Think about this metaphor:
If there is no track, you can’t be off track.
Also, recall the analogous scene in Alice in Wonderland in which Alice asks the cat which way she should go and the cat answers: if you don’t care where you end up, it doesn’t matter which way you go.
Let’s say that tracks or ways are goals.
It follows that, without a goal, you can’t go wrong.
Misery only arises after we create the possibility to be off track. Wrong decisions can only occur after we’ve specified a criterion for good and bad tracks, right and wrong ways.
As the Stoic philosopher Seneca put it in yet another metaphor:
“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is [(un)]favorable.”
Why do we make ourselves vulnerable to going the wrong way, to screwing things up, in the first place?
Why can’t we just be happy?
Let’s play Freud
There are many explanations of why we do something rather than nothing going around that link busyness to psychological struggle.
These theories explain human striving by appealing to unconscious needs. Similar to Sigmund Freud’s philosophy, they maintain that we act like we do because our behavior is governed by mechanisms — troublesome mechanisms — of which we are unaware.
According to one, people chase goals in an attempt to run away from the confrontation with ourselves that an empty calendar would force us to have:
We pursue success to flee from our emotions.
Or, we try to achieve things for no other reason than boredom minimization:
We want to achieve goals to stop us from realizing that we are, in fact, existentially bored.
Alternatively, ‘the system’ has tricked us into believing that our efforts have any significance:
Topping it all, according to a Dutch article I read recently, “everyone desires a life without goals”.
To throw my cards on the table: I don’t think Freudian explanations apply here and I hate such life philosophies with a passion.
I also can’t help feeling offended by them. When I read the Dutch essay, I got so angry that for the rest of the day people kept asking what had happened.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
To be able to engage with such theories, we need first to understand them.
Why am I still not fulfilled?
Why would someone be convinced that we spend our time running away from ourselves or our boring lives, desiring a life without goals if only capitalism wouldn’t have tricked us?
The arguments for the sweeping claims that “workers”, “people” or “everyone” face(s) this predicament are disapointingly unclear, but the idea is something like this.
Goals condemn one to go through a process where one has an unsatisfied desire, works to satisfy the desire and experiences pleasant but temporary feelings of desire-satisfaction as a byproduct when one reaches the goal.
What follows, is a void:
We cannot withdraw from the cycle of dissatisfaction → labor → goal-achievement and choose to simply stay happy. Whatever destination we reach, there is no such thing as happily ever after. The satisfaction we look for, keeps eluding us.
Even though chasing goals is a fool’s errand, we can’t help ourselves — we need this endless quest to escape our inner demons, we’re in the grip of capitalism, or both.
Deep down, however, we desire a goal-less existence.
Maslow on self-fulfillment
What should we make of this argument?
It’s true that boredom minimization or fear of dread might explain why some people do so so much — the types that can’t sit still or get scared at the thought of meditating.
Furthermore, there is something right in the idea that happiness ever after doesn’t exist, because, having achieved such a peaceful ‘all is well’ state of mind, we would soon find ourselves needing something else to struggle for.
Still, I have a feeling that there’s more to this.
Jumping from (1) the impossibility of eternal fulfillment and (2) the partial relevance of ‘Freudian’ factors to (3) deflationary explanations of human striving overlooks a deep aspect of human nature:
“Contrary to Freudian theories which see sex as the central motive in human behavior, [the German neurologist] Goldstein argues that self-actualization, or the drive to realize one’s full potential, is the more fundamental motivation in our lives.” — Nick Wignall
As Goldstein predicted, psychological research finds that self-actualization is an essential reason why people do something rather than nothing.
Consequentially, in his hierarchy of human needs, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow famously posits self-actualization — achieving one’s full potential — as the highest of human wants.
If correct, people have the desire to become everything that they are capable of becoming:
“Man is meant to be busy. But busy on certain types of things. There is not supposed to be some distinction between work and not work. It’s all supposed to be work…and none of it is supposed to feel pointless or soul-crushing.” — Ryan Holiday
Asserting, by contrast, that everyone who’s working towards something does so to escape oneself sounds like an unjustified generalization of your own case:
Saying you won’t try to achieve *insert goal here* because achieving goals is actually *insert Freudian explanation here* is actually you just building an excuse when you fail (paraphrase from Tom Kuegler).
People need to stop making up stories about people who work a lot being tricked by capitalism or having psychological issues — it’s (mostly) untrue and quite offensive.
So when you’ve abandonded your cynic friends, join team self-improvement. We are rooting for you and want you to make a ruckus and think that you should take your responsibility:
“How dare you settle for less when the world has made it so easy for you to be remarkable?” -Seth Godin
There’s more to that
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