There’s a quote from Naval Ravikant that I think about often:
“Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.”
How do you separate the positive benefits of growth, accomplishment, and success with the underlying theme that you, we, do all of these things at least partially out of a sense of insecurity?
How do you know your real motivations? Are you chasing a dream because you want the dream or did someone, culture, or society, implant the dream in your mind? Shouldn’t you just be happy and content?
Theoretically, this is possible. Eastern Philosophy teaches you to free yourself from desire by staying present in the moment and realizing the meaninglessness of everything in your life.
I once read this book by a Zen teacher. At this point in my life, I’d got so heavy into meditation and yoga that I seriously considered moving to Tibet, renouncing all my possessions, and living in a cave. I’m not joking.
The book said to interpret everything as nothing. Your emotions? Nothing. Just fleeting physiological responses that you attach meaning to. Your goals, desires, and wants? Nothing. Just culturally influenced ideas in your head. Sadness, pain, frustration? Nothing. Just the lens you put on situations. But it went to the ad absurdum point of just having you sit there and add zero context to your experiences.
After reading this book, and going through this phase, I realized that I wanted more than nothing. Still to this day, I accept the underlying notion that desiring can make you unhappy, but I’ve come to the conclusion that some things are worth suffering for.
You’re going to go through some discomfort either way — might as well be toward a worthwhile end that makes you feel something. You know?
Because as nice as it sounds to just be content, you live in the physical and material world, which has such an influence on you that it’s going to be difficult to just sit in a cave and meditating endlessly.
Your perception of the world comes from the combination of culture and your wiring as a human being. When you work to fulfill your desires, there’s a way to do it that focuses on solid reasons for pursuing them, even if you’re driven a bit by the need to fill a void.
Desire can be a contract to be unhappy, or you can accept that you’ll always have it, use it as well as you can, and take steps to honor it without letting it take control of your life.
For one, you can look at fulfilling your desires through another lens. You can look at it through the lens of alleviating problems that frustrate you. That was a big one for me.
It was frustrating to live paycheck to paycheck. Like I said in the story I told in chapter 5 of my book, it was frustrating as a man to not be able to provide for my family the way I wanted to. It was frustrating to have to go to a job and listen to people who weren’t smarter than me, to have to deal with clients who didn’t appreciate me and to have to do all of it for less than what my services were actually worth.
Is desire is a contract to make yourself unhappy until you get what you want, frustration is the reminder that you’re unhappy because you don’t go for what you want. And that’s the biggest frustration. It was for me. I knew I was capable of doing more but I wasn’t doing anything about my situation.
Achieving success or fulfilling your desires alleviates the not knowing. That subtle yet persistent and gnawing feeling that whispers to you “What the hell are you doing with your life?”
Now I know.
And getting what you want isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be, but it still feels good to look back on everything you had to go to get to the point you’re at today, especially if it’s a point you could barely fathom in the past. You get to look in the mirror and know that you are who you always thought you were. That’s a good reason.
Getting some success mellowed me out a bit. It gave me perspective. I still feel the pull of desire every single day. I still see how it has a negative impact on my life if I pursue it too much, but I don’t have to sit around every day wondering what’s possible.
I’ve come to realize that there are no limits. Life is now more like a game where I’m just seeing what I can do for the hell of it, for the challenge, to make use of my time now that I’m free, to enjoy a few pleasures, to be an example.
Go on that path. And once you successfully finish an arc in your life, do this next.
Another quote that I think about often from Morgan Housel:
“The hardest but most important financial skill is getting the goalpost to stop moving.”
That’s not just a quote about money. It’s a quote about life in general. That’s the trick. Get what you want, but get it to an extent and stop. Master the tricky skill of learning to not necessarily quit while you’re ahead, but chill out once you have some security.
I used to think I wanted to be some mega-millionaire. Now? A nice lifestyle with the freedom to do what I want, with a few ostentatious exceptions, is enough for me. Sure, I’ll travel and buy some nice things from time to time, but I’m trying to play the game for the sake of playing the game now. It’s hard.
All of this is hard.
That’s key to remember. There’s no perfect answer to any of this. There’s no state of mind or net worth that’s going to cure you of your problems and anxieties totally. You escape the trap by understanding that you’re always going to be in it. This isn’t depressing. It’s liberating.
Once you stop trying to be perfect and stop trying to reach some perfect end state that never exists, you can start to live.