When I was around eighteen years old I was hanging out by the pool with The Boy Who’d Always Been Out Of Reach. You know the one. I thought this guy was so far out of my league he may as well have been Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall.
While I still have no idea how it happened, I found myself alone with him one afternoon at his parents’ house, jeans rolled up to our knees, sun pouring down, feet dangling in the water.
“Want a cup of coffee?” he asked.
“Sure,” I replied.
Lies! I didn’t want a cup of coffee. It was hellaciously hot and it would be safe to say that up until that point in my life I’d probably drunk a half dozen cups of coffee total. I just didn’t like it.
“I only drink it black. You don’t need milk and sugar, do you,” he asked, heading toward the kitchen. He may as well have said, You don’t need me to tie your shoes for you, do you?
“No, no. Black’s great.”
Lies again! To a girl who at the time subsisted on yogurt, cottage cheese, apricots, and waffles, this was as appealing as a mug of used car oil.
But what did I do?
I drank it.
Because I wanted to be a black coffee drinker because I wanted to impress the cute boy.
In other words, I had a goal.
These circumstances repeated themselves a handful of times with the same boy (who doesn’t like piping hot coffee at the beach, right?). While I haven’t heard from the him in over a decade, lo and behold, I stand before you now, mumblemumble years later, a dedicated coffee drinker (who’s decided she was too good for him, anyway!).
Coffee, wine, super dark chocolate: some of the greatest pleasures are found in treats for which most of us must develop a taste. We actually teach ourselves to like these things because we cognitively know that they’re good and that we ought to like them.
Doing so is the product of discipline and willpower—the very same discipline (AHEM) that we tap into to lose weight, write a book, or save money.
Developing a taste for things works in reverse, too. The more dedicated we become to developing a taste for a particular thing, to enjoying its quality and nuance, the more likely we are to develop a distaste for a shoddy substitute. Let’s go back to the chocolate.
Not so many years after the impressing-boys-with-my-black-coffee-drinking stage, I met another guy: this time, a man who really liked extremely dark chocolate (like 80% cocoa and darker). True to form, I decided that I would like it, too. This was less of a stretch; I was already a woman who’d buy a Symphony milk chocolate bar on occasion, so putting aside the milk and sugar on this front was a little easier.
But here’s what happened: as my palate developed and I actually learned to appreciate the real cocoa flavor of darker chocolate, I simultaneously lost my taste for cheap milk chocolate and candy. Butterfinger? Forget it. Crunch bars? Can’t do it.
They don’t taste like chocolate! They taste like sugar and artificial flavoring.
Only by pushing myself to eat something a little higher quality—and a little initially off-putting—was I able to figure that out.
This doesn’t merely make me a foodie arugula eating elitist; it makes me someone who consumes less crap, takes in fewer empty calories, and gets more pleasure bite for bite from the candy I consume than I used to. My point here is not to be a jerk about the food I eat or reveal what a pathetic pushover I can be when the right boy is around; my point is that the willpower I’m describing, discipline to change our taste and preferences, even when we’re motivated by the shallowest, dumbest things, is something we can all tap into.
We’ve all motivated ourselves to do something for cute so-and-so. Everyone is disciplined in some circumstance, and all discipline is fundamentally the same. So what if we were motivated by something really important to change our preferences? What if our longevity depended on it? Or the health of our children? Our national security? Our healthcare cost?
Could we learn to prefer a trip to the gym to a trip to the mall?
Could we rather read some literature than watch another hour of daytime television?
Could we prefer two meals of locally raised, grass fed beef a week to six days of something frozen and mass produced that we dump out of a bag?
How big are the possibilities for change when we’re willing to change not only what we do but what we fundamentally want?