Building A Life Part III: The Variable Question

In any experiment, there are variables – those which are fixed, and those which are changeable. You need both in order to test a hypothesis. To get different results, you play around with the changeable variables – but you leave those fixed ones alone, to preserve the integrity of the experiment and best be able to track what change contributed to the new result.

I find this is true, too, when we feel stuck about life. There are certain variables we see as fixed, and others we see as changeable. We fiddle with the changeable ones over and over and over, and sometimes yes, the results are different. But sometimes we’re playing with the wrong piece. Sometimes the experiment, or hypothesis, needs to be revisited, and the whole damn setup reassessed.

experiment questionFor example: I have many friends in their 20’s and 30’s who feel a little hollow inside; they feel disconnected, detached, unfulfilled, flat, sad. Each one has his or her “go to” variable – for me, it was my job; for another friend it’s her romantic life; for a third it is her body & health; and for another it is her environment/where she lives.

Whenever they feel stuck and sad, they start fiddling with the variable – Friend A determining that her relationship is stifling her, and that she and her partner have “grown apart”; Friend B deciding she needs to lose weight, and this time she’ll find the plan that will stick and work; Friend C looking into where she can live abroad to teach English for a few months to get a change of scene.

I am an example of a “job variable” person: for the past six years, whenever my her bleak disatsifaction gurgled up to the surface, I decided that something was wrong with my job. I would gorge on Idealist job listings the way binge eaters cram potato chips by the fistfuls into their unnoticing mouths. I would rewrite my resumé and write cover letters. On a few occasions I quit my job and started a new one in order to alleviate the discomfort.

I approached this problem the way 19th century physicians approached cancer – by excising the illness (job-as-tumor) I assumed the whole body would be cured. I didn’t attribute the recurrance of the unhappiness to the fact that, perhaps, it was stemming from another place, or had become systemic – I just decided I hadn’t gotten the excision right the first time. That’s how masectomy patients in the 1800’s were left without arms (oh, this time we’ll get it all, I’m certain of it!), and it’s how I ended up never having enjoyed my work, changing jobs four times in five years, and still realizing that I was unhappy.

So what did I do? I decided to look at another variable.

It had never occurred to me that my environment was a changeable variable – I was certain it was fixed. It never even crossed my mind to change it. Yes, I wanted to leave the apartment I was in, especially after getting married – but leave New York? That wasn’t part of the experiment/life-setup.

But as soon as the thought crept in, there was no getting rid of it. Realizing that settled things can become unrooted was like having the curtain lifted on reality, and time, and the “specialness” of things in our life which we create altars around and feel blasphemous tweaking. It was, for me, similar to the moment when it occurred to me as an eight-year-old that heaven – which I trusted and believed in – might not actually exist. Or the feeling I get when I look at an 18th century Dutch painting and the man staring back at me looks like an artisinal cocktail maker in Williamsburg circa 2001.

In other words, deciding that the city I lived in wasn’t fixed was a total mindfuck for awhile; but once I saw that concrete wall could move, it made it easier to make other changes. Suddenly, nothing was set in stone – which was vertiginous, but also incredibly liberating.

And as soon as I acted on it – changed the variable – things started flowing that had previously been clogged. Making new friends had been so hard for the years after college – suddenly, I was meeting new people every day and actually enjoying it; I felt comfortable calling these new people friends, no longer saddled with the insecurity that they wouldn’t remember me. Exercising had always seemed like something other people did; now I was finding a way to go to the gym at least once a week – and I wasn’t loving it, or becoming Jillian Michaels by any means – but I was going, doing it, and the habit came more easily. Suddenly, as my loneliness and feelings of isolation were replaced by friends; as being lost in an unfamiliar place was replaced by feelings of curiosity and excitement, along with a newfound love of wandering around an unfamiliar city with a coffee in one hand and the puppies’ leashes in the other; as my health problems, feelings of lethargy, and anxiety were slowly addressed by changes in diet and lifestyle, I realized that I had found the variable that needed to be changed.

I still struggle to create and maintain new habits – and it’s not as though the demons of yore have totally left my scene – but it’s easier to see new solutions, and try new things, since I now have an intimate knowledge of the mercurial nature of the things we assume are forever.

Also – change brings change. Changing a new variable, I truly believe, can open the dam and let your fantasy life flow when it was previously so clogged, and let more, new changes come more easily and quickly.

So, I pose this question to you: which of the following variables in your life do you treat as “fixed”? Which do you treat as “changeable?”

Variable 1: Work

Variable 2: Romance

Variable 3: Environment

Variable 4: You

Next question: Of the “changeable” variables, which is your “go – to,” or the one that you fiddle with when you’re unhappy/dissatisfied/feeling stuck?

Final question: Of the “fixed” variables, which would you consider playing with, to see whether it truly is immutable?

I’d take the answers to these questions and bring them back to the life plan you wrote out – are there any new places you’d like to expand, explore, or challenge/change?

Let me know in the comment section – I’ve heard from some of you who are trying these steps on your own, and hope many of you will share your thoughts below!



One thought on “Building A Life Part III: The Variable Question

  1. I am the “health/wellness/weight” friend and am constantly convinced that if I were to just get healthy/lose weight/start yoga all things would be better. Truthfully, I know that there must be something else that is standing in the way between me and that goal. I’ve accomplished plenty of other things in my life to know that I am fully capable of doing something if I set my mind to it. The issue is most likely not this goal but something else that is standing in the middle of me and it. For Justine, it seems that it was her location that suddenly broke the dam of change. Not sure what it is for me but I hope to look for more things that I believe to be unchangeable and reevaluate them so that I can break through.

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