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“No one possesses unalloyed pleasure; there is some anxiety mingled with the joy.” -Ovid, Metamorphoses, VII. 453.
In November of 2008, I decided I wanted to become a Marine Officer*. This was a dream I had kept secret from my family and friends my entire life and came as a great shock. I come from a background where young men, let alone established, married men, do not join the armed forces. During a war. Two wars. Needless to say, I had a lot of explaining to do to. Over the course of the next 14 months, I got a lot of questions that all started with the word, “why?”
“Why are you doing this?
“Why the Marines?”
“Why an Officer?”
Every one of these questions was an attempt by a someone who loved me to understand my motivation. My motivation to change the entire course of my life to risk the very real possibility of ending it or forever altering it. I never minded these questions. They gave me an opportunity to explore my own motivations and measure those motivations against the puzzlement (and grief) of my loved ones. During those months of defending my decision, I realized that I wasn’t joining the Marines for any one reason; there were lots of reasons. Many of them noble, many of them selfish. Some lofty, and some petty. My resolve was not pure, but rather an alloy of goals with many conflicting properties.
All to often we think of motivation as something that can vary only in amount. We’re either motivated or we aren’t. We either have enough of it, or not enough. Sometimes we associate it with reasons why we do things. “I exercise for my health,” or “I wanna look good naked.” But the truth is, we never do anything for a single reason. Even something as simple as eating is so fraught with alternatives to hunger that most of us don’t even know what hunger feels like. This can be a problem when we begin the process of changing our lives. Just as we can remind ourselves of the noble reasons for our goals, the anxiety about our less-than-noble intentions can make us doubt our certainty. I have had clients stop working out because they confused confidence with vanity or taking care of themselves with being selfish with their time. The result of these doubts was a drop in the quality and amount of their motivation and something that could have been avoided while still being honest about their feelings.
In 2009, my own mix of intentions was complicated, but one day a dumb, rich, white girl asked me a question that changed my perspective on those intentions.
“Why? You don’t have to.”
The alloy may still have been complex, but suddenly my white-hot rage had burned off all doubt. I had many reasons for trying to become a Marine Officer, but the most noble in my mind was to volunteer for a path that others may have felt forced down; that the well-off, white and Ivy League-educated do not have to endure because we pay an underclass to fight our wars for us. I did not have to; which is precisely why I had to. In reality, this was simply a reason among many. But when on a PFT, a hill run, or on the occasion when I was being yelled at by a noncommissioned officer, that dumb girl’s befuddlement became the only reason that mattered to me.
Changing your life is hard. Even something that everyone will tell you is a good idea, like fat loss, is a constant struggle with many complex motivations. And while there are no unalloyed intentions, we can choose to focus on the ones we need to get us through the day. “You don’t have to,” as backwards as it sounds, became a mantra of my resolve. I wrote it in my journal and said it aloud every time I felt myself slowing down. Look at the changes you want to make in your life and plan ahead. You know it’s going to get tough. You’re going to get desperate and tired of pushing your way through each hour. So what’s your mantra going to be? What’s the sentence you need to burn off all doubt? Keep pushing and stay focused on your best self. With some luck, you may actually become it.
*So we’re clear, I was never a Marine. After 14 months of waiting on a waiver, I decided to pull my application. I was not selected for, did not attend, nor complete OCS. I was an officer candidate from November of 2008 to February of 2010 and that alone was enough to be a formative experience in my life.