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Embracing the Nagging Voices of Success

Do you ever feel like you completely suck at running your own life? Because I sure do.

As luck would have it, I’m at a bit of an apex of suckiness right now. It’s Sunday night at 10:17PM, and I am behind on a whole bunch of stuff. I’ve got over 150 emails from the beloved Mustachians that may never get answered because they come in faster than I can write back. My back yard is full of power tools and wood because I’m right in the middle of building a huge fence around the yard. I didn’t have time to clean it all up before it got dark, because I got sidetracked by drinking beer with friends and watching the solar eclipse. And now there’s a chance of rain falling on all my stuff this evening. This blog has sat ignored since last Wednesday. I told the lady at the credit union that I’d send the paperwork to her for my new line of credit by tomorrow morning. And at the end of the night, I opened the fridge and realized I had completely failed to get groceries for the last few days and we’re out of almost everything. I hit such a low point on the suck scale that I actually used the CAR for this emergency grocery run – the first time in many months.

At this point, many of you are surely saying,

“Waah! Waah! Listen to the Whiny Retired Man describing the teeny-tiny hardships of his cushy life! Oh, please, get me a bucket for I am shedding so many tears that they are spoiling the finish on the Tiny Violin I am trying to play in sympathy for poor old Mr. Money Mustache!”

And you’re right – there’s no real problem with the day I described. You could re-write that first paragraph to sound like the most pleasant Sunday that has ever occurred.

The problem was that for the last four days, there has been a growing chorus of nagging voices in my head, telling me that I was falling behind on everything and I needed to work harder to catch up. (OK, not actual audible voices like you get with schizophrenia, but nagging thoughts that I like to call voices.) These voices are relentless, and the only time they let up is when I work hard enough to get ahead of the self-imposed tide of responsibilities. In fact, the reason I’m staying up all night to write to you, then get a whole bunch of other stuff done on this computer, is to silence those damned voices. So let me just grab a late-night snack and bring it up to my office, then we can figure it out together.

All right, I’m back.

I’m going to wager that a lot of this talk of the nagging voices sounds familiar to you. I’ve told a few people about them in real life, and most of them said, “Hey! That’s exactly how I feel most of the time! I thought I was the only one!”.  And after talking it over with enough people, thinking about it, and enduring the nagging for a large enough number of years, I came to realize something that has been a great revelation and relief to me, and perhaps to you too:

That constant nagging is not a sign that you suck. Quite the opposite, It’s a sign that you’re going somewhere. Those are the Nagging Voices of Success! So one of the secrets of a happier life is actually learning to appreciate and even embrace their occasionally bitchy whines.

It may sound far-fetched, until you consider how I came to this conclusion. I’ve endured the NVS for many years. I think they started in elementary school, when the concept of getting good grades and doing your homework was introduced. From that point onward, there was always something I could or should be doing. Any time spent not doing those optimal activities was technically slacking off. And whenever I was slacking off, inner nagging would ensue.

I found there were ways to game the system a little. While I was actually working hard, the voices were silent. By building up a cushion or buffer of hard work, I could even take a short break without experiencing nagging. But the NVS would always return. Another trick I learned was that by scheduling my time out in advance, to include plenty of work, but also a fair amount of play, I could trick them, since they would focus on the Work entries in my calendar while I snuck away to play. But then I would invariably deviate from my calendar and start freestyling at life again, and guess who I’d find rolling up right next to me on a skateboard, full of helpful hints? That’s right, the Nagging Voices of Success.

Through all those years, I was looking at it the wrong way – I thought that the voices were there because I really sucked and really was always behind on everything. But eventually, after far too long, I started to notice that I was actually pretty far ahead, when measured against an average person of my age. Which is not to say that I thought I was an unusually good or worthwhile person in any way. But just in the raw measurement of “Amount Of Shit Completed Thus Far”, evidence was starting to amass that I had been getting a larger than average amount of shit done. It was showing up in the form of career progression, money and material things accumulation, and innumerable projects being completed here and there around my house. Everywhere I looked, I would see something that I had spent quite a few hours on. This blog’s almost a thousand. The fence will be yet another 80. In short, all the things that I supposedly sucked at and was always being nagged about. If all this shit really was getting done at a good rate, then what was the problem? Why the nagging?

This led to a revelation: Those nagging voices aren’t a measure of your lack of self-worth or accomplishment. They are an indispensable component of a successful person! (Here we’re again narrowly defining “success” as getting a lot of shit done, sometimes leading to monetary wealth). If you didn’t have the nagging voices, you wouldn’t ever be compelled to do any of the more difficult things in life, and thus you’d never get anywhere.

Before realizing this, the only way to be happy is to be working away busily on something. It’s hard to enjoy rest. But once you realize their true intent, you can finally make friends with the voices, and just be thankful for them. They’ll still creep in and make you stay up late occasionally, as they’re doing to me right now. But it becomes a good kind of mutual understanding. I know that life is better when we have a balance of work and play, since challenge and hardship are key ingredients to happiness. But befriending the NVS may allow workaholics to shift the balance at least a few notches away from the “work” setting.

As a final parallel, you may have also started getting visits from the Nagging Voices of Frugality. These are the voices that question every single purchase you ever consider making. They remind you that there is Always an even better purpose for every dollar you get your hands on, and therefore they occasionally take the fun out of things that really should be splurged upon. You can fight the NVFs, or you can befriend and thank them. These little friends will ensure that you never get yourself into financial trouble for the rest of your life, and in combination with the NVS will virtually guarantee great riches eventually. Your challenge is then just learning when to pinch their beaks closed long enough to enjoy an ice cream cone or even a nice hotel from time to time, while allowing their natural power to guide you the rest of the time.

Embrace the nagging voices and prosper.

Happy Monday!

  • Ann December 15, 2015, 2:53 pm

    My mother, sisters, and I always refer to this as the “Internal Task List” – you know, the one that won’t let you sit down with a book unless the kitchen is spotless, the laundry is done, your eyebrows look perfect, and you got in a solid 6 mile run – there is always something we think we should be doing… I love this spin on it – it’s a nice reminder that we are not pathetic & lazy, not even close! Being ambitious is something of which to be proud.

    Reply
  • Cynthia December 31, 2015, 9:00 am

    Interesting perspective. What a great way to reframe those voices into something positive! Hopefully, you are not pulling too many all-nighters. Sleep is a necessity for good health, not a luxury.

    Reply
  • Carter June 11, 2016, 12:00 pm

    True. As Marcus Aurelius wrote 2,000 years ago:

    If you work at that which is before you,
    Following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly,
    Without allowing anything else to distract you,
    But keeping your divine part pure,
    as though you were bound to give it back immediately,
    If you hold to this, expecting nothing,
    But satisfied to live now according to nature,
    Speaking heroic truth in every word you utter,
    You will be happy.
    And there is no man able to prevent this.

    Reply
  • Diane Page July 15, 2016, 11:58 am

    I know this is an old post, but . . . Brilliant with the Zen twist on the NVS (nagging voices of success we hear internally). I just realized that, when I feel I haven’t got my list done, the mental comment is third person “Well, you dropped the ball on that one.” (Authority voice tape from the past still running in my head.) When I’ve gotten it done, it’s first person, “I got this and this and this done,” with a satisfied sigh. (Me-me-me Ego piping up here.) And, every rare once in awhile, I hit the mini-Nirvana of detachment. “This needs to be done. It would be better if it got done this week instead of next week.”

    Reply
  • Jeremy Collins June 5, 2017, 8:02 pm

    If you’ve never read Parkinson’s laws then you’re gonna love them. One says something like “there’s an infinite amount of energy to do a task as long as it’s not the most important one”. Becoming a musician means that you live your entire life with a background hum of NVS because you can never practice enough. But this makes getting everything else done a little easier because even doing the dishes can be fun when you’re supposed to be doing something else.

    Reply
  • Life with Ben and Jen April 16, 2018, 8:38 am

    This is such a good article! I, also, beat myself up because I couldn’t find the time to silence those voices. It wasn’t because I wasn’t doing anything, but because I didn’t have time to do what I wanted. That’s one of the main reasons I quit my career as a structural engineer at 26 and went off on my own. I needed the time to work on the things that mattered to me. Thanks for explaining this to us in such clear ways!

    Reply
  • Maisie February 25, 2019, 9:26 pm

    So glad I read this one today (late to the game as I am). I turned 30 four days ago and it has seemed to coincide with an appearance of the NVF, which I’m very happy about. I struggle with the NVS more so, because I have a problem with earning money, but I’m working on trying to fix that. My aim is to earn money every month for the next 11 months and come out of the year feeling a little more stable in my finances than I currently do.

    Reply

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