In many ways, life is a process of elimination. We come across people we don’t like and get rid of them. We find jobs we don’t like and leave them. We make purchases we don’t like and never make them again.
This was something I didn’t realize until I read Matthew McConaughey’s book, “Greenlights,” and started thinking.
Throughout the book, McConaughey has a bunch of sticky notes posted with different wisdom. One of them is titled “process of elimination and identity,” which says:
The first step that leads to our identity in life is usually not I know who I am, but rather I know who I’m not. Process of elimination.
Too many options can make a tyrant out of any of us, so we should get rid of the excess in our lives that keep us from being more of ourselves. When we decrease the options that don’t feed us, we eventually, almost accidentally, have more options in front of us that do.
Knowing who we are is hard. Eliminate who we’re not first, and we’ll find ourselves where we need to be.
As someone that recently wrote chapters in my book about identity and self-discovery, this was an interesting angle that I never considered. And it wasn’t the only account on the matter, either.
The day after reading that, I found this Tedx Talk from Tim Ferriss discussing why we should define our fears instead of our goals.
Ferriss discusses facing many depressive bouts in his earlier years. So instead of sharing his recipe for success, he thought it would be better to share his recipe for avoiding self-destruction.
Ferriss talks about the philosophy of stoicism and its importance on his successes in both well-being (first) and business (second). Stoicism, if you do not already know, is essentially the practice of acceptance and well-measured reaction to the situations life throws at us.
One of the practice’s great writers, Seneca the Younger, wrote on one of the philosophy’s tentpoles that had an impact on Ferriss: premeditatio malorum, a.k.a. the pre-meditations of evils.
This basically means preparing for, or at least expecting, the worst. It means imagining potential future downfalls and preparing so that they don’t interrupt your progress.
Ferriss made a practice of his own out of this, designing a three-page “fear-setting” (instead of goal-setting) guide.
The first page has three columns: “Define,” “Prevent,” “Repair,” in response to a question: “What if I…?” The question is ended with a course of action.
In the “Define” column, Ferriss defines a fear related to the course of action. In the “Prevent” column, he discovers a way in which he could prevent the defined fear from coming to reality. In the “Repair” column, he lists ways he could partially or completely repair the issue should his methods of prevention not work.
The second page of Ferriss’s guide is headlined by this question: “What might be the benefits of an attempt or partial success?” should the course of action be taken.
The third page is where “The Cost of Inaction” is considered, with six-month, one-year, and three-year columns listed.
For some people, a simple “pros and cons” list could probably achieve the same outcome. The message remains the same, whether its pros and cons, McConaughey’s “process of elimination,” or Ferriss’s “fear-setting”: sometimes it is more beneficial to determine what you don’t want than to find what you do want.
Goal-setting can be powerful in setting a high-water mark for your life. Oftentimes, though, defining your fears can lead you to the same place and help you avoid or overcome roadblocks at the same time.