How I got the monkeys off my back

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
6 min read

When I was younger I entertained a distorted view of personal rewards. I had a transactional view of work ethic. I thought that if I worked hard, I had license to play hard.

Playing hard was a euphemism for partying hard. Partying was code for indulgence. Indulgence meant over eating, drinking, drugging, spending and other such behavior. I thought I could make any success and achievement look effortless by carousing my way through life. It was my misguided attempt at sprezzatura.

Working hard meant my job, exercise, studying and such work ethic stuff. But Puritan work ethic wasn’t rock n roll or punk rock.

I treated life effort like a bank account. I would deposit virtuous behavior and that provided me with permission to withdraw rowdy antics. It was all quid pro quo.

It took me a long time to realize this account-balance rationalization was all in my head. No one else was keeping score or accounting. And my poor behavior wasn’t offset. It was just poor behavior.

I was a dumb shit. I have spent lots of time rectifying the situation and gaining enough distance and perspective to even see my pathetic balance sheet machinations for what they were.

I had to own my behavior, including the less than stellar stuff. They were my monkeys and it was my circus.

I have since made a conscious deliberate effort to continuously attempt to be the best me I can be. I only compete against my former self. I focus on improving everyday.

This project has taken two main paths. First is fostering positive beneficial habits like exercising, eating healthy, getting adequate sleep, meditating, reading, learning and being kind. These have done wonders for nurturing my mental, physical, and spiritual well being.

Self care feels like tending oneself like a garden. That sense of looking out for oneself creates a deep feeling of solace and calm. Cultivating a cadence of calm allows life to flow. In order to follow the course of your life, you must let it flow.

We must cultivate our garden.

The second path is focused on reducing my negative bad habits. This is the Via Negativa. It is the idea that you can create yourself by defining what you are not. It takes a discerning mindset to confront the things you don’t like about yourself. Discernment is a process of letting go of what we are not.

Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.

Andre Malraux

This may be the more important part. Focusing on reducing, instead of eliminating, bad habits made the challenge less overwhelming. In most cases its about small incremental progress. Small strokes fell great oaks. Reducing great oaks to saplings make them easier to tend.

Paul Kalanithi said, “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” I find that a comforting and motivating way to incrementally move forward. It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop. Slow and steady.

The reduction project compels me ponder the reason we begin poor habits in the first place. And why we tolerate them when we know they do us no good.

I have become more aware of the self-talk that I partake in when considering a bad move. It is a rationalizing chat I have with myself. There is part of me that sees me reach for that donut or beer or cigarette and knows it is not in my long-term best interest to participate in the behavior. But there I go.

I do it anyway, against my better judgment. Why is that? Where is my locus of identity that looks on, rather helplessly, while some other automaton part of me goes through the motions?

There is a fatalistic attitude that kicks in and says thing like “well, gotta die of something” Or, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Or, the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. And there is a rebellious element that is not going to be bossed around by some goody-two-shoes. It’s all a smoke screen.

Psst the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom

I picked up the habit of smoking and spent years wrestling with it. Each time I lit up I knew it was no good for me and I felt helpless in its thrall.

The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

I am still not sure how much of smoking cigarettes was a physical addiction to nicotine and what was psychological and the comfort of repetition. I only know I was compelled to do it again and again and again ad infinitum.

When I finally broke free of the habit I was struck by the sensation that I no longer participated in the disingenuous self-talk of rationalizing my behavior with some fatalistic faux-tough talk about not giving a shit or whatever.

It was so freeing to feel not at odds with myself.

This is just one example of coming to grips and addressing this kind of sleep walking behavior. Experiencing the freeing feeling of finally not being in thrall to some foolish voice in my head was a revelation.

It makes me wonder where I perceive the locus of my identity. I resided mostly in my head. I would treat my body as a transport system to move my head around from place to place.

I have always been aware of my body but I have been a poor steward of it many times. Booze, dope, junk food, and smokes all contribute to separating my mind from my body. I would stand by and allow my willful conduct wreak havoc on myself.

These things also fog my mind. Drinking booze and suffering hangovers is an example. Even being seduced into watching crappy entertainment is such a ridiculous waste of precious time.

So if I am willing to abuse my body and my mind while knowing these behaviors are detrimental, where does the virtuous me that understands these things reside? And how can I give that part sufficient agency to over-ride the self-destructive parts of myself?

Cogito Ergo Sum

The philosopher Descartes ruminated on these issues of existence and the location of the “I” we identify with. He ended up realizing it was the part that was thinking the thoughts about who he was that was his essential part.

We completely shed all our cells and they are replaced every seven years. That means ever year we are 1/7 or 14% brand new. If we are completely physically replaced less than every decade, then what is the essential I that we identify with?

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

Paul Kalanithi

Relative to my prior selves, I have made what I consider great progress towards this project of shedding skins. But I have no definitive answers. Perhaps it is enough to live the questions.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

Share this post
John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

Receive my 7 day email course

Take your finance skills to the next level with my 7-day corporate finance email course. You'll learn all the essential topics from financial analysis to risk management in a fun, engaging format. Each day, you'll receive an email with practical examples, exercises and resources. Perfect for aspiring finance pros or anyone looking to expand their knowledge. Get ready to transform your finance game!

By clicking Sign Up you're confirming that you agree with our Terms and Conditions.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

If you like this article. Here are some more articles I think you might like.


The Road to Becoming a Unicorn: A Quick Guide to Startup Funding Rounds

The whole process of funding and developing startups has become more widespread because the cost of getting a product to market has dropped so precipitously in the past couple of decades from millions of dollars to typically anywhere from under $20,000 to $500,000.
John Cousins
December 18, 2023
7 min read

Oh Behave! Behavioral Economics: Why we do what we do.

Behavioral Economics is a method of economic analysis that applies psychological insights into human behavior to explain economic decision making.
John Cousins
December 18, 2023
4 min read
Personal Growth

Professional Development: 3 Types of Skill Sets

To perform effectively in a job and advance to greater responsibilities requires developing a well rounded set of skills. Every job and every industry has its specifics but these skill sets are general and apply across all jobs. Skills are fundamental for turning a job into a career trajectory and this trajectory is part of our personal fulfillment in life.
John Cousins
December 18, 2023
5 min read