So much of life is spent on auto-pilot. Years pass by, then decades. The more time passes, the more we lose sight of who we wanted to be, and the more we accept who we’ve become, despite the gap between our expectations and our realities.
We recognize the dissonance, but explain it away because the dreams of our youth are, we believe, impractical. It’s not realistic or responsible—and may even be selfish—to harbor, let alone act upon, deeply held desires for something more out of life, right?
Time passes. Nothing changes. And we tell ourselves stories about why that’s okay.
I’m 30. I’m advancing in my career, planning a wedding, and trying to pay off student loans. I’m too busy.
I’m 40. I have kids, a mortgage, and college tuition to save for. I have too many responsibilities.
I’m 50. My knee hurts, I’m tired, I need to save for retirement. I’m too old.
Life goes by fast, and then faster and faster. If we’re not careful, our bucket lists will get filled with excuses rather than accomplishments and experiences.
It’s easy to allow routine to take hold, and once it does, progress often grinds to a halt. We lose ourselves in other people’s expectations about how we’re supposed to think, what we should say, and what we ought to do or not do.
Those deferred dreams of becoming an artist, of writing that book, of pursuing a new career, of traveling, of living somewhere new… begin to fade.
But not entirely. Any dream worth dreaming keeps flickering, no matter how faintly in the subconscious. It begins to burn brighter at times of turmoil when the routine becomes unbearable. It is during trying times, such as the onset of an illness or the disintegration of a relationship, that we conjure the courage to revisit what we really desire from our lives. These are the inciting incidents of life.
How Will You Rise to the Challenge of Today’s Inciting Incident?
In screenplay and novel writing the inciting incident is the event that gets the story rolling. It’s the action or decision that introduces the problem that the story’s main character must overcome.
In movies and books, the inciting incident is unmistakable. It’s the moment that calls the protagonist to action and changes their life irrevocably. That’s the thing about fiction—almost every story follows the same arc. There’s incitement, struggle, and ultimately triumph, with twists and turns along the way. But the story almost always gets resolved, wrapped up in a pretty bow.
Art may imitate life, but real life is, of course, far different. And messier (at least the ending). We’re all characters in a narrative, but unlike in most books and movies, our stories don’t always result in happy endings. Inciting incidents occur all around us but rarely do they lead to real change.
Over the past nine months, we have all been called to action. Even if you have not personally been afflicted with illness, COVID-19’s second-order effects have almost certainly turned your life upside down. The question is: Will you use this moment as a catalyst for change, or merely accept more of the same?
If you’ve pondered this question, in some form or another, you’re not alone. I have struggled with it mightily. For me, it has led to a host of other questions:
What legacy will I leave?
How will I look back at my time spent during the pandemic?
What are my priorities?
What lessons will I pass on to my kids that will help them confront the inevitable struggles they will face?
Have I stepped up for others?
Am I showing up with an abundance or scarcity mindset?
What changes should I make?
If not now, then when?
The problem with an inciting incident in the form of a global pandemic is that the severity of such a crisis tends to inhibit and not spur positive change. It’s during times like this that we tend to withdraw and avoid risk taking. We hunker down. We settle for the status quo, no matter how dissatisfying. We get stuck.
Five years ago, facing other challenges, my wife and I finally summoned the courage to act and change our circumstances for the better. We picked up and moved hundreds of miles away to a place we loved but previously lacked the will to embrace as our home. We started a new business. We fashioned a new life. We took action.
It worked, and the experience has been revelatory in many ways. We’re still not sure exactly where this journey will end up, but we got ourselves moving. And that’s important, because almost everything positive that has happened in our lives has come as a result of stepping outside of our comfort zones.
One of the most important lessons we learned is that to move forward, you first need to understand what is holding you back. Only after you’ve diagnosed the problem can you determine the right course of treatment.
Here are three common challenges that impede progress—they certainly impeded ours—and some ideas for moving forward.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy
Have you ever stayed in a job or a relationship for too long because you felt like you had so much time and effort invested in it? Have you feared that walking away, despite the fact that you were in a bad situation, was not worth the cost? Most of us have, which means we’ve fallen victim to the “sunk cost fallacy.”
A sunk cost is one that has already been incurred and cannot be recouped. It’s gone and there’s nothing we can do about it. The fallacy is that we believe we can recover sunk costs, so we make bad decisions – or no decision at all – because we don’t want to accept the fact that the past is in the past. So instead of making progress on a new path we compound our mistakes based on the irrational desire to justify our prior decisions.
Not only do people overvalue sunk costs, but they undervalue future investments. They stay in situations for too long even though they’re not happy because they doubt their potential to pivot and make positive change.
Sunk costs are, by definition, gone. You can’t get them back. So there’s no reason to regret past mistakes. And there’s certainly no reason to compound them by not changing behavior. Learn from your past and remember that every stumble is a step toward your future.
Living for Others
Far too many people live their lives based on perceptions of what others may think of their actions and decisions rather than—others be damned—focusing on their own dreams and desires. Instead of working to be happy, they worry about pleasing others. If I quit my job, what will my parents think? If I join this group, what will my friends say? How will my co-workers react if I speak up at the meeting? Will people “like” my social media post?
This is no way to live, and it’s a recipe for staying stuck. That’s not to say that we all don’t worry about what other people think of us from time to time, it’s just that it can’t be your guiding principle.
If someone does judge you? So what. You’ll never please everyone—that’s out of your control. What is in your control is how you react. You can either let it get you down, or you can ignore it and move forward. There’s no way that everyone is going to like you, but depending on how you conduct yourself you can earn everyone’s respect. And that should be the objective.
This is not a call to narcissism. It’s a wake-up call to start living life on your own terms. The path to progress starts with having a well-developed value system and the courage to unabashedly express it. Again, not everyone will like it, but if you’re true to yourself and your values, then you’ll be respected no matter where your path takes you.
Thinking “Why Me?” Instead of “Why Not Me?”
We hear a lot about “overnight success” stories—people who emerge from obscurity and skyrocket to fame and fortune, and businesses that start in a garage or dorm room and quickly command billion-dollar valuations. These stories make for great sound bites in the age of the Internet and social media, and they leave people thinking that success is more the result of a stroke of luck than it is hard work and determination.
With few exceptions, the overnight success phenomenon is a myth. We see the end result—the fame and fortune–but we don’t see the blood, sweat, tears, toil, failure, sacrifice, and rejection that enabled the achievement to happen. Almost no one achieves anything worthwhile the first time they try, or even the second or third. Indeed, the road to success for most is littered with failure.
If you’re willing to work hard and persevere through hardship, you can become “successful”—no matter how you define it. it just won’t happen overnight. Those who grasp this don’t look for lightning in a bottle. They don’t fatalistically and self-defeatingly ask: Why me?” Instead, with calm confidence, they dig deep, roll up their sleeves, proclaim: “Why not me? And they shift into action. Success begins and ends with an enduring belief in self.
In almost all ways, the COVID-19 crisis is a curse. But in crisis lies opportunity. What will you do in the face of this clear and present inciting incident to make changes for the better?
About the Author: Jay Harrington is an author, reformed-lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim.