Anything vs. Everything

I spent the last three days in Chicago, attending one of the full meetings of the board of directors for the National Association for Healthcare Quality. As NAHQ’s newly appointed chairman of its Commission for the Recognition of the Profession, I was able to sit in, as an invited guest, on the board’s late-summer meeting.

Interesting thing. One of the consultants who spoke kept repeating a slogan that resonated with me. He said: “You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want.” He was talking about board strategy, but the point holds for everyday life, too.

In the grand scheme of things, many fail because they aim low and achieve even lower. But there’s a flip side to that coin — that you can try to do too many (or too disparate) things, and also fail to achieve.

I’m reminded of the need for balance by my boss and several of my co-workers, who often lament that when they’re on vacation, they still have to work, and they still have to burn the midnight oil to keep up on emails and whatnot. I can sympathize.

Sometimes it’s hard to let go of things we used to do, because they’re a “known known.” But to get to the point where you’ve done anything, you must first stop trying to do everything.

The ABCs of Fame

Earlier this week I had laid out a very loose theory (and by “theory” I mean “rhetorical device”) about dancing sprites as an inducement to disquiet. My weekend having been consumed with a trip to East Lansing and back, I had plenty of road time to refine my thinking on the subject.
My original consternation hails from a single source: The recognition that I could be Excellent — capital E, and lauded on the national stage — were I simply to try. When I see people who are Excellent finding happiness and success, I’m not envious of their position, but I am reproachful against the inner demons who conspire against my own success.
Modern-day excellence comes in one of three flavors: Achievement, Beauty or Connection. The connected people are perhaps the easiest to identify; were it not for her sister-in-law being a future queen of Great Britain, for example, no one would know of Pippa Middleton or her shapely derriere. Wealth or family ties foist some people into the spotlight whether they deserve it or not (looking at you, Paris Hilton). So, also, does beauty. Models, musicians, artists, actors — there’s a reason why so few ugly people travel in those circles, and those who do are usually elderly veterans or “character” types who fill a niche. Being of pleasing appearance opens many doors that remain bolted for the merely average.
The achievement category, though — there’s the rub. The ugly and the unconnected can still find success through hard work. A lot of writers fall into this category (cf, “Martin, George R.R.”). So do a lot of folks who wield political or economic power. Bill Gates wasn’t pretty or connected, for example, but he managed to grow a software empire that left him the richest man in the world.
Think of the baseline level of fame it’d take to get automatic VIP treatment at a Vegas nightclub. It’s not terribly high — a B-list actor, a DJ, a model without the “super” status — but there’s nevertheless a bar below which a clubgoer is just another schmuck waiting behind the velvet curtain, and above which you’re acknowledged as being “someone.” This base level of fame is an ABC mix. If any one of the three — achievement, beauty, connection — are high enough, you’re in; if not … the bouncer will check your I.D. in 45 minutes. Maybe.
When I examine my own fame level, I note that although my achievements over the years may put me in, say, the top 10 percent, it’s not enough. You need to be in the top tenth of a percent. I also know that although I’m not ugly, on the “beauty” front I’m fairly average. So no dice there. And connections? Not so much, really.
But the interesting thing is that the formula can change. I can ratchet up my achievements. I can maximize my appearance to be as beautiful as genetics will allow. I can network like crazy, building connections that make future accomplishments that much easier to rack up.
I know all of this. So when I examine what is, and reflect on what could be, I am simultaneously confronted by the excitement to achieve and the lingering fear that it won’t matter no matter how hard I try. Thus the Scylla and Charybdis of Fame: No matter how carefully you set the stage, it’s still a roll of the dice whether you’ll sail through to the other side.
It comes down to one directive: Be excellent. Regardless of the outcome.

Psychic Energy Caps

I snort in disbelief when people talk about aligning their chakras or feeling their chi or whatnot. I don’t believe in “metaphysics” in the sense of The Secret or in mystic fields that your soul can touch to attain inner harmony.

That said, I do think that people do draw off a fixed pool of mental stamina. Each person’s pool fills to a different level and you can only swim in the water you have.

A good metaphor might come from video games — you know the type, the sort that have a “mana” reserve that you draw from to cast spells or use special abilities. When you run out of mana, you are blocked until your pool refills.

As I was gallivanting about town yesterday evening, it occurred to me that one barrier people erect on their road to fulfillment rests in not managing their pool of mental stamina effectively.

Let’s break it down into mathematical terms to illustrate the point. Assume you have 100 energy points. You sit down and arrive at a list of life goals that include a mix of short- and long-term tasks you need to achieve them. How do you balance each task? If all your short-term tasks end up consuming 120 points, and you only have 100, do you wear yourself out? Do you give up? Do you stagger accomplishments? No two people are going to respond the same way. Often, people will not realize that they’re venturing into negative-energy territory and instead get part-way through an initiative and then give up from exhaustion.

Many people survey the book of work they’d have to accomplish to live their ideal life and, adjudging it too difficult a read, set it aside and content themselves with just getting by.

You have to master your own psychology. If you know that you have 50 free points, then spend 40. Spend them on one major project. Take your various projects and attack them in parallel, not in series. Instead of spreading yourself too thin on a bunch of things, take one big thing at a time and break that thing into easily managed parts. Don’t commit all your resources lest you find yourself out of energy at the wrong time and thereby risk failure or loss of motivation.

Many self-help experts suggest that goal-setting is the key to success. Although I agree with this sentiment, I don’t think it goes far enough. Not only must you set goals, but you must set an execution schedule that lives in harmony with the available energy you have at your disposal.

Remember — lots of stuff sips from that pool. Relationship drama? Workplace angst? Family discord? Self-loathing? Too little sleep? Poor nutrition? Life leaches your supply of mental energy, sometimes faster than you can re-fill it.

Thus: Set goals that are achievable not just in an objective sense, but also in light of  your own life situation and your own psychology. Don’t bring yourself to the point of mental exhaustion, when all the efforts you’ve expended crash and you risk backsliding or retreating into despair.