I’ll Have the Usual… But Should I?

I went out to dinner with a friend last night, and as we perused the menu, we joked about how we were gravitating toward our “usuals.” In this case, the cuisine was Indian, and my usual is the chicken saag.

As my friend continued to peruse his menu, I excused myself to the restroom. While in the place where all great thinking occurs, I chewed on this thought: why do I always gravitate toward “the usual”? Surely, there are many things on the menu that I would enjoy, with ingredients that I like. I see dishes I’ve eaten before and enjoyed. But I still gravitate toward “the usual.”

There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, I am a creature of habit. I enjoy comfort. Things that I know are comfortable. It is easy to stay close to the familiar. Secondly, I am all about value. If I experiment with a meal option and it backfires, I really dislike feeling like I have spent money on an unsatisfactory experience.

The latter reason gets to the heart of a greater matter, my brain pieced together as I was still in the bathroom. It all ties back to being scared of failure. It’s about being terrified of making the wrong decision. It’s because, if there is a hint of uncertainty in the air, anxiety might seize me. No, I am not being this hard on myself for liking chicken saag. By this point in my thought process, I had moved far past that.

I started thinking about how I gave up on art because I was too cautious with my lines, tentative about drawing something “wrong.” It’s art, dummy. It can’t be wrong. It can be liked or not liked, revered or panned, but it can’t be “wrong.”

Soon, though, my brain came back to The Project, which for the most part remains unstarted — not because I don’t know how to start it (well, I don’t, but that’s not the problem, I think), but because I am afraid of doing it “wrong.” It’s writing, dummy. See above.

It was a very revealing trip to the bathroom, to say the least.

The problem here is the notion of the status quo. Status quo, no matter the context, is always habit, comfort, familiar — all of those things. Status quo is your favorite old ratty slippers, the much-loved but much-worn, holey t-shirt. We love and crave the status quo. We have probably sculpted our status quo out of the things we know we do right, the things that are predictable and that we control.

But the status quo can hold you back. By its very nature, it discourages progress. So if you want to progress, you need to shake up the status quo. And if you want to shake up the status quo, you need to break your habit, step out of your comfort zone, and do something unfamiliar. Doing those things is instant progress — perhaps unfocused and preliminary, but progress nonetheless, no matter your ultimate aim. If you set your alarm ten minutes earlier, even if you don’t know how to spend those ten minutes yet, that’s progress.

But just working up the will to move those hands back that short amount of time can be a Herculean task.

When I came back to the table, I ordered the usual, of course. But to tell you the truth, it was a little dull. I realized I had gained much more enjoyment from our appetizers, where my friend had recommended the paneer paratha and ordered an appetizer sampler. Here, I was happy to try new things, and was satisfied with everything I sampled.

Why was this so easy? Because I didn’t initiate the situation, did not control it and therefore did not feel accountable to it. I could participate without consequence, real or perceived. It was a good reminder that sometimes, breaking out of the mold really works out. But you have to be willing to risk the chance of it not working out — of failure, so to speak — and understand that if it doesn’t work out, the world does not end. There are other meals, even other cuisines to be had.

The next time I go out for Indian, I hope I branch out beyond the usual. It’s good once in a while, as the old standby. But if you lean on the usual too often, I’m learning, the law of diminishing returns begins to apply. And that probably means it’s time to see what else is on the menu.

Yesterday, fortuitously, I read two items that touch more eloquently on these ideas: one was Chris Brogan’s weekly newsletter, and the other was a blog post by Amy Gahran. I highly recommend both.

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