Updated for 2022. Previously published as “Bullish Life: The Things We Can’t Have Now”
I’ve written many Bullish columns about going out and getting what you want (see Bullish: When To Make Massive And Ballsy Life Changes For Your Career and Bullish: You Can Start a Business by Tuesday.) I jokingly like to call it “ballsiness” because I am amused by the rather medieval view that power resides in the testicles — an unimposing body part if ever there were one.
But sometimes, you just have to wait.
My tech friends like to toss out this expression (from Fred Brooks in software engineering bible, The Mythical Man-Month) when told to hurry, or else more computer programmers will be hired to “help”:
“It takes nine months to make a baby, no matter how many women you assign to the task.”
One reader wrote to me asking whether she should quit her bartending job to focus full-time on fashion. She had over $50,000 in the bank, and had mapped out her worst-case scenario as recommended in Bullish Life: How to Reduce Your Stress Level Immediately. She was ready.
But it turns out:
I’m pretty neurotic and until I have a tangible product it’s pretty much a waiting game (as I am coordinating with a patternmaker and eventually a sample maker). If I sat around at home waiting for patterns/samples to be ready, which up to now has been quite a relentless process, I might worry myself into a coma. So I figure just make some money and stack some cash while I can.
There are plenty of other times you just have to wait — for instance, if you want to get married. Or have a baby. Or reconcile with someone who isn’t ready to forgive you yet. Or get a “yes” from a publisher. Or all kinds of things involving other people, and lengthy business processes. (See Bullish: How to Build a Modern Woman’s Hope Chest Without Looking Like an Insane Harpy.)
Let’s talk about the things we can’t have now, and what to do about them.
When relentless positive thinking isn’t the answer, refocusing is
You can’t be fucking chipper all the damn time.
I wrote about the dangers of excessive positive thinking in Bullish: Gratitude is Nice, But Don’t Let It Keep You From Action.
Some people are just naturally cheerful, and some work at it. But do you ever watch one of those “motivational” videos wherein someone has suffered some horrific tragedy — and tells you they’re glad about all of this, because of Jesus? If it works for that person, great, but sometimes demanding that a person brainwash herself into being happy about something is just too fucking much.
I wrote in Bullish Life: Sometimes It’s Best Just to Not Think About It that there’s great power in mental discipline. Just decide what thoughts you will dismiss with casual disdain every time they pop into your head. Many religious people do this all the time — literally turning away at the sight of scantily clad women, and countering any sexual thoughts by immediately turning to silent prayer. I’m an atheist and I don’t have any problem with sexual fantasies, but I mention this because it’s got to be great practice for developing mental discipline in general.
[CW: Body Image] For instance, if you are prone to body issues: I’m a fan of exercising, and then not looking at yourself in a mirror. Just don’t think about it. If you’re doing all the healthy things you should be, then you’re already succeeding — whatever you see in the mirror won’t change your course of action, so there’s no need to obsess over it.
After I wrote Sometimes It’s Best Just to Not Think About It, I was reading a book called Overcoming Dyslexia for a masters in education class I’m taking. One success story — a (dyslexic) young man in medical school — said of his painful memories of failing in school:
“After taking so many hits on tests, I feel kind of shell-shocked. Just going into that room brings back so many bad memories. I have to work really hard not to think of that and instead to focus on the questions. It’s never easy. But you have to understand, I’m not one to give up.”
Work really hard not to think of that and instead focus on the questions. And then the next day, this Helen Keller quote popped up out of nowhere:
“I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times; but it is vague, like a breeze among flowers.”
(Keller, by the way, despite sometimes being used as uncontroversial “inspiration” for nondisabled people – don’t do this – spent much of her life agitating for socialism and pacifism.)
What can’t you have now? What must you wait for? What depends on the whims or finishing power of others? What can you do nothing about? Commit to dismissing those thoughts. They get two seconds in your head; you’ve heard them before. Move on.
Never wait full-time; waiting lends itself well to multitasking
This also goes for suffering. Waiting and suffering are part of life, but you owe it to yourself not to let them mushroom over all of your available time. Everyone feels like shit sometimes, so just try to make it less time-consuming.
I’ve written before (in Bullish: How to [Intelligently] Do Many Different Things at Once) about how multitasking doesn’t work — except it does when one of the things you’re trying to do can run on autopilot. Waiting, pining, and feeling sorry for yourself are all human activities that pretty much run on autopilot.
I wrote in Bullish: Picking a Boyfriend Who Doesn’t Hold Back Your Career or Bank Account that
“…it is now unavoidably obvious to me that I can do one very-high-concentration activity per day, first thing in the morning. After that, I can teach classes, I can give presentations, I can fold all my hand towels into the precise folding schema that reminds me of a high-end luxury hotel, but I can’t, for instance, write this column. I therefore studiously avoid early-morning meetings; I never waste my best timeslot on something that could easily be completed in an inferior timeslot.”
Waiting and sadness do not deserve your most productive timeslots. Your future self requires that you act. Whatever you-in-15-years is like, you can be pretty sure that she wants you to set her up with some cash, a nice place to live, thriving friendships, and a kickass career. Your future self deserves your kindness and attention now. (See also: Bullish Life: Breaking Free from Terrible Situations for more on setting up your future self.)
Enjoy now what will be lost when you get what you want
No opportunity comes without some kind of loss. If you want to be a famous actor, getting that dream role might indeed be a huge net positive – but comes with a loss of the simple ability to go to the mall or sit in a coffee shop or, you know … go outside.
An entrepreneur friend of mine comments that, now that she’s so successful, she doesn’t have nearly as many good ideas anymore. Rather, she’s coasting on (and monetizing) ideas from back when she was broke. “Good ideas,” she says, “came from having a lot of free time on my hands.”
I’d like to have kids. In fact, it seems absurd that my main gift in life is explaining things, and no one around me needs help with forks and shoelaces; virtually everyone I know is fork-capable. And yet, having a child would require me to move out of my beloved one-bedroom apartment and would obliterate my ability to plan these columns on scraps of paper while drinking Chimay in bars til all hours of the morning.
If you must wait to have the things you want, drink up all you can of the things that will later be lost. Unknown actresses can go to the beach without later seeing their photos in a magazine with circles around their abdomens and arrows pointing to their purported “babies” (also known as “internal organs and having eaten a burrito”). The reader with the fashion goals despises bartending, but she enjoys the security of knowing where her money is coming from (and maybe waking up late, having a built-in social system through work, or other intangibles).
Maybe this is worth an actual T-chart: when your goals are achieved, you will have the stuff on the left, but lose the stuff on the right.
Make a point to reflect and enjoy the stuff on the right. I’ve certainly had plenty of Chimay this week.
It’s okay to wait for the things we want. But there’s so much to be done while we do it.