Myopium: One day at a time as a drug

Myopium: One day at a time as a drug

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In the short run I measure my progress by immediate, concrete standards. Did I meet my deadlines? Did she smile at me? Did they say something nice about me? Does my boss think I’m doing a good job? Did I get a good grade?

These may or may not be good standards by which to measure long-term progress, but I don’t wonder much about them, in large part because wondering is immediately discouraging and disorienting. What if they are the wrong standards? That would mean I’ve been wasting my time. It would also push me into a free-fall, open-ended exploration of which other standards would be better.

Sometimes a new standard finds me. I get offered a better job; a more prestigious person takes an interest in me. When that happens I wonder about upgrading and switching my standards. But that’s not the same as open-ended wondering. In fact, it’s just this prospect of an upgrade that keeps me confident about my immediate standards. If I keep doing what I’m doing, then surely bigger and better opportunities will present themselves.

We all know people for whom this has happened, but we also know people for whom it hasn’t, and people whose immediate progress took them further and further away from long-term success, people who ended their lives bitter and disappointed. And we even know people who should have been disappointed because they were doing worse and worse but had no clue how far off they had gotten, fulfilled as they were every step of the way meeting their immediate if wrongheaded standards.

This morning I woke up to a convergence of evidence suggesting that while I’m meeting my immediate standards nicely, I’m turning out to be a smaller person than I had hoped to be. I get these little midlife crisis refresher courses sometimes–though rarely in recent years, and by now I have the wherewithal to bat them out of the field as fast as the evidence pitches them to me. I’ve got the confidence and composure that enables me to focus on my immediate progress and ignore these big open-ended wonderings. The big open-ended wonderings only get in the way of my making immediate concrete progress. After all, if I were to devote the day to investigating my prospects for advancement by some other means, I would end the day deprived of that reliable source of pleasure, the evidence that I rewardingly and successfully ticked numerous measurable tasks off my immediate to-do list.

That’s the nature of it. I’m focused on immediate goals and rewards. Wondering whether they’re the right ones is unappealing because wondering itself deprives me of immediate rewards.

There’s peace of mind in keeping my eyes on the local, immediate prizes. And not only peace of mind–often, doing so is the best bet. Immediate gratification is underappreciated. We talk about it as though it’s always at the expense of long-term gratification, but it isn’t. Most of us have figured out ways to package long-term gratification into little bite-sized packets of immediate gratification. That’s useful because we are such metriholics. We’re addicted to metrics–immediate signs of measurable progress. We want signs daily, evidence we can put our hands on.

There’s no better way to progress toward long-term goals than by breaking the master mission down into measurable morsels of short-term gratification. That way, we accommodate our metriholism while also staying on track for the long haul.

But when we’re following daily crumbs to some pie in the sky, it’s easy to get thrown off course and not notice that we’ve gone astray. That means we also need a way to remember that when push comes to shove, we strongly prefer short-term measurable results to long-term results that aren’t at present measurable.

Metriholism–an addiction to myopiates–can be dangerous. Far too many people latch on to some foolishly shortsighted metric to measure themselves against. They underestimate the longevity of what’s exciting about it at first. They think whatever they’ve subscribed to will take the world by storm in the course of their lifetime. They visualize success and then assume that the visualization is tantamount to a feasibility study that indicates good prospects of success. And then when things don’t turn out so well, they’re trapped, forced to downgrade, having squandered their best young resources on the wrong horse. Or worse, they’re forced to hold fast, relying increasingly on stubbornness to get them through. You don’t want that.

Only two things can hold us to a path over the long haul. One is stubbornness; the other is growth, progress, an endless supply of promising moves to make from day to day and year to year. The latter is much to be preferred, so it pays to find a way to manage the metriholic addiction. Curbing the appetite for short-term gratification makes for more flexible goal-tending.  Paradoxically, the flexibility increases our ability to line up daily affirmations that not only feel like progress, but are.