Last year, I wrote about the power of positive reinforcement as a basis for behavior change in my post Finding My Grape. You may remember the video of some laboratory monkeys eating grapes and cucumbers if you had read the post. Everyone loves those darn monkeys.
In rereading my post a year later, I found that I failed to outline a process for folks to find their grapes and simply suggested that we find it.
In my defense, I love exploring psychology but I am by no means an actual psychologist. Everything I say is gleaned from my haphazard reading of books, accelerated listening of podcasts at 1.5-2x speed, and a hodgepodge of other sources. I make no promises of getting you any closer to an answer this time so continue reading at your own risk.
Like many of you, I consistently wane and wax between wanting to do more in my life, which leads me to take on too much, which leaves me feeling overwhelmed, which finally culminates in a realization that I’m unable to do the things I actually want to be doing. This emotional roller coaster often ends in some kind of blow up with the people closest to me or worse, a slow degradation of relationships that ends with me wondering how things have gotten to where they are and me feeling like I should do more to fix the problems. And we start the whole process over again.
So what’s going on under the ol’ psychological hood here? Well, in his work Mastery: The Keys to Success and Longterm Fulfillment, George Leonard explores the concept of mastery and how the allure of starting something new, though transitory, can be an addiction that keeps people on the hedonistic cycle of taking on new challenges despite already being overwhelmed.
Unfortunately, if we simply choose to do something solely based on the perceived excitement of its newness or even worse, the anticipatory joy of its positive outcome, we will often fail to push through the first glimpse of failure.
Spoiler alert, everyone and everything fails at some point. Therefore, the road to mastery, success, happiness, fulfillment or whatever word you choose to put here must be filled with failures. Unfortunately, when we fill our plates with new things before exploring the nature of our failures, we create a cycle of simply doing more things for the sake of doing more things rather than doing what really matters. In other words, we distract ourselves by staying busy and eating way more grapes than we need or want.
So how do we find that one grape that will let us stick to the process even when we find ourselves sick of eating grapes? Well, it starts with slowing down and eating one grape at a time. Over time, you begin to realize that the grape you eat doesn’t actually matter; instead it’s how you eat that grape where in the magic lies. Perhaps that sounds a little too simplistic and maybe it is, but so often simple does not mean easy.
The other day we did a very simple workout of strict presses and strict pull-ups. On paper, this workout looks, as one athlete said, “kind of too simple.” But I guarantee you that no one who tried doing the workout at a level at or beyond their perceived capacity would say that it was easy. In fact, most of us failed much sooner than expected.
Why did so many of us underestimate the power of this simple workout? Well, first, we didn’t take the time to sit with what was being asked of us and dwell a little bit in its simplicity.
Eat a grape…slowly. Mindfully look at it, take in its contours, explore its shape, color, look into the depth of its skin and see what’s in there.
Then smell it. Really smell it. Can you discern the difference between it and your skin?
Now taste it with your tongue. Let it sit there for a bit. Do you notice anything happening in your mouth, in your body as the flavor begins to permeate your taste buds?
Can you take an extra few moments before sticking the grape in your mouth? Once you actually place it in your mouth, can you resist the urge to bite it? What’s happening now? What’s the anticipation feel like? Where does it show up? As you do eat the grape, can you retain this same level of patience and attention? Where do you break down and just swallow that whole thing without even knowing it?
And that’s just eating one grape…what if you did this with every task in your life? How long would it actually take to explore the depths of each each thing that fills your day from the second you wake up to the moment you close your eyes? Can you honestly tell yourself that all of those things are actually worth your time and attention? If not, then why are you doing them?
Now that last question is the one that has consumed me these last few weeks. A whole heap of tasks, priorities, commitments, must do’s, and have to do’s have crept back into what I believed was an expertly curated and deeply examined life. I realized that I’m swimming in more grapes than I know what to do with and most of them don’t matter.
So I say, pick one. Just one thing. Do it. Do it well. Do it completely. Do it slowly. Do it deeply. Do it as well as you can. And do it until you find a new point of failure because you’ve gone to the limit of your capacity. And don’t do anything else until you can honestly say you have consumed that whole task. Stick with it even if it’s not fun anymore. Actually, stick with it because it’s not fun. Challenge yourself not to just go through the motions but to lean into the process; to explore each step for the sake of that step and not because you think it will lead to some perceived state of happiness or accomplishment. Do it because it’s the process of doing the one thing and not being done with the task that actually matters. See if you can stay in each moment until that moment is over because it’s over not because you have moved on. This sounds simple but trust me, it’s the hardest thing to do in the world, until it isn’t. And that’s the moment you will begin to glimpse mastery.
Doing one thing is a luxury and having the luxury of doing one thing is a gift. It’s simple. It’s purposeful. And it’s a privilege so vast that many of us can’t fathom having it.
I challenge you to hold onto that cucumber that you want to ditch just a bit longer, even if you think you want a grape. Trust me, you’ll get bored with the grape too if you don’t slow the hell down and figure out why you didn’t want the cucumber in the first place.
So be a good monkey, eat your cucumber, and we’ll see you in the box.