How many times have you heard someone say “I don’t really like my job, but in one more year, I’ll leave,” only to find them 5 years later in the same job, saying the same thing? What’s going on here?
I asked my dad why he stayed in the same company for over 30 years - his answer: inertia. In physics, Newton’s law of inertia states that an object will remain on the same path unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Using this idea in life tells us that to make a change, the force of taking action needs to exceed the force of doing nothing.
It took me 18 months to finally leave my corporate day job. I liked my work, had great colleagues and earnt decent money, but it wasn’t fulfilling. The job was mediocre. Yet leaving its stability behind would make my income uncertain - my source of survival and lifestyle. The potential pleasure of doing what I loved was less powerful than this uncertainty.
I realised there was no time to waste, only by becoming truly conscious that I wouldn’t live forever (my 12th principle for an extraordinary life). I quit my job in December 2019 to pursue my dream of being a full-time coach and trainer (as I previously wrote about.) My story highlights three reasons why people settle for mediocrity.
We’re driven to avoid pain
Firstly, pain is a greater motivator than pleasure. The audience in my Empowering Beliefs workshop reacts skeptically to this; I also didn’t want to believe it at first. That shifted when I read the question: What would make you act more decisively; a tiger chasing after you, or a suitcase full of money? I’d react more strongly to that big cat.
In his best-seller Thinking, Fast & Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that “losses loom larger than gains”. People are more willing to take risks to avoid a loss (pain) than to receive a gain (pleasure). They have a burnout at work, so they quit their ill-fitting job. They’re cheated on by their partner, so they break off a stagnant relationship. Their best friend dies from a lifestyle-related disease, so they start eating healthier. In many areas of life, people don’t make a change until they reach a breaking point of pain.
We’re blind to the future
Secondly, we are short-sighted. Pleasures and pains affect us more in the present moment than it seems they will in the future. Having to tell your boss that you’re leaving brings pain now. The pain at the end of your career, when you realise you wasted your working life, is something you don’t think about. It may seem like a faraway “tomorrow," especially if you’re young, but with my 12th principle I realised that tomorrow does come, eventually.
We’re scared of the unknown
Thirdly, uncertainty biases us towards the status quo. We’re habitual creatures that consistently make subconscious judgements. These are often irrational, like tolerating a lifetime of mediocrity, because the short-term present is more certain than the long-term future. Having to find a new job in a different environment creates uncertainty. Staying in your current position provides the certainty of a stable income performing familiar tasks. But if your job is unfulfilling now, it will almost certainly be unfulfilling tomorrow.
If you want tomorrow to be different, it’s time for action today. Think about a change you’re not making - an area of your life that leaves you unfulfilled. Perhaps your job, relationships, or leisure activities. Take ten minutes to think about these three steps:
Derive pain from the status quo. What will it ultimately cost you physically and emotionally if you don’t make a change? I also thought about the effect on my relationships from feeling dissatisfied at work. If I wasn’t energised in my career, I realised I would be less attentive to others. You could also create pain by trusting a friend with pledging 100 euros of your money to an anti-charity, if you fail to make your change (e.g. the Donald Trump re-election fund).
Bring long-term pain and pleasure to the present moment. For pain, write down what your life would look like if you don’t make the change. Imagine yourself on your deathbed regretting having never taken action. For pleasure, do the opposite: imagine what your life could look like, and how you’d feel, if you make the change. In 2015, I drew a picture of myself speaking in front of an audience about a topic I was passionate about. Three years later, I was hosting an event and showed that drawing to a crowd of 5000 people in the Ahoy stadium in Rotterdam.
Reduce the uncertainty of change. Start journaling for five minutes every night, reflecting on how you feel about this change and what options you have. You can also find a coach, whether a professional like me, or even a friend, to listen and ask you questions (without advising you). When I write down my challenges or share them with others, I realise the solutions are much less complicated than I made them in my head.
If you know you don’t want to be in this job/relationship/lifestyle next year, why are you in it now? If you want change, you have to act. That might be scary, but just like a baby bird in its nest, we can only learn to fly by taking a leap of faith.