Dane Cook (Comedian; Vicious Circle)
“Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.”
Seth Godin (Founder; Yoyodyne Entertainment)
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Albert Einstein (Scientist and Nobel Laureate)
With the right plan, you can escape anything.
I used to work at an Albertson’s grocery store in high school stocking shelves. I had eight different bosses. I can’t remember their individual job titles but they all ended in clerk or manager. I do remember that the head store manager had to wear a dumb little gold vest though, and the 2nd in command had to wear a bright blue vest. Being told what to do by unhappy men in colorful vests was the pits. It was embarrassing too. If anyone I knew from school came into the store I would hide behind a wall of milk crates in the diary fridge until they left.
My last year of graduate school was an epic fail. I published a few papers and finished my thesis but my mentor wouldn’t let me leave for another year. Nothing’s worse than someone else holding the keys to your future. I thought about quitting every day. I wanted to escape. Really, I wanted to stay and make things happen my way and then escape. It’s the same feeling I used to get as a kid when my parents were fighting but I was too young to leave the house. Or when I moved in with a girl for the first time and the relationship dragged on like a death sentence because I couldn’t afford to break the lease.
A 5-Point Escape Plan
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in regulating pleasure. New research shows that dopamine also regulates the motivation to act. People who feel stuck in their own lives–unmotivated, depressed, out of options–often have decreased levels of dopamine. Ironically, other studies show that one of the best ways to increase your dopamine levels is by taking risks.
Most people just want to jabber about escaping from the things they hate in life. They don’t actually want to escape. This is because escaping involves risk. It involves some level of uncertainty. Understand that you can’t break free from anything without first breaking free from your comfort zone. If you’re unwilling to step outside of your comfort zone, you’ll never escape from the things you hate in life. The only way to escape is to take new action when you least feel like it. Here’s how:
1. Raise the stakes.
Moderate pain is your worst enemy. When a situation is just painful enough to be distracting but not painful enough to make you change, you end up stuck. Moderate pain will not motivate you to escape. It will merely encourage you to keep dealing with it.
Misery can be your friend. Misery is a state of great distress and discomfort. If you’re experiencing moderate pain in your life, don’t wait another year for it to grow into misery. Hit the fast-forward button. Make the stakes greater. Get desperate. Now you have to change something drastically or experience intense pain every waking moment. The key is to do this without making someone else’s life miserable.
2. Do the opposite.
I remember getting really injured wrestling in college and having to see things from the sidelines for the first time. Seeing others practice from the outside changed my entire perspective. When I was wrestling in the middle of a practice, everything was hyper-intense and I only had time to see what was directly in front of me. Now, with the intensity turned down, I could see it all. I saw new wrestling partners to take advantage of, new moves that I should be trying, and new ways to beat my current wrestling partners.
When you’re in the heat of battle dealing with something you hate, it can be hard to see other angles. Trying doing the opposite. Most often, this involves disengaging from your current line of action. If you’re working really hard on a project and getting no where, stop working. Pick it apart. Destroy it. Rebuild. If you’re doing everything in your power to get your way, stop. Help someone else get their way first. If you’re stuck in a pile of stale relationships, take a break. Distance yourself. Meet some new people.
Doing the opposite of what you normally do is a great way to obliterate limiting patterns. The next time you feel stuck, shake things up by flipping your script. You’ll be surprised by what turning 180 degrees can show you.
3. Change the system.
I spent 10 of the last 12 months that I was stuck in graduate school focused on my mentor. I was obsessed with finding some way to make him happy or manipulate him into releasing me with my degree. Then I got smart and started focusing on the system that was giving my mentor power over me.
I discovered that PhD programs in countries like Australia and the U.K. prevent grad students from being held for more than 3-4 years. I also found out that numerous programs in the U.S. now have similar guidelines. That’s when I started reading the graduate student manual for my program. I found a single sentence in one of the bylaws stating that my program was a “5-year program.” Bingo. I had been in the program for 5 years.
I went to the dean with this information and was given the green light to defend my thesis two months later. The graduate student manual was rewritten to remove the “5-year program” limit less than a week after I graduated. I’m pretty proud of this.
Most people, when they feel stuck, try to escape by zooming in on minutia. They usually stay intensely focused on another person or an unfair situation. This is a mistake. A better strategy is to zoom out and focus on the larger system that is empowering the situation. Ask yourself, what’s really causing the problem? Which rules can be bent? Which can be broken?
4. Sever ties (cleanly).
The human brain is a greedy bastard. It hates to give up anything. Changing your life is difficult because it goes against your biology. Your mind fights to keep everything the same and it literally freaks out when it’s about to lose something. Yet, the only way to escape from something you hate is to give it up.
Studies on loss and rejection show that people react to losing significant things like jobs and relationships like drug users going through withdrawal. Just thinking about the things we’ve lost (or could lose) activates several key areas of the brain, including the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, which controls motivation and reward and is known to be involved in love; the nucleus accumbens and the orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, which are parts of the dopamine reward system and associated with craving and addiction; and the insular cortex and anterior cingulate, which are both associated with physical pain and distress. This is what you’re up against.
Most people, once they make a decision to remove something from their lives, start peeling it away slowly, like a scab. By doing this, they keep the above parts of their brains active for a very long time, drawing out pain like a blade. This is a bad idea. Instead, aim to severe ties with whatever you’re quitting as quickly as possible. The best way to do this is by thinking less and acting more. Stay intensely focused on what you’re gaining (not what you’re losing) and sprint like hell towards the finish line.
5. Build Rome around your safety net.
The idea that all successful people are an elite class of well-connected individuals who calmly carry out proven recipes for achievement is a misconception. Likewise, the idea that all successful people are lone wolves who fire their bosses and swim upstream is foolish.
What makes people successful is working hard at every opportunity–nights, weekends, early mornings–to turn their dreams into a reality. Even the richest and most successful person in the world started with only two things: a day job and a dream. Most people become successful, not by getting rid of their day jobs, but by building empires around their day jobs.
Building something of your own is the best way to escape from the things you hate in life. Creation is the ultimate exit strategy. Whenever you create, you create options. And options are powerful levers.
What’s one thing you would like to escape from in 2014? I’d love to hear from you.
Leave a comment below to let me know.
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