Buddhist traditions recognize that desire and ignorance are the origin of suffering. Stoic tradition recognizes this too. These arguments are quite durable, having maintained relevance for centuries, and the author William Irvine uses the teachings of both schools to reach a very clear, obvious truth in his book The Guide To The Good Life:
We can spend our days in a state of dissatisfaction. Alternatively, if we can learn to want whatever it is we already have, we won’t have to work to fulfill our desires in order to gain satisfaction.
The logical extensions of this idea frustrate me deeply. The idea starts with flaws inherent in the pursuit of “worldly things.” This is the hedonic treadmill. This is something everyone understands at some point. But Irvine’s argument creates discomfort for me when it slides to the deeper point: dissatisfaction isn’t caused by our pursuit for worldly things; dissatisfaction is caused by pursuit itself.
Regardless of the goal.
I’m Going To Be The Best Stoic Ever
As much as I want to believe that driven, disciplined, achievement-focused motivations are healthy, the grim truth is that it can create a warped sense of constant hunger. Some of the world’s greatest achievers are also some of the most frustrated, insecure, irritated people we could ever know. Is that by accident? I don’t think so.
I think it’s safe to say that goal-driven people are fueled by dissatisfaction and desire, among other things.
The reverse isn’t true. Goal-driven people are usually fueled by desire and dissatisfaction. But people who have a high level of dissatisfaction and desire are not always goal-driven. In fact, some people are dissatisfied because they aren’t goal-driven and feel out-of-place.
I think that sounds confusing but it basically brings us to the dichotomy of Type A and Type B personalities. This may be a crude construct but it has a lot of usefulness. As you probably intuit, we tend to refer to these two personality types in the following way:
Type A individuals are outgoing, ambitious, rigidly organized, highly status-conscious, sensitive, impatient, anxious, proactive, and concerned with time management. People with Type A personalities are often high-achieving “workaholics“. They push themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence. People with Type A personalities experience more job-related stress and less job satisfaction.
Type B personality, by definition, are noted to live at lower stress levels. They typically work steadily, and may enjoy achievement, although they have a greater tendency to disregard physical or mental stress when they do not achieve. When faced with competition, they may focus less on winning or losing than their Type A counterparts, and more on enjoying the game regardless of winning or losing.
Very few people fully inhabit either of these extremes. But to crystallize the concept, I like to think of Type A people, myself included, as the ones who go to a meditation class with the mindset I am going to become the best meditator in the world.
In fact, I am genuinely guilty of this very thing. I once caught myself researching “hacks” and “80/20 shortcuts” for ways that I could “10x” my “meditation game.”
This is patently absurd. Unless you’re Type A.
But don’t think that Type B personalities are exempt from absurd behavior. The reality, I think, is that there is no person who is purely Type B. Everyone strives. Everyone desires. Some just do it less than others. So even the most laid back, relaxed, go-with-the-flow personality will find something to pursue, obsess over, and constantly crave.
The point here is that desire, and the pursuit of this desire, can be a flawed enterprise. Our goals are a real source of angst and a building block for insatiable, unstoppable, adaptive treadmills.
And yet, the aforementioned Irvine is the same author that wrote the following:
A grand goal in living is the first component of a philosophy of life.
What is one to do with this apparent contradiction? Goals are a seed of discontent. Goals are necessary for a well-lived life. Does that mean a well-lived life is also an unsatisfactory life?
Definitely not. Moderation, of course, is the key.
Brian Eno is a brilliant, beautiful person who gives some of the best advice I’ve ever come across. One example is the following:
The smart thing in the art world is to have one good idea and never have another.
Apply this to Irvine’s idea of the grand goal of living. The smart thing to do in life is have one grand goal and never have another. Everything else, including your career path and your bucket list, is purely secondary — no, tertiary — to that grand goal. Those other things are completely disposable by comparison. Non-sacred. Non-vital.
After all, there can only be one North Star. By having just one, you maintain tremendous flexibility and room to operate. Just ask the Vikings. You can take a lot of routes, thousands of routes, most of them wildly indirect, to get to the destination because you have just one North Star to abide by.
This leads to another quote from Irvine:
To most, the best way to gain happiness is to get what you want, and the best way to get what you want is with a three-stage strategy: first, you take an inventory of the desires that lurk in your mind; second, you devise a plan for satisfying those desires; and third, you implement that plan. The Stoics suggest we do the opposite of this.
The Stoics suggest, in other words, that you eliminate the mission creep. There must be a single North Star. That single guiding light must be something evergreen that you don’t simply “acquire”. No one will ever reach the actual North Star. They’ll simply navigate by it.
So what is that North Star of life? That grand goal of living? I suppose it’s happiness. But Irvine argues for satisfaction. I agree with him. Happiness is part of the problem, after all. Happiness has a limited shelf life. We acquire something, feel happy for a short while, then the feeling fades. It’s leads to the next stage of the hedonic treadmill that Irvine describes below:
For each desire that we fill via the growth/plan/acquisition approach, a new desire will pop in our head to take its place.
One new desire after another. This is how the pursuit overwhelms us. Especially for Type A states of mind. Irvine perfectly describes the trap that emerges:
This means that no matter how hard we work to satisfy our desires for external things, we will be no closer to satisfaction than if we had fulfilled none of them.
The carrot is forever just out of reach.
I should be clear: goals are good. But there can be too much of a good thing if you don’t have a grand overarching pursuit to square against. Everyone eventually comes to a point in life where they ask themselves, What’s it all for?
The answer is yours to form. The answer may never be very clear but one thing is hopefully obvious: the goals you are chasing today probably aren’t the answer. To borrow from another of Irvine’s concepts, those goals might be instrumental, but they aren’t intrinsic.
So what if you took a week off? What if you quit acting on your goals for an entire week?
You’re probably thinking … What would I do then? Nothing?
Which is the perfect evidence for why you should take a break. If the notion of ignoring your goals for a week leads you to think you will do nothing, then your goals have overwhelmed your perspective.
I am not suggesting you do nothing. Nor do I suggest you not fulfill your responsibilities. I’m simply suggesting that you ignore your goals. Act on impulses instead. Act on promises made. Do your job. Brush your teeth. Just don’t apply the broader narrative. Don’t infuse the deeper meaning that only exists in your mind. Just be. For a week. Navigate solely by that vague, flickering North Star.
Can you do it? I can’t. But I’m trying. It’s one of my major goals this week.