In Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, the narrator has a dialogue with her psychoanalyst about the dangers of being a Puer Aeternus, an “eternal child” who constantly switches between plans, subjects of focus, and life paths. Puers, according to the analyst, often switch from one thing to another the moment the original pursuit becomes difficult or presents the possibility of failure and starts to feel “dangerous”–or perhaps the original pursuit stopped being exciting, and the puer feels that she needs to move on to feel that she is living again. Either way, the puer struggles to really dig into what she supposedly desires.
While I would never label someone as a puer–how insulting!–I’ve come to appreciate the merits of committing to a life path. (“Life path” is loosely defined here. It could refer to a career path, a relationship, a lifestyle–such as veganism–or even an important hobby.)
This is not to say that there aren’t times when you just have to cut your loses. Avoiding the sunk-cost fallacy (i.e., sticking to something for the sole reason that you’ve already invested in it), can be one of life’s biggest challenges. No doubt, committing to absolutely everything is sure way to burn out and ultimately fail to contribute substantive efforts to all of your interests. But once you land on something that’s really important to you–and commit to it–a host of unexpected benefits await you.
What Really Happens When You Commit to A Life Path
1. Labels aside, you will find that your work (or relationship) is identity-building. When you have a pursuit that’s constant in your life, even if you’re working to evolve within that pursuit, you’ll likely begin to feel like that special thing is a kind of home for you. For example, when I’m writing (or even thinking of writing), I feel at home, intellectually speaking. Although I face challenges in my writing life–sometimes even writers struggle to express themselves or simply don’t feel like writing some days!–I identify with those challenges, and I feel like rising to meet them because they feel distinctly mine.
2. Your expertise will transfer to unexpected domains. One of the joys of sticking with something is skill building, and it’s equally exciting when you find that those skills can be applied to seemingly random parts of your life. Take veganism, for example. Most vegans would agree that it requires enduring patience with oneself to transition sustainably to the lifestyle. It also requires the ability question almost everything you’ve been told about food. Patience with oneself and healthy skepticism transfer far beyond veganism. For me, these attributes led me to adopt a healthier lifestyle, of which veganism is just one part.
3. You will look back and realize that you’ve built a body of work (or memories). While living in the present is arguably one of the best ways to be joyful, it’s hard to deny that looking back at the things you’ve created over time is rewarding. A writing portfolio or a string of successful business ventures are obvious examples. Relationships, though less tangible, offer something similar. In a long-term romance or friendship, you develop a shared history with the other person. This shared history doesn’t just exist in the past. In a lot of ways, it shapes the present, and if this shared history is largely positive, you’ll find that your life is bigger. You and your partner have broadened your lives, fusing together days, moments, experiences.
4. You will cultivate new relationships. This one is especially true for career-, lifestyle- and hobby-related pursuits. From networking with new acquaintances to creating bonds over a shared interest or task, sticking to something has a way of expanding your social life, often with deep relationships that help you continue on your path.
5. You will have a foundation of knowledge/skills/experience that can serve as a launching pad for the next mile marker along your path. One of my favorite experiences is realizing that I actually know how to do something and feeling my confidence jump from zero to (insert number that’s higher than zero!). When you’re in the same field for a while, your skills and experiences will be there to back you up. New but related skills will likely come more easily to you, and challenges can be faced with an arsenal full of skills you’ve honed over the years.
One not-so-exciting (but totally okay) thing that happens when you commit to something:
Whether we’re talking a job, lifestyle, or relationship, there’s bound to be a time (or several times), when things feel hard, boring, stagnant, or some tedious combination of the above. You may even question if you went down the right path. When I experience a setback, I immediately panic and wonder if I’ve been going the wrong directly entirely! Before deciding whether or not to abandon your pursuit, however, recognize that these periods are natural and part of any gig. Jumping ship won’t save you from boredom, undue criticism, or the possibility of failure. Those things await all of us just about everywhere. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a better situation out the for you or that one path is just as fulfilling as another. It’s just something to keep in mind, however, when assessing whether or not to search for your life elsewhere. After all, as Heti’s analyst points out, “Life isn’t only where things are exciting; it’s where things feel hard and stagnant, too.”
Have you stuck with something and found it paid off with unexpected perks?
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