There’s a memorial in the Soho part of London that I don’t think gets enough love. Maybe that’s because it isn’t particularly flashy, grandiose, or even that interesting to look at. It isn’t a great statue, mural, tower or building. Even the location of it isn’t that interesting – as it sits opposite one of the seemingly endless Pret a Manger‘s that the city coughs up every year.
Located on Broad Street, the memorial to Dr. John Snow is rather humble in its design – merely a black water pump, sans the handle. The memorial was erected alongside a pub that is named after him – and is in memory of a man who was the first to think (and later help prove) that the cholera outbreak that was devastating London in 1854 was linked to contaminated water supplies.
(an innocuous, but important landmark)
Snow’s theory of a water-borne disease was controversial and was almost immediately laughed at. The idea that the illness was spread by drinking others’ fecal matter was a notion that was too disgusting for the public to even think about. Furthermore, there were already plenty of ideas about how diseases were spread. Hundreds of years of existing medical literature stated that diseases were spread through bad air (miasma) – and when one was in the vicinity of such air, they’d be infected with whatever disease was most prevalent at the time. This was the dominant explanation for the Black Death – and the theory was accepted by pretty much every medical professional for centuries. After all, how could so many people be so wrong- and wrong for such a long time?
Dr. John Snow was always fighting an uphill battle with his theory. The miasma theory was convenient, simple and fit in nicely with the societal hierarchy at the time. The poor areas of town were filthy, overcrowded and unregulated. Therefore, disease was a poor man’s problem- and the rich were mostly free of such ailments because they lived in the ‘proper’ parts of town that did not see such filth.
Of course, the idea that diseases are spread by miasma is a ridiculous concept now. The theory has been abandoned and is nothing more than an example of how far medicine has come since the days of John Snow. It did, however, take hundreds of years to get to this point, and Dr. John Snow’s work was never accepted in his lifetime. Why?
Well, here’s the thing – human beings are stubborn. You are. I am. Everybody is. Our brains look for the path of least resistance, and when we go against the grain of our minds, there is almost a grinding that occurs inside our heads. To try and challenge our status quo is a painstaking, laborious, and often thankless task.
I remember my first day at college. It is vivid in my memory because I believed at the time that I was ‘weird’ and socially awkward. I kept myself to myself and didn’t pour much energy into making friends – preferring to stay in the library and wait for people to approach me. You don’t need me to tell you that this didn’t work. I couldn’t understand why college wasn’t like Dazed and Confused, and why I wasn’t getting as popular as my friends. I developed what I called ‘the socially awkward theory‘, and that was the mantra I used to navigate my way through college. I looked for examples that fit this theory such as my lack of friends, difficulty in being confident in large groups, and the whole ‘forever alone’ mentality (which makes me cringe looking back on it). Using those examples, the socially awkward theory became strengthened – like my own personal miasma theory, it was simple, convenient, and freed me from personal responsibility. I accepted that’s just who I was, and there was little I could do about it.
However, towards the end of my first year at college, I decided to do something about it. My obsession with popularity was too strong, and I said ‘fuck it’, I’m going to change a few things – here’s what I realized:
#1 – We’re Resistant Because Our Goals Are Abritary and Vague
My original goal when I was 17 was to get popular. I didn’t care who with or in what context – I just wanted to ‘have a bunch of friends’ to make me look cool. However, popularity is vague. There is not a predetermined number of friends you need to have before you get your ‘popular’ badge. Much like a New Year’s resolution to ‘get in shape’, there is no concrete goal in mind. You aren’t either popular or not popular. You are not either ‘in shape’ or ‘out of shape’. Now, if you nail down a few tangible goals in regards to fitness or popularity – such as complete 30 minutes of cardio, bench press a certain weight for reps, or in my case, to talk to a new person at lunch – you have a much more attainable goal, importantly, one you can improve on. That 30 minutes of cardio can become 35 minutes, you can do an extra rep on the bench press, you can talk to another new person.
This is the reason why New Year’s Resolutions tank before January is out – because our goals are so vague that our brain just sees them as one huge task – and chooses not to invest energy into them. Motivation gets waned because there’s no fire to keep them stoked, and our hope for shedding a few pounds gets inevitably delayed until next year.
#2 – We’re Resistant Because We Don’t Want to Be Wrong
The reason why John Snow’s theories of disease were dismissed so quickly was because he challenged notions that had been ingrained in his peers for their whole lives. People were adamant that the miasma theory was legitimate, and for people to think otherwise was, in their eyes, to undermine their intelligence and credentials. Doctors didn’t want to think that they had been wrong their whole careers, and passionately safeguarded the theory, despite the lack of evidence to back up their claims.
Going back to my life at college, I simply didn’t want to believe that my theory of social awkwardness was wrong at first – despite realizing that when I made the effort, I actually got along well with others, and was beginning to make new friends on a near-daily basis. However, I couldn’t let go of my beliefs – again, there is no measure on social confidence, and extroversion is largely an intangible concept. It is, again, a vague social construct without any concrete foundation. I didn’t want to insult my own intelligence and keep second-guessing myself, so the ‘socially awkward theory’ stuck around for a while longer, despite having ample evidence to the contrary.
#3 – We’re Resistant Because Our Expectations Are Too High
I think blogging on WordPress is a good example of this. Have you ever wanted to start blogging, and have visions of getting thousands of followers, raking in the ad revenue, buying a house in Thailand, and blogging about how awesome your life is? Oh, and do you want all of this to happen in a week? If your expectations of anything are that high, then you’ll naturally procrastinate blogging because your brain will skip past all of the smaller steps that it takes to get successful at anything. You’ll sit down at the empty page, and first, you’ll wonder what the hell to write about. You may compare yourself with the superstar bloggers of the world and feel like getting to their level is impossible. So you’ll close the tab, put your laptop down, and promise that you’ll start tomorrow.
(an ancient meme, but relevant)
It’s the same thing with exercise. People decide that they want to be fitter, so they go on to Youtube and look at a workout routine. They’ll be greeted by a fitness professional who works out for a living and they’ll get discouraged that they don’t look the way they do, so they’ll close the video – feel like shit for a while, and hit the snacks to self-comfort. This is a vicious cycle. If you’re feeling like you need to work out – just do anything. Go for a walk. A jog. Do ten push-ups. Small victories – your brain can handle these tasks, and you can improve on these steps on a weekly basis. What your brain can’t handle, however, is you computing why you don’t look like an elite gymnast. This is where the resistance lies and is why your brain is working against you.
Any article on WordPress contributes to someone’s life- any weight on the bench press is more than millions of people can do. Let go of the lofty expectations – you’ll find change so much easier.
Look, I’m an amateur writer just like I’m an amateur weightlifter. I won’t be on the New York Times Bestseller List or breaking any deadlift records anytime soon – but it’s the fact that I’m an amateur that I love both so much. There’s no pressure, comparison or expectation to hit. They’re just forms of self-expression that nobody can take away from me. I didn’t start to be ‘one of those gym guys’ or ‘one of those writer people’ – I couldn’t give a shit about the image – I take pride in the amateurishness of it all. Yes, that is a word. I didn’t just make it up.
Day by day, your theories about yourself will erode away as you set goals that make sense, are rooted in reality, and you can measure. You can then use that evidence to build more positive ideas about yourself, and then build more evidence to strengthen that new, positive self-image. This is the cycle you want.
I now laugh at my ‘socially awkward’ theory. We’re all socially awkward to some extent – but there’s nothing wrong with that. Our brains are hardwired to be as lazy as possible – and whether it be miasma in the air or being too scared to talk to strangers, we’ll come up with ridiculous theories about reality and then look for evidence to support this. Day by day, however, you can chip away at your understanding of yourself until you develop more proactive philosophies. It won’t be easy, but it’ll sure be worth it.