The M&Ms in Your Trail Mix

I’m not even sure why I keep buying them, but I always seem to have a giant bag of trail mix on hand in my office for when I get the inevitable mid-morning/afternoon snacking pangs. You know what I’m talking about: that healthful medley comprised of about 80% peanuts and a remaining 20% made up of a handful of almonds, raisins, pumpkin seeds, etc., and just a sprinkling of glorious, chocolaty M&Ms.

“This will be a great healthy snack to get me through those long work days,” I think to myself, feeling not just a touch of smugness (take that, unhealthy midday snacking habits!).

And for a few days, I’m in trail mix heaven—with only a little bit of sifting, I can quickly consume a handful of sweet, salty, somewhat nutritious nuts, dried fruit and chocolate. A couple of handfuls bring my blood sugar level up out of the “world is a terrible place and everything sucks” range back to a happier, less irritable, “I can probably function normally” one.

Before long, though, I start to get greedy. The M&Ms call my name, and I listen. Their milk chocolate and candy coating overrides the delay-of-gratification region of my brain, and within another few days I’m left with a drab, chocolate-less amalgamation of nuts and fruit whose only purpose seems to be getting stuck in my teeth.

So, as I was picking peanut bits out of my teeth at work today, I started to think that the trail mix bag is actually a great metaphor for many experiences in life. The peanuts are the everyday stuff: the unremarkable 80% of your time that is spent on routine, matters of relative insignificance, and good old-fashioned stuck-in-your-teeth drudgery. You also have the moments that matter more, or are relatively uncommon in the course of your day-to-day life—these would be the almonds, the raisins, the dried cranberries, banana-chips or even dried mangos (if you’re really lucky).

And then there are those wonderfully sweet, silky moments in life that just seem to coat you with happiness. They linger ever so briefly and delightfully in your memory before fading away, leaving you with a craving for more of that feeling. These are life’s M&Ms, and they are indeed few and far between. But if you’re being honest with yourself, they are why you bought the bag in the first place.

What are some of your M&Ms?

We have a tendency to get caught up in the routines, the minutiae of life, to the point that we often forget about the things that really keep us going. You see, we’re capable of eating a lot of peanuts as long as we know that there’s the odd piece of chocolate awaiting us in there somewhere. It’s when we lose sight of the good stuff amid all the rest of it—when we go too long without that little injection of refined sugar—that we start to burn out, get sick, sleep through alarms, and take out our frustrations on undeserving loved ones.

I talk to a lot of students who want to succeed—who want to know what career paths have a strong projection, or room for advancement so they can make lots of money. I also talk to a lot of students who think they should want these things, but go on to talk about how they want to do something meaningful and personally fulfilling, as if the two ideas existed on opposite ends of a spectrum. What neither group of students is thinking about, though, is how they’re going to be able to achieve balance in their life. They are so focused on their future and what they need to do to get there that they lose sight of the M&Ms currently within reach.

Yes, sacrifices are often necessary, but there comes a point in every bag of trail mix when you just have to pick out a handful of M&Ms.

It’s only human. Try not to feel too bad about it.

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