2015-12-17

The Cynic On My Shoulder

To say that hard work today pays off in the long run is to state the obvious. We all know this to be true, because most of us invested significant amount of time during our early years getting good at something. 

Those of us who went to college - especially those who went to graduate or professional school after getting a four-year degree (I did not) - know this especially well. To have achieved that, we/they had to invest long hours studying and memorizing, working on projects, rehearsing oral presentations, revising theses, and so forth. It was difficult and thankless work, and having come out the other side, we/they now have an access ticket to higher incomes, better lifestyles, and greater leisure.

But now, we/they spend our/their evenings passed out in front of a television, or a magazine, or the internet - or, at best, working on some menial-yet-necessary chores that keep the household running at an even kilter - before finally calling it quits at an early enough hour that we/they can still get up for work the next morning. Where we/they used to stay up late, focused on an investment in our/their future, we/they are now in a hurry to wrap it up.

Thinking about it just now, I can't help but think that it is somehow... lazy.

"You don't have to be working on some big project all the time!" objects the cynic on my shoulder who, if correct, merely provides me with additional reasons not to try to do anything interesting.

I understand where my cynic is coming from. Nobody wants to feel bad about just relaxing and enjoying themselves, least of all me. But if my cynic had proven to be amply persuasive to me at an earlier age, I probably wouldn't have graduated from college, or run that marathon, or learned how to play the guitar, et cetera.

Whatever you may have accomplished in your life (and we have all accomplished something), the point here is that your cynic's objection, your cynic's reasoning, was every bit applicable on that day, years ago, when you decided to push through your difficulty, as it is today. Yet, back then, you decided to grit your teeth and keep working; but, today, you just turn on Netflix and check to see if they've added a new sequel to The Human Centipede

Thus, it's not that our cynic is always wrong, it's that we at one point knew he was wrong, but now know him to be right. What happened? 

It's not as if we don't know that our hard work will pay off. Of course we do. We know that spending an extra ten minutes per day researching investment strategies will improve our lot during retirement. We know that learning a foreign language improves our mental sharpness and opens up new travel or career opportunities. We know that honing a new talent will be creatively satisfying in the long run, and we know that working out a little more will make our lives better. Our cynic can't argue with results.

In fact, the cynic on my shoulder doesn't argue with results. He argues against results by appealing to your self-esteem. His, upon further analysis, rather weird, argument is that you shouldn't feel bad for not accomplishing more because anything you do over and above the bare minimum is gravy. Since it's just gravy, you can't feel bad for not doing it, and you shouldn't have to, so don't. And furthermore, don't do it.

But, like I just said, that's weird. To understand just how weird it is, place yourself in the shoes you were in when you were studying for your college exams. Your cynic would have said, "You don't have to pass this course to be a good person!" Your cynic would also be correct about that. But, in hindsight, you weren't studying to avoid being a bad person, you were studying because you wanted to graduate from college. And you weren't trying to graduate from college to avoid being a bad person, you were doing it to have a better life. 

So your cynic - by which I mean my cynic - is really just an overweening narcissist. Nobody said anything about being a bad person, except that damn cynic. You were just trying to learn something new, or get something done, or improve your investment portfolio, or whatever. 

You were just trying to have a better life, and the cynic on your shoulder had to infect it all with some neurotic defensiveness about being a bad person - something you hadn't even considered.