Taking total responsibility for all facets of your life can lead to great change, but it can also lead to great exhaustion.
The idea that you have untold potential beneath the surface waiting to be unleashed is enticing. Instead of being stuck with a body, relationship, or job you don’t like, you can accomplish everything you put your mind to. How?
Take complete ownership.
- You are the reason you are in a job that sucks.
- You are the reason you don’t have satisfying relationships.
- You are the reason you haven’t lost weight.
There are no extraneous factors to blame, only yourself. It’s a bit irrational, yes, but this simple mindset was a breath of fresh air to my cognition. I could no longer hide from not living up to my potential because I couldn’t put the onus on something else.
Far from being the typical self-help bullshit, this idea is rooted in self-sacrifice and action. Its advocates do not shy away from reality: it’s going to be hard and challenging. The only way to get through it is by getting better in all facets of your life. It is not without rewards, however, as this self-development proffers to lead to a more meaningful and complete life.
In 2017, I started to really come into contact with the extreme ownership idea. It first started with a resurgence in Stoic philosophy as every podcast or blogger I followed was reading one of the classics by Epictetus, Seneca or Marcus Aurelieus. Then, Jordan Peterson came to rise with his odd mix of Psychoanalytical Archetypes and conservatism imploring everyone to clean their rooms.
Finally, I came into orbit of the Jacko Willick crowd and started to follow him on instagram as he posted daily pictures of his watch when he started his day (plot spoiler: it’s usually 4:30am). Willink’s mantra “Discipline Equals Freedom” encapsulates the promise of taking on more responsibility for your life: If I cultivate discipline today, I can reap possibilities later.
At that point of my life, I wasn’t exactly at a crossroads or experiencing a lack of responsibility. I was entering year two of Physical Therapy school, which is a job and a half in itself, while working out 5 times a week.
But, I also had so much more I wanted to do: read, play music, write more. I decided I was going to give this life a try and see what “extreme ownership” could do for me.
The Smash Success of Total Ownership.
That Fall (2017), I started to teach myself how to play guitar. Within months, I was posting short clips on instagram with some having over a 1000 views as I played personally meaningful songs like “Blackbird” or “Imagine.” I always wanted to learn to play an instrument, and while I stuck with Viola for a good while, it never came to this amount of fruition. Now I have 25-30 songs memorized.
Then, I started this blog in January 2018. When I was 18, I always wanted to watch the top 100 movies of all-time and write about them. That petered out due to college drinking parties. I would try again a few years later, but after a few posts, I let it all go to crap. I love movies, video games, albums, and books, so I decided to try and read, watch, listen, and play the top 100 things in each category of entertainment.
I’m now sitting on 200+ posts. This blog is purely for me to express and write, but I’ve also had the added benefit of having a few frequent fliers and making friends on wordpress. Where my previous self petered out and wasn’t able to carry through, extreme ownership carried me across the goal line.
When I got into an orthopedic residency for physical therapy, a post-doctoral program that’s a very intense year, I had no doubts I would thrive again. After all, my recent track record showed that I could continue to take on responsibility in all facets of my life and thrive. Why wouldn’t I be able to do this with the next challenge?
The first problem was that I wasn’t quite prepared for the commitment I had made; being a resident was like being in PT school WHILE working a full-time job, and my full-time job was no joke. It was quite often where I would have patient contact hours for upwards to 50 hours and then have to spend a good amount of time outside of work documenting. Being in the small-business arena, I worked more hours with less days off than my counterparts.
On top of this, the residency commitment quickly piled up. While things like discussion board assignments, literature reviews, and lunch and learn web conferences seem small, when you are working from 8 to 7, everything starts adding up to 12 to 14 hour days. Not to mention the weekend courses; god bless you if they were on back to back weekends making for a 19 day sprint.
As this was ramping up, I tried the mind tricks of the past to maintain a hold on the other facets of my life. I made a spreadsheet with all my commitments and would anxiously lament boxes not checked off. I started waking up at 4:30am like my hero Jacko because I needed the extra time in the morning to not only workout, but play guitar, write blog posts, finishing documentation and more before heading to an 11 hour work day.
Leaving no facet of my life unchallenged, I went full tilt into saving money. I stored every receipt I spent in the month of September, and calculated my average monthly expenditures in multiple categories. I then set strict limits so I could save the maximal amount of money each month before it was time to pay student loans.
Reading stoic novels, I was hanging on by a thread. While I originally stayed on top of everything, it began to come crashing down. I simply felt miserable, and worse, the tighter the grip the more that got away.
I might have been saving money, but I was doing it at the expense of my GI tract:
While I’ve always been a healthy eater, I was taking more and more liberties with what I was shoving into my gullet. Always being on the run, it was getting harder and harder to meal prep the necessary food, so I started to take short cuts thinking I was doing enough in the gym to get by. This might have been true if it was only a weekly occurrence, but I started doing more and more suspicious behavior. For instance, buying Huger Man microwave meals as another gap stop:
My goals were cutting each other out at the knees. In an attempt to save money, I was starting to eat crap which affected my workouts which then affected my mood since I was gaining weight which then made me squirrelly with my money. These blog posts, instead of a source of expression, began another thing to check off instead of something to enjoy. I was viewing everything through the paradigm of accomplishment and conquer.
Time became too precious of a commodity with any loss being lamented and ruminated upon. Sleep was beginning to be less important (though I read the book Why We Sleep which quickly changed that one). Moments on ESPN were reflected upon as a waste of time. What I really should be doing, I thought to myself, is learning more songs on the guitar.
I was miserable.
Time to Recharge.
I’m quite the podcaster (just another one of those things I’m up to). On a particular episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain, they started to discuss the phenomenon they called the “tunnel of scarcity;” how the thing we have the least of becomes the focus of all our attention. While the first part was about how poor people can only think about money, the second was a vignette about how busy people can only think about time.
The story was from a medical student who had entered a residency and was working 80 hours a week. When she came home, she would realize how little free time she had. She tried to maximize it by squeezing out as much out of it as possible. This lead to intense workouts and reading medical journals until she fell asleep.
She decided to let everything else go which led to her slipping up in ways she never thought she would. She was forgetting to pay bills, something she had never done before. Previously she had experienced a battle with anorexia. It was now popping back up again due to her not having time to eat.
What it took for her to realize she needed to change was when she almost forgot to order insulin for a Type I diabetic under her care. With this, she knew her current life was no longer sustainable. She began to take moments just for herself, penciling in moments to do NOTHING. She noticed not only was she happier, she was a better doctor.
It was time for me to change.
The New Plan.
The first thing I did: throw away that damn spread sheet. Instead of being so damn goal oriented with everything, I decided that some things were meant to be more jovial and free. This blog and playing guitar did not need to be micromanaged. Sure, I needed to find time for them, but I could have discursive jam sessions with myself when needed and didn’t need to meet some predetermined benchmark.
The second was stop eating junk. Instead of going for recycled horse meat, I spent a little bit more money at the grocery store on healthier foods. I bought some supplements. The emergency microwave meals were the more expensive ones, but with more fiber/protein and less salt.
The third was to be more fluid with my sleep. Instead of such strict wake up times, I played around with my waking hour pending how I was feeling. You know those nights where you wake up at 2am and can’t get back to sleep? Instead of soldering on at 4:30am, I reset my alarm clock for something more manageable like 6. The extra hour and half did wonders.
I wish I could tell you that with all these changes I came out more productive than before, but that’s not the case. What I did gain, however, was a fervor for life again.
I looked forward to my hobbies and was okay with protracted time frames (for instance, I’ve been working on this post for a couple months — no biggie). I began to enjoy things just for the activity itself instead of some pressure to meet a self-imposed deadline. Work and residency was still exhausting, but it lacked a certain edge that it did before.
Life became enjoyable again, and when I stepped outside to start a day, I avoided that sense of immense dread that had haunted me for months.
The Final Lesson.
It could be said that when you take on complete ownership, it means that you will do whatever necessary to improve. I might still be living this principle out: I have acknowledged the need to pull back, do less, and enjoy more.
While this answer can be a cop-out and susceptible to rationalization of choices, whatever I was doing before was not sustainable. Now I’m in a spot where I can continue to grow through my challenges professional and not be overwhelmed. In the words of Jordan Peterson, I just might be living on the edge between Chaos and Order, just where I belong.