Breaking news: no self-help writer on planet earth can tell you exactly what to do with your life. With 7 billion humans on planet earth, it’s impossible to create an exact description of success that works for everyone.
Often, I’ll write an article about using ambition to improve your life. Someone will reply back with a comment along the lines of:
“Yes, you want to have ambition, but not too much. Focus on finding the middle way. Success isn’t everything.”
I agree with statements like these one hundred percent.
Achieving your goals won’t solve all your problems. Theoretically, you can find happiness and meaning without doing a damn thing at all. Too much ambition can poison your mind and leave you on a never-ending chase for new heights. All true.
But, living below your potential has just as many, if not more, problems. When you live well below your potential, you know it. You can just feel it. You carry the anxiety with you for your entire life.
Each day, life reminds you that you’re not living the life you want at all. Sometimes it’s a silent whisper, like a dog whistle almost — most people go through their lives with this silent whisper.
Then, every once and a while, or maybe often, the realization that you might be wasting your life hits you right between the eyes. You see this happens to people when they have a ‘quarter’ or ‘midlife’ crisis.
Most people ride this rollercoaster of anxiety up and down until they die. Yes, many preach the middle way, but few achieve it because they underestimate the ceiling.
You don’t even know what your limits are. You grossly underestimate them.
“But you see,” said Roark quietly, “I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards—and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.” – The Fountainhead
Why should you focus on improving your life at all? Why try to reach your potential? You’re going to die. None of your accomplishments technically matter. You’re living in a rock floating in the middle of nowhere — totally insignificant. What’s the point?
Even though you live in a vast universe, you think of yourself as the center of the universe.
Think of just how preoccupied you are with yourself. Be honest. You’re in your head, suffocating in mental chatter, much more often than you are consciously thinking and planning.
This is why I recommend mediating. When you stop to watch your actual thoughts, you realize how insane you are.
So, you’re this neurotic self-obsessed creature. You have this deep-seated need for success because you want to be a good mate, have sex, and pass on your genes. You have this need to achieve status because you want to ‘fit in with the tribe.’
Throw some deeply woven in social programming about rugged individualism and the pursuit of happiness on top of that all. Good luck trying to overcome such integral beliefs and behavior patterns by meditating in a cave.
You improve your life — health, wealth, love, spiritual contentment — so you can rise up the hierarchy of needs. Maybe some of the boxes are hollow, but you check them off anyway.
Why? Because at a minimum you scratch the itch of having to constantly wonder what it would be like to level up your life. Better to find out success wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be than to never pursue it at all.
Don’t listen to me. Listen to yourself. I love writing because you leave the reader with thoughts to ponder. Sometimes they just think you’re wrong, which is fine. Sometimes they think you’re spot on, also great. But often, they consciously call you wrong while subconsciously agreeing with you.
When you provoke a response, it’s usually because there’s a hint of truth in what you’re saying. This works both ways. The comments on my articles provoked me to respond because deep down I know they’re right in a way when they talk about the superficial nature of self-improvement.
All of this leaves you with the answer that there is no answer. You have that tug of war between wanting to level up and being content for your whole life, but you do grow over time.
“Most people are preoccupied with survival in all its subtle forms, and so they reflect primarily fear, anger, and a desire for gain. They have not learned that the state of lovingness is the most powerful of all survival tools.” – Dr. David Hawkins
More and more, I’m starting to see the pursuit of worldly success as a spiritual journey. Not because the rewards provide spiritual growth, but because the process does.
I’ve learned a lot from spiritual teachers like Dr. David Hawkins, who talks about ‘ascending levels of consciousness.’ The end goal, which few ever reach, is the state of enlightenment.
Most of us start at much lower levels. Many of us find ourselves at the level of apathy. See, you can easily confuse apathy with spiritual contentment. And that’s what most people do.
Are you content? Or did you just give up?
Do you lack the need to pursue goals or the belief you can pursue them?
If you believe in this concept of the middle way, notice that the middle of this chart is at a much higher level than most people find themselves in. Do I believe in this teachings verbatim? No, but they’re a useful guide.
Making money, achieving status, and pursuing long-term goals requires you to move through these stages. If you can move through them without the wordly rewards, do it. But often, this seems to be the way.
“The hardest but most important financial skill is getting the goalpost to stop moving.” – Morgan Housel
This logic applies to more than just money. It applies to everything.
How do you know when to stop?
You have to take many things into account. You want to have enough resources to have freedom and autonomy. For me, this looks like making an upper-middle-class living, living a middle-class lifestyle, and saving the difference so you never have to be told what to do.
When it comes to your material attachments, again it’s up to you. For me? I say splurge on the things you really like, not things to impress people. My watch collection costs more than my car. I like looking good, but a car is just something to get me from A to B.
The ultimate goal is to spend your time doing, more or less, exactly what you want to do with your life. The definition of exactly means different things to different people, but you can try to get close to it.
When you’re in the middle, you’re never too up or too down. Most people are too far down to be ready to have a conversation about keeping the goalposts in the same spot. You’ll have a better idea the closer you get to that point.
When you do get to that point, you can pursue whatever you want to pursue for the sake of pursuing it. That’s where the real fun comes in. At first, you scratch and claw to get out of survival mode. Then, you achieve some of your petty desires.
Then, you realize your petty desires aren’t what they seemed to be but you still want to work, still want to start projects, still want to provide value to the world and build your personal legend even if your personal legend doesn’t mean anything.
Or, maybe you do move to a cave somewhere and meditate all day like Jack Dorsey. At the end of the day, you can’t say you’re anywhere close to themiddle way unless you’ve truly gone through that arc of trying to achieve a long-term goal that stretches you.
Do that first, then you’ll have plenty of time left to figure out your exact recipe for spiritual contentment.