The myth of autopilot
If there is one rule that I’ve had to relearn more than I’d like, it’s that there’s no such thing as autopilot. There’s no system or process on earth so well designed that it does not require some level of upkeep. The temptation for autopilot is clear; we want to believe we can put forth enough work upfront that we can spare ourselves work down the road. We also want to believe we are capable of producing perfect (or perfect-enough) products. (The hubris involved never seems to prevent me from swallowing this pill.) But sooner or later, the complacency of confidence reveals that there’s nothing that doesn’t need vigilance and attention.
Certainly this rule is immediately applicable to our professional lives. I am (despite this essay) an ardent supporter of systems instead of processes that rely on our memories or attention; we are not unblinking robots, we are fallible and make mistakes. Systems help limit the number of moments where fallibility has room to germinate. Unfortunately, the better the system, the more confident we are that nothing can go wrong. This confidence breeds complacency and overrides the healthy sprinkle of self-doubt that keeps us sharp. In due time, human nature will win and mistakes will occur. Systems work, but they still require upkeep.
Coasting within our relationships
Relationships with those we care about are no different, in this respect. Some relationships seem imbued with a spark of the eternal; they’ve always been there, regardless of our effort, and we presume they always will be. Others are so fresh and exciting that they offer their own inertia. Regardless, we deceive ourselves if we think they do not require upkeep. Friendships require we reach out regularly, that we call, email and visit. Even relationships in our own household need to demonstrate intentionality in our use of time and focus towards the needs of those individuals. If our actions don’t demonstrate that we value these relationships, then their meaning is taken for granted and will fade.
The opposite of autopilot is intentionality. There is no ‘set it and forget it’ for the things that matter most in life. Either we prioritize what we value most and take action to maintain them, or they will crumble. We must ask ourselves what we’re taking for granted at this moment and how we could instead strengthen it with intention.