There is a famous line from a movie in which Tom Hanks says “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” This phrase is apparently so ingrained in American culture that my computer software just offered to finish typing the phrase for me after the first few words. I have never thought much of the phrase as a useful tool for getting through life. Sure, there are a lot of unexpected things that happen, but the box of chocolates idea seems so static to me. As if all of your life is just presented to you at once, and that is it. Therefore, I have chosen to ignore this phrase.
Instead, I like to think that a lot of things in life are like walking up a seesaw, and if you can focus on the fulcrum instead of the end of the board, you might have a better chance of achieving your goals.
The Motorcycle Test
Years ago, my brother wanted to get a motorcycle license, and the part of the test he was most nervous about was a part in which he had to ride up a seesaw and then back down the other side. Although he told me about this more than 20 years ago, the idea and image have stuck in my mind. Aside from the most ridiculous part of it, that almost no one on a motorcycle would ever have to ride up a seesaw unless they were a stuntman in an action movie, I liked thinking about how one would approach the challenge.
I have to admit that I have dwelt on this fantasy for more time than anyone ever should, but part of that is because I don’t just think about riding a motorcycle. It seems to me that so many things in life can be better handled and completed if we think about walking a long, tall, seesaw from one end to the other.
The Seesaw Process
At first it would be easy. You are just getting started, and you have the whole rest of the feat in front of you. Then as you start getting higher up, you get a little bit tired, and just at that moment, you realize that you could fall down and get hurt. Not only that, but this is the most important part of the idea: when you look out at the end goal (getting to the other side) it seems much higher up and, therefore, perhaps unattainable. This is the point where so many people might just give up and go back down, giving up on whatever they were trying to do. That is because they forgot about the fulcrum. Once you pass the fulcrum, the other end swings down, and walking the rest of the seesaw is so much easier, because the second half is all downhill even though it might have seemed all uphill at the beginning of the challenge.
The Business Seesaw
So what does this have to do with life? The idea of the seesaw keeps popping up in my head when I think about challenges that come up, and it helps me internalize and overcome many challenges.
For example, a few years ago, I decided to start a landscaping business to keep me busy during the summer months. At first it was exciting and I couldn’t wait to see what the next step was. At this point (the beginning when I was still close to the ground on the seesaw), I was excited about just getting started. Then things started to get harder. I needed bigger machines, more space to keep them, a truck, insurance, paid help. I could only pay for these things by getting lots of work to cover the costs. Then work started piling up all over the place. I couldn’t even honor all of my commitments to my customers, and I spent the money faster and faster. (Now I was a bit higher up on the seesaw, wondering if I could ever get to the other side, which just seemed even higher up in the air at the moment. I could feel the resistance of the incline and noticed how high I’d already climbed.) If I just quit (walked back down the seesaw), it would be irritating, but safe…
And here is where thinking about my problems like a seesaw helps:
I knew that the fulcrum was somewhere in front of me, and I just had to get to it. If I took a little step at a time, I would eventually get to that fulcrum, and if I was looking for it—instead of focusing on the very end goal—I knew I could make it to the other side… Sometimes it is hard to tell what exactly getting to the fulcrum entails. In this case, I knew it was somewhere between having enough equipment that I didn’t need to go out and buy a new tool every week and having enough customers that I no longer needed to advertise or take on unprofitable jobs. It doesn’t really matter what the fulcrum was. More important was not giving up too soon, because I know better times are not as far away as they seem.
Things are finally starting to fall into place… I now have enough tools, and I have enough customers. It also started steamrolling; the more you do a good job, the more each of those customers recommends you to others, and interestingly, the more people you meet who seem to want to give their tools away. I am no longer losing money. I don’t feel pressured to say yes to every request that comes my way. I know that I do some jobs better than others, and I can just focus on those. I have also gotten better at managing my time. I am clearly past the fulcrum and on my way down the other side of the seesaw. I haven’t reached all my goals, but getting closer to them is now easier and easier, not some seemingly insurmountable goal. If I hadn’t been thinking about the fulcrum for the last few months, I would have quit under all the pressure.
Learning a Language on a Seesaw
For another example, let’s look at trying to learn another language (I can tell you from firsthand experience). At first it is exciting. Everything is new, and little bits get learned easily. Then it grows harder (in Economics, we call this diminishing marginal returns—each additional 10% percent of knowledge takes an increasingly longer period of time to attain). Although you are working as hard as you were before, the end result seems so very far away. You listen to the radio in that language day in and day out and understand nothing. Then, one day, you are at the fulcrum and have a general idea of what they are talking about. Then it steamrolls from there… you pick up more phrases and sentences, you feel more comfortable talking with others, which in turn helps you learn even more quickly. At this point the concept of diminishing marginal returns is still happening, but you don’t notice it because it is way more fun to learn the language by meeting and talking with people than listening to the radio by yourself or keeping your nose in the textbook.
The Smaller Seesaws
Financially, savings can work the same way. Investing at first can seem like so much fun. The first $20 you put in the stock market is a blast. You get knots in your stomach when you lose 10 cents in a day on that. Then, putting more money in gets harder—you had to give something up to put that in. Maybe the stock market is having a bad year and you just want to pull it out and go do something else with your money. Besides, looking ahead, the end goal, financial security, seems so far away. Once you get past that fulcrum, though, things get a lot easier. Money seems to start making more money. Have you ever heard the phrase “making the first million was the hardest”? Think about how that might apply to a seesaw.
It can even work for small things. Someone just gave my family a ping pong table for Christmas. My daughter is 3 years old, and not that athletic. She was initially disinterested in the table, but when she saw the boys and me having so much fun, she decided to give it a try. This means I need to sit there and very patiently pass the ball to her exactly so she can hit it with her paddle. The first 5 minutes were very fun, and we were both thrilled whenever she made contact with the ball. The next 5 minutes I was a little tired up picking up balls off the floor. Then it got increasingly harder for me to stay energized and focused. However, I used my seesaw idea to remember that before I know it, she will be the best three year-old ping pong player in Maryland, and I’ll have some legitimate competition around the house. Although that seems really far away, I know it will happen sooner than I think.
Learning to Focus on the Fulcrum
Though it can be challenging to convince students of the seesaw process without them having experienced it for themselves, one helpful way to expose them to this principle is to take a top-down approach to their assignments. Lots of students struggle to begin tasks because of the perceived enormity of the task in front of them. The advice here is to break up the task into individual small goals, which I am sure we have all heard of before. You can effectively turn each smaller goal into a seesaw of its own. For example, if you are writing a ten page paper, do an hour of research one day, write down just the main ideas another day, and type the first two pages another day, etc., and the seesaw comes in handy to remember that each individual task won’t take as long as it seems.
For example, while doing the one hour of research, if you’re focusing on the entire ten pages of writing, you may not feel very productive. However, that one hour is a seesaw itself, and after 30 minutes of working, you’re already on your way down. So by focusing on the fulcrum for any particular task, they become easier to begin and accomplish and before you know it, you’ve already passed the fulcrum of the larger project.
So the next time you start feeling challenged about something in your life (math class, shoveling snow in the driveway, learning to drive, applying for college, buying a house, starting your career, switching careers, writing an article for the Heights Forum, etc.), if it starts getting challenging, think about the fulcrum before giving up. Keep in mind that the hard part won’t last as long as it seems. This has helped me out a whole lot, and I hope it can serve you the next time life seems tough.