A lot of classic goal-setting advice is about changing the constraints of your life. Don’t like your job? Quit and find something else. Don’t have enough money? Earn more. Unsatisfied with your love life? Go meet new people.
I don’t think any of this advice is necessarily bad. But, just as working to change the constraints of your life is important, it’s even more important to learn how to live within the constraints of your life. Enjoy your job while you work there, or at least manage the stress. Change your lifestyle to spend within your income. Be happy with your partner, or be happy in solitude.
Don’t Choose Between Ambition and Contentment
It’s unfortunate that so much advice is coached as a choice between these two alternatives. Either you’re an ambitious go-getter who will do whatever it takes, or you’ve settled and found contentment. Why can’t you have both?
Ambition and goal-setting are skills. It’s a skill to organize the urges and inertia in your life and apply it towards achieving what you want. If you lack this skill, it’s too easy to become discouraged, frustrated, burnt out or lost.
But just as ambition is a skill, so is contentment. It’s a skill to look at all the constraints of your life, and find a way to not just put up with them, but to savor them.
A haiku requires a 5-7-5 combination of syllables. Therefore, it is often more difficult to create a haiku than a poem free of restrictions. But those restrictions can also make it more appealing.
Unfortunately, these two skills are often labeled as polar opposites: you’re either ambitious or content. I think, instead, that you can work on both skills simultaneously. You can practice the art of living within the constraints, while still investing energy to reinvent them.
Where’s Your Adventure?
In the past, I’ve made the mistake of seeing my life too much in the future. When I have fixed my money constraint, that’s when I’ll be happy. When I’ve changed my relationship constraint, that will make me satisfied. Unfortunately, I was confusing the two skills: I thought ambition would bring me satisfaction, and contentment would bring me enthusiasm.
The adventure isn’t overseas, with someone else or in the future. It’s right now, and you’re living it.
Contentment is a skill, so I believe it requires practice and creativity. A master painter is better able to work within the constraints of color choice, subject and style than an amateur.
First, Change What You Need
Aside from the bare essentials, few things are genuine needs. Our wants often become so familiar that they become needs. Do you need a car, house, or even electricity? What about the billions of people who live without them?
I’m not suggesting that everyone should become wandering ascetics. Just that the more you view your “wants” as absolute necessities, the harder it is to live within changing constraints. Many Stoic writers advocated taking temporary poverty, not because poverty is necessarily better, but because it would remove your fear of it and the attachment you have to material wealth.
A more practical approach for the 21st century could simply be taking a few days or weeks out of the year to go without. Live outdoors for a week, temporarily eliminate pre-processed foods, or even just shut off the internet for a few days.
Don’t Push Happiness in the Future
If contentment is the skill for deriving pleasure from life, ambition is a skill for deriving enthusiasm and energy. Don’t confuse the two by trying to use ambition and goal-setting as a fix for your lack of contentment. If you aren’t happy now, in most situations achieving any particular goal won’t fix that.
Work within the constraints first, then try to change them. Since, if the constraints aren’t the problem, you’re going to hit a dead-end chasing for happiness. Set goals to bring challenge, enthusiasm and a new adventure, not as a substitute for enjoying the present.