“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” -Vladimir Lenin
Let’s face it. Most of the time, you don’t have much going on. You go about your normal life, day after day. But then something happens.
You come home to your partner nude FaceTiming his personal trainer. Your safe, secure corporate job hands you a pink slip without warning. A friend offers you an intriguing opportunity to join a startup – in Singapore.
Suddenly, everything has changed.
You look around your life with fresh eyes and ask yourself, “What the fuck is all this shit?!”
Before you know it, you’re a Tasmanian devil, making changes you should have made years ago: switching up your habits, donating those ratty t-shirts you hate but still wear (Team Building Exercise ’99!), and hitting the gym.
It’s an exciting flurry of activity, and more or less by accident; a random outside influence provided the catalyst for dramatic change.
This process is an example of punctuated equilibrium: the hypothesis that isolated episodes of speciation drive evolutionary development after long periods of little or no change.
After learning about the framework in high school biology class, I started seeing it everywhere.
It’s what the world went through after the credit crunch. It’s what every crazy uncle goes through during his midlife crisis. It’s what caused our entire planet to rewire during coronavirus. In brief periods, as Lenin alluded to, everything happens.
I’d wager that the majority of changes in people’s lives work this way. An external event – a move, personal loss, or a new job – shakes your perspective, and suddenly, your life looks radically different than it did just a few weeks ago.
Of course, these changes aren’t always for the better. We all know someone who’s spiraled into addiction after a job loss, become fearful and paranoid following a break-in, or adopted undesirable habits in a new relationship.
Periods of upheaval are a delicate balance. We’re walking a narrow road around the risk of ruin when so many things are uncertain at once. One wrong turn could send us into a bottomless pit from which we may never recover. On the other hand, these times of uncertainty could easily be the beginnings of a purple patch that could make our future selves far better off.
So what can we do to cap our risk of ruin during these small windows and become the glorious benefactors our future selves deserve?
Your life as concrete
Life is a little like freshly-poured concrete – grey, dense, and often gross to the touch. But when it’s new, concrete is malleable. It will be messy, but shifting new cement around is effective.
Once the concrete dries, though, whatever changes you made to it are set. You probably can’t do much with it until someone comes along with a jackhammer and breaks it apart.
Think about the last time you moved apartments. You went full Marie Kondo in the first three months of living in your new place, making a ton of little tweaks and improvements to spark joy. A bookshelf purchased, then moved to a new wall to hide a cord. So much time spent focused on getting your bedroom just-so. A new plant to tie the living room together.
Since that time, how much have you rearranged, re-furnished, or otherwise changed that apartment? Not much.
The apartment cement is dry until the next equilibrium-shaking event: perhaps your apartment floods, or your partner moves in and wants wall space for his Hoobastank poster. Until then, incremental change is only possible with substantial effort.
The same is true in all areas of life. You have small windows of wet cement where you can create exciting change. How you use those times will have an outsized impact on the next few years. If you happen upon a positive asymmetry or stumble into a negative one, it could affect the rest of your life.
It’s a daunting opportunity and not one that we should leave to chance. So what should you do when you notice that the concrete is wet? How do we make the most of our tiny windows to effect change?
We could spend our time frantically figuring out what to do with the wet cement and ultimately end up pushing our faces into it to leave our mark. Or we could have a plan.
Clear the backlog of micro-decisions
We’re constantly accumulating things that we’ve meant to research or do. It could be as simple as “I should get southern Indian street art for the living room wall” or as intense as “I want to figure out what the hell to do with my life.”
When the cement is wet, the first thing you must do is clear the backlog of small decisions. Been thinking about waking up earlier to paint? Try it. Test out that new bagel place for breakfast while you’re at it. Buy that Campbell’s Soup Warhol print or decide to make the room more “Santa Fe.” Research how much veterinary school would cost.
You have a beautiful window to create change, but it’s rapidly closing. Now is not the time to screw around. If you’ve meant to buy something you need, buy it. If you’ve intended to change your apartment, your wardrobe, or your habits, do it now. You won’t have the mental energy for another push for a while, and the concrete will dry again all too soon.
The size of the decision should be proportional to the time you allow for it. You’re clearing a backlog of mostly small-or-medium-sized choices, so these can be quick and rapid-fire. We’ll do it live! Worst case scenario, you’re returning that print and buying something different for breakfast next week.
Once the backlog is clear, you can focus on the big things – the things for which your future self will thank you.
Be intentional on the macro-decisions
The lifestyle design crowd shouts about intentionality. You must intentionally implement the life that you ideated on your latest vision quest in Joshua Tree or whatever.
As much as I hate to say it, this is one area where the lifestyle designers have it right. During a period of wet cement, you’re choosing what the next 18 months to two years of your life will look like. The people you spend time with, the things you’ll do for fun, what you’ll be working on – these are all decided in small windows.
This doesn’t jive well with the way that we typically make decisions, which usually involves:
1) Making no decisions at all, except angrily pressing “Continue Watching” when Netflix gets passive-aggressive
2) Choosing the option that seems most comfortable or most expedient so we can get back to “real life,” which we assume involves making no choices (see Option 1)
This is no way to make our most impactful choices. It amounts to rolling the dice on our future – hitting a patch of ice on a dark highway and saying, “Jesus, take the wheel!”
So we know we need to be slightly more intentional in our macro choices during these periods. To do so, I’d start with three basic questions:
- What pisses you off about how you spend your free time?
- Who are the people you wish you could see more often?
- What things leave you more excited after you do them than before you started?
These questions will likely suggest a handful of interests and friends to prioritize. Choose two or three of them, and find ways to incorporate them into your daily or weekly routines. Set up a game night for your friends. Start a book club. Carve out an hour each evening to work on your new Llama Dating App.
Any amount of time you can make for something you care about is a huge win. A commitment to read a book each month could change the trajectory of your life.
None of this comes without tradeoffs. You might not have been doing much with the time you spent before, but you were spending it. So something’s got to go.
But what to give up? To think about that, you have to imagine Future You.
What do you want to know how to do this time next year? What kind of person do you want to be in five years? What do you want people to talk about at your funeral?
If you know, the formula is simple: take each wet concrete period as a time to messily stagger in the general direction of those long-term desires.
If you don’t know what you want, I probably just sparked a panic attack with such Big Questions. When you’re unclear about your future direction, wet cement feels like a lot of pressure.
If every decision echoes in eternity, it’s easy to become paralyzed by choice. Banking or consulting? Tacos or Burrito? Skyrim or guitar? Screw it, I’m eating dry ramen in sweatpants and watching TV until my eyes bleed.
But it doesn’t have to be so stressful. Everything is temporary, and nearly everything is reversible. If you screw up or don’t like something about the new things you’ve chosen, you can change them later.
If you don’t know what you want – in your career, a breakfast, or a hobby – you’re best served by choosing something that will open up high-quality options from which your future self can choose.
As an example, we may never know for sure what we want to do career-wise. It’s an impossibly complex, ever-shifting landscape, and we’re changing all the time to boot. You have the blink of an eye to figure things out and only a vague idea of where to start.
But let’s say that, early in your career, you chose jobs in interesting fields that would teach you the most. You’d meet other interesting people, build skills, and figure out your likes and dislikes.
Repeating the process once or twice, you might become a person with the skills to pay the bills.
As a highly-skilled, well-rounded employee, your career options might be excellent – choosing between three or four possible career trajectories, each of which is interesting, fulfilling, and offers enough cash to enjoy yourself.
Having great options can substitute for certainty, particularly on the more nebulous questions we face. You don’t need to know your ultimate destination. Just cultivate good options and choose the best available one. Rinse and repeat.
Advanced: Never let the concrete dry
There’s a secret I haven’t talked about yet – a skill that I’ve cultivated over the years. It’s an anti-drying solution that you can apply to wet cement and keep your eyes open to change forever.
I call it experimentation – a novel idea, I know – and it turns you into a guinea pig for hundreds of tiny trials, tweaks, and tests.
An experimental practice can substitute for an outside influence taking a jackhammer to your life. Instead of waiting for the breakdown-and-rebuild cycle, you can reach for continuous, small-scale improvement.
The key is to treat your life like a science lab. I don’t mean taking all the drugs you can find (although I suppose that might help). But if you cultivate a view of your life from the outside, you’ll never get so set in your ways that only an external event can shake you awake.
You’re the scientist, and your life is the experiment. Could you try a tweak to your exercise regimen here? A tune-up in your sleep habits there? What about asking out that attractive stranger who’s been reading your favorite book in Starbucks the last two days?
Experiments keep the cement wet and your mind open and agile. It sounds exhausting to most people, but it can be fun if you’re a strange bird like me.
On a long timeline, the experimental approach may yield more significant changes than the opportunistic approach. But I believe both are necessary if you hope to have an uncommon life. We must tinker and adjust our lives and recognize when external events offer us a window for positive change.
Carpe potestatem (Seize the opportunity)
Life doesn’t operate linearly. The most remarkable changes – good, bad, and weird – happen in short bursts surrounded by periods of stasis. There are great things to be had during the periods of relative calm, but most of the changes that will determine who you’ll become over the next few years will happen during short periods of wet cement.
Having a satisfying life doesn’t always require you to be an amazing visionary slash genius with impeccable strategy. It merely requires that you pay attention when an opportunity arises.
Maybe you’re in a period of change like this right now. Perhaps you’re smarting from a romantic rejection or a layoff. I know how it feels to get punched in the face by the universe.
At the time, it’s tempting to let go. To say that the future is out of your hands and that you must let fate do her work.
It’s in precisely these moments – when we’re surprised, hurt, discouraged, or disoriented – that change feels out of reach. Paradoxically, these times are when change is most accessible. When the cement is wet, you can take steps in a few weeks or months that will reverberate for years.
When you wake up one morning as your future self, you’ll be grateful for having seized your opportunities when they presented themselves.
Antifragile by Nassim Taleb (Amazon)