that are a priority such as paying bills and being able to afford food. So instead, you look to your “free time” – those hours that you haven’t committed to somebody else. If you’re going to train for that marathon, you’re going to have to decide what you are willing to give up. Which means more to you: playing video games, or getting to that finish line? Spending time with your friends, or spending time training? Are you willing to give up your morning routine in order to get up at 5 AM, toss down a protein shake and run nine miles before taking a rapid shower and running out the door to get to work on time?
If you’re not willing to sacrifice something in order to make progress towards your goal, you’re intrinsically saying that whatever activity you’re doing is more important to you. You have made a choice – that being able to get up at 7:30, and have an easy-going breakfast while you check out Facebook is more important to you than getting closer to qualifying to run in the Boston Marathon. You’re not going to get better at dating because instead of taking the opportunity to go out and meet people, you’ve chosen to skip that party and stay home instead.
Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a value judgement on you as a person. I’m not saying that you’ve chosen wrong. Obviously, I’ve got my opinions about what you should be doing, but deciding that spending time with friends or family is more important to you than training for something that’s incredibly demanding of your time and hard on your body isn’t a bad thing. God knows there were plenty of times when I decided I just wasn’t feeling it and stayed home instead of going out and working on making cold approaches. I’m just saying that you’ve decided which means more to you and it’s important that you acknowledge that decision. Even if all you’re doing is farting around on the Internet instead of hitting your deadline, (editor’s note: AHEM. ಠ_ಠ) this is what you’ve chosen to do instead of chasing after your goal, along with everything that means. When I stay up until 4 AM playing Dragon Age: Inquisition (which I’ve done repeatedly this week), I’m making the conscious decision that playing a video game was more important to me than getting eight hours of sleep. In that moment, I’ve decided that “one more side-quest” is worth feeling like ten pounds of ass in a five pound sack the next day.
You, ultimately, decide what’s important to you and where you want to spend your time. You have to make your choices, and those choices have consequences.
Speaking of procrastination…
4) You’re Too Busy Imagining The Future To Actually Get there
The point of any self-improvement program is that you’re going to be a better person when you finish than you are right now. Obvious, right? But think of it this way: How many people do you know who talk incessantly about their goals? They have their dream-boards, and their big plans, and they know how amazing it’ll be. They’ve collected book after book, read blog after blog and made plan after plan and they just can’t wait for that glorious future when it all comes together.
Out of that crowd, how many of them have actually achieved their goals?
Gonna be honest, I’ll be a little surprised if you can count the total on more than the fingers of one foot.
Now let’s talk about you. I want you to take a look at yourself right now. In ten years, you’re not going to be living your dream; you’re going to be exactly the same as you are right now, only 10 years older. The more you talk about how “someday, you’re going to be X”, without actually taking concrete steps towards getting there, then all you’re doing is mental masturbation. It feels great at the time, but at the end of the day it’s not the same as actually achieving your goal. In fact, all that fantasizing is actually bad for you; you’re so busy imagining how great your future goals are going to be that you, you’re making yourself feel like you’ve already done it. Since you’ve already feel like you’ve made it, your motivation drains away and you never actually start. All you’re doing is delegating responsibility to your future self. You aren’t going to do anything because Future You is going to take care of it! How? No idea! Future You will figure that out! You just know that where you’ll be someday. But every “someday” just means kicking responsibility down the road until “someday” becomes “never”.
The problem is that you’re focusing way too much on who you will be rather than who you are now. Now, I can totally get that. The future is going to be an amazing place! You’re going to have written that novel you’ve always dreamed of! You’re going to be so damn suave and charming that your house is going to come with hot and cold running models, all of whom will be begging for the chance to jump on your dick. You’re going to have your dream career as a game designer, cranking out the next AAA title that’s going to be the talk of E3!
But none of that’s going to happen unless you actually start taking the steps to get there. You know: all the hard work and literally thousands of hours of effort it takes to actually achieve your dreams. Still have to do that part.
To give a personal example: for a very long time, I wanted to be a professional freelance artist – writing and drawing comics, creating storyboards for movies, book covers, the works! I had plans within plans within plans. I had a website, a kick-ass portfolio and gumption to spare. But I never went out and started chasing down clients. I kept saying “I have no idea how to start.” I collected tons of books on the subject – I lost track of how many editions of The Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines sat on my shelf. What I didn’t do was actually pursue those jobs. I stumbled into my first professional art gig – working as an animator on A Scanner Darkly – and when that ended abruptly, I just fell back on “well someday…”
Nearly a decade later: still not a professional artist.
Who you are now is who you will be…. so if you want to be someone else in the future – a novelist, a player, more in shape, whatever – then you have to start now. Each time you talk about your future self without taking concrete and active steps to get there – not just planning but actually putting ass-in-the-chair time – then you’re just spinning your wheels and sharpening your pencils. Either you’re moving forward or you’re going nowhere, fast.
Important note: collecting research doesn’t count as making progress. Research quickly turns into procrastination that feels like progress; you’re spinning your wheels and pretending you’re moving. Reading dating advice blogs means nothing if you’re not going out and putting it into practice. It’s not progress until you’re actually producing, even if all you’re producing is crap. Your shitty first novel sitting in a desk drawer is infinitely superior to somebody else’s planned epic.
3) You’re Letting Yourself Get Intimidated
You know one of the things I hear the most when I’m teaching people about what it takes to get better at dating?
“Jesus Christ, there’s no way I can keep track of all of this! It’s too much!”
I’ve lost track of how many people who’ve taken a look at the archives and thrown up their hands and said “fuck this shit.” And to be perfectly fair: I can get that. When you’re thinking about it in the abstract, it all seems doable – learn a few things, practice a couple tricks and boom, you’re in PlayerVille, population: YOU. And then you find out how much you have to learn and how much you need to unlearn. When you’re starting from zero and looking at all of the things that go into dating success, it can be pants-shittingly intimidating. It drains your energy and your willpower; it seemed so possible at first but now it’s just too much. That mountain didn’t look too bad right up until you were standing at the base and looking up.
The problem isn’t the amount that you have to learn. The problem is in how you’re looking at it. When you’re looking at your final goal – no matter what that final goal may be – you’re looking at everything in its entirety and that’s going to psych you out. You’re tricking yourself into thinking that you have to accomplish everything this all right now – clearly an insurmountable task. To go back to the mountain metaphor, you’re seeing it as having to climb to the summit all at once. But that’s not how improvement works. As much as I hate to descend into cliche, that whole “journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step” is true. Self-improvement isn’t about doing things all at once, it’s about “what you’re doing today”. The little things you do on a daily basis add up, and quicker than you’d think. Carving out some space in your day, every day, and just putting in the work means that you’ll get to where you want to go. You don’t need to climb to the summit on your first try; you just need to make it to the first milestone. Then the next one. Then the one after that.
Let’s take a concrete example: writing a book. People tend to look at writing books as a monumental task – it’s something that only a rarefied few can do. When I tell people that I’ve written three (For the record: one novel currently collecting e-dust on my hard drive, Simplified Dating and my upcoming dating guide from Thought Catalog), they look at me like I’ve grown a second head – how the fuck did I manage to crank out 200,000+ words? People look at that number and think that it’s too goddamn much. But every year, thousands of people take the National Novel Writing Month challenge: writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days or less. And while 50,000 words is still a pretty steep order, the method to reaching it is simple: you plant your ass in the chair and crank out 1666 words per day. Does that seem like a lot? It can be… but it’s in how you look at things. Odds are, you easily write more than that on a daily basis – you just don’t realize it because it’s being distributed over Facebook chats, Twitter updates, Reddit posts and comments on blogs. It’s just a matter of putting your ass in the chair, day after day, and making sure that you get your 1666 words in. They don’t have to be good words – that’s what revisions are for – just make the point of putting in the time. Make that part of your daily life and you’ll achieve it quicker than you’d realize.
(Incidentally, part of the genius of NaNoWriMo is the daily reporting. Want to make sure that you’re actually going to stick to that achievable daily goal? Make yourself accountable to someone. When you have to check-in with someone else, you’re that much more likely to succeed.)
2) Your Brain Is Fighting You Every Step of the Way
All of those challenges I mentioned? They all have a common cause: your brain is actively trying to stop you from improving. Part of the reason why self-improvement is such a struggle is because our brains hate change. Your brain is designed to maintain the status quo at all costs – even when that status-quo makes you miserable. We become emotionally invested in our beliefs, even when those beliefs actively hurt us, because they’re part of who we are and we don’t want that to change. This is why you will see people who stubbornly refuse to change their minds about a topic, even when they’re presented with indisputable evidence. It doesn’t matter that this evidence is 100% true – it contradicts our view of the universe, and so our brains will come up with reasons why they’re invalid.
In fact, in many cases, being given concrete proof that you’re wrong often triggers a backfire effect that makes people believe in their “mistaken truth” even harder. The examples of this behavior are everywhere. Witness the GamerGate debacle: despite it being demonstrably untrue, people still insist that Zoe Quinn traded sex for (non-existent) reviews. Witness the Men’s Rights Advocates who misread or ignore evidence that contradicts their belief that men are uniquely disadvantaged in life. Witness climate change deniers. Witness anti-gay rights activists who trot out debunked data and out-and-out lies in order to try to prevent equal rights for LGBTQ individuals. Look at yourself, because you do this too. We all do. I spent years resisting the idea that I needed to change if I wanted to get better with women; I just didn’t want to admit that change was possible, because it meant that I was responsible for where I was in my life.
Once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see examples of this unfortunate psychic self-defense everywhere. For example: you can’t attack the idea so you attack the person delivering the idea. It doesn’t matter if they’re giving you the gospel truth; if you can find even the slightest contradiction or fault in their character, you get to ignore them. Or you might attack the data by insisting that they’re just cherrypicking to make things look bad. You fall back on confirmation bias – things that agree with your pre-existing beliefs are automatically valid, ones that disagree don’t count because reasons. Or you might fall back on that old cliché of “people who change are weak, bad people” – changing your beliefs or lifestyle is a form of self-betrayal.
But let’s say that you don’t fight the need to change and actually make an effort. Even then, your brain will try to screw you over with an extinction burst – the mental equivalent of throwing a tantrum that won’t quit until you give it the stimulus that you’re trying to avoid. You have one slip-up and your brain throws up its mental hands and says “Fuck it all” and you end up falling back into your old, bad behaviors – only now you’ll be doing more of it because, well, you already fell short of your goals.
Does this mean that self-improvement is impossible? Yes. Why? Well because it all comes down to one thing:
1) You Don’t Want It Badly Enough
Everything we’ve just talked about – all the reasons why your attempts at self-improvement and chasing your goals fail – comes down to the fact that you don’t want them badly enough to make them happen.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about some “I just read The Secret” woo-woo positive vibes bullshit.
This is nothing about getting the universe to shift and give you what you want, it’s about what are you willing to endure to make this happen?
One of the first signs that you don’t want something badly enough is that you start making excuses as to why you can’t achieve it. Excuses are like saying “try” – they’re absolving you of any responsibility for failure. Excuses are the lies you tell yourself when what you really mean is that you aren’t willing to pay the attendant costs or that you’re willing to fight through all the roadblocks I’ve been telling you about. It’s ego-protection. And until you have enough reason to want to change, it can’t happen. One of the things they talk about in addiction recovery programs is the concept of hitting rock bottom; that until you reach a point where your current situation is intolerable to you, you will fight against your own recovery. And they’ve got a point. One of the only ways to get past your brain’s resistance to change is that you have to want it so badly that you’re willing to push past your own bullshit and carve a new groove into yourself. I didn’t get better at dating until I hit a point where I couldn’t go on any further as I was. I had to want to make a change and be willing to fight to make those changes stick.
Don’t get me wrong. Wanting something badly doesn’t mean that you won’t have challenges or that it won’t be difficult, even absurdly so. It doesn’t mean that you won’t fail. There will be plenty of very legitimate reasons why things may be harder – possibly even much harder – for you than for others. Sometimes the costs for chasing that goal are going to be unreasonable, even outright detrimental to your life.
But a bad choice is still a choice.
Let’s go back to the opportunity cost issue. Time is a resource, and like any resource, it’s unevenly distributed. Some people will have more than others – they may have fewer daily responsibilities or be in a position where they can afford to work less than other people. The opportunity cost for them will be lower than it will be for others. This doesn’t mean that they’re better or worse, more or less deserving than someone who has less flexibility in their lives. It just means they have an easier time making room for their goals than you do. So you may have to sacrifice more than the other person in order to achieve your goals. It’s not fair – fairness never enters into the equation – but it’s life and no amount of complaining can change that. Some people are going to have an easier time than you. Some people are going to have it harder and look at your relatively cushy life with envy and resentment.
And here’s the thing: it’s ok to say that the cost is too high or that you don’t want to pay it. During my pick-up artist days, I could’ve gone full-bore into it. I could have racked up way more sex partners than I have… all I had to do was be willing to manipulate women into bed with no regard for them as people. And I couldn’t do it. It was a price I wasn’t willing to pay. I didn’t want it that badly. After my foray into publishing my graphic novel went belly-up, I could’ve knuckled down, chained myself to the Wacom tablet and produced more books – hell, I’ve still got scripts and outlines in varying degrees of completion on my hard drive. I could’ve kept throwing myself into that maw, taking on debt and financial instability because I loved making comics that much. But in the end… it wasn’t where my passion lay. As I said earlier: I thought I wanted to be a professional artist, right up until I needed to put in the time and effort to make it happen. I didn’t want it badly enough.
That doesn’t mean that my time was wasted. I learned a lot and achieved a life-long goal, even if it wasn’t in the way or to the level I expected. But in the end… I didn’t want it enough to continue. I chose that.
And that’s ok. That’s a legitimate and perfectly valid choice. But it was a choice, and I have to be willing to admit that I made that choice of my own free will. And in the end, I found things that I did want badly enough… and I get far more satisfaction from them now than I ever did with what I thought I wanted.
So, now you have to ask yourself: how badly do you want your goal? What are you willing to do to achieve it? How much are you willing to sacrifice? Are you willing to push past all these obstacles in your path because you want it that much? Are you willing to risk failure, and to pick yourself up after that failure and try again?
If the answer is yes, then prove it. Start now. Take that first step and make that change today.