Abandoning The Island

In the first weekend of my coaching class, they discussed three meta-narratives that permeate Western society, and yet are toxic and corrosive. They were:

  • Performativity: something has value only if it can measurably achieve a desired result
  • The Inner Critic: the feeling that “there’s something deeply wrong with me”, which I’ve mentioned a couple times in other posts
  • The Island (which I’ll discuss in this post)

What I found interesting was how people in the class were so attached to these meta-narratives that they were defending them and explaining the value of having these narratives, and insisting that they weren’t toxic or corrosive in how they appeared in their own lives. For the sake of this post, I’m going to focus on The Island, as it seemed to be the one that people wanted to hold on to the most.

The Island is short for The Island Where It All Turned Out Well, the place where everything is great, if only you could get there. Some ways in which The Island is envisioned include: I would be totally happy if only…I made a little more money OR …I had a girlfriend or boyfriend OR …I lost ten pounds OR …I got a promotion, etc. And when I achieve that goal, I discover that somehow I’m still not happy, so I set off for a different Island where everything will turn out well e.g. if I thought I needed a girlfriend, now I need to be married, or if I thought I needed to be married, now I need to have kids. Whatever Island we aim for is a mirage, such that whenever we get there, it’s not what we hoped it would be so we are disappointed and look for more.

The Island is a toxic narrative because the flip side of The Island being the place where it all turned out well is that if we are not on The Island, then we are unhappy. We are anxious and frustrated and striving as we move towards The Island, and if we don’t get to The Island, we are sad and hopeless. So we are unhappy when we aim towards The Island, and yet somehow we are not happy when we reach The Island, and set off for another Island immediately. This puts us in a perpetual state of unsatisfied despair.

This is when people in the class started questioning the toxicity of The Island narrative, as they claimed that they needed to have a goal to strive towards or they would become complacent. They felt that ambitious goals had driven them to achieve more than they would have otherwise, and therefore The Island had value. I didn’t feel like the coaches in the class had a great response to that objection, but I’ll take a swing at responding here.

I think that the distinction is that there is a difference between setting goals and the narrative of The Island. The toxic nature of The Island only appears when you decide that you can’t be happy without reaching The Island, thus setting yourself up as Tantalus, perpetually unable to reach your desired goal, and tormented that it is just out of reach. If you set goals, and then accept that sometimes you won’t reach them and that’s okay, the toxicity dissolves away. In other words, if I decide I want to get a promotion and try very hard to achieve that, that’s great. However, if I declare myself a failure and a loser for not getting that promotion (The Island thinking), that same goal becomes toxic to me.

I think The Island narrative appears when we grow disconnected from the present, so mindfulness and meditation are relevant to this discussion. If we become perpetually future-focused, as we do in The Island narrative, then we are not satisfied with the present. However, if we stay connected to the present and do what makes sense in the moment, we do not rely on the promise of future happiness on The Island; we can achieve happiness in the flow of the present moment.

To make this more concrete, let’s take the writing example from my last post. The Island version of a writing goal would be “I’ll be happy when I finish my novel”, and then if I don’t finish the novel, I’ll beat myself up and declare myself a failure. Or if I finish the novel, I won’t be happy and will set out for The Island of “I’ll be happy when I publish my novel”, and then “I’ll be happy when I sell X copies”, etc. Meanwhile, the non-Island version of a writing goal could be “I will write each day for as long as I feel like it”. There is nothing there to make myself feel bad. I am not even saying I have to write every day, so I can’t beat myself up if I miss a day. But I suspect that those who use the non-Island strategy will (a) be happier and (b) write more, than those that use The Island strategy, because The Island strategy will put so much pressure on the result to determine if all the work was worth it. In one case, the writing is its own reward; in the other, the writing is only valuable if it achieves a result so the pressure on each writing session becomes unbearable. The non-Island is under one’s own control, while the Island strategy is not so much.

Over the past few years, I’ve started to attempt to shift my emotional well-being to depend more on those things that are under my own control. That means I can’t let my well-being depend on results, as results are unpredictable. It can’t depend on the praise of other people, as that can come and go. How do I find the regard and compassion within myself to fuel my own contentment and happiness?

This has been a difficult shift for me, as I had fueled my whole life on results, and yet was never satisfied; I would always pick a new challenge as soon as I achieved a goal. And that can be healthy if I am pursuing the activity because I enjoy it in the moment, and don’t beat myself up if I don’t reach my goal. Interestingly, sports has always been in that realm for me, perhaps because I grew up a nerd, and never expected myself to be good at sports, so there was never any pressure.

Meanwhile, I was expected to succeed both academically and professionally, so those domains became fraught with much more pressure to achieve results. I eventually grew tentative at taking on new challenges because I wasn’t sure I was “good enough” to succeed; that’s why the first precept in my personal operating system is “You are enough!” and the second leads with “Be generous to myself”. So I struggle with questions such as if I accept myself as I am, will I grow too content and passive? Did my insecurities drive me to my present level of achievement, or will I be able to take on even bigger challenges if I accept the possibility of failure? These are difficult questions to confront and consider.

Anyway, I wanted to share these thoughts after the small steps post, as there is a danger when setting goals or directions to succumb to the siren call of The Island narrative, where the goal is what matters rather than the steps/journey. I’m curious whether this explanation makes sense to you; I’ve tried explaining The Island toxic narrative to several people over the last couple months without much success, so we’ll see if putting it in written form works any better. Please let me know what you think.

9 thoughts on “Abandoning The Island

  1. This is really similar to Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. The core idea of the Island is basically the same concept. You give too many fucks about where you want to be, what people think of you, etc. and only when you establish a value system (like your Personal OS (needs a better acronym than POS)) that isn’t dependent on the actions of, or validation by, others, can you really achieve happiness.

  2. In the past I have summarized what I think you’re getting at with “Success is the sense that you are in the right place, doing the right thing, right now.”

    In college, a friend was sitting on the steps of her department when another student came up to her and asked her whether, if she received a terminal diagnosis, she would quit school. She thought about it for a moment and said no, that she was there because it was where she wanted to be and as much as she hoped to someday reach the goal of being a professional in her field, she would trust in her decision and stay. A few weeks later she happened to see that student, who thanked her and explained that follow-up testing had revealed a lab mixup.

    1. I really like that formulation. Per a comment on Facebook, “happiness” isn’t necessarily what we should be striving for, and success feels a little closer. Or maybe “meaning”.

      And that’s a great story/example of doing something not for the credential, but for being where you want to be. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Curious what you think: is giving up the Island narrative something that can be done, or something that we are always working towards?

    I ask because growth-oriented people often see infinite possibilities and endless striving everywhere they look. Like weightlifting or learning music: there may be milestones, but there’s no finishing.

    So I’m asking if this is something that can be finished. Can we actually end our relationship to this toxic narrative? Like, DONE, not even a vestige of investment in it? If we aren’t done with it, we can be manipulated (either by other people or by our own mind) into just a little Island, just this once, it’s not a big deal.

    Or, like Manson: if you literally have zero fucks left, you can’t be swindled into giving any, ever, for any reason. But if you secretly have a few fucks in your back pocket, you know damn well you’ll give them at some point.

    To me, it’s very much akin to Plato’s Cave. Many people study the cave, talk about leaving the cave, discuss strategies. But once you’re out, all that seems like a joke, like so much stalling. People still in the cave appear as if they actually don’t want to leave. There may well be a process to the act of leaving, but once you’re out, you’re out.

    It’s worth considering what challenges are incremental and which can be seen as fundamentally binary.

    1. Great question. I think you’re right that it’s unclear that we can ever give up The Island narrative – it’s a matter of managing it, and noticing when we are in the narrative. Like strong emotions, it’s not about avoiding them, but about being mindful of when they are overwhelming us, and being able to pull focus away and return to the present.

      I’m not sure I understand your final comment – I’m not sure anything is fundamentally binary. I think you are saying some things are like weightlifting or music in that there is no final destination, but always progress, whereas there are other things are on/off; once the switch is flipped, you can’t go back. But if that’s what you mean, I think we can always fall back (as you describe earlier in your comment vis-a-vis the Island narrative).

      1. I’m a big fan of letting people figure stuff out for themselves. That sometimes leads me to sound more ambivalent than I am. The fact is that I see do indeed this as a binary switch, like a change in values.

        One day you realize money is no longer your top priority. Clearly that doesn’t mean you don’t care about money, or don’t have money challenges, or that circumstances can’t conspire to force money back into the top slot. But broadly speaking, it means you’re no longer conflicted.

        Or say you no longer need parental approval, or no longer need to exert power over other people in order to feel worthy, or no longer feel the need to be perfect. There IS a fundamental shift that happens. After the shift, you’re probably still renouncing habitual momentum, but you’re no longer suffering because of that momentum, no longer haggling with it. You feel the need for parental approval arise, but it doesn’t take some super-heroic level of mindfulness any more than it takes that not to murder or steal cars. Your values orient you.

        Put another way: renouncing chocolate cake might always take effort, but once you decide to lose weight, it’s easy to make that effort. If we’re still deeply conflicted, or suffering because of the conflict, that just means our values haven’t truly shifted.

        And yes, you can always slip back, but nothing in human psychology is fixed. Someone puts a gun to your head, and all inner hell breaks loose. Short of that, though, we actually can (and do) reach points of no return. It’s important to have that as a goal, or we’ll never fully claim the ground that we’ve earned.

  4. I really liked this post by Penelope Trunk, which had a similar theme: http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2017/05/25/what-its-like-to-audition-at-juilliard-when-youre-11/
    “It’s impossible to put all your energy into something really difficult if everything is riding on the result. The people who are the best at reaching big goals have an obsessive drive toward the goal, but also, they are able to break down the process of meeting the goal into tiny, bite-sized pieces and then take pleasure in completing each part.

    When someone is unable to relish the small steps, they just stop. Because process starts to seem hopeless if you constantly focus on the end.”

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