This quote might have been lifted from a children’s movie (Kung Fu Panda, don't you know!), but its moral is one of universal relevance, and more mature than the mouthpiece of an animated panda might suggest.
‘The secret ingredient is… nothing’
Five small words, but they strike at the heart of ‘life hack culture’ and its over-simplified stance on life-optimisation, the fingerprints of which can be found on almost all of the lenses through which we regard our lives - from nutrition, to health, wellness to relationships, happiness... to 'success.’
This reality (that there is in fact no quick-fix, flick-of-a-switch route to anything worth having) is not necessarily new-news from where I'm standing. That said, it's still nice to have an unlikely animated ally validate this long-held dis-belief in the existence of silvers bullets.
What I have come to believe in instead, is the power of the 'whole,' and the role of perception in making this bigger-picture perspective possible.
Lately, to prove this point, I’ve been creating an inventory of all the infinitesimal 'ingredients' that might easily have been overlooked, without the benefit of a beady eye for the banal!
The list included many clichés, not least...
The ‘lottery win’ of finding a perfectly pearlescent shell on the beach.
The sight of a chocolate labrador padding back from the park, seemingly a'glee with her prized collection of precious sticks.
The elderly couple chatting and laughing, as they held hands on an crisp, early morning autumn walk
That strange, momentarily out-of-body feeling, when the changing room mirrors project an entirely unfamiliar and almost foreign reflection of self.
Some of the other 'ingredients' - they were less poignant, but nonetheless important to note.
One in particular, comes with a caveat; not to be interpreted as prescriptive or in any way science-backed.
For context, it revolved around that now-long-retired ‘a Mars a day helps you work rest and play!’ advertising slogan.
In the early 90s, I distinctly remember experiencing this retrospectively bold claim to be true, in the days before advertising standards were changed, and we were all educated otherwise.
The chocolate fix DID in fact help me work (I engaged at school), rest (I slept ok) and play (ah, to have that energy now!!)
In light of this recollection, I wondered whether the ‘slump’ that Mars bars seemed to give me in adulthood were actually biochemical… or just psychological. An unnecessary placebo from being told too much of the ‘evils’ sugar and saturated fat, perhaps?
I decided to put the theory to the test, and actually, my suspicions were proved right. The daily Mars and coffee in the car, whilst waiting at the school pick up felt ALLCAPS ‘lush’ (maybe even special) which then begged the question...who were the RDA people to tell me otherwise?
Fundamentally, this might not be the best testimonial for the health-harnessing power of perception. However, I can’t say the Mars bar doesn’t feel like a bit of a metaphor for all the other delights 'secret ingredient' culture might have squandered.
The 'secret ingredient' to health is… avoid refined sugar!
The 'secret ingredient' to success is…hustle!
By internalising these ideas, perhaps we are chip-chipping away at the sense of agency that might just serve us better, overall, than any attempts to shoe-horn our lifestyles into a one-size-fits-all glass slipper?
Fresh from this realisation, I re-attuned to a more intuitive way of wondering the earth, noticing as I did, how more and more morsels of 'mind nougat' would land my way, and often from between the crevices of otherwise average minutes and hours.
The young family playing cards in the cafe, amidst a hive of screens and disconnect
The mist above the sea visibly burning away, as the sun pushed through the clouds
Most of these moments that I've been silently registering might seem insignificant in isolation, but together, they've had a ‘compound effect’ that’s been restoring my faith in more things than I knew were lacking.
With advancing age, this hard-to-describe feeling seems even more important, which is maybe why those so-called psychological ‘specialness spirals’ (the thoughts and behaviours which make ordinary things and experiences feel like treasures) now carry less guilt and negative connotations than the KonMari movement made mainstream.
It’s important to point out, this idea is only one point in a broad geography of ‘mind work’ that I’m engaging in, but the irony is… it’s fast becoming something of a ‘secret ingredient’, the likes of which I begun this article, entirely doubting the existence of.