"The Two Ways to Move Through Life"
by David Cain
"Whether we’re aware of it or not, we basically move through life in one of two ways, and each of us has a favorite. We’re either moving towards what we want, or we’re moving away from what we don’t want. It might seem like moving away from what you don’t want accomplishes the same thing as moving towards what you do want. If you’re successfully moving away from pain, dullness and disappointment, what could you be moving towards, other than pleasure, excitement and fulfillment? It should be a simple matter to decide which way to go.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t resemble a straight line with evenly distributed incentives. It’s a whole field of possibilities. There are always many places to go from wherever you are in a given moment. What you want and what you don’t want are scattered all over the place, sometimes hiding behind each other, sometimes mixed together. Here’s a simplified version of the field of possibilities that might be on your mind at a given time:
Life is always a complex landscape of possible paths, and what’s available to you at any given juncture is a result of how you tend to move through the field. How you tend to move through the field depends largely on whether you’re mainly concerned with staying away from the undesirable stuff, or moving towards the good stuff.
Many of us take the “moving-away” approach as our normal mode of operations. Because of certain past experiences and preoccupations, we’re generally more concerned with avoiding bad possibilities than seeking good ones. They loom much larger in our minds, they more easily make our blood move and our minds light up. In fact, when a bad possibility gets really close, or even might get close, the good possibilities become nearly invisible to us. We panic and flee in the opposite direction.
Meanwhile, in the distance, we see high-achieving peers and strangers who don’t seem to be as wary of disastrous possibilities. They walk right into them yet they never seem to get stuck in them. They don’t seem to think much about problems, and are concerned instead with what they want and what they’re going to do.
These people are operating with an altogether different mentality. The difficult and obnoxious things on their respective paths clearly aren’t at the forefront of their minds. They move into and through the things they don’t want, simply because they happen to lie in the same direction as the things they want. In their minds the goal is always bigger, more consequential, more deserving of respect than the pains and dilemmas along the way.
Those who employ a moving-towards philosophy are able to traverse all the areas of the field. They still experience fear and pain, but they’re aware of the limiting effect of letting negative possibilities become their primary motivators. They insist on determining their own direction across the terrain, scaling hills and crossing bogs if necessary, because it’s better than being stuck on the few meandering strips of land that don’t present anything tough.
We’ve all experienced both ways of moving through the world, but most of us probably employ one approach most or all of the time. I am a multi-decade veteran of the moving-away approach, and I feel qualified to tell you it’s not a very good one. It has three big flaws that make it clearly the worse of the two.
Firstly, when you’re moving away, you’re not concerned about the overall direction of your movement. You just want to stay out of harm’s way. Usually that means you’re moving towards low-risk, low-reward options. Generally this means moving back to familiar territory, where you have the same limitations you always had, and little chance to grow. Although it may not feel like it on a day-to-day basis, essentially you’re just drifting with the tide. The greater forces in the world decide where you will go, over your days and your years.
Secondly, because you’re drifting, you end up getting stuck in little corners and eddies where there aren’t a lot of options, and where the good stuff is farther than ever. It’s only ever small parts of the overall field that are far enough from painful and uncertain possibilities for you to feel safe. And these safe patches always collapsing and moving. You frequently find yourself in these cramped little spots without a lot of personal power or opportunity available to you.
The third and most damning flaw of the moving-away approach is the kind of person it makes you. Moving away from the bad requires completely different survival skills than moving towards the good. Each approach nurtures polar opposite personal qualities.
Moving-towards has its own potential pitfalls, such as the possibility of greed and arrogance. But when you’re moving towards, you tend to learn from pitfalls because they remain in your path until you figure out how to manage them. When you’re moving away, you tend not to learn much from your missteps, because you refuse to come back.
You probably already know which approach you usually employ. Going from one tendency to the other is possible, at least gradually. So much of our behavior is habitual, under-the-radar stuff. The more strongly we’re motivated by what we don’t want, the less likely we are to recognize when we’re doing it, because it’s just so normal to us.
The ability to change your main approach depends on gaining an awareness of those two forces, the push and the pull, in everyday life. When you make a life-related choice, are you fleeing something or advancing on something? For everything we’ve run from, there’s something we desired that drew us far enough into new territory that we got scared and fled. What was it? When you notice you’re moving away from something, what was it you initially wanted to move towards? And what will you do if they’re in the same direction?
That simple question goes a long way: what was it I wanted? You’re either moving towards it, or away."