You Can't Have Your Cake and Eat it


Life is a vast wilderness of which we can only experience one very narrow path.

Every single decision we make leads to, by default, a missed opportunity elsewhere. In fact, it leads to an infinite amount of missed opportunities. We are only one person. We can only ever be in one place at one time.

Of all the careers to follow, places to explore, people to meet, and skills to master, we can sample but a minuscule partial. The sad truth is that there are parts of our potential selves that will go to the grave undiscovered.

So why this cheery focus on the limitations of human existence?

I believe that an acceptance of these truths can help us negotiate our way through life with greater conviction and peace of mind.

  1. We Can Be More Decisive

The perfect, all-encompassing choice does not exist. Every decision comes with missed opportunities and its fair share of downsides. All we can do is decide on what sacrifices we are prepared to make and accept the negatives as one side of the same coin.

Having made that decision, it may be that there are steps we can take which mitigate the effect of its disadvantages. Or it may not. Either way, we must not let the less ideal factors stop us from making a choice. They exist in every choice. The perfect choice does not exist.

I have started exercising the concept of a big fat YEP, and an accepting shrug of the shoulders - a shrug that acknowledges the limitations of our existence, and recognises my powerlessness in the face of it.

“If I move up North I’ll be able to afford a better quality of life, but I’ll miss the high-profile opportunities that London has to offer.” YEP.

“If I don’t drink tonight I’ll be able to get up early feeling fresh and be productive tomorrow, but I might not have as free and silly an evening with my friends.” YEP.

“If I decide to stay in and finish my tax return today, I’ll feel great peace of mind and accomplishment, but I’ll miss out on the beautiful day outside.” YEP.

Sometimes the big fat surrendering YEP is all we can do. It might mean accepting a less than ideal situation, but the consolation is that it stops the thought-monkey in our head going round and round trying to find an impossible solution; trying to find a way to have its cake and eat it.

The Secret Trick

There is one secret way out. There is a way we can have our cake and eat it. Are you ready? The secret is…

Using the future.

Yes, we are only one person, who can only occupy one space at one time. But, thankfully life has given us the gift of a prolonged existence. All we need is a little patience and a little foresight.

It’s all very well accepting that each choice has its sacrifices and missed opportunities, and that all we can do is make decisions based on our priorities, but what if we don’t know what our priorities are?

Most of us don’t. We don’t really know what is going to make us happy.

But we do have time. We can try something for a given period and commit to it fully. Then try something else. By choosing one option out of 5, it is only for now that you are ruling out those other four. If we realise that, if we are lucky, life isn’t actually that short, and that for the most part, all decisions are reversible, we can feel a real sense of liberation, and tackle dilemmas with more lightness.

2. We Can Stick To Our Decisions With More Commitment

If we remember every step of the way that all paths have their downsides, we will have more faith in our decisions. The less shiny side of the coin does not mean you have picked the wrong coin. Every coin has a less shiny side.

Last year I decided to quit taking lessons from a certain highly regarded drum teacher. I was giving away a lot of my week to locking myself in a room to practise technical exercises, and I had started to resent it.

I made the call that my playing was at a good enough level for me to work, that I was enjoying my teaching, and that being a top level drummer was less of a priority for me now. I wanted more time in my week to focus on creative projects such as my writing.

But it hasn't gone to plan. I’ve lamented the fact that I don’t feel quite so sharp during gigs because I’m not practising as much. I’ve regretted sacrificing the chance to become a really great player, and the opportunities that that could bring. And I haven’t filled the newly found free time as I had intended. Somehow other things in my life have swelled to fill that void. And so, I have expended a lot of energy questioning my choice.

I wallowed in the negatives, neglected the positives, forgot my reasoning, and as a result, didn’t commit to the decision.

I have now made sure to design my week so that those creative projects get the time they need, and I will continue this way for at least the next 6 months or so. If later on I feel I want to prioritise the development of my drumming and take lessons again then I always can, but I need to give the initial decision a proper chance first.

3. We Can Strike a Balance Between Acceptance and Growth

This is something I’ve been pondering a lot recently. The nature of my ponder has been as follows:

I feel that ambition is by nature, a rejection of the present. If we were fully happy with our situation, we would just carry on as we are.

However, it could be argued that too much ambition can lead to a dangerous cycle whereby we are never content. Achievement brings no further happiness as we always want more.

But too much acceptance/appreciation would mean not moving forward or making positive changes.

It feels, in a way, that we have a choice between trying to have what we love, or learning to love what we have. But maybe there is something in between.

We could call the following approach “picking your battles.”

In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle proposes that we have 3 options when confronted with a problem:

  1. Remove yourself from the situation

  2. Change the situation

  3. Accept the situation

Now, due to the nature of the fact that we can only be in one place at one time, with a limited amount of energy and resources, there is only so much that we can change in that moment. At any stage, we must choose one issue based on our priorities, and try to accept everything else exactly as it is. I believe this is how we can strike a balance between appreciation/acceptance/contentment and ambition/growth.

I can be guilty of looking at my friends, comparing their strengths in a particular department with deficiencies of my own, and consequently feeling shame. If I do this with all my friends I can find endless ways of telling myself that I’m a bit crap. Not very helpful.

Another option would be to ignore those dissatisfactions, accept myself as completely perfect, and probably become a little defensive and self-righteous. Again, not ideal.

But if I realise that I only have the power to change so much of myself at any one time, I can focus on that part, and accept the rest of myself as it is wholeheartedly. I can then simply admire and enjoy the qualities of others, rather than scold myself for not displaying the same virtues.

This can be applied to so many aspects of our lives; realise what you have the capability to change in this moment, and, for now, accept everything else.

In life, the number of “do haves” are immeasurably outweighed by the number of “don’t haves,” and it’s all too easy to focus on the latter.

I was talking to a friend about a drummer I know. This man must be around 50, divorced and not well-off but he makes his living from playing the drums, still practises 12 hours a day when he can, and is completely and utterly in love with the instrument. It would be fair to say that he’s a pretty happy chappy. Because of the joy he gets every day from his art, he describes himself as “richer than anyone.”

I was saying to my friend how I found this man inspiring, but that I can’t imagine with the solitary life he lives, that he doesn’t get lonely sometimes.

And my friend said: “He probably does get lonely. But look at everything else he has.”

That kind of summed it up for me.

I sometimes get down about the fact that I’m a single man at the age of 28, whilst people around me are in long term relationships, living together and/or getting married.

But yesterday it struck me that, in ways I probably can’t understand, elements of my personality that have led me to be in this situation, may also be responsible for the some of the more positive parts of my life.

Maybe it’s all part of the same coin, and for now, everything is as it should be. Who knows. But thinking about it like that unquestionably helps me accept and embrace my situation. Aside from anything else, there are advantages to single-dom which I must make sure I enjoy whilst I have it.

Much more helpful than wallowing alone in sadness with a glass of red wine in front of The Lion King.

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