For the last eight years, I’ve had an internal struggle — between wanting to improve myself, and wanting to be content.
To be honest, I haven’t completely figured out how to resolve that struggle. But I’m working on it.
Contentment: Where the struggle begins
What’s the root of this struggle? Well, when I started Zen Habits more than eight years ago, I had been working for more than a year on changing all of my habits, with lots of success. All those changes were rooted in my dissatisfaction with myself. I’d had a lot of success, but the dissatisfaction never went away.
So I started working on being more content. That meant accepting a lot of things about myself, learning to appreciate what I have, learning about the concept of “enough” instead of always wanting to do more, be more.
I became happier with the concept of already being enough.
Here’s what I’ve learned recently, though:
1. The conflict didn’t go away
Every day, I’d have urges to pursue a goal: run an ultramarathon, do the Goruck Challenge, get six-pack abs, learn a new language, learn to program or play guitar, travel the world, and much more. There’s nothing wrong with these urges. They’re natural, a part of being human, and they can lead to good things.
2. These urges never end
I always want to be more. I’m never satisfied. When will it be enough? When will I be happy with who I am?
3. The urges are not based on anything meaningful
They come from reading a magazine, or someone’s blog, and thinking, “Oh, that would be cool!” I read lists of things I should do someday, places I should go, achievements others have done… and the idea pops into my head that I should do them. Hey cool, let’s suddenly pursue a new goal!
But this new fantasy in my head isn’t based on anything that matters, just a cool image that I have in my head about how awesome my life will be once I achieve this goal.
4. My life isn’t more awesome after achieving the goal
I always learn something from these pursuits, but the result isn’t the life that I fantasized about. I ran the ultramarathon, did the Goruck Challenge, got the leaner body, learned a bit of programming… my life isn’t any better. The fantasy was never real.
5. The pursuit doesn’t result in anything meaningful
Going after these achievements, always looking to improve myself … they don’t result in anything that brings meaning to my life. They’re all about fantasy, not about creating meaning.
6. Meaning is all that matters
While the pursuits to do and be more that I mentioned above don’t really create meaning in my life… there are pursuits that create meaning.
Writing my blog and helping my members in the Sea Change program feels meaningful, because I’m helping others to find mindfulness, better habits, contentment. Doing things with my kids feels like it matters, because I’m helping them feel loved. Writing my new book feels like it matters, because it was done out of love for my readers. These things are worthy of pursuit.
I can watch & let go
I’ve been learning recently that I can see these urges to be something more, to achieve something cool… just watch them arise. I can’t control the urges, but I can be mindful of them. And I can also realize that they won’t create meaning for me, that they’re just a fantasy, and let them go.
It’s not always easy to let them go, but what has worked is realizing that pursuing these meaningless improvements has never resulted in what I’d hoped they would, and that I spent months and years of my time pursuing these things instead of creating true meaning.
I don’t have all the answers, but I do realize that with the limited time I have left to live, I want to spend it in pursuit of what’s meaningful, not what seems glittery and cool.