The McFly Effect


Anyone who has seen the Back to the Future Trilogy remembers the scene where Marty starts a fight because a bully calls him “chicken.” (Or the one where “chicken” taunts him into a bad business deal. Or the one where he’s tempted into a drag race. As a friend joked, Marty doesn’t actually have a psychological problem, he has a kill word.)

I had the same sort of problem for a while. Where Marty was held hostage by challenges to his courage, I was held hostage by challenges to my skill. The challenge didn’t even have to be intentional, as I could also be set off by a stray remark that something was hard or that a different person was really funny or intelligent (which, by implication, might mean that I was not particularly funny or intelligent). Under the grip of proving myself, I have taken on projects way out of my depth, declined to accept much needed help, engaged in stupid dares like eating a half-cup of wasabi all at once, and perhaps worst of all, stewed in frustration and self-pity instead of getting to know some pretty funny and intelligent people.

The funny thing is that this problem was actually rooted in something really, really good: my desire for skill and joy at times when I am able to do something. My appreciation for times when I’ve had something insightful to add to a conversation, for example, became neurosis that I should always be adding something insightful to a conversation, even when I was exhausted or the others in the conversation knew far more about the subject than I did or I simply didn’t actually have anything interesting to say on the subject.

The reason I’m sharing this is not self-disclosure but because I don’t think I’m alone on this one. It’s a problem you see often in ambitious people: a desire for something good somehow becomes twisted into pain and neurotic behavior at evidence of not having it (or not having as much as others). My particular variant was a desire for skill, but there are many others.  Common examples are number of friends, success in one’s career, respect, and money.

I think that the problem here is one of self-judgment. It’s hard to know how to judge one’s accomplishments and, by extension, one’s worth as a person. Do I have enough skill/friends/success/respect/money? Well, how could I decide when enough is enough? In absence of a clearly defined way of judging oneself, comparison with others is at least a common standard and might be a natural default standard.

I’ve seen a few different ideas about what the healthy standard could be, but this post is getting a little long now to discuss them all. I think it’s going to be a topic I return to a few times on the blog.  

So that I’m not completely opening a can of worms without closing it back up, I’ll end with how I got over my own problem. I realized that what I was expecting from myself was impossible: I was essentially demanding omnipotence in all situations. Obviously, that’s crazy. A person has only limited time and resources with which to develop a skill. When faced with someone else’s ability to do something, such as a backflip, that I’m not able to do; the correct thing to do is ask myself what would be involved in my developing that skill. Would I prefer to spend the time and energy (and healing) on perfecting a backflip or on learning more about psychology or watching a film? I’ll admit, learning how to backflip is tempting and I may actually attempt to learn how at some point, but it’s just not where I want to spend my time now.

I think the same pattern works for all values. The question is not “Do I have enough” but “Would I prefer to spend the time and energy to achieve this particular value, or would I prefer to spend my time elsewhere?” If the answer is that you want to do the work, make a plan. If the answer is that you don’t, then that’s fine. Accept and enjoy your current state. Everything else, just let it go.

So the standard then becomes not whether I’m happy with the current state of anything but rather whether I am happy with my choice of commitments. Am I building the skill I want, engaged in the kind of job that should give me the money I want, working toward the kinds of accomplishments I want? If so, then congrats; you win.

I’m not certain that’s it, and there’s definitely more to develop, but I submit the idea for your consideration.

[Hat tip to Sam Applebaum, whose concept of value neurosis clearly informed this post significantly. I might be dealing with the broader category?]


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