Monday, March 30, 2015

Self-Actualization: Fake It Til You ... Keep Faking It

Thomas P. Barnett, "In the Heart of the Ozarks" (MU Museum of Art and Archaeology), via Wikimedia Commons

Last Friday afternoon I found myself in a frustrating situation. I was determined to exercise, but for various reasons found my only real option was going for a run outside. I was at my friend's house in Buffalo, and "outside" in Buffalo last Friday was like 25 degrees F and snowing. I didn't want to do it.

It was late afternoon, and I was tired and hungry. I was in a grouchy mood, feeling all put upon that I was faced with this whole "running" dilemma and mad that it was so cold even though it was officially spring.

BTW -- while we're on that subject -- what is it with cold spring weather? For reasons I can never understand, there's something about 25 degrees on March 27th that feels so much colder than 15 or even 10 degrees on January 15th. Is this just a matter of expectations? I don't know -- but I do know that I've run happily in much colder temperatures, but this 25 degrees, it was killing me.

So I did what I often do in such situations, which is that I made myself a deal. I told myself, "Look, all you have to do is get on your exercise clothes. Then you can do what you want. Get on the clothes, and if you don't want to run, you don't have to run. But get the clothes on."

Because I was at my friend's house, I didn't have access to my one special-super-cold-running-outfit, so getting on the clothes meant piling on some long underwear, some weird and ugly exercise pants, a running shirt, an old turtleneck, a nylon jacket thing, a hat, and fleece gloves that prevented me from using my iPhone (gasp!).

Just as I'd expected, once I was dressed in all those clothes, I started to feel hot and itchy and fidgety. More importantly, it started to seem ridiculous to take them all off without actually going outside. I stood there in the front hallway, contemplating my options, and eventually I took off my gloves and got the playlist set up and put the gloves back on forced myself out the door.

You know what's coming next, because exercise narratives are always formulaic tales of loss and redemption. About five minutes in I was striding along, enjoying the pretty white snow, jumping around icy patches, a smile on my face.

Halfway through I had one of those particular Buffalo-type experiences that makes people love the city so much, where I noticed a framed photo nailed to a huge tree on the side of the road, with writing explaining that the photo was from 1890 and that it depicted the very tree it was nailed to, when the tree was itty bitty.

The person who wrote on the photo had taken pains to point out which house in the photo was the house right near the tree, and had also drawn in arrows with captions pointing out the "horse-drawn carriage" and "horse droppings" in the road, so everyone would know it really was 1890. I stood there in the cold, warmed by my run, and looked at the the photo and then at tree and then back at the house and then back at the photo again and I was like, "This is so amazingly cool."

The reason I'm telling you all this story, though, is because of the part with the clothes and the getting out the door. I think when you see someone out running in the cold, smiling, pausing to take in a cool picture, it's so easy to think, "Oh, that's that kind of person, totally self-motivated, massive willpower, yada yada yada."

But it's not true. Sure there are people like that. But a lot of people are just muddling through, and happened to find a cagey and clever way to get themselves to do something. Like putting on their clothes and going from there. 

As I ran, I got thinking about how changing my clothes had altered my perspective on "going outside" versus "staying in," and I was reminded of this post from a couple of weeks ago, where I talked about rational choice theory. You may remember from that post the lobster story, about the person who wants to eat lobster if they haven't seen it alive but doesn't want to eat it if they have. I was writing in the post about how you can't know from the outside whether the person was being "irrational" in allowing irrelevant factors to come into play, or whether they were rational because their preferences genuinely changed.

I think the version of the story where the person just has changeable preferences is often the one most true to life, and I ran I thought to myself that this was a pretty similar situation -- not wanting to go outside when you're wearing your indoor clothes and wanting to go outside when you're in your outdoor clothes.

It's a kind of changeability that I think is really at the heart of the human condition. It's nice to think of yourself as a stable set of preferences, pursuing this or that project, by making yourself do the things that move that project along. But often it's not really like that, and the way you see things is seriously altered by the tiniest changes in your surroundings or your mood.

The trick, if you can manage it, is to harness those forces for good. It's often impossible. But once in a while, something like the clothing trick comes to mind -- and voilà! You may not be the rational possessor of stable preferences with long term goals you're marching toward-- but you sure look like one from the outside.

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