A Craving for More

A Craving for More

There are two traits of humans which were great for ensuring our survival as a species tens of thousands of years ago that combine today in ways that don’t always have good consequences for our lives. The first is that we are highly adaptable. We can adjust our lives and our focus to survive in such extremes as the isolation of zero-gravity space-station environments or in the unimaginable density of Kowloon Walled City. We are geared toward adaptation for survival in many unique, diverse, and challenging circumstances. The second trait, which once complemented but perhaps now is more of a problem given our adaptability, is that we become bored. We are not content to sleep for 20 hours a day like a lion, and as social creatures we are compelled to engage with others in a pursuit of construction and growth.

 

The dangerous result of these two traits is a constant craving for more. We adapt to the lives we have, become bored, and desire more. It is hard to be content and feel as though our lives are enough. We could always have more stuff and bigger and better things. We could always do something different, something new and exciting, and interact with different people. While we might be able to survive in a small space with few items and few of the modern technologies that we take for granted today, once we have those things, we quickly begin looking around at what else we could have, what other things we could use, and what could be better about the time and space we occupy.

 

Our pursuit of more is in the spirit of ensuring our survival and improving our lives, at least evolutionary there is reason to believe that this is where the pursuit of more originates. But, rather than actually making our lives happier, richer, and more fulfilling, the pursuit of more can leave us feeling hollow and insufficient. As Seneca wrote about indulgences in Letters From a Stoic, “you will only learn from such things to crave still greater.”

 

So while we may recognize that having wealth, money, and stuff isn’t necessary for our happiness, our brain is pushing against that reality. Our brain becomes accustomed to the nice things we have, and starts to look for more, even if we thought we were content with the lives we have. It is important to be aware of how these two separate positive impulses (adaptability and boredom)  that evolved with us humans combine in a way that can be quite negative today. It is important that we recognize and think about how grateful we are for the things we have, and that we consider whether we really need more, bigger, better, and newer things, or if we are just being driven toward an impulse for change. By pushing back against these two impulses when we have reached a reasonable level of success and security, we can do more with our lives to have a positive impact for the whole world, rather than just doing things that will give us more stuff. We can still channel our ambition, but we can do so wisely, in a way that is as likely to benefit all of society, and not just benefit our own lives until we get bored again.

Make an Investment in Yourself

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday encourages us to push back against the idea of fake it ’til you make it, something that is said from time to time by those trying to become successful and trying to prove their value and skill. Fake it ’till you make it, Holiday argues, is something that is driven by our ego and our desire to be recognized as important. Fake it ’til you make it is not, however, a practical way to develop the skills and abilities that one needs to truly become the things that we present to the world when we are faking it.

 

In his book, Holiday writes about the marshmallow test, a famous psychology test where children were given the option to eat one marshmallow now, or wait in a room with the marshmallow for a few minutes and get a second one if they can delay gratification. For many of us in our own lives, delaying gratification is as hard as it might be for a child alone with a sweet treat. We know we can wait to make a purchase and have money to pay it off in full, but our fake it ’til you make it culture tells us to buy thing on credit, which leads to payments we sometimes can’t afford and we end up paying more overall than we would have if we had waited. The alternative to this mindset according to Holiday is a work ethic that is driven by delaying gratification. (On a side note, it is my understanding that the famous Marsh-mellow Test has had reproducibility problems within psychology research. Maybe be skeptical about the authenticity of the results of that original study but understand what it was trying to say about us.) 

 

Holiday writes, “Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of in my ego.”

 

Fake it ’til you make it pumps up our image of who we are without adding any substance to ourselves and our abilities. It is impulsive and tells us that we need certain things to be part of the right group, to play the part we want, and to feel successful. Hard work on the other hand is often quiet, out of the way, and not immediately satisfying. Purchasing a new sports car to look the part of a successful person feels good, whereas driving a worn out car and arriving early to get some extra focus work done is just exhausting and sometimes frustrating. In the end however, the sports car doesn’t make you any better at what you do (not that the beat up car does), but the hard work you put in when you decide not to fake it does make you better. It prepares you for new opportunities, opens new doors, and allows you to step up to the plate without anxiety and fear because you know you have prepared for the moment. And if you don’t  get the promotion, if you stumble with the presentation, or if the company goes under, you can move forward with less stress because you didn’t purchase a car you can’t afford to show people you don’t really like how successful you have become.

 

Delaying gratification never feels good, and it doesn’t necessarily make your future indulgence feel any better, but it does create a more even path as you move forward. Instant gratification can lead to greater volatility which you may traverse just fine, but taking things slower and making more investments in yourself than in your ego and material goods will create a more smooth path with bigger guard rails that you can lean on when the seas become choppy. Remembering that hard work will take you where you want to go, and that each small investment will build to your future can help you keep the right attitude to put real effort forward and combat the desire to fake it.

An Unhealthy Belief in Our Own Importance

At the end of the day, we all, somewhere along the way, adopt a belief that we are more important than we really are. A friends mother saves journals as if people are going to one day read them and gain great insight into her life. Average American’s across the country worry that what they post on social media could be viewed negatively by a government security apparatus. And while I tell myself I am writing this for myself, in the back of my mind is a thought about writing something insightful that all my readers will find valuable (my website had exactly 5 hits yesterday).

 

We tell ourselves stories as we go through the day, and eventually we start to believe our own stories and start to build an ego.

 

Ryan Holiday thinks this is a problem. In his book, Ego is the Enemy, Holiday encourages us to take a deep look at ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and how we allow our ego to drive the show. He looks at stoic philosophy on self-awareness, introspection, and honesty with the self to see how our stories and ambitions can get in our own way and ruin our path. Holiday also shares his own stories about ego and the ways in which he has made mistakes out of pride, envy, and unrealistic visions of his own abilities.

 

Early in the book Holiday spends some time drilling in on what he means of ego. After providing some clinical and academic definitions, he writes, “The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. … The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility–that’s ego. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.”

 

Our ego is our idea that we have somehow risen above other people and become more important in the world than we actually are. It is a belief that what we tell ourselves about what people think of us, about our ability to shape the world around us, and about what we are capable of is actually the reality of the world. Our ego pushes us to find ever greater status and have ever greater things in our life so that we can demonstrate some superiority over others (or at least appear to have such superiority). Ego puts us at the center of not just our own universe, but of the universe for everyone else, even when we have no reason to believe that we are who we tell ourselves we are. None of us want to believe that we allow our ego to run our lives in this way (as I write this I have convinced myself that my ego really isn’t that bad), but our ego always has a potential to grab the reins if we are not careful, and it always impacts our decisions in ways we don’t want to admit.

 

Even small things in our life can become driven by our ego. We often think that what we do in a given day is more important than it truly is. When we step back, pull our ego away, we see that what happens to us on a daily basis really isn’t very important or consequential. We are likely not being watched by the people we imagine to be watching us and we probably don’t get noticed as often as it feels that we do. After all, everyone else is probably living inside their head and worried about themselves and what everyone else thinks of them. I find this reassuring because it means that I don’t have to live my life as a performance. I can allow my life to play out and try my best without worrying about a pressure to do or to be anything specific and I don’t have to ascribe great meaning to random moments of my life. This opens the possibility for me to enjoy a small moment, to tolerate dull moments, and to do my best without an inordinate pressure to impress anyone.