self-strictness vs complacency
Life gives nothing to man without labor.
My wife often tells me that I’m being too strict to myself. Since she is the person that understands me best, upon hearing this so often, I’ve tried to change in the past couple of months. But I’ve made a mistake of lowering my expectations too much and drifted towards passivity and the complete lack of meaning.
Although I think a lot of people are misguided by trying to follow the daily habits of people like Elon Musk, because it’s much more useful to have someone one step ahead of you instead of someone miles ahead as a role model, I still find it interesting to learn about personalities of people like that — people at the absolute top of their fields.
When I saw “The Last Dance”, one of the qualities that jutted out the most in Michael Jordan, is his high standards towards himself, that he then expected from everyone else in the team, causing friction. Michelangelo: “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it”. Expecting more of yourself. Can you be at the very top of the field if you’re not brutally strict towards yourself?
There’s danger in the complete lack of strictness that can lead to the complete lack of ambition, which is, in my opinion, one of the worst qualities anyone can have. The people that I like and admire the most are people that are abundantly ambitious, so much so that it is infectious. People that believe that the future is going to be bright, contrary to the gloomy visions of the future so prevalent in Europe.
One could argue that the entire progress of humanity is based on people being very strict towards themselves. We would probably still be playing with sticks and stones if that was not so. The great inventors didn’t have low expectations from themselves and didn’t take it easy. Common themes when reading about them: discipline, grittiness, perseverance. All impossible without a lot of strictness towards oneself. One of the examples that leaps out the most is Charles Goodyear, who had a very rough life, was thrown in debt prison, but even from there was relentless in his pursuit of inventing the durable rubber, still performing experiments from prison. Taking it easy was not an option for him.
The mental health industry often colors self-strictness as something negative. Because majority of depressed people are caught in the endless loop of self-blame and think everything is their fault. But, there’s danger in being too laid-back towards myself as well. Not expecting much of myself can quickly make me become passive which then leads to bad places, as this past couple of months have taught me. They can be best described as a period of lethargy: the lack of willingness to do anything.
In my case, it started with taking it easy with the alarm clock, capitulating at the end by not setting it at all, which then spilled over to all the other activities. Once getting up early becomes hard, everything else gradually becomes hard as well. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest. The longer I stay at rest, the harder everything becomes, until I’m standing in concrete, unable to move at all.
Passivity breeds depression, and activity kills it. Even a tiny action can compound, since objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Action gives momentum, so even the smallest action compounds. On the other hand, fear delivered from inaction can grow into total prison of body and mind if I let it. Dale Carnegie: “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage.”
But not all action is equal; it has to be meaningful. Knowing what I have to be doing and actually doing it, instead of settling for an abundance of excuses. I feel the worst when I know what I should be doing with my free time, because I know what constitutes the perfect day, what makes me feel fulfilled at the end of the day, but not doing it. I know what fulfills me: reading, writing, building side projects, training, deep conversations. But instead I opt for: doomscrolling Twitter, binge watching Netflix, exploring YouTube rabbit holes, consuming news.
The best days are the ones when work is fulfilling and when I’m living with intention in my free time, when I’m spending time in intentional leisure. Because free time with lack of intention is not leisure, but laziness. This leisure gives energy, while laziness drains it. Lack of intention is a breeding ground for procrastination, not realizing that moment-to-moment procrastination feels worse than moment-to-moment doing the thing. But starting is the hardest part, since it requires energy to go from stasis to movement.
Living with intention — something to strive for, instead of drifting through life half-conscious and accepting wherever the current takes me. Avoiding the trap of squandering free time and spending it with purpose. Not only knowing what I should be doing, but actually doing it. Taking my own observations and decisions seriously. Closing the gap between planning and experiencing self.
Someone said that hell is meeting the person that you could’ve become had you lived at your fullest potential. And living intentionally, being specific with my leisure time is the way to minimize the delta between that version of myself and the current one.
The part of me that is strict is my guide to growth. Once I’m listening to that part of me, I’m the most content. I’m on a road to misery when I’m ignoring it, not doing what I know I should and listening to the loser voice in my head and his plethora of creative excuses.
Lack of strictness towards oneself is often masqueraded as self-love and self-acceptance, but behind the mask it’s just complacency and lack of ambition. Real self-love is expecting more from myself and knowing that I am able to grow. Real self-acceptance means allowing some self-strictness that pulls me in a positive direction, away from passivity, away from the grip of lethargy.
Not taking every mistake too seriously, not feeling guilty all the time if I’m not achieving everything that I set my mind to, not beating myself up all day because I missed the alarm at 6:00 am because that just makes everything worse. Aiming for perfection, knowing that it’s always beyond my grasp and not feeling bad when I’m unable to reach it.
Photography, in order:
Bathing spot in Zagreb, 1890
Nikola Tesla experimenting with currents of High Voltage and High Frequency in 1899
Le Dôme - Montparnasse - Paris 1950s by Ervin Marton
Oreste Andreini sculpting a replica of Michelangelo’s Moses, 1924 (Forest Lawn Museum Archive)
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