Getting Voters in Shape

[Note: I originally wrote this on 9/19/2001. I didn't have a web journal going then, so its been sitting on my hard drive for almost three years. I decided to polish it up but leave the text intact rather than update it. Its weird to think about everyone "angry and afraid" and yet also "aware and reflective" but that's how things felt in the US immediately after 9/11, and I felt that it was worth preserving that little bit of perspective.

I also apologize for the "US-centriciy" of this post. I think the message is universal, but I think our failure to vote, and our need for discipline in the face, not of adversity, but abundance are very US-specific examples of the more universal message of acting even in the face of apparent futility that this post is about.

I also want to mention that I recently resolved once again to get in better shape. I'm five months in, and I've added a regular running routine (I just logged a 28:57 time in a 5k). The result is another 40 pounds gone forever, plus a new hobby that I am actually enjoying (that I enjoy running is still quite shocking) -- and I voted again this year. Re-reading this has reminded me how far I've come -- and how little I've slipped backward. Yet its never directly observable, only in retrospect can I see that fact.

I hope you find this interesting, even though its not the usual thing I put on my blog...]

The recent attacks on our country have left us angry and afraid. But also aware and reflective. More Americans are paying attention to their government, and to world events. Maybe we can even start participating in the running of our country. Maybe we can start simple and actually vote. I feel this is an important topic, so I thought I'd start by talking about how out of shape I am.

"I'm outta shape, I need to do something about it."

How many times have you heard - or you yourself uttered - these words? The recognition that we are fat, and can't easily walk (let alone run) even a single mile is uncomfortably familiar to too many Americans these days. And it begs the question: What do we do about it?

Well, of course first we deny, avoid, and waffle, but eventually we resolve. We even reserve a day for announcing this resolve: Every New Year's day millions of people across the US pronounce their New Year's resolutions: to quit smoking, spend more time with the kids, call Mom, lose weight, and so forth. The outcomes of these resolutions are so predictable that the phrase "New Year's Resolution" has double meaning in our society: both to resolve to do something, and to let it slide after a short while. We hit the ground running (often literally) full of good intentions, give it our all for maybe a week, and then slip back to life as usual.

Why does this happen? We know we need to lose weight. We have all of the motivation the mirror can give us. We have the support of our loved ones. Many of us even have a plan, and yet all of these avail us not a bit as we slip back to eating the same old things, skip heading to the gym, and get back to our routine - the very routine that we know put us in this state in the first place.

Yeah, yeah I know its because its a habit and habits are hard to break. But why are they so hard to break? Its because the negative impact of the habit is hard to see at any one point -- and the benefits of changing it aren't any easier to see either. In short, feedback drives our motivation, and most habits that are hard to form (or break) have very little apparent feedback, or the feedback cycle is measured in months, not moments.

I recently resolved to lose weight - again. I've done it before - but somehow I always let it slip away (or rather back) and ended up all outta shape again. But this time is different. I've set goals I can reach, and I am getting results. I have been at it over a month, and I have ten pounds gone for good. I am still eating pretty much what I want, and just spending a little time at the gym, just a little more discipline, and everything is changing (although very slowly).

The key insight was when I realized that losing a single pound is nothing. It really doesn't make much difference. We're taught to look at each pound as a victory. But one pound really isn't all that much. But ten pounds? Wow! Once I lost ten pounds I felt I was getting somewhere, and while ten is just a bunch of ones that got together one day and formed a union, we still need a way to stay motivated without feedback.

So, I am finding I can renew my resolve by remembering that if I just keep at it, things will change and if I stop they won't. Small consolation huh? Its not an answer, and I am not selling a self-help book here. But you know what? It's enough for me. One day I could bend over and tie my shoes without feeling short of breath. One day, I could hurry for the train without feeling winded. And now The Mirror is giving hints that things are changing, my clothes fit a little better. I am still fat, but I've made tangible progress. Thus, I've decided that Resolve is nothing more than artificial self-motivation in the face of apparent futility, and not (as the New Year's thing would lead one to believe) a one-time announcement that will tide us over until the immediate gratification kicks in.

So what's this have to do with voting? I found myself wondering, why don't more Americans vote? And then it hit me that its really the same thing as losing weight: No feedback. "My one little vote won't change a thing, so why bother?" That's the most common excuse I hear from people on why they don't vote. And the standard reply: "But if we all do it, things would change!" wrings hollow with the sound of naivete -- and futility. Its the New Year's resolution all over again. Full of energy we charge out to make sweeping changes, then when we realize that its going to take energy and time, and maybe not work at all, we lose hope that we can change anything and go back to our old ways of ignoring what people do with the power we've ceded to them. It's a fundamental instinct to stop doing something when it doesn't seem to make a difference. Its why rats stop pushing levers when the pellets stop, and its why we stop working out -- and voting.

But we are thinking creatures (at least so we claim) and we can realize the truth of the matter even when our instincts are screaming to stop doing something futile. A million years of instinct telling us to stop, and one little idea to keep us going. Sadly we often stop.

But what if we didn't? What if we simply voted? So it won't make a difference, that little vote, all by itself. So, what? Is it so hard? Its a lot easier than going to the gym for an hour. Its only once or twice a year so its not our physical or time commitments that will be hard to maintain. Just our resolve -- our intellectual will to keep doing something futile -- that needs to be strong. Exercise our reason instead of our instinct. More importantly, ignore the obvious - that it won't make a difference. Why is that an argument against it? Let's do it anyway! It isn't a difficult activity, chits, complex forms, and buggy voting software not withstanding.

What is going to be hard is holding on to our resolve over the long time, not months but years. Every year, doing this senseless little thing. Voting for one of two identical choices. Being one of 16% of Americans who vote. Fighting the inertia of millions of instincts. Our instinct knows its futile, but our reason knows the truth - that 16.001% is in fact better than 16.000% and that while we can't change the other people, we can change ourselves. Instead of focusing on the futility, focus on the act. So what if its just one little vote, Submit that one little vote. One little vote -- over and over. One little vote. My vote.

Its embracing futility that makes for change. Its the secret that all successful people have. Making hard changes isn't due to energy but action in the face of futility. It works for losing weight, and it will work for voting. Futile? So what! I am going to down to the weight room -- and the voting booth -- anyway. Hope to see you there.