“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” belted out an autotuned voice from the rental car radio.
A catchy tune. Sung by one of the characters from a scripted “reality” television show. Come to think of it, it must have been from a really old series, the song had featured on radio playlists for longer than the music industry careers of the participants had lasted.
I smiled as I remembered my father tunelessly singing the same lyric many years ago, on his way home from chemo. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. He’s long dead now, the lyric offering an insightful commentary about our penchant for wishful thinking and survivorship bias.
Cancer proved to be a devious and diabolical foe. The product of bad luck. External environment. Random chance. Or unfortunate genetics.
Starting with a single microscopic cell that ventured off-script. Breaking the mould. Not following the rules.
That subversive cell tricks the host’s body into working against its own best interests. Using the host’s internal mechanisms to reproduce itself and thrive. Replicating, like a photocopier with a smudge of the glass. Copying the defect over and over and over again. Spreading exponentially. Irresistibly. Relentlessly.
Cancer treatments are brutally simple and positively medieval: Cut it out. Nuke it. Poison it. Zap it.
Harming the host almost as much as the parasite. Medical brinkmanship, Mutually assured destruction. A game of chicken, survivable only if the cancer blinks first.
Ideas have a similar trajectory. Heard once. Absorbed into our subconscious. Becoming part of who we are.
Everyday examples might include a catchy earworm tune that we find ourselves humming along to long after that first encounter. A phenomenon the marketing industry seeks to tap into and exploit.
Hungry on a road trip? Find a McDonald’s.
Thirsty? Enjoy an icy cold Coca Cola.
Time for breakfast? Cereal for “the most important meal of the day”.
Getting engaged? Diamonds for forever, a girl’s best friend. A popular culture yardstick for quantifying affection in the transactional game of love. How good a catch is he? Just compare the bling.
The perfect time to catch up with loved ones? Christmas, Diwali, Eid, or Thanksgiving.
Not because these ideas are any better than the alternatives. Just more effectively advertised. Front of mind. Establishing a conditioned response, little different to those of Pavlov’s canine companions.
For good or ill, once planted, ideas have a way of taking on a life of their own.
Transitioning to a belief. A core value. Sometimes an addiction.
How many of us consume junk food, drink caffeine, exercise, gamble, pray, or smoke every day?
Are those informed and conscious choices that we make of our own volition each time? Or did they start with a simple idea then, through mindless repetition, become an automated self-reinforcing habit. In much the same way those catchy tunes or cancer cells establish themselves and self-perpetuate.
How about those with self-image issues?
Thinking we’re too fat. Too dark. Too weak. Too ugly. Too unpopular.
That we can’t sing. Can’t dance. Can’t play sports. Can’t speak in public. Can’t write stories.
Each of those notions began with an idea, that once established became an entrenched part of our identity.
Perhaps we were mocked. Ridiculed. Teased. Laughed at. Belittled. Bullied. Excluded. Shunned.
Maybe we feel inferior or insecure. Craving the sort of fantasy life portrayed on social media. An airbrushed impossible dream. All rainbows and unicorns. None of the real-world daily inconveniences.
Sometimes those ideas might have originated from a place of love or indulgence.
Doting parents telling white lies to their darling offspring. That they are gifted. Special. Capable of achieving anything they put their minds to. Destined for greatness. Entitled to having it all.
Inflated expectations setting the bar so high that disappointment and failure are the only realistic outcomes.
In much the same way we might indoctrinate our children with other well-meaning white lies.
The Easter Bunny. Tooth Fairy. Santa Claus.
Belief systems. Biases. Conspiracy theories. Religions.
The ideals of meritocracy and karma. That everything will be ok, and there is a happily ever after.
Stepping back from these many and varied examples of ideas taking hold, it becomes clear that much of what we believe, desire, think, feel, and perceive are the result of conditioned behaviours far more often than as the result of conscious independent thought. One person’s brainwashing is another person’s education!
Which provides a reminder that we are all simple creatures. Easily influenced. Easily led. Easily programmed.
That in turn highlights an opportunity. During one of those rare fleeting moments, while we are consciously aware of our programmability, and before our attention is diverted or seized by some distraction shouting loudly, we can consider how we would like to program ourselves.
What beliefs should we maintain? What should we abandon?
What recurring behaviours should we cultivate? What preexisting programming should we remove?
Now I’m not talking about all the woo-woo positive affirmations and mindful manure that the wellness whisperers so successfully market. Nor am I referring to the handholding and accountability offered by various flavours of well-qualified therapists and less qualified coaches.
No, here I’m talking about what simple repetitive behaviours do we wish to compile into our daily routines? The routines our lizard brains blindly adhere to and repeat without question. Our default behaviours. What we do, when we’re not consciously thinking about what we should do.
Without conscious thought, many of us end up with some variant of life in the daily grind.
Cereal for breakfast. Coffee on the way to work. Thursday night drinks. Friday morning regrets over a bacon sandwich. The working week wished away while looking forward to the weekend. The early part of the weekend spent vegetating because we’re exhausted after the working week. The latter part of the weekend wasted on Sundayitis, that existentialist dread of it all starting again Monday morning. Holidays providing a periodic respite, an all too brief escape from the real lives our programming has created for ourselves.
Nothing really changing.
Little progress made toward anything of substance. Such as attaining goals. Living dreams. Finding the happy.
Just a simple rinse and repeat. Sleepwalking through life on autopilot, which if we are honest with ourselves is our default state of being the majority of the time. Marking time. Spinning our wheels. Treading water. All while getting older, mindlessly consuming those finite, precious, and all too scarce time allocations we each receive during our one shot at life.
Now ask yourself whether any of your existing programmed behaviours are propelling you towards a destination you no longer desire to visit?
Perhaps it is the hardwired instruction to study hard. Work hard. Advance. One day, to rule the world.
Maybe the baked-in want to be attractive. Desired. Envied. Trim and fit and fashionable. Possibly even cool. Though each ultimately becomes fighting for a losing cause, as time relentlessly marches on.
Were those goals ever our own? Or ones defined by our families? Teachers? Peers? Society?
How about financial independence?
Those who newly discover the idea often dive down a rabbit hole. Believing a magic number and spreadsheet certainty is the answer to all their problems.
Those who reach it soon learn that what they really sought was independence from finance, the removal of the financial imperative from their decision making. A related, but very different idea.
Their instincts were good. Their understanding of how to realise that core idea was lacking. Incorrectly programmed. Potentially misallocating vast quantities of time chasing numbers when a mindset change might have been all that was required.
What about early retirement?
Those racing towards it often believe that life will be perfect only once they no longer need to commute, iron shirts, or sit in a soulless office waging email warfare all day long.
Those few who achieve their goal soon learn that what they really had craved was control over how they invested their time. Only discovering after the fact that this need not be synonymous with hoarding sufficient net worth to leave the workforce entirely.
Indeed, in many cases mere prioritisation decisions would have achieved much of the desired outcome. Far earlier. And at a far lower cost. If only they had done the thinking. Understood the truth of the simple idea, rather than mindlessly humming along to a tune sung by others.
Invested in crypto?
How many devotees had done the research? Thought through the implications? Consciously concluded not just the underlying technology, but a specific brand of implementation, will change the world? In the same way they might once have considered the investment case for an Amazon, Google, or Microsoft stock investment.
How many don’t care about the technology or the implementations at all, simply betting on those timeless ideas that deep-down drive all behaviours of the human herd: fear and greed.
If you aren’t in one of the preceding two groups, yet you speculate in crypto, ask yourself whether you are one of the many who is blindly chasing easy answers?
Get rich quick combining with fear of missing out.
Swinging for the fences. Not because of any deep understanding, nor strongly held investment thesis, but rather because you need only a single hit to connect and you can put all your financial worries behind you.
Blind hope. Naïve optimism. More than a little greed. Collectively combining to encourage you to look past the friction incurred by high transaction costs, dubious value proposition, and reliance on the greater fool.
Whichever group you found yourself in, the adoption of this alternative asset class may make perfect sense when viewed through a lens that measures money in terms of time and effort expended. How many days of our lives need to be sold off to pay for that rapidly inflating utility bill? That eye-watering mortgage?
Would you rather work for years, or have an investment pay off handsomely so that you don’t have to?
Deep down that is the simple idea that most of us are seeking.
Those chasing FI or seeking FIRE. The traditionalists, toiling away until pension age through choice, circumstance, or lack of imagination. Even the crypto speculators hoping for an instant escape.
The question is have we programmed ourselves to make that desired outcome a predictable certainty?
Carefully curated from amongst all the catchy earworm ideas, selecting not the noisiest or shiniest, but those that will help us get there.
Done the thinking, to determine what those ideas really mean and what it will take to make them a reality.
Converted simple ideas into conditioned behaviours. Then self-reinforcing habits. Using our own defaults and routines to propel us in the right direction rather than getting in our own way.
Actions that endlessly compound on autopilot, so that we get there by default. Without the need for superhuman willpower or conscious effort. Relying on apathy and laziness for the win.
Simple ideas made easy. Outcomes made inevitable. A timeless catchy tune if ever I heard one.