Use The Mental Contrasting Method to End Dabbling and Achieve Mastery

Use The Mental Contrasting Method to End Dabbling and Achieve Mastery


Many of us spend our lives dabbling from one thing to the next without ever committing to anything with all our hearts. This makes us feel as though we've wasted our time and squandered our potential. So what's the solution?

I/ On Dabbling

When it comes to hobbies and studies do you consider yourself to be a dabbler or someone who diligently pursues things with the aim of mastery?

When it comes to hobbies and studies do you consider yourself to be a dabbler or someone who diligently pursues things with the aim of mastery?

Many of us really struggle here. We want to learn new things and develop expertise, but when we look back over the last 10 years of our life we see so many dead-end hobbies.

According to Epictetus, one of the reasons we don't follow through with our pursuits is because we don't take an accurate view of them at the beginning.

Let's just say we choose to take up something like yoga. We attend our first class and get a large wave of motivation. We sign up for a monthly subscription, buy a new yoga mat, and get the right attire. We feel great and we talk to everyone about how life-changing yoga is and why they should also start this practice.

But then something like the following happens:

  • We have a very tiring day and don't feel like going to yoga
  • We have some muscle soreness and don't want to risk further injury
  • We aren't so keen on a classmate and want to avoid them
  • We skip class because there are urgent things we need to attend to

We miss one day. Then we miss a few days. Then we feel out of the loop with our practice, so we pause our subscription. We tell ourselves we will rejoin in a few months.

We never go back.

From the perspective of Epictetus, when you first started yoga, you didn't think about the endeavor properly.

You didn't contemplate there may have been days you were tired or stressed or busy. You didn't think about the possibility of having a classmate you didn't like. Then when these things happened they showed up as unexpected obstacles that you couldn't manage.

The element of surprise can often make a setback 10X more difficult to overcome. Think of this analogy: When a trained fighter is braced for impact, they can be very difficult to defeat even when they receive damage from a skilled opponent. The same fighter could be sucker-punched by an amateur, however, and lose instantly. 

If instead, you had contemplated the potential obstacles, you could have also gotten a realistic perspective on what was involved and what you could do about these obstacles when they arise. This would help you in two ways:

  1. You wouldn't embark on pursuits you couldn't stick to
  2. If you chose to pursue the thing, at least you would have a realistic expectation about what was involved, allowing you to deal with setbacks constructively

In modern psychology, we call this ancient Stoic technique "Mental Contrasting."

Mental Contrasting Explained

Mental contrasting is a self-regulation strategy that is required for strong goal commitment. In mental contrasting, individuals firstly imagine a desired future or health goal that contrasted with the reality proceeding the goal state, which after reflection is viewed as an obstacle. Mentally contrasting a positive future with reality enables individuals to translate positive attitudes and high efficacy into strong goal commitment.

II/ On Grand Ambitions

Would you like to become a world-famous, legendary artist/rockstar/writer/actor/athlete/entrepreneur?

I would. Who wouldn't? It sounds at the very least... fun and exciting.

That is until you start to actually think through what any of these endeavors involve.

To become a great rockstar, here are some of the steps you must take:

  1. You must learn an instrument and spend hours refining this skill each day.
  2. Then you have to form a band, with the right kinds of people—ideally well balanced so you don't get into ego wars but at the same time creative and charismatic.
  3. You have to agree on the band roles, the band name, and the general identity you are aiming at.
  4. You need to work together to create songs, unanimously agreeing on who does what and in what quantities. How long should that guitar solo last? Who chooses the lyrics?
  5. You need to find a space to practice, either paying for it or finding a suitable free place where loud sounds aren't an issue.
  6. You must agree to consistently meet to practice at a time that is suitable for all 5 band members.
  7. Now you can start practicing together.

This list doesn't include the struggles of finding gigs, not getting paid for gigs, marketing the band, managing success (and failure), getting a manager, signing with a label, internal band conflicts, managing exposure to drugs and other temptations, and hundreds of other very tricky things bands must work through.

When inspired by a rockstar, many of us only see the expert doing an epic performance and say we want to be just like them.

For some people, all of those steps are totally worth the path to becoming a rockstar, and a small percentage of those people do go on to become rockstars. But what is more typical is a naive view and subsequent attempt at becoming a rockstar that eventually leads to pain, wasted time, and failed ambition.

It's vital that before we set out on a path to mastery we really think about what is involved. We do this so we can prevent ourselves from doing things we will eventually quit, or to help us stay on track by having realistic expectations about the obstacles that will inevitably come.

III/ The Adult-Child

If we get into the habit of not thinking things through properly, we will end up becoming an adult-child playing impersonation games but with non-trivial costs.

A child will pretend to be an astronaut, fighter, rockstar, teacher, chef, and so on. But when they drop the role play, they lose nothing because they do not try to convince themselves it choice that is going to last forever.

As adults, we can play this same game but tell ourselves this is now our "career" or "path to mastery" but just like children, we don't think things through.

The life of a dabbler in the life of someone who impersonates many things casually but does nothing with all their heart. They are a person who dates many future fantasies but doesn't commit and marry any of them.

IV/ How to Be Inspired Well

When you see someone who does something very well, you may be struck by profound and motivational inspiration. You make the bold commitment to "be just like them!"

If this happens, make sure to pause and ask yourself the following questions:

Do I have what it takes to fill this role well? Should I research what's involved more before I convince myself that I can do this? Are there any qualities I need for this that I definitely do not have? 

Epictetus provides us an overview of what's involved to be an ancient philosopher:

Do you think that as a philosopher you can eat and drink, or exercise desire and aversion, as you do at present? You have to stay up nights, put up with pain, leave your family, be looked down on by slaves, suffer ridicule from strangers, be outdone in status, in power, in legal matters – get the worst of it, in other words, down to the last little thing.

V/ Time to Decide

When you have examined what's involved now it is time to make the decision. Are you willing to pay this price for the benefit that comes from the goal?

Don't aim to be like a child who will play gangster one moment and saint the next. You can't be driven by material things and also care deeply for your mind. You cannot be two things that contradict each other, so pick which path you want to embark on and do so fully.

In summary, the next time you feel inspired:

Make a note of the feeling and feelings of admiration/inspiration  Pause, and reflect on what would be involved in such a pursuit Ask yourself if you have what it takes to do the things involved in this pursuit  Even if you are capable, ask yourself if you are willing to pay the price for this goal Decide on your next path, but do so with all your heart