Why are you going to accomplish?
We live in a society that prizes accomplishment above all else. Ambitious parents begin to prepare their kids for the ruthless capitalist competition while they are still in the womb, plying their unborn offspring with neural connection stimulating Baby Mozart recordings and reading them metered poetry and math textbooks they themselves don’t understand.
And of course accomplishment is ultimately valued in terms of money.
The value of individual achievement, distinction, and above all, financial success is drummed into children in Western societies, especially the United States, from a very early age. The culture of celebrity, the elevation of billionaires to the status of cultural icons and role models (now even to the point of electing one to the presidency) all speak to the value placed upon achievement and money.
Unfortunately there are some serious problems with this model of the meaningful and happy life.
Let me make it clear first, though, that I’m under no illusion that highly organized human life is likely or even desirable without a medium of exchange, although complex barter systems are also perfectly workable for the majority of people in societies that don’t have a wildly complex division of labor and where economies are mostly local. That isn’t the case for us, so money is needed and we all need a certain amount of it to have decent, dignified lives in which we stand a chance of reaching our highest potential.
Money in and of itself isn’t bad.
The problem is that it’s a poor measure of success unless one completely conflates the two, which is a nihilistic view.
Take two people. One makes $40,000 a year as an English teacher, the other makes $4 million as the CEO of a mining company. The first person is a passionate teacher, loves her pupils year after year, cares for each individually as best she can, and works tirelessly to inspire them, cultivate their love of literature and language, and works effectively to help them get into the colleges and universities of their choice.
The second person directs his company develop gold and copper mines in developing countries. His company is responsible for the poisoning of streams due to the runoff of mining wastes and cyanide used in the mining process. As a result of the company’s operations dozens of villages have been displaced and thousands of people have become chronically sick due to exposure to contaminated water. The company secretly bribes local officials when necessary in order to obtain permits to operate, and two anti-mining activists have been murdered in connection to the company’s projects, most likely by thugs hired by those local officials who profit from the company’s illicit largess.
It’s all just a part of doing business in corrupt parts of the world the CEO tells himself.
Who is more successful? How do you measure success in each case?
Success is not value neutral. Achievement is not value neutral. If you use all the success supporting strategies in the world—envisioning outcomes, planning, persistence, affirmations, learning from failure etc.—and use them to help an authoritarian government build a more intrusive surveillance state, what is your achievement worth?
In short, success and achievement are meaningful only in the context of a broader ethical framework. Some things are inherently wholesome, such as taking care of the needy. Some things are inherently neutral, like building muscle and developing aerobic endurance. And some things are inherently unwholesome like exploiting the powerless for profit.
Therefore you can think about what about what you are up to in life across at least four dimensions:
1. Your personal genius and your inner motivation;
2. The opportunity structure—flexible to a point. If your genius is to build buggies for horses you can still exercise that but you might be living around Colonial Williamsburg crafting historical replicas;
3. The broader context of what the world needs. Does the world need more computer programmers? Sure, but even more so it needs computer programmers who program useful, intelligent and inspiring software rather than violent games that frankly no one needs ;
4. What is inherently worthwhile. If your genius is to run a business, fine. But there is a big difference between running a horse racing that caters to people’s addictions and supports the cruel treatment of animals and running a meditation retreat center that caters to the deepest aspirations people have for spiritual awakening.
I want to come back briefly to the examples I used above. I used taking care of the needy as an example of something that is inherently wholesome and therefore worth doing. But if the inner motivation is look good and inflate one’s own ego, the picture isn’t so clear. Certainly the benefits to you wouldn’t be great and most likely the narcissistic inner game would leak out and affect the way you interact with others. Your effectiveness might suffer. You might even cause distress or harm in some people. A high degree of integrity lines up well with an inherently worthwhile activity.
I also said building muscle and being fit is inherently neutral. But if you use physical fitness as a platform for transforming your life in a positive way, it clearly becomes a wholesome activity. A high degree of fitness can help lead to a high degree of mental clarity, which in turn is a great asset in interacting with people, developing compassion, and getting mentally difficult work done. Physical fitness can help greatly in one’s meditation practice, allowing for longer and more focused sessions. Physical fitness can be used to inspire children, people suffering from chronic diseases and the overweight to follow your lead and take care of their health. Healthier people means healthier and happier families, less suffering and greater capacity of people to achieve their potential.
On the other hand, physical fitness, like so many things, can be used to show off and inflate one’s ego. In and of itself, being able to run an ultra-marathon is neither wholesome nor unwholesome. A wholesome motivation followed by the appropriate actions can turn it into something helpful and positive.
We might all, at various times, suffer from unwholesome motivations. This wouldn’t be a surprise to any psychologist. The trick is to not flinch from the darker sides of our minds but to bring light to them, to recognize them and let them be. And to gradually, in a parallel sort of fashion, cultivate wholesome motivations.
Try the following exercise when you have a quiet half hour:
1. Examine your motivations for having the main goals that you have in life. Be brutally honest with yourself. Make a list of both the wholesome and unwholesome motivations, noting the main motivation for each goal.
2. Find what would be the most wholesome motivation for each main life goal you currently have.
3. With eyes closed imagine what it would be like if this were your driving motivation. Imagine it being so, and cultivate the aspiration that it may be so. Say to yourself, “May my motivation be wholesome, positive, grounded in compassion and joy.”
4. Imagine achieving your goals with these wholesome motivations behind them. Imagine the person you would be. Feel it.
5. Now imagine the effects on the world, the people around you. Imagine how the love, generosity and compassion that provide the psychological atmosphere for your actions affects the people around you and the world in general.
Repeat this regularly. These little exercises can be done at night before falling asleep, or as part of your morning meditation, or any other time you can have a quiet, still moment. Very gradually, as you realize the benefits of having a wholesome motivation, the strength of your aspirations will grow, and the unwholesome motivations will naturally diminish. There is no reason, or any benefit, to attack the unwholesome motivations directly—you can’t bully egotism away, for instance. But as compassion and generosity grow, egotism naturally shrinks back.
As a side effect I think you will find your goals become easier to achieve or advance on, and the process becomes less stressful.