Don’t Follow Your Heart

jose jara ramirez

If you don’t jump, you don’t graduate.

That was the thought running through my head as I prepared to plunge 33-feet down into a dive pool at the United States Naval Academy. I was terrified. My stomach was in knots, and I felt like throwing up as I slowly walked toward the long, cold metal ladder.

If you don’t jump, you don’t graduate.

The Naval Academy has many wonderful traditions, and one of them is that you must jump off the highest dive platform to pass your swim test. If you don’t pass the test, you don’t graduate.

I watched as students more brave than me eagerly jumped and hollered on the way down. Was I the only one totally frightened of this or was everyone else pretending to not be scared?

If you don’t jump, you don’t graduate.

I started climbing the ladder. As I watched others splash down and emerge safely from the pool, I did a quick check to determine my chances of survival.

Is the pool deep enough?
Yes.
Is there any chance I won’t land in the water?
No.
Will the pain of hitting the water do anything more than sting a little?
No.
Do I have anything to fear besides my own thoughts?
No.

And so, without hesitation I walked off the platform, fell 33-feet and splashed down safely into the water. I didn’t check in with my feelings and I didn’t follow my heart. I just jumped, and screamed like a little girl on the way down.

So now you may be thinking “of course you didn’t follow your heart!” After all, it would have been ridiculous to have my feelings determine whether or not I should have jumped off the platform. And yet this is what we do in our lives. We use our feelings and we follow our heart at times when our feelings have no business determining the course of our life.

And by the way — to me following your heart means navigating your life with feelings as the primary motive. It doesn’t mean you don’t consider anything else, but it means that the loudest voice on your board of directors is your feelings, which happen in the moment.

Sometimes following our heart is a great thing.

The heart is wonderful at helping us feel good in the moment. When we are connected to our heart we are present, alive and experiencing the richness of life. But following our heart can also lead us astray.

We use our heart as an excuse for compulsive behavior. We see people proclaim that they are “following their heart” when they are simply justifying a convenient decision that brings them short-term pleasure. After all, our feelings are what have us eat that extra piece of cake, play that extra hour of video games, and stay in that abusive relationship.

It seems as though our problem isn’t that we’re incapable of denying the wishes of our heart, it’s that we don’t know when to apply the wisdom of those feelings, and when to ignore them.

Love + Marriage

Get your romantic blast-shields ready, because what I’m about to suggest may make some people very defensive.

Following your heart is a problematic way to choose a romantic partner.

Before we talk about why, let’s remember that you don’t have to be with romantic partners that are a good fit. That’s completely up to you. Being with people who are a bad fit is a great way to challenge yourself and grow, it’s a great way to find out what you don’t want, and it’s a great way to create drama so you can tell interesting stories, write melancholic songs, and go into hopeless-romantic periods of depression (a.k.a. your 20s).

Following your heart is a good way to have a fling, or a short-term romance, but it’s a terrible way to know who you should be spending the rest of your life with. We mistakenly believe that the people we feel the most intense love with are the ones that will make the best life-partners and that’s just not true. In fact, the reason most of us fall deeply in love and get the feeling that “we’ve known this person our whole life” is that they exhibit the same qualities of our opposite sex parent.1

What a romantic party pooper that is.

A better way to determine who would be a good fit in romantic relationships is to compare each other’s values. Does this person want to settle down in a house with a white picket fence and have kids? Do they want to travel the world and work online? Do they want to be monogamous? Do they want to live in a community or isolated on a beautiful beach somewhere? What does their ideal day look like? What does their ideal life look like?

If the vision you have for your life matches up with theirs, there’s a really good chance you’ll be a good fit together, even if you aren’t madly in love yet. Notice I said “yet”, because couples also grow in love, and having that love deepen over time because you share the same values is far better than watching it fade as the honeymoon period wears off and you realize you don’t want the same things in life.

Your heart can be your guide in experiencing love, but not for choosing it.

Delayed Gratification + Marshmallows

One of the things our heart is notoriously bad at is delayed gratification, which happens to be one of the most important qualities someone can have to live a happy, healthy life.

A famous study in the 1960s called the Stanford marshmallow experiment2 demonstrated this with a simple test for kids ages 3-5. In the experiment, a child was offered a choice between one small reward (a marshmallow) provided immediately or two small rewards (two marshmallows) if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned.

In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures.

What’s important to remember with the marshmallow experiment is that this wasn’t a measure of how much kids desire marshmallows, it was a measure of their ability to desire something and simultaneously engage their mind so their decision wasn’t overtaken by the feeling they got when presented with the chance for instant gratification.

When we give in to instant gratification at the expense of long term satisfaction, we do things like go months without exercise, eat junk food and binge watch Netflix, even though we know these things make us feel worse in the long run.

This is the wisdom of our feelings. Do what feels good now. That’s it. There’s no bigger picture, there’s no thinking about the future, there’s only an impulse to move toward feeling good in this moment.

And yet, there are so many times in life that following your heart is the best move. One of my favorite things to do is travel overseas and have absolutely no agenda, just following my desires and living spontaneously. There is so much beauty in every moment and our heart knows that, and can guide us to seeing the richness of our human experience.

Being in touch with our heart is the best way to experience life, but it’s not always the best way to create your life. You need your head for that, you need to think critically, and step back from your experience enough to see the bigger picture. The head and the heart have always worked beautifully together, because we need both for the full human experience.

The Deeper Wisdom of the Heart

Many people who subscribe to following their heart as a primary means to make big life decisions may disagree with me, and that’s natural. We each have our own definition for what “following our heart” means.

For some it’s a move away from the desires of the ego, for some it’s a welcome relief from years and years of living in their head. Whatever it means to you, my point isn’t to tell you to stop following your heart, it’s to introduce some more complexity to the idea that you should always follow your heart.

I’m extremely grateful for the ways in which I’ve opened myself to feel more, because without feeling deeply my life would be depressing and shallow. To live is to feel, and the less we feel, the less we experience life.

My heart is there to help me experience life, to extract the richness out of every moment. My mind is what allows me to stay grounded, to use reason and navigate my life through my deeper values and commitments. I want my heart to be intimately involved, but I don’t want it running the show.

Maybe instead of following my heart — I’d want my heart to follow me.

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Footnotes

  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/tech-support/201405/why-your-partner-may-be-your-parent
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment