Past the Holy Grail—Looking Beyond That One Thing
I’ve had several times in my life during which I can only think about one thing. Everything else was relegated to brief attention when absolutely necessary. These “one things” included romantic interests, upcoming trips to new and interesting places, and life transitions. During these periods, my focus is unmatched, and my will is extremely strong. I find ways to mold reality into what I want it to be. I manipulate circumstances and people (mostly in positive ways) to ensure that my goals are achieved. These periods in life are exciting and truly meaningful, but they can also be fraught with anxiety, stress, and desperate longing. These are the moments when you feel most alive, existing with overwhelming intensity. However, during these times, you tend to lose perspective, as all that can be seen is the object of your attention. This state can make you highly effective, but it can also chip away at your mental and physical health. You seek your holy grail, and in your mind, it’s that one thing that can bring you happiness and fulfillment
When I think of these periods in my life, my mind immediately goes to love. Nothing is more all-consuming than the desire to win the heart of someone I’m in love with. People talk about alcoholism or addiction and how they get in the way of one’s work and relationships. For me, the pursuit of love is just as disruptive. During those times in my life when my whole self was devoted to winning someone’s heart, my life was never more disrupted. The quest occupied my every waking moment and spilled over into every part of my life. I strategized, I calculated, I planned, I primped—everything I did was to support this one goal. My identity and self-worth were also tied up in the quest. Failure wasn’t an option, because if I failed, I failed not only in achieving future happiness—I failed at being worthwhile.
That one thing
When we become fixated on something. We develop a whole new reality out of that fixation. We create an all-or-nothing scenario in our minds, and nothing but that one thing is acceptable. This has been called monomania, or the excessive concentration on a single object or idea. In certain circumstances, this kind of attention to the exclusion of all else can be positive. It can help us work through difficult tasks or overcome barriers. Being able to develop this level of focus on demand can be very useful and something to work toward. However, when it becomes something we can’t control and we begin to let other aspects of our lives slip, then it is not good for us.
One reason we might fixate on something is through an unambiguous belief that that outcome or goal is the only thing that matters. There are always factors we can’t control, but we don’t allow those thoughts to enter our minds. We have to make it work. We lose sight of alternative outcomes or competing possibilities. We must have that one thing.
Another aspect of life that people get fixated on is transitions. These might include getting into college, getting a particular job, having a child, or retirement. These significant milestones do alter our lives in fundamental ways, and they again may lead us to think that we won’t be satisfied unless we take that step. I’m in the midst of one of these transitions now. Throughout my career, I’ve been aware of my earliest retirement date and had it on my calendar as a countdown. On difficult days, I sometimes looked to that date as the time when I could get rid of all these headaches and stressors. But then I remembered how much my work means to me and how lucky I have been to do what I do and work with the people I work with. We make a difference, the work is interesting, and I believe in it. So why this fixation? Like many big questions we face in life, the answer can come from a little perspective.
Everyone has to do something. That might be working your ass off in a job you are passionate about. It may be working to pay the bills and provide for your family. Maybe you don’t need to make money (e.g., you’re retired or wealthy), but you still have to fill the hours. So why is one way of filling the hours better or more fulfilling than another way? Why do we look so intensely to change? With some perspective, you may find that you’re not in such a rush to retire. Or you may decide that you’re not going to wait until your retirement date and make changes now or soon. It’s important to be open-minded to a variety of possibilities and be willing to change your plans. The point is, don’t just assume that another “occupation” is better than the one you’re in now. Be specific about what might be better and why it would be more fulfilling or meaningful to you.
Ultimately, “that one thing” is never the only thing. Take your blinders off and look to the future with your eyes wide open.