For many, perhaps most people, life is full of struggles. Your career isn’t where you want it to be. You’re a bit out of shape and really need to start eating better. Your relationship status is complicated.
True, the promises of self-help books are often inflated, get-rich-quick schemes turn out to take a long time and not all of life’s problems can be fixed. However, a lot of struggles can be lessened through fairly obvious (but not necessarily easy) steps: set goals, build better habits, learn more and do the work.
But suppose you’re successful with that. You’ve gotten a handle on the big parts of your life. Even if things aren’t perfect, you’re headed in a good direction and what remains are mostly details. What then?
Hunger and Struggle
The seemingly rational answer to fixing your major problems would be to declare victory. You’re done!
Strangely, few people seem to respond in the rational way. Happily ever after sounds good when you’re striving for it, but it’s oddly empty when actually experienced.
A similar experience everyone has had is with hunger. When you’re hungry all you can think about is food. How delicious it will be when you finally get it. Why, oh why, can’t you eat right now?
Yes, there’s some pleasure in eating when you’re really hungry. But after? Nothing at all. There’s no enduring satisfaction, simply a nothingness where there once was hunger. Soon enough, you feel a new urge to sleep, move around or entertain yourself.
We all understand this phenomenon when it comes to hunger, but if you’ve rarely had financial security, great physical shape or a strong relationship, it’s easy to believe these things are different. That they will feel like an enduring something once you get them. Realizing they don’t, then, often comes as a surprise.
Tearing Things Down to Build Them Anew
The situation with self-improvement is somewhat different from hunger, however. Because while facing life’s struggles often creates pain and deprivation, it can also add a motivating tension in your life. This motivating tension isn’t always pleasant, but it provides a structure and direction for the things you do.
Once the major struggles in your life are gone, the motivating tension often releases as well. The result can be that while you don’t wish to have your struggles return, you do want to regain that same energizing force that pushed you to improve things in the first place.
One strategy people use to regain this tension is self-destruction. Damage the things you worked hard to build, so you can remake it again. People cheat on their spouse because they get bored. They abruptly quit their jobs once their position is stable.
An obvious problem of this strategy is that it makes everything worse again! The motivating tension has returned, but now you also have all the struggles you worked hard to overcome.
Fortunately, I think most people manage to avoid highly self-destructive behavior, even if movies and television shows seem to make the behavior appear common for dramatic purposes.
Mentally Tearing Down Your Past Achievements
Instead, I think an even more common strategy is to mentally create new struggles. This strategy works better, because it doesn’t involve destroying what you worked hard to create, but it has the side-effect of psychologically creating the same deprivation states you associate with struggling.
So this could be the person who gets in shape, but now wants 6% body fat and to be totally shredded. Or the person who is making $200,000 per year, but now isn’t satisfied without earning at least a million. What was previously good enough is now no good, and the struggle begins again.
Let me be clear, the thing I’m criticizing here isn’t the mindset of continual growth, but the act of motivating that growth by creating new, imagined deprivations. One could certainly pursue extremes of excellence in many regards without mentally downgrading all one’s past accomplishments.
Can You Have Motivating Tension Without Struggle?
What’s clear is that while struggles are bad, the motivating tension is often good. Since most of our experiences having motivating tensions come from our struggles, we often recreate the struggles in reality or in imagination to recapture the that drive.
I think the way out of this trap involves a shift in the philosophy of life you hold for yourself. It has to be a shift away from the tension coming from fixing your problems, and onto more abstract goals that you’re explicitly aware won’t improve your life.
The form these abstract goals take vary depending on who you ask. Service is a particularly prominent one—as one is driven to replace one’s own struggles with the struggles of others in the motivating tension you feel. Mastery is another—with excellence itself being pursued while explicitly rejecting that such excellence will improve things. Creative vision is a third—bringing something into reality that only exists in your mind, simply because you think it ought to exist.
None of what I’m saying is new, of course. Victor Frankl put love as the highest aim of man in his search for meaning. Steven Covey made service his eighth habit. Every major world religion encourages something beyond self-improvement.
However, what I think has, thus far, been somewhat underexplored is the transition from one mode (overcoming struggles, self-improvement) to another mode (service, mastery, creativity) as the dominant form of motivating tension in your life.
Should Everyone Transcend Their Struggles?
Where I think I differ from some authors is that I think some people recognize that creative vision, mastery or service are goals that transcend oneself, therefore we should have all been doing that from the start.
I’m not sure I agree, for at least two reasons:
- Even if it were literally true that you have enough money, fitness, friends, etc. to be happy, you may not feel this way. I don’t think lecturing someone who sees their life as full of struggles that they ought to care more about service or mastery for its own sake necessarily helps.
- There may be genuine psychological needs we are missing. Thus the struggles are as real as hunger even if the nutrients missing are more abstract. Self-determination theory is a popular account of human motivation that posits basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Lacking these is like lacking food, and so the struggles are “real” in a sense that they can’t be dismissed as imagined problems.
Thus I think for people who do see their lives as involving considerable struggle, the correct response is to give tools to alleviate the struggle.
Self-improvement is no panacea. Some problems cannot be fixed. Others can be reduced, but they recur due to factors outside your control. This is simply an unfortunate fact of life, and speaks to the unfairness of existence rather than the impotence of self-improvement as a whole.
However, for many people who are lucky enough to have surmountable problems, self-improvement can reach a stage of diminishing returns. Your basic needs will be met, both physically and psychologically. At which point, the motivating tension that structured and guided your life may be gone—creating a vacuum you desperately want to fill.
It makes sense to plan for this transition, even if you see your life as containing struggles right now. The person who wants to save a lot and retire early, but has no plan for what their life will be “about” once they reach this goal, is in for an unfortunate surprise. The person who wants to get in shape, but doesn’t know what will motivate their exercise once they reach their target may flounder between giving it up and going too far.
My Own Transitions
In many areas of my life, I feel like I’ve long left the struggles. This isn’t to say my life is perfect, or without problems. Clearly there are issues I face just as everyone else does. It’s simply that there are no large, obvious things to fix that would make my life better.
This didn’t happen to my life all at once, or in all areas of life at exactly the same time. I feel like I figured out the business/career part of my life before I figured out the relationship part, for instance.
Similarly, one’s life is never static. New struggles spontaneously arise that didn’t exist before. When my business went from solo to team, there were a lot of growing pains associated with that. I had less freedom. Server crises requiring calls at 2am to technical support. Needing to fire people. Transcending struggles is never a permanent shift. Life always finds ways to introduce new challenges.
However, in general, the motivating tensions that drove me to “fix” parts of my life when I was in my early twenties are mostly gone. Since then, I’ve leaned much more on service, mastery and creativity as new sources of motivation.
This involves new ways of thinking. No longer can you use big potential improvements to your life as the motivating energy for pursuing a goal. True, there are always small enhancements, but for the big efforts you need to draw on something completely different.
How Do You Know if You’re Beyond Your Struggles?
In theory this should be easy—struggles are the most obvious thing in our lives, so we ought to recognize when they’re gone. Yet, the drives to undo our past successes (mentally or actually) may mean the struggles persist longer in your mind than in reality.
Additionally, there’s always a baseline level of difficulties that can’t really be overcome. To be without struggles isn’t to never have bad days, emergencies or failures. Rather it’s recognizing that there’s not many more (big) things you can do that will eliminate the difficulties left over.
This latter point is also subjective. I may not enjoy feeling cramped on an airplane, but I take this to be a normal fact about flying. Another person may, instead, take it as a sign that they ought to make more money so they can always fly first class. Thus there’s always an implicit assessment of which kinds of struggles ought to be overcome and which are just part of life.
Still, I think the major indicator that you’re at or near a transition in your thinking would be if you mostly feel bored. The motivating tension that guided your life has diminished and you can’t find any big efforts to get excited about. In the moment, this can feel awful—like a ship unmoored in the ocean—but I would argue it’s actually good news. It means you’re ready to start thinking about the step beyond.