(Note: this is part 4 of a five-part series on achieving Excellence. For more context, and an explanation of why this series is happening, check out part 1: Excellence vs. Reason)
In the last post, I introduced the concept of external support systems, and how much we rely on them to do just about anything. To briefly summarize, this external support is made up of all the support we get from the world around us to help us live a decent life.
This support comes in many shapes, from the school system teaching us the things we need to know, to the medical system that brings us back to health when we’re sick, and even our social circle supporting us in achieving our personal goals.
The only problem is that most of this external support is only there to help us reach a certain point – usually mediocrity – after which it seizes to exist. Our schools help us pass the test, but no further. Our social structures help us get everything we need to live a decent, ordinary life, but not an extraordinary one.
Anything past the point of mediocrity, and we’re usually on our own.
This is, of course, a problem for anyone who wants to go past mediocrity and reach excellence.
It’s not easy to go from relying heavily on this external support, to tackling the problems of life all on our own. In fact, this is the hurdle that stops the majority of people from ever going too far beyond mediocrity in the first place.
All of this leads us to the following conclusion; in order to reach past the point of mediocrity, we need to stop depending on external support systems to carry us through life.
Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. We can’t just stand up one day and declare that, okay, as of right now, I don’t need any more outside help! We’re far too dependent on it to do such a thing.
What we can do, however, is replace this external support with a solid internal support system. A system that we control; one that doesn’t depend on the support of any outside factors that may or may not want us to succeed.
But in order to replace anything, we need to first figure out what it is we want to switch out in the first place.
Things We Rely on External Support For
Most of us tend to depend on external support for a lot of different things, but on a basic level, this dependency usually falls into two distinct categories; finding solutions to problems, and receiving motivational support.
- Finding solutions to problems
When we live life at (or below) a mediocre level, we are never forced to come up with our own solutions to the problems we face. No matter what obstacle is in our way, the society around us will always provide us with a clear way to conquer it.
If we don’t have a job, society will do everything in its power to help us find one. If we don’t have a home, there are government programs to help us get one. If we want to lose weight, there are thousands of step-by-step guides to follow. If we want an education, we’ll have all the help we need to get one. If we’re sick, our doctors will give us an exact remedy for how to get healthy.
No matter what shit we may run into, we can always rely on external support systems to bring us up to a decent, mediocre level.
Which is exactly why we need to stop relying on them if we want to reach higher than that.
Because we won’t be provided with these free step-by-step solutions to the problems we face if we shoot for excellence. There won’t be any support systems for becoming rich and famous, traveling the world, finding your dream job or becoming the very best in your chosen field.
If we want to reach past whatever level is considered “normal”, we need to rely on ourselves to find the solutions to the problems that stand in our way.
- Receiving motivational support
But external support systems aren’t just there to tell us what to do. They also have a much more ingrained role in our lives; to provide us with motivational support whenever we might need it.
This support comes in two forms;
- Positive reinforcement, where the people around us actively help us achieve our goals by cheering us on and helping us stay motivated.
- Negative reinforcement, where the threat of social consequences drives us to perform. This includes things like feeling motivated to get into shape to avoid looking like a failure in the eyes of others, and feeling pressured to complete work tasks to avoid getting fired.
These two kinds of social motivation will always be there to push us on whenever we fall below mediocrity in any way.
But if we’ve already passed the point of mediocrity, this support vanishes as well. There aren’t any support groups to help you get healthier if you’re already moderately healthy, and there won’t be any pressure to perform if you’re already better than the average level at your workplace.
And hey, this is only natural; while most people love helping those in need of support, no one is going to trip over themselves to support someone who is already better than they are. Similarly, there won’t be much social pressure to perform past what is expected of you.
Hell, if you’re starting to get too much better than the people around you, they might actively try to bring you back down to a mediocre level instead of helping you.
Which is exactly why you can’t let yourself grow dependent on the motivational support of others to help you achieve what you want to achieve. If you want to make it past mediocrity, you are going to have to find another source for your motivation.
How to Actually Do It
Unfortunately, we can’t get rid of these external support systems just like that. Because as much as they might limit us, they fulfill actual needs; We need a reliable way of finding solutions to our problems, and we need a source of motivation in our lives.
In order to stop relying on this external support, then, we need to find some other way to meet these needs of ours. Which means we have to develop two kinds of internal support systems:
- A system for finding our own solutions to problems
- A system for creating our own motivation
Alright, so now we know what we need. But the million dollar question remains; how in the seven hells do we actually do this? How do we develop a reliable system for finding good solutions to the problems we face, and how do we produce a continuous flow of motivation to keep us going?
Fortunately, there are two fairly straight-forward steps to achieving both of these goals.
Step #1: Developing Heuristics
Heuristics basically function as a comprehensive guidebook for your life.
In its basic form, a heuristic is essentially a predetermined solution to a certain kind of problem, or set of circumstances. Instead of figuring out a particular solution to every single problem you might come across, your heuristics will serve as a set of instructions for how to deal with new situations.
Think of heuristics like a line of programming code, detailing what action should be taken if a certain set of criteria are met. It might look something like;
If conditions X and Y, perform action Z.
This kind of heuristics provide a viable replacement to external support systems when it comes to finding solutions to problems. Instead of relying on external factors to help you, your heuristic guidebook is completely under your control. Your heuristics will always be there for you to rely on, even past the point of mediocrity where external support fades away.
But before we can start using heuristics to solve our problems, we need to first develop them. And in order to do that, we need to know what our basic parameters are.
Your Basic Parameters
Your basic parameters are made up of two things; your wants, and your values. These are the two determining factors that shape the way you solve the problems you might encounter in your life.
If you think of it in gaming terms, your wants are the objectives of the game. It’s what you’re trying to achieve in the first place. This might include pursuing your dreams, getting ridiculously rich and famous, or simply achieving long-lasting happiness.
Then you have your values, which function as the rules of the game. Your values are basically your moral guidelines, providing the boundaries for what you’re willing to do to achieve your objectives. They’re what’s keeping you from doing things like hurting other people or committing crimes as a means of reaching your goals.
Together, these wants and values create the foundation for what your heuristics will look like. All you have to do is weigh your wants and your values against each other, and find the general solution that best achieves your wants, while still playing in accordance with your values.
For instance, if your wants include living a fulfilling life, traveling the world, and getting rich, and your values include not doing harm to others and obeying the law, you have a lot of your heuristics laid out for you already.
Your heuristic guidebook would probably look something like this;
If given the opportunity to break the law for personal gain, always do the right thing.
If given the choice between settling down with a stable career and traveling to another country, always choose the travel option.
If you have the choice between being lazy and doing work that will make you a lot of money down the line, always put in the work.
Based on your basic parameters alone, you should be able to create a fairly comprehensive guidebook for any future problems and dilemmas you might encounter. And, most importantly, it doesn’t rely on any external support to do so.
Step #2: Creating Your Own Motivation
Now let’s move on to replacing our dependency on external motivation. Seeing how we’re dependent on external forces for both positive and negative reinforcement, we need to find an internal replacement for each of these.
- Replacing positive reinforcement
Considering that the social support we draw from the world around us is often a key factor in getting through tough situations, we’re going to have to find an equally powerful replacement to make up for it. Fortunately, we are already in control of one of the most powerful motivators known to man; incentives.
All we have to do is learn how to use it.
The simplest, most straight-forward way of doing that is by taking advantage of our inherent laziness. Because we as a species are lazy. We have a natural preference for taking the easy way out of any situation – unless we have the external support to help us take the harder way out.
But seeing how we can’t rely on external factors to help us anymore, we need to manipulate the scales a little. And the way to do that is by making sure the outcome we want becomes the easy way out.
Let me explain.
In any given situation, we’re going to be naturally drawn to making the decision with the biggest, most immediate reward. When we choose between working and not working, we want to choose not working since that gives us the immediate reward of relaxation, whereas working only brings a reward later on.
And when choosing between staying healthy and eating that chocolate bar, we want to eat all of the sweets, since the thought of an instant sugar high is more appealing than that of being healthy somewhere down the line.
What we need to do is make sure that the “right” choice has a bigger immediate reward than the alternative we want to avoid. We need to create an incentive for it.
This can be as simple as allowing yourself a cookie for every page you finish on that annual report, or treating yourself to a night out with your friends if you’ve done all your workouts for the week.
Basically, we want to bribe ourselves to make the right choices. Only then will we be able to replace our dependency on social support with a source of internal motivation.
- Personal accountability
The second thing we need to replace here is our dependency on external accountability. Because no one else is going to hold you accountable for achieving your most ambitious goals. That’s a job you’ll have to take care of yourself.
Your boss isn’t going to hold you accountable if you’re already living up to what is expected of you. Your friends won’t hold you accountable for failing to build an eight-pack if you already have a six-pack. And no one will hold you accountable for not finishing that novel you’ve spent the last five years working on.
That’s your job. Without other people holding you accountable, you need to start holding yourself accountable.
And the way to do this is by treating yourself as the highest authority imaginable. This requires a shift in your mindset. Instead of thinking of yourself as having no authority over your own decisions, you need to start viewing yourself as the last person you would ever want to disappoint.
This mindset works even better if you create actual consequences for failing to live up to your own goals. For every time you cheat on your diet, you have to donate twenty bucks to charity. For every gym session you skip, you have to walk home from work instead of taking the bus. And for every self-imposed deadline you miss on your novel, you have to take a five-minute cold shower.
Because nothing holds you accountable like the fear of facing the consequences of failure.
These are some of the ways in which we can lessen our dependency on external support systems. By following these steps, we can make sure that we don’t fall short of our goals the second we reach further than mediocrity. Because instead of relying on external support to always be there for us, we’ll have built a strong internal support system that can carry us on even when the rest of the world won’t help us.
So far in the series we’ve covered the major obstacles that stand in the way of reaching excellence. We’ve looked into the negative sides of reasonable decisions. We’ve talked about how our fear of risks stands in our way. And we’ve examined how our dependency on external support systems makes it difficult to move past the point of mediocrity.
These are all obstacles that need to be overcome if we want to have a chance of reaching excellence.
But none of the things we’ve covered in the series so far will do you any good unless you do the one critical thing that will bring you from mediocrity to excellence; putting in the work.
We’ll dig into that topic in next week’s article.
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