118 - On Stepping Off The Treadmill - Moral Letters for Modern Times
About ten years after I started working in-house, I was gripped by a yawning uncertainty. It was that a great deal of the time my team and I were spending was wasted on tasks of little importance and no ultimate impact. Nothing is more damaging to motivation than to think that you are running flat out but making no progress. In the legal team’s case, it was churning through hundreds and thousands of contracts, negotiating the same damage limitation clauses over and over, to no real effect.
It is certainly good to be confident in what you are doing because self-doubt is destructive of peace of mind. But it is better to first be self-critical and to reflect on what you are doing. Because although this questioning is initially uncomfortable, careful thinking gives rise to well-founded conclusions about the wisdom of what you are doing. Bolstered by the assurance of the correctness of your actions, you can tackle any task and overcome any hurdle. The hours we spend working are not just mindless toil, undermined by the worry that it is also meaningless toil. The work is noble, purposeful, and of our own choosing.
This line of thinking is what causes me to react strongly, my dear Deuteros, to some of the more superficial questions we are confronted with. We have set our lives to the important task of learning to live well. Of what use are word games and trifles, pursuits that distract and amuse us but do not give us any useful weapons to take into combat? I want the answers not just to hard questions and paradoxes for the sake of solving a puzzle, but for learning what to do and what not to do, and why.
We will be put in terrible situations of pain and suffering. Can we learn not to needlessly suffer, and add to our burdens with burdens made of our own thinking? We will be tempted with riches and wonders and given the chance to pursue the same shiny things all our fellows seek. Will we have acquired in our studies the wisdom to respond with as much care to the favors of Fortune as we do to the evils that surround us? Can we be trusted to treat equally the good luck and bad luck that comes our way, because neither perturbs the reasoning of our well-ordered minds?
I say we are at greater risk than the average person by virtue of our studies. “Why is this,” you ask? “Are we not better armed by virtue of our careful work? How can the study of philosophy be of use if it only puts me in greater danger?” The risk of harm comes about precisely because we have learned to avoid many pitfalls. In particular, we have learned to apply the power of continuous improvement to many situations. This means we will experience steady progress and success in many areas of our lives. If you wish to pursue wealth, you will be more likely than most to attain it. For achieving material wealth is not intrinsically hard if you apply the right systems and mindset. Ironically, the person who learns to be happy with little is likely to be blessed with many small surpluses. Set prudently aside these small gains can easily grow into greater wealth.
Our greater danger does not go uncompensated, Deuteros. For one, we are given weapons against the many accidents and insults that life will confront us with. Being prepared for adversity is a most worthy addition to our armory. And for another, the dangers I am describing come from being showered with successes. Few of our fellow humans would view that as much of a problem. And exactly therein lies the problem. We remain vigilant because we know that the saying “success begets success” does not apply universally.
Indeed, I would say that for all but those who are disciplined of mind and in firm possession of their reason, the saying should be “success begets dissatisfaction.” How many powerful people do you know who, having attained a certain position in an organization, say “I am content where I am. I need nothing more.”? How many wealthy people eschew accumulating additional wealth? And to make the case more generally and more damningly, perhaps the saying should be “success begets disillusionment.” How many people who, having attained a goal they sought most assiduously, valued it the same upon reaching it as they did while seeking it? Far more typical is to say, “It’s not what I thought,” or worse, to not think about it at all because they have their sights set on the next prize.
For all the celebrities, millionaires, and social media stars that the masses look upon in envy, how many do you think repose in complete satisfaction? Not the self-satisfaction of pampered ease, but genuine satisfaction at their lot in life. Not needing anything external, not wanting anything they do not have, not wishing to be relieved of a burden they are carrying. You need only look to the carrying on when one of them suffers a public setback to know that their supposed happiness is only skin deep.
I tell you, do not seek to trade places with any person no matter how fortunate they seem to you. For all the visible signs of their success you may be gaining, you are also inheriting their fears, their worries, and their unchecked desires. And who knows if they have half your ability to control themselves.
Take uncomplainingly what comes your way, good or bad and, yes, work steadily towards improving your situation. But do not make the attainment of external possessions your aim, or you are stepping on a treadmill that is constantly running. This treadmill will make a runner out of you to be sure, but the work serves only to exhaust and wear you down, not to make you more fit. In contrast, the measured steps you take after careful reflection are much more likely to take you in a direction of your choosing and which will therefore be more to your liking.