In college, I took a Romantic Literature course. It turned out to be mostly a poetry course — a syllabus filled with the dull, shoot-yourself-in-the-head type of poetry (in my opinion). I’m not sure why history considers Blake, Keats, or some poem about an ancient fisherman romantic unless you view love as a painful, stress-filled, inevitable tale of doom and loss (I may have just channeled my first marriage).
I’ve noticed that English Literature curriculums have much in common with theories on self-development and setting goals—there’s a belief that for it to be “good” (or worthy), it must be “difficult.”
Without thinking much about it, most of us are in silent agreement with that belief. We console ourselves with statements like, “if it were easy, then everyone would do it.”
Being polite is as easy as saying, “please, thank-you, and excuse me,” and yet not everyone does it . . . So there is that.
It was my return to reading the Classics that brought this illogical approach of “it’s got to be difficult” to my attention and made me question, not the goals I had set, but the methods I believed I must apply to obtain them.
And with this raised awareness and a small shift in mindset, I discovered how much fun self-development could be.
Now fair warning, I’m not an expert in self-development. I am, however, an expert in attempting higher degrees of self-improvement.
For example, I have, in my lifetime, lost over four hundred pounds. Unfortunately, I tend to lose twenty and put back on some equal amount (currently net five pounds).
I’ve belonged to the same gym since 2004. It’s like a time machine. I show up every couple of years, and it’s as if nothing has changed… In the mirror, I mean.
My second marriage was far better than my first. So I have to assume the third Mrs. Esposito will be even better! (Wherever that lucky lady might be.)
So you get my point. I’m getting better, but I’m not the best.
And speaking of points—we were here to talk about the Classics and self-development.
I happen to like the Classics. Reading most of the literary treasures isn’t that difficult. And, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I have to have the entire set of anything, so my list of Books-to-Read-Before-I-Die contains over a thousand titles. The great thing about reading goals is unlike weight loss, once you’ve read a book, the win is yours forever, unlike pounds on the scale.
But just because you love something and just because it is a decisive goal, doesn’t mean you can’t complicate it and make it difficult with that “it’s must be hard” mentality.
Every few years I pull out the list, go to Barnes and Nobel for coffee, and then buy the books on Amazon.
This year was no different at the start.
As it had been a while since I last read a Classic, and to ease myself back into the “rich” language, I began with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—easy enough.
I then moved on to Camus’ The Plague—umm, a little boring.
And then I hit the wall on Don Quixote. I wasn’t getting into it, and it is a loooooong book.
I refused to relent or retreat. I had made a ranked list, this was the book next on that list, and I had to read it before moving on.
Except I didn’t read it or move on.
My belief that it had to be hard to be worthwhile coupled with self-imposed guilt of “cheating” the list, plus my disinterest in actually reading it, resulted in no movement at all.
Two months later, I had not read a single additional page and had not moved on to another option.
And then one day it occurred to me:
“If the goal is to read the Classics, and I have a thousand to choose from, then why do I feel I have to start with difficult books or books I don’t like to claim victory?”
Answer: Because in order for it to be good (worthy) it must be difficult. One must suffer for the actions to have merit or value.
Umm–Yeah, am I a martyr? No. I was raised in New England, so maybe those Puritan Ethics were in my head?
But success and self-development don’t have to be complicated. And . . . Oh my god, such blasphemy . . . They can actually be fun!
Insight #1: Forget the long stuff and get those smaller, motivational victories.
Small victories and small rewards are the keys to success. Our little monkey minds need the dopamine to stay motivated. You have to break up the bigger goals into smaller objectives. No one should set their mind to losing fifty pounds; they should set their aim to losing just one pound . . . This week.
Don Quixote is a damn long book. I can read four smaller novels in the time that one will take. And four books off my list is a lot more motivating than a single title completed.
No one completes a marathon by running twenty-six miles a day. They train with shorter daily runs. I’m speculating, of course, I hate running and have never run a marathon, but I’ve read that this is the method.
Additionally, if I read nine hundred out of a thousand classics before I die, it is doubtful anyone is going to say, “yeah, but he only read the short stuff.”
Don Quixote was a long read that I was not enjoying. I had twenty other shorter options on the shelf, and many of them I was excited to explore.
So, I tossed ole Don Quixote on the shelf I had newly designated as Stuff to Read in Hospice.
And then, I looked for the other “long” stuff on my self-improvement list and pushed some of the quick, short wins to the front.
Insight #2: Don’t start with the hard stuff
I see personal trainers put new people through first day workouts that almost guarantees the person will quit or need two weeks to recover.
Dieters often go for extreme and unhealthy restrictions when science proves one pound loss per week is the healthy and most successful method.
It is truly a misguided belief that we aren’t really achieving if we’re not first suffering the hard stuff.
Classics are the same. We introduce students to books like Crime and Punishment or A Clockwork Orange and then wonder why most kids hate reading. Overweight people show up at the gym, and we drive them close to death and wonder why they never return. People try to change everything about themselves in a single week and wind up more depressed and defeated than when they started.
Sure, I want to read the Classics, but since I can’t read them all, I get to choose which are conveniently so far down the list I’ll never get to them before I get to the grave. In other words, I’m reaching toward my goal by joyfully (not painfully) building the habits.
After I agreed to disagree on the merits of Don Quixote, I picked up an Appointment in Samarra. It’s a great story written in one of my favorite literary periods. I found myself reading it at lunch, at dinner, and before bed. A great read that I enjoyed, and it let me check off an accomplishment with ease.
Insight #3 Forget the Shoulds
Nutritionists and seriously fit people piss me off. You give them an inch, and they want a mile. Trade fast-food for a salad and then they’ll want you also to give up the salad dressing. Stop drinking soda, and they start in on the evils of diet soda. Up your protein, and they’ll tell you to trade in your eggs for blocks of tasteless soy. It’s never-ending with these folks, and they love the shoulds.
I had several shoulds on my list of classics. Books that I really “should read” to round out my self-imposed Classics education.
Ulysses, Lord Jim, and Finnegans Wake were all there waiting to bore me to tears in the way Moby Dick and The Scarlett Letter had. The types of stories that couldn’t even become interesting when made into a movie.
Because self-improvement can’t be fun. It has to be hard work to have merit. And part of the work is you must attend the “shoulds.”
Except you don’t.
Screw those books. I didn’t just push them down the list; I took them off the list. And who would care? Who in my life would I impress by my exposure to Finnegan’s Wake? Who did I even know who read that book?
I bench press 225 pounds, I have a diet ginger ale with dinner, and eggs several times a week. I’m going for excellence here, not perfection. The shoulds and the achievement aren’t necessarily tied together. My improvements are fun to achieve because I’m not making it so painfully deplete of life’s other small “not so good for you” pleasures. And I’m not beating myself over the head with unpleasant shoulds.
My reading list is something I look forward to because I’m not punishing myself with books, “I should read.” My gym time is therapeutic because I no longer need dread the thirty minutes on the treadmill that I “should” be doing.
Insight #4 The view from the mountain’s top may be no more spectacular than the view from halfway up.
And because of those three insights, I may be delaying some progress. I’m certainly missing out on complete perfection. But I am making progress, and I’m enjoying the process.
I’m not trying to be the guy who quotes War and Peace. I just want to enjoy the perspectives and styles of great writers.
I’m not out to be a bodybuilder. I’m going for an impressive and healthy Dad-Bod.
I’m not trying to be the next Stephen King. I’m just trying to deliver readers a delightful tale.
I’m not trying to be the best person. I’m not trying to be better than others. I’m just trying to be better than I was yesterday . . . Just a little better.
There’s a lot of joy in becoming a little better. It means having time to enjoy a picnic halfway up the mountain.
A lot of that joy isn’t about the achievement.
It’s about caring enough about myself to take the journey. It’s about enjoying the process without worrying about how long it takes to reach the top.