Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher, is often quoted as having said, "You can never get enough of what you don't need to make you happy." I first heard this misquoted in a way that still seems on point: "You can never get enough of what you don't really want."
As 2010 comes to a close and we move through the holidays on our way to a new year with new resolutions and new goals, it occurs to me that we might all benefit from taking some time now to take stock of what we truly want out of life as opposed to what we seem to be settling for.
Have you ever noticed an internal conflict in your own thought process about what you want out of life? Sometimes, these can be pretty simple conflicts: some part of you wants ice cream and another part wants to lose weight.
When people ask me what I do for a living, I sometimes respond with something like this: I help people get what they think they want as fast as possible so that I can ask them, "Was that it?"
In the course of my life's work, I have asked literally thousands of people some version of the what-do-you-want question. For the most part, people tend to list all kinds of things they want. Cars, houses, money, and toys of all sorts frequently come to mind for most individuals. All pretty understandable, really.
If you dig into the what-do-you-want question with a bit more resolve, you might find yourself coming up with some large buckets of life in which you would like to experience greater satisfaction or fulfillment. Typical categories include health, wealth, career, family, relationship, personal or spiritual growth, fun, adventure and the like. As you think about what you want in your life, consider these three questions:
Most people I have worked with say they want more money. When I ask them why they want more money, or what more money would do for them, I usually hear something about buying things -- the house, car, travel, etc. If that's true for you, my suggestion is that you think a bit more deeply on what you hope to experience, not just on what you hope to buy: "What positive experience or experiences would you associate with having more money?"
From here, the answers might become more interesting. If you had more money, what would you imagine experiencing? Greater freedom? Security? Peace of mind? Sense of power or success?
If you are after the experience of being secure, free and at peace, is there any amount of money (or house, or car, or perfect relationship) that will produce those experiences? Think on that one for a moment: do you know anyone of little money who seems content? Do you know anyone with tons of cash who never seems at peace, secure or happy? Of course, there are people with money and peace, just as there are people who lack both money and contentment.
The point is that there is no equation here. No amount of money produces security, or peace or fulfillment.
How do you produce what you truly want? The obvious starting point is to clarify what it is that you want in the first place. As I have written many times over, there's an old country cliché that applies every time: if you don't know where you are going, any road will do.
So, play with this a little. If what you want is freedom, peace of mind, security, a sense of fullness or completion, and you have freedom, peace of mind, security, and a sense of fullness or completion in your life, would it matter how much money you have?
Wait a minute. Is this a trick question?
Well, yes and no. What I have found is that the more I focus on the positive experiences I want out of life, not only do I tend to produce those more frequently, but also the easier it is to produce more of the material "things" in life as well. Strangely, focusing on money hasn't made me any more secure or free, yet focusing on producing freedom and security has made it easier to create material success to go along with those inner qualities of success.
So, now what happens when you come to one of those forks in the road?
If your focus on what you want is more on physical possessions, then at least you have some guidance about how to choose: which fork is more likely to lead to the job, house, car, or money? However, if what you truly want is found more in the quality of experience than the quantity of possessions, then you need to make certain that you are thinking about the experiences you seek and not just the possessions you could accumulate.
Have you ever really, really wanted something, focused hard on getting it, wound up getting it and then wondered why you ever wanted it in the first place? If so, my suggestion would be to consider what matters most to you. After all, can you ever get enough of what you don't really want?
So here we are at the fork again. How should I choose? How about choosing toward the experiences you seek? Which fork is more likely to lead to freedom, security, fun or whatever experiences you truly are seeking?
I would love to hear from you about your ideas, about how you have chosen in the past or what you are focusing on as you look ahead. What do you want, really?
Please leave a comment here or drop me an e-mail to let me know your experience.
Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant, based in Santa Barbara, Calif. Watch for his new book, "Workarounds That Work: How to Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way at Work," which will be released Jan. 10, 2011. You can find out more about Russell at workaroundsthatwork.com. You can also download a free chapter of his new book by going to workaroundsthatwork.com and clicking on "Download a free chapter." Contact Russell by e-mail at Russell.Bishop@workaroundsthatwork.com.
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