Let me tell you a story:
A few years ago, I was in the midst of major entrepreneurial angst. I’d botched a client project big time, and I was up to my ears in anxiety. I was having trouble sleeping, doing breathing exercises before opening my email inbox, and hating every minute of my job.
In short: I felt like a total failure.
But, rationally, I knew that wasn’t true. One mistake isn’t a huge deal, but this one felt so gargantuan that it magnified all my past mistakes, too. They were snowballing, and fast. Being a visual person, I decided to put all this to the test.
On my whiteboard, I made two lists: one for my successes, and one for my failures. It wasn’t a fun exercise to go through, but it put things in perspective. My successes were much greater than my failures! In fact, the list of failures was puny in size. I breathed a sigh of relief, and then proceeded to post it on Instagram so I’d never forget.
But of course I forgot! All the time!
No matter how great things are going, the shadow of my failures follows me around, growing in size the further I try to run. But I’d like to put an end to it right now, once and for all.
The one way I know to do that is to own the following statement:
The only thing your successes have in common is you.
It's true. All the successes you’ve piled up over the years? All you.
The spelling bee.
Signing that client contract.
Shedding the negativity.
Standing up for yourself.
Finally hitting "record."
Getting up onstage.
Landing the job.
For a long time, I never considered that I deserved much credit for stringing together little bits and pieces of success over the years. There’s always external factors to give the credit to, right?
"The team was great."
"The timing was right."
"The deal kind of fell into my lap."
"I happened to know the right people."
"I didn’t even try that hard."
But the truth is, no matter which way you spin it, I was present for all of it.
Had you thought about that? Do you give yourself credit for your successes? If you’re anything like most people, you probably don’t. The fact is that we play down our successes and feel like there’s always more to be done, more we should be striving for.
Why do we always focus on how much more there is to do? The truth is simple:
No matter how exciting our success feels at first, it quickly becomes our new “normal” state, and the excitement quickly retreats.
If you’ve ever gotten a new iPhone, then you’ve felt this before. Before you get the new phone, you lust after it for a while. Once you get it, though, the excitement of the improved camera or sleek frame fades after just a few days. In just a few months, a new iPhone will be announced, and the lust-fest begins all over again.
This concept is called the hedonic treadmill. What it means is that humans tend to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness no matter what life changes occur, for better or for worse. A new job, new shoes, an exciting trip to the beach—it’s all the same. Excitement quickly wears off, and we return to how happy we were right before the big change.
Worst. Treadmill. Ever.
All this treadmill talk? I can relate.
When it comes to being “happy”, I constantly have to keep working to feel like I’m staying in the same place. Every day, I write morning pages, keep a gratitude journal, exercise, and try to stay aware of my moods—just to maintain the status quo. Improving that level of happiness takes an all-out sprint, adding more intense effort like reading books, journaling about my limiting beliefs, meditating, and more.
The same goes for my projects. Every once in a blue moon, I’ll experience a big win and throw my hands up in triumph. But those “I DID IT!” moments of celebration are so few and far between, and they leave me aching for more.
At times, it feels more like a marathon than a treadmill. It's not like we aren’t making progress—we definitely are!—but the finish line keeping moving, always out of reach.
Treadmill or marathon, it's exhausting. Is there a way to opt out completely?
Like I wrote about last week, the grass is always greener on the other side—until you decide it’s not. Let’s make the grass green right here, in this moment.
I'm no expert, but I'd love to share a few ways I try to beat the hedonic treadmill from making my life feel like a never-ending desire-fest. Here goes:
1. Know your treadmills
The number one thing you can do is to become aware of which treadmills you're on. (Self-awareness is always number one, really.) Earlier, I mentioned three areas of my life where I suffer treadmill-like tendencies, which you may or may not share with me:
- Material goods, like the excitement of a new iPhone wearing off after just a few days
- State of mind, like always needing to do a few things to feel "happy" or "centered"
- Achievement, like the thrill of a big project win fading after just a few hours
Do these ring a bell for you? We're all different, so you may experience the hedonic treadmill in other areas of your life.
Of the three I mentioned above, achievement is the one that affects me the most. For a long time, part of me was hard-wired to seek out achievement in order to feel valued, and it took me decades to realize it. Now, I try to remember:
Steer clear of the rolling hills of achievement and ‘what’s next’. Instead, create to serve others.
This is a daily struggle for me, but one I'm focused on.
What about you? What treadmills are you on?
2. Have self-compassion
Most people are incredibly compassionate with their friends and family but seem to have run out of compassion when it comes to themselves. As a society, we're so hard on ourselves. Self-compassion is nearly non-existant! We save all our compassion and understanding for our friends.
Take a second to look at yourself as if you were another. Step out of yourself and look at your life—the good and the bad, the wins and the losses, the highs and the lows. When we're in our own minds, we tend to focus on the negative and look past the positive so quickly. When you step out of yourself, you're more likely to see the full picture.
Pat yourself on the back for your successes. You're the only one that made them happen.
3. Practice appreciation
I once read about a mental practice made popular by Stoic philosophers as early as 3rd century BC. Whenever they wanted to appreciate what they had (and avoid the hedonic treadmill completely), they'd practice "negative visualization", which basically means to envision in detail how much worse life could be.
This seemed to work for them, but seriously? Not my thing.
I'm not really into picturing all the horrible ways my family could die or how lonely I'd be if something happened to then, so then—yay!—I'm so happy because none of that is actually happening! Life could be horrible, but it's not so let's celebrate!
But I am a fan of appreciating the here and now for what it is. I do this by writing down what I'm grateful for each day. One of today's entries, for example, is for laughing hard with my friends last night. Over time, this helps see the beauty in the present moment—even when the present moment kind of sucks.
Appreciating the simple things in life with gusto is an intentional decision.
PS. I'll be speaking in Panama on Thursday for Entrepreneurship Week! Will you be there? Lemme know! :-) I'd love to hang.