Instant Gratification

January 20, 2022

I’m counting 2022 as a phenomenal success. I completed all of my new years resolutions and its still January.

Get in shape – ✅
Learn French – ✅
Read more – ✅
Get more sleep – ✅ 

That was easy. On January 1st, I slept in, went to the gym, read Garfield 12 – Out to Lunch (a classic), and knocked out a DuoLingo French lesson. Done and done. Why do people struggle so much with these resolutions? 

If only it were so easy. Sadly, real improvement doesn’t work that way. 

Nothing worth obtaining can be had overnight. Real accomplishments require a sustained effort. It takes a metric shit ton of effort to achieve anything of value. 

There is no secret to achievement in any aspect of life. Want to be successful? Work harder than everyone else for a bunch of years. Want to get in shape? Exercise relentlessly and eat healthier. Want to learn piano or Spanish? Practice piano and Spanish every single day. Want to get rich? Make sound financial decisions forever.

Sure, it’s a little bit boring and sounds like a lot of effort, but that’s kind of the idea. Such is the way of life. Success takes time and a sustained effort. Things that are given to us are of little value. Would we still feel proud if we were handed a promotion we didn’t deserve? Wouldn’t we value money derived through hard work more than a lotto windfall? Considering most lottery winners end up panhandling in Diesel jeans on the Vegas strip, the answer is obvious. 

The path to improvement isn’t winding, it’s not hilly, there aren’t even any surprises around the bend. It’s a straight and boring path that you have to walk everyday and when you step off that path, you get to start back at the beginning. 

The reason more people don’t get fit, learn guitar or become chess wizards isn’t because they don’t know how. They do. It’s because it’s hard. It takes time, effort and sacrifice. Delaying gratification today, for satisfaction tomorrow, is a daunting proposition. It’s easier to scroll than take a jog and more satisfying to eat chicken wings instead of a salad.

The accomplishments we cherish are the ones that require a sustained effort. The things we are most proud of in life are the ones that we achieved through dedication and sacrifice. The feelings of pride and self-confidence only come from the satisfaction of pushing ourselves. No one can bestow pride and confidence on another. No externality can make someone feel better inside. For better or for worse, we are only the sum of our decisions. 

These truths, of course, are not just limited to you and your posse. As you might expect by now from reading my rants, I am going to smoothly transition into talking about your city.

Insert clever segue here. 

There are no civic secrets either. All the lessons we know about ourselves apply to our places. Our communities are just a collection of people and so they behave the same. 

The basics of human behavior are applicable to our towns. Over priced experts full of bad advice will try and convince you otherwise, but cities operate like people. Always have, always will. No experts are needed to make sense of them. 

So…how does a city improve? By completing one kickass project of course! Civic center, boom done. Revitalization complete, collect your jobs at the door and bask in the glory of your world class community. 

Psych. I got you good that time. 

A city will never see a wholesale turnaround in one single project. It’s impossible. Improvement doesn’t work that way. This is why every ill conceived sports stadium, parking deck, visitor center and other dumb ass, silver bullet idea has been an abject failure. 

I was on a call with a kind woman last week discussing strategies to make headway in her struggling Oklahoma town. She explained her frustrations, she talked through her challenges, I believe she was seeking out a little hope. 

Fortunately, hope springs eternal. 

Hope is ever present, improvement is available every single second of every single day. Trajectories can reverse course on a dime. Today’s reality has no bearing on tomorrow’s outlook. 

No, you can’t get in shape in an hour. You can’t learn a new language in day and you can’t revitalize your city in one single project. The time honored tradition of building something grand to fix decades of decline has yet to produce any meaningful results. Unfortunately, this knowledge has not slowed down the popularity of the silver bullet bandwagon. 

I told my colleague from Oklahoma that she should not anticipate any overnight results. Explained that she must be prepared for an arduous effort and dedicate herself to the process. We discussed how decades of decline have rewired how people think and reset their expectations to assume the worst. How their own frustration with the place they call home will cause them to scoff at any effort to try and turn the tide. 

But, there is a substantial and fantastic caveat to all this delayed achievement misery. The simple act of incremental improvement is the lever that can move mountains. Any effort that halts decline is a step away from chaos and towards order. The nature of nature is always towards disorder and the battle is being waged on sidewalks and in flower beds and in the cracks in bricks every day. To pickup trash, pull weeds and replace damaged materials is not to stagnate, but to get better. The smallest step towards better is all it takes to change a trajectory. 

You can’t get fit in a day or a week, but you can get in better shape every minute. You can’t revitalize your community in a month or even a year, but you can make it better every single day, and that cumulative effort is what matters. The secret is in the relentlessness. 

Stop pinning your hopes on some big project to fix what’s wrong. Life doesn’t work that way. Meaningful improvement requires a meaningful sustained effort. 

Toss aside the silver bullet solutions for something that is 100% proven to work. 

The slow, methodical process of improving a little bit every single damn day. Let this be your North Star. It won’t be in the arena or parking deck that you locate any semblance of civic pride, it will come in the hard fought fact that you and your fellow civic warriors put in the work. It will come from knowing that you showed up day after day. It will come from the effort you extolled and the sweat you gave. 

The secret to improvement is no secret at all, it’s just hard. But we can do hard. Think of the people that built your town with a little more than sticks, rocks, old world know-how and immense industriousness. They built a town from nothing, we can certainly repair it with a little bit of hard work. 

Take comfort in the fact that every single incremental improvement is a step away from decline. That even the smallest effort will still elicit a sense of pride. Moving towards improvement is immensely satisfying because you are at least, on the path. Understand and embrace the fact that this will take time, and any improvement is far superior to the alternative. 

This will be slow, it will be hard, it will be challenging and it will be frustrating and it will be the best thing you’ve ever done. 

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