Updated on 05.10.11

The Difference Between What We Want To Be True and What Is Actually True

Trent Hamm

Almost all of the suffering we put ourselves through in life is because there’s a difference between what we want to be true and what’s actually true.

During my early professional years, I watched as the gap between the financially successful person I wanted to be and the financially unsound person that I was became wider and wider. As that gap widened, I became miserable. I saw the life I always believed I was going to build for myself slowly slipping away.

Whenever I try to get into shape, I almost always drastically overdo it, often injuring myself in some way. The image I have in my head of the physical shape I should be in is out of alignment with the physical shape that I’m actually in. I wind up like I was a week or so ago, stretched out on the floor of the basement, dreading my next move because of a pulled muscle and loathing myself.

I have friends with various disabilities who constantly struggle with this phenomenon. They dream of some element of a normal life, then drown themselves in a deep depression when they find it to be out of reach.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with phrasing “I want to be…” statements about your life. They can be incredibly powerful guides toward a better life. The challenge comes when you’re creating “I want to be…” statements or “I want the world to be…” statements that require things out of your control to occur.

Let me explain what I mean in the context of me laying on the floor last week with a back muscle pull.

I’d been trying very hard to get myself into better shape. I’d adopted a vegan diet and I’d started exercising more and more. One day, I did a significant amount of exercising, to the point that I was worried I had pushed myself a little bit too much. A few hours later, I remembered that I had to coach my son’s soccer game, so I went to the field and spent more than an hour jogging up and down the field coaching the team.

That night, I had an incredibly painful muscle cramp in my back, one that left me laying on the floor in the basement, almost unable to move. It took me almost thirty minutes to make it up a single stair.

I was angry with myself. I was disappointed in myself. The next day, as I sat there in my work chair, I just felt like a failure.

My goal with exercise had always been a vision of the shape I had been in while in college, when I played intramural basketball and was even involved in some pick-up games. At one point in my life, I stepped onto a basketball court with a player destined to play in the NBA – and I wasn’t an absolute joke.

I would tell myself those dreaded words: I want to be… in that kind of shape again. I want to be… some kind of paragon of physical fitness for my kids.

Those “I want to be…” statements are widely separated from where I’m at, though, and whenever I would see how wide that gap was, I would, quite simply, get very down in the dumps.

The solution, though, is a pretty simple one. It’s one I’ve known for a long time, but it’s one that I sometimes don’t apply to myself when I’m too busy looking at the forest and not seeing the trees.

Simply use the power of “I want to be…” statements, but end those statements with something simple that’s actually within the realm of something you can accomplish.

Instead of saying I want to be an incredibly physically fit person, I should focus on saying I want to be a person who goes on a walk every day. By becoming that person, better physical shape is a positive side effect.

Instead of saying I want to be a person who can play the piano breathtakingly well, I should focus on saying that I want to be a person who can piece through a song and make it sound passable. By simply working on a song, I’m creating a side effect of being a better all-around piano player.

Through these statements, not only does something become tangible and reachable, that gap between where you’re at now and the person you want to be becomes smaller. There’s much less room for you to fall into depression when the person you want to be is at hand.

The big outcome you dream of is just a side effect of consistently achieving those little steps along the way.

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  1. Money Beagle says:

    Very good point. Another way of looking at that is that you really can’t change who you are (what you want to be) until you change what you do. So, focus on what you do as those are the measurable, definable things that make up who you are and will be.

    Very existential thought for a Friday!

  2. valleycat1 says:

    Perhaps the resolution isn’t to give up the big dreams, but to better internalize that it will take a lot of small steps to reach the final outcome. There is no reason at all to loathe yourself or feel like a complete failure because you’ve had a setback and reached the end yet – progress is never in a straight line.

    If you’re following your passions, you’re going to have big idealized overarching goals, but no one should expect that setting the goal means you’ve reached it (or should have already reached it). Wasn’t there a recent post that dealt with life being about the process, not the end result?

  3. Johanna says:

    When I read the title and the first sentence, I had a glimmer of hope that maybe Trent had reflected on his view of the world – that it’s a just place where suffering is always rewarded and everyone always gets what they deserve – and realized that it’s not actually accurate.

    I guess this is the difference between what I want to be true and what is actually true. :)

    But the article touches on a theme that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: How do you deal with disappointment? For me, “Beat yourself up over it a little more” is not a constructive strategy. Neither is “Lower your standards to the point where they’re basically already met.”

    In my case, a big part of the solution is to take a step back and realize that my feeling of failure is an emotional response that’s often completely out of proportion to the actual facts. Another part is to realize that there are many specific paths to reach the general underlying goal.

    I want to be a person who gets up on stage and brings people great joy through my music. A few days ago, my singing partner and I got up on a stage, but we didn’t get anything close to the reaction I was hoping for. This bummed me out.

    But as I reflected on what specifically went wrong, I realized I don’t actually have much to feel bad about. We didn’t inspire cheers and wild applause, but neither did anyone else who performed, because everyone in the venue was there to drink beer, not to listen to amateur musicians. Nobody laughed at our jokes, but that was because they couldn’t make out the words we were saying and singing.

    And several solutions presented themselves. Maybe we should look into playing different (quieter) venues. Maybe we should skip the between-song banter and choose songs based on the music, not the lyrics. Maybe we should learn more about amplifiers and sound systems, so we can help to make sure that the system is properly set up. None of these things involve giving up on or changing the dream – just looking at different ways of getting there.

  4. Jon says:

    I agree with Johanna, just lowering the bar to make yourself feel better will get you nowhere. If you want to perform at a high level you must focus on where you want to be. Good enough will never get you there. This post and attitude is anti motivational. Trent what happened to the great trainer and plan you had a few months ago? It seems you lack the discipline to stock to a plan. Without that you will never be in shape or in total control of your spending.

  5. Riki says:

    Trent seems to be describing a way to trick yourself into achieving your goals. I don’t think life works that way. The truth is, some goals are really hard to achieve and it takes a lot of work to get there. You can’t trick it away.

  6. marta says:

    I also agree with Johanna.

    In which regards physical fitness, I think it’s good to be realistic but also somehow challenge yourself otherwise you will be stuck in a plateau. You don’t go from a total couch potato to a sub-3 hr marathon in six months. Taking running as an example, maybe focus in running one mile without a break as a first goalpost, then move onto a 5K, and so on. I remember an anecdote from Jeff Galloway, a running coach, about his father. He was so out of shape that he had to think in terms of making it to the next telephone post — that was an achievement. Eventually he got to run a marathon.

    Work through the hurdles and move on.

    Is it just me, or did “incredibly” become the new “literally”? ;) I’m almost tempted to make a drinking game out of that…

  7. Tracy says:

    I agree, the theme of this post seems to be ‘accept mediocrity and don’t dream to be greater than you are’

    It’s not that you should stop dreaming, it’s that you need to stop self-flagellating every time you fall short. It’s OK TO SCREW UP. Everybody does it. It’s a lesson of growing.

    It honestly seems like you want the results without the work and the fact that you can’t just say “I want to be super athletic” or “I want to be a brilliant piano player” and have it happen means you should stop trying. You’ve moved your goalposts to things you’re already better than!

    Here’s something to think about. When one of your children fails at something, do you tell them to give up? Or do you encourage them in their dreams? There’s a difference in saying “It’s ok that I can’t play the piano amazingly RIGHT NOW but it’s something I want to keep working toward because it’s important to me” and “I can’t play the piano amazingly, so my new goal is to play it passably.”

    (Which isn’t to say you can’t decide that playing it amazingly isn’t what you really want and you’d rather spend your time doing something else – sometimes dreams don’t live up to reality because you convince yourself it’s something that you want rather than it being a true idea)

    And like Johanna, I wish this post really WOULD be realizing that there are very real barriers in people’s lives that affect their choices.

  8. Johanna says:

    Another thing: If changing your “I want” statements means lying to yourself about what you actually want, that’s not helpful either, and it might just lead to a feeling of bitterness in the long run. If what you really want is to be a brilliant piano player, but it’s just not happening for whatever reason, then you can *tell* yourself that that’s okay, you just want to be able to bang through a piece passably – but saying it to yourself isn’t going to make it true.

    (In other words, you could write an equally long post entitled “The difference between what we want to want and what we actually want.”)

    Rather, if you want something that just isn’t working out for you, ask yourself whether that want is really a proxy for something else. *Why* do you want to be a brilliant piano player? Do you want to perform for an audience (or an audience of one, like your wife)? Do you want to play in ensembles or accompany singers? Do you want to enhance your own enjoyment of the music? Do you want to inspire your children to love music, or to play music themselves?

    Once you uncover your deeper desire, you might find that there’s a different way of achieving it that’s more in line with your natural strengths. Maybe you’re better off playing a different instrument. Maybe you can learn to dance. Maybe you can study music theory, or music history. Maybe you can befriend someone who is a brilliant piano player, and have him or her be a musical mentor for your kids.

    Or maybe you decide that playing the piano is the way to go, but you realize that it’s going to take time to reach the level where you want to be. If you’re not a brilliant piano player when you’ve only been playing for a year and a half, that doesn’t make you a failure. It makes you a work in progress.

  9. Jamie says:

    I agree with Johanna AND Trent. I don’t think that Johanna’s goal of bringing joy to people through her music onstage is unattainable or out of her control. Actually, I think she gave a great example of the type of goal with which Trent would agree. If her goal was to be a multi-platinum musician who makes upwards of six figures, then she might want to take Trent’s advice to re-vamp her goal into one more like “I want to be a person who gets up on stage and brings people great joy through my music.”

    I don’t think this article is about accepting your own mediocrity– Just set goals that are attainable. As it relates to finances, maybe I want to make double my current salary and own a house and have zero debt and a nice car that never needs repairs, but I’m going to start with the goal, “I want to pay off my auto loan.” Or, “I want to find a higher-paying job.”

    I don’t think either of these goals are mediocre, although they are certainly attainable.

  10. Tracy says:

    The irony is – I checked – back on March 16,2010 Trent wrote the following:

    “Stop Thinking About Failure
    What if I don’t succeed?

    That’s often the big question that holds us back from taking big leaps in our life. We see something that would require a lot of work and energy and time and we can’t imagine the disappointment and pain if it didn’t work.

    To that, I say who cares if it doesn’t work? If this is your dream, the process to get there should be filled with fun for you. Even if the destination isn’t what you dreamed of, the journey there will be fulfilling.”

    This is good advice you gave your readers. TAKE IT!

  11. lurker carl says:

    If you are not enjoying the journey or unable to progress, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate your methods or even the goals.

  12. Evita says:

    How sad that Trent feels like a failure every time something does not go his way….
    The piano
    The diet
    The shape-up
    Why should any of this be easy and predictable ? it is not!

  13. Johanna says:

    @Jamie: OK, but I don’t think Trent’s examples of “unattainable” goals are all that unattainable either. There’s no reason why an adult beginner on a musical instrument can’t, in time, learn to play it “breathtakingly well” if he really wants to. And it doesn’t seem unreasonable for a man in his 30s to strive to be as (or almost as) physically fit as he was in his 20s. And I certainly don’t see why pulling a muscle should be a sign that his fitness goal is unrealistic. Even serious athletes injure themselves sometimes.

    Regardless of what my ultimate goal is with my music, I suffered a setback this week that seems fairly similar to Trent’s example of the pulled muscle. But it hasn’t caused me to start “loathing myself” or to think my goal is impossible. Sure, I sat around feeling sorry for myself for a few hours, but then I started thinking about how I can learn from the experience and do better in the future.

  14. Jon says:

    Anytime you try to achieve or do something special you will probably fail a few times. If you lower the bar each tine you will never excel. Having the perspective of being one of the best in the country at a sport( archery) I know what it takes to excel. If each time I had a bad day of practice or lost a tournament I did what Trent suggests I would never of made it to the top. It seems as if Trent is scared to fail. If you don’t aim for the top you never have to worry about the fall but you never feel the thrill either. Most the world including Trent is ok with mediocrity, not me!

  15. Bill says:

    I’ve always had a goal of running a marathon. I’ve tried several times, but when training over 30 miles per week I start getting injured. I have read multiple books and followed their advice. Sitting in my office with 2 ice packs strapped to my shins while taking a meeting… Now I’ve been reading about the whole toe running technique and it rang bells for me!! I’m out running miles and it seems to work no knee/chin or ankle pain past what is to be expected till I hit about 30 miles per week then it all start to hurt. At 42 I think I could push though and complete a marathon. But my wife works in physical therapy treating people with knee/hip replacement. Teaching them to walk again and I think it is not worth that!!!!

  16. Steven says:

    I’m not really sure how I feel about this article. In some ways, I agree that if you set your sights too high, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, but at the same time, if you don’t dream big, you’ll never push yourself to be/do your absolute best.

    I’m kind of surprised about your physical condition. If I recall, you’re all of 34 years old…I’m not really all that far behind you, and I’d be gravely concerned for my well-being if I couldn’t workout and jog up and down a kids soccer field for a couple hours. I’m not trying to toot my own horn, I’m just speaking from my own perspective. I know you have so health concerns/issues that might prevent you from doing these types of things, or make them more challenging. Maybe if we knew more about what you’re up against in terms of your physical health, I could offer a better comment. I just know that, myself, being a few years younger, I’ll be running a marathon, climbing Devil’s Tower, learning how to ride a unicycle…I’ve climbed mountains, jumped out of airplanes, yada yada. Really, if in 4 or 5 years I found myself laying on the floor because I’d exercised too hard, I’d be worried.

    Maybe it’s just a matter of having gotten out of shape that you’re in a place where it’s difficult to get back into shape, and you’re trying to hard and overexerting yourself. I guess, if you’re doing P90X or something, I could maybe understand why you’d be tired. Some more details would really help (me) fill in the gaps.

    Sorry for the rambling comment…I really would like to offer some advice but I just feel like I don’t know enough about the situation. But maybe that’s not really the point of the article at all…

  17. Gretchen says:

    You don’t have to be average, but not everyone can be above average in everything. :)

    That being said, I don’t think the problem with these specific goals are that they are too high, but too generic.

    The answer to ” Instead of saying I want to be an incredibly physically fit person,” shouldn’t be ” “I want to be a person who goes on a walk every day.” etc.

    It should be someone who weighs under x pounds, can do a pullup, walk a marathon.

  18. Jen says:

    This article was spot on for me, not just for the physical fitness goals, but for life in general. I live with a brain injury, and it’s so easy to get frustrated with myself when I compare with my pre-injury life, and then when I feel down about it, my abilities are even more hindered.

    The idea of lowering your expectations reminded me of something that one my therapists said. It’s the idea of setting progressive goals. A good example with physical fitness is following the Couch to 5K plan. It’s starts with an assumption that you don’t run at all. You run 3 times a week, each time doing a little more running (and a bit of walking). It’s been really helpful for me because when I was trying to get fitter, I blew out my knee over-doing it. C25k forces you to pace yourself. Same idea works with finances. If you spend all your money on paying off debt without putting any in savings, then you “blow out your knee” whenever (when!) an emergency comes up>

  19. cherie says:

    Well this article touched a chord in me, as of late I’ve been struggling with accepting reality in some personal ways, and it helps to see I’m not the only one who so struggles.
    There’s a difference, though, as you’ve said about disabled friends for example, between what can be achieved by baby steps [an incredibly useful plan] and what just may not be possible.
    A dilemma for sure.

    But I was glad to read your thoughts as usual – hope the back has recovered.

  20. Jon says:

    I’m with Steven on the fitness issue. Trent must be seriously unhealthy and out of shape. Do you go from no activity to all out intense workouts with no build up? Fitness is probably the most important gift you can give yourself.

    Also didn’t you say you hurt your back gettingout of the shower? Now it was from a workout and kids soccer. Which one was it really.

    I am two years older and would be miserable if I was in your condition. You had better get it fixed before it’s too late!

  21. Riki says:

    Ok, I’m all for calling Trent out when his articles don’t make any sense . . . but this critique of his physical fitness is over the top and unfair. Trent obviously wants to improve and is trying to do so. It is a long and difficult road back to fitness once you’ve lost it and I think we have to give Trent credit for being so open about his challenges.

    Judgement doesn’t help. Not one bit.

  22. Jon says:

    I don’t think it’s over the top. Trent puts his fitness out on display on a public forum and has no problem giving others advice about how to get in shape/lose weight. Just a few months ago jr was posting his new fitness goals and how wonderful his new trainer is. What happened? If be isnt disciplined or dedicated enough to stick to that plan i wonder about his financial advice also.

  23. Jon says:

    That should be he not jr and be. Dang iPhone autocorrect!

  24. Lou says:

    @# Jon – Trent doesn’t have discipline? LQTM. On the macro level, he has set and reached many financial, emotional and social goals in the past few years.

    He has said often that his top priority is being a good father. So, on the micro level, he overextended physically & paid the price so as not to disappoint his son.

    Maybe he could have set a better example for the kids by admitting his back hurt, and encouraging them to work on aspects of soccer that would not require the coach to run up and down the field. That would require taking the flexibility he uses to care for sick kids and applying it to coaching . I see that as less discipline not more.

  25. Jon says:

    Lou– laugh all you want. Think about this though, you really have no idea if Trent has met any if these goals. This is the Internet where a person can say anything and is taken at face value. I can only comment on what he has posted here and in regards to his physical fitness goal he does not have the discipline to consistently put in the effort to succeed. That’s how I see it. I also think a man who still has problems with spending on games and has to go to great pains to avoid temptation probably has other impulse issues as well.
    I like how when anyone expresses criticism the Trent cheerleaders come out.

  26. Riki says:

    I would hardly call myself a Trent cheerleader. I have consistently been critical of his writing, world view, recipes, and advice to readers. Most of the time I don’t agree with him at all, nor do I share his goals or priorities.

    But I’ve been there with the fitness battle and being judged by others, well, it just doesn’t feel very nice. And it isn’t very helpful.

  27. Susie says:

    Trent is only talking about taking babysteps – breaking down the goal into manageable pieces. I get it Trent. I am an adult piano student. I am also a single parent and work full time. My goal to advance is to practice 1 hour a day. That is the least I should do at my level. Many times life gets in the way and I only get in 30 or maybe no time at all! . I would feel terrible about the 30 minutes, but I realized over time I was still making decent progress. As long as I am making an effort each day, no matter how small the goal is attainable.

  28. You know, I don’t think you should give up on your dream of being physically fit, just know that it won’t happen overnight. As others have said, you added the weight on over years, it will take years perhaps to take it off. I have exercise induced asthma, but guess what, I have still managed to loose 50 pounds in one year and to exercise at a higher intensity than I was before. How? Slowly, over time. IE don’t push yourself and see how fast you can go. I recommend intervals for one, IE cardio is length of exercise with some more intense intervals thrown in. If you throw yourself into exercise too fast, you will not continue it. The point is really being consistent and length, more than intensity. I would say get to where you can and do exercise 30 minutes every day, then add in more intensity and more time. But start and work towards that better physical fitness. And oh, yes, don’t expect you will be 20 again! We do have some aging, even in our 30s. But if you loose weight, you can improve back pain, knee pain, asthma, breathing, etc.

  29. Steven says:

    I hope that my comment didn’t come off as being critical. I’d just really like to know more about what Trent faces in regards to his physical challenges. Is he overestimating his capabilities and injuring himself? Does he have poor technique? A physical impairment that prevents him from being active?

    It’s not at all my intention to criticize anyone who wants to get fit, or who is out of shape. It just concerns me (for Trent’s sake) that he’s not that much older than I am and seems so unhealthy despite specific goals to improve his physical condition. And maybe I don’t know all of Trent’s situation…from the article, it’s impossible to know. I just want to know more. What’s his current physical situation, and what’s he doing to hurt himself. If he’s overexterting himself, maybe he just needs to tone it back rather than “giving up” and changing his ambition to “walk daily.”

  30. Davina says:

    Trent’s just giving himself as an example. Jumping on him or questioning the reasons for his goal attainment rate is beside the point.

    Readers on this site, safely anonymous behind their computer screens, keep attacking Trent and nitpicking silly points.

    A higher-quality readership would make this site much more beneficial. Sifting through streams of venom to find a few useful comments is deflating and tiring.

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