Excesses and Externalities

The Problem with our Excesses

My previous post was about our desires to live a life that never involves any pain or suffering. We try to build a life for ourselves and our loved ones where every moment is happy, and where we never have to engage in drudgery, never experience physical discomfort, and never face any obstacles. Today’s post looks at another related aspect of our lives and mindsets that Sam Quinones highlights in his book Dreamland as part of our current opioid crisis: excesses.

 

Quinones is critical of our capitalistic culture that creates a message of buying things to find happiness, fulfillment, and meaning. The marketing departments of everything from soap companies, life insurance companies, to take-out restaurants suggests that happiness is right around the corner, as long as we are willing and able to buy more of what they offer. It is owning something bigger, having more, and expanding our consumption that is branded as a good life. But as Quinones sees it, “Excess contaminated the best of America.”

 

I studied public policy and I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts with economists. A common idea in the world of public policy and the mind of economists is the idea of externalities, secondary consequences of policies and peoples actions. Some externalities are positive, such as people developing a sense of civic pride after participating in an election, but many externalities are negative, such as green house gasses polluting the planet as we drive to and from work. What Quinones describes with the quote above, is the reality that our drive for excesses produces negative externalities that damage our planet and ultimately ruin the lifestyle that we chase.

 

By always wanting more, wanting it faster, and wanting it more tailored to our specific desires to make us feel like royalty, we have put ourselves in a place that is unsustainable. Our single use plastic bags have trashed our cities and open spaces. Having our individual cars to drive to everyplace we want to go emits more pollution than a well developed public transportation infrastructure. Over-purchasing consumer goods produces more garbage that has to go someplace.

 

This post has simply highlighted the reality that we live with negative externalities, and that our consumer driven culture is creating externalities which poison the planet. Quinones throughout his book focuses on the idea that our culture’s excesses have fueled the opioid epidemic by turning us inward toward our own wants versus encouraging us to think of others and how we can work together as part of a community. I think he is correct, and I think the space to start in making a change is by getting people to truly reflect on their lives, their purchases, and what they pursue. As Ryan Holiday put it in Stillness is the Key, “Eventually one has to say the e-word, enough. or the world says it for you.”

 

The way out of our opioid crisis, and indeed the way out of so many of our problems today, is to say enough to our own selfish desires. We need to stop the negative externalities that we produce when we purely pursue our own selfish ends, and instead we need to embrace our communities and put others first, to create more positive externalities which can heal our communities and fill the empty holes that consumerism leaves inside of us.

Build Relationships by Thinking of Others First

I have noticed in my own life that I become upset, frustrated, and anxious when I think first and foremost about my wants. Despite having a house, being in a good marriage, and being fit from getting to do a lot of running, I am always able to see more in my life that I want (or to see things in my life that I don’t want). I have noticed that I can become fixated on these likes or dislikes to the point where I cannot appreciate what I have. I start to look at what I have accomplished and rationalize why the things I want should fall into my lap, and why I should never have to deal with the things I don’t want.

 

This is not a helpful nor healthy way to view the world, and especially when it comes to our relationships, this can be a harmful way of thinking. When I fixate on my own wants I forget the value of the people in my life. Others become tools, objects to be used to obtain what it is I want, or to take on the burden of things that I do not want. For a person feeling discontent, this is the exact opposite way to view relationships in order to find a sense of stillness and happiness.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes, “Let’s cease thinking of our accomplishments, our wants. Let’s try to figure out the other person’s good points. Then forget flattery. Give honest, sincere appreciation.”

 

An interesting reality about humans is that our lives become more fulfilling and meaningful when we do things for others. It is not accomplishing things, it is not gaining more material possessions, and it is not obtaining fame which makes us the most happy. It is cultivating deep relationships and finding ways to help serve others which gives us the sense of contentedness that we seek.

 

Carnegie’s quote captures that essence. Focusing inward on our own desires and justifying the things we want and the possessions we have based on our achievements leaves us feeling hollow, and leaves us always desiring more. It pushes us to use people as means to our selfish ends. However, if we can turn this thinking around, we can see other people as valuable in their own right, and we can develop meaningful relationships with them. We can appreciate people for the things they do and find ways to be helpful to them, and this mindset will ultimately make us more fulfilled than a mindset focused on getting purely what we want out of life.

Ryan Holiday’s Anti-Ego Mantra

Ryan Holiday includes three sentences in his book Ego is the Enemy which he calls a mantra, “Not to aspire or seek out of ego. To have success without ego. To push  through failure with strength, not ego.” Holiday reads a lot, and this mantra that he has developed comes from the lessons he has learned from truly great men and women. He explains that everyone faces challenges and great difficulties in their lives, and that without checking ones ego, no one can rise to the top or become the best that they can be.

 

Aspiring and seeking out of ego is the drive to be better than others and the drive to be recognized for selfish reasons. There is a difference between being great at a what we do and pursuing greatness because we want to fully apply ourselves and bring the best version of ourselves to our lives versus trying to be great to show off. When we recognize that the praise of others is hollow and that our value as a person is based on more than what we accomplish and what awards other people give us, we can be more authentic, build a life based on relationships, and find more fulfillment.

 

For the ego, success is defined by what other people want and what other people think is impressive. The ego clamors for attention and status, constantly trying to one-up everyone else. The ego wants to be the best, to show off the best car, to show off the biggest house, and to flaunt what one has achieved. For the ego, what brings success is not as important as the attention and adulation that success brings. Achieving success without ego requires that we focus on solving problems in our lives and in the lives of others. We may become financially well off, but that is never the purpose and is not what defines our success. Great people find success by aligning themselves and their mission so that they can perform their best and make a meaningful impact wherever they are.

 

The ego fears failure because anything less than a perfect outcome takes away from the legitimacy of the ego. Any imperfection, flaw, or vulnerability is a potential crack in the shell of the ego, and as a result those who become successful with their ego will deflect all criticism and place the blame for failure elsewhere, so that it cannot damage the ego. If you do not bring ego with you on your journey, then you can embrace failure in a way that helps you learn, grow, and become stronger. The ego is fearful of mistakes and of being seen making mistakes, but when we push the ego aside we actually look closely to identify even our small mistakes to see opportunities where we can make improvements and grow.

 

Holiday’s mantra is a quick guide to finding a balanced pathway toward success. At each step the ego throws us off and opens us up to exploitation, fear, and distortion. We cannot aim toward a future driven by what we think will impress others, unless we want to live in a world where we never feel fulfilled. We cannot bring ego with us on our quest for success, or we will only find a finish line that continually moves back as we approach it and an appetite to show off that can never be satisfied. When we do fail, which we will at some point, our ego will deflect the failure from ourselves and undoubtedly damage relationships and the organizations we have been using as vessels for success. This is why recognizing and abandoning the ego (or at least trying to keep it from being our main driver) is important if we wish to have a fulfilling life that makes a difference in the world.

Work and Identity

On a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show podcast, Klein interviewed two journalists to talk about the central role that our work now plays in our lives. For many people, work is becoming increasingly important as a way to define oneself and as a way to give life meaning. I have seen reports and experienced in my own life that we have fewer close friends, fewer social groups, and fewer organizations outside of work that we participate with. The work we do ends up taking on more importance and more space in our lives as our lives outside work becomes less fulfilling.

 

One of the big problems we can face in this type of world is with the way we value ourselves. Having a kick-ass job ends up being the determining factor as to whether we are meaningful and valuable, and it can end up putting us in a place where we make bad decisions and can’t enjoy who we are without achieving success in work. Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy wrote about what happens when how we value ourselves as a person is connected to our work, “The problem is that when we get our identity tied up in our work, we worry that any kind of failure will then say something bad about us as a person. It’s a fear of taking responsibility, admitting that we might have messed up.”

 

Our egos want us to have great jobs and be impressive to everyone around us. When this becomes the only thing that gives us meaning and determines our value, we can’t take chances because a failure reflects onto us. Rather than allowing a failure to be an attempt at something new, the result of multiple factors, and driven by an unpredictable economic climate, failure is viewed almost as a moral shortcoming on our part. Our ego can be so fearful of failure that it drives us to bad decisions and drives us away from taking responsibility for our actions when failure occurs. Rather than learning, we deflect, and try to position ourselves as a victim. As a society we will need to move to a place where our work is still important, but where we have fulfilling lives outside of work. Existing under this pressure where we define ourselves by the work we do will take away from the richness of life and shut out people who may not be greatly positioned to contribute economically, but still have value by virtue of being human beings and can connect with us and others in meaningful ways that will help us find fulfillment as a society. We can still work hard, but we should find additional ways to value ourselves and our time.

Create Great Work

A real challenge across the globe in the coming decades will be helping people find ways to do meaningful work. A lot of our work today really is not that meaningful, and as more jobs can be automated, we will find ourselves with more people looking for meaningful work. Helping people find meaningful work will preserve social order and cohesion and will be crucial for democracies, companies, families, and societies as a whole as we move forward.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the importance of meaningful work in his book The Coaching Habit suggesting that coaching people is easier and better when you are helping someone with meaningful work. When you give people tasks and ask them to do meaningless jobs, you will never get the most out of them and you will never inspire them to go above and beyond. He writes, “The more we do work that has no real purpose, the less engaged and motivated we are. The less engaged we are, the less likely we are to find and create great work.”

 

The company I work for makes a real difference in the medical world. Our work leads to better health outcomes for patients and families and it is easy to see how our work has real purpose. But even within the work that I do, there can be tasks and responsibilities that seem unnecessary or burdensome. These little things can build up, and even within a good job they can begin to feel tedious and disengaging. To combat this, my company encourages efficiency and automation within the important things that we do. We are encouraged to think about ways to improve systems and processes and to find new ways to do things better. It is the autonomy and trust from our leadership that helps us stay engaged by allowing us to continually craft our jobs to an optimal level.

 

Not everyone is in the same situation that I am in. Many companies hold people to specific processes and inefficiencies, perhaps just to see how conformist and loyal individuals are to the firm. This holds back growth an innovation and demotivates and disengages employees. As this happens to more people and as meaningless tasks are displaced to robots, we will have to find new ways to motivate and engage employees, because our employees are our fellow citizens, and because motivation and engagement can be thought of as a public good. We all rely on an engaged citizenry for our democracy, and work helps us feel valued and engaged. How we face this challenge as individual coaches and as companies will make a big difference in how engaged our society is in the future. One approach is to help ensure everyone on your team and everyone you coach understands how their work contributes to the overall mission and goals of the firm. This does not simply mean that you hand everyone a nice slogan about why their position and duties are important, you must actually show how the company plans to move forward and how the department and the individual will contribute to the new direction. A recent challenge for myself that I have been thinking about is how you direct resources and attention to groups to also signal their importance. Without the leadership demonstrating how specific work contributes to overall goals and without time and attention appropriately directed to an individual or department, even important work can begin to feel meaningless or forgotten, and firms and societies will never benefit from the innovation and dedication of great work.

Avoid the Self-Focused Mindset

Dr. Laura Schlessinger continues in her letter of advice to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, and writes, “Life is not about personal aggrandizement, acquisition, and self-fulfillment.  In other words, man cannot live by “me, me, me,” alone.”  In this passage Dr. Schlessinger is writing about having a full and meaningful life, and she explains that a life focused on ones own personal existence, having lots of things, or always having fun does not translate into a meaningful life.  It is difficult, but once you begin to understand that life does not have to be a competition to show how successful one can become, you start to feel more attached to the things that you do every day, and you begin to appreciate where you are each moment.
As I have entered the working world out of college, I have had a struggle with trying to identify my goals and understand what success really looks like.  On the last episode of the Mindful Creator Podcast host Brett Henley talked to a guest about being confident with oneself and where you are in your journey at whatever point of your journey you find yourself.  The guest brought up the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”, and argued that a happier life is one where you give yourself permission to not want the lifestyle that is projected in movies, television shows, and advertisements.  The two talked about how liberating, both mentally and economically, freeing yourself from materialistic desires can be.
I think that Dr. Schlessinger would agree with everything the two talked about on the podcast.  It is important to be self aware and recognize when you are focusing only on yourself and doing things only for your own personal and materialistic gain.  Understanding that you have desires for things and certain lifestyles because you have seen them projected through mass media or across your friend’s Facebook is an important step in realizing how to live a better life.  Being continually focused on impressing others with your lifestyle and possessions will place an unfair amount of stress on yourself, and will alienate you from people who you could otherwise share a deep connection with.  Learning to be happy with who you are, where you are on your journey, and to drop the pressures from visions of what your life should be will open you up to become a more compassionate person. Beyond that point you become a person who can share more meaningful moments with people around you.