Monday, February 2, 2015

Ambition v. contentment
Had a short discussion with a student the other day about this: How do you balance contentment with the desire to improve?

I had struggled with this in a previous post, and wasn't quite satisfied with the result. Then yesterday I read this post on the topic, and loved the way a conversation with her friend summed up the problem.

She writes:
“All I truly want to be in life is content,” I told him confidently. I was sure I had life figured out once and for all.

“Great,” he replied, “but is content all you ever want to be? What about always aiming for something bigger? What about your desire to continually grow and learn and transform?”

Sigh. I knew he was right. After almost burning out on creating stress, I had gone too far in the other direction. I had lost sight of my vision.
And her solution echoed my thoughts:
Active contentment. Such a liberating concept. It’s about being completely at peace with who you are and what you’re doing in the moment while simultaneously maintaining a vision for the future.
But somehow I was still unsatisfied. How can you be both at the same time? Is this like Schroedinger’s Cat or something?

I don't think so. My latest thinking on this is that contentment and improvement are inherently incompatible.

Stay with me. This morning I was reading Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and came across his thoughts on the subject:
Optimal experience is not the result of a hedonistic, lotus-eating approach to life. A relaxed, laissez-faire attitude is not a sufficient defence against chaos. As we have seen from the very beginning of this book, to be able to transform random events into flow, one must develop skills that stretch capacities, that make one become more than what one is. Flow drives individuals to creativity and outstanding achievement.
And then a quick search pulled up this post, in which the writer quotes an interesting study in which, "They did the experiment on a group of employees at a company, and it played out just as stated above.  Those employees who were told to reflect on all they’ve accomplished on the job became happier and less motivated.  The ones who were pushed to reflect on all they still needed to accomplish were less content but harder working."

And I suppose that shouldn't be surprising. There's no reason to suppose the same strategy should work all the time. In fact, it makes sense that the strategy for optimal experience might just vary with the circumstance, i.e. running from a lion vs. enjoying a string quartet.

If so, the solution is simply that the solution varies. For everything there is a season, a time to be content, and a time to change. A time to relax and a time to strive. A time to be mindful, and a time to run like hell.

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