It’s all or nothing people! Go hard or go home! Give it your all or don’t bother showing up! Blood sweat ‘n’ tears! More energy! More exclamation points!
We’ve heard and felt spurs of support and opinions like these countless times. We’ve had them drilled into us through childhood stories, coaches in sports teams, the media, self-help books, films … and sometimes through those closest to us when we seek advice from them, or even when we don’t. But what does the ‘all or nothing’ mentality actually look like and is it a beneficial stance to position ourselves in?
I think not.
We live in a consuming and abundant world, a world of choice and chance, a world of progress – whatever that means – a world of technology and innovation … a world full to its brim and boiling over. So how can we simmer merrily rather than boil over ourselves, and how can we maintain balance and ensure we’re living flourishing, productive and intuitive lives that are in line with who we are? Does the answer lie in giving it our all?
So many stories woven into the culture of our time launch us onto the treadmill to fabled Successdom. We must try, as hard as we damned well can, to be wealthy, beautiful and renowned. We need to do everything in our power to aim for that: we must yearn, reach, launch and pursue blindly to succeed.
As a result, I’ve found myself wanting. Wanting to be more beautiful, more privileged, more fashionable, more elegant (or elegant at all, wasn’t gifted with that ole’ stick at birth that’s for sure), more charitable, more caring, more astute, sexier, fitter, funnier in social situations, more confident, calmer, more courageous and more successful overall …
It doesn’t stop and it’s exhausting. I’m sick of wanting. I’m sick of feeling like I need more and need to be more ... and by sick I mean genuinely sick. This mentality has a profound effect on the way I see myself and the way I conduct myself in the world. It has an effect on my self-worth, my confidence, my anxiety and my relationships.
Our competitive culture is causing this sickness, one in which someone’s bikini post makes me feel second (or one millionth) best. It’s not the owner of the bikini post’s fault, it’s the social framework surrounding it that’s damaging. It’s the disposition and inclination for me to rate myself against that person, even if I’m happy for them. It’s the temptation to sometimes be scornful as a result. It’s the notion that we should all be spearheading towards the same end: the shit-hot abs in a Marysia bikini with a negroni in hand off the coast of Capri on holiday from our already-very-successful-in-our-twenties job even though we have family money so don’t really need the job anyway end. The end that means we’re sitting at an acceptable (and hopefully admired) place somewhere near the top of the pile of human wankery. You know the one – that end, that culture, that sickness.
Sure, healthy doses of determination, commitment to goals, focus and perseverance are important traits, and laziness is no virtue, but there’s a difference between working hard and always feeling that how hard you’re working isn’t enough. Life isn’t a hunt for mahi-mahi, it’s not a race to a finish line, or indeed a sport at all, and to approach it as such is only damaging to our potential to thrive in the fullest way we are able.
Why pursue beauty over brains, or success over sleep? Why wreck ourselves trying to succeed, while thinking the same idea of success applies to all?
We live in a world of myriad and changing perceptions to match the myriad and changing beings living within it. Part of the wonder of being human is our ability to have such complex conscious lives, so why close ourselves to that by seeking one end at the likely expense of others?
Life – in reality – is not segmented into halves, or extremes. We are not one thing or the other, we are a fluid amalgamation and wonderful bundle of our experiences, feelings, physicality, memories, learnings, opinions, skills, failings, and generosities … we are a moving mosaic, in which the idea of ‘all or nothing’ doesn’t fit.
‘All or nothing’ denies our humanness. It ignores the elaborate tangle and continual process of untangling and re-knotting that is our lives. It ignores our real need for its opposite: balance.
I might sound like a meditation expert from that Gaia channel that keeps trying to catfish me on Instagram, but it’s true. The ‘all-or-nothing’ approach doesn’t do justice to the things that need our attention.
At any one moment, we are in the act of balancing. Right now I’m typing and thinking and trying to not let my back get too sore in this seat, I’m staying hydrated, I’m recognising the time passing and how long I put aside to write this. I’m aware that I’m a little hungry but that my peckishness is likely due to my omelette and morning coffee wearing off and my body wanting some other form of stimulation. I’m aware that I need to call dad today, to see if he made it to Western Australia okay. I also need to post that thing I just sold on ebay. Crap! Now I’ve lost focus and need to get back to my writing … bringing the balance lever up again on that one so I can remain productive. On a grander scale, I’m balancing the intricacies of my work and relationships, my health and the health of those close to me. I’m dealing with the difficult experiences I’ve been through in the past, that still have scars healing. I’m wondering how to approach things better in the future.
Sometimes, one of those aspects needs more attention than the rest, but I’d topple over if I let the others simply fall away in the pursuit of a single end.
The various things we are all balancing in our lives are similar, but the minutiae of them are always different: our relationships are different; our perceptions of the world and of life are different; our needs are different. So to have a societal framework that pushes us all through the same funnel of self-worth and success, while fostering imbalance through mentalities like ‘all or nothing’, is an narrow approach that makes little sense.
So, I’m trying. I’m trying to reframe my understanding of beauty, intelligence, worth and success. I can see many other people doing it too, and it’s as though we’re breaking the water’s surface to gulp air after a long time under. But there’s so much good-intentioned talk about ‘you doing you’ and all of us ‘living our best lives’ still woven into a social fabric that doesn’t vouch for balance or for those intentions to really manifest. There are still currents at our feet, pulling us under to a place where only the fast-paced, single-minded, competitive culture reigns.
At least once a day I see someone on Instagram and feel envy, but I previously wasn’t aware of that; and I am now. At least once a day I see myself in the mirror and think I don’t come close to meeting the required paradigm for beauty; but I’m aware of that now. At least once a day I question whether my writing is any good. At least once a day I think I should be working harder, exercising harder, trying harder, being better.
But I’m good. I’m good. I’m good enough, and I’m always growing. I don’t need to want more of the things I’ve been told I should value. I don’t need to pursue an idea of success that I haven’t defined, or an opinion of beauty that isn’t based on what’s best for me. I don’t need to fall out of balance because I’m pushing myself too hard in one way, rather than gently and kindly focusing on all areas of my life that are worth it. And they are worth it, those things … the things that are yours and yours alone. Because they’re not defined by anyone else’s ideals, and they are yours to grow and cultivate in the way you like. We are all our own markers of success and balance, and that’s a refreshing thing to remember.
So does it take all or nothing? Maybe it’s more about thoughtfulness, integrity and balance instead.
This piece was originally written for The Conscious Playground.