Category Archives: achievement

All Means And No End

Douglas Rushkoff in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus:

“We have set in place an economic system whose growth works against our own prosperity.”

He explains that the central assumption of our economic lives — that further economic growth will create continually rising prosperity for all — is broken. Companies are designed to take money out of the system so in the end they vacuum up the playing field altogether, impoverishing the markets, consumers and employees–on whom they ultimately depend.

 

As we unfortunately absorb capitalistic principles into our daily lives, we also have inherited their flaws. One of them being the need to constantly grow. And just as much as it is unsustainable for businesses, it is equally unsustainable in our daily lives since we can never be certain whether we have achieved enough. The inevitable consequence is disappointment from endless ambition on the one hand, and bitterness when things don’t work on on the other.

 

Matt Haig explains wonderfully in his book Reasons to Stay Alive how our culture constantly threatens us to “improve.”

“The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind. To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.”

To achieve what Haig calls ‘the revolutionary act of being calm’ requires constraints. We tend to assume that “keeping our options open” means living with more freedom. Harry Emerson Fosdick provides an important context for freedom:

“Self-denial is not the negative, forbidding thing that often we shake our heads about. In one sense there is no such thing as self-denial, for what we call such is the necessary price we pay for things on which our hearts are set.”

One must choose to live up to standards based on one’s own judgment about what is good. Then when the world incites us to improve in some way we can interrogate those ideas and ask whether they are opportunities to exercise our values and, if they aren’t, we can be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’ Within simple everyday things like working, walking outside, talking with people, bathing, and eating can be found all the opportunities to live according to chosen values and be fully awake, fully alive and fully human.

 

Self improvement has infiltrated all aspects of our lives as if to suggest that unless an activity is doing some kind of optimization or fulfills some end, it’s not worth doing. I like to think of meditation as just practicing ‘being’ — a time to attempt experiencing a reality deeper than goals, narratives, expectations and desires. But as Mike Powell in Meditation in the Time of Disruption points out, even meditation has been exploited to serve some kind of means.

“Whereas some come to meditation as a way of reckoning with the incredible gifts existence has already given them, others come because they want to see what else is in the bag. This sort of rhetoric only gets ramped up in reference to meditation as a performance booster. For example, the promise that meditation will make you more effective at work seems to have a lot more salience and motivational charge than the promise that meditation will just make work feel a little less important overall.”

“All told, this is a bleak picture,” writes Alexandra Schwartz in Improving Ourselves to Death, published in the New Yorker. She asks, “If the ideal of the optimized self isn’t simply a fad, or even a preference, but an economic necessity, how can any of us choose to live otherwise?” And then provides this answer:

“This isn’t a message of hopelessness. On the contrary, what it actually leads us towards is a better way of finding happiness. Once you realize that it’s all just an act of coercion, that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be, you can begin to free yourself from your demands.”

Recognize the coercion being acted upon you and free yourself from your demands. Find things to do that will not improve you in any measurable way. Go for a walk in the woods. Think about the vastness of the cosmos. Go to a museum and look at art. Or read a book.

 

In The Bookish Life: How To Read And Why, Joseph Epstein explains how reading is one of those things that don’t need to be of concrete use in order to have value.

“What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind. “I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding,” Montaigne wrote, “but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” What Montaigne sought in his reading, as does anyone who has thought at all about it, is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” As I put it elsewhere some years ago, I read for the pleasures of style and in the hope of “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness,” and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.”

What Does Greatness Have That Mediocrity Doesn’t?

Judging by most people’s behavior, I would say one of the the biggest fears we have in our culture is of being mediocre. People don’t just jog, they become marathoners; they don’t just exercise but go to Crossfit in order to compete at being the best at it. Workaholism is a badge of honor, reversing centuries where it was the poor who worked while the rich rested. And once adults feel like they’ve peaked, they can begin building their competitive kids. Being average is being an uninteresting slacker who won’t commit 10,000 hours of practice to something.
Is greatness everything it purports to be? I’m skeptical. Or maybe I’m trying to justify my own sense of inferiority. But when I look at what makes greatness so tempting, I see some holes. First off, here are the reasons I can come up with as to why greatness is so great:

  1. The belief that the activity we are engaging in could be more enjoyable if we were the best at it — winning feels better than losing.
  2. In our search for meaning, our current state isn’t cutting it so we reason that it must be because we haven’t reached some higher level where meaning occurs. If we were the greatest at something, that uniqueness would grant a new sense of meaning only endowed on those who are the greatest — we can earn happiness by earning greatness.
  3. We long for status. Greatness = popularity = influence = money = happiness.
  4. For some reason we feel like we don’t belong and greatness would prove to everyone that we are worthy.

Greatness, in essence, is a study of ourselves compared to others. So really, greatness is a perception more than it is a reality. That perception can be manipulated by who we compare ourselves to and what metric we use to compare with.

Malcolm Gladwell has explained that in elite universities many students seek greatness by competing with others to be accepted only to feel like they lose their greatness once they get in.

“When you are in the 99th percentile and you’re up against someone in the 99.99th percentile, you feel stupid.Then you go back to the real world, and you’re smart again. So why would you artificially put yourself in a situation where you feel so dumb that you stop doing the very thing that you went to school to do?”

Gladwell goes on to explain his experience working for a mediocre student newspaper:

“I had a way better experience than I would have had if I was at the highly competitive newspaper. I’ve never forgotten that. By virtue of being this lame, forgotten thing, I got to do more fun stuff and have a much better time than I would have at the proper newspaper.”

The satisfaction of greatness is solely inside your mind and can be achieved by manipulating the input of who you compare yourself with just as much as reaching a certain level of achievement.
Winning is something that is not completely within your control. So to use an external outcome outside of your control as the metric for success is setting yourself up for greater disappointment. Better to use an internal metric to measure yourself against that is in your control — like doing your best. The decreased anxiety of using an internal goal will increase enjoyment during the event and satisfaction afterwards.

 

Releasing yourself from the goal of greatness and reveling in the mediocrity of multiple interests might just be the thing that actually leads to greatness.
Steven Johnson explains in, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Of Innovation,” Innovators like Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin favored working on multiple projects simultaneously, in a kind of slow multitasking mode. One project would take center stage for days at a time, but linger at the back of the mind afterwards too, so connections between projects could be drawn. Breakthrough ideas don’t come out of the blue. They are found at the intersection of  all the other ideas smashing into each other in your head.

“Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities—a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity—but they also share one other defining attribute. They have a lot of hobbies.”

I have a hard time watching those talent shows on TV like American Idol. The contestants are demonstrably talented but singing songs written by other people is ultimately not what we want. One focused on greatness in music or any other field might become an expert, but greatness isn’t expertise, it’s originality and insight.

Adam Grant says,

“Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music. No one is forcing these luminary scientists to get involved in artistic hobbies. It’s a reflection of their curiosity. And sometimes, that curiosity leads them to flashes of insight.”

In this context, striving for greatness can be seen as just a competition of who can be the best at conforming. Some entity sets the rules and then it’s a test to see who is the best at subjecting themselves to be the best at those rules. Being the best at meeting some requirements really isn’t greatness despite what the people who made the rules say — of course they’re going to say that’s what greatness is, it puts them in a position of greatness.


“Your potential, the absolute best you’re capable of—that’s the metric to measure yourself against. Your standards are. Winning is not enough. People can get lucky and win. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.” ― Ryan Holiday, The Ego Is the Enemy

 

The term “hedonic treadmill” is what social scientists call the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. In other words, the happiness that is awarded those who achieve greatness is fleeting.
There are many people who reach a level of greatness only to feel empty and vapid. Jim Carrey is quoted saying,

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

So why strive for greatness if the reward is so unfulfilling? If we’re not content with our current status then there’s a good chance that no level of greatness will make us feel any better. Or to say it another way, we stand just as good a chance of being content with ourselves in our current state of mediocrity than in being great — actually we have a greater chance since it’s a place much more accessible; we can reach it within our own minds.
That isn’t to say it doesn’t take effort to be happy in our current state. Getting over our sense of inferiority is not easy. Our default setting is to avoid pain and seek pleasure, often to the detriment of the present moment.
Ancient eastern Buddhism and western philosophy both concern themselves with practices and mindsets that teach us how to let go of the past and future and live in the present to achieve a feeling of true greatness — being ourselves. To hope for an increase in pleasure from a future of greatness is to be ignorant of pleasure’s very nature. We can achieve stable pleasure only if we know how to limit ourselves to what we can obtain within the present moment, without letting ourselves be swept along by the unreasonable limitless needs of our desires.
This isn’t another way of convincing ourselves to be okay with settling. The present is everything.  Seneca said,

“He who enjoys the present without depending on what does not exist…he is without hope and without desire; he does not hurl himself toward an uncertain goal, for he is satisfied with what he has. Nor is he satisfied with little, for what he posses is the universe…like God he says, “All this belongs to me.”

The present isn’t to be suffered for a future eternal life. It is eternal life.

“Death is not an event of life. It is not experienced. If by eternity we mean not an infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then whoever lives in the present lives eternally.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein

There are tens of millions of people who are better at everything that I do. But I don’t have to compare myself with them, because I’m in a different competition. For a life to be valuable, or meaningful, it needn’t be unique. Believing that specialness is tied to meaning leads me to unnecessarily see my life as insufficiently meaningful and to miss ways of enhancing the meaning that is available. Loving the process instead of the outcome is the secret to motivation and daily enjoyment of the present.
Reaching an arbitrary level of greatness does not prove that we are great. It’s a false label that inspires our egos to think we’re superior to others. We are all always going to be imperfect and “greatness” can only cover it up temporarily.

“Imperfection is not our personal problem – it is a natural part of existing.”  – Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha

I’m not a problem that needs to be solved. I’m neither mediocre nor great. I choose to not affirm myself at all costs against the order of the world and instead delight in the splendor of pure existence.

Don’t Trust Your Goals

I saw the above magazine on a table in the gym this morning and it reconfirmed to me how skeptical I am of reaching goals to increase happiness. It’s such as easy assumption to make: “Choosing outcomes that make people look happier will make you happier too!”

There is no shortage of celebrities and rock stars who describe getting everything they ever wanted and simultaneously being the saddest they’ve ever been.
As Jim Carry says,

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

So first of all, avoid focusing on outcomes. Efforts directed at outcomes outside of your control will have the inevitable consequence of either disappointment from endless ambition on the one hand, or bitterness when things don’t work on on the other.

Instead of outcomes,

“Fall in love with the process and the results will come” -Eric Thomas.

But what kind of process should you undertake?

Mark Manson tells the story about wanting to be a famous rock star,

“But despite fantasizing about this for over half of my life, the reality never came. And it took me a long time to figure out why.

I didn’t actually want it.

I’m in love with the result — the image of me on stage, people cheering, me rocking out, putting everything I have into what I’m playing — but I’m not in love with the process.

The daily drudgery of practicing, the logistics of finding a group and rehearsing, the pain of finding gigs and actually getting people to show up and give a shit. The broken strings, the blown tube amp, hauling 40 lbs of gear to and from rehearsals with no car. It’s a mountain of a dream and a mile-high climb to the top. And what it took me a long time to discover is that I don’t like to climb. I just want to imagine the top.”

If you enjoy the idea of reaching the goal more than you enjoy the daily struggle to achieve it, you’re in trouble. Better to make your decision based on what you enjoy struggling with everyday and put no thought on the outcome.

Why something that causes you to struggle? That’s the only way to grow, feel progress and have a sense of meaning.

Only those people who enjoy the mundane repetition of being in the gym, pushing their physical limits and like feeling sore, are the ones who get ripped.
Only those who love the uncertainty about what to write next and the loneliness of self-reinforcement become accomplished novelists.
Only those who like to suffer through the long nights and find pleasure from the stress of being resourceful to make their entrepreneurial endeavor work become successful business owners.

Ira glass said,

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Pick what you enjoy doing that puts you in that “gap” where you’re work is bad – and accept that it may never get better. Pick the suffering that you can’t leave alone. Pick the thing that even if it never made money, was never seen and never gave you any prestige you’d still do it.

Then, choose to be content by doing what makes you struggle everyday.