5 min read

What Should We Wish For? (Newsletter 030)

Perhaps we should wish for something other than more of the promotions, wealth, and possessions that haven't seemed to make us happier yet.
What Should We Wish For? (Newsletter 030)

Greetings friends!

I used to sign farewell cards at work with something like "I wish you every success in your new endeavors." Now when I think back, this was exactly the wrong thing to say. A person who is successful at everything has no reason to question the foundation of their happiness. They have material wealth, they have career success, they seem to have it all. But such persons are at great risk of identifying their happiness with those external things.

What happens when life knocks a pillar out from underneath a person who's known nothing but success? Say they suffer a career setback, or a health problem, or have relationship troubles? It can be devastating. They find themselves dissatisfied and unhappy, and they cannot be happy again until the external situation is fixed.

If getting everything we want carries its own dangers, what should we wish for others to achieve? Let's say you are a caring boss, and you want your colleagues to succeed at work. What does that success actually mean? Does it mean they never make a mistake? Or is it better that they learn from the small mistakes they make and so become wiser?

Does success mean that an employee advances from one promotion to the next, scaling the heights of power? Or would you wish that they come to appreciate the deep satisfaction from doing their existing jobs ever better? Does success mean they make more money than their peers in other companies? Or are they better off learning early that their worth is but poorly measured in money?

Our first Guest post on Klugne.com comes from a former long-serving teacher at the American School of the Hague, Richard Freedberg. In The Student Becomes the Teacher, Richard explores what it means to be a successful student and successful teacher, and how we are typically both at different times. It was great to see Richard's wisdom after a long life spent helping students achieve their potential.

In a related setting, think now on what a parent would wish for their children. If you ask the kids themselves, many will tell you they want to be rich, or powerful, or famous. Sometimes all three. It takes the age and experience of a parent to wonder if a far more valuable gift would be their children simply being happy with their lives, or finding love, or making a lasting contribution to society.

I suspect you've noticed people who never seem satisfied with what they've achieved. You may have managed employees who are always itching for more: responsibility, pay, promotions. I've noticed the desire for more does not seem to be correlated with talent, at least not always. That is, all sorts of people fall prey to being dissatisfied with their current position, the gifted and the striving alike.

It's usually easy for a boss or a parent to give sound advice to a colleague or their child: be careful placing your hopes and dreams in external things like wealth, power, or fame. As I discuss in this week's Moral Letter 060 On Dangerous Goals:

When you set any of these as your goal, you set yourself on a path of guaranteed hardship and likely disappointment.

Goals are a declaration of what you want, but not as such a blueprint for how to get what you want. Moreover, when you set a goal you are opening yourself up to a potentially long period of unhappiness until you reach your goal. You may find that the cost of achieving your goal far outweighs the benefits, but you realize this only after the damage has been done.

060 - On Dangerous Goals - Moral Letters for Modern Times
How many unhappy professionals do we know who, upon reaching the pinnacle of supposed success, are plagued by doubts about whether the sacrifices were worth the prize?

On a happy note, I recently achieved a goal I had ardently wished for, which is to become a regular columnist for the ACC Docket, the magazine for in-house lawyers. I agreed to write the Career Path column and am honored to join a line of impressive contributors who set a high bar. My first article gives advice about applying risk management principles to Managing Your Career. I can already see that keeping my own standards high while writing a weekly column will take time and effort. But I hope I understand the costs and am happy to pay the price.

Taking the larger perspective, we live in times of great abundance. Most of us have demonstrably more wealth, health, and possessions than humans across the vast march of time. We have also advanced the state of our collective knowledge to unprecedented heights. How to explain then that we simultaneously find ourselves irritated and annoyed to distraction? We chafe and argue with one another, and believe we are surrounded by dangerous idiots. We feel that our own success remains out of reach, and we run ever harder chasing after it.

Perhaps we should wish for something other than more of the promotions, wealth, and possessions that haven't seemed to make us happier yet. I think we'd do well to give ourselves the same advice we'd give our colleagues and our children: to experience lasting joy, and not just fleeting enjoyment, we must remember that joy does not come from external things but from a tranquil mind.

As I discuss in this week's Moral Letter 059 On Joy And Enjoyment:

When you are free from doubt, worry, jealously; when your course is the same whether you are pushing into the headwind or blown along by a tailwind; when you delight in stillness as much as you do in motion; when you do not rely on external things, joy is your reward.
059 - On Joy And Enjoyment - Moral Letters for Modern Times
Joy as we understand it does not depend on what possessions you are currently enjoying, and what pleasurable experiences you may be seeking. It is a condition arising from a tranquil mind, undisturbed by external things.

So the next time you sign a farewell card, consider writing something like this: "I wish you a string of small failures that teach you to be mindful so as to fully appreciate all that you already have, the people you're lucky enough to spend time with, and whatever you're doing at exactly this moment."

Or if that's too long, you can just say "Be well" and hope they fill in the blanks themselves.

Be well.