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We start off the same way.
In the beginning, we’re excited, eager, and energetic. We have dreams we want to pursue. A desire to make something of ourselves, coupled with an earnest intention to overcome any obstacles that come our way.
Somewhere along the way though, we hit a wall. We stop learning. We look around and see other people are content with where they are. So we sit and rest for a while in a safe haven, until we feel motivated enough to start working on our goals again. We wait.
That is, until awhile turns into months, then years. One day, you look back and realize that you’ve been stuck in the same spot for the past decade. What would your younger self think?
I recently read an interesting account of the rise and fall of ancient Egypt, which reminded me of the human tendency to fall into the same patterns.
A Civilization Built for Eternity
Around 3150 BC, the independent city-states along the Nile unified to become a country under the first pharaoh. It was a period of rapid growth. Using the resources found along the Nile River, the Egyptians were able to provide irrigation to the fertile lands, leading to rapid population growth.
Subsequently, the culture in the area flourished. Under careful government administration, the Egyptians developed a writing system, researched medicine, and studied mathematics. It was a sight to behold: larger-than-life pyramids, intricately detailed artwork, and hieroglyphics that told stories of their gods.
Ancient Egypt progressed like a galley at full speed. The nation worked in unity, each segment of society rowing in cohesion towards a common destination. For over two millennia, Egypt was the most powerful civilization in the ancient world.
Then, cracks began to appear. Rebels built their own armies. Bandits raided the tombs of ancient pharaohs. The south fought against the north, leading to civil unrest. The writer Ipuwer lamented, “Ah, would that it were the end of men! That there were no conception and no birth! Then would the earth cease from turmoil and be at rest.” Although Egypt still enjoyed times of stability, the same issues continued to arise, weakening the country as a whole.
Ancient Egypt gradually became drained of resources from internal conflict, making it susceptible to attacks by neighboring states. In his papyrus scrolls, Nefer-rohu observed: “What had never happened had happened.”
The culture of the ancient Egyptians gradually faded under the boiling sun and fickle sands while the Persians, Greeks, and Romans took turns controlling the region. It wasn’t until 1798, when Napoleon’s army arrived, that interest in this ancient and fascinating civilization was reignited.
The Stages of Civilization
In his 12-volume work, A Study of History, Arnold J. Toynbee discusses the development and decay of 19 world civilizations. In his books, he shows how all civilizations go through various stages: exuberant growth, calm maturity, and gradual decay.
A healthy society grows. It creates art, develops technology, and enables social mobility. When a civilization becomes an empire, however, it becomes static. There are rigid rules and policies, along with social structures that are difficult to permeate. For this reason, empires are not a triumph, but a weakness.
The civilization stops expanding and innovating. The creative minority, which led the civilization from its humble beginnings to a superpower, ceases creating and becomes a dominant minority that forces the majority to obey unquestioningly. Living in their past glory, they fail to address the next set of challenges, until the empire weakens and becomes susceptible to invasion.
The Danger of Rusting Out
The stages of a civilization sound eerily similar to the stages we face. As children, we’re energetic and curious about the world. By the time we enter adulthood, most of this excitement washes off, giving way to realism. We eventually settle for whatever seems practical and normal.
Many of us become complacent early on. We decide to stop trying things, because where we are is “good enough”. We start to feel comfortable, to the point that anything new is immediately averted.
This phenomenon is known as rustout. It happens when we stop challenging ourselves and always opt for the safe route. We simply exist, without reflecting on how we can grow. There’s a feeling of numbness as we expose ourselves to the same things, places, and people on a daily basis.
While burnout is a result of doing too much, rustout happens when we don’t do enough meaningful activities. After staying in one spot for a long time, we gradually stagnate. And while burnout erodes your energy, rustout wears away at your will and spirit.
Elephant crushing, a method used to tame wild elephants in some regions, has a similar effect. In this method, the elephant is placed in a cage and restrained to keep from moving. The elephant is kept restrained and sometimes even beaten until it stops doing anything on its own accord. After the elephant’s cage is opened, it chooses to stay inside because the elephant has learned that doing anything else is painful.
Like the elephant, we learn to associate failure with pain and disappointment, so we stop trying new things.
How to Avoid Rustout
When we approach a dead end, it can be difficult to figure out what to do next. We might not know what steps to take when we reach that point.
Here are three steps you can use to avoid rustout.
1. Acknowledge the discomfort.
When we feel discomfort, we often brush it aside. We cover up those nagging feelings by resorting to short-term solutions, such as surfing the net or buying new things to make ourselves feel better. We bandage up the issue instead of getting to the root of the matter.
Don’t confuse the symptom with the cause. The attacks on ancient Egypt were symptoms of its growing weakness, rather than the cause. Similarly, your discomfort is a sign that something is wrong. Pinpoint the source of your dissatisfaction.
Be honest with yourself.
2. Consider a different perspective.
When the movie-rental business Blockbuster was at the height of its success, a startup called Netflix approached them and offered to run their online segment. Netflix was quickly brushed away by the corporation. When Blockbuster later tried to stay afloat by pouring resources into their outdated business model, it only delayed their inevitable demise.
We prolong bad situations because we don’t want to change directions. We feel comfortable being in the same box, even if we know it’s harmful in the long run. If you feel stuck, try something small. Start a side project on a topic that interests you, go on a trip, or read a book that provides a different viewpoint from your own. These tiny experiences can help you see a fresh perspective and anticipate future challenges.
When you do something outside your comfort zone, you realize that perceptions and reality are different. You learn that most of your limitations are due to self-inflicted beliefs, rather than by what is actually possible.
3. Keep doing what is good.
Bad habits happen because we are exposed to one small trigger. For instance, how often have you gone onto a news site and only read one article? Realistically, you probably read a second article, and then another after that.
The good news is that positive change works the same way. If you do something and get good feedback, such as positive feelings or a favorable result, then you stay motivated to repeat the pattern.
Companies have started using Lego as a communication method for employees to share ideas. Since it’s been found to be an engaging and effective method, more companies have unrolled similar programs. You can use a similar strategy of mixing desired results with habit creation. For instance, if you’re learning an instrument, try incorporating your favorite songs into your routine.
When You Are Comfortable, Be Vigilant
The times that we feel comfortable are the times that we need to be vigilant. When we get used to one situation, we don’t prepare adequately for catastrophes or for the inevitable changes of life.
In the back of our minds, we may know that our unhealthy eating habits, toxic relationships, or dissatisfying job can’t last forever. But there’s a wide chasm between knowing and doing something about it. So how do you connect the two?
By doing one small tweak.
Rather than thinking big, think different. Thinking big is paralyzing because it’s hard to translate thoughts into actions. Instead, start with one small thing you can do. Maybe you can place a glass of water on your desk instead of grabbing a soda, or you can sign up for a class you’ve been meaning to try.
That one small tweak can snowball into the big change you’re looking for.