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Philosophy

William James on Why Every Decisions Matters

What is one thing that you do everyday?

You can name more than one, possibly ten. Cues that lead to a reward creates a habit. Habits are formed in the brain because it saves mental energy, allowing you to focus on the more difficult tasks that require your conscious effort.

Which foot you choose first to put into your underwear becomes a habit; the same goes for the way you apply toothpaste and brush your teeth. (By the way, I wet the brush, apply toothpaste, wet the toothpaste, and then brush. I don’t know why I wet the toothpaste. You?)

We naturally habituate to the things we do daily, and in turn, it defines our lifestyle.

And then there are the things that ultimately define us but not in a way that would make our parents proud. A few things come to mind: complaining, gossiping, fleeing from reality, avoiding responsibility.

I used to complain a lot about the things I didn’t have, what others had, and what I couldn’t change. In a moment of self-awareness I thought, “What is this action doing to me? Does it make me wiser and stronger?” No! Complaining everyday made me bitter.

What’s scary is how unaware we can be of these behaviors. How long was I doing this for? Who have I become? In the words of William James, found in The Principles of Psychology volume 1:

“Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its ever so little scar. The drunken Rip Van Winkle, in Jefferson’s play, excuses himself for every fresh dereliction by saying, ‘I won’t count this time!’ Well! he may not count it, and a kind Heaven may not count it; but it is being counted none the less. Down among his nerve-cells and fibres the molecules are counting it, registering and storing it up to be used against him when the next temptation comes.”

It’s easy to say, “Well, this is just who I am.” Duh—you are who you are because of the things you do everyday. Again, that statement is a way to flee from reality and responsibility. Personalities do, in fact, change with self-awareness, desire, and effort. In the words of Seth Godin, “You are not born this way, you get this way.”

It’s likely that you’ll do something today that isn’t in your favor in the long run—that’s okay, learn from it—but to be oblivious, or worse, denying the consequences of your behaviors doesn’t help anyone, not even yourself.

— PAUL JUN