By Jimmy Warden
It is without a question that today’s society is more outcome driven than ever. From the ever advancing technology field, the small and large business worlds, the sports world, K-12 schools, colleges, hospitals, and everything in between, all of these organizations are all focused on the same thing. Improving outcomes and trying to become the top notch in the hierarchy of their domain. An interesting part about this is, these outcomes are also the rewards that these same organizations (as well as the individuals that are a part of them) are often seeking. However, that might not always be in our best interest. These are not always the rewards we should be considering. There is much more to rewards that we can receive, while striving for improvement, than just outcomes.
Needing an outcome can lead down a path of needing tangible rewards to feel like we’re improving. Often times we need a tangible reward to let us know that we are making progress towards a goal. This might come in the form of weight loss, more money in a bank account, a certain number of books read, a streak of meditation days, etcetera. Most of these have some type of number attached to it, which signifies the progress we’re making. We aren’t always aware of the small improvements that we are making that we can’t see, feel, or calculate because we try too hard to quantify experience. These things might include your body functioning slightly better than the day before, feeling slightly more regulated with your emotions, and having a little more mental clarity when weaning off of a substance. Not always being aware of these small improvements is a big reason that we resort to tangible reward because those rewards are things that we can physically hold, see, and experience with our senses. When we don’t experience rewards through this fashion, we find it harder to buy into the fact that we’re making steady progress on our path of improvement.
In order for us to make changes, especially if it’s in regards to changing our habits, there does need to be a reward that we receive. Otherwise, the behavior won’t get repeated. However, seeking these tangible items as a reward is not necessarily the best way to receive a reward for the work we put in. Over time, these cause and effect type of rewards lose their value. Knowing that we will receive ‘x’ when we complete ‘y’ eventually creates so much predictability, that the reward loses its meaning. The less excitable a reward becomes, the less likely it is that we’ll engage in the behavior we want to implement or change. The lack of excitability of the reward we are seeking also decreases our level of motivation. This can be attributed to the fact that the behavior loses its importance as the reward decreases in value. Over time, this motivation will eventually become extinguished.
If it’s reward that we’re seeking, one reward that we lose sight of, but can bring back into our vision, is the person we become while engaging in a process of improvement. Isn’t that enough of a reward itself? Isn’t that essentially what the process is for? To become a better version of ourselves? Why would we need something tangible like the number on a scale to drop, or the number of zeros in our bank account to increase, or a meditation streak of ‘x’ amount of days to show we’re improving if we’re making choices to support our best self? The catch here is that if we have a true understanding of ourselves and are sharply self-aware, these improvements can be tangible. It just takes a bit of thought. The truth is, when we take a few moments to reflect during our journey, we can recognize when we’re a little bit better today than we were the day before. These can come in the small actions that we don’t always give ourselves credit for, such as, eating a nutritious meal as opposed to eating something quick and easy, deciding to put something back on the shelf to save a few dollars, choosing to pause and listen instead of waiting our turn to speak, or noticing a thought for being a thought and letting it go. All of these small acts can become tangible as soon as we become aware of them.
Therefore, changing and improving is more about the continuous process of becoming rather than arriving. The journey itself is the reward because of all the changes we make along the way. In order for us to evolve and change, we need to struggle and be challenged. Seeking rewards amidst these challenges can create an expectation that we’ll receive something when we reach a certain point, but that is not always the reality of life. This creates a sense of entitlement within a cause and effect system of thinking. If we do ‘x’ we get ‘y’. This is a Pavlovian way of thinking in regards to who we can become. Instead, we should strive for improvement, not as much the outcome. We should try to live out our strengths and continuously refine our weaknesses, knowing that we’ll be a greater human for it. Even Darwin’s theory states that we don’t need to reach a certain status to have the species continue, but rather our strongest traits will be inherited by the lineage after us. So let’s seek the right rewards and create an awareness of who we’re becoming.