Beyond The Status Quo

This newsletter was written by Steve Pavlina, sent on September 26, 2010. It’s re-published here for achival purposes, with permission.

Many people get stuck trying to make decisions, especially decisions with far-reaching consequences like moving to a new city, changing jobs, or exiting a relationship. We all face big decisions from time to time. The key is to make sure we don’t get stuck with outcomes we don’t want.

When you hesitate to make a decision, you’ve already made a decision for the time being. Your decision is to maintain the status quo. However, that may not be the choice you really want to make.

The Status Quo

It’s easy to stick with the status quo because it’s familiar. You don’t have to do anything special to maintain it. By default you will keep working at the same job, living in the same city, and relating to the same people. But you’re still making decisions to do these things. You don’t have to stay put. You can take off for a new city if you want to.

So why don’t you get up and leave right now?

One reason you don’t get up and leave is that doing so would have consequences. If you abandon your job, you may lose some income. If you abandon your relationship, you may lose some companionship.

The potential negative consequences are what people often list when they explain why they’re staying put. By focusing on the negative aspects of change, they see such changes as too risky, so they remain where they are.

Consequences of the Status Quo

The status quo has consequences too, however. It’s unwise to dismiss potential changes out of hand without also considering the consequences of staying put.

The status quo’s consequences can be harder to fathom. First, you’ll have a tendency to take the short-term effects for granted because you’re familiar with them. And second, you’ll probably fail to give enough weight to the long-term consequences. Let’s consider each aspect separately.

Short-Term Consequences

What are the short-term consequences of maintaining the status quo in your life? What do you experience on a daily basis? What is it doing to you right now?

How are your finances being affected? What limits are you being subjected to? What amounts of money are you not earning? What kind of lifestyle is beyond your reach?

How is your health being affected? Are you healthy and in good physical condition this very moment?

How are your relationships being affected? Are you enjoying the kinds of relationships you desire in your life right now?

How is your career being affected? Do you enjoy your work? Are you happy to show up each day? Do you feel productive? Are you making a meaningful contribution in accordance with your values?

Give yourself a quick 1-10 rating for the following areas of your life: finances, health, relationships, and career. What does your current status quo look like as of this moment?

Based on the short-term consequences you’re already experiencing, is this status quo actually worth maintaining?

It may shock you to learn that the status quo you’ve been guarding as if it’s some sort of valued treasure is actually a pathetic situation that other people would go out of their way to avoid.

Would you avoid your own status quo if you weren’t already in it? Is this a situation you would willingly choose to enter?

If you wouldn’t choose to enter into your current status quo if you were on the outside looking in, then — plain and simple — it means you want to get out. Maybe you’re still in denial about that. If so, it’s time to stop playing games and acknowledge that you need to change. And you need to do it now, not tomorrow.

Long-Term Consequences

Now let’s look at the long-term consequences of the status quo.

Sometimes the status quo looks pretty good in the short term, but when you look at the long-term consequences, you may not like what you see.

Ask yourself where you’ll most likely be in 20 years if you continue to maintain your current status quo in the areas of health, career, finances, and relationships.

Just speak aloud a verbal description of what each of these areas will look like. A few sentences about each one is all you need.

This isn’t the time to play games with yourself. It’s not the time to say “I don’t know.” If you say “I don’t know,” then you’re being really foolish about this. You’re the one making these decisions, so of course you know. You don’t have perfect knowledge of what is to come, but by and large it’s not that difficult to figure out what your life is likely to look like in 20 years if you keep doing what you’ve been doing.

Don’t worry about the external factors like lucky or unlucky breaks. Pay attention to your inner character qualities. Those will play a major role in determining the long-term consequences of maintaining your status quo.

To predict how far you’ll get in your career, look at your work habits. How disciplined are you? Do you set priorities and stick to them? Do you continue to develop your skills? Do you see a pattern of getting better year after year? Are you highly ambitious?

Or are you lazy and slothful? Are you passive and timid? Do you squander your time on unimportant tasks? Do you give your power away to excuses instead of taking full responsibility for your life? Do you fail to ask for raises and promotions and business deals?

Once you understand your character, it’s not that difficult to make some predictions about where you’ll be in 20 years. If your status quo character is strong, ambitious, and responsible, you can expect to go far. If your status quo character favors laziness, procrastination, and the childish “I don’t know” excuse, then your situation 20 years from now will probably look the same or worse than your current situation.

Character Is a Cause

My favorite technique for understanding the long-term consequences of my status quo is to journal. I use journaling software for that. I write out where I am now, and I imagine that I’m looking at myself through the eyes of an objective observer. Then I try to make some predictions about where I’ll be in 20 years if I stay on this path. I write down those predictions in a stream of consciousness manner; then I read them back and organize them into a more logical structure.

Most of the time, I see some things that I like and some things I don’t like. Then I backtrack to the causes of each major consequence in my present reality.

Usually the causes have a lot to do with my character. The greatest predictors of where I’ll end up are my self-discipline, focus, self-education, and willingness to work hard. The more disciplined I am right now, the better my future looks.

External factors don’t seem to matter as much. Only the weak-minded project responsibility for their outcomes onto external factors like a chance meeting, a lucky business opportunity, etc. If you’re strong-willed and disciplined, you create your own opportunities. A missed chance doesn’t matter that much. There will always be more.

You’ll probably find as I do, however, that there are some aspects of your character you aren’t happy with. They create long-term consequences that can be difficult to look at. But you need to understand those consequences in order to correct the related character weaknesses today.

In the long run, laziness hurts. So does a lack of focus. So does a denial of responsibility for your life. Character weaknesses like these lead to crappy outcomes down the road.

The status quo you’re experiencing right now is a result of your character interacting with the world. If you want to experience a better status quo, then you’ll need to change the way your character interacts, which means you need to improve your character.

This will take time, but the first step is identifying how you want your character to change.

Do you want to be more disciplined? More ambitious? More generous? More organized? More intelligent with respect to how you live?

How would you like your character to continue to evolve?

Form an image of the character you’d really like to be, a character that has a positive present reality and positive long-term predictions for 20 years down the road. What kind of person is that?

Ultimately it’s not your job situation or your relationships or your income level that determine your destiny. It’s your character. We could take a totally different character and plop her into your life as-is, and immediately she’d begin doing things differently. She wouldn’t tolerate the same things you’d tolerate. She might look at your relationship and exit it immediately. She might quit your job right away if it sucked. She might start packing if your living situation is below her standards. As you improve your character, you’ll stop tolerating those aspects of your status quo that are beneath you, and change will happen quickly.

In other words, if your status quo isn’t working for you, the true cause is a character defect. Some aspect of your character is weak and under-developed, and that’s why you’re stuck in the situation you’re in. Some part of you has been lazy, naive, unfocused, irresponsible, stupid, etc. Your current status quo is a natural consequence of your character interacting with the world.

If you want a better status quo and better long-term results, then begin to act as your ideal character would. What would a more disciplined, focused, intelligent character do in your situation? Start behaving like that character, and you’ll become increasingly like that character within. You’ll also begin shifting to a better status quo.

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