The Paradox of Theseus’s Ship
In ancient Greece, the ship of Theseus was a ship named after the legendary king of Athens. This ship sailed for many years but as time went on, it began to break down and was in need of repair. First, one board was removed and replaced with a new board, then another and another. Then, the mast needed repair and it was removed and replaced with a new mast. After fifty years, this ship contained all new material and none of its original parts remained. Can this ship be said to be the same ship or is it a different ship? This is a classic philosophical problem of identity.
While the philosophers debate this problem, I want to use the ship as a metaphor. The paradox of the ship illuminates a path that each of us can take to make small changes over time that collectively, amount to one large change. The concept of systematic replacement can be used to make change easy, palatable, and permanent, without completely disrupting our identities.
What in your life needs a big change that you can’t bring yourself to make? Is it too daunting to lose weight, to start a new career, or to finish school? Can you instead make the change in small steps, using this method of systematic replacement? Not every change lends itself to this method, but many changes do. For example, changing one’s diet lends itself to this method while switching jobs may not. Exercising may but breaking off a relationship may not.
Weight Loss with Splenda
After my son was born, I realized that I had lost only ten of the 25 pounds I gained during pregnancy. Three months went by and my weight wasn’t dropping. I was always thin and I wasn’t used to having this extra weight around. I had never dieted in my life but this situation made me impatient and annoyed enough to decide to start a diet. So I bought the South Beach Diet book and began the recommended course. I tried making the recipes and I stayed away from carbs. It was all very tedious and difficult and with a three-month old infant, it wasn’t easy. After about three weeks, I gave up on the diet. However, there was one thing that stuck with me and that was using Splenda. One of the recommendations in the book was to use Splenda instead of sugar. Since I never dieted before, I never had a need to use any alternative sweeteners. I had tried Sweet N’ Low and Equal at some point in my life just for fun but never liked them. But since I was on this diet, I committed to buying and using Splenda in my tea. Oddly enough, it was tasty and therefore, was just as easy to use as sugar. The South Beach Diet is a long-forgotten memory but to this day, I still use Splenda in my tea. It was a small change that became permanent. After 12 months, I lost the rest of my weight and a few more pounds, bringing me down below my pre-pregnancy weight. I can’t attribute my entire weight loss to replacing sugar with Splenda but it did make some difference:
A teaspoon of sugar is 15 calories; I drink two cups of tea per day and use one teaspoon of sugar in each cup. Splenda has 0 calories so I was saving 30 calories per day regardless of the other things I was eating. So 30 calories per day for 365 days equals 10,950 calories that I did not consume. Each pound is roughly 3,500 calories so I can attribute about 3 pounds (or one-fifth) of weight loss to replacing sugar with Splenda.
Not much, you say. Not in itself, no, but imagine this minor change as part of a series of changes. Imagine that the Splenda is just one board in Theseus’s ship. What if you replace one small thing about yourself and make it a habit until it becomes an integral part of you, until you can no longer remember what it was like to be that old self? After it becomes an integral part of you, move on to the next small replacement until that too becomes you.
The Key to Success
The key to this process is to replace one thing with another instead of dropping it completely (yes, at some point, you might need to drop something completely but that’s outside of this discussion). For example, if you want to stop eating junk food, replace your 3 pm chocolate chip cookie with a sugar-free version. Do that for a week or a month or however long until it becomes the new you. Then, replace your sugar-free cookie with a smaller cookie or perhaps pretzels. Do that until it sticks. Then, make the leap and try replacing your pretzels with carrot sticks or celery. (Yes, at some point, you may need to replace the entire mast at once instead of replacing each board.)
The key to change through systematic replacement is having a long time horizon, patience, and the willingness to keep incorporating many small changes until you reach your goal. What series of replacements can you make that would amount to accomplishing your one big goal? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in a year or two years or five years, you looked back and realized that you accomplished your goal without even trying too hard?
And what of Theseus’s ship? I believe that if each change is incorporated fully before the next change, the identity of your ship remains the same.