The Rider and The Elephant by Zuzanna Jura

One Life — Let’s Waste It Like There’s No Tomorrow!

“Long-term goals, man, it is just so hard…Do I have one? Yeah, death.”

The below story is made up of a number of concerns my coaching clients expressed during workshops that I ran. I just put them all together.

Humans have a limited amount of willpower — the energy needed for daily activities. It is used when making decisions, solving problems or fighting a temptation.

Temptation is a promise of instant gratification. It undermines a long-term result. It is like having a kilo of doughnuts with whipped cream now instead of taking part in Kung Fu contest next year in Hong Kong. (Maybe too much Panda series with my kids?) The logic here is very simple — humans will choose either of the two options: get something available right here and right now but of little value or delay gratification and work towards a goal in sometimes quite a distant future.

The sad reality is that we seem to see extraordinary value in things that we can get instantly. Probably the most widely publicized experiment explaining this can be found in Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” where most of the respondents preferred 100 USD now than 110 in a week.

One of the reasons behind this phenomenon is uncertainty about the future. Because:

“in order to be in control, you have to have a definite plan for at least a reasonable period of time. So how, may I ask, can man be in control if he can’t even draw up a plan for a ridiculously short period of time, say, a thousand years, and is, moreover, unable to ensure his own safety for even the next day?” (Mikhail Bulgakov).

It gets even worse. We humans are such great inventors that we can even invent temptations ourselves with zero external impact. The most obvious “strategy” here is to postpone activity in question to the land of possibility, realm where most of our dreams reside: tomorrow.

So if I see the following day, I can start my practice then instead. Makes sense? They call it procrastination, I call it enjoying my time now. Even though I very well remember that it has rarely worked for me so far, there is still a chance that this could change.

There’s just no way of knowing how I will perform the following day. The fact that I did not succeed so far does not mean I will never succeed. Something magical may happen. Maybe this, maybe that. Blah, blah, blah.

And it gets even worse. We have special mechanisms implanted in our minds that serve one function only: they make us feel good. At least relatively good. These mechanisms are the number one reason why we don’t set specific goals (“I want to be happy”) and even if we take a decision to proceed, we falter. In fact, it is the brain, the cold system, the rider that takes the decision and it is our emotional self, the hot system, the elephant that almost always disagrees.

“These defenses are designed to help us fool ourselves since they don’t fool others very often. As long as we can fool ourselves — whether we convince ourselves that inactivity is not a risk, (…) readily give good reasons for bad habits or blame others for our distress — it is difficult to take an honest look at our problems and increase our consciousness” (Prochaska, 2016).

Now, as I am thinking — I start realizing that maybe I do not need to do this Kung Fu contest at all. My relationship? There are ups and downs, and it’s healthy that way. I guess. Also, my current job is not that bad. It is not perfect but it’s not total crap either — which is quite the norm, as only 13% of adults call themselves “engaged” at work (Gallup, 2014).

They call it comfort zone and I do realize I am simplifying things a bit. But there is a good reason for it: I am afraid. Afraid of failing, of succeeding — of changing anything at all. This is also why I can continue talking about my projects for ages without actually doing anything. It is impossible to fail when I am only talking.

On the other hand, why should people be concerned with any long-term goals? We were born with a purpose and if we accepted this, a fair question to ask would be: why not enjoy life as it unfolds? Be here and now — is it not what the mindfulness movement advocates?

Anthony de Mello wrote:

“Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up.”

Well, what is wrong with being asleep, having a pleasant dream and dreaming it? Good night and good luck…

This is the first one in a series, like a warm-up exercise. If you are OK with the thought process — congratulations! If not quite so — two questions: what is it that you would like to change and what is stopping you? Also, I will be publishing another piece soon. It will address ambiguity — one of the fundamental reasons why we don’t do what we want to do.

Marta Brzosko — big THANK YOU for introducing me to Medium.




I coach on and via zoom on I cover Positive Productivity — my clients get more productive with respect to mindful well-being.

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Wojciech Jura

Wojciech Jura

I coach on and via zoom on I cover Positive Productivity — my clients get more productive with respect to mindful well-being.

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