Environment, Outcome, and Getting off the Treadmill

Hard work. Discipline. Sacrifice. Consistency. All are inconvenient and uncomfortable. Success – in any pursuit – accepts no less. Its road is precarious, full of sharp rocks, unpredictable mudslides, and unseen predators. 

We’ve all heard it; “If you work hard enough, you’ll figure it out. When it’s hard, work harder.” 

Great. It makes sense; if I am not willing to work than I don’t get the results of the hard work. But what if the work I know how to do is insufficient because I don’t know a better way? What do I do when the only solution offered continues to be, “Just work harder”? 

My efforts are exhausted on a treadmill. I am discouraged and going nowhere. 

Let’s take a look at two simple examples.

Without Resources

Imagine a young girl who dreams of being an Olympic gymnast. She learns some tumbling skills from an older girl and swings on the monkey bars at recess. After school, she turns on her favorite beats and practices choreography of her own making. On the weekends, when her mother relents to her persistent requests, she watches youtube videos to see what her ‘competition’ is learning. 

The day comes when she has done all she can do without a coach and proper equipment. She pleads with her parents for gymnastic lessons. She promises she will never, ever ask for anything else as long as she lives. 

Her parents want to pay for lessons. They want to support their daughter’s dreams and ambitions. 

But they can’t afford lessons year-round. Perhaps they could pay for an eight week class for Christmas, but doing so would cause a wrenching heartache afterward. Their daughter would be elated with the gift, but it would only serve to build a hope they could sustain. 

Tearfully, they kneel and look her in the eye. “Honey, we want to put you in gymnastics. We wish we could. But we can’t. We don’t have the money to pay for it.”

With those four sentences, their daughter’s progress stops. No matter how hard and consistently she works or how disciplined she is with her time, she will never develop the skills of an Olympic gymnast. (Unless a wealthy and benevolent relative dies, her parent’s financial situation improves drastically, or a generous sponsor comes along.)

Without Education

Visualize for a moment that you are unable to read or unable to read well. What kind of job would you have? Probably not a job with high earning potential. Thus, you must work long and physically demanding hours to provide necessities for your family. 

You’re punctual, reliable, and competent – the ideal employee. You reached the top of the pay scale a long time ago. 

When you are home, you spend what few precious moments you can with those you love while battling the weight of your eyelids. Sleep is as delicious as a gooey chocolate chip cookie on a crisp October day. You don’t get enough of it. 

One night, as you finish off your cold macaroni and cheese over the kitchen sink, you notice a crumpled piece of orange paper on the counter – another note from your child’s school. 

You throw the paper in the trash, cursing the color of your thankless job, and perceived failings as a parent. He needs one-on-one time, and you have no time to give. 

Round goes the cycle of educational attainment, occupational achievement, and earning potential.  (I’ll cover that in another post).

The Emotional Aftermath

I know. You just read the word ‘emotion.’ Don’t write me off as a radical. 

Emotions influence actions. They affect how we see ourselves, situations, and those around us. And, for those who claim they do not have feelings, apathy is equally influential.

Imagine once again that you are working as hard as you can to earn a subsistence living, and your child seems bound for the same fate. Where would you rate your self-esteem? How capable would you see yourself of learning something new? Might you see every failure or obstacle as a reminder of your weaknesses instead of as a learning opportunity? Would you be embaressed to ask for help, confident that others think you’re stupid? 

My answers are; low to non-existent, incapable, failure, very embarrassed. 

Limitations beget Limitations

Lack of resources and lack of education are two glaring examples of how the environment influences the outcome. The same idea applies to mental health, substance abuse, physical health, and other under-recognized factors.

Maybe you grew up with parents whose love was bankrupt – now you try to pay their debts by borrowing from your self-esteem. 

Maybe you’ve struggled with substance abuse since the car accident that broke your back –  a drug used to relieve excruciating pain is now the author of debilitating hopelessness. 

Or maybe you’ve spent your whole life believing your stupid because you learn differently. Now, you’ve subconsciously surrounded yourself with people all too willing to remind you of how dumb you think you are – your genius remains shackled by lies. 

A voice so familiar it feels like family whispers, “You’re all alone. Nobody cares.You can’t do it.” You now run on a treadmill that you did not choose to get on. 

Hope Flickers Still

I don’t know exactly how anyone feels, but I’ve been in the Comfortless neighborhood. I’m familiar with the town where everyone knows where you should be but offers no practical directions for getting there. 

I’ve learned the only way to address inner demons is to turn around and look at them. You’ll see them sitting at their table, braiding half-truths, distortions, unrealistic expectations together to wield the chains that hold you bound. 

One chain has spikes woven throughout it: You Cannot Break the Cycle. If they can convince you that you have no control over what you do today, they don’t need to wield anything else. 

If you have been robbed of resources, education, unconditional love, or anything else, you can – eventually – overcome it -one small excruciating step at a time. However, you first must believe that you can and that you are worth it. Not in a “some-unicorn-is-going-to-carry-me-over-the-boulder” sort of way. 

Rather, a way where you begin to say, “Here I am. Here’s the boulder. What tools do I need to get over it? Do I need to learn how to make tools? Who can teach me how?”

Carving a Way Out

Albert Bandura developed a concept called self-efficacy; the belief in one’s ability to carry out a task or overcome obstacles to reach a goal. 

Building self-efficacy is the purpose of the series of essays and podcasts I will be publishing in the coming months. I believe whole-heartedly that many, many societal problems can be improved if people, like you, find they are capable and deserving of goodness. 

It won’t happen by offering platitudes with no solutions. 

I will cycle through the three most damaging and co-existing plagues of our time; addiction, abuse, and disease. I won’t focus too much on what isn’t working because we already know the answer to that query. Instead, I will focus on what we can stop doing and what we can start doing. 

First podcast coming Wednesday, October 30th! 

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