"When you can't see where you're going, it's really hard to end up in a good place. "
- Dr. Obvious
Excuse me!? Doesn't everybody know what good, or at least better, means?
As it turns out, NO.
Harvard professor of psychology, Daniel Gilbert, in his provocative book Stumbling on Happiness, points out that we humans are really not very adept at predicting what will make us happy. For all the same reasons that we edit memories, says Gilbert, we edit our predictions about the future.
The ivy-covered cottage with a white picket fence only looks good from a distance. Ivy, it turns out, is very bad for houses. It crumbles the tuckpointing between layers of brick, and harbors all sorts of yucky creatures that will crawl into the siding and make a real mess. And white fences need regular painting. Even with that, the nails will rust and the pickets will eventually rot.
So, where does that leave a poor entrepreneur trying to live out her personal version of the American Dream?
Where does that leave any poor slob, valiantly struggling with what to do next?
Gilbert suggests that we turn to the experiences of others in similar circumstances, and study how things turned out for them. And that we resist the temptation to think that somehow we are "special," that things will turn out differently for us. The first half of this suggestion seems accessible to me. The second half is just silly, of course. How is it possible that I am not special, after all? Rubbish!
In earlier posts I boldly stated that the sure-fire way to "get what you want" is to "figure out what that is." Now Gilbert tells me that I probably will not succeed in predicting with any reasonable certainty what will actually make me happy at some point in the future.
Oddly enough, those are not completely contradictory notions. What I think I want may not, in fact, make me happy in the future. I have no problem accepting that notion. However, it is, unfortunately, the only tool I have for directing my actions in the present. Like it or not, I must make some kind of prediction, no matter how flawed.
Even autonomy, mastery, and purpose, called out as true motivators by Daniel Pink in Drive, all have dangerous, evil twins. The flip side of autonomy is loneliness. Mastery at its pinnacle can transform into boredom. And a grand and noble purpose can turn out to be too grand. It can be a mountain too big to climb, leading to frustration or even despair.
Still, I have no choice but to decide, each and every day, what really matters and cling to my vision, imperfect as it may be. Recognizing its imperfection could certainly be useful, though. Thanks, Professor Gilbert.
With my vision as my guide, I must commit to actions that can be reasonably expected to take me closer to my desired future state. Every vision and every action must conform to my personal set of noble principles. I must do right things, not just expedient things. And finally I must remain focused. Distraction is both wasteful and deadly.
With the addition of Gilbert's cautions, the Four Useful Habits posted way back in 2009 are still valid for me. Perhaps they'll work for you, too.
I hope so.