The Myth of the “One Thing” That Will Change Your Life

That one thing myth man repeller

Before I started writing this, I read an article entitled “How to Make Yourself Work When You Just Don’t Want To.” There was nothing stopping me from starting to write other than the things that have always stopped me: laziness, boredom, a sense that nothing I write has meaning, and that this will be the piece that finally reveals me for the fraud I am.

It’ll be here, I thought, feverishly clicking, the one simple trick that will finally make me productive. I have felt this many times—that the cure, my cure, is near enough to taste, redolent of sweet summer fruits, juicy and whole.

Here is a partial list of things I thought would change my life:

Ayurvedic medicine
The Artist’s Way
No-poo hair cleansing
A Vitamix
The Pomodoro Technique
Neti pots
An Away suitcase
Squalane oil
Jesse Kamm pants
A life coach

I tried on all of these things in the hope that one would be—what? A miracle, really. Some kind of optimization button that, when pressed, would transform me into a version of myself that is suddenly capable of all I have so far failed at, or at least failed to be good at, or at least failed to master with a relaxed, Gwyneth Paltrow-ease. None lived up to expectations.

Here is what I know to be true about humans: We want to change; we want to be good, better, best. We see our lives spooling out before us and think: This can’t be it, can it? I won’t always be this lazy/unloved/bad at contouring, will I? There must be a way to improve—and surely it can’t be as difficult, or as boring, as hard work and time. That one magic thing is out there, and all I need to do is read these 18 self-help books while drinking collagen water in order to find it.

We’re living in an age when the myth of “that one thing” is more potent than ever. A quick Google search reveals almost five billion results for “the one thing that will change your life.” Some of those things include: cultivating a gratitude practice, meditation, an electric toothbrush, the perfect jeans, drinking more water, a well-fitting bra, a tiny house, a white-noise machine, forgiving your enemies, waking up at 5 a.m., overnight oats. And it’s not that these things can’t help—they might!—but they will be, if anything, a balm, not a panacea.

Clickbait evolved to rise above the noise of the internet, and it worked remarkably well: We’re all desperate for the one simple trick that will cure cancer or make us love our bodies. (Wouldn’t you want that?) We may know in our bones that there is no cure-all, no quick-fix, but we still want to believe that there is, and there is no end to the corporations who want to be the ones to sell it to us. And thus, the cycle continues.

Why would I work hard when I can read an article telling me about the one trick that will finally make it easy for me to work hard?

The world is large now, bigger than it has ever been, and closer, too: Every minute of every day we can see people doing life better—accomplishing more than us, dressing better than us, having more successful relationships than us. These people might not seem that different from us, but they must be. They must have access to that enchanted peculiarity that has, so far, eluded us completely. And even when we know this not to be true, it feels true. Because our brains evolved in an environment where perception was paramount: we had to react, quickly, to what we saw, and we had to take what we saw to be truth. We couldn’t question our initial, instinctive, and efficient perceptions, otherwise we’d be gobbled up right quick. And our brains haven’t caught up to this new world, one that demands skepticism: Psychological experiments show we still believe what we see immediately, and only think to question it later, if at all. We may know that flawless selfie is filtered, in other words, but we react emotionally as though it is the raw truth, and before we know it, we’ve bought seven bottles of the serum the selfieist recommends in a cloud of dew-dropped skin dreams.

So we think everything can (and should) be better and everything can (and should) be easy. Why would I work hard when I can read an article telling me about the one trick that will finally make it easy for me to work hard? Even if I know—and I do!—that no single meditation app will suddenly transform me into a high-functioning wizard, and no face oil will keep me looking young forever, I’m not sure I’m ready to accept that. I haven’t stopped believing in the myth of “that one thing” because to stop believing in that one thing would mean to forgo the hope that I might one day snap out of being this person who flubs deadlines, who can’t achieve her potential, who still gets zits at the age of 35. To deny that possibility would be a kind of reverse magical thinking, a growing up of sorts. It’s watching my parents put Santa’s gifts under the tree when I’m meant to be asleep.

But there is a version of me out there who has evolved past all this. I believe that, too. When I think about the elusive “one things” that have made a measurable difference in my life—therapy, anti-anxiety medication, finally moving my phone charger out of my bedroom—they have all been challenging, plodding, boulder-up-the-hill-repeatedly kind of acts, nothing precious or simple. Perhaps that makes them more magical, in a way: They are concrete proof that change is possible, even if it is also difficult.

As I waited for some epiphany to strike while embarking on this concluding paragraph, I read an article entitled “10 Need-to-Know Ways to Minimize Distraction While Writing.” When those tips didn’t work, and still no spark arrived, I realized that, too, can hold a truth. Sometimes, all there is is the work, slow and steady and sparkless, and then more of it, until there’s nothing left but to say, Okay. Enough now.

Collage by Madeline Montoya.

Meghan Nesmith

Meghan Nesmith

Author Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Boston.

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