Why I choose Samuel Beckett over positive thinking, any day

A good way to move forward is to say what we really feel, and dispense with juvenile solutions.

Dionne Lew
19 October 2015

Samuel Beckett. Credit: Roger Pic/Bibliothèque nationale de France/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

I believe we can learn more about what it takes to succeed from the closing assertion of Samuel Beckett’s  novel The Unnamable than any other motivational book:

You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

This insight about the need for persistence in the face of obstacles and even despair offers no illusions about what it takes to keep going or false promises that success will be great when you get ‘there’ (wherever that is).

This is useful advice. We should be given more of it.

Instead, we’re meant to be inspired by motivational cries and images of a Duracell-style achiever who stares doubt in the face and relentlessly bangs the drum; pitting the emotional equivalent of an airbrushed model against our puny efforts.

This makes us feel bad.

Believe in yourself books yell at us as if, amongst other things, it will make us believe in ourselves, or that doing so has any impact whatsoever on what we achieve. It does not.

This is not meaningful insight—it’s cheerleading.

And while it may (and I say may) lift us temporarily out of the fog, when we return to reality we find the same inaptly named ‘negative’ feelings still there. No surprise since we’re taught to leapfrog rather than acknowledge them. Worse, some ‘teachers’ (a misnomer) suggest that a mere flicker of a doubt can undo years of effort.

That’s nonsense.

A good way to move forward is to say what we really feel.

I can’t go on.

There you go, you’ve acknowledged a slice of your current (complex and varied) emotional reality.

Believe in yourself! No I’m sorry, I don’t. Not today. Today I don’t believe that what I am doing counts, or can be achieved. I can’t go on.

But tomorrow, you will. Articulating rather than denying reality is what helps you to do so.

  1. My cholesterol is up (I should eat less bacon).
  2. I’m not coping (I am going to bed).
  3. I am angry with so-and-so for his/her bad advice but angrier that I listened. (I won’t automatically defer to people just because they seem confident.)

It’s kind of difficult to develop a what-to-do-about-it list if you’re not allowed to write that list in the first place.

The visions we’re given of what success is (or will be like) are also wildly misleading.

“Success is doing what you want to do, when you want, where you want, with whom you want, as much as you want.”

It is?

Tell that to:

  1. The startup entrepreneur putting in another late night when s/he’d rather be down at the pub.
  2. The parent heading to a job they don’t love because they have kids that they do, who need to be housed and fed.
  3. The scientist or artist for whom countless experiments fail but whose breakthrough contributes something important.

I could go on. (But I won’t go on). However, I am wary about this additive and hedonistic perception of success as unabated freedom.

Why aren’t we taught about the importance of giving things up, or that constraints can enhance our sense of value? (Think of the joy of a hot shower after a week of camping.)

In this world, we don’t learn about trade-offs. Instead, immediate needs become an axis for decision-making. We swap feeling good tomorrow for another drink tonight. Some endlessly seek the thrill of chasing a partner, unable to relinquish a need for novelty with depth. Trade-offs.

Success is not a place. We don’t suddenly ‘arrive’ there.

I prefer Beckett on this too:

All this business of a labour to accomplish … I invented it all, in the hope it would console me, help me to go on, allow me to think of myself as somewhere on a road, moving, between a beginning and an end, gaining ground, losing ground, getting lost, but somehow in the long run making headway.

It may seem less glamorous to think of success this way, but it is actually freeing.

It enables you to make meaning from what you already have (and what you might also create), but it doesn’t defer living to some ideal future time which is unlikely to manifest and is likely to disappoint you if it does.

We want to believe that once we have this person, or that product, or more prestige, we will be happier.

Such thinking undoes us.

As Dan Gilbert points out in The Big Wombassa, we are hopeless at realistically understanding how we will feel in response to a future event (this is called affective forecasting).

We think we will be happier, or sadder, when in reality we soon return to a baseline.

But our inability to understand this makes us do all sorts of crazy things.

For example, we know that above $50,000 — $75,000 a year (depending on which study you refer to), the amount of additional money we earn doesn’t make us happier. Before that $50,000 it matters hugely—poverty is debilitating. On the other hand, the quality of the relationships we form powerfully predicts wellbeing.

Gilbert asks: “while money is weakly and complexly correlated with happiness, and social relationships are strongly and simply correlated with happiness, most of us spend our time trying to be happy by pursuing wealth. Why?”

Could it be that we dare not think that wellbeing is within our reach?

We prefer the idea of a deferred self, doing what it wants, when it wants, as much as it wants, with whomever it wants because that keeps us invested in the idea of happiness ever after. But Not I, Not Now.

The absurdity? That being aware of it is unlikely to change our desiring of it. Awareness is something, but not enough.

Poor juvenile solutions, explaining nothing. No need then for caution, we may reason on to our heart’s content, the fog won’t lift.”

That’s why I like Beckett.

This article was first published on Dionne Lew’s blog Life Tips.

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