Our Surprising Connection to Stormtroopers
A man in his new Stormtrooper costume. Unlike Greg McKeown, he pulled the trigger on the costume. (www.stormtrooperstore.com)
At the age of 40, Greg McKeown was shamefully staring at himself in the mirror, wearing a replica Star Wars Stormtrooper costume and trying to decide whether the costume’s hefty price tag was worth fulfilling his childhood dream. Since the age of 10, after first falling in love with Star Wars, he had dreamed of owning a genuine Stormtrooper costume. The glistening, white body-shell, the black, reflective mask, the powerful laser blaster…it all could finally be his. But as he stared at himself in the mirror – as a grown man with 4 kids – he felt a bit silly. All those years waiting and dreaming…for this? A plastic and polyester suit? He didn’t want this anymore. He took off the suit and left.
McKeown now affectionately refers to “Stormtroopers” as items or opportunities or relationships that we badly desire – not because they align with our current interests – but because at one time we fell in love with them and haven’t let go since. We take ownership of these things: they become our goal or our dream for so long, that we forget the original purpose for wanting them. A Stormtrooper could be the dream of owning a Ferrari. It could be the hope of retiring to finally sail around the world. It could be aiming for a relationship with someone who you no longer get along with. It could be the fantasy of meeting a famous person you’ve always admired.
As you can imagine, as in McKeown’s case, these so-called Stormtroopers don’t always live up to their high expectations. Think about the retiring on a boat example. At age 30 or 40, maybe you’re still adventurous and athletic and can handle sailing from place to place, braving the high seas. The dream seems to be a welcome reprieve from the doldrums of middle age. But at age 65, when you have a bad back and grandchildren you miss, does spending hours at a time in cramped quarters still sound so appealing? Maybe it does, but it’s worth considering before you invest so much in making it happen. When you put certain goals in honest perspective, when you acknowledge your circumstances or values could change in the future, you might realize you’re dealing with just another Stormtrooper.
My Stormtrooper was my lifelong dream of working on Wall Street. I was seduced by the chance to make a lot of money, the excitement of energetically following the markets, and the credibility of belonging to a selective club that was equally admired and feared. As I matured and grew more interested in technology, psychology, and data science, however, I couldn’t help but be honest with myself: a career on Wall Street no longer aligned with my values. I had to let go of this dream, that for so long, was an incredible motivating force in my life and in some ways part of my identity. The transition away from this Stormtrooper meant researching different careers and learning new skills, like writing code. It wasn’t easy, and it took some years before the separation pangs subsided.
Why is it so challenging to let go of Stormtroopers, these unaligned items, goals, or relationships in our lives?
The answer is a curious psychological phenomenon called the endowment effect (1). The endowment effect is our tendency to overvalue things that we own. You experience this effect whenever you are cleaning out your closet, and you have trouble throwing out an old jersey or sweater or pair of pants. To a stranger, the sweater your Mom gave you for your high school graduation is…just a sweater…but to you, it means something. As badly as you want to trash it, it’s seemingly a part of you.
When we take ownership of something, when we really take pride in having or eventually having some thing, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to let it go. We think of it as too valuable. We think of it as a piece of our identity. The powerful endowment effect is at work.
This is why some Stormtrooper opportunities, which we’ve personally taken ownership of, are so hard to move past. But it’s essential we let them go, because there are better goals to aim for, better relationships to forge, and better items to own. We only have so much time, energy, and money. Why waste any of these precious resources on things we don’t even want anymore?
So many of us - including myself - claim to be too busy. We have demanding responsibilities, relationships to maintain, countless goals, and ever-growing closets full of stuff. It can feel impossible to keep track of it all. It therefore becomes important to ask ourselves: which of these things are taking up too much time and energy but not delivering enough in return? Which of these things are we overvaluing because we’re afraid to let them go? Which of these things are Stormtroopers?
To answer these questions, we have to take a step back and be honest about our current values and goals. This process may mean overcoming the endowment effect and moving past a childhood dream or a long-term relationship, which will be challenging. You may need to pretend you’re just hearing about the Stormtrooper at-hand now, ignoring all of the past baggage and feelings of ownership attached to it.
The potential reward from eliminating unnecessary goals, relationships, or items is extremely valuable. Your life can be simplified, your goals can be clearer and more relevant, and you can be free to worry only about the essentials.
(1) Bockarova, Mariana. “How Will the ‘Endowment Effect’ Affect You?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 2016.
**This article was inspired by episode #355 of the podcast The Tim Ferriss Show with guest Greg McKeown. The "Stormtrooper" discussion begins at the 14:20 mark.