This essay was originally featured in my free Sunday newsletter.
Preface: The following piece does not come from a place of judgement—I am as much a perpetrator as the next guy. It is meant as an observation of humans (and myself) living in modern society. In fact, writing this is as much a reminder for myself as it is, hopefully, one for you.
From the 48 laws of power by Robert Greene: “Fyodor Dostoyevsky, similarly, whenever he wrote a successful novel, would feel that the financial security he had gained made the act of creation unnecessary. He would take his entire savings to the casino and would not leave until he had gambled away his last penny. Once reduced to poverty he would write again.”
The vast majority of people spend most of their time pursuing externals—money, fame, power, resources, approval—with the idea (assumption maybe?) that gaining such things will solve their problems and/or make them happy. The thing is, it’s rare when people take a moment to think about whether this is actually going to work. Further, it’s even rarer when an individual that reaches said goals takes the time to express genuine and lasting gratitude for what they have achieved because they are usually already on to the next thing they are after.
The Hedonic Treadmill: a constant chasing for more, better and best.
People think I’m a bit crazy—or at least their eyes say it—when I tell them I often worry if I will be happy when I reach my goals. I try explain to them that I worry because when I think about my life, and how the pursuit of accomplishment is so integral to it, I’m forced to wonder what life will be like when I no longer have to pursue accomplishment. Will I then wake up each day without a driving purpose, like I do now? And if that happens, where will I derive my purpose? Will I still be fired up? After all, I’ve long since learned that I’m a builder and creator, and that much of my happiness is rooted in the act of creating and building and not as much in the end result.
Will I still build and create even though I won’t need to from a financial point? Will life then bore me? Will this boredom then lead to discontent, and eventually, to misery? Perhaps I chase more “success” in the hopes of recreating the ‘struggle’ that was part of pursing success in the first place—the way many successful entrepreneurs do? And, if I do this, at what point is enough enough? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think it’s smart to always be thinking about them.
Ultimately, this is what I fear: that success will remove the luster from life because it will remove the struggle.
Struggle is what gives the opposite of struggle meaning. I’ve long since accepted this, and try to appreciate it in my life on a daily basis.
A rule of life: The greater you struggle, the greater you appreciate the times you don’t struggling.
I’ve long since understood the laws of positive and negative as it pertains to the duality of life. This understanding has made me aware of how important struggle and not struggling is to the human condition. It’s also the reason I ponder what life will be like when I find myself with success. When I read a quote like above, it brings me back to these thoughts.
Of course, most people won’t be able to understand how I think this way, or how Dostoyevsky would have to gamble his money away. Without being Dostoyevsky, it’s near impossible to full understand the internal battles he faced and why he would need to be broke to be able to write and to maintain his identity as an artist. Sure, you and I know (think) we wouldn’t do that. We know (think) we would be different. We know (think) he is just a crazy outlier and probably off his rocker. We know (think) we would be happy and content with fortune, fame, success and power.
Of course, the fact is, we don’t know jack.
We don’t know anything until we are in the situation ourselves.
I just spent 20 minutes trying to find a quote I’m remembering. I think it was by one of the great Stoics—Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus—but I’m not sure and my search was fruitless. The quote I’m thinking of pertained to how living a comfortable life is not noble. This quote was going to support my point about struggle and comfort. It spoke to the importance of living a life of struggle, how a hard life is integral for happiness and purpose, as well as the pitfalls of an easy life. Instead, here’s a quote I heard on one of my favorite podcasts, The Tai Lopez Show. It goes like this: Proverbs 27:17: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
Having it all, yet lacking it all
There are around 12 million millionaires in the world, more than ever before. Plenty of these individuals are happy, I’m sure, but plenty are also depressed and struggle with being happy even though they have all the things that the rest of the world spends the majority of their lives trying to achieve—security, power, freedom and money.
Why, then, do these individuals struggle with happiness when they have all the things that the rest of the world is trying to pursue through their pursuit of happiness? It’s this: purpose.
To anyone who still invests the majority of their life into producing an income to support themselves and their family, it’s hard to understand how someone can be rich and miserable. That just doesn’t compute in our minds. For us, having money would solve so many of our problems (we think) and so we just know (think) we would be happy if we were rich. Of course, like I said before, we don’t know anything until we are in that position.
It really comes down to this: The problems the middle and lower classes face are not the same problems the rich and privileged face.
Problems are problems and we all have them. As Biggie Smalls said, “Mo money mo problems.”
One of the most pervading problems of the upper classes is, in my opinions, this: their success has removed the “struggle” they faced when they struggled as a part of the lower class making their way on up. When an individual has enough money to provide for his or her family forever, there is a lack of struggle, and thus, purpose that comes as a result. This lack of struggle/purpose creates a kind of inertia and causes existential angst.
This is, according to happiness research, a big problem. Human beings need purpose and forward movement towards a better future to feel fulfilled and happy. And this is why they say it’s about the journey and not the destination, of which I wholeheartedly agree and try to remind myself of.
Don’t get me wrong. Success does solve many problems, specifically the ones that the lower classes face on a daily basis, but in return it brings with it its own set of problems—inertia, lack of purpose and hope, lack of excitement, fear of loss, inability to find true friends or partners and so on.
A critic to my theory might say that since the rich now have new struggles to overcome, my point about a lack of struggle would be invalid. I disagree. The thing is, the struggles brought to the upper classes are insidious and not easily recognized because they are not as common nor recognized as actual problems. Think about it: who would feel bad for a depressed rich person? Aside from another rich, depressed person, I doubt many.
Another thing about the problems of success is they require a lot of self-awareness and soul searching to figure out and combat.
Sometimes the pursuit for accomplishment—and the hope in that pursuit—is the perfect antidote to the pitfalls of the human mind. Working towards tangible accomplishment aligns perfectly with the human genetic imperative of acquiring resources, which we are genetically predisposed to do as the result of our ancestors living in the harsh wild for hundreds of thousands of years. In a nutshell, human beings are not adapted to have everything we want or need, and so we find ourselves faced with an existential crisis when we reach a point where we no longer have to work or struggle for survival. This is very much a paradox: we have so much desire for acquiring more resources built into our psyche that we become miserable when we acquire them for long periods of time because we are not programmed to have them for long because, in the wild, we would use up our acquired resource to survive and then have to go out and get them again.
Why do empires want to get bigger? Why do companies always want to grow huge? Why do we want more and better to no end? Above is why. Now, do you now see how Dostoyevsky would need to gamble away his fortune so he could recreate the struggle again, and thus, write?
Happiness research shows us that a key to happiness for human beings is rooted in forward motion. Striving for something in the future gives one hope and purpose, and as research shows, is necessary for living a healthy and happy life.
We all have to move forward in life; it’s a survival instinct that our ancestors, who had to survive in the harsh wild without modern advancements in the form of refrigeration, farming or a consistent food system, have passed down to us. Because our ancestors had to fight every day of their lives to survive, acquiring more and more resources gave our ancestors a better chance of survival, and this has been built into our DNA.
When one has abundance, he or she loses the struggle that was a part of acquiring that abundance. When one loses that struggle, he or she loses the forward momentum that has been a natural part of human life for millions of years. Finally, when one loses forward movement towards something—like what happens when you have massive wealth—he or she runs into big problems. Again, the bizarre paradox of the human species: we all want more and better until we actually get it.
It’s the wanting and getting that we need, not the having. We really only need enough to survive and feel somewhat secure. Our brains aren’t programmed to handle anymore than that.
Again, to drive the point home, it’s the struggle that makes us happy, not the having.
In a nutshell, human beings are a part of nature, and being so, are designed to struggle the way the rest of nature struggles. We are made to have a lot sometimes, not enough sometimes, and everything in between. Since society has granted us an overabundance of many things we once had to struggle for, we find ourselves struggling with a new set of problems, ones nature has not prepared us for (and that we will have to evolve through).
Struggle and happiness are intertwined; you can’t have one without the other. Without struggle, difficulty and hardship, life becomes a lifeless gray and we find ourselves searching for “better” as a means of bringing the color back into our lives. The problem is, when we start thinking the grass is greener, we don’t realize that we aren’t actually going after the greener grass because we want that better grass. In fact, we are actually chasing the struggle that comes with our seeking of better. And after we struggle and get what we want, we have to find something else to chase to recreate the struggle again or we will become unhappy.
When you chase bigger and better, you are chasing struggle, not bigger and better.
Understanding this, and using it to your advantage, will save you a lot of problems along the way.
I’m afraid of greener grass.
Initially I thought my fears were rooted in the constant seeking of greener grass, but what I’ve now realized after writing this is it’s rooted in a lack of understanding of why I’m chasing that grass. Sure, with certain things, greener grass can be dangerous, and that’s why I’m a big practitioner of gratitude and self-awareness.
Some things in life need greener grass, like purpose, personal growth, knowledge and wisdom, and some things don’t, like relationships, money, power and security.
In the former, you want to always be growing and chasing better and more while in the latter you want to learn how to express gratitude for what you have and aim to be aware of when enough is enough.
The reason I think about these topics before they become huge problems is, I want to better pursue happiness while also preparing myself for the pitfalls that future success has waiting for me.
Now, this isn’t all theoretical. I actually have a few ways I’m preemptively planing for these problems. One is through nonprofit work. By incorporating nonprofit work into my business, life and future goals as much as possible, I think I will have the purpose part covered. After all, no amount of success will ever make nonprofit work a solved problem. Through nonprofit work, I’ll always have something to find purpose in, and there will always be countless ways I can challenge myself personally and professionally.
The more I think about this, the more I understand why Fyodor Dostoyevsky would need to gamble away his last penny. He was a novelist, and since being a novelist was probably integral to his identity, the only way he was able to maintain his identity was to make himself broke so he could write again. I get it.
So, what’s the point to all this?
After reading this, you still might think it’s a bit audacious to be afraid of something that isn’t a guarantee to happen in the first place. Well, to that I say: “I’m different.” I come form the “Think and Grow Rich” school of thought in which I know I’m going to be successful. One way or another, I know I’m going to figure this success thing out. To me, this is a perfectly reasonable, even necessary, problem to ponder.
There are a few lessons here, but it’s up to you to take from it what you will. For me, this was a wonderful piece to write as it helped put some of these thoughts down on paper. I hope these words will give you some things to think about—and plan for—in your life and future.
Yours in Life,