This Is When Blind Faith & Hard Facts Can Co-Exist
When we're caught in a bind (and we've been there a while) we need to find that magic spot between brutal realism and everlasting hope.
It’s not unusual, when life goes south, to want someone - anyone - to tell us everything is going to be OK.
But the truth is, some things don’t ever seem to improve — or, at least they can take a very, very long time to.
We can always find ourselves trapped in situations which we once thought would resolve themselves quickly, only to find ourselves months — or even years — later, still there, still hoping for change, still trying to escape.
It might be a bad marriage.
It might be a shitty job.
It might be that we finally left that bad marriage or quit that shitty job and now we have found a brand new place to be stuck in.
And life can suck for a very long time.
The thing is, just knowing that something isn’t working isn’t enough to make that thing change.
And blind faith that it will somehow magically get better next week, next month, or next year, is only a short-term solution - something that momentarily makes us feel better.
To survive the spirit-crushing nature of our predicaments, then, we have to throw ourselves a rope — one that is, conversely, both optimistic and pessimistic at the same time.
The real lifeline comes from embracing the opposites and living both truths side by side, as James Stockdale will tell you.
The Stockdale Paradox
Relentless optimism in a situation where you don’t really have anything to be optimistic about is more than just deluded thinking.
When you are a prisoner of war, it can actually be life-threatening.
Stockdale, a naval officer at the time of the Vietnam War, had to learn this the hard way when he was held in a POW camp for seven long years.
This is an account of his time there by Jim Collins in his book, Good To Great:
"Tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again."
Initially, when Collins asked Stockdale how he endured this, he replied that he “never lost faith in the end of the story”.
He “never doubted” that he would get out one day, that he “would prevail in the end” and ultimately be defined by the experience in the best way possible.
Yet, at the same time, Stockdale said that the ones who suffered the most in that camp — and even died prematurely — were in fact, the optimists.
Again from Collins' book, Good To Great:
“Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again.
And they died of a broken heart.”
A Marriage Of Opposites
The lesson, said Stockdale — and the thing that kept him going — was to hold two contrasting beliefs in his mind.
He wasn’t getting out by Christmas. But he absolutely was getting out.
The trick was not to allow his optimism to blind him to the “brutal facts” of his situation, which were just as vital to his survival during this time.
As he told Collins:
“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Facing facts might not be as sexy as “you will meet a tall, dark, handsome stranger” but it is vital we do so, particularly when we feel trapped.
While optimism is an essential component of psychological health; blind optimism — the kind where we think life will magically sort itself out on its own — is a dangerous state to stay in.
Just like the blissful high that comes from a visit to a tarot card reader, these kinds of states aren’t meant to last.
Eventually reality will come crashing in, regardless of whether we want to face it or not.
So balancing faith with facts, is an advisable way to navigate these times; to stay grounded — not deluded.
Aside from anything, it might just save us from a broken heart.
Things To Think About When Your "Passion" Has Become A Thankless Slog...
When a passion project ceases to be one, we need to look at the expectations we have of it - and what we are willing to do for it.
Passion projects can be tricky, not always in finding out what they are (although that is hard enough), but more in the actual execution of them. They require a lot of effort and all too frequently they attract little (if any) reward.
They are invariably thankless tasks. We can find ourselves grafting for weeks, months, years, even, with no external validation or financial gain of any kind.
Before long, what once made us invigorated will make us feel drained; what was previously a passion will become a pain; what fulfilled us will leave us feeling resentful.
What can be done, then, about this inevitable side-effect of sticking with our dreams, when there appears to be no external evidence to convince us it is worth sticking at in the first place?
Passion At Any Cost?
There are three parts to look at here:
Let’s look at the first:
1. What Drives Us Vs What Pays The Bills
There is a key difference between being intrinsically and extrinsically motivated, as much as there is a difference in being intrinsically and extrinsically rewarded.
The first kind — being intrinsically driven — is creating-for-creating-sake, i.e. doing something for the love of it. We do this, regardless of reward.
The second kind — being extrinsically driven — is doing something for what we will get because of it i.e, money, career progression and so on. We do this, because of the reward.
How Passions Can Falter
By definition, passion projects are intrinsically-driven to begin with. There was a point in time when we did this for the joy of it.
But akin to the law of diminishing returns, what once thrilled us about our passion project will inevitably cease to at some point.
Sometimes we can get back to that basic starting point. We can emerge from our dejected state and rediscover what it was that gripped us so much in the first place — and rekindle it.
However, often the reason we can’t do this, is that we fail to notice that a new need has replaced the one that fired us up originally.
And that is invariably about making money.
The Downside Of Thinking Extrinsically
While there is absolutely nothing wrong with desiring money for our efforts, being too driven by financial gain can paradoxically have a demotivating effect.
In a 1971 study, psychologist Edward Deci found that the act of offering an external reward, (i.e. money), to an individual who was already motivated to undertake a task, had the effect of making him less motivated to do it.
When the carrot of money is dangled in front of the eyes of someone who is lost in their passion, blissfully unaware of the world around them, their focus quickly shifts to the money and not the act itself.
In other words, their creative libidos can tank.
Which brings us to point number 2:
2. Do Passion Projects Have To Make Money?
Is it a fallacy to believe we will always be financially compensated for doing what we love? And is it perfectly OK to have passion projects which don’t actually make any money at all?
The answer to the 2nd question is a resounding “yes”. It’s called having a hobby.
The 1st question is a bit trickier to answer.
There are more self-help gurus out there than we care to count who will tell us we can make our dreams come true - and get rich doing it.
Even Joseph Campbell told us to “follow our bliss”.
But did he mean in order to make money? Or did he just mean ‘therein lies the path to happiness’?
Ideally you want to get both but what Campbell wanted to stress was that we should not sacrifice one for the other.
We shouldn’t turn our back on our passion for money. But equally if we don’t get that money, the passion is still worth having:
"There’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the center, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the center and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss."
Are We Being Delusional By Wanting It All?
In Barbara Sher’s opinion, our dreams don’t need to make us money — and in fact few dreams actually do (contrary to what YouTube gurus tell us).
She argues (here) that it is a false narrative we present ourselves when we align passion with money and use the inability to earn an income from a passion project as the reason for not doing it in the first place.
Earning an income and doing something we love are invariably two separate things, no matter how much we want them to be the same, Sher says.
And we are effectively shooting ourselves in the foot if we use the former to deny ourselves the latter.
Because realistically, she says, we are not going to be able to easily support ourselves writing poetry all day long.
Having a day-job and a side-hustle or hobby, then, is the first thing to consider at this juncture.
And if that idea makes us recoil in horror, then we need to look at what we are prepared to do in the name of our passion.
And this leads us to point number 3:
3. What We Are Willing To Do
Mark Manson posted an interesting video recently regarding the issue of what we think we want out of our lives and the reality of actually doing it.
He cites the example of him craving the ideal lifestyle of a surfer (along with the sex appeal that comes with it) but admits that the actual act of learning to surf bores him stupid.
This is the reality vs the fantasy.
As Manson explains in his video, we frequently look to the lives of others and think that’s what we want but we don’t actually want to do what it takes to be like them.
This isn’t a flaw in us, it’s a sign that something isn’t for us.
The Lives Of Others
I like the idea of the lifestyle of an Instagram influencer who floats around the world looking glamorous and living in Bali off the back of multiple 6-figure sponsorship deals.
The problem is, I don’t want my life documented in photographs for all to see. It’s that simple.
The same goes for what we are willing to do in the name of our passion projects.
If we are frustrated at the lack of success we are experiencing but are unwilling to do what it takes to make it successful, we will hit a brick wall.
If we detest basic functions like marketing, promotion or networking, for example — or we don’t like the idea of actually running a business — then we need to ask ourselves a few basic questions.
So, here is the idiot's guide to some basic — and brutal — questions we need to ask ourselves when we are feeling resentful and frustrated over our lack of success.
The answers we get at this point might tell us if our frustrations are anchored in delusion, denial or procrastination.
While passion projects can begin as things that ecstatically allow us to escape reality, at some point, particularly if our needs change, we will need to face reality.
If we don’t do this, we risk sabotaging an area of our lives which can bring us unbridled joy, simply by viewing it through a distorted lens.