There are many reasons to study and explore consciousness. One is to be successful. People often think that mindfulness, being conscious of their thinking, behavior and goals will be enough to get them where they want to go.

Unfortunately that is not necessarily true. There are numerous variables involved in being successful at something. It frequently happens that unexamined variables are critical to success. These often include luck, intelligence, natural ability for the kind of work being done, and yes, I’m sorry to say, race and gender. Racial and gender equality have made significant progress but we’re still not there yet.

Hard work is often billed as the ticket to success. It probably is necessary for most kinds of success, but hard work in and of itself is hardly ever sufficient. Hard work tends to be correlated with success but it is hardly ever the sole cause of it. You are not likely to increase your chances of great success by merely deciding to work harder. (But add smarter and you might be onto something.)

Correlation and causation are difficult concepts for lots of people who are products of the American system of education. Brits, on the other hand, seem to have a better grasp of the matter. That is because their system of education is primarily inductive, while ours is deductive. This is also the reason that British authors tend to write better spy novels than Americans.

Causation versus Correlation

Causation means one thing causes another, while correlation means there is a relationship between two or more things but none of them causes the others.

Things are correlated if they tend to occur together, as in the case of red bumps and measles. Sometimes correlated things always occur together, as in the case of the rash (starting with the red bumps) of measles that always, as far as I know, appears. But things that are correlated do not always have to appear together. If sometimes they do not, then the correlation is not perfect (does not achieve unity, as we used to say around the pool hall). There are degrees of correlation. Something that only appears infrequently with its partner, or partners, has a lower correlation than those things that always, or almost always, appear together.

Things that are related—correlated—make it possible to predict one from what you know about the other. High school grades have a fairly high correlation with college grades, so if a college freshman had good high school grades we can predict that she will probably earn good college grades. We can predict that a person who flosses his teeth regularly will have better overall health than one who does not. (Yep, true.) And until we can redress social inequity a woman, all other things being equal, will probably make less in lifetime earnings than a man. That is, earnings are correlated with gender. And so on.

Good grades in high school do not cause good grades in college. Flossing does not cause good health. Flossing will be a partial cause of good dental health, but only correlated with general health. And being a woman does not make a person intrinsically worth less. To mistake causation in these examples is an error in reasoning. It is important that you understand this because an inability to distinguish between causation and correlation makes it difficult, sometimes even impossible, to correct or eliminate a problem.

To put this another way, too many times people try to resolve correlations instead of causes. Take for example the business of school grades. If high school grades really caused college grades, all one would have to do to make it easily through college would be to cheat in high school. Or bribe a lowly paid clerk in the principal’s office to doctor one’s transcript. Illicit tactics like that might garner a perfect high school grade record. But unless those same tactics could be repeated at the college level, good grades would not be forthcoming. We all know there is another factor that is the cause of grades in both high school and college, namely good study habits. Grades are correlated, studying is the cause. (Or not studying in the case of bad grades.)

School grades are a good example for clarifying the difference between correlation and causation because we are all in the habit of thinking that studying causes grades. But anyone who has ever studied hard then blown a test knows that studying, even studying very hard, is not sufficient. It is also necessary to study smart, which includes studying the right subject, the right parts of the subject, while in a reasonable state of mind, and so on.

Here is another obvious example. You have noticed that as the number of birds increases in the spring, the grass becomes progressively greener. However, because you’re a smart cookie you know that longer hours in the day and the angle and warmth of the sun are the relevant variables. You are not likely to conclude that the birds cause the grass to turn green or vice versa.

Cause-and-effect relationships in things like gender bias and greening grass and returning birds are easy to tease out. But not all situations are as obvious. Lets return to the subject of hard work and its relation to success as an example. Some of us are indoctrinated practically from birth with the idea that hard work and unceasing industry will make us successful; keeping one’s nose to the grindstone is all it takes to become healthy, wealthy, and wise. We come to believe that it just makes sense that a person who works harder is going to be more successful than someone who does not work as hard.

Common Sense

The usual misconceptions about hard work and success are examples of how common sense, especially when it is nothing more than warmed over conventional wisdom, can really get in the way of figuring out if something caused a thing or was just correlated with it. And if you cannot do that, you cannot expect to consciously address problems with any hope of changing them. Don’t waste your time trying to correct things that are not the real problem. Make sure you address the real causes of the anything you want to change, add or eliminate.

Quitting smoking provides a good example. Most smokers consider their habit to consist primarily of an addiction to nicotine and that is what they will have to overcome to quit smoking. And that is exactly why most would-be quitters fail. Nicotine addiction is actually a minor part of the problem. The real reasons why most people smoke are subconscious needs to be an adult and to have friends.

There are other reasons individuals can be driven to smoke but the need for adultery (I mean, adulthood) and social needs are the real trouble makers in most cases. These needs are strong and can be very complicated. It is almost impossible to figure out all of this with common sense.

Develop a habit of being skeptical about any common-sense ideas of cause and effect. Always keep in mind that any source of a problem identified through conscious logic is suspect. It might not be the source or cause of the problem. It might be only a correlation. Or even worse, unrelated.

Pleasure and Pain

Nature has provided us with a simple set of principles for conducting much of our lives. One of these principles is to seek pleasure and another is to avoid pain. Of course saying this is about as useful as trying to explain a glorious sunset by describing the scene as composed of light and darkness. It is too general to be of much help.

But general as it is, it is worth noting that just about everything we do, and everything we avoid, has some element of the pleasure-pain principle involved. We do not have to learn to seek pleasure and avoid pain. We must learn what is pleasurable or painful, but the raw drive itself is built into the subconscious.

Deferred gratification, however, is a conscious concept. This means that what we commonly call “mental discipline” or “willpower” resides only at the conscious level. So when we have trouble resisting the immediate gratification of a piece of cake for the deferred gratification of not being fat we experience the unequal forces of the conscious mind in opposition to the subconscious mind. Consciously we opt for discipline but subconsciously we want the pleasure now. Add to that any other hidden subconscious needs to eat the cake and there is no contest. Nine times out of ten the cake gets eaten.

It is not because you are stupid that you eat the cake or smoke the cigarette or whatever is at issue. You know most of the good reasons for not doing these things. You know the outcome will ultimately be unpleasant and you will at the very least feel guilty, at worst be dead. But you do it anyway because you cannot consciously thwart a strong subconscious need. The conscious goal of a slim, svelte, healthy figure or physique in the future is a puny defense against the subconscious need for a donut right now. “Later” is a conscious quality that does not have much influence on the subconscious mind. In this sense the subconscious mind works on the principle that a bird in hand is the only game in town. (I know, I mixed two metaphors. I couldn’t help myself; my subconscious made me do it.)

Accept or Change? That’s the Question

Once you are looking in the right place and you identify a legitimate problem, you have the choice of either changing it or accepting it. Consider weight control for a moment. If you are overweight, if you have trouble controlling your eating and making yourself exercise, there are two major activities you can use to change into the person you want to be. One is suggestion and the other is autoquestioning to identify the real causes and make suggestion effective. With suggestion you can change your attitudes about food and the kinds of things you crave. You can change your motivation to exercise so you do it regularly and adequately. You can even change your metabolism Don’t get too carried away with this thought. I’ve never known anyone who went from being overweight to being just right while continuing to over-indulge in the wrong things. You are not likely to change your metabolism that much.—at least some people can, within reasonable limits—so that you burn more calories.

Another option is acceptance. You might opt for acceptance if you think it would be better in the long run to accept yourself as you are. You can use suggestion for that, too, and stop worrying about trying to change yourself if you like.

Or you can mix change and acceptance. You can change what it is reasonable to change and get yourself to accept the changes you cannot reasonably make. A lot more people need to seriously consider this option.

If for example you are a young woman and you think you want to look like a super model, consider this: there are roughly three billion women on this planet who do not look like super models. Only about eight women in the world do. So figure your odds. Besides, I can assure you that many of those pencil-thin Hermesians you see on Pinterest live miserable lives dominated by diet pills, tobacco, and booze. Hunger is their constant companion and they spend most of their time on thoughts about food.

If you are thinking, “I don’t care, I would do anything to look like that,” then you need help. Bulimia or anorexia may be just around the corner for you, and they are just not worth it. People die from those conditions, and the way they die is not a pretty sight. Rather than killing yourself (figuratively or literally) trying to turn into a CosmoVogue, you would be better off working on suggestions that help you accept yourself as you are, or as you should really be. And how you “should really be” is determined largely by your genetic makeup. You probably have plenty of room for improvement if you are overweight, but keep in mind that Great Danes are not meant to look like Chihuahuas. Both are beautiful animals when healthy and in shape, and both are ugly when fat and out of shape. They are also ugly when they are emaciated from starvation.

The counterpart of women’s model madness is men’s body builder mind set. Like the female who craves the model shape, the wannabe body builder thinks he would do anything to have huge muscles of steel. A skinny butt. A waist with ribbed abdominal muscles. The more muscles the better.

My first bout with this mindset was when I was a kid influenced by Charles Atlas. If you are wondering who Charles Atlas is, or was, you are either not very old or you never read comic books. Charles Atlas sold a set of weights and other gadgets with which men and boys could build their physique. He had a famous advertisement for his muscle-building gizmos that appeared for decades in comic books and other magazines. It was done in the style of a cartoon strip with drawings that depicted a skinny kid getting sand kicked in his face by a muscled jerk at the beach. The skinny kid did not like getting sand kicked in his face, especially in front of all those good looking babes sunbathing on the beach (“girls” they would have been called back then). So he ordered Charles Atlas’ body building kit, worked out awhile with it, then “later” decked the muscled jerk at the beach.

“LATER…” That’s what it always said in the box above the critical frame toward the end, when the jerk was getting decked. What did “later” mean? That sucked me in when I was a kid because I thought it would be cool to go around decking jerks and “later” meant like, what, a couple of weeks? Uh huh.

I ordered the Charles Atlas Super Muscle Building Kit and started on what I thought would be a career of kicking sand in jerks’ faces. It didn’t work that way, of course, and in fact the whole thing was pretty much just a pipe dream. After a couple of weeks of sort-of strenuous working out with the Magic Muscle Builder, about all I had to show for my efforts was soreness and disappointment. Not one whit of difference could I detect in the mirror. I was still just a chubby, freckle-faced ten-year old. So I chalked it all up to tuition for the lesson I had learned and decided to be smart instead. (That decision didn’t work out as well as I hoped either, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, the point is, be realistic about what you were born with. Change what you can change and work to make yourself happy with the rest. Forget about trying to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger unless you were born with the genes to do it. (With the presently limited state of genetic science the only way you can know is to try it. To give you some idea of what it takes, Schwarzenegger did four to seven hours of rigorous weight training every day, seven days a week. He maintained this schedule for ten years between the ages of 14 and 23. At 23 he held the Mr. Universe title and had won every meaningful bodybuilding title in the world. You can’t make yourself look like Schwarzenegger with three 20-minute workouts a week like so many contemporary gadgets advertise. Sorry, but there really is no free lunch.)

Focus and Priority

We all know how decisions get more complicated and difficult to make as we get older. We cannot easily abandon the goal of being a CosmoVogue or a Schwarzenegger, especially when we have grownup in a culture where parents tell their kids they can be anything they want. But it does not work that way. No one can be “anything” in that sense. It is true that we all have a great deal of latitude in what we can be or become but genetic limitations cannot be changed. If you are tall and athletic and you want to play professional basketball, go for it. But if you are five-two and pudgy, forget it. No amount of desire and effort are going to win you a starting position with the Lakers. Use your head instead and end up owning them.

We could come up with can’t-be-done examples like this all day. People with poor vision cannot be airline pilots. High school dropouts cannot be brain surgeons (not on my brain, anyway). Janitors do not get promoted directly to CEO. And so on. No one can be “anything” he wants to be if he happens to want to be the wrong thing, regardless of how much drive and ambition he has.

Another problem is that “anything” in this kind of usage tends to be interpreted as “everything.” “You can be everything you want.” Rich cowboy-surgeon-fireman-quarterback-ripped…

There is just no end to the mischief this kind of nonsense can cause. For instance, “can be” tends to get interpreted in young minds as “deserve to be.” This has the result of stunting development of the kind of discipline and drive required for significant achievement. Anyone who hires people can tell you how common it is for new hires to expect pay and perks far beyond what they are worth or willing to earn.

Another problem commonly rooted in the be-anything myth is a perverse kind of perfectionism often accompanied by an ironic inability to finish things. This can make a person look fickle, frivolous, self-indulgent, and generally undependable. Yet the psychology of this kind of person is far more complicated than it would seem. It is as if the person is truly trying to be and do everything with the result that she ends up doing nothing. To try to be everything condemns one to not being much of anything. You have to make choices in life.

The primary message here can be summed up in two words: focus and prioritize. Focus on what it is you really capable and desirous of wanting to be and doing, and prioritize your life so irrelevant distractions are swept aside. You will be years ahead of the game if you have done this before spending a lot of time and effort being something, or someone, you should not be.

Don’t Be Nothing

The opposite of the be-anything myth is the be-nothing syndrome. It is encapsulated in, and often inculcated by, statements like, “You’ll never amount to anything.” Sometimes these sorts of statements are made repeatedly by a parent, but such thoughts need not be spoken to have their negative effect. Children and teenagers are very good at picking up nonverbal signals that tell them what their parents, teachers, and other authority figures think of them.

Be-nothing kinds of statements can also be made concerning many different topics over a number of years with the same negative cumulative effect. If a child is repeatedly given negative feedback about different subjects, she eventually adds it all up mentally and concludes that she cannot be anything good. Or good at anything. The adult who suffers from the be-nothing syndrome is not likely to make much effort in life. What would be the use? They figure they can’t do anything anyway, so why try?

If you have ever been repeatedly subjected to be-anything or be-nothing kinds of messages over a prolonged period of time, be aware that your mind has probably been conditioned (at least somewhat) by those messages. They have influenced you in ways that skew your opinion of what you are capable of doing. You may need to consciously work toward overcoming mental limitations to make yourself capable of being or doing what you want.

Any discussion of what can or cannot be done is troublesome because the boundaries of the possible keep moving. I remember reading about a young British medical student named Roger Bannister who was told it was highly unlikely anyone would ever run a mile in four minutes or less. Everyone knew it was probably impossible for a human being to run that fast. But when he was 25, running in a meet at Oxford in 1954, Bannister did just that. He officially ran a mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. He broke the psychological barrier to a four-minute mile and once he did, others were able to do the same. A sub-four minute mile is still a notable time but it is done regularly. Some runners such as John Walker of New Zealand and Steve Scott of the United States have run a mile in under four minutes more than 100 times.

Very often it is not obvious what is and is not possible, so decisions are difficult. Don’t try for the clearly impossible, but if you think it is possible and you really want it, go for it. We all know that sometimes it is better to have tried and failed than to have never tried. Even better yet is to put forth your best efforts in the area at which you have the most aptitude and interest. It is probably safe to assume that Roger Bannister was born with the right genes to eventually, with training and development, break the four-minute mile barrier.