Thoughts on: The word negligible.

Mike and I see eye to eye on the big things, such as our familial ties, the values we hold, our personal goals and overall lifestyle. But we usually approach life in polar opposite ways, which is wonderful in a sense, because we bring the best of both worlds to our extremely balanced relationship. One view in particular separates us into distinct methods of going through our day to day lives, while trying to achieve the exact same goal. It’s a difference that shapes our individual worlds into completely different entities, and our personalities into two people who you’d assume would not see eye to eye at all.

I consider myself an optimist, which is an understatement. Mike would call himself a realist, but in my reality, anything short of an optimist is considered a pessimist. So I would consider Mike a pessimist, which I suppose, then, also makes me an extremist. On the opposite end of the spectrum, or rather, always in the middle of the spectrum, sits Mike, who is never extreme about anything. If you ask him how he enjoyed his disliked event of social gathering, his response would be the same as when you ask him how he enjoyed his best life experiences, which is, “It’s cool.” Said placidly, with hardly any inflection or as much as an eye twitch, nor a hint of a smile. Then you’ve got me. Bubbly as champagne, shrill as a train whistle, energetic as a playful puppy. Confused for extroversion, my high propensity for empathy and my animation, as well as my optimism, is a trait much valued in our culture, and it is partly with this that I attribute a lot of my life successes and relationships. Unfortunately, Mike’s humble practicality and stoicism is extremely undervalued in typical work culture, but much valued by me. It is this balancing personality that attracted me to him. He has consistency and a very factual approach to his life. Every decision is extensively researched, and every reaction is balanced. He will hardly stray from the middle of the spectrum, in terms of expression, and it makes him a very reliable measure on just about every aspect of life.

While this balancing characteristic is necessary for my life, and likely one of the many reasons I ended up falling in love with him, it just won’t do for me. Which brings us to the main topic of this post, and that is, my thoughts on the word Negligible. Negligible is a word that Mike uses frequently to describe the consequences of our day to day actions. As a person enthralled by the smallest of details, my focus on life is to tackle the details that lead up to the big picture. A result of my optimism, I look at the smallest things and obsess continually about resolving them before moving on to the bigger subject at hand. Tackling my student loans, I address the minutest ways to save, by turning off the lights to lower the electricity bill, avoiding driving as much as possible to lower gas and car maintenance costs, skipping on buying lunch or coffee (most of the time) in order to save a few dollars, and asking to borrow stuff from friends and family to avoid buying more stuff. I even avoiding the use of plastic to try to combat plastic’s impact on the environment. I come up with all sorts of minor life hacks to try to increase mindfulness and limit human impact on our environment, while decreasing personal spending. And which each new idea, he laughs and says the same thing. “It’s negligible.” The few pennies you save collecting bottles to recycle, or the few minutes you decide to switch off the lights make no difference in the grand scheme of things, the way adding a drop of warm water to the ocean does not change its temperature. But I’m not convinced. I mean, think global warming. The temperature will change, eventually.

I strongly believe in something referred to in the bloggosphere community as the “aggregation of marginal gains”, a term introduced by James Clear. I did not know this is what I believed in until I came across this blog post via Choose FI’s podcast. Calling it whatever you’d like, it’s the idea that making a minute change in your day to day habits leads to an aggregation of changes, which over time delivers results. The more minute changes you make, the faster you will see results, and the larger those results will be.

Success is usually measured by results, but people value only the most immediate of results. A minor change will not show an impact today, and because of that, minor changes are under-estimated and under-valued, and thus considered “negligible”. I do not believe in the word negligible, and that’s the honest truth. I also don’t believe in its synonyms: trivial, insignificant, trifling, unimportant, and inconsequential. Many people believe that the only meaningful changes are those associated with visible outcomes. Losing fifty pounds, paying off your student loans, working as an environmentalist, or writing to your senator about public policy changes are all considered meaningful actions. But viewing change as these outright visible entities puts a lot of pressure on people to only take actions that will lead to these changes in a short amount of time. Mike will argue that turning off the lights when you leave the room will not reduce electricity usage in California. But I like to argue that it does, in fact, quite literally, reduces the electricity usage in California, even for a few minutes. I like to argue that scrounging up those few dollars will get me to paying my student debt faster. That refusing to buy plastic will reduce the overall plastic consumption, maybe not by the decrease in plastic I consume, but possibly by the inspiration it brings to others to do the same. An impact which I’ve witnessed, firsthand.

James Clear wrote about David Brailsford’s focus on improving everything by “1%” to reach his goal of winning the Tour de France with his team of British cyclists. They went so far as to find the pillow that optimizes a night’s rest, and carrying said pillow to hotels when they travel. Or finding the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection or sickness. His goal was to win the Tour de France in five years. But he won it in three.

There is an exponential difference over time between someone who practices habitual changes that lead to marginal gains and someone who doesn’t. There IS such a thing as marginal losses as well, for people who continually make bad decisions on a day to day basis. If you found yourself stuck with poor results, it usually is not due to a mistake you made overnight, but a string of bad choices you’ve made that accumulated and led you to that moment. And likewise with success. I am not as smart or quick to pick up on things as Mike is. Because of his ability to learn quickly, he coasted through his elementary school years and can see results and cause change at a quicker rate than I can. Growing up, my siblings called me the “dumb one in the family”. Which is true, I AM daft, at times. But I was also the work horse, the optimist, and perseverer in the family. I know my weakness, but I also know my strength, which is to apply every ounce of my day to day actions, consistently, winning small battles, and accruing a series of accomplishments that, over time, resulted in achieving more than my peers. And it’s a habit I continue to practice today. I’ve achieved my dreams of becoming a doctor by 26, volunteering to make a difference in third world countries, starting my own corporation, finding someone to love, but I don’t stop there. That’s the good thing about habits. Once you get started, it’s hard to stop them from continuing on. When we were in college, my habits were strong enough to allow me to coast through it, while Mike struggled. It isn’t because Mike wasn’t smart. It’s already established that he is smarter than me. But because it took a lot of work, which he wasn’t used to. Mike is great with short cuts and common sense, while I toil away in the corner via the path of step–by-step procedures to deliver consistent results, at the expense of pace. Slow and steady wins the race. Even today, after seven years of being together, Mike views my methodical way of approaching life via minimal changes as negligible. I don’t blame him. He creates similar levels of change with less work. Honestly, I’m just not that good. Arguably, I’m a little bit better at maximizing my ability to change the world. Luckily, he’ll call it negligible, making me angry, frustrated and exasperated, but hop on board anyway. He’s joined me in refusing plastic at grocery stores, saving money by packing lunch, turning off lights when he leaves the room, and walking to the grocery market. So let him say negligible. It’s the little compromises that make marriage work. An aggregation of marginal gains, you could say.