I’ve always felt a little skeptical of some of the popular refrains in the personal growth world:
- If you can dream it, you can make it happen.
- You are limitless.
- The intentions you have for your life are never at odds with one another.
- If you can develop a clear enough vision for what you want and devote yourself to it with all your heart, you can bring it into reality.
Is it true that we can have it all?
Do these statements raise any questions in your mind? To me, they certainly hold some elements that ring true. And yet, at the same time, they ultimately seem hollow and incomplete in some important way.
- Maybe it’s true that I am limitless on some spiritual level. But what about here in the domain of reality where there is only so much time and so many resources?
- If I want to start a business and raise a family and take care of my aging parents and learn violin and make healthy meals regularly and volunteer with my local mutual aid group… are those desires really never at odds with each other? Seriously? (This is especially true for folks who have been marginalized by systems of domination.)
- Sure, if I have a single dream and devote myself to it, I can make that happen to some degree… But what about the other 15 dreams I have?
Is it really true that we can have everything we dream of and long for? Is it even desirable to have everything we want?
Another piece of advice I’ve heard is “you can have it all, but you can’t have it all at the same time.” This rings a little more true because it begins to acknowledge some limitations. But even then I wonder how accurate that is. Can I really have it all eventually? Is there some point I’m going to arrive at “having it all”?
What’s wrong with me if I’m not getting it all done?
Trying to “have it all” causes us to put immense pressure on ourselves because it is so unattainable.
The self-help culture from the ’80s and ’90s seemed to have a motto along the lines of: “stop dreaming so small. Don’t limit yourself. You’re holding yourself back. Dream bigger. Set bigger goals. Stretch beyond what you think you can do.”
I think this is still an important part of anyone’s journey of growth and development. I know I still need this advice at times when I am holding myself back from considering that I could go for a possibility that would be truly meaningful for me.
But now we live in a world that requires different skill sets. While all of us still hold ourselves back at times, there’s a much more pervasive difficulty I see folks encounter these days. It can sound like this:
- “I have so many ideas for what I want to contribute to making the world a better place. How do I make them happen? What’s wrong with me that I keep dropping the ball on most of them?”
- “I’m exhausted trying to keep up with everything at work and at home and my friendships and … and …”
- “My to-do list and inbox seem never-ending. How do I finally get ‘caught up’?”
- “I need a better productivity system to get all my projects done. Then I’ll finally be on top of my life.”
As a productivity nerd for my most of my life (I’m now in recovery!), I can deeply relate to the desire to “finally be on top of things” and to “be more productive.” But I find myself questioning this and wondering: Do we really need more productivity training? Where is that going to get us?
The myth of “productivity”
In our culture, it seems to be a rarely-questioned assumption that productivity is always a good thing. This “more is better” mindset even shows up among people dedicated to creating a better world. I know this has been true for me throughout most of my life: Even with all my anti-capitalist values, I still held the belief that if I wanted to make the biggest difference in the world, I needed to be constantly getting better at using my time in the most efficient way.
Now, the desire to make the greatest difference I can is an understandable one. But how many people do you know who are straining themselves to push this idea to the extreme (”I have to work more since people are suffering! I have to make a bigger impact!” or “I can’t do [XYZ thing that I love] because it’s not making the biggest possible impact for the world.”) What if we were to just make a person-sized impact inside of the “biggest impact?” What if we did what actually fit spaciously in our days instead of trying to fit more and more in?
Acknowledging systems of domination
For the most marginalized people, there are ways the world may need to change in order for them to reach their dreams and visions. To say to these folks “you just need a clearer vision” or “you just need to learn more productivity skills” is a hyper-individualized viewing point that pretends that everything we encounter is just a mindset that can be shited. Can shifting our mindset help in a lot of cases? Yes. Do some people have much steeper hills to walk because of their race, class, ability, gender, etc? Absolutely. A part of the reason why we can’t “have everything we dream of” is that sometimes the systems have to change for someon’es dream to be realized.
The truth of trade-offs
The book I’m currently obsessed with, Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman offers a kind of insight that I’ve been so hungry for—both personally and for our social movements.
In spending this afternoon on one thing that mattered to me (writing), I necessarily had to forgo many other things that mattered too (like playing with my son).
In other words, it’s precisely the fact that I could have chosen a different and perhaps equally valuable way to spend this afternoon that bestows meaning on the choice I did make. And the same applies, of course, to an entire lifetime.— Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks
When we are just in the imaging phase of an activity/project, there are no built-in limits, and everything can look perfect. But in the realm of the physical, there are limits. And with limits come trade-offs: choosing one thing and not choosing the other.
I feel a great liberation in looking at this head-on and not pretending that I can have it all.
Learning to “choose and grieve”
As someone who has devoted a huge amount of my life energy to becoming more efficient, Burkeman’s ideas sparked a new perspective that I’ve been trying on:
🌱 What if, rather than learning to be more productive, I learned to get better at choosing and grieving?
Choosing and grieving:
- By choosing I mean looking at the very long list of things I could do that would all be deeply meaningful to me, and discerning which one I am going to put my energy toward. And then embracing that choice fully.
- By grieving I mean actively acknowledging that I’m giving up dozens, even hundreds, of other meaningful and fulfilling things I could have done during that time. I mean honoring the loss of those alternatives while honoring the choice.
When we embrace choosing and grieving, we give ourselves an opportunity to show up deeply to what we’ve said “yes” to instead of having half our mind on what we could be doing instead.
Giving up “having it all”
This means giving up the fiction that some of us have been living under. The fiction that we don’t have to make trade-offs. That we can “have it all”. That we can “make anything we dream of come true.”
I believe statements like these ring hollow for a reason: They don’t acknowledge the very real trade-offs that are required of us given the finite time we have in our lives.
In this world of instant communication, social media, and globalization, we’re overwhelmed with options. Do we really need reminders that we could be doing it all? That “could” very quickly turns into a “should”: I should be able to do and have it all.
I think what actually nourishes our hearts is a reminder that trade-offs are a part of being a human being. When I can remember this, I have the chance to turn the volume down on the guilt I feel for not “making all my dreams happen.” I allow myself to have more modest expectations for my finite life.
The latin root of the word decide shares the same root as “insecticide.” It’s built up from the roots de = ‘OFF’ combined with caedere = ‘CUT’. It literally means “to cut off,” as in “to cut off the alternative.” I find this helpful when acknowledging this truth of trade-offs: I can’t have it all, all of the time. I have to “cut off” an alternative in order to choose anything in the present moment.
Practicing choosing: Even-over statements
As we’re often presented with a ridiculous number of options, it can be helpful to have so strategies for assisting in choosing.
One method I like is called “even-over statements.” I first got interested in trade-offs while studying organizational development. I was reading Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan and he introduced the idea of even-over statements.
They are value statements and they’re structured as “[one good thing] even over [another good thing].” This is more useful than saying “I value community over isolation”—because those two are on opposite ends of a spectrum, the statement doesn’t help me make a decision. When I put two things that are both desirable to me side-by-side and declare that I’m prioritizing one over the other, then I am able to make clearer decisions when there are two good (but differently good) things in front of me.
- When searching for a job: “empowering culture even over higher pay”
- When choosing how to spend my weekend: “relationships even over adventures”
- When thinking about the schedule for our household/family: “spaciousness even overdoing some of my favorite things”
It would be perfectly valid for someone to flip any of these even-over statements based on what they found most important.
“Grief only exists where love lived first.”– Franchesca Cox
I’m still getting acquainted with ways I might practice grieving in this context.
One way to honor the grief of saying “not now” to an opportunity is to have a sort of “mini funeral” for it. Some ideas for inspiration:
- Fire ritual: Write the alternative options on pieces of paper and go outside and burn them one at a time in a jar.
- Burying: Find an item (ex: rock or pinecone) to represent the alternatives that you might have pursued. Find a place to bury them in the earth. Spend a moment recognizing the sensations in your body as you lay these to rest.
- Appreciation: Tell a friend that you’re consciously choosing not to pursue XYZ possibility (for now, anyway). Spend a while telling them what you would have appreciated about that possibility. This could be just a few minutes of conversation.
- Gratitude + Declaring: If you don’t have time for anything like the ideas above, you could simply write it down on a “not doing” list. After you write it, you can simply say “thank you.” Here you’re expressing your thankfulness for the energy and inspiration this idea has given you.
Rituals like this can help us commit more fully to the choice we are making.
What we’re aiming for here is giving space for the possibility of the “joy of missing out” to arise. Burkeman’s explains:
It is the thrilling recognition that you wouldn’t even really want to be able to do everything, since if you didn’t have to decide what to miss out on, your choices couldn’t truly mean anything.— Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks
How this might support us in making a difference
“Choosing and grieving” can help us contribute to the world we envision:
- We are more focused on what truly matters with the limited time we have.
- We are practicing anti-capitalism by giving up “more, more, more” because we are operating more within what fits into our life. In that space, we can even practice the radical act of rest.
- We might even find that because we aren’t trying to cram as much in, we are more present in our relationships and our community, which allows us to be more resources for the work of remaking the world.
Questions I’m pondering
- What have you found helpful in making a choice when the options feel overwhelming?
- How else can we practice the “joy of missing out”?
I’ve spent over a decade as a leadership coach, aiding social change leaders to achieve personal growth and societal transformation without running themselves into the ground. Drawing from my own roots in climate activism, I aim to help us transform our movements for change into places that are more nourishing for everyone involved. Sign up for my newsletter to get my latest articles.