I firmly believe that people should take their lives into their own hands in any way that they reasonably can. Rather than let arbitrary circumstances dictate how they live, people who adopt this approach to life are those who begin exercising regularly, eating the right foods, working hard to build a thriving career, searching for the right life partner, and so on. They don’t make excuses; they take control. I cannot recommend this approach to life highly enough.
But I’m beginning to learn that taking control is not the whole picture. There’s another side to the coin: letting go. The act of letting go is what completes the cycle as you progress through your goals and grow as a person. In fact, letting go is just as important as taking control.
Why do I believe this? Over and over again, I’ve noticed that as I start experiencing success with a particular long-term goal, it becomes increasingly more important to let go of certain mentalities, desires, and habits that are no longer applicable or useful. This especially applies to habits that were once helpful when I was starting out, but have since morphed into wasteful, or even harmful.
The inability to let go of these outdated habits, desires, and mentalities is a major reason why people burn out, flounder, or stop making progress on a particular goal. On a personal level, one great example of this in action can be found in my first three years of weightlifting.
A Personal Example: Working Out
When I first started resistance training workouts in order to build muscle, I did what many guys do: I started taking protein shakes, pre-workout formulas, creatine, and various vitamin supplements along with my brand new weight training routine. While I was getting started, this supplementation regimen had a series of benefits:
- Surrounding my workout routine with pre-workout cocktails and post-workout protein shakes built a routine, which helped me adhere to my workouts.
- Other guys who lifted weights often had a similar supplementation strategy. And discussing this was a way to bond with people I met at the gym and get to know them better. And as I discuss frequently on this blog, strong social ties around a goal can significantly improve your success rate.
- Anyone who has used supplements like pre-workouts can tell you how your mind focuses in on your workout as a result of the caffeine, and how your strength jumps as a result of creatine.
However, as I broke past the barrier of beginner status, I never stopped to re-evaluate my reliance on these supplements as a mental and physical crutch. As a result, the years of heavy caffeine consumption caught up with me, and I felt exhausted all of the time. And I’m pretty sure prolonged intake of creatine isn’t the best thing in the world for you either.
These same supplements, which are relatively safe to use short-term (and were crucial to helping me adhere to my new workout program when it was uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and overwhelming), were progressively becoming less useful, and increasingly harmful to my well-being. I never stopped to let go these crutches, and the habits that kept them a part of my daily routine.
I eventually caught on to the increasingly negative side effects of these supplementation habits, and I went through a difficult process of removing them from my workout routine. I’ve been much better off ever since (more energy, and less reliance on stimulants being the major two benefits).
Letting Go Applies to Most Goals
Let’s use another example: the recent college graduate who wants to build a successful career. This goal usually starts out with a strong desire to work hard, receive a promotion, and rise the corporate ladder. This desire drives a newly-minted college grad to work harder and more intently than she otherwise might – not to mention building a strong work ethic early in life – improving her odds of success.
But once she’s broken past the initial hump and is well into a fantastic career, what then? Should she keep her nose to the grindstone and continue to put in those long hours? Even though that’s what she’s trained herself to do since graduating school, that’s a dangerous strategy.
Blogger Cal Newport refers to this as the competence trap. In the words of Newport:
This is the competence trap: when you amass enough career capital to exert meaningful control over your life and career, the only investment presented as reasonable will be to further maximize your competence at the expense of the other areas of your life.
- The Ivy League student who graduates with honors is attracted to law school because it’s the next rung on a competitive competence-growing ladder.
- The ambitious med student turns to a demanding specialty because it’s presented as the domain for hot shots.
- The young corporate star enrolls in an MBA program so she can return to the management fast track at the company, as that’s the prize stand outs are supposed to chase.
- And so on…
[Living a remarkable life] requires a cautious awareness of the competence traps that will litter your path as you become better and better at what you do.
If you don’t stop, reevaluate, and let go of what’s unnecessary in your career, your career momentum will carry you to a position with more compensation and responsibility, which usually results in longer hours and higher stakes. Are the costs to your personal life worth it? It’s important to stop and reflect before you reach that point. If it isn’t worth it, start letting go of your desire to climb the corporate ladder, and build desires and habits that will give you a better life outside of the office.
Those who don’t stop, re-evaluate, and let go of desires and habits that are no longer beneficial will find themselves deviating from the right track. As we progress through life, our priorities change. What if our family becomes increasingly more important? What if we now have the career capital to make the jump to a more fulfilling career path? In almost all cases, significant changes to habits, beliefs and thought processes will be required at key points in life. When such circumstances present themselves, it’s time to let go of the old, and bring in the new.
When you get started in anything, whether learning a new skill, launching a new career, or building a business, become obsessive. Learn everything you can. Build the desires and habits that will push you in the right direction. Take control.
But once you’ve successfully built the momentum that will keep you moving forward at a rapid pace, be sure to periodically pause and reflect. Let go of the mentalities and habits that are no longer productive. The obsession that once helped you lift off the ground may be what causes you to burn out if you’re not careful. As your circumstances change, so must you.