The following is a full-length version of an article I wrote for Art of Manliness. The piece there is more manageable, focusing on the broader idea and leaving out specific suggestions. Enjoy!
“The best thing is to want what is right (the honesta) and not to stray from the path.” – Seneca, Phaedra
“[W]e go to far less trouble about making ourselves happy than about appearing to be so.” – La Rochefoucauld
“My life … is for itself and not for a spectacle.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!” – Marcel Proust
My biggest fear is to live a life I regret.
It’s easy to fall into the trap Proust is talking about and spend life blindly chasing something you never actually wanted.
Blindly following your desires makes you a slave to your impulses — slave to the assumptions of those around you, the advertisements you’re exposed to, and the confused chemical signals of your body.
Our default is to spend our life as rats blindly chasing the next dopamine hit.
This isn’t a setting easily adjusted, but it’s worth shifting our aims and becoming fully human.
If we don’t pause and ask ourselves what we want to want, we will spend our lives focused on unhealthy aims defined for us by others and the worst parts of ourselves. We will pass these bad assumptions about life onto our children and loved ones. We will reinforce these boring, desperate defaults in everyone we encounter.
To achieve freedom we must be able to think for ourselves. If we don’t cut to the core and program our wants (our desires) then our best-case scenario is to be the most successful, rich, or famous slave. If we never peer into our programming then we may end up the cleverest rat, but that’s hardly worth celebrating.
Asking yourself what you want to want can help you avoid wanting the wrong things.
It can also help with existential crises, disillusionment, and other crises of desire. The current culture has betrayed us in the way it programs our desires. It’s exhausted many of us to the point where we’re wary of wanting anything at all.
Asking this question may give you the ability to desire again–to trust in yourself and your aims.
What do you want to want?
To answer this question seriously we have to understand what it is and why it matters, so we’ll start there.
We’ll then move to four of the most common defaults for desire: ease, fame, wealth, and an extraordinary life. When we look at these closely, many of us will shift our desires to something more substantial.
Finally we’ll look at two ways in which we can start shifting our desires to serve us—slowly freeing ourselves from being slaves to society’s default desires, and programming our own defaults in their place.
Let’s get into it.
Part I: You Are What You Want
There’s never been a time in human history where it was easy for someone to trade in their status quo wants for deliberately chosen desires, but we live in a period where this project is particularly difficult.
There’s no one dominant, cohesive culture and there are endless options — a million different lifestyles and beliefs to try on and a never-ending buffet of things to want. There are a million advertisers and media gurus competing for your attention, playing on your insecurities. It’s a time of acute cross-pressures, and folks aren’t sure which way to go.
It’s a dizzying time, but not a wholly unique one.
The ancient Roman philosophy of Stoicism was born in a time of anomie, or “normlessness,” similar to ours. Their social structures were breaking down, the normal societal games used to divvy up honor and respect were broken.
Carlin Barton puts it this way in Roman Honor, “With the loss of the rules and conditions of the good contest, the entire language of honor ‘imploded’ and had to be ‘reconstructed.’” Imagine the anxiety this would cause a society that was built completely around living for honor.
The early Stoics had to go back to first principles to discover what truly mattered in life. They had to ask themselves the question we’ll look at here: What do I want to want?
Many of the stable arenas in which a Roman could formerly earn the respect of his peers had collapsed. Into this vacuum stepped the Stoic philosophers, who offered guidance on how to navigate their newly fragmented world.
For this reason, these ancient philosophers are particularly helpful in illuminating what ails modernity and teaching us how to reconstruct a system in which we can thrive. For example, Seneca makes this observation about folks who didn’t take charge of what they wanted in his time:
“If you ask one of them as he comes out of a house, ‘Where are you going? What do you have in mind?’ he will reply, ‘I really don’t know; but I’ll see some people, I’ll do something.’ They wander around aimlessly looking for employment, and they do not what they intended but what they happen to run across. Their roaming is idle and pointless, like ants crawling over bushes, which purposelessly make their way right up to the topmost branch and then all the way down again. Many people live a life like these creatures, and you could not unjustly call it busy idleness.”
Sounds familiar, right? Such drifting may be as old as civilization itself, but we don’t have to take part. Exploration is helpful, experimentation is important, but if we don’t have a feedback loop, we’re lost.
When we’re unaware of what we want, we’re hopeless to know if it’s worth wanting.
In times of uncertainty and flexibility, like Seneca’s and ours — when everything seems to be in chaos and nobody knows what’s going to happen next – understanding what you want, and being able to reprogram those desires, is both vitally important and uniquely possible.
Why What You Want Matters
“Every chance of stimulation and distraction is welcome to [the mind]—even more welcome to all those inferior characters who actually enjoy being worn out by busy activity. There are certain bodily sores which welcome the hands that will hurt them, and long to be touched, and a foul itch loves to be scratched: in the same way I would say that those minds on which desires have broken out like horrid sores take delight in toil and aggravation.”
-Seneca, Tranquility of Mind
When Jack London and his wife were preparing to make a sea voyage in a small ship, their friends called them crazy. They didn’t understand why London would willingly do something so difficult, so dangerous. Yet for London, it was the “path of least resistance”—it was as easy a decision for him as staying on land was for his friends. He reports on why he made the trip:
“The ultimate word is I Like. It lies beneath philosophy, and is twined about the heart of life. When philosophy has maundered ponderously for a month, telling the individual what he must do, the individual says, in an instant, “I Like,” and does something else…
That is why I am building the [ship]. I am so made. I like, that is all.”
His default desire was adventure, and so adventure was the obvious choice.
Our desires define our own paths of least resistance.
Psychologists have discovered that we all have limited willpower. This means that if you’re fighting uphill to do the right thing, you’ll eventually lose.
Your desires are like channels cut through the landscape of your life; water (your behavior) will automatically flow whichever way these arteries have been carved and directed.
If you live life passively, these channels are made up of mindless, ingrained defaults formed by your biology and the pressures of society.
The good news, however, is that these channels are not set in stone and can be deliberately altered; you can create new conduits of energy that flow in directions of your own choosing.
Those who consider seriously what they want to want will be miles ahead of those who remain reactionary to media, ads, and their blindly-chosen peer groups.
Putting in the work now to create your own defaults will pay massive dividends for the rest of your life.
The Possibility of Reprogramming Your Default Wants
It’s not easy to move away from the default settings instilled by biology and culture in order to reprogram your wants. But it’s not impossible either.
The benefits of setting your own default desires have been recognized for millennia. Confucius considered this kind of reprogramming essential to realizing wu-wei – action that comes naturally. Edward Slingerland explains the process of its attainment in Trying Not To Try:
“In the early stages of training, an aspiring Confucian gentleman needs to memorize entire shelves of archaic texts, learn the precise angle at which to bow, and learn the lengths of the steps with which he is to enter a room. His sitting mat must always be perfectly straight. All of this rigor and restraint, however, is ultimately aimed at producing a cultivated, but nonetheless genuine, form of spontaneity. Indeed, the process of training is not considered complete until the individual has passed completely beyond the need for thought or effort.”
In other words, through deliberate training that at first feels tedious, we eventually arrive at a point where we want what we want to want.
Reprogramming your default wants (habitual desires) and achieving wu-wei can take a lifetime. Confucius measured his progress not in days, weeks, or even years, but in decades:
“At fifteen I set my mind upon learning, at thirty I took my place in society; at forty I became free of doubts; at fifty I understood Heaven’s Mandate; at sixty my ear was attuned; and at seventy I could follow my heart’s desires without transgressing the bounds of propriety.”
We probably will never reach the ultimate point that Confucius describes (only partially because we may find it impossible to determine the perfect thing to want to want!) but are guaranteed to make progress if we work at it.
What Do You Want to Want?
It’s uncomfortable to reprogram our desires. (From lust to love, say.)
It’s uncomfortable to ask ourselves “is this what I want to want?” when we so desperately want it. (That desire for ice cream or the cigarette or the promotion out of a job you love to one you hate are just so loud in our minds.)
It’s uncomfortable to tell someone you love that you don’t want what they want you to want. (Will your parents or partner or mentor still love you? Still speak to you?)
Are you willing to deal with that discomfort? Are you willing to ask yourself:
What do I want to want?
Not all answers to that question are good or bad, right or wrong. You may prefer living in the countryside rather than the city, or vice versa. That’s good to know about yourself, but there’s not a lot of moral or existential significance there.
Yet there are also some wants that are more “right” than others. Right in the sense that they lead you to more flourishing – for yourself and those around you.
Part II: Shifting Your Wants From the Empty to the Flourishing
If I did my job, then we now all agree that what we want matters. The next question that must be answered is what to want.
That’s a question philosophers have wrestled with for millennia without a solid answer. We don’t need to bother with minutiae though; a solid 80% of the want-shifting we want to do should be obvious.
Let’s look to Aristotle for help with a framework. He suggested we take eudaimonia as our ultimate goal. This is often called “happiness,” but it isn’t the happiness that comes with pleasure — it’s the fulfillment and flourishing that comes with being virtuous.
Eudaimonic acts are generally harder to practice in the moment, but feel better later. They exact a short-term cost in effort and discipline, but enhance our long-term excellence.
The opposite would be hedonistic acts. You know, crank and strippers and Cinnabons. They offer a short-term hit of pleasure, but take a long-term toll on our moral and physical health.
Hedonistic desire is about taking from the world and one-upping others. Eudaimonic desires are about giving to the world, and leveling up yourself.
Hedonism is about appearing good; eudaimonia is about being good.
Hedonic acts are usually our defaults – most everything about our biology and culture cries out for us to take the path of least resistance and gets ours.
Eudaimonic acts must largely be cultivated intentionally – swimming upstream until we can carve out a mindset in which the current is re-routed.
We can visualize the two kinds of desire on a continuum:
Eating Cake—–Working Out
Reading People Magazine—-Reading Nietzsche
Tweeting a Picture of Your Hamburger—–Writing a Book
Scrolling through Facebook—-Creating a Side Hustle
Some of the things on the left side are not necessarily bad–we all deserve a little cake now and then. Our goal then is not to completely eschew pleasure in our lives (unless we take pleasure in moral laziness, like letting crooks off the hook), but to have our desires lined up with eudaimonic aims most of the time. We should be looking for a shift of emphasis, rather than complete abstention.
If we wanted to place figures on our continuum it might look like this:
Neanderthals required many generations of evolution to achieve the desires we have now. We’re sitting on this continuum somewhere in between the two extremes and, chances are, we won’t come anywhere near the right end of the spectrum. That doesn’t matter.
What matters is that we start where we are and move in the right direction.
This is a tool you can begin applying immediately. For each action you make throughout the day, ask yourself if you’re evolving towards a sage or devolving into a Neanderthal.
Our wants naturally shift as we move through life and it’s important to respect these natural tendencies. Our desire for food, any food, helps keep us from starving. It’s only the desire for food after we’ve had our fill that’s a problem.
Sometimes we need to meet certain needs before we can shift our desires. If you have $100 in the bank it’s natural and helpful to have a desire for money. This is less helpful as you comfortably meet your requirements to live.
Understanding each will help to make the shift to the more “evolved” eudaimonic desire natural when the time comes.
This process is about coming alive and waking up to reality, not denying it.
In this book, we’ll look at these four categorical shifts:
Wanting an easy life—-Wanting a life of struggle
Wanting to be somebody (fame)—-Wanting to do something
Wanting extreme wealth—–Wanting a frugal heart
Wanting to be extraordinary——Wanting to enjoy the ordinary
In each of the next four sections, I’ll discuss the common want on the left, examine whether it’s really worth wanting, and suggest a shift to make in how to view that want. Consider these sections as models for how you might think through your own current and desired wants—a process that’s not tidy, black or white, or strictly linear, but in which you weigh the downsides of a desire, and how you might point it in the direction of greater flourishing.
Let’s start with the foundation of achieving eudaimonia: embracing struggle.
From Wanting Ease to Wanting Struggle
“To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.”
Theodore Roosevelt’s take on the strenuous life is motivating, to say the least:
“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”
Yet every human, no matter how devoted to the strenuous life in theory, or how much they love their job, experiences the desire to absolutely chuck it all and do nothing—to climb back into the womb. We think we want to loaf, take it easy, and have a wide-open schedule.
Unending comfort and ease sounds great in the abstract and feels wonderful in the short-term. In the long-term, however, unending ease is devoid of significance, and doesn’t ultimately lead to a flourishing kind of happiness. Without struggle we become hollow, weak, aimless, nihilistic, and otherwise miserable.
A friend of mine is an entrepreneur that retired briefly in his 30’s after making a ton of money selling his company. This was his retirement in three acts:
- Cash out, ball out, and live like a rock star for a few months.
- Get bored, feel the loss of meaningful work, sit on couch depressed for a few more months.
- Start new venture and reengage with struggle.
This kind of cycle happens all the time: we think we want ease when we really thrive on struggle. We find we’re less happy, instead of more, when we’re deprived of effort, challenge, and even suffering.
Let’s take a look at why that is, and how we might find our own struggle in a seemingly cushy world.
The other day I had lunch with a top hospice professional with decades of experience. People come to her on their deathbeds. None are long for the world, but the ones who stick around a little longer are the ones who have something to stick around for.
She told me about one 23 year old girl with leukemia who decided she wanted to get married to her fiancé. The girl was extremely weak and nobody thought she would be able to stay alive for the wedding. Yet she managed to wait. Then on the big day she put on a wedding dress, took her wheelchair down the aisle, and stood up next to her husband for the entire ceremony. She died a couple of weeks later.
Not only can the presence of a meaningful struggle prolong our lives, its absence can actually shorten it.
Studies show that when people retire sooner, they die sooner. From WebMD:
“A study of Shell Oil employees shows that people who retire at age 55 and live to be at least 65 die sooner than people who retire at 65. After age 65, the early retirees have a 37% higher risk of death than counterparts that retired at 65.”
Of course, engaging with purposeful struggle not only affects the timing of our ultimate demise, but has much to do the quality of our life while we’re living it. Researchers have found that embracing a life full of challenge, though it involves pain and effort in the short term, ultimately leads to greater happiness and flourishing in the long term. As Adam Grant reports in his new book Originals:
“When psychologist Dan McAdams and his colleagues asked adults to tell their life stories and plotted their emotional trajectories over time, they discovered two different desirable patterns. Some people had consistently pleasant experiences: they were content throughout the major periods of their lives. The people who had been recognized for making original contributions to their communities shared many more stories that started negatively but surged upward: they struggled early and triumphed only later. Despite being confronted with more negative events, they reported greater satisfaction with their lives and a stronger sense of purpose. Instead of merely enjoying good fortune all along, they endured the battle of turning bad things good—and judged it as a more rewarding route to a life well lived. Originality brings more bumps in the road, yet it leaves us with more happiness and a greater sense of meaning.”
For generations we have thought that what we want is a more comfortable life. What we didn’t realize is that to achieve comfort is to – both literally and metaphorically – bring death closer.
No Growth Without Suffering
“No man is more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself.” -Seneca
The meaning-producing nature of struggle is so powerful that it manifests itself even in the challenges we don’t choose for ourselves, and that end up getting thrust upon us.
Jim Rendon, author of Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth, reports that up to two-thirds of trauma survivors experience post-traumatic growth. They are benefitting from the crises in their lives by using them to become stronger.
Rendon found that trauma can drive us to be better: to focus more on relationships, become more spiritual, and be more grateful.
His research shows that trauma “forces you to find a new narrative.” Struggle allows us to re-write what we think of our lives.
For instance, you might be going along doing pretty well in life. Things aren’t good and they aren’t bad. You’ve forgotten the things that excited you as a child, but you’ve also forgotten that you’ve forgotten them. You are the subject of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”
Then trauma hits.
Maybe it’s external (you lose your job), maybe it’s internal (severe depression sets in), or maybe it’s both. Your view of your life shifts, things become less “comfortable.”
In order to save yourself you find new narratives for your life. Perhaps before you lost your job, you thought you could never be an entrepreneur, now you’re forced to consider entrepreneurship and rewrite your narrative. Perhaps you never “got” art until you experienced depression, now your personal narrative has shifted and you experience music, paintings, and movies more intimately.
Perhaps you believed you couldn’t survive without your wife. She divorced you and now you have two choices: either you rewrite your narrative to include the possibility of being a whole man on your own or you wallow in sorrow for the rest of your life.
Rendon says that, “A traumatic event is more about how you react to it than what the particular event is.” Finding meaning in life is not about the right (usually positive) thing happening to you, it’s about having the right posture towards whatever happens.
I wouldn’t dare suggest we seek out trauma or that you should smile in denial of misery. I wouldn’t even suggest that silver linings are universal—sometimes the suck is just suck.
Nietzsche’s famous line, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” is not a universal truth. His own illness led to a permanent decline of his body and mind. Broken bones don’t come back stronger after a certain age. Mental illness can bring us to a breaking point from which there’s no return. But we have more of a say here than we often think, and certainly more than it feels like we do.
It’s not about being stupidly optimistic, it’s about having the ability to not only endure trials, but to embrace them as chances to rediscover, and even elevate, your humanity.
“Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver;
I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.” – Isaiah 48:10
Unavoidable Suffering is Human
“When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, expose his body to hunger, put him to poverty, place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent.” – Meng Tzu
Viktor Frankl, the psychologist and founder of Logotherapy, cited dealing with suffering as one of the three ways we are able to make meaning:
“We can discover this meaning of life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”
Frankl survived Hitler’s concentration camps partly by understanding this. He was able to create meaning in his life by focusing on the few choices that he still had.
One reason struggle can be such a rich source of meaning for us is that it’s uniquely human. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, an author and mail-delivery pilot, had this to say after surviving starvation and dehydration in the Sahara after a crash:
“’I swear that what I went through, no animal would have gone through.’” This sentence, the noblest ever spoken, this sentence that defines man’s place in the universe, that honors him, that re-establishes the true hierarchy, floated back into my thoughts.”
All animals struggle, but humans are able to go further. We can actually be inspired when Churchill says, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” We’re uniquely able to find romance and meaning in struggle instead of just pain.
We don’t get to choose most of the struggles in our lives, we just get to choose, to some degree, how we respond to them. Will we fold or stand tall? Deny or accept?
Will we try, no matter what, to answer Nietzsche’s call of amor fati and learn to love our fate?
Finding Our Struggle in A Cushy World
So struggle makes our lives better if we let it and we know there’s no flourishing without challenge. Yet in our world of disillusion, displacement, and creature comforts, meaningful struggles can seem hard to find.
Nobody would recommend cancer or intentionally getting into a car accident in order to make life more difficult and ultimately meaningful.
In an age when food, any product on the planet, and knowledge is only a few clicks away, there aren’t a lot of obvious challenges built right into our existence.
So how do we find a worthwhile struggle in a culture and climate that doesn’t seem to have much to push against?
Sure, you can set goals for the office and the gym. While these are worthwhile pursuits, deciding to exercise and work hard is relatively easy to do.
What’s more difficult, and more important to us now, is the ability to struggle intellectually, emotionally, and philosophically. It might be finding the less obvious challenges and avenues to living a strenuous life. Or living frugally while advertisements and peers guilt you into debt. Or trying to solve a problem that may not have an answer. It’s building something that nobody cares about yet. It’s living simply without FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). It’s saying what you believe even when you’ll be on the hook for explaining yourself.
It’s starting a company when others think it’s a dumb idea. Or writing a book for no reason other than you want to. Or changing political parties after learning something new.
It’s about acting based on what is right instead of lusting after money, sex, and power. It’s about struggling to participate in society instead of retreating to a group that thinks just like you. It’s controlling your technology instead of allowing yourself to get addicted to Candy Crush.
This is the struggle to forgo praise in favor of purpose. Taking credit for the success of others we perceive as our own doing is off the table. As is instant gratification, useless offensiveness, and cheap laughs at the expense of others.
From Wanting to Be Someone, to Wanting to Do Something
“About fame: Look at the minds of those who seek fame, observe what they are, and what kind of things they avoid, and what kind of things they pursue. And consider that as the heaps of sand piled on one another hide the former sands, so in life the events which go before are soon covered by those which come after.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, in Meditations
“If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?” – John Boyd
In 2007, a study found that the #1 value for kids was fame. In 1967 it was community.
2007 is also the first year Keeping Up with the Kardashians aired.
2007 is also the year the iPhone launched, putting a camera and all of our social networks in our pockets.
The world was telling us we should all want to be famous just as it was providing tools to help us chase that fame.
Everyone scrambled to get more friends, likes, comments, views, and attention in general. We started sharing like never before: everything with everybody.
This may sound curmudgeonly, but fame ain’t what it used to be. Traditionally, people became famous because they achieved something great, maybe even heroic.
Because fame was such a powerful signal, we all started wanting it. Not to deserve fame, just to be famous.
This disconnect causes us a lot of pain. Our confusion about how people become famous and what fame does to our lives makes for a bad time.
When advocating for struggle over ease, I didn’t have to spell out the pitfalls of ease; readers know intuitively what they are, and why every man needs challenge.
With fame, there’s more confusion, and more unexamined pull.
So before we talk about how to shift your mindset on fame, let’s first explore two of its common, and often overlooked, pitfalls.
The Pitfalls of Wanting Fame
Fame is A Drug
Epictetus said, “Fame is but the empty noise of madmen.” This has been more or less true throughout history. Today it seems to be truer than ever. The New Philosopher magazine sketches the evolution—or devolution—of fame in Issue 10, Famous for $15:
“Once upon a time, fame was bestowed on those who earned it, such as the heroic general who risked his life in battle, or the famous doctor who restored sight to the poor and afflicted. It was heroic deeds that made one famous.
Famous people also came from producing great works—sculptures, architecture, books, art—or from scaling intellectual heights in the sciences.
Today, fame is only granted to those who seek it, and in a hotly contested playground those with the funds to pay for it will always overshadow those who don’t. Children from cashed-up families grin from their magazine covers and discuss with journalists their exciting business plans and favorite foods. Others become ‘stars’ and place themselves under spotlights.
Perhaps the best way to understand the famous is to think that, unlike the rest of us, these desperate individuals are still jumping up and down for their parents’ approval, “Look mom and dad, look at me.””
Fame itself has been separated from what it was supposed to indicate. It’s no longer a trustworthy signal of honor, courage, creativity, or anything else (except maybe an above-average need for attention). So why do we chase it?
The seemingly obligation-free status it confers is as addicting as any drug.
We’ve all ridden the fame wave in a minor way. As a writer I want people to read the words I type. I want them to do good in the world and, I’m embarrassed to admit, I want to be loved.
The more people read and comment or email me how great the piece was, the more I feel good about it. Even the haters feed my need for attention.
This kind of attention from strangers is a powerful drug. It’s attention that doesn’t require reciprocation.
Bob Dylan wrote “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” in 1964, and then years later I fell in love with it (and him by association). It’s a one-way relationship. I am connected to him—he’s not connected to me.
Once you’re the recipient of this love detached from any obligation or responsibility, it’s nearly impossible to stop going after it. Adam Smith explored this before he wrote Wealth of Nations in a big ol’ book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments:
“To those who have been accustomed to the possession, or even to the hope of public admiration, all other pleasures sicken and decay. Of all the discarded statesmen who for their own ease have studied to get the better of ambition, and to despise those honors which they could no longer arrive at, how few have been able to succeed?”
In our strongest moments we assume we can resist what others couldn’t. It’s easy to think, “I’m going to stop eating crap” after sucking down a milkshake. It’s harder the next day when you’re hungry and passing a McDonalds.
A lot of effort has been put into helping us BS ourselves like this.
Our whole lives we’re told that we’re special—the exception to the rule. Many of us have been raised to believe that we’re somehow immune to the temptations that topple others. Our parents, movies, self-help books, and everything else promotes this idea that we’re The One. Bob Dylan puts it this way:
Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you
In truth we’re all human. We all have the same proclivity to become addicted to heroine, nicotine, sugar, and fame once we’re exposed to them.
Like other addictions, fame moves the source of our tranquility and happiness outside of ourselves– in this case, the minds of other people.
Fame Roots Our Happiness in Other People’s Heads
We tend to look at celebrities and other famous individuals as people who have it all together. In reality, the studios own the movie star. The politician who promises peace is owned by a handful of corporations. Your favorite lifestyle blogger spends 15 hours a day on his laptop, only getting outside long enough to take an exotic looking picture.
The bigger a writer, the more he has to watch what he says on social media. The more exposed a celebrity, the more likely they are to implode. The more famous a tech founder, the more extreme public opinions about the company will be.
To become famous is to volunteer to be a scapegoat. You’re treated like a king until you screw up or people get tired of you—then you’re sacrificed at the altar, giving the public someone to hate together.
Becoming famous actually reduces your freedom and control over your happiness. William Irvine explains in On Desire:
“If we gain fame, what then? We are likely to be miserable. The problem with fame is that it resides in other people’s heads, and as the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed, “other people’s heads are a wretched place to be the home of a man’s true happiness.” Because fame requires the cooperation of other people, it puts us at the mercy of those same people. In particular, when a person is inflated with fame, the rest of us have it in our power to deflate him, and perhaps plunge him into misery and anguish, with a few well-chosen words.”
When we put this kind of power in the hands of those around us our whole sense of self becomes an abstraction. We have to check our Twitter engagement to measure self worth instead of the action we took.
Unfortunately, the mob on social media, and elsewhere, is a fickle beast; they’re rooting you on one day and tearing you down the next, and if your happiness and identity are tied to their opinions, they’ll move in a similarly undulating course. When you’re down, you’ll be willing to do whatever it takes, including selling out your principles and tastes, to get back on top again.
To want to be famous is to want to cede control of your well-being to the whims of the masses – to be a marionette, who dances while others pull the strings.
Shifting Your Mindset on Fame
Fame doesn’t automatically lead to these pitfalls, and isn’t bad through and through.
Not every outside judge leads to bad behavior (imagining a parent or grandparent watching over us may cause us to behave better—this is much different than the public mob) and not every celebrity is miserable.
Fame doesn’t make it impossible to be autonomous and look within, just harder. That challenge may be worth tackling in situations where fame can be used to magnify a worthy cause. And in situations where the downsides of fame simply aren’t worth the hassle, healthier and yet equally fulfilling substitutes for fame are fortunately readily available.
Fame As A Tool
“This is not to say that it is impossible for a famous person to be happy, but when this happens, Schopenhauer suggested, it is usually because the activity that brought the person fame also brought him happiness—meaning that his fame and happiness are not directly connected and that he would remain happy if his fame were to diminish.” –William Irvine
If you invent a new type of battery that revolutionizes energy storage you’ll probably get famous for a while, but you won’t be upset when the public stops caring about you because that will free you up to go back to work.
When the thing you’re famous for is more important than being famous, you can use fame as a tool. This allows you to protect yourself from some of the pitfalls of fame it, while using it to extend your influence.
If we follow John Boyd’s advice to focus on doing something instead of being someone we may, after a while, realize that when we are “being someone” we can increase the reach of our “doing.” Boyd’s own fame has increased the impact of his work—but focusing on the work before fame is what made it matter in the first place.
Marcus Aurelius calls cultivating such an autonomous, self-motivated purpose having a “fountain of the good”:
“Only attend to thyself, and resolve to be a good man in every act which thou doest; and remember, look within. Within is the fountain of the good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt ever dig.”
A beautiful fountain attracts crowds. If people want to frolic and splash in the water of your work, or even play the critic and complain about what the fountain could be doing better, that may be a small price to pay in quenching a societal thirst.
A Word on Reputation
The fame we’re talking about is the ego-driven need to be known by everybody. This is generally a destructive aim. It’s worth noting that wanting fame and wanting a reputation within a specific group of people are two different things.
If you’re a lawyer, you want to be known as a great lawyer. The same goes for any other profession.
A few key differences:
- Aiming for professional reputation is primarily about getting better at your job, not making headlines.
- The audience you’re targeting is generally a community.
- There is a purpose beyond attention that can ground this aim in reality.
- You shouldn’t need to become somebody else to earn the desirable reputation.
Seeking a strong reputation among your peers is clearly not the same as seeking fame, and won’t bring the same existential dangers.
An Alternative to Fame
[R]esearchers found three main reasons why people seek fame:
- The desire to be seen/valued (e.g., “Being on the cover of a magazine”, “Being recognized in public”)
- The desire for an elite, high status lifestyle (e.g., “Having the ability to travel in first class and stay at exclusive resorts”, “Living in a mansion or penthouse apartment”)
- The desire to use fame to help others or make them proud (e.g.,”Being able to financially support family and friends”, “Being a role model to others”)
-Scott Barry Kaufman, in Scientific American
Each one of these desires can be fulfilled more easily without fame.
To be seen or valued we can work hard and surround ourselves with people who make us feel seen and valued. These people may not be easy to find, but they exist. If you haven’t found them yet, keep looking.
If you want “an elite, high status lifestyle,” it’s easier to achieve in business than as a celebrity. Team owners and studio executives make more money than the athletes and actors they manage. There are ways to wealth that don’t involve being scrutinized by the masses and mobbed whenever you go outside. (Though I’ll argue in the next section that excess wealth isn’t the best desire to have in the first place.)
To help others and make them proud, be a good person and serve people where you are now. Martin Luther King’s fame helped his cause, but he was in the trenches before the cameras showed up. If you need to be famous for someone to be proud of you, you need to get other people. Community matters a lot in determining what you want (we’ll talk more later about how to create a community that’s best for you).
Before you beg for the attention of the masses, look around at the people you’re spending your life with. They may be able to scratch your itch for recognition without the neediness and compromises that so often attend wider fame.
From Wanting Wealth to Wanting a Frugal Heart
“For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” – Matthew 16:26
“Nature didn’t tell me: “Don’t be poor.” Nor indeed: “Be rich.” But she does beg me: “Be independent.”” –Chamfort, Maxims
“Money is human happiness in the abstract: he, then, who is no longer capable of enjoying human happiness in the concrete devotes his heart entirely to money.” – Arthur Schopenhauer
“A great fortune is a great slavery.” – Seneca
As a rich man, Seneca knew the addictive and poisoning effects wealth can have and was cautious to keep them at bay. He would take time to beg for food and wear old clothing to see for himself that life would be fine even if he lost everything.
Wealth, like fame, isn’t negative itself. It opens up wonderful possibilities in our lives, it feeds us, it allows trade and the growth of economies; we owe our civilization, in a big way, to money. What’s dangerous is single-mindedly chasing wealth. If it’s a competition, you’ll never win. Many billionaires are envious of the billionaires with more.
First we’ll look at two pitfalls of money: it’s addictive qualities (see a pattern here?), and how focusing on it too narrowly can destroy your morals.
In the final bit I’ll suggest wanting a frugal heart. This doesn’t deny the importance of money; instead it shifts our attention so that we can use money, like fame, as a tool — becoming masters of it, rather than being mastered by it.
Two Pitfalls of Obsessively Wanting Wealth
Wealth Is Addicting
“Are you in earnest resolved never to barter your liberty for the lordly servitude of a court, but to live free, fearless, and independent? There seems to be one way to continue in that virtuous resolution; and perhaps but one. Never enter a place from whence so few have been able to return; never come within the circle of ambition; nor ever bring yourself into comparison with those masters of the earth who have already engrossed the attention of half mankind before you.” –Adam Smith
“You can make the same point that rich and poor suffer equal distress: for both groups cling to their money and suffer if it is torn away from them. But, as I said, it is easier to bear and simpler not to acquire than to lose, so you will notice that those people are more cheerful whom Fortune has never favoured than those whom she has deserted.” – Seneca
When I was running a small hedge fund a friend of mine turned $30,000 into more than $2 million in 3 months or so. In another couple of months that $2 million turned into $60,000.
He had a 100% return in six months, that’s incredible! Of course, he didn’t feel good about this. It’s difficult to imagine a mind-fuck of that magnitude; Lady Fortuna couldn’t have played a more brutal trick.
When Jesus says, “[I]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” he is referring to a rich man who refused to follow him because he couldn’t give up all his possessions. It’s harder to give something up than to not have it in the first place.
It is not that rich men are evil, it’s that our attachments to money make it difficult to do what we know we should.
Intense Desire for Money is Dangerous to Your Morals
“People who pursue luxuries are driven, both in private and in public, to commit countless wicked and deadly acts.” Musonius Rufus, Letter to Pankratides
Because our desire for money can be so intense (and because the mechanisms to extract it can be so abstracted) it’s easy to make moral compromises in getting rich.
The Roman Stoic, emperor Marcus Aurelius set this rule regarding desire for himself in Meditations:
“Never value anything as profitable to thyself which shall compel thee to break thy promise, to lose thy self-respect, to hate any man, to suspect, to curse, to act the hypocrite, to desire anything which needs walls and curtains: for he who has preferred to everything else his own intelligence and daemon and the worship of its excellence, acts no tragic part, does not groan, will not need either solitude or much company; and, what is chief of all, he will live without either pursuing or flying from [death] …”
This is what people are talking about when they say “money does weird things to people.” When we want money more than we want to follow our values we are more likely to act against the best interests of our friends, families, firms, and countries. (Again, this doesn’t mean our values can’t align with profit.)
When the focus is on stuff and getting more of it, people are just tools to get more stuff.
Shifting Your Mindset on Money
“The lack of money is the root of all evil.” – Mark Twain
Money is important. We die if we don’t eat. And unless we frequent soup kitchens, communes, or monasteries, we have to pay for our food.
The key, I think, is perspective. Zorba, the fictional Greek from Nikos Kazantzakis’ great novel, Zorba the Greek, calls money his “wings.” In his eyes, money is not primarily money, it is possibility:
“For in [Zorba’s] mind our profits underwent marvelous transformations: they became travels, women and new adventures. He was waiting impatiently for the day when he would earn a fortune, when his wings would be sufficiently big—“wings” was the name he gave to money—for him to fly away.”
It’s the posture he has for money. For him it’s not the end-all-be-all; it’s the travel, women, and adventures. When we adopt this perspective it makes us less likely to let money make us do dumb things.
Another helpful metaphor for thinking about money comes from Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media: “Money is like gasoline during a road trip … You don’t want to run out of gas on your trip, but you’re not doing a tour of gas stations. You have to pay attention to money, but it shouldn’t be about the money.”
You don’t want to stay at a single gas station hoarding gas if you’re trying to get across the country.
The point is that money is a tool, not a god. It’s a means to the end, and if you cut corners morally the end won’t be worth the trip anyway.
How can we take this approach? How can we put money in its proper place? The best way I know is to cultivate a frugal heart.
A Frugal Heart
“We stayed silent by the brazier [small barbecue] until far into the night. I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast of chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else. And all that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple, frugal heart.” – Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
One of the best things we can want to want is a frugal heart. Once we start developing this we begin operating from a place of enjoyment and appreciation rather than anxiety and want.
Asking yourself what you want to want helps to correct the perversions the desire for wealth can create.
When we obsess on accumulating wealth we feel that we need more if we are ever to enjoy life. This makes it nearly impossible to behave well toward others. It makes us likely to cut corners, take ineffective shortcuts, be envious, and shun relationships or little joys.
When we cultivate a frugal heart we know that we can enjoy life no matter the conditions. We know that money might enhance the number of our potential pleasures, but that we can also be content with the possibilities we have for enjoyment right now. This emboldens us to live life more fully, play the long game, and enjoy life in the present.
A frugal heart frees you to make decisions based on creating the life you want to live instead of optimizing for money at every turn. Many people dedicate their lives to something they couldn’t care less about just because it’s the more profitable path.
A man with a frugal heart is less likely to go into debt because he doesn’t feel the need to spend a lot to live the good life. Without the burden of debt he’s able to make decisions more freely.
A man with a frugal heart is also less likely to stay in a job he hates in order to keep making payments on a car that stopped bringing him satisfaction two weeks after he drove it off the lot.
A frugal heart makes it easier to act honorably and live a life of flourishing. Because our desire for money has been weakened we are free to put our values first.
If you believe you need more wealth to live the good life you will be caught in a cycle that ends in an extreme existential disappointment. When you reach the peak you’ll find that your needy heart is still with you. You’ll find change and uncertainty frightening. You become fragile to the world.
A frugal heart frees us. A needy heart enslaves us.
(Notice that this applies to just about everything, not just money. The less we expect from others the better our relationships. The simpler food we can appreciate the better our health. The less passion we expect out of life the more tranquility we’ll have. Don’t aim for less, but learn to appreciate less in all spheres of life.)
Overcoming the Taboo of Frugal Hearts
It’s not easy to free yourself of this desire for riches. Our biology and culture have teamed up to make a frugal heart nearly impossible. Emerson describes this difficulty in Self-Reliance:
“And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster.”
To reiterate: it’s not about shunning wealth; it’s about shunning intense desires for more and more piles of it. It’s about staying focused on what you want to want. Wealth (and fame) just happen to be really good at hijacking what we want.
There are few things more taboo than experiencing joy outside of the prescribed, paid attractions. It’s socially dangerous to enjoy what others consider simple.
Maybe the ultimate taboo is to shun the desire for the extraordinary life you’re supposed to ‘dream’ of having in favor of embracing the ‘ordinary’ life you do have. Maybe the scariest thing you can do is respect your own experience.
From Wanting the Extraordinary Life to Wanting the Ordinary
“As Michael Foley writes in his book Embracing The Ordinary, citing the French philosopher Henry Lefebvre: “Everyday life has been vilified as the worthless residue left behind…the coffee grounds that must be thrown out when the stimulating potion has been brewed. But if the everyday is everything that is ignored by official forms of knowledge and authority, this very invisibility gives it the potential for strangeness, freedom and even subversion.” Perhaps the most profoundly extraordinary thing any of us can do is to be willing, in the ways that truly matter, to be ordinary.” – From New Philosopher’s 10th issue, Famous for $15
“We have all the tools of contentment at hand already. You don’t have to conquer Italy to enjoy the fundamental pleasures of life. Stay human and subdue the rat within. Life’s not a race. It’s a journey to savor and enjoy. Ambition–the relentless desire for more–can eat you up.” – Russ Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life
[Before we begin this section in earnest, I’d like to take a moment to remember that we spent a whole section talking about the importance of struggle. Wanting the Ordinary does not mean wanting mediocrity, laziness, distraction, or dullness. It’s about focusing your energy in a new way that’s less caught up in the worst aspects of your ego.]
“Stay human and subdue that rat within,” sums up our challenge nicely. The rat wants fame, fortune, and power. It lives for the quick hits and outer approval. To appear extraordinary to others is the rat’s chief aim.
At the beginning of this section it was suggested that, “Perhaps the most profoundly extraordinary thing any of us can do is to be willing, in the ways that truly matter, to be ordinary.”
We’ll take this section to look more closely at this idea.
We all want to be extraordinary. Indeed, we’re often told that life is worth nothing unless we maximize our potential and do what we were born to do.
This kind of obsession with being a unique, one-of-a-kind, snow-flakily-special individual creates the paranoia that we aren’t being different enough and aren’t succeeding at life in big, special enough ways.
Paradoxically, our obsession with being extraordinary has created a massive cognitive dissonance for many people as they strive to be different in the same way as everyone else.
I suggest here that if we allow ourselves to embrace the ordinary we actually free ourselves to be more creative, productive, and happy.
Shifting Our Mindset on the Ordinary
The most boringly universal fear is to be “average.” More boring still are the ways we try to stand out: posting a picture on social media from a more exotic locale than anyone else, buying our wife a larger engagement ring than our neighbor, getting more Facebook likes on a picture than our competition, or getting an award for convincing a panel of judges you’re a winner.
These have nothing to do with the good life. They’re all ways we convince ourselves we’re extraordinary.
To be extraordinary is to be better than those around us. If it’s not being more famous, attractive, or rich than our peers then it’s being more interesting, spiritual, or faster. It’s having more social media fans or tasting wine with a more subtle palette. Like fame, striving to be extraordinary puts the means of our happiness outside of us.
It’s funny that those who struggle the hardest to be extraordinary all choose the same ways in which to be different.
There is an episode of South Park where the Goth kids all refuse to help Stan in a dance competition because only conformists go to dance competitions. The final Goth kid says, “I’m such a nonconformist that I’m not going to conform with you guys [the Goths],” and participates in the competition.
The most nonconformist thing he could do was to be a conformist.
Respect Your Experience
Striving to be extraordinary is similar to striving for perfection. There is no way to be sustainably extraordinary in the present moment because “extraordinary” exists as a subjective judgment on our lives. This kind of judgment can make it difficult to focus on reality: The person wanting to be an extraordinary entrepreneur is likely to be disheartened by the very ordinary tasks that go into building a business. If you can’t do the ordinary, the extraordinary is unreachable.
Saint-Exupery shares this story in Wind, Sand, and Stars:
“He was a gardener, and he was speaking on his deathbed: ‘You know, I used to sweat sometimes when I was digging. My rheumatism would pull at my leg, and I would damn myself for a slave. And now, do you know, I’d like to spade and spade. It’s beautiful work. A man is free when he is using a spade. And besides, who is going to prune my trees when I am gone?’”
When he was daydreaming of his unlived lives, his actual life seemed meaningless, like he was a slave. With perspective he realized that his simple work was beautiful and liberating.
This is not to say we should be average in any or all areas of life. It’s not saying that we ought to do low-paying work and reject money. I’m certainly not saying fall in line and be the most boring person you can be.
What I’m suggesting is you stop wanting so badly to be extraordinary and focusing on what would make it special, in order to actually start living. Stop rejecting your life as it is and look at it head on.
Look at your depression, your discontent with work and love, your fear of your children growing up, your fear of being forgotten, your fear of death, your struggle with health, your feelings that you should read more, your frustration with your hair, or your confusion about the state of the world seriously and respectfully. Carrying any one of these ordinary elements of life with a little more grace is serving humanity in an extraordinary way.
What if what you wanted wasn’t a whole new life but to inhabit your current one in a better way?
When we want ordinary lives we stop trying to escape our own experience and start respecting it. The results of this are extraordinary.
The “Ordinary” Path
“For in vice there lurks a counterfeit beauty.” – St. Augustine
Respecting our ordinary lives may end in less renown but more love. We all need to be seen. We crave the love and respect of others. There are two ways we might go about getting this love. The most obvious way is to become extraordinary by gaining wealth, fame, and power. These resources help us demand the admiration, respect, love, and attention we’d like from others.
The second way is to embrace the ordinary. This is the wise old grandpa who doesn’t say much, yet is a grounding presence wherever he goes. His wisdom and virtue aren’t loud enough to bring love from the masses, but the connections he has and the satisfactions he enjoys are solid.
Adam Smith elaborates on these two paths:
“Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behaviour; the one more gaudy and glittering in its coloring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline: the one forcing itself upon the notice of every wandering eye; the other, attracting the attention of scarce any body but the most studious and careful observer.”
The gaudier road to the extraordinary is the one that calls to us from motivational posters and guilt-inducing self-help books. It’s the one most often celebrated—it’s our worshipping of the extraordinary path that makes our seemingly ordinary lives feel so lonely and useless.
Nobody will guilt you into walking down the second path. Nobody will cheer you on as you quietly do the right thing. The crowds you’ll draw won’t be as big, the applause won’t be so loud, but you’ll find more beauty here than those walking the first path could ever imagine.
Art of Manliness is a prime example of the second path. [Note: Remember, this was originally published there. I’m keeping the example because it’s one of the better ones. Farnam Street and ribbonfarm are other examples.] They didn’t win by delivering you click-bait, obsessing on metrics, and dumbing down content. They won by treating the reader and material with respect. The content here is too meaty for all but the “most studious and careful observer.”
The first path is primarily hedonistic, while the second is more eudaimonic.
Donald Trump epitomizes the first path. Can you think of anyone more “gaudy and glittering”? Few are more “rich, famous, and powerful”—this will be especially true if he becomes president. The first 40 pages of his book, The Art of the Deal, lists phone calls he’s made to other rich, famous, and powerful people.
My grandpa epitomizes the second path. He quietly did well in business and supported his family (wife and four sons), has gone to church as an usher every Sunday for decades, drives a minivan, and feels uncomfortable paying more than $5 for lunch.
As far as I can tell, the only hedonistic behavior he has is his love for sweets. Ice cream, candies, soda, all the good stuff.
To me this suggests a strategy. We can create a kind of Talebian “barbell”: 90% eudaimonic actions, 10% hedonistic actions. This creates a kind of psychological outlet for us to indulge.
Because that glittering path isn’t all bad; Donald Trump may genuinely love the path he’s taken. There is no arguing that there is satisfaction in power and attention, it’s just that we miss out on something more fundamental if that’s all we seek. St. Augustine puts it this way:
“These lowest goods hold delights for us indeed, but no such delights as does my God, who made all things; for in him the just man finds delight, and for upright souls he himself is joy.”
Oftentimes you’ll find that when you reject the “more gaudy and glittering” path and follow the one “more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline,” you begin to find the people who you truly resonate with. You stop being worried about how you’re perceived and start focusing on actually living. The anxiety that comes with trying to out-extraordinary everyone starts to dissipate as your relationships with those closest to you strengthen.
Even if there were no tangible benefits to following the second path, it would be worthwhile. Because, as Russ Roberts explains, loveliness is inherently worthwhile:
“Loveliness is an end in and of itself. Think about marriage. You want to be a good husband, not because that means your wife will treat you well. You want to be a good husband because that’s the right thing to do. Loveliness isn’t an investment looking for a return.”
It’s difficult to invest in being lovely when we’re looking for a return of being extraordinary.
Just as with ease, fame, and wealth, the point isn’t that being extraordinary is purely bad. The point is that obsessing with being extraordinary will likely make your life worse.
Try embracing the ordinary and realize just how extraordinary it feels.
Part III: How to Want the Right Things
“We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are – that is the fact.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
“If I consider my life honestly, I see that it is governed by a certain very small number of patterns of events which I take part in over and over again.” – Christopher Alexander, architect
We just spent a significant amount of time looking at four “pillar” wants that will help us get going in wanting the right things. It was great practice, but we don’t want to invest that kind of energy every time we have a decision about what we want to want.
As a reminder, here is our continuum and the four wants we looked at in Part I:
<–Hedonism———– Eudaimonia –>
Wanting an easy life—-Wanting a life of struggle
Wanting to be somebody (fame)—-Wanting to do something
Wanting extreme wealth—–Wanting a frugal heart
Wanting to be extraordinary——Wanting to embrace the ordinary
Now we shift from the question of what to want to how to want to the right things.
How can we default to wanting those things that lead to eudaimonia?
We must make a habit out of wanting the right things.
If we don’t make our desires for the Good automatic to some degree we risk spending too much of our lives in decision and regret. We risk living out this description William James made in Psychology: Briefer Course:
“There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.”
Below I suggest two general strategies in the task of automating our desires for the Good: focusing on direct experience and community. Along with each of these approaches, I offer tactics that will reliably move your default wants away from hedonism and toward eudaimonia.
Direct Experience: Seeing Things as They Are
“We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in place of reality.
And all the while, reality – the kind of reality at Lincoln’s address, that slow unfolding of everyday life – goes on behind the scenes, largely unnoticed. As we scream at the flashing digits, wave at the man in the cape, and devour every entertaining snippet that news hounds throw up, life passes on by.”
-New Philosopher issue #10, Famous for $15
“It is not industry that makes men restless, but false impressions of things drive them mad.” – Seneca, Tranquility of Mind
When we want the wrong thing it’s usually because of a distortion or abstraction. When we can’t see clearly we can’t want clearly.
One of the best ways to consistently want the right things is to pay attention to your direct experience. That means being present with what is actually going on.
There’s no better way to do this than experiment.
Poke and Prod
“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Studies on happiness have shown that our immensely useful ability to imagine the future is just about useless in helping us determine what will make us happy.
Because our imagination is so great at so many things, we rely on it even in situations where it’s useless. The best trick I’ve found to counter this is to develop a bias toward action.
A bias for action is the best way to ensure that we stay connected to reality; which is, in turn, our best defense against wants we don’t want to want.
Instead of spending our lives imagining what things might be like, we’re often better off trying them out and seeing.
Whether it’s changing careers, ending a relationship, adopting a new mindset, or anything else, it’s possible for us to try the decision on and test it for ourselves.
We can set up experiments to see how we actually like each of them.
If we do this consistently we will move reliably toward the wants we want to want.
For instance, we might be convinced that we need to become an actor after seeing a movie. It’s not until we start the process of taking acting lessons and going to auditions that we can actually know whether we like acting. The repetition of scenes, constant rejection, and emotional labor can only be understood with direct experience.
Direct experience will help us refocus on the second path talked about in the previous section. The gaudy path may look better at first, but as we begin to walk it we begin to see the hidden costs. The shallow friendships, the enemies made, the underappreciated role of luck, and all of the other little details hidden from view.
The more vigilant we are about this the more our desires will flow from our experience instead of outside influences. The more we pay attention to our experience the more soundly we can determine what we want to want.
This is because focusing on our direct experience strips our lives of drama, which lives in abstractions. The need to appear a hero or a master of the universe dissipates when you focus on the work at hand.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery memorializes a friend, Guillaumet, who became famous for courage in many life-threatening adventures:
“If we were to talk to him about his courage, Guillaumet would shrug his shoulders. But it would be just as false to extol his modesty. His place is far beyond that mediocre virtue.
If he shrugs his shoulders, it is because he is no fool. He knows that once men are caught up in an event they cease to be afraid. Only the unknown frightens men. But once a man has faced the unknown, that terror becomes known.”
A commitment to experiments and gaining direct experience is a commitment to facing the unknown. It’s a commitment to defanging the terrors of our imagination. Our salvation is likely not in replaying the scenario one more time, but in taking a step forward.
“What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand and Stars
“The big question about how people behave is whether they’ve got an Inner Scorecard or an Outer Scorecard. It helps if you can be satisfied with an Inner Scorecard.
I always pose it this way, I say: “Lookit. Would you rather be the world’s greatest lover, but have everyone think you’re the world’s worst lover? Or would you rather be the world’s worst lover but have everyone think you’re the world’s greatest lover?” . . . Now my dad: He was a hundred percent Inner Scorecard guy. He was really a maverick. But he wasn’t a maverick for the sake of being a maverick. He just didn’t care what other people thought.” – Warren Buffett
If we take our eyes of what we want to want for an instant, advertisers and others will take command of our desires. This is why it’s imperative that we stay focused on what we’re trying to achieve with these experiments.
We need a way to measure ourselves so that others can’t dictate our worth.
Imagine a marathon runner and a sprinter side by side. The guy running the marathon will be absolutely humiliated if he thinks they’re in the same race. The sprinter’s ego will likely be blown up. Both will probably change their current pace and mess up their times.
This is what can happen to us if we start using the wrong scorecards. We see someone who has achieved so much more than us. We forget that they’ve been working at it for 10 years, or we’re blind to the sacrifices they’ve made in their personal lives.
Inner scorecards allow us to respect our direct experience by making our aims front and center to us, not detached and floating around culture in ads and TV shows.
“Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.” – Marcus Aurelius
This combination of experimentation and setting internal scorecards will allow us to, as Seneca wrote, “pursue a steady, unruffled course” while avoiding “fickleness” and “dullness.” The Greeks called this state euthymia, a word I meditate on often to check myself. Buddhists might call it the middle path.
We accomplish this in a virtuous cycle: experimenting to test reality, setting aims based on reality, experimenting again, aiming again, etc. Our aims are informed by past experiments, keeping us stretching without snapping.
We probably share Emerson’s notion that, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” We also feel how difficult it is to stay focused enough to ignore “what people think” because “you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.”
Cycling between experiments and internal scorecards helps quiet those outside voices and develops our respect for our experience. We learn to trust in our reality over the cries of conmen and the fearful mob.
This is all about returning our perspective of experience to something closer to home. Ultimately, we want to judge ourselves by the actions we take over the outcomes they lead to.
Let’s take a look at possible experiments you might run in your own life:
- Prioritize action over abstraction. Commit to acting in line with what you want to want before wanting and soon enough you’ll find yourself wanting that thing.
- Create habits by stringing enough of those actions together. It’s only after your 20th cold shower that you might begin to enjoy them.
- Meditation will make your actions less reactive by creating distance between ‘you’ and your thoughts/urges/emotions.
- Put yourself in flow situations where you’re immersed in the activity you’re practicing. This is, by definition, the epitome of paying attention to your experience.
- Renunciation. Learn to love depriving yourself of certain habitual desires (like warm showers, sugar, coffee, porn.) This will show you how malleable your wants are. After a while you will begin to feel a certain pleasure in exercising your self-control. Also, your willpower will increase. This can change what you think of desire itself. When you begin to derive pleasure from depriving yourself of those very things you desire you’ll realize how much control you have over these drvies.
- Imagine an impartial spectator observing you. This sounds weird but will make it easier to make moral actions. The ‘impartial’ part helps with the morality part.
- Imagine God or someone you respect (grandparent, parent, coach, historical figure, etc.) observing you, this will focus your attention on what you’re doing in a new and powerful way.
- Stream of conscious journaling will help you externalize thoughts so that you might see more clearly the thoughts around your current desires. 20 minutes of writing non-stop is surprisingly therapeutic.
Community: Be With Those Who You Want to Want Like
“Would a musician feel flattered by the loud applause of his audience if it were known to him that, with the exception of one or two, it consisted entirely of deaf people?” – Arthur Schopenhauer
“It’s easier to rebel when it feels like an act of conformity.” – Adam Grant, Originals
It’s easier to eat vegetarian food if you live in a Buddhist monastery than if your dad’s a butcher.
Once you know what you want to want you need to surround yourself with people who want to want similar (or complimentary) things. This is because of “mimetic desire” (basically, we want things other people want.) A large part of any person’s attraction is that other people are attracted to them.
Use mimetic desire to your benefit by surrounding yourself with people who already want what you want to want.
If you want to want to be a little less obsessed with making money then volunteer at a soup kitchen. If you want to want to work out then join a Crossfit gym.
Using communities to help support what we want to want is not turning our back on self-trust or our internal scorecards. It’s simply putting ourselves in situations where those things become more doable.
Ultimate freedom was the goal for so long that we nearly forgot about the benefits that community constraints bring with them.
Constraints on Purpose
We introduced the idea of anomie in the introduction, this societal normlessness might be one of the most insidious forces facing us today. Engaging with a community is our most potent weapon to battle it.
Jonathan Haidt has a great description of anomie in The Happiness Hypothesis:
“Anomie is the condition of a society in which there are no clear rules, norms, or standards of value. In an anomic society, people can do as they please; but without any clear standards or respected social institutions to enforce those standards, it is harder for people to find things they want to do. Anomie breeds feelings of rootlessness and anxiety and leads to an increase in amoral and antisocial behavior.”
Community can provide rules, norms, and standards of value that are needed to help fend off the rootlessness and anxiety of anomie.
I believe this has been the key to Crossfit’s massive success. It’s not just being more fit that people get addicted to. It’s entering a community in which everyone has the same aim and have committed to follow the same process to head that way. There are clear ways to gain honor and respect: lower your times, lift more, get your name on the chalkboard.
Cults provide the same kind of relief. So does the right kind of startup. Voting season provides a similar kind of relief: pick a side, find some stats or scandals, shout them out loud!
The community you pick will shape you to a degree nearly impossible to appreciate, so it’s important to pick well. It’s important to know what you want to want so you don’t end up in a community that has you wanting the opposite.
Be Picky About Who You Spend Time With
The Amish have mastered this. As a community they are relentlessly focused on what they want to want and using their community to help solidify these wants in each other. William Irvine discusses this in On Desire:
“One of the primary concerns of the Amish is to keep their social desires in check. Most of us seek personal aggrandizement. We want others to notice, respect, or admire us. We might even want others to envy us. These social desires, to a considerable extent, rule our lives. They determine where we live, how we live, and how hard we work to maintain our chosen lifestyle. The Amish are just the opposite. They don’t dress to impress, they dress to conform. …Likewise, Amish buggies look the same because no one wants a buggy that stands out. Non-Amish Americans work hard to keep up with the Joneses; the Amish, on the other hand, work to keep down with the Joneses.”
Even if what we want to want is different from the Amish, their commitment to shaping their community is worth mimicking. We have to treat our exposure to others with extreme care while examining what we want to want. Almost everyone you encounter will tell you—directly or indirectly—what to want; make sure it’s something you want to want.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca likens this to a disease:
“[J]ust as at a time of an epidemic disease we must take care not to sit beside people whose bodies are infected with feverish disease because we shall risk ourselves and suffer from their breathing upon us, so in choosing our friends for their characters we shall take care to find those who are the least corrupted: mixing the sound with the sick is how disease starts.”
This isn’t a call to cut off connection with anybody imperfect (it’d be just you and Jesus hanging out), it’s something to work towards. Seneca continues:
“But I am not enjoining upon you to follow and associate with none but a wise man. For where will you find him whom we have been seeking for ages? In place of the ideal we must put up with the least bad.”
How do we measure “the least bad”? How do we deal with others whose wants aren’t those we want to have? Bob Dylan and the Pope have some ideas that are useful here.
The Possibility of Wanting Upstream in a Downstream World
I met someone recently who is living in northern Missouri without electricity or any modern tools. He and a small group of people are disgusted by society and want as clean of a break as possible. It sounds to me like a lonely, hateful endeavor.
We all feel societal pressures that seem unhealthy. Anyone can look around and see how far the world is from ideal. (Even though we’ve barely spent any time defining ‘ideal’ in the first place.) But the answer for most of us isn’t to run away to the middle of nowhere or head off to a monastery.
We need a community that can help shape our wants, while remaining capable of engaging in society at large.
Pope Francis recently addressed this:
“Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”
It’s possible to swim against society’s common default wants without the need to climb out of the stream altogether.
It’s possible to accept, and learn from, the mis-wants of others, without feeling pressured to adopt them for yourself.
Bob Dylan’s It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleedin’) has some great ideas for dealing with a society with unhealthy assumptions. The song/poem in full is amazing, for now let’s take a look at this piece:
While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in
But I mean no harm nor put fault
On anyone that lives in a vault
But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him
If we can see where others are coming from and what is shaping their wants, we have a better chance at seeing our own. Most of us (“the rat race choir”) are too tired and too scared to challenge what we want to want (“Cares not to come up any higher”) most of the time. Instead, we want others to go after the same low-hanging fruit that we do (“get you down in the hole / That he’s in”) to validate the game we’ve chosen to play.
We should have compassion for those who are dominated by society’s default desires (live “in a vault”).
And we should have compassion for ourselves when we have times of being too tired to swim against the current, and take the path of least resistance.
It happens to all of us.
Simply asking ourselves what we want to want, and taking the answer seriously, will already set you far apart from the crowd—so that you may choose the crowd that is most in line with you.
Surrounding yourself with those who share similar aspirations will make your eudaimonic path clear. Together with a community of like-minded individuals you may even find your default wants are those you want to want.
Your “I Like,” is congruent with your community’s.
- Pick 5 communities and list 5 desires they create in their members.
- Date for wants. Your significant other will have a huge impact on what you end up wanting, make sure they want (or want to want) what you want to want.
- Create an intentional brotherhood.
- List the 5 people you most like spending time with and the 5 people you least like spending time with. If the reasons for 5 best are good for what you want, find ways to spend way more time with them (and less with the others).
- Cut people who are outright toxic from your life
- Read good books (not the most popular, the most in line with what you want to want.) Especially read biographies, which will help you assemble a cognitive community of historical mentors – a veritable cabinet of invisible counselors
- Pay attention to the differences in what you want when you’re with different people.
Bringing It All Back Home
Let’s begin our ending with a parable from Anthony de Mello’s The Way to Love:
“A group of tourists sits in a bus that is passing through gorgeously beautiful country; lakes and mountains and green fields and rivers. But the shades of the bus are pulled down. They do not have the slightest idea of what lies beyond the windows of the bus. And all the time of their journey is spent squabbling over who will have the seat of honor in the bus, who will be applauded, who will be well considered. And so they remain till the journey’s end.”
Unfortunately, our default desires make us forget to open the shades and appreciate the world we’re moving through.
It is possible to go your whole life thinking yourself a success, only to be on your deathbed realizing that you’ve been squabbling on a bus lit with harsh fluorescent bulbs.
This is why Solon, the wise old Athenian, suggested we “Count no man happy until the end is known.”
In the end, we find that the happy man is happy not because of what happened but because of what he did. The outcomes of his actions were less important than taking action.
When you pay attention to your direct experience and surround yourself with great people you may find the rat within starving.
You may find a deep pleasure in your actions regardless of your hoped-for outcomes.
You may find your ordinary life light up as you learn to respect your experience.
Your wealth grows wings and your notoriety lightens.
Like Confucius, you eventually act rightly in all situations out of spontaneity.
The bickering on the bus will fade away as your attention turns to the closed shade. You’ll open it and witness, maybe for the first time, the beauty society had been trying so hard to make you ignore.
What do you want to want?
I’ve never relied on other people so much for a piece of writing. If this book works at all, it’s because of a few people who read early versions and called me out. Beyond the amazing editorial team at Art of Manliness, thanks belong to Stephanie Ziajka, Mark Hunter, Shanu Gupta, Jesse Eschenroeder, and Brook Eschenroeder for reading early versions of this big ol’ thing and showing me what needed work or just plain didn’t work. And of course all the writers whom I quoted so liberally.