Desires

A frustrating thing about humanity is that we get tired of what we have pretty quickly. A new house, a new job, a new car all become part of our normal and fade to the background just a short time after we have them. The newness of the thing and the excitement it makes us feel disappear, and instead of appreciating what we have, it just exists with us as we start to look at other things we want.

 

This is part of the human mind that kept our ancestors striving for more and pushing to live better lives. Part of this mindset drove our evolution and helped get our species to the place we are at today. But in each of our individual lives, we can take this too far. Seneca, in Letters From a Stoic, has some advice with this in mind.

 

“Fix a limit which you will not even desire to pass, should you have the power. At last, then, away with all these treacherous goods! They look better to those who hope for them than to those who have attained them.”

 

We have all seen unnecessary and extravagant uses of money that seem more like showing off than anything else. What Seneca’s advice says, is that we should find a point where the use of money, the consumption of goods, or the continued accumulation of power just seems over the top. At that point of ridiculous extravagance, we should place a marker for ourselves saying no more. Over time, we should work to fit more things on the opposite side of that marker, constantly thinking about the things in our lives that are meaningful, help us live better, help humanity advance, or that just show off. The more we can be content without needing wealth to flaunt, the more we can live a meaningful life that we can enjoy. The limit we set can be at any point, which means it can be extremely extravagant, or it can be very modest. Learning to remember what we have and appreciate the things we have achieved and attained will help us as we place our marker which we do not desire to surpass.

Being Content Without a Great Fortune

In Letters From a Stoic a passage from Seneca reads, “How noble it is to be contented and not to be dependent upon fortune.” Something I find myself returning to all the time is the idea that I am fine and complete on my own, without needing external validation from someone else to tell me that I have value. I can be successful, I can pursue my interests, and I can participate in society without needing someone else to tell me what I am doing is good. I don’t need someone else to tell me when I have become successful or if I am still not up to par. I don’t need another person to tell me that what I spend my time working on and engaging with is worthwhile.

 

The quote from Seneca reminds me of those efforts of mine to be ok with who I am and what I do. To be dependent on fortune is to be dependent on someone else for external validation and is to be continually striving to fill part of ourselves with things that will never fill us. The reality is that we don’t really need that much money in the United States to survive (compared to the life of mansions, porches, and Lululemon that we picture in our minds). We definitely need some money, and having a lot of wealth makes life a lot more bearable, but we don’t actually need as much as we generally pursue. At a certain point, buying a new sports car, buying a bigger house, wearing designer clothes, and mounting a huge TV on your wall becomes about something other than the thing you are purchasing. Those extravagant purchases beyond what is really necessary become a statement. They are a way for us to show the world what we have achieved and to ask someone else for their validation of our lives.

 

When I was getting to the end of my undergraduate career my motivations for my behaviors and desires became more clear to me. I started to see that I had placed expectations on myself that were driven by a need to impress my family. I wanted to land a job right after school that would make my uncle say, “Wow, good job, all that hard work paid off.” I wanted to buy a house that my mom would look at and say, “Very impressive!” And I wanted to buy a sweet classic muscle car that my brother would see and say, “Dude that’s awesome.” My entire mindset was focused on what I thought other people wanted me to be and achieve, and not on what I actually wanted to work toward or what I actually needed.

 

When we can be content with ourselves individually we can live a more peaceful life. When we can see that the external motivations on our life are made-up and likely can’t ever be achieved, we can start to focus instead on goals that are truly meaningful to us, rather than aim toward goals that are meaningful to someone else. Best of all, we can turn that attitude outward and become more accepting of people without requiring them to show us something impressive to deserve our love, friendship, and respect. This puts us in a more healthy place where we work toward creating value as opposed to working toward obtaining things and we place our own value in meaningful relationships and making the world a better place.

What is it that I Want to Accomplish?

Goal setting and prioritization is an incredibly challenging and difficult process. It is hard to know what one really wants to do and what truly motivates someone. We hold a lot of competing values in our head when we try to set our goals, and often we get tripped up and set goals for ourselves that we don’t really want to pursue, but that we think we should. We want to impress other people, live up to the expectations we think our parents have for us, and do something we think we will enjoy and be well compensated for. Often, these things don’t all align, and often goal setting in this way doesn’t actually make us happy or put us on a path toward something we can truly be motivated to pursue.

 

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday helps us think through a framework for setting goals. The first step is to be aware of the factors in your decision that are purely ego enhancing. Those things that we do to impress others or to raise our own social status without necessarily doing something meaningful or something that truly interests us. After we can recognize what we do for ego purposes, we can ask ourselves new questions about our goals. Holiday writes, “In this course, its not ‘Who do I want to be in life?’ but ‘What is it that I want to accomplish in life?’ Setting aside selfish interests, it asks: What calling does it serve? What principles govern my choices? Do I want to be like everyone else or do I want to do something different?”

 

Ego can still cause all of these questions to be derailed and miss the mark, but each question encourages us to think about what we do for ego purposes, and whether we want to pursue the ego or whether we want to do something important that other people are not pursuing. In a recent interview on the Tim Ferris Show, author Jim Collins recommended an approach to making these types of decisions. Building on his “Hedgehog Principle” for businesses in his book Good to Great, Collins suggested that we find something we are coded to do, something we do exceptionally well, something we can be world (or local/community) leading in doing, and something that truly motivates us. Pursuing that will help us do meaningful work. Following his instructions and keeping Holiday’s warning about the ego in mind will ensure we focus on rewarding goals that help bring substantial positivity to the world.

 

We can follow everyone else and try to increase our status and have a standard career focused on ourselves, or we can step out and try to be intentional about our choices and actions. Collins compared this approach to creating artwork on a blank canvass compared to following a paint-by-numbers board. We can live a meaningful life following everyone else and taking the paint-by-numbers approach, but to truly do something different and have the biggest possible impact on the world, we need to be self-aware, avoid ego boosting decision-making, and try to paint our lives on a new canvass.

The Struggle of Great Work

Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy helped me really understand the benefits of getting away from habits, thoughts, and behaviors that serve to boost the ego. His writing has helped me better think through my desires and the actions I take to reach those desires. Focusing on my ego and understanding the destructive nature of egotistical goals has helped me to be more content and to think about what I pursue in a more sound manner.

 

One quote in Holiday’s book that stood out to me is about how challenging it is to do great work. In the past I have written about my childhood spending too much time watching TV and how that gave me a false sense of what success looked and felt like. I had an idea of what it looked like and felt like to be successful and pursue success that was based on made-up stories that took place over a 30 minute or one hour show. Holiday’s book helped me develop a better perspective. He writes, “Doing great work is a struggle. It’s draining, it’s demoralizing, its frightening–not always, but it can feel that way when we’re deep in the middle of it.”

 

My biggest criticism of TV shows and movies is that the hard part for the main character, the part that transforms them, the part where their grit pushes them to the great opportunity, the big battle, and the defining moment of the movie, is glossed over with some motivational sound track. In the Pursuit of Happiness we see Will Smith working his ass off in short 30 second spurts — he answers the phone like a boss, shows up early, and does all the right things and it looks easy and rewarding. In countless movies our hero works out, writes that article, somehow climbs up their metaphorical mountain, but that is never what the movie is about or what the focus is on. In our own lives however, that daily grid, the hard work, the transformation before the big moment is everything. It is never cut up into short clips to the tune of Eye of the Tiger.

 

Hearing from Holiday that meaningful work doesn’t always feel meaningful is helpful for me. It is reassuring to hear from people that I look up to that the bad days for them are as bad as they are for me. It is helpful to hear that others have been frightened as they try something they know might not really work out. Our ego hates these situations because we feel that if we fail publicly it will reflect something about us. Overcoming this piece of our ego is critical and accepting that the hard work will be frustrating and challenging can help us be more prepared for the journey ahead and to have more realistic expectations about the work we want to achieve. Looking at the ways our ego pushes us to pursue things we don’t really want or need also helps us better align our goals to make the hard work more meaningful and worthwhile. Getting away from an ego drive to have more things to impress more people allows us to be more content in the moments of hard work and grit.

More on the Goldfish Question

I am always surprised by how hard it is for myself, and really for anyone, to answer what sounds like one of the simplest questions that we could be presented with: “What do you want?”

 

We go through life with desires, pursuing the things that will make us happy, wake us up in the morning, and fill our stomachs. But when we really think about what we want in life, it can be a real challenge to come up with an answer. In my own life this has been a paralyzing question and the careful interrogation of myself and my life desires can really make me shake and bring about anxiety. I’m guessing that many people feel the same way, so we don’t spend a lot of careful time thinking through what we want, and as a result we don’t actually know.

 

Sure we all know when we want coffee or a doughnut or when we want a new car to one-up the neighbors, but these are just auto-pilot desires that we don’t have to spend a lot of mental energy dealing with. If we did, we might find that we don’t really want all these things to begin with.

 

In coaching situations, Michael Bungay Stanier loves to use this question. In his book The Coaching Habit he calls this question the foundation question and describes it this way:

 

“‘What do you want?’ I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: slightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out. Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer.
We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question ‘But what do you really want?’ will typically stop people in their tracks”

 

At the beginning of the summer of 2018 I was struck by an idea from Robin Hanson, which he detailed in his book co-authored with Kevin Simler titled The Elephant in the Brain. Our conscious mind is something like a press secretary. It is handed a script to explain our actions in a way that looks good to the broader public and creates a virtuous narrative about why we do the things we do. I believe the reason we can’t answer the question about what we want is because it stumps our press secretary. What we really want is to be popular, do work that isn’t that hard but looks and sounds impressive, and we want to stand out to get positive social recognition which brings with it the possibility of dates, more money, and other perks. It is hard for our press secretary to spin that to come up with a virtuous reason for us to want these things.

 

If we spend more time thinking about what we really want and why, we can find reasonable goals and accept that part of why we want the things we want is because we are inherently self-interested. It is OK to desire the fanciest car on the block and it is OK to work hard for positive social recognition. What is not OK, however, is for our desire for these things to be hidden from ourselves and to push toward those things in a way that is ruinous for ourselves and others. By carefully interrogating our desires we can start to think about what we want and whether it is truly reasonable for us to desire these things. Rather than lying to ourselves and saying that we are really passionate about automobile performance, or that we really just like running and fitness, or that the extra space on the home addition is really just going to help our children, we should at least be honest with ourselves in why we want those things. Then, when we are asked the goldfish question, we can understand that we have some self-interests motivating our behavior, but we can also begin to select things that we want that won’t be self-defeating or leave us on a hedonistic treadmill. We can find desires that align with our values and find places where our desires are satisfying to who we want to be and align with well thought out values.

Asking Others What They Really Want

The Coaching Habit is Michael Bungay Stanier’s book about how to become a more effective coach and help the people you work with, manage, or coach to become the best version of themselves possible. His book is full of both theory and practical applications, looking at psychology and building on his own coaching experiences and experiments. One of the suggestions that Bungay Stanier includes in his book is to ask people what they really want and help them build an understanding of what is at the core of their motivations and desires.

 

Bungay Stanier presents what he calls “The Foundation Question” as a tool to help build the ground to understand the direction that people want to go and start a conversation about why people are focused in a specific direction. Getting to the heart of someone’s desires will reveal a lot and will help prepare a road map toward the goals that go along with those desires. In the book, he writes,

 

“What do you want? I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: sightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out. Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer. We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question “But what do you really want?” will typically stop people in their tracks.”

 

It is hard for us to be self-aware and reflective enough to really know what we want, but it is even harder for us to be able to then take our desires and package them in a way that we can explain to other people. Beginning a process of thinking about what we really want and what drives us will shed light on how frequently we are motivated by selfish interests and meaningless definitions of success. Often our motivations are driven by someone else, outside ourselves, that we want to impress or whose standards we feel we need to live up to. Working through these complex emotions and desires with another person can be a way to help them get on a more stable and productive path. Bungay Stanier’s question can reveal a lot of fear and a lot of goals that sound great but have self-defeating motivations. The Foundation Question helps determine the starting point from which we can build better goals and align work and habits to achieve those goals.

The Expectations of Others

In his book Considerations Colin Wright addresses a topic that was very important for me to work through as I got through college. About halfway through my college career I began to really examine what I wanted to achieve from college and what I expected my life to be like. I faced quite a bit of anxiety and fear related to the questions of what I would achieve and what I needed to obtain in my life for me to consider myself successful.  Eventually I developed enough self-awareness to reflect on the things I assumed I would always have in my life and the things that I thought defined success. Through self-awareness  was able to recognize that many of the expectations I had for my life came from other people, particularly my parents, uncles, and shows like Top Gear. I knew that I had to live my life by moving toward things that I actually desired and considered successful, even if I felt as though it would not live up to the standards I had set in my head without consideration.  What I learned on my own is beautifully summed up by Colin Wright in just a sentence, “It’s not your responsibility to want the life that others want for you, and it’s not your responsibility to take on the responsibilities that don’t sync with how you want to live.”

 

What I eventually learned was that I could not let the expectations for my life that others had for me dictate how I lived. I would never be happy if I tried to always live my life in a way that was impressive to others. I would always be competing against my peers, family members, and society if  was trying to please someone else and live a life that they determined to be successful.  By deciding that I would not be tethered to their expectations, I no longer felt a responsibility to obtain a certain level of wealth or drive certain vehicles which would display that level of wealth and success wherever I went.

 

It is a difficult process to begin to understand that it is not our responsibility to live our lives in a way that makes others happy with us, or to achieve a certain expected level of success. It is our responsibility to focus on growth and being the best version of ourselves possible, as long as that version of ourselves truly aligns with our inner self. We must develop a sense of self awareness to understand what is and what is not in alignment with who we are at our core, so that we can live a life that is responsible to ourselves and not others.

Simplicity

In his letter to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, Scott Russell Sanders comments on the things we desire. Sanders writes, “Love simply. By that I mean, think about what you actually need for a good life, not what friends or ads have taught you to want.” This is a very meaningful quote to me because it speaks of the importance of self awareness, and of getting away from the pressures to buy and have things.

 

As a recent college graduate I love reading quotes like this one or hearing people talk about the importance of realizing what goals and desires you actually have.  Television shows portray a certain lifestyle, and advertisements fill your mind with ideas of how you should live and what things you should buy to be happy.  If one can spend time to understand that having lots of things will not translate to happiness, then they can begin to live more free.  I am not suggesting that anyone should abandon all desires for material items, but rather that having a BMW does not need to be ones goal or benchmark for success (especially at a young age out of college).  As I read back through this post, I am currently reading a book called Insight Out by Tina Seelig. In her book Seelig talks about entrepreneurs and motivation.  In a similar sense to what was discussed by Sanders, Seelig encourages asking yourself and anyone who wants to create something, “What motivates you?” and “Who are you?”  These two questions force someone to understand what forces driving them, and what they expect and need for happiness.

 

What Sanders quote also hints at is our competition with and comparisons against our friends, co-workers, and those we went to school with.  Striving for a lofty job title, a big house, and fancy cars just to be able to impress other people is damaging to yourself, your relationships, and ultimately your future.  I think Seelig would agree with my interpretation of Sanders’ writing, and could reach the same conclusion.  Having motivations that are external and based on rewards and social praise will drive you towards goals that don’t align with what you actual desire or what will really make you happy.

 

The drive to achieve greatness should not be based on what you want your external projection to be.  Learning to step away from television to avoid projections of what success and happiness look like will allow a person to be more flexible in their decision making and to become more happy with the lifestyle they already live. In addition, Sanders would agree, learning to be confident in the person you are and letting go of comparisons against the people around you will help you develop real relationships with them rather than having a relationship based on impressing someone with material wealth.

The Life We Want

During her 50 state road trip, Vesterfelt reflected on the life she was living before the 6 month voyage, the life she had to give up, and the life she hoped for following the trip. As she continued along and had time to think about who she was becoming, and what she wanted from her life, she wrote, “what I really wanted all along, which was to live a life that meant something and lasted longer than me.” In this quote I think that Vesterfelt sums up a fear that I have dealt with since my first day of college.  I have never wanted to have a job where I felt stuck or as if my only contributions went towards making the company and myself more money.
I am not sure how to take Vesterfelt’s quote and actualize it into a majestic journey or new opportunities that will open the doors for me to also find a life that is rich in meaning and will make an impact that goes beyond the years that I have on this planet.  Vesterfelt overcame these troubles by giving herself permission to be the person she wanted to be, and to tell people who she was (even though in her mind she was not yet the person she wanted to be).  This parallel’s the advice in the last episode of the Mindful Creator podcast that I listened to. In episode 6 Brett Henley and his guest talked about allowing yourself to be the person you want to be without waiting for others to give you permission to be that thing.  I think that is a great first step to finding meaning in your life, but it needs more direction. The podcast continued to say that once you have given yourself permission to be who you want, you have to show up. To them showing up is the part where you put in the effort, and practice your craft to develop the skills you need to be the person who lives a life of meaning.
I find all of these ideas very inspirational, but the ideas alone do not help overcome the fear of acting or putting in hard work for something that may not provide the rewards you are searching for. I think that with this fear, one must buy in completely to the idea of practice and showing up, but only if one can be honest with themselves and recognize what they truly desire, and the reason/motivation behind their goals and desires.