I was a teenager when I first started getting interested in personal development.
My first introduction was Steve Pavlina, who I found from an early interest in making video games. He had set up a full-time independent game development business, and the idea of starting my own small, online business became a dream that obsessed me.
Later, I listened to audiobooks by classic self-help speakers like Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracy and Tony Robbins. Together, they all suggested a similar philosophy of life: set goals, cultivate your ambition, work hard and realize your dreams.
It’s a vision of life that I connect with today. Even though, now, many of those early dreams have been already realized and my new ones lack the obsessive character of those first ambitions.
However, there’s a completely different school of thought that argues that the cultivation of desire is exactly the wrong thing to do. In Buddhism, Daoism and Stoicism, desire and craving are the very enemies you should be combating. The flames you stoke to reach your dreams are, in their view, the exact fires you need to quench.
Who is right? Should you follow your desires ardently, until you reach your goals? Or should you abandon craving and aim for a life of equanimity and serenity?
Comparing the Two Views of Life
These two visions of life definitively contradict. I’m not sure that they can be integrated in any systematic way. Yet, I also find myself hard-pressed to reject either of them.
On the one hand, my own personal experience attests to the view of goal-setting and self-cultivation. At fifteen, my life today was just a fantasy. Today I have an online business, which has supported me full-time for nearly a decade. I have a beautiful wife. I live in pleasant city. I’ve gone on adventures and enjoyed life.
What my life would have looked like, absent those early inspirations, is hard to say. I can imagine myself grudgingly showing up to a day job, with my earlier dreams and ambitions long collecting the dust of regret in the back of my mind.
Yet it’s also possible that something like my current life was mostly inevitable. Perhaps not this exact career, spouse or experiences, but something similar. In this view, it was my nature to do these things, and no particular philosophy or inspiration was necessary. Or perhaps, the goal-setting and self-development was also in my nature, thus there was never much choice involved in whether or not I would pursue it so obsessively.
The Darker Side of Ambition
On the other hand, I also appreciate the meaning behind why the Buddha argued for eliminating craving, and why Laozi argued that, “he who seeks to grasp things will lose them,” and that therefore, “the sage puts away excessive effort,” in the Dao De Jing.
It is impossible to truly satisfy all your wants, eliminate all your fears and achieve a lofty position of total success. Even in the brief moments when such a permanent success might feel imminent, the underlying emotion is rarely serenity, but boredom.
The fires of ambition and goal-setting, once their fuel has been used up, rarely fail to spread to other things, gnawing at you to do more and more, even if that wasn’t your initial inspiration.
My own, very limited, experience with meditation, gives me the impression that these ideas are deeper than simply avoiding excessive desire. Abandoning all your cravings, even for a short time, gives a feeling of happiness that rarely matches with simple achievement.
Which Should You Choose: Cultivate Your Desires or Abandon Them?
At the risk of becoming completely incoherent, I think the answer is, paradoxically, to do both.
I don’t believe the highest meaning in life should be to sit cross legged on the floor and remain equanimous as the world passes you by. Living things are meant to live, and for human beings that means striving, dreaming and reaching our potential.
But, at the same time, there’s a fallacy in believing that such striving and dreaming will land at a destination. That, if you could only reach a certain goal, find that perfect partner, become financially free, start a thriving business, that this would lead to a deep and enduring happiness.
It’s better to have these things than to be without them, that’s sure. But, in not having them, people chronically overestimate how much possessing them will permanently improve their moment-to-moment reality.
Therefore, I think the letting go of desires must also be in your daily practice.
In the first journey, I feel I’ve gone quite away. In the second, I feel as if I’ve just begun. But perhaps this is always how it is, with striving inevitably embodying a kind of personal history, to which one has been walking for some time. Abandoning craving, in contrast, puts the focus on this very moment, and thus one is always making the first step.
I’m more and more convinced that the answer to life’s enduring questions may end up being paradoxical. That inconsistent answers to life may be better than imbalanced ones which rigorously exclude all internal contradictions.
Thus, I think you should both cultivate your desires and abandon them. Stoke the flames of your striving and pursue the things you really want in life, in spite of your doubts and fears about them. But, at the same time, know how to release those same desires so they do not burn you.