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How imaginary success leads to failure.

Albert Camus, in a short story titled, “Jonas, or the Artist at Work,” describes a painter named Jonas who gradually squanders his talent:

Jonas was working less, without quite knowing why. He had always followed his routine but now he had difficulty painting, even in moments of solitude. He would spend these moments looking at the sky. He had always been distracted and absorbed, but now he became a dreamer. He would think about painting, about his vocation, instead of painting. ‘I love to paint,’ he still said to himself, and the hand holding the paintbrush would hang at his side as he listened to a distant radio. [1]

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The problem for Camus’ Jonas is that he fantasizes about painting instead of actually painting. The closer he gets to the self he wishes to be—a successful artist—in his dreams, the more the gap between that self and the real Jonas widens. Jonas is engaging in a common form of self-sabotage, one that teams up with fantasy and blocks adopting and implementing plans.

Many of us act in much the way Jonas does. We sabotage both our own success and our own happiness.

The strategies of self-sabotage are peculiar. When someone else undermines our endeavors, that person puts obstacles in our path. For instance, a saboteur may dissuade our allies from doing what we spent time persuading them to do. When it is we who sabotage ourselves, we may put obstacles in our own way—as when a person applying for a job shows up late or inappropriately dressed for the interview, in full knowledge of the consequences—but we may not. Instead, we may simply choose to see obstacles where there aren't any. For a certain kind of self-saboteur, there is always some reason or other to think that on any given day, just like the day before, and the day before that, conditions are not good enough, the stars are not sufficiently aligned for work on the project to begin. That is just what happens to Jonas:

He would have painted a seasonal subject if the weather were better. Unfortunately, winter was about to begin, it would be difficult to do a landscape before spring. He tried, however, and gave up: the cold chilled him to the bone. He lived several days with his canvases, most often sitting beside them, or standing motionless in front of the window. He was not painting anymore. Then he started going out in the morning. He would devise a project to sketch a detail, a tree, a crooked house, a profile glimpsed in passing. By the end of the day, he had done nothing. The slightest temptation—the newspapers, a chance meeting, the shop windows, the warmth of a cafe—held him spellbound. [2]

Jonas, it must be said, is unusual for a fictional character. Characters in fiction often differ from real people precisely in not being self-saboteurs. Quite the opposite—heroes and heroines in books and movies tend to be very motivated. They have goals important to them, and they work to accomplish those goals.

That’s frequently not true of real people. There is a sort of chronic energy deficit that many of us experience. We alternate between apathy, anxiety, and daydreaming. We have wishes, of course, and we’d fulfill those if we had a magic wand, but we have no magic, and the wishes do not translate into objectives we make progress toward. (It may be that one of the attractions of fiction is in that it allows us to experience, vicariously, the life of a driven, highly motivated person.)

Not all lack of motivation amounts to self-sabotage—we may lack motivation because we are depressed, for instance—but self-sabotage typically manifests itself as a lack of proper motivation for productive activity or change.

Why do we work against ourselves? Why do we hamper our own efforts to succeed?

One can attempt a Freudian explanation on which what the self-saboteur does is try to punish him or herself by failing. Maybe, she imagines herself guilty of violating the superego's strictures, and the superego wants to see her atone for flouting its commands, so it causes her to crash and burn.

There is something to this explanation. It may help illuminate cases in which people obstruct not so much their success as their personal happiness, for instance by staying with a partner who makes them miserable. The explanation may also help shed light on cases in which those more gifted than their siblings feel as though they have no right to surpass their brothers and sisters, so they unconsciously try to make themselves mediocre.

It is true more generally that self-sabotage may have to do with what we think we deserve. Even if we do not see ourselves as deserving of punishment, we may not believe we are worthy of success and happiness either. What often passes for insecurity and self-doubt may, at bottom, be a belief that we have not and perhaps cannot earn the right to get what we want: “I am not the kind of person who will ever be happy, loved, successful, etc,” is a common attitude among self-saboteurs.

This situation has a mirror image: some people, by contrast, operate on the assumption that they have every right to success and good fortune. The person with this type of mindset may be driven and enthusiastic. He or she does not indefinitely put off the work required to better one’s situation.

But there is another important point to note here. This is my main point, really. We may slide into a cycle of self-sabotage little by little, imperceptibly. Jonas does not start by mistrusting himself or thinking he does not deserve to be or cannot be a painter. He starts by spending just a little bit more time daydreaming and a little less working one day than he did the day before. In so doing, he gives himself a small amount of evidence that he is not, after all, a painter.

The thought he is not an artist hurts, so he resists it in his imagination, repeating to himself that he loves to paint. This type of self-deception—compensating for what isn't true by imagining it to be true—never works very well. More generally, self-deception does not quite work: since we are the ones doing the fooling, we must know the truth. But if we do, we can't fool ourselves completely. At some level, Jonas must know—as would anyone in his case—that painters are people who paint, not people who tell themselves they’d love to.

What this suggests is that we should not think of the self-saboteur as a person who first adopts a view on which he or she is not worthy of success and who then sabotages his or her own way to failure, as per a Freudian explanation; rather, a person may begin with no such conviction. Someone may turn into a self-saboteur gradually, by increasing the time spent fantasizing, much as Jonas does. In the process, such people give themselves more and more evidence that they are not cut out for success, because they repeatedly do the opposite of what it would take to succeed. The root of the problem of self-sabotage is often not an unhealthy self-image but bad habits of action.

This can help solve what would otherwise be a puzzle, namely, how could so many people work against themselves? Even if some of us unconsciously try to punish ourselves by failing, surely, those people must be a tiny minority. The answer is that self-saboteurs typically do not set out on a quest to prevent their own success. If a lot of people did this, that would be perplexing. Most self-saboteurs, however, drift into it. They slip into a pattern of self-sabotage.

There is a hopeful message in this. If self-sabotage is a matter of habits we fall into gradually, over time, we can likely reverse the trend by taking equally small steps in the opposite direction. If you want to be a painter, there is no need to determine in advance whether you are born to be one, whether you have a vocation (whatever that means). A few minutes spent painting on any given day are better than several hours spent daydreaming.

The good thing about the immediate goal of painting for just a few minutes today is that it is a perfectly achievable one. And the person who achieves it makes it easier for him or herself to spend a few more minutes on the desired activity the next day.

Jonas is not doing that. Instead, he is waiting for the universe to fill him with inspiration and dig him out of the hole he's dug himself into:

[H]e was waiting for his star, still hidden but ready to rise again, to emerge at last, unchanged, above the disorder of these empty days. ‘Shine, shine,’ he would say. ‘Don’t deprive me of your light.’ It would shine again, he was sure of it. [3]

But one need not wait for inspiration and for the stars to align perfectly. We are much less dependent on the cooperation of the universe than we think. This is because every step on the way to success is generally small enough for us to manage all on our own.

I suspect that part of the reason it is so easy to fall into a self-saboteur’s state of mind is that we refuse to fully accept the incremental nature of success. It may seem to us that painting for 10 minutes today would accomplish nothing. So instead, we jump right to the end of the journey in our minds and imagine ourselves having succeeded already. And the first time we do that, it may well be that the satisfaction we get from the fantasy exceeds the rewards we'd derive from doing the work. While the accomplishment is, in the former case, unreal, the size of it makes up for its imaginary nature, at least on day one. The real achievement, by contrast, would be small at first.

But imaginary achievements are no achievements at all, and real achievements are small on any given day. Over time, however, they accumulate, and begin to pay dividends. On the flip side, the self-saboteur’s failure is gradual also. You cannot waste your life today. At worst, today you can waste a day. Of course, wasted time too accumulates.

Interestingly, then, the self-saboteur's tendency to postpone productive activity indefinitely may be due to impatience. He does not show forbearance in advancing slowly toward the goal and instead, daydreams his way to an imaginary version of it.

Camus’ Jonas eventually begins to combat idleness by drinking, and in the end, he gets sick. The doctor says that Jonas must be working too much. (Idleness, perhaps, may take the same toll on the body as hard work.) In truth, Jonas has been working on the same canvas for many months. An acquaintance of his goes to inspect the canvas. It is entirely blank. Only, across, Jonas has written one word that is difficult to decipher.

Things could have gone very differently for Jonas. He starts his career well and even accumulates a following. People believe in his talent and expect him to succeed. He could have been the painter he already is in his dreams. My point here is that the reason things go as they do is that Jonas makes them go that way. More importantly, this happens slowly. He does not make one big wrong choice. Nor is his self-sabotage motivated by a desire for self-punishment. What happens is that one day, he wastes the morning daydreaming. And then, the afternoon. And then the next day. It is a slowly—very slowly—developing tragedy.

We can only imagine that the more time passes, the more he feels that he needs inspiration so he could make up for several wasted months or years.

That is his mistake. He cannot make up for all the lost time in a day. To wait for the special day on which one might compensate for years of daydreaming is to wait for the impossible. The only thing any of us can do on any given day is to make good use of that one day. This may not seem like much, but that is only because we refuse to accept the incremental nature of success, and of failure.

One morning of work—perhaps even a few minutes, followed by a few more minutes the next morning—may well have been all that Jonas needed to begin and to ultimately reverse the self-destructive trend. That much he could have done. And if he had, things would have gone very differently for Jonas.

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[1] Camus, A. (1957/2006). Exile and the Kingdom. New York, NY: Vintage International.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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